Tributes to Cliff Matthews - the man behind La Tour Cycle Café in Ipswich
- Credit: Archant
The wife of passionate cyclist and member of the Wolsey Road Club, Cliff Matthews, has described him as “the most interesting human being I’ve ever been fortunate enough to have in my life” following his death from cancer.
“The first night that I went out with him, I told my childhood best friend that was the man I was going to marry. I just knew,” smiles Anna Matthews. “I met him through the Yellow Pages!”
Cliff, who died on March 22, was a chartered chemical engineer, working for a company that made adhesive for flexible packaging – such as crisp packets. A man whose mind, Anna discovered, was always on the go.
“I met him because I was a sales rep. It was a time when, if you were ‘prospecting’, you’d use the Yellow Pages. In 1997 he asked me if I was ‘available of an evening’. I said ‘yes’, although I didn’t quite know what that meant – whether it was a date or whether it was business!”
A date it was.
“It was the chemistry.” Not the adhesive-making kind but the human-connecting kind. “We were very different. I’ve got an O-level in childcare but he was just the most interesting human being I’ve ever been fortunate enough to have in my life.”
It seemed Cliff was pretty smitten, too. That first date was at a nice rustic Italian restaurant in Wolverhampton that Anna chose. “It was a good price-point. He said ‘I knew then you were all right, because you pitched it’.” It was good honest food, but not extravagant. Wise call.
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Life’s adventures brought them to Suffolk in 2011. Cliff project-managed the Suffolk County Council/SITA UK energy-from-waste facility at Great Blakenham, near Ipswich, that for four years now has been turning non-recycled waste into electricity.
After that, he was one of the driving forces that created the nearby Sterling Suffolk complex of high-tech and energy-efficient greenhouses that’s producing a huge crop of Suffolk-grown tomatoes. It featured recently on the BBC’s The One Show.
For good measure, Cliff gave up his car upon moving to the county, became a born-again cyclist, and even opened a “cycle café” with Anna. It started in the town centre but for nearly a year has been on the waterfront, with a comfy and eclectic mix of sofas.
Sadly, Cliff succumbed on March 22 to cancer diagnosed in 2017. But his legacy is enviable.
“Not only am I incredibly proud when I drive along that road and see those two projects that he was a massive part of, it’s the job creation that makes me super-proud – because we don’t have enough of those sort of jobs in our country and in Suffolk,” says Anna.
For the past 20 years, “I was fortunate to spend my life with an interesting, kind and generous human”.
Coalminer’s son Cliff was born in south Yorkshire, near Doncaster, in 1956. He went to grammar school in Doncaster (Anna thinks soprano Lesley Garrett was in the year above) and was the first person in his family to go to university. In his case Loughborough, where he studied chemical engineering and was in the same year as Olympian-turned-politician Sebastian Coe.
Cliff’s early career was spent with the coal board, before he worked for that adhesive company in Dudley, West Midlands. He spent a decade with SITA UK (now SUEZ recycling and recovery UK) and the family came to Suffolk from Southampton in the spring of 2011 when he began managing the Great Blakenham project.
Life had brought a number of moves, but Anna says Cliff was a man of his word and there was no question of not relocating with the job. “He led community liaison meetings for both projects (the energy plant and the produce-growing nursery),” says Anna. “He felt it was really important, when you talked to residents in the community, that you could say you lived locally.”
Daughter Agnes, now seven, was born in the county. The couple had three other children together: Elizabeth, now 17; Alexander, 14; and Seren (it means star in Welsh. For part of their married life they lived in mid-Wales).
‘Better than Christmas’
“He actually got rid of his car when we arrived in Suffolk. He bought his first decent bike, and that began this sort of love affair.
“A colleague at SITA was really into time-trialling, and was a member of (Ipswich-based) Wolsey Road Club, and persuaded Cliff he should have a go.
“He was NOT going to get into Lycra. The first week, he went in baggy beige shorts and a T-shirt” – somewhat flappy – “and I think by the following week he’d got proper kit!
“It became this passion. He loved a hill climb; he loved a long ride. They do a ‘how many miles you can do in 12 hours’ and I think the highest number he did was 222.
“He did the Dunwich Dynamo every year” – Hackney to the Suffolk coast, overnight – “which he thought was better than Christmas. Last year he did the first seven miles with our daughter (Agnes) on a tandem.
“It was during his chemo and he thought he wouldn’t do it, but I took the bike with us and his legs were ‘there’ and he just went for it. He left at 9pm and arrived at the beach at 3.40am. He wasn’t one of those who’d stop (en route) for a beer.
“His passion was the Wolsey (club) and encouraging young cyclists. He took to it like a duck to water. He wished he hadn’t spent so long on motorbikes, actually – his passion as a young man. He did have a slight regret that he hadn’t discovered road-cycling earlier.”
Working on the energy-from-waste project led to Cliff thinking about heat, what glasshouses might achieve, and how countries such as the Netherlands produced salad crops.
Anna says he worked on ideas for about six months before approaching local landowners Lord (Michael) Blakenham and Stephen Wright.
There followed three years of “what ifs” – the part Cliff really enjoyed.
“Cliff loved the beginning of a project – and you don’t know quite how it’s going to go, do you? At that stage, they were like The Three Musketeers. They did a lot of travelling and it was a really fun time. It led to being able to secure finance and put together a team that are now successfully growing tomatoes in our county – and, also, providing real jobs.”
