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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.
As the end of the contract approached I learned the team was to be split, and each part augmented to create two full teams, one to undertake an identical contract on a second of Eggborough’s four boilers whilst the other moved to Ironbridge to repeat the work on one of that site’s two. The contract manager was going to head up the Ironbridge team and wanted me as his planner. There would be a lodging allowance and mileage for travel home every Friday afternoon and return on Saturday night/early Sunday morning. (The standard pattern of work on these contracts was Sunday – Friday with Saturday off).
After discussing this turn of events with Freda, we agreed that she would give up her job if we could find a holiday let in the area for the whole three months. The contract manager was happy for me to use my allowances in this way. We found a cottage in the village of Plaish, between Much Wenlock and Church Stretton. The proprietor had just finished modernising it and put it on the holiday let market, so was pleased to be able to let it to us for the whole summer. It meant that we had our evenings, Saturdays and August Bank Holiday to spend together exploring the Shropshire countryside. It was also near enough to Hereford for more regular contact with our relatives there than we usually had.
Living in the country made us realise how much we had come to miss the joy of being surrounded by nature and creating a garden. Added to this was the long drive from Cleethorpes to the company head quarters or any of the power stations. We decided to look for a house closer to Snaith and the motorway system. We looked at the outskirts of Pontefract, a new estate in Goole, and a number of other places before we settled on a small development just coming to market in the village of Eastrington, a short distance from the ancient market town of Howden.
I was approaching 50 so needed a 15 year mortgage. At the time interest rates were very high by current standards. However, interest charges could be offset against income tax, as could the premiums for life insurance. The financial services industry came up with a scheme whereby the loan was covered by a life insurance policy which would pay out a lump sum at the end of the term – an endowment.
Later, many firms would be accused of miss-selling such products because they continued to encourage clients to take them on when the tax incentives were no longer available.
At the time, however, it was ideal for people like us for whom the capital element of any repayment would need to be relatively large in order to pay back the loan in such a short time. We moved in early in April of 1991.
The winter months in the company’s business were spent compiling estimates and plans for future work. The team was familiar with all of the routine tasks and knew from past experience how long they should take and what the resultant cost would be. The “Low Nox” installation was an exception, but now that we had completed three installations that, too, could be estimated and planned with confidence.
Up to that time contract plans had been constructed manually. A decision was taken to computerise the operation. The company purchased new PCs and a project planning software package called Pertmaster. One of the young software developers who had been a member of the development team at Pertmaster was recruited to oversee the introduction of the system and a group of us spent most of our working hours during January 1991 holed up in a hotel seminar room learning, not only how to use the software, but a good deal about the fundamentals of PC architecture at the time.
The work plan for the overhaul “season” in 1991 included a repeat of 1990 – two outages at Eggborough and one at Ironbridge. I should not have been surprised to learn that I was not required at Eggborough. When June arrived and we began work at Ironbridge with most of the team from the previous summer, the possibility of taking a holiday let was not a practical option. Unlike before, when we had friends in Cleethorpes who could, and did, keep an eye on our property in our absence, we did not yet know anyone in Eastrington well enough to do the same.
I spent my nights from Sunday to Thursday lodging in a boarding house together with most of the other team members, driving home on Friday evening and back again very early on Sunday morning.
With the contract ended, in the autumn, it was back to planning future work in head office. With major work now completed on many stations – ours was not the only company in the business – the future work load was likely to be less intensive.
For my 50th birthday Freda contrived to surprise me by inviting a group of our old friends from Cleethorpes Liberal Party. I knew nothing about it. They all arrived whilst I was in the bath and must have come in very quietly. I was completely taken aback when I came down the stairs, which led right into our living room, to find them all sitting there!
One morning, a couple of weeks after that, I was called into the manager’s office and told to pack up my things and go home. I was being made redundant. I could, if so minded, return on a temporary contract basis, next summer.
Meanwhile Ian had taken a job as a community psychiatric nurse in Surrey, working from a building attached to a large hospital where he was able to live in the nurses’ accommodation. There he had met an Irish woman who was working in the same hospital.
An occasional series in which I share some significant events from my past.
Younger people may be surprised to learn that as recently as the 1960s one did not become an adult under English law until one reached the age of 21. I passed that milestone in November 1962. It meant a second pay rise in 3 months. Prior to that my wage had increased each year on the anniversary of my starting my apprenticeship – 8th August. I treated myself to a block of driving lessons and took my test in January. The main advantage of having a car, and a license to drive it, was that my girl friend and I would no longer have to rely on public transport, our bikes, or lifts with friends, to get to town for work and entertainment or to the dances in village halls which we enjoyed.
