Essex: For the love of little Lyra, a baby who fought for life – and won

Alice Ridley hails from a famous Essex brewing family but followed her creative leanings when choosing a career path. She’s worked in TV and theatre – on the design side – and has now co-produced a first book. It’s very personal, as she tells Steven Russell

LYRA McConnell weighed only 1lb 10oz when she was born prematurely at 24 weeks and five days. She couldn’t breathe unaided, so doctors gave her a mask that fitted over mouth and nose. It blew in air and looked a bit like a snorkel.

Alice Ridley wasn’t able to see or hold her niece during those early weeks of struggle for life in hospital, but that period naturally made a big impression.

Each week she’d go and see her sister Tiggy – Lyra’s mum – and find out how things were progressing. There would be pictures to look at of the tiny infant lying in her incubator with a cuddly toy for company – a present from a family friend. Lyra and the white rabbit with a knowing smile were pretty much the same length . . . and about the same size as a human hand.

It got Alice thinking. She and her partner, Peter, were creative folk and had long wanted to work together in writing and illustrating a book, but had never stumbled upon the right subject. But here, with this vulnerable baby, was potential inspiration.

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They wove the tale of Lyra and the Adventure of the Flying Fish – Peter putting together the words and Alice illustrating the story. It features the kind of escapades the little girl might well have been dreaming up for herself as she lay in her incubator and battled to survive.

In the story W. Rabbit is stolen by flying fish and Lyra is desperate to get him back – something that demands all the resourcefulness and courage she can muster. Lyra has to join a fish school and deal with a huge shark – but, happily, finally manages to rescue her companion with the help of a turtle called Timothy.

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For Alice, the project helped her cope. She’d visited her pregnant sister in Ghana in the spring of 2008. Tiggy then travelled to England in the middle of the May for a wedding and their mother’s birthday, “and it all started”.

Lyra was born in Chelmsford but was whisked to Luton and Dunstable Hospital for five or six weeks of specialised care before returning to Essex.

“When she was born, it was very hard to know whether or not to be congratulatory, because you weren’t sure what her outcome would be,” admits Alice. “I knew the best thing to do would be to say ‘Oh, this is amazing!’ but I just couldn’t. I didn’t know how to deal with that.”

Lyra was the first grandchild in the family, “so it was a totally new experience for all of us, really. I hadn’t had much at all to do with babies at that point.

“Peter and I had always thought of writing and illustrating a book together, but we couldn’t ever think what to do. Then this suddenly happened. We couldn’t see her – couldn’t hold her – so the story was like making up in our heads who she was.

“She was in an incubator and it kind of encouraged us to make her someone, so it made it feel like we did know her and it made it feel like she was going to survive and it was going to be OK. In the book she’s got quite a sense of determination and strong will, and that’s what it was all about, in many ways.

“Most children get cuddled by their parents as soon as they’re born; she couldn’t be cuddled by my sister very often, because her skin was so delicate and she needed to be in the incubator. So, basically, she was most often on her own, with the white rabbit – in a box, kind of thing. That’s where the idea came from.

“She was given this apparatus to help her breathe. My sister used to refer to Lyra’s CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure apparatus) as her snorkel.”

Alice and Peter embarked on the book project intending the finished article simply to be a christening present, but later felt other people might also enjoy it. The story could, too, help raise awareness of premature babies, they thought.

It’s been published by Phoenix Yard Books. Alice says she’d love to produce another two tales, at the end of which Lyra would find her way home.

“At the beginning you don’t know who she is, why she’s floating there, why she’s got a white rabbit, and the whole thing is that she doesn’t know, either. She just knows that she exists and that she has this rabbit.”

There’s already a happy outcome in real life. Lyra is now fine and dandy, having made “absolutely amazing” progress, and celebrates her third birthday at the end of this month.

She lives in Kenya with her parents, dad Tristan McConnell being East Africa correspondent for The Times.

