Margaret Hunter (9/10/1925 – 30/6/2022)

Margaret Hunter in her garden at Keys Cottage
Photograph supplied by Susan van de Ven
Keys Cottage in 2014
Photograph by Bruce Huett
The US flag hanging outside Susan van de Ven's home in Meldreth in 2020 to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day. The previous time it had been displayed was VE Day in 1945, when it was hung outside Margaret Hunter's home in Huntingdon Road, Cambridge.
Photograph by Kathryn Betts
Margaret Hunter in Keys Cottage
Photograph supplied by Susan van de Ven

Margaret Hunter lived at Keys Cottage, the pink thatched cottage in the High Street next to the school, where over a period of half a century she created one of Meldreth’s most beautiful natural gardens, running down to the River Mel. If you knew Margaret, you’ll likely have strong memories of her. She had red hair and was imbued with the capacity to love fiercely and to fight for what she believed in. She saw it as her duty to speak out, and indeed you may remember her voice, whether literally or figuratively, calling out to a beloved dog, volunteering her opinion, proposing a resolution, welcoming a friend or relation, thanking someone for a favour, or indeed, telling someone or some creature off – and later, offering a humble apology.

Margaret grew up in Cambridge along the Huntingdon Road, the youngest by ten years of two sisters; the elder and better behaved was Kathleen. Her father Herbert was a plant breeding scientist at St Catharine’s College; her mother Rosa hailed from Kansas City, Missouri and had broken off her engagement to another man after falling in love with Herbert while on holiday in Ireland. Margaret’s earliest memory was waiting at the front gate for her beloved father to arrive home on his bicycle, often with a book from his St Andrews Street newsagent “in the hope I would start reading”.

“Unlike my sister I was a rebellious pupil at the Misses Macleods’ Kimway School and spent a lot of time under the pegs in the cloakroom in disgrace.” The same pattern followed at home: “I tried running away after turning the gas taps on in the kitchen and the cat we had was almost strangled several times! Nevertheless I was affectionate by nature, if impulsive.” Her parents were hospitable and her father’s students from all over the world would visit regularly. “In the world of the thirties, summers would see the hammock and deck chairs set off much lively discussion.” One of her greatest childhood friends, Elizabeth Metters, with whom she played on the University Farm opposite the family home, would later become her stepsister.

Margaret adored her parents and bore her first great loss when her mother died in July 1945. At the end of her own life, when she found each day so hard, Margaret was comforted by the memory of her father’s words as they stood together at her mother’s graveside: “Courage” he said (in a French accent).

On VE Day 1945, Margaret’s ancestral American flag was draped out of the upstairs front window over Huntingdon Road. She was proud to have served her country during the war, serving with the Wrens in London and Scarborough as a wireless telegrapher. The war and her mother’s ill health had interrupted her education, and she went back to complete her A-levels at the encouragement of Tom Henn, a St Catharine’s tutor who persuaded her to apply to Trinity College Dublin. She spent a vibrant time there immersed in books and poetry – life-long loves – and somehow persuaded Philip Larkin to visit from Belfast as a guest of the Trinity Poetry Society, which she had founded.

In 1954, after seeing an ad in the local paper, Margaret persuaded her father to buy Keys Cottage.  Herbert and Margaret’s stepmother Blanche set about transforming the Keys Cottage wilderness, building on part of an old orchard of Bramleys and greengages. With Herbert’s death five years later – ‘an enormous tragedy for me’ – and then her stepmother’s decision to move back to her Warwickshire roots, Margaret took on responsibility for the cottage.

Over the course of her life, she enjoyed two cherished family circles, and Keys Cottage featured importantly in their lives too. Her sister Kathleen’s family from the south of France, including her children Anne and Hugh and their children too, for whom Margaret and Meldreth constituted a second home; and her stepmother’s Blanche’s family, especially her beloved stepsister Elizabeth, her stepbrothers and flourishing next generations – all close connections “without which my life would have been immeasurably impoverished”. The house didn’t change much in 68 years of Hunter occupancy and visiting family members would seek out their cubby holes up steep narrow stairs and settle down for the night.

