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Douglas J M Caffyn

School 1950-55

Douglas was born in 1936, the youngest of four siblings following Mary, Alan and Robert. He was baptised Douglas John Morris Caffyn, but as soon as he could talk he said “Me John” and would not answer to ‘Douglas’. He remained John until he was 19, when there were six Johns in his unit, so he reverted to Douglas.

In 1940 the children were evacuated from Eastbourne to Shrewsbury because of the fear of invasion, returning in 1942 in time for the hit and run raids and doodlebugs. Robert recalls they walked to church and hurried back up the hill for Sunday lunch because the Germans regularly raided Eastbourne at 2 pm on Sundays. Douglas remembered the bombings vividly and said they affected his hearing for the rest of his life.

Of the brothers, Alan was very good at sports and Robert was a mathematician, so Douglas got a bit tired of being compared with them by the school masters. When the time Douglas to attend secondary school, his parents chose The Leys.

Douglas chose to do his two years’ National Service in the RAF, based in Germany, before going to Peterhouse, Cambridge to study Mathematics.

Douglas and Kay met at Westminster Teacher Training College, in Oxford. They shared many interests: music and opera, outdoor pursuits, bird watching and Scottish dancing. However, they only got together when Douglas was teaching abroad. He flew home to propose. After marrying in 1963, their honeymoon was a banana boat to Jamaica, where Douglas enjoyed teaching Mathematics and PE at York Castle High School.

Once married, Douglas and Kay taught in boarding schools in Kenya and Malawi. The pupils were so keen to learn. They had a fabulous balance of love and discipline with the children and took many of them into their hearts and their home.

Whilst Douglas loved teaching, he also loved God’s creation. At the weekends he and Kay enjoyed many safari camping trips, often taking the boys from school with them in their land rover. Douglas was mostly on the hunt for wild animals. Kay was always apprehensive to join these adventures when they put up camp near elephant droppings – very wise, as one trip saw a herd of elephants walk through their camp, one of which smashed its trunk onto the roof of the land rover. Had it been the roof of the tent, this obituary would have been written many years ago.

Kay says it was always very exciting to be married to Douglas, who loved adventure and travels. They were chased out of a Somali village back into Kenya, to be faced with armed police, who fortunately realised who they were. They were also held at gunpoint on the Uganda/Congo border until one of the policemen said he knew them – although he’d never seen them before.

After 13 years in Africa, it was time to head back to the UK and begin a more conventional life. Working at ‘the office’ was nowhere near as thrilling as seeing elephants and lions; the days were rather dull and Douglas felt quite depressed. This is when he took up canoeing: just the right amount of exercise and a hint of thrill. He went on to become an instructor and in his retirement spent much time and effort researching and advocating for nationwide access to rivers for all.

Having no children of their own Douglas took a great interest in his nieces and nephews. His nephew Simon remembers the sage advice a very serious Douglas imparted to him about how to ward off an elephant stampede by wiggling your ears. As Simon had not acquired this skill, unlike his dear uncle, he felt doomed!

His niece, Sarah, says she got to know Douglas much better when she came to work at Caffyn’s in 1998 where, after retiring as a director, he was working two days a week overseeing property and pensions. He liked to tell her that she was really working for him, as the pension fund and property portfolio were the most valuable assets at the time, far outweighing the operational business.

Douglas had an amazing memory of the work undertaken on the properties, and even in his last few years, when he was in Canterbury, Sarah called him about an issue to pick his brains. Uncle Douglas’ intellect was enormous, and he did love a combative discussion. Sarah was honoured to think she qualified as an opponent but admits she rarely won an argument!

Douglas was a big bear of a man who was always fun, but sometimes scary. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was reliable and kind, and good in a crisis. Sarah will never forget how he sat by her bedside at 3 am in the ITU after she had been for emergency surgery. When she work up he said, “You took your time”.

Douglas was always after a new challenge, and was always planning his next trip abroad – usually somewhere obscure, such as Oman or Uzbekistan. He was fascinated by culture and loved to see how people lived. He also loved wildlife and was thrilled to take a trip to India in his early eighties. On his return, he was delighted to inform up that he’d woken up to see fresh tiger footprints right outside his tent!

When he wasn’t at the office or on holiday, Douglas enjoyed some other challenging pastimes. He was a police constable in the Special Constabulary and a scout leader, he learned British sign language, took up the oboe and trained for the ministry. It was in his role as a curate at St Mary & St Peter, Hampden Park, that he took on his hardest challenge – adopting a 15 year old girl, whom he called Fluffy. As a father he was incredibly patient and was always available to listen and support. He let Fluffy make her own choices and was there when things didn’t go to plan. Someone recently described Douglas’ love for Fluffy as “protective and proactive”, which made her realise these two words summed up her dad to a T. When Fluffy decided she wanted to have a baby as a single parent, Douglas was there, encouraging up to hurry up and do the research so he could be a hands on grandfather, and that he was.

When Emerson was born, Douglas was the first to hold the baby, not knowing if it was a boy or girl, for 40 minutes until Fluffy came round. He stayed with Fluffy after Emerson’s birth, often taking over at 5 am when sleep deprivation kicked in. He fed Emerson, changed nappies and gave him baths. He enjoyed reading him books and singing songs, most famously his own rendition of Row, Row, Row your Boat. He made up many verses, mostly based on all the rivers of England, but our favourite is:

Row, row, row your boat, gently across the Atlantic.

When you reach the other side, it will feel fantastic!

Whatever he took an interest in, Douglas was protective and proactive about it, be it the undernourished children in Africa, canoeists wanting to access navigable rivers, the deaf community needing signed services, or the war in Palestine.

He was even proactive in his own death, refusing treatment and nourishment after suffering a stroke.

Douglas was indeed a unique man and will leave a void in many of our lives, but he is on his way to heaven to experience and live out his greatest adventure yet.

Words by Kay Caffyn

To read British Canoeing’s tribute to Douglas, and learn more about his extraordinary work, please click here.