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When I started school, in 1947, the statutory school leaving age was 14 and the village school catered for boys and girls from 5 to 14. There were about 60 of us, housed in two rooms. A small room to the rear of the building catered to children up to 8, the large main hall was divided by a heavy blue curtain into classes for 8-11 and 12-14. When the leaving age increased to 15 in 1948, a bright new prefabricatred glass and aluminium building was erected behind the school. This then became the infants (5-7) class and the small room that had been the infants class now became the home of 8-11 year olds. This meant that I and all the children my age remained in the same room for 4 years, although we had a change of teaher half way through the period. Morning assemblies and prayers for everyone took place in the large room.
The building also included the head teacher’s home and a kitchen – we were provided with a hot meal at 1pm every day. All of this meant that the school timetable was the same for everyone: 9am to 3pm with a break of 15 minutes at 11am and an hour for lunch between 1 and 2pm.
A large house at the edge of the village had been taken over by the government during the war to provide offices for some department or other. Now it was given to the Education Authority in order to create a Secondary Modern school serving the wider area. All children over 11 who had not passed the entrance exam for the High School in Hereford would in future attend this school.
I did pass the entrance exam but travel to Hereford presented a problem and my mother set about investigating alternatives.
Meanwhile life at home continued to be more or less idyllic for my sister and I. There were exceptions. I remember, when I was about 6 and my sister a toddler, how I almost blinded her. Between our coal heap and the hen house there was a clump of nettles. One day I decided that I was going to chop these weeds down. I had seen adults wielding a sickle – an implement called a “bill hook” in that time and place – to undertake such tasks. No such article being available I took what to me was the next best thing which also happened to be nearby – the small tin shovel we used to shovel coal from the pile into a galvanised bucket to take indoors. Swinging the shovel at the nettles with wild abandon I was unaware that my sister’s curiosity had caused her to come close behind me. So it was that the sharp corner of the shovel came into violent contact with the corner of her right eye.
There followed several moments of uproar during which my mother sought both to calm my distraught sister and treat her injury whilst berating me for my stupidity and thoughtlessness.
I was guilty of another display of the same stupidity on my mother’s 32 nd birthday, a July day in 1949. Because it was her birthday I thought it would be a good idea to rise early and bring her a cup of tea in bed. And, because it was her birthday, I should make it in her best china teapot. At 7 years old, I knew how to set about making tea – I’d probably done it once or twice before.
A concrete apron at the front of the house was separated from the cobbled yard by a concreted shallow channel that allowed rain water to escape to a drain near the gable end of the house. When making tea it was routine to warm the pot by pouring a small quantity of hot water into it, swirling this around, then throwing the hot water into the channel. Imagine my horror when, whilst performing this operation, my mother’s best china teapot, much heavier than the small brown one I was used to, slipped from my hands and shattered on the concrete.
You must imagine, too, as to my shame I never did until recently, my mother awaking on her 32nd birthday. She has lived in this rural slum of a cottage for more than 7 years now. Her mother has been dead for more than a year. She is alone, her friends and relations all many miles away and mostly unconcerned for her plight, stuck here, miles from any source of solace such as a cinema or a shop where she might purchase something other than the bare essentials for living.
There is only the wireless and her library books for company. She has responsibility for two small children and little money. How has she come to this pass? More to the point, how can she find a way to escape from it? She is 32, half her life is over and there is nothing to look forward to with anything like hopeful anticipation. And then that stupid boy smashes one of her few treasured posessions, a teapot handed down from her grandmother. (Actually, I am being fancifull here – I have no idea of the provenance of the teapot.)
She came for me, still in her nightgown, wielding a stick. I ran. Now imagine my own grief on realising that an attempt to do something good, kind and well meaning had ended in this way. I was destraught.
I have no doubt that my mother and grandmother assumed from the outset that the cottage was a temporary home, one they would occupy only for the duration of the war. I can imagine there were occasions when the war seemed to be dragging on and they wondered when they would be able to return to something more akin to what they had been used. Receiving the telegram that announced that my father was missing in action would have been such an occasion. Life rarely works out the way we expect, especially when external events such as a war interfere with its anticipated course. It would be over 14 years before my mother was able to leave the cottage and then only thanks to a kind and gentle, hard working man.
None of the features of civilisation absent from the cottage was remedied during those years. When we left there was still no electricity and water was still carried in buckets from the semi-submerged concrete tank.
