Trains, towels and trips

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Retirement needn't mean slippers and the sofa. David Newnham talks to three former teachers whose financial savvy has allowed them to lead comfortable and interesting lives

At 67, and with four decades of teaching behind her, Jill Savage, above, likes nothing better than to think about the past. But don't imagine for a minute that this involves sitting in an armchair and reliving those heady days in the classroom. For the past that Jill likes to visit lies buried in the oil of an English village, and the only way to reach it is with a spade and a trowel.

Jill was in the sixth form when a school friend suggested a trip to look at a Saxon hunting lodge that archaeologists were uncovering beside the Thames in Old Windsor. Not only was she bitten by the archaeology bug that day - she also met her future husband at the site. But with a family and a career in teaching to keep her busy, Jill was content to leave the digging to her husband, a professional archaeologist.

Until, that is, retirement gave her a new perspective. "I was then able to travel a bit," she says. "Herculaneum, Amalfi, Paestum, the Peloponnese.

And on one package trip down to Pompeii, I got chatting to the tour guide."

As it happened, he was a director of the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (SHARP), a long-term investigation into settlement and land use in a Norfolk parish and currently one of the largest digs in Britain.

To Jill, who had not raised a trowel in earnest since her 20s, SHARP's offer of on-site training sounded too good to miss. She signed up as a volunteer the following summer, and the pilgrimage from her home in Ryde on the Isle of Wight is now an annual event. "My family and friends think I'm sightly bonkers," she says. "The second year I was there, I did a course on human remains and rather enjoyed myself. It's amazing what you can tell about how people lived just by looking at their bones."

When she isn't digging into Anglo-Saxon burial grounds, Jill guides parties of visitors around the Brading Roman villa on the Isle of Wight.

"Retirement is a myth," she says, a view which is borne out by her email address, which begins "busybusybusy... " And while a few days' supply teaching each month helps to fund those Mediterranean cruises, she is glad of her teachers' pension, which enables her to spend her retirement doing the things she enjoys. "There was a time when people were offered the chance of switching to a private pension, and lots of people who moved out came unstuck," she says. "But the National Union of Teachers advised us not to, which was sound advice, because the Teachers' Pensions Scheme was a particularly good one.

"Pensions can be a minefield, and quite worrying for some people. When you start out, it seems a long way away, but it's surprising how quickly retirement comes round."

Today, Jill's teachers' pension brings in a little over pound;13,000 per year, before tax. "I was in a post of responsibility and getting more than the basic scale, plus I had gone as far as I could up the incremental scale before I retired, so all that had an impact on my pension," she says. "I always paid the full NI stamp, and so I get a state pension of pound;5,626 - a total pension of about pound;19,000 before tax."

Phil Guest, above, is another ex-teacher now reaping the benefits of having paid into the TPS all his working life. When Phil, 61, took early retirement after 32 years at Ounsdale high school, a comprehensive on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, he was head of careers and taught maths.

But outside school, he had another life, driving trains on the Talyllyn narrow gauge railway in mid-Wales. It began in 1969, when he saw a magazine advert offering the chance to "help run a railway". He wrote off, spent a week as an engine cleaner, and "caught the bug very, very badly".

From cleaning engines, Phil rose up through the ranks, becoming first a fireman and then a driver. But while as a working teacher, his railway duties were restricted to three or four weeks in the year, these days he can savour the smell of coal smoke and hot oil whenever the fancy takes him.

"Being single and having no dependants, what I do with my money is up to me," he says. "And since my mortgage was paid off, my pension allows me to live fairly pleasantly. I'd always thought I would go before 60, and I was allowed to take early retirement at 54. I paid in additional voluntary contributions for about eight years before that, and the AVC pension is certainly worth having. It more than pays my council tax, and the rest covers ordinary living.

"My car is seven years old, and if I decided to go out tomorrow and buy a new one, I could do so without any worries about where the money's going to come from. When I started as a student teacher in 1962, I was told quite bluntly that I'd be paying 6 per cent of my salary into the Teachers'

Pensions Scheme, and that when I retired, which of course was thousands of years in the future, I wouldn't be rich but I'd be comfortably off. And I thought that was perfectly reasonable."

When he was teaching, Phil looked forward to his stints on the Talyllyn.

But since his time has been his own, his involvement has increased. He is now an inspector, and a couple of years ago was elected to the board. And although the work is unpaid, Phil is happy to do the two-hour trip to Wales whenever something crops up. "I didn't join the local knitting circle when I retired," he says, "and I don't spend every night of the week in the casinos of Wolverhampton."

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