My 2012: A battling baby who beat the odds . . . and a book

SEEING her bright and alert in her mother’s arms – and cooing in cute baby fashion – one can picture just how far little Sophia has come. She was delivered prematurely on January 6 at 30 weeks, though in terms of development she was more like 28 weeks. And she weighed only 880g – the equivalent of just over 15 Mars Bars.

“Her head could fit into the palm of my hand – the size of an apple. She was like a little doll,” remembers mum Patricia, who grew up in Suffolk.

Sophia was in hospital for 54 days (“54 days and six hours”) but during that time put on weight in grand style. “Now she’s a walloping great baby!”

Her grateful mother flicks through a gallery of pictures on her phone that charts progress: the infant enjoying her first bottle and bath, and even her debut outing to Sainsbury’s! “And the first time I looked at her and thought ‘That’s a proper baby’. She didn’t have a tube in her face.”

Patricia spent eight hours a day in the hospital as her first-born gained strength. “When they kick in, the NHS really works. We’ve now got a very healthy, beautiful baby and I’m well . . . and my book has come out! It’s been quite a year so far!”

Ah, the book. Yes.

It occupied the major part of 2010 and great chunks of 2011 – a period in which Patricia also met and married a husband and became pregnant. For good measure, all this was fitted in between jobs such as looking after dogs with needs – puppies, for instance, or old hounds on medication, or pooches that required socialising. “I was the Fulham Dog Mother!” She also did the (financial) books for a gardening company.

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She does, she laughs, rather like to keep busy.

The publication is A Year in Pictures: The Royal Hospital Chelsea – a candid look through her lens not only at the elegant buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren but the informality of everyday life there.

The story of the institution started in 1681, after it became increasingly clear that many of England’s soldiers were not fit for service. King Charles II issued a warrant authorising the building of the Royal Hospital, to provide a decent home in retirement. (The term “hospital” is a bit misleading to the modern eye and ear, as the place is essentially there to provide lodgings – homes – for former soldiers.)

The monarch himself was habitually short of cash, and Parliament wouldn’t foot the bill, so the money had to be raised from other sources, including private donations, a levy on the sale of officers’ commissions and through the deduction of a day’s pay from every man in the army.

The first In-Pensioners (as they’re known) arrived in February, 1692, and soon the hospital was home to 476.

In modern times the men in scarlet clothing (it’s worn only on ceremonial occasions) and tricorns (hats with brims turned up on three sides) are familiar sights and are colloquially known as Chelsea Pensioners, but few people know much about the life they lead.

Patricia hopes the book will help change that.

“These guys are the most incredible men I had ever met,” she says. “The majority of them fought in World War Two. The stories they have . . .

“One helped build the bridge over the River Kwai. He was a Japanese prisoner of war. He was still very emotional talking about it. He actually went back to Japan, with his son, to make his peace. They gave him a hero’s welcome and apologised for everything these soldiers had been put through.”

Patricia spent two days a week, on average, at Chelsea during 2010. She was even there on Christmas Day. Staff and In-Pensioners were happy to help with the project, which was her own idea and one pursued without the security of a publishing deal already in her pocket.

“They completely took me in and treated me as one of their own. I made a lot of friends.

“I got asked for my telephone number quite a few times. I got asked to go dancing, once or twice! I did go dancing with one of them, actually, at a rugby match. They had a little dance afterwards.”

There were occasions when it didn’t seem right to record life through a viewfinder – such as Armistice Day.

“You could have heard a pin drop,” Patricia remembers. “I didn’t see ‘old men’; I suddenly saw them as young soldiers, remembering their friends as if it were yesterday.

“I don’t think you could have ever translated that atmosphere into a photograph. I think you would have had to have been there to have believed it. I just put my camera down and thought ‘I have absolutely no right to take a photograph at this moment.’

“There were days when I really had to fight back the tears, because I felt so small compared to these men.

“A lot of people say they’re ‘funny old men in their little red coats’, but they’re not. They were jumping out of aeroplanes with the most basic of parachutes, in the dark, being shot at, falling in German forests and not really knowing where they’d end up. It is unimaginable. And you just sit there with your camera and think ‘Who am I . . . ?’”

PATRICIA Rodwell might live in Fulham but her heart lies in East Anglia. Originally from Norfolk, the family has been rooted in Suffolk since about 1854 and, five generations later, is still at Woodlands, Holbrook.

