Geoff Sayer: no-nonsense enthusiast

Geoff Sayer, my good friend for nearly 40 years, died on 17 February aged 82.

I first met Geoff at Cator, his parents’ home on Dartmoor, on 26 July 1975. I entered by the front door to be confronted by Geoff’s feet on a ladder (a normal pose—he was fixing the electrics).  He climbed down to greet me, and we all had tea in the garden, sitting on the branch of the old apple-tree which ran almost along the ground.  By the time we’d finished tea I felt I had always known Geoff.

Geoff

Geoff

Geoff was born a few minutes after his identical twin Oliver (Oz), on 6 May 1930.  Their father Guy Sayer (later Vice-Admiral Sir Guy) was in the navy.  Their mother Sylvia was a fearless campaigner and the champion of Dartmoor.

Syl and the boys followed Guy to his various postings whenever they could.  But home was Cator, near Widecombe-in-the-Moor, the ancient longhouse which Guy and Syl had come across, by chance, in 1928 in a tumbledown state.  They bought it for a mere £150.  Water came from a nearby spring, and there was a single, massive, fireplace for heating water, cooking and drying wet clothes.  This upbringing made both boys hardy, and Geoff would always tell his family to put on another sweater rather than turn up the central heating.

Cator, where Geoff spent much of his childhood

Cator, where Geoff spent much of his childhood

Oz and Geoff spent an idyllic childhood rampaging over Dartmoor on foot and pony, shooting and fishing for the pot—useful in wartime. A photo in the Western Morning News in 1942 shows Oz and Geoff holding up dead adders which they had killed on the moor with the butt of an old pistol.  Guy was away at sea and Syl never asked what they got up to.

Navy
Geoff followed his father into the navy with spells in motor-torpedo boats, as commander of a frigate and at the MoD; he ended his career as captain.  Despite being in the services, he admired his mother’s high-profile opposition to damaging military-training on Dartmoor. In fact he was able to help.

In 1975 in the run-up to the Sharp Inquiry into military training on Dartmoor, he wrote a paper for Syl suggesting that the Royal Marines (which were then under threat of merger) should concentrate on arctic warfare.  Syl incorporated this into her inquiry evidence, arguing that Dartmoor was not the optimum training-ground and the marines should be dispatched to Canada.  Sadly, she was thwarted because the inquiry’s terms of reference were, apparently at the last minute, restricted to finding an alternative in South West England to the Dartmoor training grounds, rather than a worldwide search which the objectors had anticipated.  This reinterpretation of its remit made the inquiry fatuous—and Syl had to draw a line through Geoff’s excellent work.

Mischievous
Geoff had a mischievous sense of humour and a huge, infectious laugh.  In 1975, he was on Plymouth Sound radio to answer callers’ questions about the navy.  I was working for the Dartmoor National Park Authority, a summer job preparing for the first national park plan.  Geoff and I hatched a plot and I phoned in (from the Dartmoor office, to the surprise of my fellow-workers).  I was a would-be Wren who was worried about the military training on Dartmoor, wanting an assurance that I wouldn’t be contributing to the military’s damaging exercises there.  Geoff gave a serious reply, but we struggled not to get the giggles on air.

Geoff met his future wife, Jenny Drake, in Hong Kong and they were married in 1967.  They had a daughter, Georgie, and son, James.  Oz was already married to Janet by then, and had three daughters: Pen, Pip and Fran.  I met both families frequently when they stayed at Cator and revelled in being treated as part of their family; they were enormously kind and welcoming.

James recalled his childhood in a moving and humorous tribute at Geoff’s thanksgiving on 2 March.  His father ‘had a schoolboy enthusiasm for taking risks and having fun—and always encouraged us to do the same.  While most of my contemporaries had party entertainers at their birthdays, my friends [aged six] were invited to shoot at balloons from a top-floor window using Dad’s air rifle.’  There were incidents on motorbikes and a go-kart too.

Retired
Geoff retired from the navy in 1983.  The family moved in 1986 to a lovely house, Hindcombe, near Rogate in West Sussex (now in the South Downs National Park).  Here they lived with a succession of much-loved black Labradors and Cavalier, Georgie’s grey pony.  Cav survived to the ripe old age of 39 and only died last year.  Geoff took a pride in the garden, and was somewhat obsessive about the lawn, waging constant war on the moles which he suspected of deliberate treachery.  It was a bad day when Cav broke out and left the lawn looking like a ploughed field.

Geoff retained his love of fishing throughout his life.  To quote James again: ‘He was a gifted fisherman—intuitive, cunning, highly skilled and patient.  The fish rarely stood a chance.  Even after he became a little less mobile, when he got out of the car and walked towards the river, I’d see his back straighten and the years fall away with every step—so he’d arrive at the bank like an excited schoolboy.’

Geoff at Cator in 1955

Geoff at Cator in 1955

Oz died tragically young, from cancer, in 1994.  Calm as ever, Geoff looked out for Janet and her three girls, ready to give love, help and support whenever they needed it.  And with typical resolve and efficiency, he seamlessly took over Oz’s role as treasurer of the Dartmoor Preservation Association.  The DPA was close to the family’s heart.  Syl had revived it in 1951 and had served as chairman for 21 years and as patron until her death in 2000.  Geoff regularly drove the 350-mile round trip from Sussex to attend DPA committee meetings.  Although he was uncomfortable about the DPA’s transition to the employment of paid staff, regretting that it was no longer a purely voluntary organisation, he accepted that this was necessary in the modern world.

On his retirement as treasurer he was elected vice-president and retained a keen interest in the DPA’s work.

Challenge
Geoff delighted in DIY, whether it was sorting electrics or rodding drains, the challenge was to do it himself and never to seek professional help.  He was thoughtful for others and, from his years of managing ships’ companies, was good at reading people, judging when they might need help.  He regularly assisted elderly friends, whether it was writing their wills (to avoid solicitors’ fees) or finding cheap deals for their phones or heating.

James summed up his father as ‘fabulously pragmatic, enthusiastic and no-nonsense—and he simply expected everyone else to be the same’.

When Geoff learnt 11 years ago that he had leukemia, he took that in his stride too and refused to let it confine him.  Typically, it was he who, a few weeks ago, chose to call it a day, end the treatment and let nature take its course.  He died peacefully at home, surrounded by his family.

James concluded: ‘There will be probably a few more fish in the river this year.  The grass may grow a little longer, and the house will be a little warmer.  But we’ll all be the poorer.’

I am certainly the poorer—but richer too for having enjoyed Geoff’s warm friendship for so many years.

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About campaignerkate

I am the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and I campaign for public access, paths and open spaces in town and country.
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