Meet the retired carers who, over the last 50 years, have helped 130 newborn babies.
A man and woman are woken in the night by a crying baby. They get out of bed, bleary-eyed, to go and feed it and change its nappy.
Then they cradle and rock it until it slowly falls back to sleep again.
A scene played out in thousands of houses across the UK, but in one particular home it is a little different.
‘Parents’ Tony Willmott and wife Lindy are aged 80 and 71.
The baby isn’t their own, they are foster carers and have been for the past 50 years.
From being a little girl I always loved babies’
During that time they have looked after 130 babies and despite being an age where the last thing most of us would want is a new-born baby, the couple plan to continue for as long as they are able.
“It is hard work,” said Mr Willmott, a retired clergyman. “My wife is usually up in the night and then I get up and try and help, rock the baby while she goes back to bed. We take it in turns to have lie-ins.
“But it is what keeps us young and the bottom line is we enjoy it.”
Mr and Mrs Willmott foster children on behalf of Blackpool Council.
Anything from the break-up of a marriage to the death of a parent, or a child born into circumstances of abuse or violence, can lead to a baby being taken into care.
Blackpool has one of the highest volumes of babies and children requiring foster parents, which is why people like the Willmotts are invaluable.
They are unusual, though, for it is not often that people will carry on fostering – especially newborns – into their 70s and 80s.
Mrs Willmott admits she’s to blame.
“From being a little girl I’ve always loved babies,” she said. “It probably wouldn’t happen these days but when I was eight, a neighbour used to let me take her baby out in a pram. I’d go for long walks with it.
“At the age of 11 I was babysitting for families while the mother went to evening class and before the husband came home from work.”
In 1965, when Mrs Willmott was 21, and five months pregnant, she was told about a woman who needed a foster carer to look after her baby.
“I said well ‘I’ll have it then’. Somebody came to see me and at 10pm on New Year’s Eve, this mother arrived at my house in her slippers and handed me her baby,” she said.
“I looked after it for six weeks, gave it back – and then had my own baby.”
Mr and Mrs Willmott went on to have four children of their own but all the while they continued to foster babies, at an astonishing rate.
“We’ve often had two at a time and there was one occasion when we had three,” added Mrs Willmott.
“In fact at the start of this year we actually had a gap of three months where we didn’t have a baby and I hated it. It felt all wrong.
“They do so much in their first year of life and I love seeing them develop. When I get a call to say they are placing a baby with me I’m always so thrilled.”
Given the rate at which they foster, it’s little surprise to learn that the house resembles a creche.
Mrs Willmott – deep breath here – has three cots, two Moses baskets, two prams, a triple pushchair, double pushchair, two single pushchairs, two highchairs, four bouncy chairs and four car-seats.
“Because my husband is getting on a bit he doesn’t always like going into loft to get things, so I’ve a shed in the garden where I can get to them easily,” she says.
At the moment the couple are fostering a five-week old boy.
“He has this awful colic and just won’t settle, so every night I am up between 1 and 3. I rock him, feed him, cuddle him, try and get wind out.
“It keeps me fit because you are forever up and down the stairs. Perhaps I’m a little bit slower these days but I don’t feel much different to when I started doing this all those years ago.”
Blackpool Council helps with the financial cost of caring for a child and keeps in close contact with all its foster parents.
Mrs Willmott has to go to Blackpool three times a week to allow the child’s real parents to spend an hour with their baby, under the supervision of a social worker.
The hardest part, as you’d expect, is giving a baby back.
“It is horrible and as the years go by it doesn’t get any easier,” she said. “Whether I’ve had them a day or a year, it is very difficult to do.
“However I don’t think you should do it if don’t feel anything when they go.
“The minute they leave I strip the bed, do the washing, put the car seats away... the fact I do that straight away is probably my way of coping.”
But when a baby leaves the Willmott’s care, it isn’t necessarily the end of the story.
“It is up to the parents whether they want to keep in touch and sometimes they do,” said Mrs Willmott.
“We have a boy and girl who come to see us every year, we get Christmas cards from various families – one 11-year-old girl, who we looked after for two years, wrote us a letter recently thanking us.
“That kind of thing is lovely.”
The couple are full of praise for Blackpool Council for the support and guidance they receive.
But many of us would think it was the Willmotts, and not anyone else, who deserve the praise.
They, though, don’t see it like that.
“We don’t do it for praise and we certainly don’t think we are anything special,” explained Mr Willmott.
“The foster parents that are special are those that take older children because they present greater problems and complexities.
“We are doing it mainly because we enjoy it – and if we are doing some good at the same time then that’s all the better.”
And with that they are off to feed and cradle baby number 130.
You can be sure that it won’t be long before 131 arrives – and many more after that.
The council view
With record numbers of children entering care - more than 63,000 children are living in foster care in the UK - the need to recruit additional foster carers has never been so prevalent.
At the end of June, 247 children were placed with Blackpool Council Foster Carers.
It is a particular issue in Blackpool, so the Council is calling for people interested in fostering to come forward.
Coun John Jones, Blackpool Council’s cabinet member for children (below), said: “The more foster carers we have, the more effectively we can look after children who really need it.
“Fostering makes an enormous contribution to society and can help make places and communities better. Our foster carers do an amazing job. Some of them cared for children for more than 35 years and made an incredible difference to the children they’ve cared for and to the communities around them.
“They are real heroes and I would urge people, if they’ve considered fostering but are unsure about what to do, to come along and see us.”
“This is something that has a positive impact on the community as a whole and can make a difference to a child’s life forever.”
Applications can be made by individuals, couples who are married, in a civil partnership or living together who are over 21.
Foster carers receive full training, ongoing 24-hour support and a financial allowance.
For more information about fostering, call (01253) 477888, email email@example.com or visit www.blackpool.gov.uk/fostering