Every day, 85 year old Troop Leader Poppy Gowler lives up to her motto: life is for living. During 47 years of Scouts, her infectious energy has inspired generations of young people, including Jess Lockwood, who is now a leader alongside her. Here, Poppy continues to share her wisdom with Jess, and with the rest of us.
Words: Jacqueline Landey | Illustration: Liv & Dom
Decades ago when Poppy Gowler moved to Fenstanton, Cambridgeshire, the people of the village told the vicar: ‘if you want anything doing, Poppy will do it.’ At 85, Poppy still doesn’t stop.
Through summer and winter, she’s out camping with her Troop, with an energy and enthusiasm that knows no bounds. Her vitality has spread across generations. Fifteen years ago, Jess Lockwood was Poppy’s Scout at 1st Fenstanton & Hilton Scout Group and today she’s a Troop Leader beside her. With 59 years between them, Poppy and Jess are a remarkable example of the bonds that form across generations through Scouts.
When we met the duo in person, Poppy shared her wisdom on everything from cleaning to coffins…
On working with young people
‘I don’t stand nonsense but at the same time, I’m quite prepared to get down and do what they do or get involved. We learn from each other. When you open yourself up to learn from them, you’re not talking down to them, you’re with them.’
It’s not a one-way street. Flossing and dabbing are just some of the recent things Scouts have taught Poppy. Because she feels that being a Scout is such great fun, she often tells parents that ‘if they’re not involved, they don’t know what they’re missing.’
Striking a balance between being on young people’s level and being a pillar of supervision, Poppy says if the young people do something they shouldn’t, sometimes she just needs to look at them and they know. Otherwise she’ll say something to them quietly — ‘not in front of the whole lot’ — to explain why what they’ve done isn’t appropriate and to listen to their side of the story. She thinks that’s why they come back to her, because they know she’ll listen.
‘There’s no such thing as can’t. You can. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.’
Poppy’s determination was recently put to the test, when their Scout camp overlapped with a wedding she needed to attend. A fellow leader said Poppy wouldn’t be able to attend both but Poppy turned around and said ‘there’s no such thing as can’t, where there’s a will, there’s a way. We can and we will,’ she laughs. And she did. Poppy brought her glad rags along to camp and changed into them moments before her husband picked her up. Miles away, she celebrated the wedding before hurrying back to camp, in time to enjoy the fish that the troop were filleting for dinner.
On being prepared
‘Living through the war years in London, you never knew whether you’d have a roof over your head, or water to drink, so “be prepared” has been with me for a very long time.’
On a Group gallivant to Brownsea Island, the Scout leaders realised that the 40-minute trek might be a bit far for Poppy to walk. As the local rental shop had run out of wheelchairs, Jess came back with a buggy contraption meant for a teenager. Poppy happily hopped on, placing the cake she’d baked on her lap. Fellow Scout leader Alex (who had been Poppy’s Scout at 15) pushed her around the island, letting the chair go in short bursts down the hills, to give Poppy a ride. ‘Don’t drop the cake!’ Poppy would cry, laughing. Following the day’s adventure, with the grey-blue sea surrounding them, they sat together for tea, only to find they hadn’t brought a cake knife. Unconcerned, Poppy whipped out her Bear Grylls knife and proceeded to serve slices of sponge for everyone.
‘Let’s face it, life is girls and boys.’
Talking about the progress made in women’s rights and the changing expectations of girls, Poppy said, ‘Things change and you’ve got to change with them or you’re left on the backboard, and I’m not on the backboard.’
The positive influence of Poppy’s approach to treating girls and boys equally, and the inclusive approach of Scouts, is evident in Jess’s remarkable success as a development manager of a surveying company, a male-dominated field. Jess says, ‘Since the age of 11, I learnt to work with men and women outside, learning teamwork, leadership, all those skills. I put my confidence in that down to Scouts — that “get up and go” — feeling and knowing you can do it, just as well as a male can.’ The board at Jess’s company is all male. She was at a work event recently with about 60 people and somebody turned around and said, ‘Jess, do you realise you’re the only female in the room?’ She replied, ‘Well, thanks for pointing that out, but I’m doing a good enough job, just like the rest of you.’