Her ancestors include an Ipswich banker, a man who became a 19th Century MP and Deputy Lieutenant of Suffolk, a JP, and a knight who in the first third of the 1900s served as High Commissioner and Consul-General for the West Pacific, and Governor and Commander in Chief of British Guiana, Southern Rhodesia and Fiji.

Her father, Andrew, owns SCH Supplies, an engineering company specialising in garden and estate machinery which over the years has prided itself on employing many young men who started out as apprentices or on youth training schemes and have gone on to do great things.

Patricia, the youngest of three girls, grew up on the Shotley peninsula, just outside Ipswich. Most of the time was spent at her grandparents’ big home close by, “because it was much easier to play hide and seek in a house this size”.

The vast acres of its fields and woods proved a wonderful playground. “We were very lucky. I never really wanted to play inside at all. As soon as the sun came up, I put on my wellies to go and dig or make mud pies or whatever. And we had a scattering of ponies and cats and dogs and guinea-pigs.”

The big house (huge, actually) is now home to the 40-year-old’s parents, Sue and Andrew, but their youngest daughter visits as much as she can, for she does miss Suffolk.

“This is where my heart is. London is just somewhere we live. This is home.”

After primary school in Holbrook, Amberfield at Nacton and boarding school in Oxford, Patricia went to secretarial college in Cambridge and then headed to the capital at the age of 18.

A self-confessed non-academic teenager, she worked in a Bond Street art gallery. “That didn’t last long, because I got the sack! It was mortifying. London was all so new and exciting, and I put more energy into partying.”

Then came a spell in the riding department at Harrods. “I still say that is the best job I ever had. All the other shop assistants were the same age, so we had a riot . . . except I kept getting the change wrong!

“It’s important for anyone to work in a shop, because it teaches you how to interact with people; and learning how to do that at a young age puts you on the right path.”

There followed a move to the corporate world, in Mayfair. She ran the big reception area of a busy business centre – serviced offices that were rented out. Six months into the job, Patricia was suddenly diagnosed with scoliosis – an abnormal, and very painful, curvature of the spine.

The condition, and the pressing need to have her spine rebuilt, took six months out of her life in 1992, when she was 20. She was in hospital for three weeks, flat on her back, and then recuperated in Suffolk.

Back at work, for three days a week, she missed out on promotion and decided “Blow this; I’m going travelling.” It was only a year after surgery that Patricia and a cousin went to South Africa and bought a Ford Escort 1.1. They drove 14,000 km, benefiting from the generosity of people they met, who passed them on to the care of friends or relatives. Willingly-given hospitality meant they spent only about six nights under canvas in more than four months.

Not that the trip wasn’t without drama. The car caught fire in the middle of a desert as they drove towards Namibia. Eight hours later they managed to reach a service station, where they waited 48 hours for assistance to arrive.

At the end of the African leg they flew to Australia – this time travelling around by bus! – before coming home via Thailand.

Back in London, and long passionate about wildlife, Patricia organised a ball for the Born Free Foundation and raised �10,000. It brought an offer to take a month off work and help the charity in Africa.

So she found herself in a village south of Mombasa, Kenya, helping vets capture baboons that flocked to rubbish tips behind beachside hotels. The males were castrated to stop them multiplying. When one is caught, in a cage with a trapdoor, “you feel so guilty!”

Workwise, Patricia was back in the corporate world, spending a total of 15 years project-managing the design and construction of five business centres that she subsequently helped manage.

But there was something missing. “I was incredibly frustrated. I just thought I really needed to go off and do something.”

She spent a year taking floristry night-classes with a view to working with flowers, “but you had to get up too early to do that! And be incredibly strong”.

There was a deep urge that couldn’t be denied to “make something”.

“I’d always loved art and being imaginative. And growing up in a creative family – mum doing sculpting [to acclaim] and dad being an engineer and always making something out of nothing – there was always a lot of artistic and creative energy in the house.”

She realised it was time to say goodbye to the business world. “All these young upstarts were coming out of university with their Excel spreadsheets, which I’d never learned, and they were all keen and enthusiastic, and I thought ‘You know what? I can’t keep up with this. I’m not interested. I don’t really want to.’”

Farewell, corporate life, and hello to a three-year foundation course at an art school in Chelsea, where Patricia studied figurative sculpture.

