When some people reach retirement age, they put their feet up, watch TV and potter in the garden. Others save up for a luxury cruise around the world.

But that is not adventurous enough for Charles and Cecillie Swaisland, who are just about to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. In their 80s, the couple, who live in Kennington, were happy to discover Alaska, even if it meant sleeping in cabin bunk beds.

Charles, who will be 90 in August, is honorary curator of the Pendon Museum at Long Wittenham near Abingdon, and also works as a volunteer two days a week at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, sorting colonial records.

It is hard to imagine anyone in Kennington who has not come across the couple on village committees, organising litter picks or the library festival, or pounding the streets for the annual Kennington Overseas Aid (KOA) house-to-house collection.

Cecillie has been known to bake 40 cakes at a time for KOA fundraising. Most locals however, will be unaware that the couple lived for more than 30 eventful years in Africa and Asia.

During the Second World War, Charles, a Quaker and pacifist, served in a Quaker surgical and medical transport brigade — but his posting was unusual. His unit was sent by the International Red Cross and the Foreign Office to help the Chinese in their prolonged resistance against the Japanese occupation.

After two years, Charles was invalided out of China and, on the difficult journey home, his boat was bombed and sunk.

When he complained about losing his cap during the dramatic incident, a Welsh sailor who hauled him aboard the rescuing corvette, said: “You are bloody lucky you didn’t loose your life!’”

Back in England in 1945, Charles was stationed at the Middlesex Hospital and, with responsibilities for demobilisation, worked with Brian Bone, who introduced him to his sister, Cecillie, then a young student studying sociology at the London School of Economics, who was also a Quaker. Charles and Cecillie quickly discovered they had much in common and were soon married.

After studying sociology and law at Birmingham University, Charles applied to join the colonial service, was accepted and posted to Nigeria. Their first daughter, Ruth, was born in Port Harcourt in 1951, and their second, Alison, in 1954 in Gloucester, on their first home leave.

As a district officer in Nigeria from 1949–1963, Charles was in charge of the local police force, as well as being a magistrate and prison governor.

From Nigeria, Charles and Cecillie and their two daughters moved to Mauritius, where After studying for his D Phil in Public Administration at Oxford, Charlee taught at Birmingham University, but was often seconded to different parts of the world, with support from the Foreign Office. One such posting was to train district officers in Southern Sudan.

Cecillie researched for her MSocSci at Birmingham and then lectured in social science.

It is hard to imagine there is any part of the world where they have not visited or worked.

So maybe this intrepid couple will not be daunted by the prospect of being marooned on our desert island. But what work of art, antique or antiquarian book would they like to find washed up on the beach?

They showed me an oil painting of a charming thatched bungalow. Charles explained: “This is a painting of the district officer’s residence which became our home in eastern Nigeria. I took over the Nsukka District, which is about the size of Oxfordshire. The previous district officer had removed the thick traditional thatch and replaced it with ’fashionable’ corrugated iron.

“So Cecillie and I had the thatch restored, putting it on top of the corrugated iron.”

Cecillie said this was a very comfortable home. “The walls were made from mud, stone and cow dung and were three feet thick. They kept the house cool, even in the noonday sun.”

Charles and Cecillie stayed on in Nigeria after the country after it became independent in 1960, remaining there until 1963.

“We were invited to stay by the newly-independent government,” Charles explained.

“Most British district officers returned to the UK, but we chose to remain in Nsukka and never regretted the decision.”

Cecillie showed me another possible desert island choice which would remind them of thier time in Nigeria.

It is a photograph of a couple, getting married. “This would be rather nostalgic. It is the second wedding of our chief servant James.”

Charles added: “At that time in Nigeria, a couple’s first marriage came when they were very young with the groom’s family giving a ‘bride price’ or dowery.

“Often, when couples were older and richer and their family complete, they wanted a second wedding.

“As district officer, I had to conduct many of these marriages and, this may sound surprising, but I hated doing it. The reason is that there was nothing about love and commitment in the ceremony. It was simply about avoiding bigamy, which was common because of child marriages which were not dissolved.”

Cecillie added: ‘The Ibo people also like the idea of a second burial. Because of the climate, funerals have to take place very quickly. Sometime later there is a second ‘burial’ which is more a kind of memorial feast.

“When James died in 2000, my daughter Ruth received the phone call. She burst into tears on hearing the news. She grew up in that bungalow and James and Ruth adored each other.

Soon after that phone call, a Nigerian bishop contacted us and felt that, as James’s former employers, we should send £500 to help pay for the feast, which we did.”

Charles showed me another nostalgic choice for the island, the district officer’s ceremonial sword. He said it would remind him of a particular day.

“For formal occasions I had to wear a white uniform,” he said. “Our head servant James was very particular that the sword should gleam.

“What I didn’t realise until too late, when I noticed the zebra stripes on my uniform, is that he had cleaned it with Cherry Blossom boot polish!”

“When we finally left Nigeria, I was presented with the robes of an Ibo tribal chief. That is another possibility for the desert island, although ten years ago, we gave them to the Pitt Rivers Museum. “ In 1983 they both took early retirement. “We wanted to spend less time on administration and more on research,” said Cecille. “We decided to move from Selly Oak to Oxford because the best material on Southern Africa was in the Bodleian Library. “While house hunting we were shown around a bungalow in Kennington. Seeing its spacious kitchen, I immediately said ‘This is the one ‘and we have lived here ever since.”

After retiring she read for her M.Litt (Oxon) and embarked on a writing career, publishing three books on South Africa, including Servants and Gentlewomen to the Golden Land — the emigration of single women from Britain to Southern Africa 1820-1939 (Berg, ISBN 0 85496 870 9) and A Lincolnshire Volunteer (Literatim ISBN 0 9539754 0 1) based on the Boer War letters of her great uncle are set there.

Cecillie’s connection with South Africa began when her father sold his business in Scunthorpe and took his family to live in Camps Bay, on the outskirts of Cape Town. He hoped the climate would help his son Brian, recover from TB.

“Seven years later, when my brother was fit and healthy, we returned to England,” Cecillie said. “My father had decided to study at Manchester College, Oxford, which was then a Unitarian College. Once he became the Rev Walter Bone, we moved to Gloucester.

The connection with South Africa deepened when Charles and Cecillie were approached to be peace monitors in the run up to the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994. when Nelson Mandela became president.

Charles described the official aim of the mission as the “prevention of violence in public gatherings”.

“The local clergy were worn out trying to mediate between factions and trying to prevent physical conflict so they sought the help of the World Council of Churches. We were among sixteen volunteers sent in response and we represented the Quakers. One of the reasons we were chosen was because we are fellows of Rhodes University in Eastern Cape.”

Cecillie was posted to Durban and Charles spent his two months in Pietermaritzburg. Cecillie showed steadfast courage when she stood in the firing line between two opposing groups.

Back home in Kennington, Charles enjoys rather less dramatic pursuits.

“I am honorary curator at the Pendon Museum and work there one day a week. Pendon is a Model of the Vale of White Horse as it was in the 1930s.

“If we took the model to the island we could have hours of fun, but I think if we can only take one thing, it must be the painting. I had such freedom of action in Nigeria and that is not possible in the UK today.”