Once more the three of us settled down to live our life and soon the bad memories began to fade and we were as happy as ever.
One evening Mum put us to bed early but, this time she covered the bedroom window with a big thick army blanket. I knew that being put to bed early meant we’d be going on a trip the next day and was my usual sickly excited self, but I soon fell asleep in the darkened room. This time we were going to see my Nan and Granddad who now lived at Mortimer near Reading with Grandad’s mother, my Granny Challis.
There was the usual early morning start and we caught the bus to High Wycombe. We had managed to get the front seat upstairs and I remember that the bus seemed to be tipping forwards from that position as we descended Amersham Hill into High Wycombe. Here we changed from a green London Transport bus to a red Thames Valley bus and away we went again, up the hill on the other side of the Valley, through Marlow and Henley to Reading station. Once more we changed buses and, on another Thames Valley bus we finally reached Mortimer.
We had a wonderful day with Grandad’s family and Jim took me out to show me his dog, rabbits, and the big workshop down the back garden. The time seemed to fly and, before I knew it tea was on the table.
All Grandad’s family were there, having come to see us. I had a loose tooth and happened to mention this at the crowded table. Grandad’s brother, Jack (Uncle Jack to me), gave me some toffee and told me the tooth would fall out like magic. It didn’t and I ate the toffee with relish while the other family members laughed. Uncle Jack wasn’t going to be beaten and he took me outside, grabbed hold of the offending tooth with his fingers and pulled it out. He told me that it would be our secret that he’d pulled the tooth out and I, thinking that I had a secret over the other grown-ups, went happily back inside and finished my meal with Uncle Jack giving crafty winks my way and sending me into fits of giggles.
After tea it was time to go home and the whole journey there was reversed. It was dark when we arrived in the camp and we were glad to get to bed. I settled down with a feeling of contentment and another great day out added to my memory.
My urge to explore beyond the confines of the camp persisted. I could happily do this either on my own or with a friend. I was not allowed to go out of the camp limits, but I couldn’t help myself and always wanted to see what was around the next corner. Most of the time I wouldn’t be gone long and Mum would think that I’d been in the camp area all the time. She couldn’t lock me up and it was hard for her to know which friend I’d gone to see. By the time she’d wondered where I was, checked with a few friends around the camp or looked in some of the likely playing spots, I was usually back inside the area with a happy, contented feeling of another new place discovered and well explored.
There were plenty of places to go to for an interested lad like myself. If we went up the lane we could go to Channor’s farm (Mayhall Farm), the dell, the woods, or through the hills to Chesham. Mr. Channor, as we called the farmer, was very friendly and he didn’t mind us children walking around the farm provided we behaved ourselves. He had all the usual farm animals and I learned a lot about farm life there. I can remember when the whole harvesting of his big field was done by steam-driven machinery. It was great to see those traction engines in operation, and the threshing machine was a wonder of moving parts and hand-traps.
I think he used to lease one of his fields out to another farmer, who used to drive his tractor up from Chesham with all his required gear in tow. We’d hear his old Fordson Major tractor coming up the lane and run along behind so as we could watch the operations. This farmer used to let us help here and there, picking up the corn sheaves to load on the trailer. Usually, there would be a lovely hay-stack left in the field at the end of harvesting. During harvesting the corn sheaves were leaned against each other to dry out for a while. The field used to look as if small yellow tents had been pitched all over it. At first we used to go and play in these ‘tents’ (stooks) and soon learned to take a big stick with us to prod the snakes out before we tried to wriggle in between the sheaves. Then we began to take a pride in our work of helping the farmer and took on the job of keeping the field of stooks tidy until it was empty once more.
The dell was a good place to play in and wasn’t far from the camp. It was a large hole in the ground surrounded by trees, situated down the lane at the south end of Howlets wood. Two of the sides were so steep that we eventually cut foot-holds up the dirt face to climb out from the bottom, the other sides were easy Slopes. We used to enjoy playing cowboys and Indians here as there were plenty of bushes and trees to hide behind. In the spring, the floor of the dell would be covered in a thick carpet of Bluebells and it would be but a moments work to pick an arm full to take home to Mum.
If we carried on walking past the dell, through Howlets wood and across a couple of fields, we’d reach Chesham. This was the way we usually went to the summer fetes at the Chesham sports ground, up Amy Lane. It was a beautiful walk no matter what time of the year. The first time I had gone down the lane was on Uncle Frank’s sledge that cold, snowy day when we were still living in the old wooden hut.
The opposite direction from the camp would take us into another exciting area to explore. As we crossed the main road, there were a row of houses (Manor Drive) laying back behind some trees on the left. This was where the ‘potty dogs’ lived. Val and I were walking down there one day and two black spaniels ran out of a garden at us barking furiously. The lady of the house told us not to be frightened as her dogs always went very ‘potty’ when someone passed the house but wouldn’t hurt anyone. To us, they became the ‘potty dogs’.