The man who rescued my mother in the mid-1950s was not the first with which she had a relationship during those years. One of my earliest memories is of a morning late in March 1946. I was 4 years and 4 1/2 months old and it seems odd to me now that I clearly recollect being on my knees laying a fire in the grate of the small living room. Screws of newspaper followed by slender sticks of wood topped off with small pieces of coal. I heard a sound which I at first supposed was the cry of a lamb. Then the groaning of the hinges in the door at the bottom of the stairs and my grandmother was there.
“Can you hear that baby up there?” she said. “That’s your baby sister.”
I had a vague recollection of my mother leaving the double bed she shared with me at some time during the night. She had, it seemed, gone to her mother’s room when she experienced the first labour pains. I have no idea who my sister’s father was. I like to think she was the result of some over enthusiastic victory celebration that got out of hand the previous June. So far as I was concerned she became my constant companion for the next six and a half years, until I was sent to boarding school.
We invented our own games, taking it in turn to be master/mistress of our “games school”. We created our own radio programmes with interviews and plays we ad-libbed. On holiday in South Wales we produced plays we presented in the front room of Aunty Win and Uncle George’s home. [I’ve written elsewhere about Uncle George, the father of a member of the same bomber crew as my father]
Of course we fell out over the choice of games to be played but it taught us both the importance of give and take in a relationship and the need, sometimes, to relinquish some measure of control over the other.
My mother read to us from the classics and from contemporary novels borrowed from the mobile library which visited every six weeks. She taught us our alphabet and how to translate symbols into sounds so that each of us in turn was already able to read by the time we started school.
I should have begun attending the village school after the Christmas holidays, in January 1947. But the weather that winter made it impossible. My recollection is that snow arrived on the day after Christmas. The met office says it began on Jan 23rd. There is no contesting the fact that it continued, on and off, for many days until the way out of the cottage was blocked by a mountainous drift of the stuff. Temperatures remained below freezing for several weeks.
Deliveries of bread, meat and milk ceased. A farmer neighbour brought some supplies on horseback. Nowadays such conditions would be relieved by air drops from helicopters. A small number of such aircraft had been used in search and rescue during the war but their availability for civilian use was still some way off. Eventually the snow melted and I was able to attend school following the Easter holidays.
Why is it that we mostly remember only the happiest moments of childhood? I am aware, of course, that for some children – those who suffer abuse or grow up surrounded by the effects of war or famine – there are no happy memories to take into adulthood. But for the rest of us, the fact is that childhood consists of a series of events which are capable of creating good and bad memories. Hugs and slaps, pleasure and pain, joy of desires fulfilled and disappointment at hopes dashed. In other words it is a sampling of the real life we will experience in adulthood.
My memories of my childhood in that cottage by the stream are mostly happy ones. But they are, I now realise, coloured by my mother’s response to the changes it represented in her own fortunes.
I imagine that in the first while there was a sense of relief. In part a continuation of the relief that must have accompanied her departure from London a year earlier. London, devastated by then by almost a year of nightly bombing raids by the Luftwaffe. She worked in Air Raid Precautions so would have seen first hand the destruction of homes, the loss of life and the injuries inflicted. She worked, too, in a clothing factory which was also destroyed in a raid.
In Herefordshire she was safe from all of that. And yet, life in other people’s homes would have presented its own problems, problems I tried to reflect in that imagined conversation with her mother as they climbed the hill. Now, at last, they had time and space to themselves. Time to look forward to the possibility, however remote, of peace.
I can’t help wondering at what point the stark reality of life with none of the facilities to which they must have been used sunk in and began to fester. Certainly life in London in the nineteen thirties would have been very different to city life today. But their home would have had electricity and piped water. There would have been cinemas, dance halls, libraries and theatres within easy reach. There were friends, work colleagues, uncles, aunts and cousins a bus ride away.
At the cottage there were none of these things. And, on top of all of that, there were the exigencies of war that effected everyone – shortages of almost everything and rationing of food and clothing.
For a child, however, the things you experience are taken to be normal even though to everyone else they might seem anything but. So for me our days, surrounded by meadows in which we were free to roam and play, often seem idyllic.
