It took us more than twelve hours to go the one hundred and thirty odd miles from our old house to our new home in Donyatt, a small village just the other side of Ilminster.
In great excitement we awoke on the Saturday morning and loaded the car ready for the trip. Mum had made up a huge packet of sandwiches and a couple of bottles of tea for refreshments on the way. We were supposed to leave at twelve noon, but Claude was up at the pub saying goodbye to his mates and it was decided that we'd wait for him. When he hadn't come back to the house by two o'clock in the afternoon Mum & John decided to leave without him, much to my delight.
With all the food and drink, one of the old orange boxes full of goods on the carrier at the back, tools, the dog and the four of us piled inside, the old car had a fair weight to pull along. But, we thought nothing of this as John wrestled with the gears to get the over-loaded car up and down the hills. Now, when I look back at the problems we had that day, I think it was probably a good thing that Claude did stay up the pub.
High Wycombe and Marlow were passed and we turned onto the London to Bath road, towards Reading, at Knowl Hill. Then we were cruising down ‘Waterer’s Floral Mile’. This was a stretch of the Bath Road, near Wargrave, where the Waterer’s seed firm had all their flowers and vegetables growing in long garden plots each side of the road. There were rows and rows of flowers and plants that, presumably, they used as a show-case for their products, a source for next seasons seeds, and experiments.
We turned off the Bath road after passing the busy town of Reading and headed south down through Basingstoke towards Salisbury until we veered right onto the A 303 road that would take us directly to Ilminster. With eighty miles left to go we stopped here for a quick bite to eat and a cup of tea.
Continuing on, we passed Andover and then the Thruxton race circuit came into view on the right. I was thrilled to see a real motor racing circuit. But, I was even more thrilled when, just after Amesbury I looked out to see that we were passing Stonehenge. This was something that I’d only read about in books and suddenly there it was right before my eyes. I could hardly believe it.
The sun was setting as we left Stonehenge behind in the distance and headed out onto the southern end of the Salisbury Plain. It seemed very eerie and wild to me as we rode over that open country with very few houses around and only the village of Wylye to break the monotony. Val had dropped off to sleep but my eyes were glued to the ever-changing scenery.
By the time we’d reached Mere, it was dark enough to have the headlights on. They were very dim and John was forced to slow down a bit. We pottered through Wincanton but by the time we’d passed Sparkford the engine was running very rough and the lights were almost non-existent. John pulled into a large lay-by between West Camel and Ilchester to see if he could find the problem. He suspected that the battery wasn’t being charged by the dynamo and finally decided to see if we could get some help a bit farther along the road.
With no lights and Mum leaning out of the window to shout at him when he got too near the kerb, we crept up the road until we spied the gateway to a farm showing up in the lights of a passing car. Up the driveway we crawled and shortly Mum was banging on the farmhouse door. The only response she got was the loud barking of a couple of dogs from somewhere around the back of the house, nobody answered Mum’s knocking. After five minutes she gave up and felt her way through the darkness back to the car. We could see the black bulk of a barn nearby and Mum wondered if we should take a chance and bed down on the straw for the night then get help in the morning. But, as we could see the lights of Ilchester in the distance, it was decided to try and get there instead. Once again Mum guided John by leaning from the window and watching the almost invisible kerb. In this manner we crept into Ilchester.
Our luck was in when we found an all-night garage and the owner loaned us a battery. Mum offered to leave her watch as security, but the garage owner wouldn’t hear of it. He told us that we only had fifteen more miles to go and that we should get ourselves to our new home safely and worry about bringing the battery back after we’d settled in. With profuse thanks, we set off once more into the darkness, grateful that we now had some lights. Meanwhile, Val slept on.
It wasn’t too long before we were in Ilminster and, spying a policeman plodding along under the light of a dim street lamp we stopped and asked him the way to Donyatt. For some reason, John didn’t seem very happy about asking a policeman for directions. Soon we were off again, going in the direction pointed out by the policeman.
But, instead of turning left at Horton Cross, John turned right and we became lost. In the end he had to turn around and head back to Ilminster. To make matters worse, the lights were failing again.
Back in Ilminster, we rode around looking for a lighted window or someone from whom we could get fresh directions. Mum spied a light down the end of a long path and John stopped so as she could go and seek the directions we needed. Soon we could hear her banging at the door. Although she banged two or three times, nobody answered. But the same policeman who’d given us directions earlier was just down the road and he’d heard the banging. Suddenly we could see him hurrying along the pavement under the dim street lamps.
John became very agitated and hissed at Mum to hurry back to the car so as we could go. But Mum didn’t hear him and we watched from the darkened car as the policeman went down the path, shone his torch on Mum and asked her what was going on.
Mum explained that we were the people who he’d given directions for Donyatt to earlier on and that we’d taken the wrong turning, so we’d come back for new directions. Laughing to himself, the policeman gave Mum the directions again. The engine barely turned over as John started the car and he seemed to be getting more agitated. Mum came over with the policeman following as he tried to give John some final instructions through the window. Hardly was Mum in her seat when John switched the lights on and lurched off, leaving the policeman standing in the middle of the road.
As if to add to our troubles (and John's further agitation), we hadn’t gone ten metres when there was a great bang and the left rear part of the car dropped down with a crashing jolt. What the policeman thought is anybody’s guess but, as the car still seemed to be moving along John kept going as if the devil himself was behind us.
As soon as we were out of the town, John stopped and we had a look at the back end while Val, who had been awakened by the jolt, got out for a stretch. We had expected to at least see a blown tyre on the left rear wheel, but it was still inflated and we couldn't see any other serious problem. John decided to carry on slowly and hope we would reach Donyatt before anything else happened to the car.
As we crept along those last couple of miles, John confessed that he had no driving license and he’d been most anxious when we’d had to ask the policeman for directions just in case the policeman had asked to see his license. Of course, having no license meant that he couldn’t get any insurance either, no wonder he was worried!
Once more with no lights, the motor running rough, Mum leaning out of the window and the added bonus of a listing back end, we followed the policeman’s directions to the letter and finally arrived at our new home in Donyatt. It was twenty past two in the morning.