The first 3 months of 1963 turned out to be one of the coldest for a very long time with snow that hung around until well into March. And local authorities did not salt the roads back then, either. They applied grit which was meant to provide a degree of adhesion on compacted snow. It’s not surprising that I failed a driving test in such conditions. I booked a second test for some time in March. Meanwhile I was looking for a car. For the equivalent of two weeks earnings I purchased a prewar Morris 8. I came to an arrangement with the farmer who owned a shed near our house and stored the car there. I took additional lessons with a friend in his van. Nevertheless, I failed again at my second attempt.
Whilst waiting for my third test, scheduled for early June, I took the engine apart and ‘decoked’ it. This involved removing the accumulation of carbon on the cylinders and cylinder head, cleaning and adjusting the spark plugs and the carburetor and then putting it all back together again. With my test passed we were able to take full advantage of our new mobility through the summer. Except that one part of the car I’d not expected to let me down, did.
The lever that operates the clutch when one depresses the clutch pedal on these old cars pushes the clutch disks apart via a carbon pad which, over time, wears out. If not attended to promptly the matching surface quickly becomes rough. This roughness then causes the new carbon pad to wear out very quickly. Without a clutch it’s not possible to change gear. As a result we had several embarrassing incidents wherein we had to push the car into the kerb in order to carry out running repairs.
By the last weekend in August the engine was starting to make worrying noises, over-heating, and generally becoming a cause for concern. I knew the agricultural engineer who maintained the tractors and other machinery at a big farm where I had often worked at weekends and during holidays from my main employment.
I asked his advice
“Your big-ends have gone,” was the verdict.
“Can it be repaired?”
“Needs to be stripped down, the cam shaft ground and new shell bearings fitted.”
“Can you do that – and how much will it cost?”
“I can, but a less costly alternative would be to purchase a re-conditioned engine. Cost you around forty quid.”
At double what I’d paid for the car that seemed to be beyond affordability. How were we supposed to save up to get married with expenses like that?
By then I’d had another raise in pay – a surprisingly big one. At the end of my apprenticeship my employer was not obliged to offer me a job, but he had, and on terms that exceeded the rate agreed between the Employers’ Federation and the Trade Unions. Even so, £40 was a big expense. I conceived a plan which I put to my girl friend later that Saturday.
But before I explain that I need to backtrack to 1962. I had ‘popped the question’ (“How do you fancy being Mrs Parker?”) around 1:30 on the morning of December 27th 1961, as I wished her goodnight outside her home after the boxing night dance. I’d explained that she should have an engagement ring for her 17th birthday present the following June and that for now it would be our secret. We would not be able to get married until a year or two after I’d finished my apprenticeship as it would take a while to save up enough money to set up home together.
Courting during that long cold spell at the beginning of 1963 was not something either of us wanted to repeat. Being alone together inside somewhere warm cost money. Outside, we froze. And negotiating the road between my home and hers on my bike on frozen snow was extremely hazardous. Now the failure of the car to offer a solution made it seem imperative that we tie the knot as soon as possible. We had agreed to each take one of our statutory weeks’ holiday in mid-September. The plan I put to my fiancee that Saturday at the end of August was that we get married the weekend before that ‘holiday’ (we were not planning to go away) and use the week as our honeymoon.
I’d looked at advertisements in the local paper for flats and apartments in town and it seemed that we should be able to get somewhere to live quite cheaply. The notion was financially viable when one took account of the cost of daily travel to work and the amounts we each contributed to our family budgets. And we would not need to spend money on ‘going out’ in order to spend time together.
She accepted the idea and we swung into action, making appointments to view various flats after work on Monday and to talk to the vicar about booking the church. That’s where we came up against the only snag – the banns (formal announcement of the marriage) had to be published on 3 consecutive Sundays. There were only two before the date (Saturday 14th) we had chosen. So we decided to hold the ceremony in the middle of our holiday week.
It was a frugal affair, arranged, as it was, in such a hurry. The young man who had allowed me to get driving practice in his van and who frequently accompanied us to dances agreed to be my ‘best man’. We each have two sisters who took on the roles of bride’s maid although there was neither time nor money to dress them in anything other than their usual ‘Sunday Best’. The bride wore a navy blue suit and a pill box hat. I wore the same suit I wore to dances. The reception was held in the bride’s home – booze in the garage, sandwiches in the kitchen.
