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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Alnwick Garden helps Ponteland man celebrate 100th birthday

A PROUD centenarian enjoyed a belated 100th birthday celebration yesterday – with a kiss from a Duchess during a special visit to one of his favourite haunts.

Former professional photographer Geoff Willey reached the milestone last month, but got a second bite of the cherry yesterday courtesy of the Duchess of Northumberland and staff at her Alnwick Garden tourist attraction.

The widower travelled from his home in Ponteland to have a cup of tea and a lengthy chat with the Duchess in the garden's Tree House restaurant, and was presented with a special 100th birthday cake made by catering staff.

He showed her a large collection of photographs which he has taken during numerous trips to the garden before it officially opened to visitors.

Mr Willey became so fascinated by the development of the attraction that he joined its Friends group and was a member for seven years.

His trips to Alnwick ended when he had to give up driving, but when staff heard he had planned another visit for his 100th birthday they decided to make a special occasion of it and organised yesterday's celebration. 

Mr Willey, who was driven to Alnwick by his friends and neighbours, Neil and Mary Mackley, was greeted by liaison director Ian August who filled him in on developments at the garden since his last visit two years ago.

He was then joined by the Duchess who chatted with him for 30 minutes over tea and birthday cake, browsing through his collection of photos and looking at a book which Mr Willey wrote about his life as a photographer when he was 98.

The Duchess finished the get together with a kiss for her guest, who she described as a "loyal supporter" of the garden, and said she hoped he would return every year on his birthday.

She said: "Mr Willey is a fascinating character who is so switched on and has amazing memories of his life as a photographer. He has an incredible collection of photographs of the garden from day one. He is an absolute inspiration to all of us hoping to also live to 100. He can remember everything and has a razor-sharp mind."

Mr Willey, whose wife Daphne died in the 1970s, originally comes from Scarborough but his work as a photographer brought him to Newcastle University in the 1960s. He later bought a house in Ponteland where he has lived ever since.

Yesterday he said: "It has been absolutely wonderful to come here and meet the Duchess today. I am so emotional that I have just bubbled over a few times.

"I first got interested in the Alnwick Garden when I was visiting the town and, as a typical photographer and nosey parker, noticed all this work going on behind fences.

"After that I got more involved and started coming over from Ponteland regularly to take photographs for my own records. Eventually I became a member of the Friends of the Garden."

Source: Journal Live