When Cleo Binns’ father died in June 2018, she and her mother, Ann, wanted a humanist service to honour his life. “I got in touch with a celebrant who wasn’t available, but recommend that I contact Will Tillotson,” she remembers. Shortly after she called him, he went round to meet Cleo and Ann in the Lake District, near to where he lived at the time. “As a humanist celebrant, you meet every family, so that you can discuss their loved one’s life and write a tribute,” he says.
During their meeting, it didn’t cross his mind that it would be anything more than a professional relationship. “It would have been unthinkable that something would happen – and totally unethical,” he says. Cleo, who was grieving along with her mum, felt comforted by Will’s presence. “At the time, I wasn’t thinking about dating or anything like that. But I know that, when he left, Mum and I felt much better.” The service took place a week later.
The next April, Cleo’s mum organised an exhibition of her late husband’s paintings. “Dad was an artist who used to paint watercolour landscapes of the Lake District,” says Cleo. Although she wasn’t sure why, she had a feeling it would be a good idea to invite Will. “I got this invitation and forgot to respond to it,” says Will. “The night before, Cleo asked if I was coming and I said yes.”
After the exhibition, she invited him to the local club bar for a drink. Although Cleo says she “didn’t want to speak to anyone else”, Will was still “clueless”. “I sensed there might be something between us, but didn’t want to put my foot in it and spoil the memory of her dad’s funeral. I asked if she and her mum would like to come on my boat sometime and she said yes. That left a door open.”
Three days later, Will departed for France on a 10-day trip, but they stayed in contact on Facebook. It soon became clear there was more between them. “I was staying with Mum and suggested that Will come and visit us,” says Cleo. “I was the one who pushed things forward. I think I knew Will could not chase me.”
By the time he got back from France, they had already decided to be a couple. They met for lunch and discussed how they could make things work. “I was living in Peebles in the Scottish Borders, which was a two-hour drive away,” says Cleo. The pair were both divorced, while Cleo had two teenage children and Will had two dogs. “We had to discuss a few practicalities,” says Will. “For a while, we were seeing each other every weekend, but after the first lockdown I moved in. We spent seven weeks apart before that, which was really hard. We wrote old-fashioned letters to each other.” While Will continued his work as a humanist celebrant, Cleo worked as a social worker in Edinburgh, supporting vulnerable people with learning disabilities and autism.
As soon as he moved in, he asked her to marry him. “I asked her children’s permission first and told them we could carry on as we were if they weren’t happy about it. They were delighted and we plan to marry next May.” Before the pandemic, the couple loved travelling; now, they regularly go hiking. “Cleo’s got me into walking. For her birthday, she wanted to climb Ben Lawers. It took me five days to recover, but I just about survived,” he laughs.
Cleo loves her partner’s energy and zest for life. “Perhaps because he helps people who are bereaved, he has this wonderful outlook and wants to live life to the full.” Will describes his fiancee as kind and caring, with a great sense of humour. “I love that she’s always organising plans and things to do, it’s really exciting.”
Although the circumstances of their meeting were unusual, it has brought some comfort to Cleo’s family. “My dad and Will would have got along so well. It’s like something good came out of a tragic situation.”
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