Using the latest technology – and recycling water, oxygen, carbon dioxide and nutrients – Sterling Suffolk aims to grow high-quality fruit and veg without causing undue damage to the environment.
It uses pink LED lights to mimic sunlight and encourage growth. Roof-water is captured, and stored in a vast reservoir, to water the crops.
‘Quite a beautiful experience’
Cliff was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2017. “He faced it with fortitude. He had three lots of chemo at Ipswich Hospital and then had his stomach removed at Addenbrooke’s last May; and another three lots of chemo.”
When Cliff went into hospital in February for routine hernia surgery, cancer was discovered in the liver.
He died six weeks and three days after that, “fortunately at home, surrounded by our children. And it was actually quite a beautiful experience, and very peaceful”.
Anna smiles. “He did everything at speed – even death! He wasn’t going to linger. If he was going to go, he was going to go.
“I would say to anybody who is considering whether to die at home, if you’re fortunate enough to do it, it is a beautiful thing to do. I feel privileged that as a family we were able to navigate that, and have the support of our neighbours.
“Cliff was only really, really poorly in the last 10 days, and it was only really in the last day that it became apparent it was going to be literally hours. Our children have been very courageous.” Anna says Cliff “was rock solid in his support of his children as individuals and he would be so proud of their fortitude over the last few days”.
She’s also grateful for the support of St Elizabeth Hospice. “They’ve got an amazing ability to ‘facilitate’ death at home. I’d quite like that to be put in, because I think it’s important.”
A Celebration of Life
The family is inviting everyone to a celebration at their quirky café (the La Tour Cycle Café on Ipswich Waterfront, near DanceEast) on Thursday, April 4 (4pm to 8pm).
Come even if you didn’t know him very well, says Anna, “because I think we all need to celebrate life – and what a great community we’ve got in Ipswich”.
There will be music, and an open-mic. And the man himself will be there. Cliff’s cardboard coffin will rest in the café’s tepee and well-wishers are invited to write messages and tributes on it.
The next day – Friday the 5th – there’s a service and burial at the church of St Mary, Nettlestead, west of Claydon.
Michael Blakenham, the environmentalist peer with whom Cliff shared so many principles, died about 15 months ago. Cliff will be buried near him in the churchyard. “I think they’ll be planning and plotting the next greenhouses up there in the sky,” says Anna.
The family is also encouraging cyclists to take part in Friday’s proceedings – meeting near Cumberland Towers in Norwich Road, Ipswich, by 1.45pm and following the hearse – “so that not only can we have a church packed full of Cliff’s family and friends, we can have the churchyard full of bikes and Lycra, and so he can be escorted on his last ride, to Nettlestead”.
Afterwards, everyone is invited to the barn at Blakenham Woodland Garden (Little Blakenham, IP8 4LZ). “I promise there will be tea and the best La Tour cake. So, really, it’s a festival of Cliff’s life and passions – over two days.”
The family requests no flowers, but has started a JustGiving page to raise money for St Mary’s, Nettlestead – desperate for a new roof. “I’m very religious, Cliff wasn’t, but we do believe in churches as community spaces.”
La Tour Cycle Café
The couple opened the cafe in July, 2015, in Ipswich town centre – in Tower House.
It was Cliff’s idea, says Anna. They were at Cult Café on Ipswich Waterfront one day, and musing. Agnes would soon be starting school… Anna had always worked in hospitality or sales… “He said ‘Why don’t we open a cycle café?’”
Anna reckons Cliff had been to a few of these places where cyclists could stop for a break. She suspects that he had even persuaded Michael Blakenham to rest a-while in one in London during their business trips to Canary Wharf. And so it came to pass.
The café moved to the waterfront in May last year and has developed into a café-cum-venue: a cosy and eclectic place with a chilled vibe and the widest range of unmatching sofas seen outside a showroom.
Anna points at one. A man was moving out of his apartment, couldn’t find anyone who wanted his virtually-brand-new sofa, and so it found a new home here.
Anna likes the fact it’s more than a regular café.
“Our belief is that we need more community hubs. Cliff was really excited last week when we were reading the Ipswich Star to see there is suddenly so much thought about developing residential property in our town centre. Part of what Cliff really believed in was that if you live in town, there isn’t that requirement for a car.”
How would Anna describe Cliff?
“A generous, kind human who was always looking at the bigger picture. We as a family feel a sense of pride in being able to see the contribution he made to Ipswich and Suffolk – not only with the energy-from-waste plant but in the greenhouses of Sterling Suffolk and in cycling and encouraging people to become active, and challenging people on their use of the motor-car for everything.
“He was a true gent; a very loving man. He lived life to the full.
“With projects, for Cliff it wasn’t about what he was going to gain personally. He’d got that bigger picture. He was a great father and will be sadly missed by us. But we feel he’s here.
“He loved Suffolk. Although we’d only been here eight years, he’d got the most established group of friends from not only the work he’d been doing but also through the cycling.
“Not only did he love Suffolk, he very much loved the people of Suffolk. We’d made some really deep connections here. To have done that in eight years is quite astonishing, isn’t it? We felt it was a very open county – and Ipswich is very ‘open’. Very open-minded and friendly.”
Theirs was – is – a family that shared a lot of humour, too.
“Now, what we’re going to do is put on our big-girl pants and get on with having a good life, still. Because that would have been important to Cliff: that we continue living and laughing.”