How we met: ‘I told her every day I loved her, but I wonder if it was enough’

Lizzie Cernik
·3-min read

Wilf Bishop discovered a passion for the outdoors as an engineering apprentice in 1959. He joined the East Yorkshire Mountaineering Club and spotted Janet Graham across the room on his first visit. “She was this tall, lovely girl with gorgeous auburn hair. I wanted to talk to her, but I had no idea how, because I was an awkward 17-year-old who had never had a girlfriend,” he says.

Eventually, he plucked up the courage to say hello and they quickly became friends. They shared similar values and had plenty in common. “Janet was a socialist, a feminist and a pacifist, with the strongest moral compass of anyone I’ve ever known.”

She had been introduced to the climbing club by two friends, Dick Knight and his fiancee, Dorothy, who were avid climbers. Shortly before Wilf came to the club, Dick had died in a climbing accident in the Himalayas. “I’ve always felt we owe Dick and Dorothy so much. Without them, I’m not sure we would ever have met,” he says.

In the spring of 1960, Wilf and Janet shared their first kiss when they were on a climbing trip with the club. Although they were only 17, they knew they wanted to be together.

Janet started teacher training, while Wilf completed his apprenticeship. They married in 1963 and moved to Cranfield in Bedfordshire, where Wilf had won a scholarship at the College of Aeronautics (now Cranfield University). “A year later, our elder daughter, Jessica, was born. Then, in 1965, I graduated and we moved to a village near Cambridge,” he says. Wilf transferred to a job in sales and marketing, while Janet looked after Jessica and pursued her passion for learning.

“Our son, Angus, was born in 1967, followed by Sophie two years later. Janet had a strong social conscience and we wanted to do more to help other children, not just our own.” In the early 70s, they adopted a son, Ewan, and spent the 80s and early 90s fostering more than 40 children. “Some stayed with us for a few days, others for months. Janet and I were 11-plus “failures” before we met and we felt strongly that no child should ever be put on a scrapheap or denied access to good education,” he says.

Throughout the 80s, Janet played a major role in the Pre-school Playgroup Association (now the Pre-school Learning Alliance), helping children to get the early education they needed. She also completed an MA at Ruskin College, Oxford, in women’s studies, something close to her heart. “Janet was such a fantastic cook and mother. We loved going on long family holidays to Norfolk and Scotland, where we spent our time walking and sailing,” says Wilf.

In 2000, they moved to the Yorkshire Dales, an area they had wanted to revisit since the early days of their relationship. “We had a very happy life there and our children and eight grandchildren visited us often. In 2018, we even welcomed a great-grandchild to the family.”

Three years ago, Janet became unwell. She was treated for ovarian cancer, but it returned in early 2020. She died in April.

“I told her every day that I loved her, but sometimes I wonder if it was enough,” he says. “She was loved by everyone who knew her. Janet was always smiling and looking for the best in people.”

Wilf says he is lucky to have a close family around him for support. “The grief feels like an emotional accounts system, with the pain directly proportional to the joy I had when I was with her. I owe her this immense grief, because she gave me so much love and such an incredible life. I’m grateful that I get to keep the memories of the joy, which will never go away.”