Before that, of course, there was the ‘stag night’. Equally unusual, this requires me to backtrack briefly to the summer of 1958 and my attempts to re-integrate into the village community after 6 years at boarding school. Among other things, I joined the bell ringers at the village church. We practiced once a week and rang on Sundays for evensong which was held fortnightly at 6pm.
On weeks when evensong was not held there was matins, a 10 o’clock service for which it proved impossible to muster a team of ringers. Fortunately the tower was equipped with something called an Ellacombe apparatus. This enabled each bell to be rung from a single array of ropes by a single operator – usually me. It was possible to ring some hymn tunes on this apparatus and I did, as well as a few ‘changes’.
We would ring for any weddings that took place in our church, usually on a Saturday morning or afternoon. When it came to my wedding, however, that was held in a different church, the one in my fiancee’s parish which did not have a ring of bells. So it was agreed we would celebrate our wedding, and my leaving the team after 5 years service, by ringing a quarter peel. This was, of course, followed by an adjournment to the village pub for a small libation.
More than a few of our friends and relatives assumed a very different reason for our haste to get married – after all some of them had been forced into marriage in order to avoid giving birth outside of wedlock. How times have changed!
Footnote: the subject of ‘change ringing’ and the definition of a ‘quarter peel’ are dealt with here.
My second Novel, Summer Day, was originally published in the spring of 2012. Earlier this year I re-issued it with a few changes and a revised cover, thanks to Sharon Brownlie (cover) and Katherine Hamilton Pfiel (editorial suggestions).
As it is set in July 1947 I’ve decided to make the Kindle version free for the first 5 days of July 2017. Here’s a link to a blog post about the book’s genesis: http://cassandra2012.blogspot.ie/2012/04/england-after-war.html
Four small meadows surrounded the cottage we lived in when I was a child. Each summer these fields provided a hay harvest. My earliest memory of the process is of using wooden rakes and twin-tined pitchforks, or pikes as they were called, to gather the hay into piles called cocks. A horse drawn cart would then arrive and hay from the cocks was lifted with the pikes onto the cart. The final destination for the hay was the dutch barn in a corner of the meadow closest to the cottage. In later years the cart would be drawn by a small Fordson tractor. Behind the cart a mechanical loader lifted hay from the swathes and deposited it onto the cart.
Once we moved to the former Manse I would spend Easter and summer school holidays doing casual labour on a large farm a mile to the north-west of the village. These days it is common to see young men and women from Eastern Europe doing farm work in England. It might surprise some to learn that, on this particular farm on the border between England and Wales, in the late 1950s, there was a Polish refugee working alongside a German former prisoner of war. They, and their English wives and children, lived in adjacent farm cottages.
I remember picking potatoes, cutting thistles, and something called ‘rogueing’. This involved walking through a field of wheat, pulling out wild oats. These ‘rogues’ were stuffed into sacks and carried to the field entrance. I also remember more hay-making, this time using a pitchfork to lift bales onto a cart, then, later, arranging the bales in the barn. The higher the stack became, the closer to the corrugated steel roof one worked. The heat and dust became over-powering.
Although I have always been physically small, never weighing much more than 130lbs, I enjoyed physical labour. I still do. Your back might ache, your muscles burn, your hands smart, sweat stream from every pore. Nevertheless there is something exhillerating about the experience, unmatched by anything else.
By far the most unpleasant task I had to perform took place one Easter holiday. I had to assist the fellow who had been engaged to castrate and dock the tails of that year’s new lambs. We worked in a small enclosure constructed from straw bales. My job was to capture the untreated lambs, one by one. I would then sit on a bale facing the contractor, holding the lamb against my body with the animal’s tail and genitals exposed to the man opposite. This gentleman would then use a sharpened pen-knife to cut through the tail, cauterising the wound with an iron instrument which was kept hot in the flames of a Primus stove. He would then use another specially designed instrument to remove the other appendage. This wound was treated with an ointment that, to me, resembled the grease used on the farm’s machinery. The cries of the lambs and the acrid smell of burned flesh still live with me 60 years later.
I am sure that such tasks continue to be part of the annual cycle of farming practices. I am equally sure that those performing them do so in a much more hygienic and humane manner.
Have you ever worked on a farm? Perhaps you are a farmer, or worked on the land in vacations whilst studying. Do share your experiences in the comments.