Celebrations for Forest Row woman - one of England’s oldest

Elizabeth 'Bet' Edwards
Elizabeth 'Bet' Edwards
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Elizabeth (Bet) Edwards has an unusual formula for living a long and happy life: “Keep swearing and laughing.” At that, she burst into gales of laughter.

Bet said the best thing about celebrating her birthday was being surrounded by her large family and friends. She enjoyed the day in the company of her two children, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. She’s already accumulated a collection of letters of congratulation from The Queen - she received them on her 100th, 105th, 106th and now her 107th birthdays.

Bet was born in Chuck Hatch, Coleman’s Hatch, in 1908 where she was the only girl of a family of four. But she spent most of her life - about 80 years - living in Forest Row.

She has lived at the Littlefair Care Home in East Grinstead for the last seven and a half years, where this photograph was taken. It shows her together with her latest telegram from The Queen.

Bet still has a wicked sense of humour, staff at Littlefair report. They went on: “She is also so kind hearted and generous. She never seems to dwell on the past, she’s very matter of fact and doesn’t like a fuss.” In fact, they admit, she is quite a favourite.

How have Forest Row and East Grinstead changed over the years! “They’re too busy now,” retorts the feisty 107 year old.

Does she have any memories of living in the area during the war that she can share with visitors? “I can’t remember - don’t forget, I’m getting old now!” she laughs.

For her 100th birthday, she celebrated with a tea party underneath the Holy Oak where she used to attend church services every Sunday as a child. At that time there was a campaign to save the Chuck Hatch tree which was in danger of being chopped down.

Her daughter, Ann Bishop, 70, who lives in East Grinstead, explained: “The tree was very important to mum as she and her family used to go to the service every Sunday as a child. The Hartfield vicar continues the tradition of taking a service there in May every year and our whole family always tries to go along. It’s really nice that the traditional has been resurrected after a century or so.”

A service of hymns, poetry readings and music takes place at the Holy Oak once a year during the ‘Merrie Month of May’. About 50 people attend and thenstay for a chat, while sweets are distributed to the children. Villagers are reminded of a tradition that started in the 1900s.

A harmonium, kept at White House Farm, was pushed up the hill to the Holy Oak on Sunday summer afternoons for the service taken by a minister or lay preacher. Sadly, these ended when traffic became heavier and holding the services in the road under the tree became more difficult.

The rumour that the tree might be felled in 2006 gave Mrs Rosemary Marshall, of Chuck Hatch, the idea of renewing the service. Wealden District Council placed a tree preservation order on the Holy Oak and, with Mrs Marshall’s organisation, the service was revived in May 2006.

Bet’s son, Michael Edwards, 78 lives in Park Crescent, Forest Row.

He described his mother as someone who always kept herself in the background and spent her whole life looking after her family. He explained that - as was the tradition in those days - she dedicated her life to caring for her three brothers and looked after them as well as her parents during the war. Bet never seems to dwell on the past, he explained. She’s very matter of fact and doesn’t like a fuss.

Staff and family are looking forward to celebrating this amazing lady’s 108th birthday with yet another party.