Just past these houses was a sharp dip in the road and a lane ran off to the left at the bottom of the dip eventually ending at Chesham Moor. A hundred metres down this lane, and on the left, was the ‘dream house’. It wasn’t really called the dream house, that was the name we had given the place. That house was set in a clearing amongst the trees, had beautiful gardens, a pond, and a wooden bridge. The sun always seemed to be shining through the trees onto the house in golden rays.
Over the dip was another dell in the woods and this one was used by cyclists as a sort of BMX track. Of course, BMX was unheard of in those days. Mum sometimes used to take us to this dell late in the evening to watch the owls.
If we carried on up through the wood and over North Road, we’d reach the common (Chesham Bois Common). This was a cleared, grassy area with a cricket pitch in the middle. It was surrounded by thick bush and wooded areas. There probably wasn’t a climbable tree around the common that I didn’t climb. We used to have wonderful picnics on that common, lounging in the soft, springy grass with a sandwich in one hand and a glass of ‘Tizer’ in the other.
Just near the common was the pond and we’d spend hours there with a jar and net collecting newts, tadpoles, and frogs. You could see dragonflies, water-beetles, snails, frogs-spawn, and all those other things that go to make a pond such an interesting place to the young inquiring mind.
Carrying on down the wooded lane past the dream house (I think this house is called ‘The Dell’ now) used to take us to a railway bridge and a long flight of steps going up a hill on the right. This is where Val and I played the day I took her wandering. After passing under the bridge, which carries the Chesham shuttle line over the lane, we could enter a road and walk along to Chesham Moor.
This moor was an interesting place and I spent many hours of fun there. It was a large, triangle-shaped area. Down one side was the railway, the River Chess ran down the second side, and a road ran along the bottom. There was a proper open-air swimming pool, plenty of swings and slides, all sorts of river life, and a council dump for gravel and blue metal. There was a water channel, like an open storm drain (we called it the ‘storm drain’), across part of the area. In the summer it usually only had a small stream of water running along through the stones and sand in the bottom but, through the winter and spring the water was sometimes quite deep. When the water was low enough in this water channel we’d paddle along it and collect minnows, frogs, and sometimes, leeches, although never on our person, thank goodness.
A fair used to come to the moor once a year and Mum took us a couple of times but, we were not very keen on fairs and never stayed long. As I grew older, I would go down there the day after the fair had gone and, with the other children, hunt through the grass where the fair had been for dropped money. Talk about a gang of scavengers! Just near the moor was another track up through the woods that would bring us out almost at the top of the hill from Chesham (Chesham Hill to us) and it was only a few minutes walk to the camps.
All those places were within half an hours walk of our house. Of course, we usually took longer as there was always something to stop and look at or discover on the way.
Mum used to take us shopping and I loved the way each shop or counter had its own particular aroma. There would be the rich smell of coffee at the coffee grinder, the soft smell of chocolate at the sweet counter, the cold, thin smell of the meats, the sharp tang of the cheeses, the keen smell of shoe polish, the list could go on and on. We’d walk behind Mum and our noses would twitch in anticipation as Mum bought the groceries.
I remember that the Co-op in Amersham had a central paying booth at the back of the shop. Mum would buy the groceries, pay the counter girl and this girl would put the bill and money into a little wooden cup. Above the girls head was a wire cable stretching from her counter, across the ceiling, up to the pay booth. Attached to the thin wire cable by little wheels was a cap. The girl would screw the cup up into the cap, pull a knob down and the cup would whiz along the wire, like a little cable car out of control, to the lady in the booth. This lady would unscrew the cup, ring up the money on the till, put any change and a receipt into the cup and send it back to the counter in the same way. I never tired of watching this. If I remember right, there were four wires, one from each counter and there always seemed to be plenty of cups whizzing up or down one or other of those wires.
We were never allowed to ask for anything in the shops but, when we got home and had helped to put the shopping away, there was always a little treat or toy that would magically appear out of the last carrier-bag.
Apart from when I went for long exploration walks, we were never hungry and the cupboards were always full of good food. We rarely had any tinned food, always fresh if possible. Val and I used to have great times washing the dirt off the potatoes, shelling peas, picking the bits of stalk off the gooseberries and all the other little knife-less chores that used to help when preparing a meal.
For breakfast we normally had Shredded Wheat or Weet-a-bix, on very cold mornings Mum used to make us hot porridge. At midday we’d have a roast, sometimes we’d have a salad in the summer. Tea time always saw us eating sandwiches and home-made cake. I loved sweet things on my sandwiches like jam, brown sugar, honey, syrup, sugar, chocolate spread and all those other nice things that children like spreading on their bread. In the evening for supper we’d have something like beans on toast or soup. In the winter we’d always have a hot mug of cocoa in front of the hot kitchen range before going to bed. Mum was always making cakes and biscuits, jam tarts, sponges, and her apple crumble with a thick dollop of custard over it was a treat fit for a king. We loved her suet puddings, spotted dicks, and mouth-burning jam rolls. When coming home from school or play, we’d look to see if the pudding-cloth was out drying on the line. If it was, we’d dash indoors to see which type of delicious pudding Mum had made for us. They rarely lasted long in our house.
