Family remember Ipswich adventurer Paul Packwood - better known as Captain Calamity
PUBLISHED: 09:00 20 November 2016
If you can squeeze as much into your life as Paul Packwood did his, you've cracked it.
Mr Packwood, a former Northgate School pupil has died, just shy of his 92nd birthday. He was a man with a taste for adventure and a determination to give youth a fair chance.
Here Steven Russell recalls meeting Mr Packwood, almost a decade ago.
I only met him one, but he and his family had long dwelled in my subconscious for nebulous reasons.
True, I did have a passing acquaintanceship (literally) with Paul and Margot’s son Conrad in the mid-1970s, when my paper-round took me past the Packwood home near Ipswich Hospital. Conrad, born with cerebral palsy and gloriously independent and cheery, would often be cycling in the opposite direction, on his upsized tricycle, heading for Peachey’s newsagents off the Woodbridge Road East roundabout.
Four or five years later, his sister Lesley popped up at school. I’m pretty sure she wore a counter-intuitive clown costume to the end-of-sixth-form bop at The Great White Horse Hotel – in the days before clowns were a public menace. She too was clearly her own person, a character, in a way many of us floundering inbetweeners were not.
Then there was dad Paul, who I sometimes saw working on the garden or house. Although I really knew next to nothing about him, I must have taken in bits and bobs by osmosis. Didn’t he do something relatively unusual for a living? He too had that independent-thinking air about him. He certainly didn’t look as if he was among the foot-soldiers who headed to one of the town’s insurance offices to spend his nine to five between four walls.
And that little boat – kept in the front garden on a neat area of hardstanding designed to take up the least amount possible of green space – smacked of adventure, didn’t it?
And then, 30 years later, came confirmation. Mr Packwood – who’s died just shy of his 92nd birthday – was indeed a man who embraced life and lived it not in beige but glorious Technicolor. The way we all should but often don’t.
He often took the unconventional route. Not many folk would relish running a big youth club for about 15 years, for instance – taking the inevitable bumpy episodes in his stride while buoyed by the positive difference the club was making to its Ipswich neighbourhood.
Sailing was an integral part of life and laid down many memories… There were, it must be said, a good number of scrapes. Not for nothing did the family call Paul – affectionately – “our Captain Calamity”.
An invitation to a celebration of his life last Saturday, on what would have been his 92th birthday, told friends: “No Packwood could ever be called orthodox, especially not Paul, so please wear bright colours and bring along any tales or memorabilia you have to share.
“At the request of the RNLI, in order to try and recoup some of the money used in rescuing our Ancient Mariner, there will be a very large bucket on hand for any donation you may wish to make!”
Nearly 10 years ago, in the fallow week between Christmas and New Year, I sat down with Paul in his house and heard the story of his life.
Seafarer Books was bringing out The Thumbnail Navigation, but we talked about more than his 1,200-mile adventure in his 18ft boat Plover. On his tod. In his 80s.
Paul described himself as a natural coward. I think not. You can’t be if, with your 81st birthday on the horizon, you decide to head for a celebration off Southsea marking the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. Then: Land’s End, up the Bristol Channel, and return to Ipswich via the Kennet and Avon Canal and the Thames.
He did it. Most of the 58 days in the summer of 2005 went swimmingly – much to his surprise, he now confessed – but there were moments of drama. One day, in fog off Bognor Regis, he came to a dead stop after hitting, probably, a submerged concrete object. Paul suffered two gashes in his forehead and staunched the blood with a teatowel. He also broke a thumb.
Then, in poor conditions off Cornwall, he was happy to see the Padstow lifeboat appear through the spray and offer to tow him to port – which took five-and-a-half hours.
When I left, Plover rested in the front garden, adorned by Christmas lights. Paul was dreaming of his next great adventure, to Holland.
In 2009, aged 84, he’d pop up again in our newspapers, when Plover settled on lumpy ground off Essex, tilted badly and threatened to fall on her side. He made a 999 call on his mobile phone and was rescued by a lifeboat from West Mersea. This mishap “was in fact virtually the last of my watery exploits. I got the message! I was now an old man and it was clearly time to give up childish pursuits”.
Paul was born in Bristol in 1924 but wasn’t very old when his family moved to Ipswich. He went to Northgate school. During demob leave (he’d joined the Suffolk Regiment a few months before the end of the war) he took a course at Ipswich School of Commerce and met his future wife there. Paul finished his degree in Walthamstow, married Margot, and they enjoyed a three-year honeymoon, backpacking.
They then lived in digs in London and Paul got a job in the youth service. When it fell prey to cuts, he trained as a teacher and taught in Wimbledon for nine years: economics, commerce and social studies. “I wasn’t a born teacher, really, and I used to hate the marking!” For about nine years, from 1956 or so, the Packwoods lived on a series of vessels: the first a 20ft houseboat bought for £60. The couple were living on the water when both daughters were born.
The death of Paul’s father prompted a move back to Ipswich in 1965 to take over the old family home not far from Rushmere Heath.
He got a job in the youth service, running Priory Heath Youth Club before it closed and the focus switched in 1971 to the new Murrayside Club less than a mile away. This was in a former girls’ school. It cemented itself within the community, holding jumble sales and Christmas parties for pensioners, and numbered Sir Bobby Robson and Mary Whitehouse among its guests.
Last month, on the weekend before he died, Paul finished writing a little autobiography. It’s full of colour, particularly about that unconventional but unforgettable three-year honeymoon with Margot as they lived on their wits and enjoyed Europe, Scandinavia, north Africa and more.
They even hitch-hiked to Helsinki, for the opening ceremony of the 1952 Olympic Games.
When they eventually returned to England, it was time to start anew. “Virtually all our physical possessions were contained in our rucksacks and bank balances had we none. We were rich in memories and in aides memoirs alone.”
There were many more to come. As his family wrote: “A life lived to the full, a family loved above all and friends too innumerable to count.”