Isobel Clarke (nee Elliott) (ENV72) 1954-2008

This is not an obituary but it is just my memories of her. You may think that this article includes too much about me, but you have to understand that we were a unit. I can only write of my experiences, but these were always tempered by her beliefs, and that we changed each other daily. 

I had occasionally spoken with Isobel during our first term at university, but at an end-of-term party we met up and we had a “time stopped” moment for both of us, but then the term finished too soon. By within a couple of months we were inseparable and remained so for 35 years.

The following Easter I went to stay at her family home near Lancaster. Her parents were so loving and caring and I felt immediately accepted. Within a year or two this was a second home for me for many years. 

Isobel had been brought up with a deeply instilled love of the countryside and wild flowers. I was different in only discovering a rural environment after being brought up in central London. I was thus a late starter but soon found that I was mostly interested in birds and fossils. I didn’t take long for us to be educating each other in our own specialities, and this culminated in a shared interest of almost everything in nature. We started organising holidays where we could combine and share our interests and I still remember finding Spring Gentians in the Burren and visiting Crete in spring and failing to find tulips in the unseasonably late snow but then seeing lammergeiers.

We also combined our interests in university projects, she studying the ecology of mosses in limestone pavements (using my light meter) and myself studying the succession of mosses in conifer plantations of various ages. Life was never boring. I have often said that I could be put almost anywhere and then be able to find something of interest, and Isobel was the same. 

At university, although studying Environmental Sciences, she had many good friends studying arts subjects and through her friends I was to see wonderful things that I had no idea existed. I don’t know if it is character or luck, but whoever she chose to be her friend, they always were lovely people. She never had a friend that I didn’t like.

After graduation we were both remained unemployed but in January 1976 I returned to Norwich to work for CEAS at Earlham Hall and Isobel soon joined me. We found lodgings in Cringleford and she found work doing data entry at the Rowntree-Macintosh chocolate factory (formerly Caley’s). 

We then married in Norwich in 1976 (this required a special license because Cringleford is in the county of Norfolk and is not in Norwich) and then later in the year we migrated to Manchester. Within a couple of years we had a small house, and she was soon working in a Housing Department, attempting to help people who sometimes didn’t really want to be helped. This sometimes involved stressful interactions but she was dedicated to her work which was often with the most deprived. Although she rarely spoke about her work it was obvious that it was often frustrating, but I know that she did sometimes achieve a successful outcome for her clients. 

Outside her work Isobel’s interests included almost everything to do with the natural world, from wild flowers to fossils but also included archaeology, gardens and gardening, wine and cooking. Holidays were planned according to how many of these we could fit into a week or two.

We regrettably came to the conclusion that the world at that time not was a suitable environment in which to have children. The Cold War really existed and the threat of nuclear war was still truly present, but everything changed in 1988 with Gorbachov, and the threat dramatically reduced. It was no coincidence that our first son was born only a few months before the Berlin Wall come down.  

This was the second stage in our relationship, from a couple to a family. It changed everything, and only to the good. Isobel gave up full-time work to care for our first child and I was fortunate enough to be able to provide a sufficient income for all of us. 

Our second child was born almost two years later. Isobel dedicated herself in bringing up our children to understand the world. From the earliest age they were both subjected to the harsh landscapes of Scotland (although we did avoid the midges).

Once our children had reached the age of primary education Isobel started part-time work in a local Play group and also took on an allotment which was a major success for her.

I never thought that as parents we were anything out of the ordinary, but in hindsight maybe we were not average. The planning of holidays followed our previous themes, but with more fossils and rocks, beetles and butterflies, and then anything out of the ordinary experiences for the boys. Trekking the many hours of 16km of the Samaria Gorge in Crete with a 10 and 8 year old did not seem at all odd to us. Isobel would never think of sending the children to do something potentially hazardous, but if she thought the children could do it, then it was worth doing. She (far more than me) brought up our children to be self-reliant and independent. This remains her lasting legacy. 

One example of us working as a team was that she truly hated supervising our sons’ music practice which was on at least five days a week. She could just about cope with the trombone, but definitely not a beginner starting on the oboe. This then became my responsibility and I actually did enjoy it and without any knowledge of music! Her displeasure of this activity eventually spurred me on to try to understand music more. I am still ignorant but every year is a bit better.

All was going well in the family, with the elder son accepted for university, when the diagnosis of leukaemia was suddenly delivered. It seemed that at the age of 54, and only because of her fitness, was a viable candidate for a stem cell transplant. One of her sisters was a suitable candidate, and the transplant was completed successfully. After some very hopeful months she eventually succumbed to an infection for which there was no further treatment possible. This was ultimately Isobel at her finest. She protected me from her terminal diagnosis so that I was always left with hope right up to the end. 

We had been blessed with talented children, and at the funeral my elder son played his oboe with his music teacher accompanying him on the piano. The music was Gabriel’s Oboe by Morricone, and more than ten years later this music still brings me to tears.

Without my knowledge she had arranged with our sons that she wanted her ashes to be scattered at a particular spot high up in the Picos de Europa in Spain. The boys organised this and were going to do it themselves, but then finally told me, so I went as well. The remote location had been special to all of us but would have been unnoticed by anyone else. I still have a photograph of the spot, and use it as the background on my laptop, so I see it every day. 

Jeff Clarke (ENV72)