We had no washing machine, there was a copper in the corner of the kitchen and a couple of times a week, Mum would light the fire under it earlier than usual and spend a few hours stirring our clothes in the hot, soapy water with a big copper stick. All the clothes were wrung out by hand, rinsed in the sink, wrung out again and hung on the line. The ironing was done on a sheet placed over the table.
Every month Mum would hang all the blankets out on the line and I’d have a ball hitting the dust out of them with my special stick. The floors had brown lino on them with a few rugs scattered around. These rugs had to be beaten as well but I hated doing them as they didn’t flap like the blankets and were too heavy.
Once a week the house was polished right through. The lino was waxed, the furniture polished from the floor up, the windows were cleaned, the range was blacked, and you could see your distorted face in all the brass doorknobs. Those doorknobs were my speciality, I’d spend ages on each one until they almost glowed in the dark.
We used to help with the washing-up but Mum banned me from the sink in the end as I played with the water too long. All three of us would do this job together and I usually ended by putting everything away.
Mum invented the game of `soldiers’. Every evening she’d sit at the ‘officer’s’ table and Val and I would give her a salute then wait for our orders. All our toys and clothes of the day would be put away by the order of ‘Captain Mum’. There’d be much stiff marching and a dozen salutes each before, like magic, the house would be tidy again and we’d prepare for bed.
The water for our daily baths had to be heated up in the copper. On washing days Mum would light the fire early and tend to it if I wasn’t around, otherwise it was my job each evening after school or before tea time. We also had a tin bath. On very cold nights, Mum would place this tin bath in front of the warm range and, using saucepans, would fill it with hot water from the copper. We’d bathe in warm luxury while the cold wind howled about the hut outside. It was bad enough for Mum to get me out of the ordinary bath, but that tin bath in front of the hot range was something else and I’d stay in it until the last second.
Most of the huts and children were kept extremely neat and tidy contrary to what people in ordinary houses said or didn’t say (always those who’d never been near the place). I only ever saw one person drunk, and two fights the whole time we were there. I don’t think that was bad for twenty five families crammed into one area. The drunk was the father and husband of the one family that were a thorn in the side of all the other families towards the end of our stay there. I’ve already described the fight at our home. The other fight would also involve my Mum, and the wife and mother of this same family, but more of that later. I never saw one fight between any of the children and we always played happily together, no matter who mixed with who, except for the children of that same family who could not (or would not) get on with anyone, but again, more of that later.
We had started going to a Sunday school at the Zion Baptist church in Hinton Hall, Chesham. Miss Puttifoot was in charge and a lovely lady she was too. She encouraged us with all sorts of church functions and was a very good friend to Val and I. Once I was at the hall I used to enjoy it, but I absolutely hated the bother of getting dressed up each Sunday just for an hour or so. If I could have gone in my playing clothes I’d have been very happy about it. I used to try and think of all sorts of excuses so as not to go, but Mum would insist so I got to hate Sundays in a way. Once I was back home and out of my good clothes, I was very happy that I’d done as Mum wished and that it was all over until the next Sunday.
There was a Sunday school outing to the seaside every year. We were allowed to go on that year’s outing even though we’d not been going to the classes long. Up at the bedroom window went the blanket as we were sent to bed early, ready for a dawn start. Up went my pulse as that, by now familiar, sickly excited feeling started again. With every will in the world I couldn’t get to sleep and I seemed to lay awake for hours. But, as usual, I suddenly woke up and it was time to rise ready for the exciting day ahead.
Mum had everything laid out. We got dressed, had breakfast, made sure we had packed buckets and spades, then away we went to catch the early bus to Chesham, where the Lee and District coaches were waiting to take us on our trip.
As we arrived at the meeting place, we could see two cream and maroon coaches that were almost dwarfed by the big crowd around them and I didn’t think there’d be room for us. I need not have worried for we had each been allocated a seat and soon we were all in and chugging up Chesham Hill, back the way we’d just come.
We passed the camp, seemingly still asleep and headed south towards the coast. I was very scared in case the coach driver lost his way and we wouldn’t ever get home again (some adventurer I was!). We stopped for refreshments at Petersfield in Hampshire then, amid happy singing, we plodded along to Bognor Regis where we spilled excitedly out of the coach at the bus park and headed for the beach almost at a trot.
We had a memorable day on that first Sunday school outing. We played on the beach, went along the pier, walked around the shops, and, as late afternoon approached, it seemed as if the morning coach ride had been a week ago. Contentedly we wandered back to the bus park and soon we were on our way home, joining in the happy singing when we knew the songs. As darkness came we reached Amersham and the driver was good enough to drop us off at the camp entrance. The coach drove off with all the people singing and waving into the dark distance. It was very quiet as we walked across the camp to our hut. The day had been long and we were tired. Without more ado we went to bed and, as usual I fell asleep thinking about all the wonderful experiences of the day.
And so the summer of 1948 passed. The days started getting much shorter, the leaves turned brown and were falling off the trees and the autumn cold was creeping in. Then I got into strife again!
0ne afternoon, David and I had gone out of the camp and up to the common. We played for a while then David asked me if I’d like to go to his gran’s house ‘Just down the road’. That sounded alright so away we went. But ‘just down the road’ turned out to be opposite ‘Auntie’ Julie’s house and it was dark by the time we got there.
