There is an eight-word phrase eternally engraved on the hearts of Steve and Amanda Stewart: “My beauty, my beauty, my love love love”. The words were uttered by their daughter Tamsin on Christmas morning 2006, when the five-year-old laid eyes on the rocking horse she had longed for. The couple had searched in vain for an affordable rocking horse, so when one was located in a charity shop in south-east London, Amanda made the 125-mile round trip from their home in Hampshire without hesitation to snap it up.
“On Christmas morning Tamsin came running downstairs and there the rocking horse was,” remembers Steve, who is associate rector in Cove Parish, in the diocese of Guildford. “She didn’t see the slightly tatty seams or the mane that wasn’t perfect or the chip out of the muzzle. She saw it as a five-year-old would – as her dream come true. She launched herself at the horse with the words: ‘My beauty, my beauty, my love love love’.”
Amanda smiles with her husband at the memory. “It was a classic Tamsin line,” says Amanda, an administrator for a Christian charity. “She was very creative, very imaginative, and she named the horse Gallopina. The horse had pride of place in the room that Tamsin shared with her older sister Shona. They loved making up stories about their adventures together with Gallopina.”
But then one afternoon little more than a year later, seven-year-old Tamsin complained of a terrible headache. Within a week she couldn’t walk in a straight line, and her parents noticed that one of her pupils was dilated. Just a month later, on her sister Shona’s ninth birthday, Tamsin was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour.
“It was horrific,” says Steve. “We were told immediately that she was going to die. I felt as if I was living someone else’s life. It was surreal.”
Yet the impact on his faith was only to make it stronger.
“I have faith in Christ while witnessing other people’s suffering, so how could I lose my faith when the suffering was mine and my daughter’s?” he explains. “When you’re in a place where there’s nowhere to go but to pray and to trust in God, I found God didn’t let me down.”
At Christmas 2008, and a month short of her eighth birthday, Tamsin died in a children’s hospice.
“The worst moment was when we had to drive away from the hospice without her,” says Amanda. “My heart was utterly broken.”
In the months that followed, Steve couldn’t grasp the truth. “It was like being an actor in a play,” he says. “I was going through the motions of life. I wasn’t capable of dealing with the reality.”
Amanda remembers how Shona “suddenly seemed to grow up – everything lost its colour and fun”. She didn’t play with the toys she had shared with Tamsin, including Gallopina. Shona moved into her own room, while the one she had shared with Tamsin became a guest room, where Gallopina stayed.
In 2011 Steve and Amanda welcomed their third daughter, Hetty, and as she grew she loved Gallopina just as Tamsin had, sharing the rocking horse with the children of the parish who called in at the rectory with their parents. With each year Gallopina became a little more tattered, and although Amanda yearned to get the horse repaired, she couldn’t think who to ask to do it. It was only this summer that the answer came to her as she watched an episode of The Repair Shop. She wrote in without expectation, but the programme-makers quickly replied that they would love to include the Stewarts and Gallopina in their Christmas special.
Soft toy specialists Julie Tatchell and Amanda Middleditch worked on the horse itself, while leather expert Suzie Fletcher crafted a new saddle, and Jay Blades had the rockers on which Gallopina stands inscribed with the words uttered by Tamsin: “My beauty, my beauty, my love love love”.
Steve will always remember how he felt when he first saw the rocking horse restored.
“We wanted to see Gallopina as Tamsin would have that Christmas morning, and the team did that for us,” he says. “It was like looking through Tamsin’s eyes.”
But this restoration work has had even more significance. In the new year Steve will become a rector in Oxfordshire, meaning the family will leave the Hampshire home where they have lived since 2003.
“All our memories of Tamsin’s life are in this house,” says Steve. “So our gratitude to The Repair Shop team is not just for their craftsmanship, but because they’ve helped us make a significant step on a complicated, tough journey. The 12 years since Tamsin died have been incredibly hard. Healing has come in stages, and having Gallopina repaired is part of that.”
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.