My search to find new people to include in my tactile portrait collection took nearly two years.
One evening I watched a programme called The Spitfire sisters. It told the story of the women who flew all sorts of aircraft during the war from factory to the Air Force pilots. Six of them were still alive and they were so animated that I wanted to include one of them in my collection.
It took a while but I did find out that one of them, Mary Ellis lived on the Isle of Wight which is very near me. I did not want to contact her direct because I was a stranger to her and did not want to intrude, so rang a nearby airfield to see if they knew anything about her. As luck would have it the person I spoke to was going to tea with Mary that same afternoon. She would give Mary my address, ask if I could write to her with a view to meeting.
Within a couple of weeks I had my meeting. Mary Ellis is in her 90s, a tiny woman, very elegant and as sharp as a needle. She told me she flew 80 different aircraft, including Spitfires and jets and delivered over a 1000 airplanes, without radar or radio connection to the RAF boys.
Mary still had her log books and various instruction books, which were often handed to the women just prior to getting into the aircraft. She told me that the only time she was scared was when she came down in a field of horses.
After the war she became for many years the MD of Sandown Airfield and has remained on the Isle of Wight to this day.
Mary and I have met on many occasions since that first meeting and I am proud to call her a friend. She was able to attend with her niece, the opening of the Portrait exhibition in Havant. She spoke to everyone, was on top form and never once sat down. One couple who attended were on holiday from America and said that seeing her portrait and meeting Mary was the highlight of their holiday.
After the opening we all came back to my cottage for bubbly and cream tea. Everyone who met her said Mary had more stamina than any of us.
Mary is formidable and we will never see the like of her and her fellow pilots again.