David’s gran lived in a little cottage just inside Green Lane on the right. He knew the door of her home and had told me about a door bell that we could ring. We found the door but the bell-push was up too high and we couldn’t reach it. I tried lifting David up but we still couldn’t reach it and, after a few tries we gave up. I think we’d so set our heart on ringing that bell that we never even thought of knocking, which was the normal thing when going to visit someone. We abandoned our efforts and walked off up Green Lane towards Amersham.
Green Lane starts off as a road in that direction then, after crossing Woodside Avenue, it becomes a track until it joins up with Orchard Lane where it once more becomes a road and crosses over the Metropolitan Railway line via a brick arched bridge. David and I walked along to this bridge, attracted to it by the sound of the trains. We stood there waiting for a while but no more trains came along. A cold drizzle started to fall and, being able to see the warm-looking lights of Amersham station along the line, we decided to go along there and see if we could find somewhere warmer. Soon we reached the station on the Old Amersham side and was about to look for a way in when there was a thunderous noise and a train clanked to a stop between the platforms. That made me remember how dangerous Mum had told me a railway station or trains could be for children and we hid behind the back of the platform ramp and watched the train depart towards London.
It was very late by then and I knew we’d both be in trouble with our parents. We were both wet, cold, hungry and dead tired. On finding a sheltered corner nearby, we settled down and fell into an exhausted sleep.
It was still dark when we awoke, bitterly cold and stiff, to find a policeman standing in front of us. He asked me what my name was and I told him. He called to another policeman and they took us to a car and drove us home. I was put straight to bed and fell asleep again. (Mum said later, that it was morning when the police found us). When next I awoke, it was daylight and I got up to face the music. I accepted the regulation punishment for the offence (a good hiding) but this time Mum went a step further and banned me from leaving the garden for a fortnight except when going to school. I spent hours during this time sitting up the top of the cherry tree at the rear of the hut, gazing across the camp at the horizon, feeling very sorry for myself.
As usual, the police had been searching for us and there were a lot of people that missed out on tea and supper because of us. Uncle Frank took me to one side and gave me a good talking to, and I told him that I’d try and be more aware of the time in the future. He said that he understood my urge to get out and see things and places but, I had to do as I was told, and that was that. David was banned from associating with me any more.
Then it was my sixth birthday and Mum threw a party for me. All our mates came (including David) and we had another great night. Next to the cake was a house made of cardboard and covered in cotton wool. It had windows, a door, a chimney, and looked very pretty to us children. After we’d eaten all the goodies and demolished the cake, Mum showed us how to open the door of the little house, reach in and pull out a package, lucky-dip style. These packages had presents inside and we all lined up for our go with squeals of delight. I got a little man on a parachute and spent the next hour throwing it up and watching it float to the floor, I almost forgot that I had guests. Then it was time to say goodbye to our friends as there were a few Mums collecting at the door to take their children home. I didn’t want them to go as we were having such fun. But all good things must end and so another happy day went into my memory bank.
At this time Mum was running a Christmas club to help earn a bit of extra money for our presents, etc. Most of the camp families paid Mum so much a week, picked something they wanted out of a thick catalogue and, just before Christmas an enormous carton would be delivered to our hut, full of all the goodies that had been ordered. I remember particularly the Dyson & Horsefall catalogue. Val and I would spend hours through the winter evenings looking at the toy section and picking out our favourite toy, Every evening would see a different toy as the favourite.
It was a great delight to help Mum unpack the big box. Most of the items were toys although we were never allowed to touch them. We didn’t mind, it was almost good enough to see the pictures on the box of each toy, and we always ended up by playing with these toys in the end after our friends had been given them for Christmas. There were a few secret packages that were spirited away each time a box was unpacked. Those were our presents but we always thought they were grown-up’s things.
Over the years Mum would do other Christmas clubs, namely Samuel Driver's, Dyson and Horsefall's, and Littlewoods, and this became a part of our happy Christmas traditions.
Carol singing was also a part of Christmas, and this year Mum took us out on our first carol-singing night. She taught us some carols, jingling the tune out on the old piano, and soon we knew enough to go out and sing. We stayed inside the camp that first year and I remember how dead the singing sounded without the piano to help us. Most of the camp families were surprised at first, but they were good people and gave a halfpenny here or a penny there. We’d sing a few carols in the darkness of their front door, then knock and ask if they had liked our carols when they answered. Mum would hide around the corner. It wasn’t long before my pockets were feeling a bit weighty with the money collected as we worked our way around the camp.
When finally we reached Uncle Frank’s hut, Mum decided to join us. We all burst into song with great gusto and were just getting into gear when a flood of freezing cold water poured down on us and our singing quickly changed to howls of surprise. Uncle Frank and his family came out, hardly able to stand with laughter at the sight of us poor half-drowned singers. Soon we all saw the funny side of it all and were led in front of the hot kitchen range and given hot cocoa and mince-pies until we’d dried out. The water had been poured from a bowl, through the vent above the front door, by Uncle Frank as a game. He didn’t expect it to go all over us like that. And he didn’t get away scot-free either, for a lot of the water had splashed down his chest as he was climbing up onto the chair to reach the vent to do this terrible deed. He gave Val and I sixpence each for our ‘good sportsmanship’ as he called it.
