AFTER thousands of airmiles, reams of paper and a lifetime of stories, an Oxfordshire woman is marking seven decades of writing to her pen pal on the other side of the world.

Barbara Finch, 84, wrote her first letter to New Zealander Elizabeth Martin in November 1947 whilst a student at the then Boxhill Secondary Modern School in Abingdon.

An exchange teacher had put the girls in touch via the Women’s Weekly magazine when she returned home to New Zealand.

At that time it would take several weeks for letters to reach each other but the girls, both 14 at the time, struck up a friendship over their favourite magazines and film stars that has continued ever since.

The women have kept in touch as letters turned to emails, boyfriends turned to husbands, and children, grandchildren and then great-grandchildren were born, despite always living on separate continents.

For Mrs Finch, the friendship has been especially meaningful over the last two decades during which time her husband Joe and son Paul both died.

She said: “Through the happy times and the sad times, we’ve always talked.

“Her family has become a second family to me.

“She says I am the sister she never had.

“We never expected it to go on so long but we are very fond of each other.

“A lot of things have changed for us over the years but it’s nice to have been able to stay friends.”

A self-described Kiwi-phile, Mrs Finch got the chance to fulfil a lifelong dream when she visited her friend, who lives in the Hastings area of New Zealand, in February 1981.

Describing that first visit after 33 years of correspondence she said: "I was so nervous, what if we didn't like each other?

"But it was wonderful, they made me feel so welcome.

"She was exactly as I always thought she would be."

The retired betting office worker, who has lived in Kidlington, Wootton and now Didcot, last visited for Mrs Martin’s 80th birthday four years ago.

The two have shared such a close friendship that one of Mrs Finch's children is called Elizabeth after her pen pal.

Speaking to the Hawke's Bay Today newspaper, Mrs Martin said: "Seventy years is a long time and such a lot has happened.

"We both lost our husbands, I've lost a daughter, she lost a son. With things like that, her friendship means a lot to me."