I remember making hay. In that place and time horses were still used for some aspects of farm work. Tractors were small, slow and simple, nothing like the monsters that speed around the lanes near my Irish home. Once cut, the mixture of grasses and herbs that grew in the meadows surrounding the cottage were left to dry, a process that might take a week. After two or three days the flat swathes would be tossed and turned manually, using two-pronged forks called pikes, an activity that my mother and I assisted with. This exposed the still green underside so that, too, could dry. Eventually these rows of dried grass were pulled into small piles, called “cocks” in the local dialect. Next a trailer was towed around the field and the cocks loaded to be carried to the Dutch barn. The smell of the new mown hay filled our nights, changing, as the days passed, from the sweetness of the first cut to the mellow dustiness of the final product.
There was, then, the annual pantomime as the mechanical hay rake arrived and had to be threaded through the gate into the meadow. The problem was that the rake, a contraption consisting of a row of metal tines bent into three quarters of a circle and housed between two huge metal wheels, was wider than the space between the walls of the cow shed and the former pig sty we used as a chicken house. The farmer, our landlord, and his son, perspiring in the heat of a July afternoon and accompanied by curses, manoeuvred this beast in a series of arcs, until the machine was translated from cobbled yard to hay meadow where it would be drawn around to gather up all the wisps of hay left behind.
The cattle would have been removed several weeks before, presumably sold to a local butcher. As soon as the sward recovered, a new set of young animals were brought to spend the autumn grazing and the winter consuming the hay.
The road levels out again and soon they see the post box, set on a wooden pole in the hedge near the head of another lane on their left. The road they are on now descends before rising again. At the low point, a farm gate is set back from the road on the left, between tall conifers. Beyond the gate, in a hollow beside a stream, is the cottage. Built of grey stone, its narrow gable end faces the road. Six windows and two doors face the gable end of a similar two story building across a cobbled yard.
As the younger woman reaches for the catch to open the gate a group of white faced cattle amble out from behind this second building, their hooves skidding on the cobbles. The leading animal stops and stares at the women. The followers jostle each other and the lead animal. Behind them a man emerges, wielding a hazel stick.
“Hup,” he urges the anmals. He strides between the animals and the building, poking the lead animal with the stick. “Get on.” His voice conveys urgency. The lead animal responds by loping forwards, past the gable end of the house, closely followed by the rest of the small herd.
The man looks at the women, lifts his sweat stained trilby hat and scratches his head, bare scalp visible between strands of white hair. “Be with you in a minute.” He replaces his hat and urges the cattle through a gateway into a field on the women’s left.
As he closes the field gate on his charges, the young woman opens the gate leading to the property. She pushes the pram down the path toward the house, being carefull to avoid the steaming deposits left behind by the cows. Her mother turns to close the gate behind them.
“You be the folks to look at the house.” It is a statement, not a question. The man transfers a flat roll-up cigarette, part smoked, from behind his right ear to his bottom lip. His tan tweed jacket has seen better days. From the top pocket he removes a box of Swan Vestas, strikes one and, cupping his hand around the flame, relights the cigarette. The young woman notes that his finger nails are long and dirty.
“I’m Ivy Parker. This is my mother, Mrs Jeffries. And, yes, we are interested in renting the house.”
From another pocket the man takes a heavey iron key. He hands it to Ivy. He peers into the pram. “That ‘un be quiet. Be it a boy or a girl?”
“The father, Mr Parker, he be at war?” This time the statement is rendered as a question.
“RAF. Bomber crew. Based near Cambridge.”
“And you be from London?”
“The rent be ten shillin’ a week. You do pay the rates. Drop the key back at The Castle on your way past. Tell Mother if you do want to take it.”
As he departs Ivy is relieved not to have had to shake his hand. At the gate he stops, turns and points to the left. “Over there be where you do get water.”
Ivy looks in the direction he has pointed and sees four large flag stones overlapping to form a rudimentary cover for what, on closer inspection, appears to be a concrete tank sunk into the ground. A pipe protrudes from the near face of the tank. From it water dribbles into a bucket. Ivy cannot help but notice that some of the khaki coloured deposits left by the cows has landed on the edge of the flags.
The child in the pram makes a sound, a croak which turns into a cry. Ivy picks him up and looks around for somewhere to sit. The first of the two doors has a stone step. There being nowhere else, she sits on it. “Pass me his bottle, please, Mum.”
Her mother is already rummaging in the bag. Ivy continues: “There’s warm milk in one of the flasks.”