At first all monies collected from carol singing went towards our Christmas goodies, but after a couple of years, Val and I would use the money to buy Mum’s Christmas present from us.
And so Christmas, 1948, finally came and above the range hung those wonderful stockings again, full of lumps that used to rustle when we squeezed them. It was always a thrill to slide my hand down inside the stocking, grope around and see what magic item I’d pull out next. I remember that it was so cold but we didn’t seem to pay much notice in our excitement.
There was a pile of presents on the sideboard, but first we had to get dressed, light the range fire and have breakfast. There was a mad rush to put all our goodies back into the stockings ready for a closer examination later. While Mum made us some delicious thick porridge, Val and I got dressed and sorted out the paper and wood for the fire. Once the fire was lit, we tucked into our porridge while the room began to warm up. With breakfast finished, the washing-up done and the fire burning brightly in the range, it was time to open all those exciting looking presents. Val and I sat on the floor while Mum passed one present down at a time, to be opened while the others looked on with just as much pleasure as the one who the present was for.
Before long there was a pile of torn wrapping paper and a heap of toys, clothes, and goodies beside each of us two children. We put all the rubbish in the bin and, while Mum prepared the Christmas roast, Val and I set all our new presents out so as we could look at them at our leisure.
After dinner we went down to Uncle Frank’s hut and received another present each. I got a drawing set. In the evening Mum put on a party and a few families came over. The last thing I can recall of that memorable day was dropping off to sleep with the sound of the old piano thumping out a tune while the late stayers joined in with the singing.
1949 arrived and with it the snow that usually kept us indoors at that age apart from little forays out into the garden for a snow-ball fight or to play in the deep drifts. We built a snowman and I remember that when the snow melted, the last bit of snow to go was the pile from the snowman.
I still had to go to school though and about this time I met a lad whose birthday was only three days after mine. We were the same age and roughly had the same temperament, although his Mum was probably a bit less strict with him than Mum was with me. His name was Alfred Baker and we’d share many funny incidents together as we grew up. He had just arrived down from Birmingham with his parents and sister, Kay, and they lived in one of the old prefabricated asbestos huts on the `prefabs’ estate in White Lion Road, about a mile from the school (now replaced by flats and named St. Georges Estate). Alf would be a close friend for many years.
Mum, in her domestic work, was now working for a lovely family who lived right opposite the pond in North Road. The wife and mother of the family was crippled and moved around in a wheel-chair. She treated Val and I as one of the family and was always so happy. Val knew them better than I as she used to go there with Mum quite often.
The first time I went to the big house I recall how amazed I was to see that the lady’s two sons had a room where the floor was absolutely covered with toy soldiers, tanks, guns, trucks, ships, and, suspended from the ceiling on wires, many model aeroplanes. I could only stare in wonder. Of course, Mum strictly forbade me to touch anything, but I was quite happy to stand by the door and look. Later, when the boys were home, they’d invite me into their thrilling playroom and we’d play for hours together. Indeed, I confess that sometimes I didn’t want to go home. But toys weren’t the only pleasures I had and I’d soon forget this Alladin’s Cave for young boys until Mum would take me there again..
The man of the house was a solicitor and also must have been a rowing champion or something similar for there were half a dozen large oars upon the wall of their front room. He was another good person and used to playfully tweak his son’s ears. When I was there he’d tweak my ear as well.
They both had cars and the lady, although disabled, used to drive a little green Morris Minor. She never failed to wave and ‘Yoo-hoo’ us whenever she passed by. They were posh in our eyes, but not in their own attitudes and actions towards us. Sadly, from my later encounters with them, I’d find that the two sons would not reflect their parent’s attitudes and actions.
Almost opposite our hut, and across the lane, lived another ‘posh’ family in an enormous house. They had two pretty daughters, five or six years older than myself, who were very friendly and always said hello to us children from the camp when we met. The lady of this house had a big black car and she too would wave to us as she passed.
Their house was in a large area of ground and they had a gardener who looked after the beautiful gardens there. Many times I’d sneak through the trees opposite our hut and sit in this garden with one eye on the rows of flowers and the other on the lookout for someone coming. They had a chicken run and among the fowl was a bantam cock that used to crow the most strangled-sounding noise I ever heard.
Anyone who lived in a detached house around the camp was dubbed as `posh’ by us children who lived in our old tin huts with no car and no extra money for luxuries. I know that we never envied them in any way, most were very kind to us as we got to know them and we recognised that they’d probably worked very hard for their `luxuries’. But, we’d seen the poorer side of life so we called them `posh’. As an example, Arthur White’s family were very poor. Both his parents were semi-crippled and I would go out with Arthur and collect cigarette-ends from the gutter of the road or around the bus stops, so as his dad had a bit of tobacco for his pipe.
