I am not sure why you think me an interesting subject – my life has always seemed rather boring and humdrum,” laughs Daphne Thompson, greeting me at the door of her cottage in Colemans Hatch in East Sussex.
Such modesty is characteristic, but misplaced. For Daphne’s accomplishments are formidable: To wife, mother and pig farmer add foster mother, motor rally driver and Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) supervisor.
Each strand of Daphne’s life would make a story, but, with CAB’s Advice Week (6-10 October) approaching, we concentrate on her 20 years of service at the local Crowborough bureau.
A town set amid the glorious Weald in the prosperous south east of England, it’s not the first candidate for the credit crunch, you might think. But Daphne has noticed the changing pattern of her caseload.
“The majority of our work used to be benefit-related,” she says. “Now, although we cover a whole spectrum of issues, we mostly deal with debt-related issues. Yesterday, there were five people queuing outside the door when we opened at 9.30am.
“You never know what will walk through the door. Sometimes we just have to make a phone call to sort out the muddle resulting from changing utility providers. In other cases, we direct clients to sources of help for instance, putting a redundant farm worker in touch with the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution or the local East Sussex Agricultural Benevolent Fund. Or we might be faced with an acrimonious relationship break-up and, if an amicable solution cannot be reached, we will need to instruct solicitors.”
Farmers are perhaps the least likely to make their way to the unobtrusive CAB offices. “I understand why they might be nervous to lay bare their lives and their souls, but we’re there to offer dispassionate, legally accredited and fully confidential advice for all,” Daphne says.
“There’s no stigma attached to coming to us. My own experience has made me appreciate that debt happens for all sorts of reasons and small farms without the infrastructure of legal and financial advice are sometimes the most vulnerable.
“When we were farming, John [Daphne’s husband] and I worked so hard, but we didn’t make much money. We took on extra jobs away from the farm and never had a holiday. Even on Christmas day, I’d sneak out to deal with the pigs and then pretend that I hadn’t been working.
“So I am very sensitive to how things can build up while you muddle along,” she adds. “You kid yourself that you are managing, but you are not. You are working so hard you can’t lift your head to see the bigger picture you get depressed you stop opening mail you’re not really running the business.”
For the Thompsons, a “decisive” rent review in 2001 led to their retirement. But Daphne is aware that an exit strategy is often hard to find. “It’s very hard to see a way out because it is the only life you know and there are so many ramifications to a farming business – not least the fact that it is your home,” she says.
Daphne sees the work of the CAB as essentially offering “a breathing space”. Something she and her team of 25 part-time volunteers, get little of, as they run the bureau five days a week, 9.30am-3pm.
Each volunteer, taking up to a year to train, commits to a minimum of six hours a week. But in reality the research for and writing up of cases takes much longer and the commitment runs deeper. “Sometimes I don’t sleep the nights before I work here for worrying about the next day’s problems,” Daphne admits.
But throughout Daphne maintains an infectious joie de vivre. There are many tales to tell from her fascinating life: From the time spent driving rally cars around Europe in the 1950s (“Daphers, would you like a ride?”) to her first date with John (“He turned up in a tatty car covered in straw”) and nearly 40 years of pig farming (“I enjoyed it – even cleaning out the drains.”) Most recently, she is enthused by visiting their daughter in China.
Evidently, Daphne has been as generous with her home as she is in her work for the CAB. “A farm is such a wonderful place to be and I wanted to share it,” she says.
As well as bringing up her own three children, she fostered in the school holidays. “The children came from parts of Brighton more deprived than an inner city, but at least we could give them a week’s holiday in the country,” she recalls.
Even when a glowering 14-year-old displaced from London turned up on the doorstep, Daphne didn’t blink. She took the girl in, gave her a home for four years and still maintains regular contact.
A boring and humdrum life? Not so, thinks one CAB trainee volunteer who says: “Daphne’s just one of those people you’re glad to have around.”