We were surprised to find that there was no gas cooker in the house. But, there was a small electric stove and Mum decided to make us all a nice hot cup of tea. It took half an hour for the kettle to boil on that electric stove. By the time we’d had our ‘cuppa’ and rolled up in our blankets on the floor, it was nearly four o’clock. Soon we were all fast asleep.
Donyatt village was a typical Somerset village of maybe a couple of dozen houses, a church, a small bakery (where we could buy real bread straight from the oven), a river (the River Isle), and a railway station (by then disused). There could have been a public house but I wouldn’t remember. The local pub that I recall was called ‘The Lamb’ and was half a mile away towards Horton Cross. Just over the main road from our small estate was a grocery shop. A Mrs. Smythe owned this shop and she was a short, plump woman who always seemed to be laughing and treated her customers like royalty. Once a week, we could go over to Broadway Hill a mile away, and watch a film shown in an old village hall. It was a far cry from having three beautiful cinemas nearby as we’d had while living in Amersham. But, there was a decent cinema in Chard, a town about four miles away. The whole area was surrounded by dairy farms.
Another change in our lives at that time was the fact that Val and I stopped attending church. I had missed a few Sunday services back in Amersham, due to some of my adventures. But, when we moved down to Somerset ‘going to church on Sundays’ became a thing of the past. I can’t recall if John attended church there (I know that he went to church at Reading later) but I never discovered if there was a Catholic church nearby, I was too busy doing other things.
As we waited for the furniture to arrive on that first morning, John and I had a look at the car. We suspected that the dynamo wasn’t working and this proved to be correct. Upon checking the listing rear end, we found that the spring had broken and the body was sitting on the axle. There wasn’t much we could do about that for a while.
The furniture lorry arrived around about noon and I wasn’t very happy when the rear doors were opened and there was Claude sitting amongst the furniture with the budgie’s cage on his lap. I thought that we’d got rid of him.
The house was soon filled up with our furniture and the removalists went on their way. We were in a bit of a shambles as nobody seemed to know which bedrooms they wanted. Tired out and with better things to do, Mum poked us willy-nilly into the rooms until we could sort ourselves out over the next few days. Unfortunately, I landed up in a bedroom with Claude for some reason.
After tea, some of the local children, who had seen us unloading the furniture lorry, came to the door to invite Val and I out to play a type of ‘pom-pom’. Val and I hadn’t played that game for a couple of years and were surprised to find people of our age that still played those sorts of games. We’d eventually come to realise that these country folk lived a much slower life than we had been used to.
There were two brothers, Peter and John Knight, a young girl of Val’s age named Jean Board and a lad named Peter Stone in amongst the group that we played with that evening. Jean became Val’s best friend and the two Peters became my mates. After a good evening of play with our new friends, Val and I went contentedly indoors. It wasn’t long before I was in bed, little knowing that another small drama in my life was about to take place.
I was reading a book and didn’t take any notice of Claude as he came into the bedroom, undressed and climbed into his bed. A while later, I became aware that he was shivering and complaining that he was very cold. I was surprised because it wasn’t cold outside and I was as warm as toast. I told him that I was warm enough in my bed, and suddenly, before I could say or do anything, he’d jumped out of his bed, leapt across the room, and forced his way into my bed beside me.
Now, I knew very little about man’s desire for woman at the time and nothing at all about some men’s desire for another man. As the brute wrapped his arms about my body and tried to kiss me, I felt a revulsion that nearly made me sick. He was a big bloke and I was very frightened. My instinct told me that this man wasn’t normal in my eyes. But fortunately the fear and my jangling senses gave me the strength to fight back. I lashed out with fists, feet and knees. I’d fought back with such violence and speed that within seconds he was laying out on the floor with me standing over him in my pyjamas threatening to call Mum and John if he didn't get back over to his own side of the room. He climbed back into his own bed, mumbled an apology, and was soon fast asleep as if nothing had happened.
But I lay awake for hours, shocked and ready to repel any further attack that might eventuate. It would be a few more years before I’d learn about homosexuality and realise that I had come very close to being a victim of this (to me) un-natural act. But my senses had warned me that night that something completely against my grain would happen if I didn’t dampen Claude’s ardour very fast.
Fortunately he kept his hands to himself from then onwards and the following night I was in my own room. I never told Mum or John about the incident at the time. Unlike these days in the nineties, things like that were hard to talk about and we were not educated in such matters. I wonder how many boys fell victim to this man just because such topics were not discussed!
A couple of days later, John and I went back up to Ilchester to return the borrowed battery. The kind garage owner had charged our battery up, and he repaired the dynamo and fixed the broken spring while we waited. Thanks to his kindness we'd managed to get to our destination that night, and now our old car was as good as new again.
The next day John went along to the cable factory to see if he could get a job and was astounded to be told that the cable factory was to close down within two weeks. It was obvious to us that the family, who we’d exchanged houses with, must have known about the closure and how hard work would be to find as a result. But they’d assured Mum and John that there was always plenty of work at that factory and we’d taken their word for it. Luckily for us John managed to find employment at the Horlick’s factory, just west of Ilminster, and although he hated the job he was very grateful for the work as there was nothing else around.
Meanwhile, Mum was getting to know some of our neighbours and Val and I were getting on well with our new friends. Peter Knight was a quiet, friendly lad who liked going for walks in the countryside just like I did. We got on very well together. His younger brother, John, often accompanied us on our wanderings.
Peter Stone was the almost complete opposite to Peter Knight. He was one of those friendly, dashing boys that was good in class, and out on the sports field. The idol of all the girls, popular with all the lads, his personality and respect for others earned him the admiration of young and old alike.
I wouldn’t have the chance to know Peter Stone for very long, but I enjoyed his company and saw in him a friend who could possibly take Alf’s place in my life. Val fell for his dashing manner and good looks and he, in return, seemed to take a shine to her.
Jean was a very nice country girl and I usually teamed up with her to make a foursome so as Val could be with Peter. Of course, it was all innocent fun and most of the time we’d wander the hills as a large group with Peter Knight, John, and others. We shared our friendship and enjoyed the company of everyone.
Val and I started school at Ilminster. This town, with a population of about two thousand five hundred people, was a couple of miles from Donyatt and the school was on the road leading out of the town towards Chard. I soon settled down at this, my eighth school (not counting the nursery schools that I attended).
