YMCA Fairthorne Group CEO, Chris Hand, writes about his recent travels and time reminiscing with old friends.
What do you want for your Birthday this Year? – How about one in the summer for a change!
I didn’t really know where Balclutha was but my wife Sue and I were on our way there to meet Martin Hayward, his wife Sarah and children James, Alexander and Hannah. Balclutha, it turns out, sits near the mouth of the Clutha River midway between Invercargill and Dunedin in the far southeast of New Zealand’s South Island. It is in fact about as far as you can get from YMCA Fairthorne Manor and still be on the planet.
I first met Martin in 1986, he was 16 years old and had joined the sailing section at Fairthorne Manor whilst completing YTS training in boatbuilding at Southampton Technical College. To be honest his prospects didn’t seem very bright and his boat building skills did not seem to be improving at any great pace. Fairthorne Manor has however always been a place where unlikely people begin to thrive. Never far away from mischief but never caught, Martin began to thrive. By 1993 he was one of the senior instructors and that is when he met Sarah who was on a gap year before returning to Dunedin to go to university. Many couples have met at Fairthorne Manor and subsequently married and that is exactly what Martin and Sarah did too. Since they ran away to New Zealand in 1994 I have only met up with Martin a couple of times and met one of his children, but I have not seen Sarah since 1993 nor met his other two at all.
Having become empty nesters Sue and I were able to take an opportunity to return to New Zealand having visited 16 years previously, and to see the bits we missed then. We also added a return stopover in Melbourne to spend some time with Tim our eldest son and his girlfriend Louise, who have sort of gone “walkabout”! We also thought we would miss the worst of the winter weather (how wrong can you be). Sue and I both have February Birthdays and on the trip 16 years ago we enjoyed our birthdays in New Zealand which, unless you have a winter birthday you won’t really understand, is an exciting prospect. When planning the trip we wanted to spend our birthdays somewhere special and with people we like. So, Sue’s Birthday would be with Martin and family in Balclutha, mine with Tim and Louise in Melbourne.
The Birthday celebrations in Balclutha were low key yet fantastic. First we were taken on a tour of the local coast line which is rugged and inhabited by penguins, sea lions, fur seals and albatross and then an Indian takeaway all washed down with some great local beers and wines. There was chat, banter and laughter, I was pleased that we had similar memories of some of the stories which I had begun to think were just in my imagination. We got out the old photo albums and tried to remember who everyone was and what they are doing now. Eventually after everyone else had gone to bed Martin and I had one last beer and chatted about his life in New Zealand and how he came to be there and what he had made of his life. What was clear to him was not only had Fairthorne Manor been the place he met his wife but it was also the place that invested in him, took him seriously, gave him guidance and he was kind enough to say how important our friendship had been to him. It was with a heavy heart that I said goodbye to the Hayward family who have great ability to make you feel welcome by letting you join in with their everyday life, like they’ve known you forever. A couple of days later Martin wrote me a quick note that said, “I once read that a true friend is one you don’t see for years but slip comfortably back into old ways without a second thought, I think that summed up the last couple of days”
So, that’s all a load of sentimental nonsense then and I’m not big on sentimental! Maybe – but on the same trip I met up with Dave Moore from 1992, Sophie Davidson (Thompson) also 1992 and Niki Ritchie from 2000 and they all said very similar things about how their experience at Fairthorne Manor had set them up at the start of their adult lives. Sophie wrote and said, “I will always have such fond memories of the time I spent at Fairthorne Manor, it was a great time in my life”
I guess many of us know really, how powerful an experience it can be when you throw a whole load of young people from around the world into one place for some time, but is still a bit of a privilege to be able to meet up those people twenty odd years later and see what has become of them, to see the lives they lead and the families that they all now have.