Margaret’s long career in Adult and Further Education saw several periods of intense fulfilment and the acquisition of great friends. The first was at Swavesey Village College with her mentor John Gale. She was appointed Adult Tutor “over three male candidates” which meant organising activities for the brand-new college across its catchment of eight surrounding villages. This was followed by a stretch as Cornwall County Organiser, where “again I beat the men to it”. Then a spell at Melbourn Village College, and nine years at a new Community College in Ilfracombe, Devon, again under John Gale. Finally, she served as Principal at a college in Ealing, London, where she managed a staff of 100 – which she loved, but she began to feel ‘tired and used up after 25 years in a job which committed me day and evening if I was to achieve the results I desired’.  When she was offered early retirement at the age of 56, she took it, which left her a full forty years for a second life.

First and foremost, she set out to nurture the Keys Cottage garden, which at that point crossed over the River Mel and extended quite a ways on the opposite bank. She gifted that parcel to the County Council and helped create Melwood, and over the years planted silver birch, whitebeam, rowan, willow, cherry, hazel, beech and field maple, as well as daffodils and bluebells.

At the same time, she embarked on a period of politics and community service, as a Parish Councillor (first at Meldreth) as well as Melbourn Division County Councillor. The ‘yellow lollipop’ would appear in her front garden without fail at every election, and Margaret volunteered for every job going, while keeping politicians of all colours on their toes. Those who served alongside her will recognize the spirit behind her approach: “I enjoy stirring things up where necessary. One should always be involved in Home and World Affairs. It is part of being alive.” In Melbourn she founded the Mobile Warden Service, which is going strong today and now serves Meldreth and Shepreth too. She served as Meldreth Tree Warden and delighted in seeing rows of new trees take root in Kneesworth Road and Malton Lane. In Whaddon she gifted the village the unique wrought iron name plate denoting its village hall.

At the age of 84, she was not finished with public life. With a deep affinity for Shepreth, where long before she had decided to buy her burial plot, in June 2010 she stood in a hotly contested Shepreth Parish Council election. Margaret, the outsider, having assiduously knocked on every door in the village, came in first in a field of four candidates. The following year, in a disagreement over a matter of principle, she resigned in protest – but continued as organiser of the 2011 Shepreth village fete, one of its best.

Margaret never retired from expressing her opinion, indeed she was adamant that it was everyone’s duty to do so and often admonished others for not doing the same. She wrote copious letters to politicians and newspapers, pounding away on her manual typewriter, never mincing her words. She found it difficult to come to terms with overwhelming changes in the world, particularly the loss of countryside and threats to natural habitats, and the internet which completely excluded her.

Her garden however brought only peace and joy. Clearly, she had inherited her father’s plantsman-ship skills and tended the garden with a vision for its trees, its clearings, its wildlife, and its constant year-round contrast of colour. She fed the birds with huge generosity, and set traps to prevent resident mice from invading what was not theirs. One morning around the age of 94, she instructed Richard her gardener to chop down the largest Bramley apple tree in the garden – one predating her father’s purchase of Keys Cottage. ‘I’ve got to be able to see down to the bottom of the garden.’  Which that afternoon she was able to do. The tree however decided it still had life in it and soon began sprouting new shoots out of its stump.

Margaret died at home, her bed in the living room open through French doors to the spectacle of the ‘American Pillar’ rambler rose planted by her father in memory of her mother, and with a vista of great trees marching down the orchard to the River Mel. Visits by Anne and Hugh in her final months provided enormous comfort, especially after long absences forced by the pandemic. This conclusion of her life under her own roof – “Keys Cottage, my haven” – was made possible by Richard Parker who kept the garden exquisite and was the first person to greet her each morning, even before her carers arrived, and Julie Draper, who organised all of her care, played Scrabble and read aloud, and made sure that Margaret was safe.

When you’re next walking through Melwood, please take note of the extra loop running away from the opposite bank to Key’s Cottage and enjoy the trees and spring bulbs that Margaret planted for future generations to enjoy. As for the garden, “I hope so much that those who come to Keys Cottage after me will love it and care for it in its natural state as I have tried to do.”

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