One incident stands out from the first few days at that school and concerns two young girls that were probably having a joke with me.
Dressed in shorts and singlet (vest), I went out with my class onto the sports field. A young girl came up to me and, running her hands over my shoulders, told me that I looked so muscular and strong. Blushing with embarrassment, I turned away only to be confronted by a second girl who quickly asked me if I wanted to be her boyfriend. Amazed at this bold approach, I stuttered and mumbled a few unintelligible words and changed direction again. But the first girl was once more at my side and told me that, as she’d seen me first, I should go out with her. My cheeks burnt as if they were on fire, I tried to ignore them and get on with some games while the two girls followed me around and argued with each other. In the end, I told them that I didn’t have time to go out with girls. This didn’t really settle the matter and every few days after that one or other of the girls would come up to me and ask if I had any spare time yet. I even started receiving little notes from one of them. As I became more confident and settled in, I laughed with those two girls about the game they were playing on me (after all, I was still wearing the famous brown ‘Fatty Arbuckle’ suit - who would look at me while wearing such clothing?). But they both insisted that they were serious and their rivalry went on until the start of the summer holidays when I'd have cause to leave the school and never knowingly see the girls again.
We’d only been living in Donyatt for a couple of weeks when a large comet appeared in the night sky. This was the Arend-Roland comet that passed close to the earth in April of that year (1957). I can still recall my wonder when, for two or three nights, it was directly above and I lay on my back each evening in a nearby meadow just looking up at all its splendour. The tail streaked across the sky and the colours were really beautiful. It was as if someone had taken a photograph of a roman candle firework and stuck it up in the starry heavens. I found it very hard to imagine that this comet was millions of miles out in space, I felt that I could almost reach up and touch it. When I saw Halley’s comet 30 years later in 1987 it was a real disappointment compared with the Arend-Roland comet, especially after all the fuss that was made about Halley’s comet. And yet, in spite of being one of the most perfect comet sightings of my life it seems that so little is heard or written of the Arend-Roland comet. Fortunately I have the wonderous sight burned into my memory!
Each morning, before school, I’d get up early and walk up to a copse in Shave Lane where I’d hunt for a big, fallen branch or a bundle of wood to drag back for the wood-burning water heater and the living room fire. That copse was beautiful at five o’clock in the morning. The rising sun shone in long rays through the early morning mists that surrounded the trees, the dawn chorus of birds echoed from every corner of the wood, and the night animals scampered to their lairs while the day animals started their shift. I never failed to stop a while and take in this scene of rural solitude. Then I’d hunt around for a load of wood and drag it back to the house, usually before the sleepy village awoke. It wouldn’t be long before I’d have the fires going, and the rest of the house would stir.
The little electric cooker was useless and Mum very often cooked over the open fire in the living room. One morning, just after I’d got a good fire going in that grate, Mum put the frying pan over the flames ready to cook John’s breakfast. I was out in the back room laying the fire under the water heater when I heard her shout out. I dashed into the living room to find that the frying pan had tipped over a bit and the fat had caught alight. Great flames were roaring up the chimney and the flaring fat was heading towards the carpet in small rivulets. The handle of the pan was sticking out of the flames and, knowing that I’d have to do something fast I grabbed the handle and rushed the burning pan out of the back door as steady as I could. Meanwhile, Mum threw salt on the fire to try and prevent the chimney from catching alight. Soon everything was back to normal except for me. I had blisters and burns to both hands and my eyebrows and hair were singed where the flames had wafted into my face as I’d carried the flaming pan out of the house. But I was young and fit, healed quickly, and a couple of days saw me right again.
Mum kept me home from school for the couple of days while my hands were healing up a bit, and we had some fun in the bargain. Although she also had no license, Mum started driving the car around. We lived right out in the country and police were rarely seen (or needed). For the next couple of afternoons we enjoyed the adventure of crunching gears, two-wheeled cornering, and headlong descents down steep hills, while Mum ‘learned to drive’.
On the second day Mum stalled the car while ascending a very steep hill, and we rolled back into the roadside ditch. As we stood there wondering what to do, a large black car came storming up behind us and stopped. Two men got out with offers of help which Mum accepted gratefully and it wasn’t long before the car was out of the ditch. As the two men had roared off to continue their journey, Mum had said to me that she was very pleased at how I’d shown such respect for the two good gentlemen by calling one of them 'Sir'. It was then that I thought to tell her that the gentleman in question was the Headmaster at school.
The next day I was back at school and the Headmaster took the trouble to come into my classroom and ask how Mum's ‘driving lessons’ were going, much to the delight of my class mates who knew the story. Mum continued with her driving lessons, taking her new friends out for a spin whenever she had the time. When I’d see her and her friends out in that car, I used to think of a ‘mobile’ chicken coop full of old mother hens!
John was on very poor wages at that time and so, when I heard that one of the local farmers was looking for someone to paint all his gates and fences, I hopped on my bike and raced down to apply for the job. Much to my delight the farmer said that I could begin the following Saturday morning.
Dunpole Farm was on the south side of Hearne Hill. It was a typical dairy farm with (as I recall) many acres of lush green meadows and a large herd of cows. The farm owner was a Mr. England and I came to adore him and his family. Mr. and Mrs. England had two daughters and the eldest one, Joan, went to the same school that Val and I attended. Unfortunately I cannot now remember the name of the youngest daughter.
Mr. England’s father (Old Mr. England) also lived at the farm and he reminded me of my uncle Bob as he had very similar mannerisms. He was the typical ‘Somerset farmer’ with a short-brimmed, floppy hat on his head, rosy cheeks around a laughing mouth, a knee-length, tan-coloured smock, leather gaiters around his lower legs, and an enormous pair of hob-nailed boots on his feet to complete the picture. For an old man, he had heaps of energy and he spent hours showing me things around the farm and some of the tricks of his trade. It was this old man who taught me how to drive a tractor, and pointed out the dangers if I ever abused such machinery. I can see us now, bumping across the fields, my body springing up and down on the tractor seat, while Old Mr. England clung to the back and emphasised his every instruction with a wave of an old knobbly walking-stick. Of course, young Mr. England, his son, didn't see a lot of the mischief that his father and I got up to half the time. But, I was learning from an old master and the old man was very strict when it came to respect for the farm machinery. A very tragic event would occur shortly that would prove his point.
