Elsie Aiken had to put down the crossword to make a cup of tea when we went to see her.
She had just finished reading a short story in The People’s Friend (a good one, apparently) and had come in from making sure the weeds were staying away from her immaculate garden.
Not so remarkable on a Wednesday afternoon in Hoveton … but Elsie has just celebrated her 106th birthday.
Born in Barnet, the eldest of three siblings, Elsie knows exactly what to credit for her longevity. ‘I’m fortunate,” she said. “I don’t take any tablets, I haven’t seen my doctor in years…
“I have a lovely life. I get up when I like, I go to bed when I like,” she added with a twinkle in her eye. “My daughter says I mustn’t do something or other, but when she’s not there I can please myself.”
Elsie’s earliest memory is watching a German Zeppelin crash to the ground when she was about four years old.
“I woke up and the room was lit by a red light,” she recalled. “When my dad realised I was awake he said ‘come and see because you’ll never see anything like this again’.
“The basket had caught alight and the flames were going up and I saw it burn, fold and crash down. I was about four. I didn’t think about the men in the basket.”
She went out the next day to find it but did not know where to look – but it was not the last time she would hear about it. When she married for a second time at the age of 85, she moved to Cuffley, Hertfordshire, where the remains of the airship had landed.
“I went out for a walk and saw a stone plaque. When I went to have a look, it was where the Zeppelin had come down,” she said. “It had taken me 85 years to find it!”
Sharp as a tack, Elsie left school at 14 without any qualifications, saying she always strived to be top of the class but was always thwarted by one girl. “I was always next to her – sometimes only by one point – but I never beat her.”
After all these years does she remember her? “Betty Enderby.”
After leaving school, Elsie went to work in a silk factory until she married George in 1930. The couple had four children – Barry, who died, aged 48, and Sharon, Graham and Adrian, who all live with in a stone’s throw of each other in Hoveton. She also has 11 grandchildren but says she has lost count of the great-grandchildren.
She enjoyed bringing up her family as well as working, including as a cashier in the canteen at Legal & General for many years. George, who had been a fireman, worked as a gardener until they decided – aged 68 and 70 – that it was time to take a break.
“But then we were sitting there one day and I said ‘We’re wasting our lives, what can we do?’,” she said. The answer came in an advert for a gardener and a cleaner.
The couple had always enjoyed dancing. Elsie made her own dresses and was a regular winner at fancy dress contests. Even after she was widowed she carried on dancing – which is how she met her second husband when she was in her 70s.
“I went sequence dancing with my sister and her husband, and one night the hall was double booked so we went somewhere else,” she said. “We all sat in different places and Arthur came and sat near me. We got talking and when we went back to the usual hall he didn’t go back to his usual place…”
The pair were dancing partners for seven years but she eventually gave in to his proposals when she was 85, moving to Worlingham, near Beccles. “They read the banns on Sunday and we were married three weeks later. He didn’t let the grass grow.”
Elsie moved to Hoveton when she was widowed 17 years ago. And she thoroughly enjoys her life, spending time with family, doing her crosswords and visiting garden centres – although she does complain of forgetting things at times. “Every day is a holiday,” she said. “And it suits me a treat.”