When Teddy and Phoebe Colligan started what was to become a legendary stint as custodians of the Ulster Tower in France, they had six cups and saucers and a kettle to work with.
The Belfast couple had been asked to help out for just two weeks at Northern Ireland’s national war memorial in Thiepval, but ended up staying for 15 years.
It had been hard for Teddy, 80, and Phoebe, 77, to refuse the request to man the tower back in 2001 considering it had come from their daughter Carol, now director of the Somme Centre in Bangor.
At the time Teddy was by no means an expert in the First World War but had enough of an interest to want to learn more. Phoebe was a renown at their Belfast home and came into her own catering for large groups at the Ulster Tower.
Phoebe said: “When we went out to the tower the French had been running it and there wasn’t very many visitors. When we arrived there were six cups, six saucers and a kettle. It wasn’t exactly set up to cater for big numbers.”
“When we saw the condition of things we were determined to turn it round and make a success of it.”
To that end, the pair set up home at the top of Ulster Tower, which is based on Helen’s Tower in Bangor where the 36th (Ulster) Division trained before WWI.
Teddy used his imagination to put together a tour of Thiepval Wood and Phoebe sought to improve on the offering of food and refreshments for visitors.
Teddy said: “It really was a home away from home. People loved to hear the Northern Ireland accents and they loved Phoebe’s food. She was famous for bringing the things we have in Ulster to France. We got the locals onto cheese and onion potato crisps.”
Phoebe added: “The regulars would ask me, ‘Have you got egg and onion sandwiches today or potato and leek soup on today?’”
In order to create a more interactive tour for visitors Teddy used a trench map to located the trench system as it was in 1916.
He then enlisted the help of a team of battlefield archeologists to begin excavating while the Royal Irish also helped in the restoration of Thiepval Wood.
“There were no tours of the wood when we took over,” he said. “The Somme Association didn’t own the wood at that time either, but later with the help of the secretary of state a grant was secured to purchase it.”
He continued: “The idea was to do tours of original trenches. I felt that could really bring it alive combined with the historical knowledge I’d been gathering.
“We really made a big stick for our back doing the tours but it proved to be worth it. Up to that we’d just been working in the cafe.”
Last year there was 120,000 visitors to the Ulster Tower and Teddy said the positive comments they had received over the years had “keep them going and made everything worthwhile”.
He added: “I’ve never got bored of doing the same tour twice a day for nine months of the year. We did ninth months at a time with no holidays then came home every December. It was our choice. Time flew when we were out in France. It motivated you to be up early and organised.
“You get a buzz out of it. You’re not doing it as if it’s a job. If you do it that way you’d lose interest. It was never a chore to go out every day in all weathers.”
Phoebe added: “I’ve seen Teddy have people in tears. Even just before we came home he had people in tears with his stories and he was in tears too. He really felt it.
“At least all the men in all these cemeteries are going to know they haven’t been forgotten about,” she added.
It is fair to say Teddy has the ‘gift of the gab’ and his tours rarely finished within their allotted time.
He said: “The length of the tours depended on how many people were on them, how many questions they asked and how quickly they could walk.
“Some days you’d be looking at blank faces, others you’d be having to limit the number of questions.
“I tried to make the tours last as long as possible so I’d get out of doing the dishes,” Teddy joked.
Teddy grew up in Bessbrook and moved to Belfast in 1952 to complete an engineering apprenticeship.
He met Phoebe, who is from Belfast, through Cyprus Cycling Club in 1955. They married in 1958 and set up home together in the Castlereagh hills, a home that they are now in the process of falling back in love with.
Having come back home for good the couple, who will celebrate their diamond wedding anniversary in two years, are rediscovering the passions they put on hold while running the Ulster Tower.
Phoebe said: “I’m enjoying getting the garden back in shape and I’m back to doing knitting and crocheting.”
Teddy said: “I raced motorbikes since 1961 and when I stopped racing I started restoring motorbikes and classic cars.
“Since we’ve been back home I’ve started working on a bike that hasn’t been going for 60 years. I got it up and running again.”
In his racing days Teddy was a force to be reckoned with, holding many titles around Europe including the Belgian championship which he won in 1995 at the age of 60.
They said one of the big things they have had to get used to being at home is having to rely on each other’s company.
Phoebe said: “We can go for days now without chatting to anyone.”
Teddy added: “When we were here up until 2001 this house was a meeting place because of the garage with the cars and the bikes and Phoebe would always have a pot of tea on. Now we’re back and we’ve lost all that.
“We recreated that atmosphere in France but now we’ve lost it here back home.”
Teddy said: “There’s two cats we had for 14 years at the tower that we’ll really miss.”
Phoebe said: “They were two feral cats. They adopted us rather than us adopting them.”
Teddy and Phoebe, who worked together for a time in European Components in Dundonald, have three children – Stephen, Colin and Carol – and three grandchildren – Lisa, Michael and Andrew.
Phoebe said: “Our grandchildren have been coming to the tour since they were young kids. They know the run of the place, they’ve been an unbelievable help to us. They’ll miss it too.”
Phoebe’s own grandfather Charles Grundy was a casualty of WWI.
He survived the Somme but died as a result of a mustard gas attack from the Germans when attempting to liberate a French village.
His wife, and mother of his five children, died a few weeks later.
Phoebe said: “My grandfather is buried in Belgium. My grandmother is buried in Dundonald.
“Every year while we were in France we’d go to Belgium to his grave. Much the same as people come to Thiepval to pay respects to family members.”
Phoebe noted that over the years they had seen an increase in visitors from the Republic of Ireland.
She said: “Years ago they maybe wouldn’t have talked about it, but it’s good they want to come and find out about relatives who fought in the war.
“We made some great friends from the south and they had some very sad stories to share.”
The pair were guests of honour with the Irish Army at a reception at McKee barracks to thank them for their hospitality while their groups were visiting the Somme last year.
Teddy said last summer provided a highlight when Northern Ireland football fans paid their respects when over in France for the European Championships.
“They were so respectful at the tower,” he said.
“Those guys were absolutely a credit to Northern Ireland. It was a pleasure to have them. They were first class.”
Asked if they would consider a return visit to the Ulster Tower, Teddy said: “If there’s something special on we might go. It will be difficult to go back.”
Following the Colligans’ retirement the Ulster Tower is being run by staff from the Somme Association until they find someone to take over from Teddy and Phoebe.
It will be a hard act to follow but the Ulster pair have ensured the foundations are in place to continue the success story of the Ulster Tower.
Phoebe said: “It will have to be someone who is interested in the First World War and also like working with the public and being of service to visitors.”