Tributes to popular travel agent, 74, still making friends to the end

Carmel Barker was married to husband Steve for 25 years in October. She leaves behind three sons and four granddaughters.

Carmel Barker was married to husband Steve for 25 years in October. She leaves behind three sons and four granddaughters. - Credit: Family of Carmel Barker

Tributes have been paid to a grandmother of four who worked as a popular travel agent in Felixstowe for over thirty years. 

Carmel Barker, 74, has been described as “the life and soul of the party” who “always had time to listen". 

She died at home on December 23 after a battle with cancer. 

“It is no word of a lie to say that mum would have booked thousands of holidays for the people of Felixstowe,” said her son Phil Curtis. 

Carmel worked for ten years at John Hilary Travel on Hamilton Road before moving to Co-Op Travel in Great Eastern Square, where she remained for the next twenty years. 

“She would often have to take extended lunch hour because, when she walked down Hamilton Road in Felixstowe, she would be stopped by customers asking her questions,” remembers Phil. 

“They’d ask her questions such as ‘Where should we be looking to go this year for our holidays, Carmel?’  ‘Are there any cheap flights at the moment?’ and, probably the most common, ‘What is the Euro doing at the moment, Carmel, should we be getting our holiday money now?’ 

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“This latter caused much amusement,” says Phil, as it was said that Carmel’s knowledge and views on foreign currency movements were sought after “more than TV’s Martin Lewis’s.” 

Carmel arrived in Felixstowe with her young family in 1980. They had moved from High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, although Carmel herself had grown up in Reading. 

Carmel and Steve enjoyed 25 happy years of marriage.

Carmel and Steve enjoyed 25 happy years of marriage. - Credit: Family of Carmel Barker

Being a busy mother to three boys, Philip, John and Timothy, Carmel took part-time jobs until her youngest son started school. She then decided to find full-time work and found a position as a secretary at John Hilary Travel.  

Having left school at 15 and studied at secretarial college learning shorthand and typing, Carmel was highly skilled at her job.  

“But then, they asked her if she’d like to have a go at sales,” says Phil. “She was a bit hesitant because obviously, that was quite different.”

But, being a friendly, extroverted person, this new role suited Carmel down to the ground. 

“She was a people person,” says Phil. “She always had time to listen to people, to talk. She was quite happy to help anyone and offer advice, not just on sales, which is how she came to have so many friends. She was just approachable and kind.” 

It was also in Felixstowe that Carmel met her beloved husband, Steve.

“They were married for 25 years, and celebrated their anniversary in October,” says Phil. “Mum was so happy. It was a really happy marriage.” 

Carmel was highly respected as a travel agent, and was even responsible for setting up and operating Felixstowe’s first Bureau de Change. 

The business grew from nothing, remembers Phil, and one of Carmel’s biggest achievements was breaking the target of selling over £1m worth of foreign exchanges in a year.   

During this time, she became a friendly face to many ship workers when they visited the port and provided a valuable service in allowing them to send money back home to their families, says Phil.  

She was also hugely popular with her colleagues. 

Carmel was said to be the life and soul of the party.

Carmel was said to be the life and soul of the party. - Credit: Family of Carmel Barker

She will be particularly missed by Kerrie Wilkinson, who first met Carmel when she went did work experience with her at the Co-Op aged fifteen. 

"I rang her every day wanting a job," remembers Kerrie, for working with Carmel had a huge effect on her and she remains working in travel to this day.

"There was a big age gap, but she was one of my best friends. She was like a second mum to me.

"The whole of Felixstowe knew her. I used to say, I want to be just like you, Carmel. She was a big personality."

“She was a great party person," Phil agrees. "She was 72 when she finally retired, and even at the end of her working life, whenever they had a Christmas dinner or they went out, Mum was the one they wanted to come.  

“They would say, 'you will come, Carmel, won’t you?' Even though they were in their thirties and she was in her sixties and seventies.” 

Carmel enjoyed spending time abroad holidaying with her husband, Steve.

Carmel enjoyed spending time abroad holidaying with her husband, Steve. - Credit: Family of Carmel Barker

She was also a devoted Catholic, and her faith remained hugely important to her throughout her life. She made sure to attend church wherever she was, be it the Caribbean, Santorini or Crete, where she loved spending her holidays. 

Here, too, her personality was infectious and she made friends wherever she went. Carmel’s son, John, recalls visiting a hotel in Crete with his partner on which Carmel and Steve had stayed in. 

The barman looked at him sceptically when John said his mother had told him to visit for a drink. However, upon seeing a photo of Carmel on John’s phone, the barman’s eyes lit up with recognition. 

“Oh, I love this woman, I love her so much, please have some drinks,” he said.  

This interaction, Phil says, truly sums his mother up. 

Carmel was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus last summer. She was, says Phil, determined to keep on with her life for as long as she could. 

“The key thing was that in October, she would have been married to Steve for 25 years. She really wanted to celebrate that milestone, which she did. 

“We had a little mass in her house to celebrate, and she was really pleased. I’m not sure the priest had ever had a service interrupted by the Amazon delivery man."

Carmel was well cared for by the staff at St Elizabeth’s Hospice, and the entire family are hugely grateful for everything they did to ensure that Carmel remained at home for the final months of her life. 

“One of the carers, Sharon, was a former travel agent who mum had worked with before,” says Phil. “Even at the end, Mum was still making friends and that’s really something.” 

Carmel wasn’t able to leave her bed for the past two months of her life, but the family had an early Christmas celebration with all four granddaughters. 

Carmel had been busy ordering presents online, and so it was on Sunday, December 19, that the family gathered for an early Christmas party, and each granddaughter had a sack of presents to unwrap. 

Carmel's three sons, John, Phil and Timothy and four grandchildren, Lucy, Amy, Ellie and Lara.

Carmel's three sons, John, Phil and Timothy and four grandchildren, Lucy, Amy, Ellie and Lara honoured her by wearing a splash of pink to her funeral. - Credit: Family of Carmel Barker

Carmel died aged 74. She is survived by her husband Steve, her sons John, Phil and Timothy, and four grandchildren, Lucy, Amy, Ellie and Lara. 

Her funeral was attended by approximately 200 people at St Felix church, although, says Phil, it probably would have been more, Covid notwithstanding.  

The congregants honoured Carmel by wearing a splash of pink, her favourite colour.