Long before the Duchess of Cambridge wowed the world with her McQueen wedding dress, Sheila Jennings graced the front pages of several newspapers in a lookalike gown.
It was 1952 and 21-year old Sheila was marrying Ron, then a young government scientific officer who had also become well-known as a rugby player. After the wedding, they left for a honeymoon walking in Scotland, travelling by coach to save money, and the next morning Ron went out for the papers.
‘He said they must be short of news when he saw our picture beside one of the Queen,’ says Sheila, 83. ‘Kate’s wedding dress reminded me so much of my own which I’d borrowed from a friend because this was the era of coupons and rationing.’
Sheila inherited a love of athletics from her father, a policeman who was killed in a motorcycle accident while working aged only 45. ‘I was 18 at the time. It was very emotional for me the first time I won something race walking. I was in tears wishing my father was there.’
She gave birth to three sons between 1954 and 1958 and they all turned out as sporty as Ron and Sheila who then had a fourth child, a girl, after an 11-year gap. Although Ron rose to a very senior level at work, finally working on a nuclear programme with Polaris, he was a very hands-on Dad, recalls Sheila.
‘One of the children’s friends came round and asked one by one if each of the boys could come out to play. When I explained none were available he said: “Well, can Mr Jennings come out to play?”
Later on, Sheila worked as a volunteer with dementia patients and in a tragic coincidence her husband was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. ‘He knew there was something wrong but it floated above him. The children were wonderful, taking him out and there was never any embarrassment. Luckily he was able to stay at home, dying of a stroke in 2013.
‘He was a kind and helpful sort of husband and I’ve since found the upkeep of a house and garden too much. It will be such a relief at Wadswick Green not to have a garden that needs lots of attention or a house requiring constant repairs and decoration.’
By her side will be her two faithful companions, her 16-year old cat Jinty, and Jendy, a gorgeous two year old labradoodle. ‘Once I’ve got the animals established I’ll have total peace of mind.’ Sheila is bound to make lots of friends at Wadswick Green when out with loveable Jendy who wants to say hello to everyone. ‘Or they might just see us and walk in the opposite direction,’ jokes Sheila.