But, back to the first Saturday of work at that farm. I arrived early and Mr. England Introduced me to the rest of his lovely family before I was given a large pot of creosote, a big floppy brush, and a bundle of old rags. Soon I was happily humming away to myself while I slapped the creosote onto the gates and fences around the farmyard. I worked hard and fast, wanting to create a good impression just in case the farmer ever needed any more work done in the future. At the mid-morning break, Mrs. England brought out a jug of orange squash and a plate of home-made cakes, for which I was very grateful after my long, early morning stint of painting. Then I worked on again until I was invited to sit with the family for dinner. And what a dinner it was. When we'd finished, I could hardly stand. But, it wasn't long before I was burning energy as I got stuck into the painting again. Through the afternoon I worked away at my job, having the occasional rest as Mrs. England kept me supplied with orange squash. Every so often Mr. England would pass by and tell me that I was doing a good job. At the end of the day I hadn’t quite finished and Mr. England asked me to go in the next morning.
I was covered from head to foot in creosote and Mr. England drained off a tin of tractor fuel so that I could try and wash it off. He scrubbed at my face with a fuel-soaked rag and managed to get it fairly clean then I dipped my hands and arms into the fuel and was soon looking more normal again. But as I rode my bike back up to Donyatt my face and arms began to feel as if they were on fire. As soon as I arrived home I had a cool bath to try and stop the burning sensation. My face and arms were very red and sore for a couple of days but soon healed up.
A wiser lad, I went to work the next morning with an old pair of overalls on and it didn’t take me long to finish the painting. Mr. England asked me to amuse myself for an hour until the mid-morning break and I wandered over to the milking shed.
A man was cleaning the shed floor with a stiff broom and hose. He introduced himself as Danny and, grabbing the hose I helped him finish washing down the floor and milking stalls. This was the start of another friendship. Danny and I would work together whenever I had the chance. We’d call the cows in, milk them, and clean the shed spotless when the cows were back in the meadow again. He taught me how to milk cows by hand as well as by machine, and we very often sat down to a glass of fresh milk each after we’d put the milk through the cooler. All the cows had names and it wasn’t long before I began to recognise a few of them. Meanwhile, Mr. England had found more jobs for me around the farm.
I helped him to repair the electric fences around the fields. I tidied up sheds, cleaned out stalls, helped to spread dung, and feed the calves and chickens. In my spare moments I’d enjoy myself with Old Mr. England or Danny. I often went in early before school to help Danny to milk the cows, then went back in the afternoon after school to do some work or chatter to Old Mr. England. But, I mostly worked all day Saturday and Sunday mornings. Mr. England paid me for every minute that I was on the farm, whether I worked or chatted. Mrs. England made sure that I was never left out at lunch breaks or meal times, and I began to feel like one of the family. They were so good to me. Of course, the money helped to supplement John’s meagre wage.
Claude began to get more drunk each evening through drinking the local cider. He behaved himself where I was concerned, but was making a mess of his life. One day he just suddenly vanished and we didn’t know what had happened to him. His clothes were still in his bedroom where he’d left them and it was all a bit of a mystery to us. But I didn’t miss him and was able to relax once more.
Then a tragic accident happened which stunned almost everybody in the Ilminster area.
Peter Stone also worked on one of the local farms. He enjoyed the work as much as I did and we often talked about our respective farms, how good we were looked after by the farmers, and how experienced with the farm machinery we were becoming. Like myself, he’d been taught to drive a tractor by an experienced farmer, but he was streets ahead of me in his own experience and knowledge of farm machinery.
One day about this time, Peter was happily getting on with his work when suddenly the tractor rolled over while being turned around and Peter’s head had become trapped under one of the rear wheels. Peter died instantly and left a shocked community mourning the death of a wonderful young person who had shown the promise of going a long way in life.
We hadn’t known Peter Stone all that long, but even still we’d come to admire him and enjoy his company. I was staggered when I heard of the accident and Val, of course, took the news very hard. The funeral was attended by his family and relatives, a huge crowd of friends, teachers and interested locals, all gathered to pay their last respects to a lad who had proved his worthiness during his short life as a part of a country community.
Peter deserves remembering and these last few paragraphs are in his memory.
And so, through this terribly tragic event, we lost one of our best friends. Peter Knight was a very understanding lad for his age and he gave good comfort and friendly support to Val. I’m sure that he and Val would have married each other if we’d stayed in Somerset for they became very close.
My life wasn’t all work and nearly every Saturday night a gang of us would go around to Peter Knight’s house to watch ‘Six-Five Special’ on his family’s television (in those days not every family had a television and it was a 'night out' to go round to a friend's home to watch a television). Six-Five Special was the pop music show of that time and we thought it was wonderful to see all the singers, that we’d only heard on radio up to that time, in action. Tab Hunter was the most popular singer with his recording of ‘Young Love’. Lonnie Donegan had ‘Cumberland Gap’ in the charts, Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey were going well with ‘Freight Train’, ‘Blueberry Hill’ by Fats Domino had us all singing through our nose, and Little Richard satisfied our lust for fast, noisy music with songs like ‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘Tutti Frutti’, ‘She’s Got It’ and ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’.
On Sunday afternoons I’d go for walks with my friends, or for a ride on my bike. Hearne Hill was one of our favorite destinations when going for walks. From our home this hill looked like a shallow pointed cone with a copse on the summit. But the first time I went up there, I found that it was a long, narrow ridge and we were looking at it from one end when in the village. The copse was quite large and we had some wonderful times there watching the local wild animals and birds. Sometimes I’d happily walk up there on my own and then the copse would become mysterious and quiet without the company and noise of my companions.
Another place that I found exciting was an aerodrome somewhere just north of Ilminster. I think it was called Merrifield Aerodrome. Jet fighters operated from this aerodrome and it was probably a training base as there always seemed to be fighters taking off and landing. I spent many evenings watching those planes roaring in and out of that ‘drome.
One of the first towns that I rode to, as I began to explore the area in a wider circle, was Chard. This town was said to be the highest town in Somerset. I’d made a note of where the cinema was situated in Chard and promised myself that I would ride there and see a film when the chance arose. A couple of weekends later that chance came.
