Sister Wendy Beckett was the first ‘celebrity’ I knew. Throughout the 1980s, during trips to my grandparents’ gatehouse on the edge of the grounds of the Carmelite Monastery in Quidenham, Norfolk, we were often visited by Sister Wendy, a nun who lived in a caravan on the estate. In the Nineties she became an unlikely TV star, a celebrated BBC art historian who travelled the world giving her informed and passionate opinion on art history. But to my brother and sister and I, Sister Wendy, who died this week aged 88, was the magical lead character in the idyllic summer holidays of our childhood.
She had become a great friend of my Grannie’s, regularly popping round for tea and a chat, always sneaking an extra slice of apple cake under her habit when she thought no one was looking to take back to her little caravan in the woods. She seemed to glide into every room like a character from a fairytale. With her, she brought her stories. I vividly remember being scooped up onto her lap and readying myself for one of her tales. I remember the smell of starch from her neatly pressed habit and veil, and the warmth and softness of her voice as these great tales tumbled out of her, seemingly from nowhere; when she spoke, you listened. She had this incredibly commanding presence and was such an engaging speaker. We were all enthralled whenever Sister Wendy was there.
At five years old it never occurred to me how special those summers might have been for her, but now I think playing with us must have been like a glimpse into a different life for Sister Wendy. Her religion was of course terribly important to her, and she had chosen to live this life of solitude in her caravan, surrounded by her books. I think she liked the very normality of our lives. My grandparents kept chickens and tended their garden while my sister Tess, brother Tom and I raced about, loving every bit of the freedom we enjoyed during these country summers that weren’t available to us growing up in London. I think she found us fascinating, and loved entering into our little games. We loved her mischievous streak and her incredible imagination: when she appeared, she always wanted to get involved with whatever we were up to. We would make miniature gardens together. I have a letter from her which I still treasure, thanking me for the “beautiful garden” I’d made her. “I came down to see you on Monday morning and found you had all flown away to London,” she writes. “What a pity to have missed you and Thomas and your mother and father - only Grandad and Grannie left. A big kiss, from Sister Wendy.” That was 1980, and she and Grannie remained the best of friends right up until the latter’s death in 1993.
When she found fame, she didn’t change a bit. She had always been a star in our lives, but now others were hearing her stories, too. When we were children, the voyage from her caravan to Grannie’s garden would have been a great feat. But suddenly she had the life of a jet-setter. It meant that she couldn’t stop by for tea so often, so instead she sent Grannie postcards from far-flung locations, describing her travels, the people she had met and the priceless art she had witnessed close up. Her world had suddenly become far bigger than the little caravan and the monastery: now, it was Grannie’s turn to live vicariously through Sister Wendy.
We loved watching her work. There is rather a lot of nudity and raunchiness in art history and it was a source of great amusement to my family to see Wendy, so committed to her religion, discussing people in various states of undress and even sex on the telly. Her observations were so insightful and relatable, her knowledge of the arts so broad and impressive. I think people fell in love with her because she wasn’t your typical BBC star. She was eccentric and a rather unlikely TV presenter, but she was so passionate about her subject and charming that people were drawn to her. It’s perfectly possible that the world of broadcasting was a complete mystery to her – I certainly don’t recall seeing a TV set in her caravan. But I imagine that was why she was such a great talent. She had no self awareness or great career ambitions, just a passion she wanted to share.
When Grandpa passed away, Grannie moved away from Quidenham, but Sister Wendy remained loyal to them, visiting whenever she could. After those early years spending my summers with her, later in life I only ever saw her on a TV screen. And so, she has remained for me a wonderful memory, an unshakeable favourite from childhood. She was, and always will be, the remarkable woman with the twinkle in her eye who lived at the end of my grandparents’ garden. I am so grateful to have known her.