At the turn of the century I taught several summer schools at Country Cousins in the North Devon seaside town of Ilfracombe. Lessons took place in in a beautiful old house behind Bicclescombe Park. The students, mainly of secondary school age, came from all over Europe to improve their English, and most of them stayed with host families nearby.
Ekaterina (or Katya as she liked to be called) was in my class of young teenagers. She was a sweet girl and a delightful student – quiet but friendly, gifted and cooperative. Her great love was dancing. I remember that she wrote about how she adored being in England and what an amazing experience it was for her.
The usual routine was for English classes in the morning and cultural visits in the afternoon. The rest of the day was free for students to do as they pleased. So, on the evening of the 19th of July, Katya and some of her new friends went for a walk up on the coast path above Ilfracombe Harbour. I have a vague memory that a sea mist came up that night, which might have obscured the edge of the cliff.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I heard of the tragic accident. Not long after they’d set out, Katya’s friends had come rushing back to say that she had fallen from the cliff. I don’t know if the inquest clarified exactly how it had happened, but the verdict was accidental death and no one else was implicated.
Over the years I had walked that stretch of the coast path many times, especially when I was writing walks leaflets for the North Devon Heritage Coast Service, so I knew it well. The cliffs are rugged and steep, bitten into by inlets and coves, but the path is clear and well signposted, although if it was misty you might lose your way. But these weren’t hikers, they were youngsters out enjoying themselves. Maybe they were having so much fun that Katya simply didn’t realise how close she was to the edge. Or was she so happy that she was dancing and lost her footing?
I was aware that Katya came from a prestigious Russian family, and as soon as they heard the news, two of her male relatives flew straight over. As her teacher, I was asked to meet them and show them some of her work.They had already been in contact with the Russian Embassy in London, and arranged for her body to be flown back for burial. I believe she was taken on a government plane to Moscow, where the Orthodox funeral took place.
My memory is a little vague, but I think that the following summer, her mother and aunt visited North Devon. They donated an icon and candle in her memory, which are now in the Lady Chapel of Marwood Church.
I don’t know who was responsible for designing or installing the memorial on the cliff, and the script is a little blurred. But it is a bittersweet reminder of a lovely girl whose life was snatched from her that day, but who remains there eternally young, dancing for joy.