The old brown suit that I still had to wear to school had well passed its days of usefulness and I desperately needed some new school clothes. One Saturday morning, Mum told me that I’d have to take the day off from work and go on an errand to Ilminster for her. I wasn’t very happy about it but did as I was told.
Armed with a note I rode on into Ilminster, after dashing down to Mr. England and explaining that I couldn't work that morning, and found the shop. It was a clothing shop and I still thought nothing of it as I went in and handed the note over the counter. Then, to my amazement, I was led over to a rack of suits and told to pick one out. I couldn’t believe my luck and took ages to go all through the suits until I finally chose a nice light grey suit that fitted perfectly. But it didn’t end there for I was then taken along to the shoe section and fitted out with a pair of shiny black shoes.
Thanking the shop keeper, I dashed back home and was soon dressed in my new clothes. Mum laughed as I looked at myself in the mirror. I felt so smart and wondered where I could go to show off my new suit. Then I remembered the cinema in Chard and decided to go there that afternoon. I called to see if Peter could go with me, but Mrs. Knight came to the door and told me that he was already out. Then her eyes nearly bulged out of her head when she noticed my new clothes, and she told me that I looked ‘very dapper’. The way she said the word ‘dapper’ in her West Country accent made me laugh and I was still giggling to myself as I rode off.
I arrived in Chard and swaggered around the town until the cinema opened. Soon I was enjoying a Randolf Scott (I can still recall the star but not the movie title) cowboy film and feeling that I looked like a million dollars (even if it was dark in there).
The next morning, I was back at work amongst the cow dung, mucking out the milking shed as I told Old Mr. England and Danny about my new suit and shoes.
The school summer holidays were approaching fast. I was still being ‘teased’ by the two girls and one more incident occurred that I can recall before the start of those holidays.
A new arts and crafts section had been added onto the existing buildings. Our class was roped in to help move all the materials from the old arts and crafts room into the new section. There were a lot of large tea-chests full of materials and we were instructed to carry them down the corridor, one tea-chest between two people. The two girls rushed to help me and soon we were staggering awkwardly towards the new section as the two girls fought good-naturedly for their side of our tea-chest. The one trip with those girls was enough to cause me to dodge away from them and soon I was carrying tea-chests on my own. The girls must have abandoned me at that point, and so, I think, did Lady Luck for I’d done about five trips in this manner when a group of pupils raced back around a corner in the corridor and collided with me. Losing balance, I tipped sideways and the heavy tea-chest struck the corner of the new corridor wall, knocking out a lump of plaster work, just as the teacher appeared. That incident earned me a good clout around the ear from that teacher, but I think it can be safely said that I was the first pupil to damage that new arts and crafts section.
One evening about that time I arrived home from school to find that Claude had returned. I can’t remember where he’d been but my happiness went down a notch.
The summer holidays were upon us and I started working at the farm full time. I feel that Mr. England found work for me because he knew that we were a bit short of money. He paid me thirty five shillings for a five and a half day week and that went a long way to help my family. With Saturday afternoons and all day Sundays off, I had a lot more time to go out with my mates.
The hardest (and the one I least liked) job Mr. England gave me was mowing the lawn at the front of the farmhouse. The grass was very long, the mower was the push along type, and the blades were blunt. But I persevered and finally finished the lawn with a few breaks now and again to help with other jobs. It took two days. Then I was at a loose end for a couple of days and helped out where I could.
There was a calf in one of the stalls and the family had given it the appropriate name of ‘Lovely’. At first this calf dashed back to the rear of its stall when it saw me coming. But I went in and chatted to it every day and soon it would nestle up to me as if I were its own mother.
In another stall was ‘Billy’, a huge bull. Billy was so calm and gentle that it wasn’t long before I’d happily climb over into his stall to pat him and tickle his ears. He was a beautiful beast. But one afternoon I saw Billy perform the job he was kept at the farm for and I became a lot more wary where he was concerned.
Mr. England had asked me to give him a hand to do a job. As we worked, he suggested that I shouldn’t talk about what was to take place. As we were only shutting gates around the yard, I hadn’t thought too much about his suggestion. When we’d prepared the small enclosed yard between the buildings, Old Mr. England came out with Billy the bull, and Danny led a cow out. After I’d watched Billy serve that cow with such brutal energy, I decided that discretion was the better part of valor and kept on my side of his stall gate from then on.
With nothing much left around the farm for me to do, Mr. England handed me a scythe one morning and sent me up to their orchard, on the south side of Hearne Hill, to cut the long grass that had sprouted up among the trees. I had a sharpening stone and Mr. England had shown me how to keep the scythe sharpened. Apart from when Joan kindly walked all the way up there with cakes and jugs of orange juice, or Old Mr. England wandered up for a chat, I was all on my own. It was a lovely spot and the weather was perfect. I sang to my hearts content (I recall one time singing 'Three Coins in a Fountain' (originally Frank Sinatra I think) at the top of my voice while using the scythe handle as a microphone, it must have sounded terrible to any passers-by, but it would have given them a good laugh!!) as the grass fell to my strokes. It was a large orchard and there was enough long grass to keep me going for at least a month.
At first my sides and arms ached and I had a few painful muscles at the start of each morning, but I gradually became used to the work. Now and again I’d be taken away from the orchard to help with other jobs, or Old Mr. England would come up for his chat or to sneak me off for a ride on the tractor. On one occasion he and I spent the whole afternoon up in the copse at the top of Hearne Hill where he told me many interesting things about the local wildlife. I, of course, hung on to every word although I was a bit worried about what young Mr. England would say when he saw that no work had been done in the orchard. But, nothing was ever said and I continued to share myself between the orchard, Old Mr. England, and Danny.
Then one Saturday as I finished work Old Mr. England called me into a shed that I’d never been allowed into before, but which I eventually discovered to be where the farmers made and stored cider, a quite potent alcoholic drink made from a certain type of apple. It was an extremely hot day and I’d been sweating up in the orchard the whole morning. I was also very thirsty in spite of two large jugs of orange juice that Joan had very kindly carried up to me during the long spell of work. As Old Mr. England ushered me through the door, he looked out around the yard as if we shouldn’t be in the shed. Then he closed the door and winked over at me. There was a piece of machinery in the middle of the dimly lit room that I later learned was a cider apple press. It looked like some medieval torture apparatus and I thought that it was a relic they had kept from those dark ages.
