NEIGHBOURS in one of Oxford's quietest suburban streets were enraptured with tales of the high seas on Saturday afternoon.
Former ship mates of renowned sailor and author Alan Villiers gathered at his old home in Lucerne Road, Summertown, to share memories of his most famous expedition – a full-scale re-enactment of the 17th century Mayflower crossing from England to America which he captained in 1957.
The occasion for the gathering was the unveiling of a blue plaque at the home where his 101-year-old widow Nancie still lives.
Left-to-right Katherine Chetwynd, Peter Villiers and Kit Villiers unveil the plaque to honour their father. Their mother Nancie is pictured below left.
Guest speaker David Thorpe, a deckhand on the '57 voyage, recounted how his gruff and stern captain spoke to him just twice during the crossing – once upbraiding him for winding up a rope with 'yachtsman's coils'.
Born in Australia, Alan Villiers first went to sea in 1919 as an apprentice aboard coastal schooners that traded on the rough Tasman sea.
He then became a journalist, writing about his often dramatic adventures.
He came to England aboard a Finnish sailing ship in a harrowing expedition on which his friend and shipmate Ronald Walker died.
He recorded the experience in his book By Way of Cape Horn which became a best-seller and a film.
During the Second World War he commanded a flotilla of landing craft at Normandy Landings, before settling in Oxford in the 1950s and continuing to pursue his passion for sailing, including the Mayflower II.
Mr Thorpe recalled how he met his future captain when, as an undergraduate at Oxford University in 1955, the famous sailor and author came to give a talk at University College.
He recalled: "Honestly, only Alan could have had that beery lot hanging on to his every word on the subject of rope."
Remembering their time together on the Mayflower II he said: "Captain Villiers was a true 'master under God', as the old ship's articles use to say: he believed in God, and used to read the bible to us every Sunday."
He rounded up his speech by saying: "And behind every great man is a great woman, and I don my cap to Nancie," to a round of applause from the crowd.
Mr Villiers' son Kit, who attended the ceremony with his brother Peter and their sister Katherine, said he was surprised by the number of people who had turned up.
He added: "We are very pleased at the interest shown."
The ceremony was also attended by the director of the National Maritime Museum Dr Kevin Fewster and American historian Marietta Mullen, an expert on the Mayflower II voyage who travelled from Plymouth, Massachusetts.
She said afterwards: "It is an honour just to attend: the voyage of '57 is a phenomenal story and there were amazing people aboard that ship."