“I’ve just spoken to her on Skype, actually – your average three-year-old,” says her aunt. “She’s totally caught up: height, weight, everything. She’s probably a little skinny, but then my sister’s skinny! Absolutely perfect. She’s always on the go; never stays still.

“We’re so lucky, because there have been other people we know who haven’t been so lucky. We’re very aware of that.”

ILLUSTRATING a book inspired by her niece’s battle for life is the latest artistic venture for someone rarely seen without a pencil in her hand as a child.

Alice is part of the family that ran the TD Ridley & Sons Ltd brewery south west of Braintree.

Growing up in the countryside around Hartford End, she loved climbing trees, being with Burmese cat Bhang and swimming in the River Chelmer that flowed beneath the millhouse where her family had lived for generations – and which is still her home.

Books were a thorn, though, because of dyslexia, and so drawing became a way of presenting ideas, thoughts and daydreams.

There was never a chance of the youngest of four children working in the brewery, of which father Nicholas was chairman.

“I always felt it was important to earn your work and I never liked the idea of working somewhere because Daddy had given you a job there. I’m very much a stubborn character; I refused to work there, really! I worked in a few pubs, I’ll give you that, but I got the interviews. But I didn’t want to work in the actual brewery. I didn’t think it was fair on people.”

Alice went to St Cedd’s School in Chelmsford and then a school in Sevenoaks, where pottery became her passion. “I did it for GCSE and absolutely loved it. All I wanted to do was walk around in sandals, being a pottery teacher,” she laughs.

For A-levels she moved on to Uppingham School in Rutland. There, Alice became heavily involved in theatre. She returned to Essex for an arts foundation degree at Colchester Institute and thence to Nottingham Trent University to study theatre design.

It was difficult making a living in that business, however, and after a while she became a freelance art department worker in TV and films.

Not as exciting as it sounds, she grins. It can be great fun, but it takes a long time to reach the top and one risks being treated badly simply because there are so many people prepared to do the job virtually for free.

“You get that thing of being paid absolutely nothing, (and) work really long hours. Also, you can spend a lot of your time being a glorified furniture remover. It’s quite hard having any creative input into it because you’re constantly told what to do by someone else and a lot of the time you’re not given the opportunity to have a go at it yourself.

“I have progressed to art director now, which is more creative and isn’t furniture removals!”

Ridley’s Brewery was sold in 2005, the sad end of a family firm created more than 160 years earlier, and it prompted changes in Alice’s outlook. Major ones at that; for she left for New Zealand in 2006.

“It was after the brewery was sold. It was a traumatic time. I was feeling a bit sick of what I was doing work-wise and so I thought ‘I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to do something.’

“I think it was New Year’s Day. I got out of bed and said ‘Right, I’m going to New Zealand!’ The furthest-away place you could get to! I told my friends and then realised I couldn’t go back on my word!”

That said, adventure had long been part of her psyche. Alice travelled around South America at 18 and has also been to Africa.

If she had to choose to be a children’s story character – like you do – it would be Mr Benn. Dressed like a civil servant – bowler hat, dark suit – he’d pop into the local fancy-dress shop, change into a knight, balloonist, wizard or whomever else took his fancy, step through the changing-room door into a different world and enjoy a magical adventure.

Then he’d return, change back into his suit and stroll to his home at 52 Festive Road – though he would always find a souvenir of his fantastical time in a parallel universe.

“I love the idea of putting on a different costume and walking through the door to new adventures every day,” she laughs.

Alice told everyone she was going to New Zealand for a year, but stayed for two.

She headed for Auckland and worked in bars and restaurants, waitressing, while trying to dig out opportunities in TV and film.

“I was lucky, though, because when the brewery was sold – being a shareholder – I was fortunate enough to be able to buy a flat in London. So I rented the flat out.

“I ended up doing some dog-sitting and dog-walking . . . and I don’t like dogs!” Alice also earned a crust with commissions for paintings.

She did get some design work on soap opera Shortland Street – a sort of New Zealand Casualty – and was involved with many TV commercials.