I was expecting Old Mr. England to tell me some real gruesome stories about that ‘terrible machine’ but he walked past it and reached up to a shelf on the dingy back wall of the shed. He came back with a bottle in one hand and two pint glasses in the other. Beside the small cobweb-covered window were two wooden casks, with folded hessian sacks on top of them as cushions. Old Mr. England motioned me to sit on one and he sat on the other. I watched as he placed the two big glasses on the dusty window sill and filled them up with the liquid from the large bottle. The hot sun was shining through the little window causing a film of condensation to form on the outside of the two glasses. It was a wonderful sight to a thirsty young lad.
Unfortunately for Old Mr. England (and myself), apart from a sip of green ginger wine each Christmas, I’d never touched any alcohol in my life up to that time, but I neglected to inform Old Mr. England of that fact. That home-made ‘Scrumpy’ (as cider was generally called down in Somerset) was lethal and I was very hot and thirsty. As Old Mr. England was looking at the cider press while explaining what it was for, I took a sip of the drink. It was very sharp but cold and thirst-quenching, within seconds I’d drained the big glass dry. Old Mr. England turned away from the press as he finished explaining what it was for, and a look of surprise came over his face. Then he laughed, gave me a sly wink, went over to the shelf for another bottle, and filled my glass up again. He must have thought that I was well and truly used to the ‘grog’ as I slaked my thirst even more by swilling that second pint of raw cider.
And that’s the last I can remember for the rest of that day and most of the next. Mum filled me in with the remainder of the story.
Apparently I’d insisted on riding my bike home even though Old Mr. England and his son, Young Mr. England, could see that I was not in a very fit state. Naturally, being the good, caring and responsible men they were, they’d insisted that I see reason, and usually I had great respect for any instructions or orders that either of those good men would give me. But this time I’d jumped on my cycle and quickly set an erratic course for home. The two farmers decided that they couldn't just stand there and see me ride off in that unsafe manner, so they followed me closely in their Landrover to help keep me safe from unsuspecting car drivers that might be travelling my way (I often wonder whether I would have been charged with ‘being drunk while in charge of a cycle’ if the police had caught me). In this manner we reached home.
I staggered indoors and flaked out, leaving the two hapless men to explain what had happened. Mum was wild with fury over the incident and sent the men on their way very quickly. Apologising profusely they left the house and drove off. Mum helped me up the stairs to bed and left me to sleep it off. I stayed there until the following afternoon.
Poor Old Mr. England had meant me no harm. A lot of the young lads in the area enjoyed a pint of cider and I suppose that he had thought I’d be no exception. To be fair, as already mentioned, I hadn’t told him that I didn’t normally drink any alcohol. I knew only too well that he wouldn’t have done anything to hurt anyone at all. He was a wonderful person and I was so extremely fond of him, as I was of the whole family. But that was the end of my job as Mum wouldn’t allow me to go there any more. My only regret is that I never went to the farm again to see any of that lovely family. At the time I had suddenly felt a bit of freedom, I was determined to go and visit the farm again, but there had seemed to be no rush for a while at the time.
a lot happier again.
And so, with no work to keep me occupied I had more time to get out and explore. Peter was spending more of his time with Val, so I would very often go off on my own. I rode the twelve miles to Taunton, the county town of Somerset, and had a pleasant day looking around. Then, a couple of days later, I rode the ten miles down to Axminster, famous for its Axminster carpets, where I had another wonderful day.
One evening, about this time, Claude decided to have a bath before the rest of us used all the hot water. Although the fire was kept roaring while we were having our baths each night, the last person to bath nearly always had cold water. This was usually Claude as he used to come home late from the pub. Sometimes he’d go straight to bed without a bath and say that it was because the water was always cold. But, on this particular night he decided to beat us to it and have one before he went out. Immediately after tea he went upstairs and into the bathroom.
Val and I were preparing to go out with our friends as Mum and John settled down in front of the fire, when we heard a shout from Claude. John went to the bottom of the stairs to see what was wrong and he, in turn, gave a shout. Mum, Val, and I dashed to the stairs and we all stopped in open-mouthed surprise at the sight that greeted our eyes.
John was half-way up the stairs, Claude was standing up the top, and there was a waterfall of water coming down each step towards us below. It was splashing over Claude’s feet and John was retreating down the stairs in front of the slow-moving spread of wetness.
At first we didn’t know what to do or where the water was coming from. We thought that Claude had let the bath over-flow. Off came our shoes and socks and we all splashed up the stairs to finally discover that the hot water tank, in the linen cupboard, had burst. By the time we’d turned the water off and the tank had emptied, our house was in a real mess.
The carpets were literally floating in all the bedrooms upstairs, all Mum’s cleaned and ironed clothes and linen in the linen cupboard were soaked, the stair and hall carpets were wet through, and water had poured through the light fittings in the downstairs ceilings, soaking the carpets on the ground floor. It was nearly a week, along with a lot of hard work, before we’d taken up all the carpets, hung them out to dry, replaced them, and got back to normal. Meanwhile, Mum had washed and ironed all the clothes and linen again, and a new tank had been fitted into the linen cupboard.
A few nights after everything was straight again, Mum noticed that the living room light wasn’t as bright as it used to be. There was a large frosted-glass bowl, hanging down from the ceiling rose on chains, that covered the light bulb. When John climbed up to investigate the cause of the dim light, he found that this bowl was full of water caused by the flood over a week previously.
With the house fairly straight again, I took off on what was to prove the longest ride of my life up to that time. Somebody had mentioned that there were plenty of steam trains to be seen at a place called Chard Junction, a couple of miles south of Chard, and I decided to go and find this place.
It was a beautiful morning as I rode down through Donyatt and along to Chard. Andy Williams had just released a song called ‘Butterfly’ and I sang this song at the top of my voice as I pedalled along the quiet country road. But, with the Axminster road stretching out before me, I changed my mind and thought it would be better to try and reach Axmouth and the sea. Plodding on, I passed through Axminster and Axmouth and reached the sea at a place called Seaton. I spent the day exploring the long beach at Seaton and the mouth of the River Axe. In the late afternoon I set off and toiled all the way back up to Donyatt, thus completing a forty mile ride to the sea and back.