Within the space of a few days we suddenly acquired two pets. One was a goldfish that we named Victor, and the other was a cat that we named Fluffy. Victor wasn’t much fun except at feeding time when he’d go mad for the food we’d sprinkle in his bowl, but Fluffy was good fun and Val and I would play with her for hours. We came to love that cat and I think she loved us. She was one of the family and would follow us around everywhere.
We were forever finding empty bullet cases around that camp and one day, during that spring, David and I found two rusty old mortar bombs with brass flights in the thick grass near our hut. We spent the next five minutes throwing them up into the air and watching them drop while we made the appropriate exploding noise with our mouths.
One of the camp men coming by said hello to us, then I saw his jaw sag and his eyes nearly pop out of his head as David threw his bomb into the air. Those bombs were heavy and we couldn’t throw them very high, but it was high enough to frighten this man and he dived for the ground taking me with him. I think he almost died anyway when he saw that I too, was clutching a mortar. Looking very pale and shocked, he sent us both home and the police and army were called in to dispose of our two `toys’. I never knew if they were `live’ or not.
That same spring I came home from school and noticed that the garden looked a bit bare. As I walked down the path I realised that the water tower had completely vanished. I ran to the spot where it had been and saw four stumps of wood and lots of saw-dust at the empty-looking place. Mum told me that the council had considered the tower dangerous and, as we were on mains water now, had decided to get rid of them. She said that the water from the tank had nearly washed the hut away as the tower fell. I suppose that it was one less temptation for me as I had often climbed up the supporting framework and played on the tank platform.
But I was still tempted by the greener pastures over the horizon and, once more I got into trouble for wandering away from the camp.
David and I, in spite of repeated warnings, were still going outside of the camp limits and, early that summer we headed down Chesham Hill to see a toy factory that his dad had pointed out to him once. At the bottom of the hill we turned right into Moor Road and there was the factory where, David said, father Christmas made all the toys for the children throughout the year. The gates were all locked and the windows were too high to see through so, as there was no chance of seeing the great man, we turned our attention elsewhere.
Opposite this factory, on the other side of the road, was the River Chess and little wooden bridges crossed the river to houses on the far bank. We climbed along the outside of one bridge to look down into the river, hanging on for dear life above the water, our hands clutching the top of the wooden hand-rail and our feet on the outside edge of the walk-way.
Suddenly a large and ferocious black dog rushed, snapping and snarling, across the garden and onto the bridge. David had gone onto the bridge first and I had only gone about a yard. I quickly retreated, heard David scream as in agony, and looked back just in time to see the huge brute rip one of David's hands off the top of the hand-rail and almost pull him over onto the little wooden bridge.
Luckily a lady came running out of the house and shouted at the dog to let go. But (and in one way I suppose she had every right) there was no sympathy from the lady for David and his badly bitten hand, and she told us to clear off and never come back or she would set her dog on us again. We didn't need telling a second time and, very shaken, we took off along the road.
We didn’t stop until we passed under the Chesham shuttle railway bridge and there, in front of us, was the moor in all of its adventurous glory.
David had deep tooth wounds in his hand and I wrapped my handkerchief around his hand in an effort to stop the bleeding. The handkerchief soon became covered in blood but eventually the bleeding eased off.
Not wishing to go back past that dog for a while, we decided to play around this interesting area for something to do until we thought the dog might have gone away. We didn’t really need an excuse and soon, bitten hand forgotten for the time being, we were having a wonderful time running up and down the gravel heaps, playing on the swings and slide, throwing rocks into the river, and searching along the storm-drain for frogs.
As darkness fell, we tip-toed past the bridge where the dog had bitten David and ran most of the way up the hill as fast as we could, feeling that big dog running behind us for most of the way, until we reached the camp. Out of breath, tired, hungry, and frightened, David went off to his house and I, fearing the worst, went along the lane a bit and settled down in a ditch behind a tree where I prepared for sleep. I was too scared to go home and face Mum, for I knew I’d done wrong again.
The police had been notified once more and, by then were getting used to Mum ringing up. As soon as they heard her worried voice they would say “Not David again?” and Mum would have to confess that it was. Again a search had been put into motion. How they never found us most of the times remains a mystery, although, to be fair, we did always hide when we saw a policeman on these trips.
Finally, Mum went over to be with David’s parents while the search progressed and was astounded to be told that David was already home in bed, and his father had just been about to go over to our home to thank everyone for their help. They woke him up and asked him where he’d left me. When he told them he’d last seen me go off in the dark towards our hut the search was immediately centered around the camp, everyone guessing that I’d be too scared to go indoors.
Eventually, I was found and sent to bed with no tea. The regulation punishment (a good hiding) was not forthcoming, and was dropped from then onwards, and the much more effective `confined to the garden’ method was used.
Mr. Ridgeway and his family lived in the hut next to ours and Francis and I very often played together. One evening, while I was still under ‘close arrest’ for this latest trip, Francis came over and asked Mum if I could go over to his house to play. Mum agreed as long as I stayed at their hut. As darkness fell later, I thanked Mr. and Mrs. Ridgeway for having me and Francis saw me to the door.