“I became absorbed in it. The minute I put on my dungarees and wellies I thought ‘How the hell did I spend 15 years in a suit and a pair of heels?’ I suddenly felt as though I had come home, and vowed I would never go back into the boardroom. It was a light-bulb moment.”

Mind you, she had to work part-time to keep her head above water, and make sacrifices.

“My lovely clothes shops were suddenly replaced by Primark; and gone were the days of manicures and sun-drenched holidays – replaced by rainy holidays in Scotland. It was quite a change, but definitely in the right direction.”

The next significant moment was a friend asking her to take photographs of his children. He was impressed by the results and suggested Patricia could make a career out of a sometime hobby. Photography had always been a passion. Since the age of eight she’d put together album after album of pictures of animals.

Not even owning a computer, she took out an enormous loan to buy one and a digital camera, and spent six months learning how to use the kit. Slowly, Patricia built a reputation with her family shoots, baby pictures, model and actor portfolios, corporate and private portraiture, and a number of dog photographs.

Her first big commission was with the army and 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery. It took her to the Scottish Highlands to photograph a major joint exercise with the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. “It was fabulous, if exhausting. Covered in head to foot in mud for three days and I loved every minute of it.”

Other novel assignments included photographs of a roadside recovery firm specialising in horsebox rescue and picturing the paralympic dressage team in training.

On the back of the 29 Commando job, Patricia set her heart on going to Camp Bastion, the main British military base in Afghanistan, but two attempts came to nought.

The Royal British Legion, which was supporting her ambitions, asked her to the Festival of Remembrance, an annual event honouring those killed in conflicts. “I think they felt sorry for me!”

It proved fruitful, as she found herself next to the then governor of Royal Hospital Chelsea, General Sir Mike Walker. They got talking, the photographer realised she knew precious little about the place, and was invited for a tour. The idea for a picture-led book, chronicling life over the course of a year, was born; and Patricia won permission to delve into all the nooks and crannies of SW3.

Happily, Merrell Publishers liked the concept, too. From last July, the photographer began reducing the 6-7,000 images she’d taken to create a 600-shot shortlist. Editors at Merrell then chose the final 250 or so for the book.

While Patricia was working on the tome, there was also the small matter of being with-child to contend with. And an October wedding to fianc� James Mitchell to organise, dogs to walk and the job at the landscape design firm to maintain. The book was finished about a week before she walked up the aisle.

About a week after Christmas, a routine ante-natal appointment showed her blood pressure was through the roof. It prompted a swift trip to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. Patricia had pre-eclampsia – a condition thought to be caused by a problem with the placenta and which can prove very serious.

Sophia was delivered early, via emergency caesarean. Thanks to the evidence in front of our eyes, we know there was a happy ending.

Now the proud mum is contemplating the thought of going back to work at some point at the landscape firm. She doesn’t relish temporarily leaving her daughter, but recognises a need to be mentally stretched.

And, not surprisingly, there are thoughts of another photographic book. The details are being kept under wraps, but could well involve shining a light on another aspect of British life the public doesn’t often see.

Buy the book and save �5

Thanks to an arrangement with Merrell Publishers, The Royal Hospital Chelsea: A Year in Pictures is available at the special price of �35, including postage and packing (the list price is �40) by phoning Marston Book Services on 01235 465 500 and quoting the reference MPMEREADT.


RHC snippets

THE annual Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show has been held on the South Grounds since 1913

Parts of the hospital were badly damaged – and some residents killed – by enemy bombing in 1918. They were rebuilt in 1923 but destroyed again, by a V2 rocket in 1945. The site also suffered during the Blitz and the infirmary was wrecked in 1941

The first televised church service in Britain was broadcast from the chapel in 1949

The berths in the Long Wards were made bigger in the mid-1950s and again about 20 years ago. They now measure nine feet by nine feet

In Figure Court, there’s a gilded statue of King Charles II – the monarch whose impetus brought the Royal Hospital into being

Three years ago the Margaret Thatcher Infirmary opened – a 125-bedroom care home and hospice for Chelsea Pensioners

Who can live there?

TO become a Chelsea Pensioner, a person must be aged over 65; a former non-commissioned officer or soldier of the British Army, or a former officer who served for at least 12 years in the ranks before obtaining a commission, or have been awarded a disablement pension while serving in the ranks.

They must be able to live independently in the sheltered accommodation known as Long Wards, pictured right, and be free of any financial obligation to support a spouse or family.