Obituary: Jeffrey Parker-Eaton, farmer, racing driver, fisherman.

Jeffrey Parker-Eaton
Jeffrey Parker-Eaton
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Born: 24 April, 1934, in Birmingham. Died: 23 July, 2012, in Inverness, aged 78.

No matter what it threw at him, Jeffrey Parker-Eaton lived life to the full and often at 100 miles an hour. Almost indefatigable, he managed to pick himself up and start afresh having lost everything not once, twice but three times.

It made for a career best described as eclectic: ranging from RAF recruit to farmer, racing driver and sailing instructor to fisherman. It included periods as custodian of Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome’s dinghy; smoker and supplier of salmon to MPs and millionaires and a stint living on his boat, the Gangwarily, a name hardly synonymous with his zest for life.

Born in Kings Heath, Birmingham, the younger son of Leonard and Phyllis Parker-Eaton, his stubborn streak was evident from his schooldays at Shirley College, Solihull, where he demanded his removal, and then Wellesbourne School in Acocks Green, Birmingham. Having failed to excel academically and having been on a constant collision course with his teachers, he left to go into farming.

He found a training job on a farm in North Cornwall before being called up for national service in the RAF, where he served initially as a motorcyclist before graduating to HGVs.

During a posting overseas to the Canal Zone of the Middle East, he learned to sail on the Great Bitter Lakes. He also led a hunger strike, complaining about the poor quality of the food – which improved after the protest – and after his national service was up he remained on in the RAF for a further year, until 1955.

On demob, he studied at the agricultural college at Moreton Morrell near Stratford-upon-Avon and, after pleading with his father, managed to acquire a Morgan Plus Four sports car, TOK258. He then became a serious and successful racing driver, competing at Silverstone, Brands Hatch and various other circuits alongside names such as Scots Formula One World Champion Jim Clark.

After qualifying in agriculture he managed farms across Warwickshire and, in 1959, he took a job selling animal feeds and moved to Lancashire. There he met and married his wife, Jean, the daughter of a turkey farmer. He had ambitions to rear cattle, but capital was short and they ended up buying a hill farm at Dentdale on the edge of the Lake District, where they used Jean’s family’s knowledge to embark on intensive chicken rearing.

But the climate was tough, the farmhouse was totally isolated, the work was hard and he was devastated when the marriage failed and his wife left him. He had to sell up, lost everything and remained a bachelor for the rest of his life.

Then a new chapter began when he took a job at Earnseat School in Arnside, where he managed the estate and taught students sailing in Ransome’s dinghy, then erroneously called Swallow, which the school had purchased.

When the school closed about a year later, he bought the dinghy, actually called Coch-y-Bonddhu, and found a job as a bursar and chief sailing instructor at a Dr Barnardo home near Mallaig. He sailed there, the boat virtually his sole possession. Further bad luck was to follow after about six months when the home closed down and he was made redundant, effectively losing everything again.

However, he bounced back once more, managing to obtain a small motor lunch, Calypso, selling the dinghy to a local boat builder and going into lobster fishing. That proved a success and he was able to acquire a much bigger and better equipped boat, Gangwarily When lobsters in the Mallaig area became overfished, he moved north to Lochinver. There, he initially lived on his boat before obtaining a small house, at Stoer, from Highland Council.

Again the lobsters ran out, but not before he had been overtaken by the Royal yacht Britannia, and an attendant destroyer, during the Queen’s annual holiday. He was hailed by the Britannia to find that the royal party was keen to source lobsters for a picnic onshore. He obliged and later received a glowing letter from the Queen’s private secretary along with a small Britannia shield from the admiral.

He then moved from lobster to prawn fishing and led a fishermen’s revolt against the collapse of the UK prawn market in the 1970s. But a further career change was on the horizon.

He suffered a major heart attack and was given two years to live. That was more than 25 years ago and, yet again, he proved himself a fighter. Having taken a course just before the coronary, he went into the salmon smoking business, producing a superior product that was sold to a top restaurant and members of the Houses of Commons and Lords. His skills were also in demand to smoke the catches of millionaire anglers.

With his health declining, he sold Gangwarily – but instead of planning for his retirement, he was quickly hit by another massive blow. Despite employing an accountant, he was unaware of a huge outstanding tax bill and, again, he lost everything.

Once more he picked himself up and concentrated on salmon smoking, but he was in deteriorating physical shape. He was suffering from a range of illnesses, including chronic lung disease, angina and aggressive prostate cancer. He knew they were terminal but he remained active, writing arguments against local wind turbines and, as he could still drive, continuing to terrorise locals and foreign tourists in his fast car on the Sutherland roads.

Meanwhile, he retained a link with another favourite form of transport, the historic old dinghy from the Lake District. Years after selling the Coch-y-Bonddhu, which made a fictional appearance as the dinghy Scarab in Ransome’s The Picts and the Martyrs, he had learned that the Arthur Ransome Society was looking for the boat. He was able to advise the society who he had sold it to, leading to its eventual discovery in Strontian and subsequent restoration. He continued to keep in touch with the society and was visited by a rota of its members during some of his many hospital stays.

He died in Raigmore Hospital, after collapsing in the ward, having left instructions that he was not to be resuscitated. His ashes were scattered in the harbour at Lochinver where he had once moored Gangwarily.

He is survived by his brother Robert, two nephews, a niece and extended family.