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Monday Memories: Beginnings #6 – Leaving Paradise

The cottage did not have a front garden or lawns. It did have a kitchen garden, separated from the cobbled yard by a low stone wall and accessed via a wooden gate. The garden contained fruit trees – apple, damson and greengage; red and black currant bushes. There were purple and white lilacs, a laburnam and a couple of rose bushes. I remember a crimson moss rose with the most delightfull smell.

During the war, and for the long period of shortages that continued in the years afterwards, citizens were encouraged to “dig for victory”, growing as much as possible of their own food. At this distance I would not dare to estimate the size of our garden. I do know that we grew all manner of vegetables.

The fruit from the trees and bushes was preserved by bottling and making jam. Onions and shallots were pickled, surplus runner beans were made into chutney. All of the associated work – digging, hoeing, raking and weeding; planting, harvesting and preserving – was undertaken by my mother.

As I became older I took on some of the work in the garden. But I can only look back in admiration at the way in which this city girl rose to the challenge of becoming a gardener with all of the hard work entailed, beginning with digging the heavy Herefordshire clay. In fact she came to love gardening and gardens, a passion she passed on to me.

Beyond the garden, accesed via the meadow that contained the Dutch barn, was a small orchard. Planted many years before on land that sloped quite steeply towards the stream, the orchard contained several ancient apple trees. But the trees we loved – or their produce, at least – were two that bore, each summer, a bumper crop of golf ball size pears that were deliciously sweet and juicy and to which we were permitted to help oursleves.

Close-up image of a wasp on a human's skin with its sting poised to inject venom.
A wasp about to sting – Photograph: Nataba/Getty Images found at theguardian.com

The branches hung low, especially when weighed down by ripe fruit. Of course, we were not the only creatures in the neighbourhood to savour these delights. The local wasps loved them, too. We soon learned to check that the ripest seeming fruit was intact, not having been hollowed out by a wasp who might still be present, before grasping it in our tiny hands.

Through the spring and summer of 1952 Mum spent a great deal of time and effort in finding for me an alternative to the Hereford High School. I was due to enter secondary school in September. Once I passed, in the spring, the exam designed to separate those with an academic bent from the rest, it was clear that daily travel to the High School was not a practical option. Whilst there was free transport from the cottage to the village school, this would not get me to the village in time to catch a bus that would reach Hereford before the school start time. The return journey would be similarly afflicted, making the day impracticably long for a ten-year-old.

One solution would have been for me to board out with a family in Hereford during the week, coming home at weekends. A potentially better alternative would have been for me to attend a boarding school, if a suitable one could be found. I remember accompanying my mother on a visit and interview at Christ’s Hospital in Hampshire. I have no idea if they turned me down or made an offer that we rejected.

Reed’s School had been founded in the early years of the nineteenth century as an orphanage. By the 1950s it was a small boarding school for boys, entirely funded by charitable donations and legacies, run along similar lines to much more famous public schools. I passed their entrance exam and entered the school in mid-September 1952.

A large 3 storey building partially of brick with mock timber frame sections.
A recent image of the original school building that
we called “The Shack”

The school was, and still is, located in Surrey. Rail routes from the West into London terminate at Paddington; those from the South at Waterloo. Thus I would need to cross London. For a ten year old to do so unaccompanied was impossible to contemplate. My mother still had relatives, and at least one former friend, resident in the capital and was able to prevail upon the friend to escort me, providing overnight accomodation en-route.

That first journey is difficult to recall. I guess I was overwhelmed by the experience of train travel, alone, by the noise and bustle of London’s traffic and the strangeness of the woman who had charge of me for 24 hours. I have a more enduring memory of the second such journey, in January of 1953.