Mourners say goodbye to Sylvia Stevens - Kendal's 'bag and bird lady' (From The Westmorland Gazette)
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Mourners say goodbye to Sylvia Stevens - Kendal's 'bag and bird lady'
SYLVIA Barbara Stevens - affectionately regarded as Kendal’s ‘Bag Lady’ - found her final home this week.
Around 20 mourners filled the tiny Parkside Road Chapel in Kendal on Tuesday to pay their last respects to the 78-year-old, who was well known for transporting her life’s belongings around in carrier bags and feeding pigeons.
Befitting her small stature, just three pallbearers from the local funeral directors were needed to carry her small coffin and laid her to rest beneath a large Spruce tree in Kendal Cemetery.
Three bouquets of flowers were laid including one featuring a photo of her doppelganger - the Bird Woman from Mary Poppins.
Ms Stevens - although it is suspected she was once married - was found dead at her 'immaculately-kept' bungalow in Ghyll Road, Windermere on September 26.
Books of poetry by Wordsworth and William Blake were found among her possessions.
She had become a familiar figure in Windermere, but more so in Kendal’s town centre and its historic yards.
Over the years, she utilised the window of the former Highgate Pharmacy as a mirror to help apply her make-up, while the old New Road toilet block used to be her washroom.
Those attending her funeral emphasised they preferred to remember her as the ‘bird lady’ but there was also acknowledgement of her cultured background, neat handwriting and legendary temper.
Neighbours Doreen and Eric Worsley, of Ghyll Road, Windermere - just off Droomer Drive - told the Gazette how she arrived there around December 2009 but never allowed anyone close enough to invite her for Christmas lunch.
Mrs Worsley told the Gazette: “I didn’t think anyone would come and I didn’t want her last journey to be on her own.”
The couple said she did accept cakes and was said to have trusted Windermere Police Community Support Officer, PCSO Sandra Blacow, implicitly. Supt Ali Dufty was at the funeral representing Cumbria Police.
Rev Graham Skilling, of Kendal Parish Church, led a moving service and described Ms Stevens as an “enigma” who was both “private and complex,” and a “lady of mystery” with possible ‘traumas’ in her past.
He spoke of how she died: “Not out in the cold or in a doorway, but in her own home.”
Rev Skilling said she: “Added colour to the Auld Grey Town” and had led an ‘unconventional life’ - with no electrical items in her house.
The vicar had planned to play Blackbird by The Beatles and All Things Bright and Beautiful, but the power in the chapel failed.
A mourner from one of the front pews quipped: “It’s because she doesn’t like electrics!” as the chapel chuckled.
Rev Skilling added: "Verbally, I gather, if you upset her she could swear with the best or worst of them, especially if you did something to upset her feeding of the birds. She loved to feed the birds - pigeons by the dozen - which could annoy others."
"She was a spirited lady, a forceful one in that she knew her own mind. She chose to be homeless. She wasn't open to engagement; would avoid 'help groups'. But latterly, with the harder winters we have had, concern began to grow for her and she accepted three years ago, the opportunity to be housed in Windermere."
Rev Skilling, of Kendal Parish Church, read a poem called Peace and from John 14.
The chapel was told that information suggested Sylvia was born in London on May 6 1935 and may have had an older brother.
Others have suggested she had a son in South Africa - none of which have been traced.
Records suggest she came to Kendal around 1997 but Rev Skilling said there was much unverifiable information about her.
“The absence of much information about her before 1997 suggests a desire to sever connections with the past,” he said.
Some told how after this year's harsh winter, Ms Stevens had observed that she did not expect to survive another.
Rumours have also circulated that she had been attacked, burgled and that one property she lived in once suffered a fire.
Agencies like South Lakeland District Council, South Lakes Housing, Cumbria Police and Manna House in Kendal, had all tried to support her but she remained fiercely independent.
Rev Skilling added: "She was a very visible sign of the difficulties that people can suffer from. She made us wonder what has led to this life? And so many people responded in kind and loving ways towards her.
"Of course, there are also stories of the aggression she received too - pointing to the unpleasantness that can surface in people when they meet vulnerability and difference."
There were also reports of her living in Cartmel for a time, being offered a caravan but then refusing to enter it at the final moment.
Following her move to Windermere - initially living in sheltered housing at Birthwaite - there were reports of her raiding the bins of local restaurants to get scraps to feed the birds.
One member of the Windermere community said at one time there was a 'defacto Sylvia task force' trying to support her.
Pam Wilson, a housing officer for South Lakes Housing, said Ms Stevens was a familiar figure feeding the birds in Phoenix Park.
One person who spent some time homeless in Kendal suggested that the reason Ms Stevens preferred to be on the streets was because ‘there was a presence in her house that wouldn’t allow her to live there.’
A mourner at her graveside, who would only give his name as Andrew, said: “She was a personal friend and exactly the same age as my Mum. I considered her my Mum really.”
Near neighbour Eric Worsley said: "It is a pity that she won't have a headstone for her grave."
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