When I started this series of memories it was with my first meeting with the young woman who would become my wife. Thus far I have not mentioned, except in passing, my childhood. So I guess it’s time to fill in some of those missing details with a series of remembered events. The first of these is entirely from my imagination since, although I was there, as you will discover, I was far too young to notice what was happening.
The road from Peterchurch to Urishay is long and narrow. It takes about an hour to cover the distance on foot. Anyone doing so will be unlikely to encounter another travelling the same route. Certainly that was the case in April 1942.
In my mind’s eye I see two women walking that road. One in her mid-twenties, red hair in a thick plait extending down the middle of her back. The hem of her coat swings just above her ankles. She is wearing sensible shoes. Her older companion has grey hair pinned into a bun at the back of her head. Her coat is long, too, a kind of blue that is almost black. She emits a sigh. Her feet cease moving. “Can we stop for a minute?”
“Is it your back?” The young woman asks, turning her head and standing still. She takes a step backwards, dragging the pram with her. With her right foot she applies the brake. Leaning into the pram she adjusts the coverlet. Her son is asleep, oblivious to his surroundings.
They are on the section of road that descends gently into a shallow valley. There is no sign of human habitation. The only sounds are birdsong. Both recognise the sound of a blackbird. Another song is new to the younger woman, who has little knowledge of the countryside..
“Listen,” she says. “What was that?”
The older woman can remember her youth, working as a maid in a country house. A long forgotten memory surfaces. “It might be a curlew.” She has been stooping. Now she straightens her back and is siezed at once by a fit of coughing. Recovering she says “That last hill nearly killed me.”
The young woman looks to where she can see the road rising up the far side of the valley, disappearing under a canopy of trees. She says nothing. Thinks it was a mistake to bring her mother on this expedition to inspect the cottage. Except . . . with petrol in short supply, asking someone to convey them by car would have been an extravagance. Except . . . she could not bear to leave her mother and son in the house they shared with another family. Not after the row they’d had that morning.
“I don’t know how much further it is. Jim said it shouldn’t take more than an hour.” She pushes back a sleeve and looks at the watch her husband gave her on their first wedding anniversary. “We’ve been half an hour already.” She reaches into the blue canvass shopping bag that rests across the sides of the pram and withdraws a vacuum flask. “A drop of char? I was saving it until we get there but we could have a drop now if you like.”
“No. Let’s get on. I’m feeling better now.”
There are wild violets and primroses in the bank at the road side as they make their way up the hill and into the shade of the overhanging trees. Those trees remind them of the park they used to take walks in before the war. Sycamore and horse chestnut, upright flower spikes on the latter not quite open. They imagine autumn, the ground covered with spikey green spheres bursting open to reveal glossy brown conkers.
The young woman has her arms outstretched, her back bent, as she pushes the pram up the steepest part of the hill. The road levels out and she stops, takes a deep breath before turning to her mother. “I think this is where the landlord lives.” She points to a rotting farm gate set back from the road. Some distance beyond it on the right they see a collection of farm buildings. High on a grassy bank to the left are the remains of another building. “That must be the castle Jim mentioned.”
“Do we have to collect the key here?”
“No. The man will meet us at the cottage. He has to move some cows or something.”
They set off again. There is another short but steep hill, the road curving round to the left. On the right a rough lane descends steeply. “That’s not it, is it?” The old woman points to a cream painted house on rising ground, accessed from the lane.
“No, it’s further on, on the left. After a post box, Jim said.”
In the satelite image below, the castle is in the top right hand corner, the cottage in the lower left quarter where the road takes a slight bend. The post box is at the junction with Urishay Ct.
The genteman with Parkinson’s ceased attending the group. A couple of years later he came to me with plans for another book. He had been researching his ancestry in County Clare and had discovered that a female relative was among a group of teenaged girls taken from a workhouse and given an assited passage to Australia.
This took place during the great famine in the mid 1800s. Such girls were provided with a wardrobe of clothing and the ship’s captain was paid by the authorities and/or the benefactor who helped finance the scheme. The girls would find work – and in many cases a husband – among the male settlers establishing themselves as farmers in remote parts of the colony.
Patrick’s ancestor was one of the few who later returned. His discovery had sparked an interest in the famine and he had acquired a number of books about the period which he hoped to use to create his own book, for which he needed assistance. I agreed to look at his material after which I would indicate whether or not I was willing to assist.
