Lizzie and Nigel Calder: Adventurers, teachers and lifelong friends

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Crawley is home to more incredible people than anyone realises, each and every one with an amazing tale to tell. Two years ago we said goodbye to a former New Scientist editor – now his wife has gone to join him on the next great adventure. Here their family share their story.

Nigel and Lizzie Calder could have made their home anywhere in the world, but a chance encounter while hitchhiking saw them put down roots in Crawley.

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The year was 1954 and the recently married couple caught a lift with a Crawley town planning officer. The man did an extremely impressive job of selling the town to Nigel and Lizzie and they were soon to call it home.

While a somewhat hasty decision, it was one their family said they never regretted as they went on to raise their family and make many lifelong friends.

Nigel and Lizzie’s lives had very different beginnings. She was the daughter of a Yorkshire lass who had headed for Australia and the Far East to become a journalist, and an Australian, who went on to serve as an Army Intelligence officer during the Second World War.

Her early years were spent in the Far East before she was evacuated to Canada and then Australia.

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He was born in London to Peter and Mabel Calder, growing up in a warm, lively and stimulating household with his sisters Fiona and Isla and brothers Angus and Allan.

The couple met at Cambridge University – though Nigel seemed to have had a more straightforward time of getting there. He excelled at school and went on to study natural science.

The couple’s children recalled academic life was not so simple for Lizzie.

They said: “She was very bright and excelled in all subjects, though was considered too unruly to become a prefect.

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“Her diary aged 14 includes the following entry ‘Got my report today. Work good. Conduct bad’.

“Later entries record her efforts to be ‘as good as gold’; ‘better than gold’, but only days later she laments the fact that she was yet again caught reading unsuitable novels under the blankets after lights out.

“Her work, if not her conduct, did prove better than gold and she won a scholarship to Cambridge.”

Lizzie studied modern languages at Newnham College, meeting Nigel when the pair were cast as Elisabeth Bennett and her father in a university production of Pride and Prejudice.

She must have made an impression on him as, when she went to Italy to study at the University of Siena in her second year, Nigel hitchhiked over to see her.

Their children said the couple enjoyed what was to be their last carefree summer for many years, though Nigel very nearly blew the whole thing with a faux pas in Venice.

Their children said: “On the historic Bridge of Sighs, Nigel took out a bun to eat – in Lizzie’s eyes an almost unforgivable act of sacrilege.”

The following year was 1954 and Lizzie discovered she was pregnant.

In a move which would have been totally unacceptable today, she was asked to leave Cambridge, while Nigel was banned from his college for a month but then allowed to finish his degree.

The children recalled: “Years later, when her college belatedly wrote to mum to apologise, and invite her to complete her degree, the expletives that followed were what one might call ‘bracing’.”

A hasty marriage in Hampstead was followed by the birth of twins Sarah and Penny – Nigel and Lizzie were never ones to do things by halves!

Simon was born on Christmas Day the following year and, after moving to the brave new world of Crawley New Town, another son, Jo, was born.

The children said: “We have absolutely no idea how on earth she and dad managed, but for us it was a blissful childhood. To outsiders it presented a chaotic scene, and she dreaded the unannounced arrival of the local health visitor.”

Lizzie wrote a poem to Punch magazine summing up life with four young children.

Called ‘To the Health Visitor’ it read:

Like summer hail you strike us unexpected

A guardian angel of the Welfare State

These four are mine, the others unconnected

You have the armchair, I the orange crate.

Some coffee? (Quickly, think of a diversion

Cover that action painting with a screen

We’ll have to stage an expurgated version

Ad-libbing to conceal what’s best unseen…

The big boys floating boats across the lino

Two aproned midgets fighting in a tree

The paint, the frog-spawn – if you knew what I know

You’d telephone the NSPCC).

Pronounce this, lady, at the Judgment Day

An awful but quite happy disarray.”

With a growing family to feed, Nigel became a journalist and science writer.

He was editor of the magazine New Scientist at the age of 29 and by the late 1960s had gone freelance to work on television science blockbusters.

His children said: “We always knew when a deadline was imminent as the light in his study would blaze at all hours.

“He shared the view of writer Douglas Adams ‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by’.”

Lizzie somehow found time to do freelance translations of Latin manuscripts, copy-type Nigel’s first book and write and illustrate a children’s book about an elephant called Flutter who flew to the moon.

In 1962, she put her talent for languages into practice as a tutor at the Ifield Evening Institute.

In 1965, the bustling family was completed with the arrival of daughter Kate and, eventually, with five children going through school, Lizzie’s interest in education saw her serve as chairman of the school governors of Robert May First and Middle Schools for 11 years.

By the late 1960s and early 70s Nigel’s work as a science writer and creator of BBC science blockbusters was taking off.

In 1979, Lizzie became his literary agent, negotiating with publishers and television companies.

As if that wasn’t work enough, she became a lecturer in Italian at Crawley College, and an examiner for the Associated Examining Board, the Royal Society of Arts, the London Chamber of Commerce and the Institute of Linguists.

She was City and Guilds course advisor for Foreign Languages at Work and was often asked to act as an interpreter at Crawley Magistrates Court.

As well as being partners in work, Nigel and Lizzie teamed up to enjoy his favourite pastime – sailing – with she overcoming a pathological fear of drowning to do so.

The children recalled: “She was his first mate in every sense, and took official navigation exams to prove herself a worthy crew member.

“Nautical adventures with young children on board were not for the faint-hearted.

“All five of us at one point or another had to be rescued by mum from various murky depths.”

The couple took part in the 1979 Fastnet yacht race, an adventure which turned to tragedy when 15 people lost their lives during Force 10 gales which saw 50-foot waves swamping the boats.

Nigel later recalled Lizzie’s astonishing bravery: “I have a mental photograph of Lizzie on the foredeck getting down the big foresail.

“She was going up and down like a yo-yo and being dunked up to her knees in water every time the bow dropped.

“I was very worried but I couldn’t leave the wheel. In the rising wind it took her about 20 minutes but she didn’t stop of course til she’d unshackled the sail and rammed the great brute safely into the sailbag.”

Nigel and Lizzie’s adventures continued after retirement as they travelled through Europe, Egypt and Cuba – and even into the Libyan desert to witness a total eclipse.

Closer to home, she also became a steward here at St Paul’s Methodist Church, Northgate.

Nigel also became a regular churchgoer at St Paul’s – a fact which surprised some people given he had spent his whole career unpicking the mysteries of life and the universe.

His children said he had started to conclude, quite simply, that there were things that no amount of scientific theory could explain.

They said: “He felt the only explanation was the existence of a higher being, and as a consequence his faith became very important to him.”

Nigel died on June 25 2014, weeks after their diamond anniversary.

Lizzie followed him into the next great adventure on January 16 2016.

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