As I looked along the path towards our hut, I saw a big yellow light hovering above the trees. I pointed this out to Francis and he said it was coming to `get me’ then tried to slam the door on me. I was struck with a sudden terror and fear must have given me strength. Francis was two years older than me but I stuck my foot in the door before he could close it, ripped it out of his hands, forced my way in and trampled him into the floor as I rushed back up the hallway and into the living room where his parents were looking on in astonishment at my sudden outburst. They hadn’t heard what was said at the door.
I explained what had happened and Mrs. Ridgeway told me not to tell tales or I wouldn’t be allowed to visit again. At that time I wished I’d never visited them that night, but I wouldn’t have told them that. She told me to go home straight away. Francis sniggered as I fearfully stepped outside and he slammed and bolted the door.
I stood by their coal bunker in the dark watching the light. The more I watched it, the more it seemed to move and grow. In the end, I crept along the path, watching the light all the time and ready to turn-tail and run behind their coal bunker if the light started to come my way. I reached our garden path then suddenly ran for my very life. Finally, after fighting with the front door, I got into our hut, feeling that the light was right behind my back and would grab me any second. It was the same feeling that David and I had a couple of weeks before with the dog that dark night on Chesham Hill.
In breathless gasps I told Mum what had happened and she went out to have a look but didn’t know what the light was. Now, I realise that it must have been the planet Venus on the horizon, probably looking larger than usual due to water droplets in the air or something. But, we didn’t know about such things then. Also, I didn’t know that sometimes, the longer you look at an object, the more it seems to move!
A few days after this last event the ban from going out of the garden was lifted and once more I was free to roam the camp within the limits. That same weekend Val went indoors to report that I was missing again.
Mum walked out into the middle of the camp and called my name in her shrill voice, that usually, I could hear from anywhere within the camp, but there was no response. She ran to a few of the huts to try and find out who I’d gone with, Val doing her best to try and keep up with her, but there was none of my friends missing. David confirmed that I had gone while Val, himself and I were playing.
Mum was furious, should she ring the police again? She went down to Uncle Frank and he suggested that she wait a while and he’d get some of the men together and go out on their cycles for a scout around. Off he went and soon had half a dozen mates riding around the local roads. Some without cycles went and checked the lanes and woods nearby on foot. They all knew of my reputation for wandering and sleeping out and, that Mum was very worried.
As dinner time passed and the day wore on, Mum was torn between getting the police involved again or waiting to see if I turned up on my own. The cyclists and walkers had not seen me anywhere. They all thought that I must be miles from the camp by that time.
But I wasn’t miles away from the camp, I was still there though not feeling very happy.
Val, David and I had gone into the large cook-house to play. There were lots of old rooms, cupboards and sinks to play around with. There was also a row of big ovens down the middle of the main room with doors that opened sideways. These doors could not be shut or opened without lifting a latch on the doors, over a retaining pin on the frame, and there was no handle inside. If we slammed the doors from the inside, the latch would bang against the retaining pin, without locking, with a sound not unlike a car door slamming shut. This gave me the idea to pretend that I was getting into a car and driving away. I got inside one of the ovens, `slammed’ the door, using the nut of the latch pivot, and happily `drove off'. I had some daylight provided by the slightly open door and my imagination did the rest.
Meanwhile, Val and David, who had been climbing around on some cupboards, suddenly realised that I wasn’t there. Wondering where I’d gone, they went out of the cook-house to look for me. As Val passed by the ovens, she idly shut and latched all the doors, then walked outside. I thought that the two of them were playing a game and waited for them to open the door, determined not to shout out and have them laugh at me for being scared.
But, as the hours passed in that cramped-up, rusty old black oven, I did get scared and screamed in terror in case I might be left in it forever, but nobody came. I finally dropped off to sleep in sheer exhaustion.
The men returned to our hut in tired groups and it was decided to call the police after all as it was late and would be dark in a couple of hours. Mum and Uncle Frank were wishing they’d called the police right at the start. One last time Mum asked Val what had happened so as she could explain the details to the police, Again, Val told them we’d been playing in the cook-house and I had just gone. One of the men asked Val where she had last seen me and she said it had been near the ovens by the front door. Something must have clicked and they all looked at each other, then there was a mad rush for the door with Val being snatched up in someone’s arms so as she would not be left on her own.
Mum told me later how they had raced across the camp and into the cook-house, each man running to a different door, and there I was, as black as the ace of spades but happy to see that crowd of laughing faces as I woke up to the sound of the door being opened.
Val had now started school and Mum decided to get an afternoon job. She became a waitress at Darvell’s cafe in Amersham. Val and I used to get off the bus from school in Amersham, meet Mum in the cafe and she would give us delicious ice cream while we waited for her to change before we all went home. The coffee flavoured ice cream at that cafe was my favourite and I developed quite a love for it.
Summer arrived in all its glory and I was content, for a while, to play around the camp with occasional trips down the lane or up to the common. Sometimes Mum would take us to the `Boot and Slipper’ public house gardens just down the road. It was always very pleasant to sit at the wooden tables with a glass of `Vimto’ in our hand and relax in the warm evening air. Mr. and Mrs. Strong, the publicans at that time, were very nice people and spoilt us children.