I found the books enlightening, Patrick’s notes difficult to read. There were many repetitions, the pattern of his thoughts difficult to follow. Nevertheless, I agreed to interpret them and add my own thoughts on the contents of the books. Later I found other sources for the real life horror story of Ireland in this terrible period. The result was A Purgatory of Misery in which I sought to provide some context for the events, based on the history, geography and culture that underlies the relationship between Ireland and its larger neighbour.
Looking in particular at the effects of the famine in County Clare I came across the story of Arthur Kennedy, who was appointed Poor Law Inspector to the Kilrush Union with responsibility for ensuring the efficient dispensing of assistance to the people suffering starvation throughout the West of the county. He discovered and exposed the practice, carried out by many landowners, of evicting families from their homes in the most brutal and inhuman fashion. A story I felt compelled to write, trying my best to imagine how a man with a background as an army officer, who would later become a senior diplomat, knighted for his serices, would respond to the conditions he found.
That book took a long time to finish, in first draft. I am now working on improving it prior to publishing some time in 2020.
In the spring of 2015 a seurity contractor began installing temporary fencing around the empty houses opposite us. Shortly afterwards I discovered that a planning application had been lodged relating to the site. I examined the application at the county head quarters where I learned that all of the site, except the ten occupied houses, had been purchased by the proprietor of the nursing home. His plan was to extend and convert the apartment block to create a second nursing home.
At a meeting of the occupiers later that year he explained that he also intended to enhance the landscaping of the site and to complete and sell all of the unoccupied houses. This project was fiinally completed in the summer of 2018 and we now have a retirement village, fully occupied with an active residents’ committee of which I am a member.
For the first few weeks after we moved in to oiur new house, thoughout the summer of 2011, work continued around the site, although a lot of the time it seemed that it was more a matter of the two remaining employees finding things to occupy their time rather than any really useful work. The nursing home had opened in February and was gradually reaching full capacity but no more of the houses were being worked on. None, it seemed, had been purchased. By winter the two men – a father and son – had left the site, aparently made redundant.
Meanwhile I set to work creating a garden on the tenth of an acre plot. In November I uploaded Honest Hearts to Smashwords. The writers’ group published an anthology which included the first chapter of Honest Hearts and another story of mine. We secured sponsorship and held a number of fund raising events to fund the printing then sold the book with all sales income donated to the cancer support charity.
A couple of incidents that had occurred during my childhood provided the inspiration for my second book, Summer Day, which is set on a single day in the summer of 1947 and entirely in the district immediately surrounding the house in which I lived as a child.
Nothing happened on the site during 2012. In the spring of 2013 a new contractor was assigned to carry out some work tidying the site and a fresh attempt was made to market the empty houses. When that young man was killed in a traffic accident early in 2014 work came to a standstill once more.
The gardening task at the cancer support centre was made lighter by the appointment of a sccession of part-time employees on various schemes. The manager offered me the opportunity to participate in a walking programme being introduced with the support of the Irish Cancer Society.
Not long after we arrived in Ireland we visited a ruined castle on a hill close to our new home (An image of this place graces the top of the page, curtesy of Portlaise based photographer Ciara Drennan). An information board at the entrance indicated that it had once been associated with a man called Roger Mortimer. That reminded me that a man of that name had strong associations with Herefordshire.
Now I decided to investigate further and discovered that Ireland had been invaded by Norman fighters late in the twelfth century and that these fighters were led by a man who also had strong connections to the country around the Welsh border, Strongbow. The story of how a deposed Irish kinglet had offered the hand of his daughter to Strongbow in return for the latter’s help in regaining his kingdom fascinated me. What would it have been like to be that girl? That was the genesis of Strongbow’s Wife, my third novel.
I also created a website called Hereford and Ireland History in which I posted several stories about the various actors in the peculiar history of England, Wales and Ireland during the middle ages. That website was eventually incorporated into my author site. (See the tab above)
For some time I had entertained the idea that scandals like those surrounding Jimmy Saville and others were linked to the changes in attitudes to sex and sexuality that have taken place throughout my lifetime. That was the inspiration for Transgression, my third novel.
A gentleman joined the writers’ group who was attempting to compile a number of anecdotes from his life as an adviser to the agricultural industry, a bank manager, and, later, a land valuer and surveyor. It appeared that he had experienced something like an ABI and was looking for support in preparing his little book for publication. I later learned that he had Parkinson’s. Various members of the group assisted with editing, formatting and choice of cover design and, in due course, the volume was published at his own expense.