A couple of days later I rode almost the same distance on a trip to Lyme Regis and back. I did these trips on my own and was quite content to go wherever the roads led, providing there was something interesting to aim for.
But, I was also going out with my friends in the meantime and one at our favorite haunts at that time was the River Isle. Just north of Donyatt village was a beautiful spot where that river wound its way through lush green meadows. At one spot there the river was about two feet deep and ran over a soft gravelly bed, this was ‘our’ spot. My mates and I used to splash about in the river at ‘our’ spot and I gained a bit more confidence where water was concerned.
Val was going through a bit of a bad time and seemed very depressed. One evening I returned home from the river to find that she had been taken ill and Mum had called the Doctor in. It was all very mysterious to me, but seemed to be something to do with Peter Stone’s death. She came good after a couple of days.
Our little Ford ‘Eight’ had still been giving us starting problems, and then the ‘big ends’ had gone. I didn’t know what the big ends were but John said that we’d have to get rid of the car. The next thing that I knew was that the Ford had been exchanged for a Standard ‘Fourteen’. That Standard Fourteen was an enormous car to us and, after pottering along in the Ford, it seemed to rocket down the roads. To try it out on a good run, John decided to take us all out for a day to Charmouth, a seaside resort just east of Lyme Regis.
Amid great excitement, we packed sandwiches and drinks, jumped into the big roomy leather seats, and roared off down through Chard and Axminster. I was amazed at how quickly the miles, that had taken so long to pass on my cycle as I’d rode down that road, seemed to flash by in this powerful car. Soon we were at Charmouth, having stopped at a few spots to admire the views on the way.
I went for a walk up on top of the cliffs while a picnic was prepared then, after we’d demolished the sandwiches, John went for a swim while Val and I splashed about in the shallow waves.
Now, John had been a Petty Officer in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. He’d served on ‘The Battler’ and ‘Ark Royal’ amongst other ships, and was one of the survivors when the Ark Royal had been sunk within sight of Gibraltar. He could swim and was soon out in the surf enjoying himself. With John between myself and the deep blue sea, I plucked up a bit of courage and ventured out until the waves were riding up to my chest.
A few weeks previously I’d seen a diagram of how to stay afloat in waves and I decided to try the method out. It wasn’t long before my feet were bouncing off the bottom and I was floating clumsily in amongst the waves, making a few splashing adjustments with my arms, hands, and legs to try and keep myself fairly level and my head above water. Although I’d swallowed half the sea water in the bay, I was very content with my progress.
As the miles flashed by on our way home, I promised myself that I’d go down to the sea as much as possible until I’d learned to swim.
With this little bit of experience behind me, I talked Peter and a couple of other mates into camping for the weekend beside the river at ‘our’ spot. The school summer holidays had just ended but, for some reason Mum was keeping me home. Straight after my mates arrived home from school on the Friday afternoon, we collected blankets and the little tent, mothers made sandwiches, and bottles of water were packed, along with bathing costumes and spare clothes. It wasn’t long before the four of us were walking down to the river, all happily singing the latest hit single, Terry Dene’s ‘A White Sports Coat’ that had taken our fancy. The usual carrier bags and bundles banged against our person.
We had a wonderful time that first evening. We set up the tent and tried to fit four ‘beds’ into the small interior, then we just went mad in the river for the rest of the daylight hours. Although I wouldn’t put my head under water, I was splashing and fighting, pushing and being pushed, and my confidence soared.
I felt ecstatic as I rolled up in my blanket, squashed into the tent with my friends. When we’d settled down and all was quiet, I listened to the gentle splash of the river mingled with the hiss of escaping steam from the Horlick’s factory just north of our camp. Now and again a water-bird would cry out in the darkness, or a quick splash would tell us that an insect had been snapped up by a fish after settling on to the surface of the river. Listening to these night noises, I finally fell asleep.
The next day was again spent in the river, or on the bank lazily enjoying a rest under the hot sun. We were having a fantastic time when, towards the late afternoon, Val came running down and told me to go straight home. I was a bit annoyed as this was the second time I’d been called home while I was camping (see last chapter while camping with Tommy). But being called home meant being called home and I went back up with Val, leaving all my gear behind. I didn’t know that a surprise was in store for me.
As soon as I arrived home with Val, Mum told me to go back to the camp site and get my things. I was about to protest when her next words filled me with absolute delight and made me forget all about camping and beautiful days beside the river. She told me that we were going up to Chenies for a few days with Nan, Granddad, and Jim. Thrilled beyond measure at the thought of seeing my grandparents and Jim again (not to mention the thrilling road journey), I raced back to the camp site and collected my gear, leaving the tent so that I wouldn’t spoil my mate’s camping trip. Then I said goodbye and raced back up home. The car was loaded ready and my gear was quickly sorted and stowed. Without another wasted second, we were off. I was allowed to sit in the front seat on this trip and, with the Automobile Association road book in my hand, I navigated for John as we purred along.
Leaving Ilminster, we swooped along the A 303, waving to the man in the garage, who had loaned us the battery five months earlier, as we passed through Ilchester. We roared by the entrance to the farm where we had tried to get help that night, and the lay-by that we’d pulled into when the engine of the old Ford was running rough and our lights were too dim to enable us to see the road. We raced through Wincanton and Mere, then out onto the Salisbury Plain. Again we passed Stonehenge just as the sun was setting and, after Amesbury, the Thruxton race circuit could hardly be seen in the gathering darkness.
There were no problems when John turned on the headlights this time and we soared along through the night, leaving Andover and Basingstoke in our wake. By the time we had reached Reading John was tired and we knew that Nan and Granddad would have gone to bed long before we arrived at their home. It was decided to sleep in the car for the rest of the night and carry on the next morning. Parking up in the car park of a public house called ‘The Jack of Both Sides’ at the Cemetery Junction on the east side of Reading, we rolled up in our blankets and went to sleep.
Unknown to John and I, Val woke up during that night through the pain of a bad abscess that was in her mouth and Mum decided to take her along to the Royal Berkshire Hospital for some pain killers. The hospital was only half a mile down the road and soon Val was feeling a bit better. As they were both walking back up towards the Cemetery Junction, a police car drew alongside and the policemen asked Mum what she thought she was doing out in the middle of the night with a young girl. Mum explained the reason and the policemen gave them both a lift back to the car. John and I slept soundly on, even when the police shone their torch in our faces to show Mum and Val what we looked like when we were asleep.
