‘When you are that cold you can’t swim. Your body doesn’t work’
Last Sunday Keith and Jennifer Lowde had some old friends over for lunch, to welcome the new year. By the day’s end, four people were in hospital, one was missing, and Keith was dead.
The two men who were lost, after melting snow caused havoc in the waters of the Thames at Shepperton and the boat they were in capsized, were highly successful in their fields and held in huge affection.
Lowde, 66, whose body was recovered on Monday, was well known in the entertainment industry as a champion of artists’ copyright and former director of a national music festival. His friend of 50 years, Rex Walford, 76, was a former head of Cambridge University’s department of education and was described by colleagues as as warm, talented and “enthusiastic about everything”. At the time of writing, his body has not been found.
As she talks about the deaths of her husband and friend for the first time, it is clear that Jennifer Lowde’s loss has been devastating. She asks not to be photographed and the tears flow copiously as, accompanied by her adult children, Martin and Andrea, she recalls her life with her husband and how it ended so suddenly and cruelly.
Keith and Jennifer were 15 when they met, at a youth club in north London. He had come to play washboard in a skiffle band. “We got on straight away,” Jennifer recalls. They had friends in common and shared a love of music and drama that would continue for more than 50 years together.
Keith’s mother taught piano and he fancied a career in music, too, but his father, a manager in a confectionery company, insisted on a proper job and Keith trained as a chartered accountant. He married Jennifer only after qualifying, in 1968.
Over the years that followed, he would combine his passion for entertainment with the business sense his father drilled into him. Jennifer ran her own dance school for 30 years, and co-ordinated a dance festival.
The church in which they married was home to the local drama society, and it was there that they met Rex Walford and his wife, Wendy. Over the years the friends collaborated on plays, reviews and pantos. They put on West Side Story immediately after it first appeared on Broadway, and last Sunday Rex and Keith reprised songs from that triumph at the upright Kemble — the piano that Keith’s mother had once used to teach.
The girl who played Maria all those years ago went on to international acclaim as the opera singer Jenny Gucci. She was at the lunch too.
The love of showbusiness was passed on to both Lowdes children. When Martin was 18, he wrote a show that Keith produced, as well as arranging the music and playing in the band. Jennifer choreographed it and Andrea sang. Today, both children run entertainment businesses.
A professional singer, Andrea has worked away from home for the past four Christmases. This year she was home again, with her boyfriend. She gave Keith a ukelele. “He was chuffed,” she says. “He picked it up and started playing it at once, by ear.”
After Christmas Day with Martin, his wife, Sonia, and their three young children, the family travelled to Keith and Jennifer’s house on Pharaoh’s Island in the Thames. It is 250 yards long and 65 yards wide, with 23 homes accessible only by boat. They moved there eight years ago. “I always wanted to live by water,” Jennifer says. “Which now looks like it wasn’t such a good idea.”
Andrea places a reassuring hand on her knee. “Dad absolutely loved it too,” Martin assures her. “We all did. It’s beautiful and there’s an amazing community.” Some of the islanders are prosperous, others less so. Some have lived there for decades, but newcomers are quickly embraced with regular parties and events. “It’s like one big family,” Jennifer says.
After Christmas, the Lowdes went to a panto and saw in the new year with a quiz. New Year’s Day was nothing special, Jennifer says, because they were preparing for lunch on Sunday. Gucci, their old friend, was in Britain to see her sister. “We thought it would be nice to ask them — they’d not been on the island before — and we’d not seen Rex and Wendy for a while.” (Walford was godfather to both Lowde children, and Wendy is Andrea’s godmother too.) The guests arrived after 1pm. Jennifer prepared lamb, and Keith carved. There were no children — Martin had taken his three home that morning — and the meal lasted for some time.
At one point, Jennifer recalls, somebody asked Keith where he would most like to travel. He mentioned Spain, where the family has a second home. He could hardly imagine that he would never go again.
After lunch everybody went into the lounge. Andrea sang I Know Him So Well as a duet with Gucci. Then Keith and Rex sat down at the piano together to play tunes from West Side Story.