‘I really do put my skills down to Scouts,’ Jess reiterates, ‘standing up and presenting, talking to people, working together, leadership, managing a team — most people in the workplace don’t have a clue how to manage, but when you’ve been managing a team of volunteers for 10 years, then it’s easy and natural at work. Being a Scout is the key to learning the personal skills they don’t teach at school.’
On cleaning (and the things that really count)
‘Well, if I did all the things at home I was supposed to, I wouldn’t go out of my four walls. That is not living.’
Aside from Poppy’s steadfast belief that vinegar should replace anti-bacterial spray for cooking surfaces on camp, her approach to housework is refreshingly laid-back.
She may have taught scores of Scouts to chop and cook balanced meals, but when it comes to cleaning, she says, ‘Life isn’t just Monday you’ve got the washing, Tuesday you’ve got the ironing, Wednesday you’ve got the housework, which was what it used to be.’ Poppy believes life’s too short for ironing. ‘Life is important’, she says, ‘the housework will last longer than I will.’
On hard times
‘We could have done without the war years, but we made the most of life because you never knew whether you would be there the next day.’
In a moving moment Poppy shares her thoughts on what the past taught her. She explains, ‘My mother died before I was 11, so I had to stand on my own feet. The only thing that would have been nice would have been to have a mother, but you learn without, and that’s one of the things that’s made me the way I am and influenced how I’ve been with children — giving them the opportunity to do things I couldn’t. As somebody said, I’m still chasing my teenage years,’ she laughs. ‘My teenage years were working, looking after the family. We were bombed out three times. It was a hard life but it’s not done me any harm.’
‘It would have been nice to do what they’ve all done and what I’ve taught them to do, but life is what you make it. As I say to the Scouts, you’ll only get something out of life if you put something in. It is up to you.’
‘I chose to go over the highest obstacle but if I’d had my trainers and not my good trousers, I could have done the crawling under all the nets too. I would have gone through the mud. Like the instructor said: if you keep walking, you don’t sink in.’
On a Group excursion to an outdoor assault course, Poppy got stuck in, scaling a climbing wall. Before her, the oldest person to conquer it had been 70. Jess said the instructor praised the group’s enthusiasm and determination. Jess puts it down to ‘Poppy’s standard. She doesn’t sit in a corner. She’s there going “Come on, get through!”’
‘I think it’s Scouts that keeps me fit, keeps me involved, keeps me with the young folk. I’ve adapted as my children grew up and I think that’s what makes a difference — that I can adapt to things and still enjoy it.’
While young people may be learning how to become adults in Scouts, it also allows leaders to relive their youth. On a recent camp, the leaders in Jess and Poppy’s Group switched roles with the Young Leaders for a night of cooking. Poppy kept stealing the frying pan. ‘We were behaving like Scouts,’ Poppy says mischievously.
Poppy and Jess believe volunteering is something you make time for. ‘Life is busy,’ Jess says, ‘you have to put the things that mean the most to you first.’ She wants more people to come and see what they can get out of being a Scout. ‘It’s not just about giving experiences to young people. I get a lot from it myself. As Poppy says, there’s more to life than housework. Volunteer! So that more young people can get the most out of Scouts.’
‘If I ever go during camp, chuck me on the campfire.’
When Poppy’s husband Robin reminds her that ‘one of us is going to need money for a funeral.’ ‘Why?’ Poppy says, aghast, ‘Why?’ We all laugh. ‘Donate your body to science,’ she concludes, ‘you won’t need a funeral. I put that to him the other day.’ Recently, a fellow Scout leader mentioned Poppy retiring, to which Poppy responded, ‘I will keep going until I drop. And if I do drop, just chuck me on the campfire.’
Jess — on inclusion
‘Watching Poppy, the Scouts can see that age doesn’t need to stop you.’
In the past there have been leaders who questioned if Poppy should still be volunteering at her advanced age, but Jess is passionately defensive that the Group can and will adapt to include her. ‘Just like you would slightly tweak the programme to accommodate somebody with epilepsy or diabetes or learning difficulties, why should it be any different? When we go on a 20-mile hike, we just bring Poppy a chair. We wouldn’t have it any other way.’
‘The Scouts love Poppy,’ says Jess, her eyes shining. ‘They absolutely love her. She is a complete inspiration — always there, upbeat, active. We’ve got Young Leaders that were my Scouts and they’ve got her same attitude.’
‘Well,’ Poppy smiles, ‘I love it.’