And so, on that Sunday morning, John and I awoke very refreshed and we all continued our journey, only stopping at the River Loddon, where it passes under the London Road just before the Twyford roundabout, for a wash. An hour later we were at Chenies.
It was wonderful to see my grandparents and Jim again. I had so much to tell them that I hardly stopped talking. Granddad laughed heartily when we told him that we’d washed in the River Loddon. He told us that we would probably have good complexions as the river at that point was a sewerage drain. Val and I were convinced and rushed into the bathroom for a proper wash, much to Granddad's amusement.
Granddad and Jim had finished their first model traction engine and I was taken up to the shed to have a look at it. They told me that it would easily pull a car and I scoffed at the suggestion that such a small thing could perform such a feat. Now, Granddad didn’t like being scoffed at and he told me that, not only would the little engine pull a car, but it would pull a big car like our Standard, plus all our family, and what’s more, he would prove it.
Although the little traction engine was beautifully painted, Granddad and Jim fired it up and soon there was the hiss of steam and the chuff of the exhaust as they got the engine going. A special plank that they had built was fitted across the boiler and Granddad and Jim sat on this plank, one either side of the engine, to give the wheels some traction on the ground. A cable was fitted to the rear of the engine and the front of the car, then all was ready. John steered the car and we all piled in around him so that we could watch through the front windscreen.
With a shrill whistle from the engine, the cable gradually went taut and the car began to creep along, I jumped out of the car and dashed ahead to watch this demonstration of steam power. As we came to the road at the end of the close, I suggested to Granddad that the engine had pulled the car slightly down-hill. With no more ado, the car and engine were turned around and the engine towed the car back to where it had been at the start of the demonstration. I was chastened and duly impressed.
That little traction engine is now safely in the Boyanup Steam Museum, in the south-west of Western Australia (it was left to me in my Granddad's will). It has been kept in its original colours, with Granddad's and Jim’s name and address on the side of the canopy, still as Jim originally painted it, and it serves, to me, as living proof of a memory recalled from my past.
The next day, Mum and John dropped Val and I off at Raans Road School and we joined our old classes for a couple of hours. Alf and Mick were so pleased to see me and it didn’t seem as if I’d even been away. That feeling was so strong that, during a music lesson with dear Miss Dubray, I offered to sing bass in another choir that she was trying to get together. I came down to earth with a bump when Alf reminded me that I wasn’t a pupil of that school any more. With a few regrets I said goodbye to my mates and some of my old teachers, met Mum and John outside the school with Val and we roared back up to Chenies.
Granddad and Jim had already started on their second scale model steam traction engine. It would be larger than their first one and, if Granddad had said that it would have pulled a lorry, then I would have believed him. Over the next few days, I was happy to watch him and Jim at work in their shed, or to wander out into the countryside.
We had planned to leave on the Thursday morning as John had to be back at work on the Friday in time for the two o’clock afternoon shift, and he wanted a bit of a rest before then. But, there was something very wrong with the brakes on the car and, as Granddad had the Friday off from work, he suggested that John wait until then so that Granddad could fix the brakes before we went back to Somerset. This was agreed upon and I was happy to have the extra day to wander around a bit more. Granddad had a few problems while fixing the brakes and it wasn’t until two o’clock in the afternoon before we started off. John should have started his shift at that time. Foot hard down, we covered the miles at a mad pace and John moaned every time that we came up behind a lorry and had to slow down until we could pass.
But I didn’t moan. I was fascinated by the lorries and thought that the lorry driver had a wonderful job driving all over the country. I came to the conclusion that this would be just the job for me when I was old enough to pass my driving test.
We arrived in Donyatt at six o’clock that evening and John raced off to work, only to be told that, as he hadn’t gone to work on time he’d lost his job. There were plenty of unemployed men waiting to take his place at the factory!
We were now in a bit of a pickle. There was no other work for John in that small town, the closing down of the cable works had seen to that. While Val and I were out playing with our mates, Mum and John talked for hours as they tried to work out what to do for the best. It wasn’t in them to play the same trick that had been played on us, so swapping houses again was out of the question. We couldn’t go back to Amersham, where we knew that there was plenty of work, for the same reason that we had left in the first place. Then Mum had an idea. She went and phoned ‘Auntie’ Sally up in Reading and asked If she could possibly put us all up for a while until we could find some work and a house to rent. Without hesitation, Sally and Bill told her to bring us all up to their place and they’d fit us in somehow.
As fate would have it, I was again at the river with my friends. As soon as I saw Val running down across the field from the village I knew that I was wanted at home. Saying goodbye to my mates once more, I wrapped a towel around me, grabbed my clothes, and went to meet her. As soon as I arrived back at home Mum quickly explained what was happening. As usual, I became very excited at the thought of seeing new places. Within seconds I was dressed and straining at the bit to get going.
The car was packed tight with everything that we might need for the stay at Sally’s place. John was at the wheel and Mum and I sat on the front seat beside him. The dog, the budgie in its cage, and Val were almost hidden in the back amongst a great pile of cases, bed-clothes, and cooking gear. We would have to stop at Ilminster while Val dashed over to get her shoes out of the menders, then we’d be well on our Way.
Again we roared out of Donyatt. It hadn’t rained once since we’d moved there five months before, the sun had always been shining and the days had been golden. But, as we headed along towards Ilminster we could see black clouds approaching. Val just had time to get her shoes from the shop when a storm burst upon us in all its fury. Without warning, a waterfall of water started to pour into the car from the top of the windscreen. Laughing at the fun of it all and squealing as the cold water fell onto our legs, we quickly grabbed saucepans, the kettle, and the teapot, and held them in a row under the windscreen to try and catch the streams. My family laughed even more when I voiced my thoughts as to wondering how my friends might be getting on in the thin and flimsy tent beside the river! We stayed in Ilminster like this for half an hour, emptying the containers out of the side windows as they filled up, until the storm passed.
Mum, John, and I were soaked by then, but we all laughed out loud as the rain stopped and we were finally able to take off on our journey.
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