“It was amazing when you saw them play together,” Martin says. “It’s hard to do that and not sound like Les Dawson.”
Jennifer interjects: “But it was funny anyway because we have only one piano stool, and they had to squeeze together.”
At 5pm, Keith took Jenny Gucci and her sister back across the river to go home — without incident.
Crossing the river, the family stress, is usually no big deal. They do the five-minute trip all the time. “Just putting the bins out means crossing the river,” Martin adds.
“It can be lovely,” Jennifer says. “On a summer evening we would get in the boat and just go floating around the island. And Keith used it most days to go to work. I’d take him across and come back. I do the trip so often, I just hop in. We have a seat at the front, but I always stand up, even if I’m not holding the tiller. Everybody on the island does that.”
The flat-bottomed boat came with the house. It’s big enough for eight people, so for Keith and Jennifer to ferry Rex and Wendy and another couple, Stewart and Lyn Mison, homewards after 6.30pm last Sunday should not have been a problem.
The dark poses no difficulty, Jennifer says, because the boat is fitted with lights — and for Christmas it had additional fairy lights, with a star at the top. But about two minutes after they left the riverbank, water started to come over the top.
“I have no idea why,” Jennifer says. “And then it came over the sides too. Someone said, ‘Oh, the water is coming in’.” After that, everything became a blur. The boat dropped to the right before capsizing. Jennifer was thrown left into the water, and the lights went out.
“I realised I was underwater. Luckily the boat had capsized near me and I managed to get hold of a rope.
“I didn’t notice the cold except on my hands, which felt numb, but when you are that cold you can’t swim. Your body doesn’t work.”
Andrea had gone straight back into her parents’ house after waving goodbye. She heard a commotion and calls for help. “I thought it was people having a joke. We do sometimes get distant sounds echoing over the water.” She went outside anyway.
The group in the water were only 8ft from the bank, but too far to reach. Andrea called close neighbours who had been at the lunch, and soon other islanders arrived. Meanwhile her boyfriend, Jeff, got hold of scrap fencing to extend his reach. Gradually Wendy and the other couple were helped to the bank.
Jennifer was the last out. She had been in the water for a long time. A neighbour, trained as a nurse, recognised signs of hypothermia.
“We were taken into the house and somehow it was the weirdest experience — everyone was ripping our clothes off and wrapping us in black plastic bags and giving us tea,” Jennifer says. Paramedics arrived, and took all four to hospital in Chertsey.
Jennifer had realised Keith was missing while she was in the water. She had seen him helping Rex, but soon afterwards, when she called her husband, she got no reply.
Martin rushed from Hampshire to join the search, but police stopped him.
“They said it was for my own sake,” he says. “And they were right. I would have been in the way. They’ve been really good.”
After Jennifer and Wendy were discharged, they all drove to Martin’s house. They’ve been there since.
The next day, police told them Keith’s body had been found. In many ways, it was a relief: Rex’s wife Wendy remains uncertain what happened to him. A neighbouring islander phoned to say he had identified Keith to spare the family.
“That’s a hard thing to have done,” Martin says. “They’ve all been so good.”
How do they cope with what has happened to them? “We make it up as we go along,” Jennifer says.
“You can only take it one step at a time,” Martin says. “We can’t look beyond the next thing.”
At some point, they’ll have to go back to the island. Will they be able to stay?
“It will be hard. But I would be very sad if I can’t live there any more,” Jennifer says.
She had planned to go on a cruise with Keith in February. All plans are on hold now.
Their lives had been full, with many commitments. After moving to the island, Keith took what was to be his final job, teaching business to musicians and other artists. Many have been in touch to say how much they valued him.
“There are so many people he helped,” Martin says. “We’ve had such an amazing response. My phone has been buzzing with messages.”
“But Keith’s main focus was his children and his family,” Jennifer insists.
“He made me laugh every day. He was my rock. He had a way to make me feel very special.” She pauses. “And I shall miss him so much.”
Then she looks at her children and puts on a brave expression that isn’t entirely convincing. “But we have to find a way to move on, don’t we?”
1726 words. First published 9 January 2011. © Times Newspapers Ltd.