Alice had her sights set on styling work, however. She walked into NZ House and Garden magazine and said “I really want to do some styling. I can’t see it’s that different from theatre design or TV design. I’ll show you my portfolio.” It worked. Go off and put together some ideas, they said. She did, “and they agreed to all of them”.

Her time down-under also saw her launch bhAng design – named after her beloved childhood cat – which produced T-shirts and hoodies bearing her artwork. “I ended up getting them into quite a lot of shops in New Zealand.” Today it’s online.

Alice returned to England in the spring of 2008 and got some interiors styling jobs.

There’s been TV work, too, including Micro Men, transmitted on BBC Four in the autumn of 2009. Starring Martin Freeman and Alexander Armstrong, it portrayed the rivalry between visionary Sir Clive Sinclair and ex-colleague Chris Curry as they fought over the promising home computer market in the 1980s.

Some of the old computers borrowed for filming started blowing up, she remembers – which was worrying, “to think a computer might be one of only 20 left in the world!”

One of her favourite projects was for the BBC Three series Undercover Princes, aired a couple of years ago. It took three princes – from India, Zululand and Sri Lanka – and installed them in a terrace house in Brighton. They had to live and date like normal folk – and all in front of the TV cameras, of course.

Alice was shown the house – a basic holiday let without much furniture – given a budget and asked to make it more homely, producing different ambiances in different rooms.

She put paintings on the walls, sorted out the cushions, carpets and curtains, and a lot more besides.

With such programmes, the new stuff is usually taken out again when shooting is over and the building returned to its original state. Sometimes items have to be thrown away, but in other cases it’s sold for charity or distributed among those involved in making a show.

“I’ve got many things out of it, like nice cutlery and glasses!” says Alice.

Sometimes the owners of a property retain part of the temporary look. Alice worked on a BBC series called Kill It, Cook It, Eat It, which followed farm animals from pasture to plate, and transformed a farmhouse kitchen. The owners got to keep the curtains and other bits and bobs.

Nowadays she can’t do as much art direction as she used to – thanks to being the proud mum of a one-year-old – so concentrates mainly on styling work for magazines such as Homes and Gardens. Son Kea’s name, by the way, was inspired by a type of New Zealand parrot!

Speaking of names, last October Alice launched a range of children’s clothing called Bhingles – the nickname of childhood feline friend Bhang.

Partner Peter Emina is also a creative guy: a director/producer with more than 100 TV programmes to his credit, and who has interviewed the likes of Nelson Mandela, David Bowie and Tom Hanks.

n Lyra and the Adventure of the Flying Fish is published by Phoenix Yard Books at �11.99. ISBN 978 1 907912 01 6

The final toast

LIVING behind the former brewery is a permanent reminder of how life has changed.

The announcement came in the summer of 2005 that Greene King was buying TD Ridley & Sons Ltd. for �45.6million.

Included in the deal were more than 70 pubs – mainly in Essex – the brewery at Hartford End and a distribution centre in Ipswich.

Alice’s father Nicholas, then chairman of Ridley’s, said the board had decided the independent business needed to become part of a larger group.

Management of the pubs and the brewing of a number of Ridley brands transferred to Bury St Edmunds, and the Hartford End brewery closed.

There was talk late in 2009 about the sold-on brewery site being turned into a retirement village, but Alice says it still lies derelict.

“It’s amazing how it deteriorates very quickly when it’s not being used or worked with. All the weeds start growing up in places and it doesn’t look like it used to, any more.”

Ridley’s had a turnover of about �17m in the 2000s and was known for ales such as Old Bob and Witchfinder Porter, and its seasonal beers.

It’s said at times to have employed up to 160 people – often generations of the same family. The man who locked up for the last time had been with the company for 48 years.

Alice remembers employees coming to the family home at Christmas and parties being held for employees’ children. The sale and closure was, she admits, “an incredibly sad time of our lives”.

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