Zoo that day.
Mum also took us to the London Zoological Gardens. `Auntie’ Pat, one of Mum’s friends, and who was then living in our old wooden hut, decided to come with us. (`Auntie’ or `Uncle’ was used by us children as a title of respect for all of Mum’s friends when we were young).
The usual blanket trick was used for my benefit, and the next morning we set off early. It was a cool, slightly foggy day to start with and we all wore our overcoats as we journeyed up to London but, by the time we had walked through Regents Park to the zoo gates, we were quite warm under a bright sun.
Val and I were thrilled and didn’t know what to look at first. I remember seeing lots of money on the ground and in the pool of the crocodile enclosure and Mum telling me that people threw the money into the pool to try and wake the crocodiles. I was a bit scared of the lions and tigers and had hoped that the bars of the cages were as strong as they looked. The large snakes fascinated me, I hadn’t realised that they could grow so big. The monkeys made me laugh, but I nearly died when we reached the end of the monkey house and there was an extra-strong cage with the most enormous gorilla in it. I stood there in awe. I could almost see it tearing trains off of a railway bridge just as 'King Kong' had done in the film. Of course, it was a normal-sized gorilla but it looked very big to me. I think its name was 'Guy'. I also stared in awe at the bird-eating spider in the insect house, I’m not keen on any spiders at all and to see a monster like that really put the wind up me.
We wandered around the grounds not missing anything until Mum said it was time to go. As we walked out of the gate saying what a great day it had been, Mum decided to take us to the cinema while we were up there. Off we went and soon we were sitting with an ice cream watching a Robin Hood film.
After the film had finished we had the exciting bustle of the train ride back to Amersham, and the cool steady plod of the bus up to the camp. Tired as usual, but well happy with that wonderful day, we were soon in our beds and fast asleep.
That summer was very hot and we were all walking around in shorts and sandals. One really hot afternoon, as some of us children passed one of the huts, the owner playfully sprayed me with freezing water from his garden hose. I caught the full blast, went dizzy and sick then collapsed to the ground and all went black. The next thing I remember was being carried by Doctor Howell, out to his car and being taken to hospital where, Mum told me later, I was diagnosed as suffering from shock caused by the cold water on my hot body. I didn’t have much of a constitution in those days!
Of course, I was better in time to go on the Sunday School outing that year and we had another exciting day at the south coast. I recall that we had forgotten my bathing costume that day and I wore Mum’s one-piece. When I went into the sea I nearly floated away as the air caught in all the baggy areas of the costume. It was even worse when I came out for the weight of the water made the one-piece hang down to my knees and I had to hold it up around my waist, causing us all to go into fits of laughter.
I remember that we went into an amusement arcade because I’d seen a notice on the window advertising an x-ray machine inside. Sure enough, it was there (and working). I sacrificed one of my pennies to see the bones in my hand and the five pennies I had left over in my purse. I was fascinated, I could see the bones in my hand and the money in the purse very clearly. I considered the penny well spent.
A couple of weeks later I again took off into the hills. This time I went with Arthur. We walked up the lane, past the dell, through the woods, and across the fields, until we arrived at a building site just behind the grandstand of the Chesham football ground. For a while we played on the scaffolding that was built around each house, climbing up as high as we could then jumping off into the soft heaps of sand below. Tiring of this game, we looked for something else to amuse us.
The building site was a small housing estate being established (now Fullers Close) and there were a maze of trenches all over the area. At the junction where some of these trenches met was a very big hole that had been dug into the ground. We thought it would be great to see what it was like to be at the bottom of that hole. Pulling a ladder down off of the roof of a house, we dropped it down the hole and struggled to get it steady. Finally it was safe and we gingerly started down.
It felt really scary as I descended into that deep hole, I felt that the clay walls would collapse on us any moment. Arthur didn’t seem worried as he tried hard to tread on my fingers with his large hob-nailed boots in his efforts to follow me down the ladder. Reaching the bottom didn’t make me feel any better, the square patch of sky up above looked very small. I suppose this hole had been dug for a deep cess pit or something similar. Anyway, I didn’t like it and soon climbed the ladder to get back up to the outside world. As I reached the top I had wondered why I’d felt like that and laughed at myself, but I wouldn’t go down there again. Arthur climbed out and we set off to go to Chesham Park.
Arriving at the park I noticed straight away that all the big trees each side of the 'road' (that ran through the park) had gone, it looked very bare. We played on the swings for a while and walked all around the lake. Arthur suggested that we go up to Chesham railway station. No sooner said than done and a short time later we were standing outside of the station and could see the train standing at the platform. The engine was quietly hissing and again I had the feeling of being near dangerous machinery. Steering Arthur past the station entrance, I headed along a path that ran beside the line protected by a fence.
It was now getting dark. We followed the path until, upon going down some steps, we found ourselves in Waterside Road. We followed this road in the gathering gloom, crossed over a small river bridge on the right and walked out onto the moor. We felt our way over the moor, passed the place where David had been bitten by the dog, came out at the bottom of Chesham hill and started walking up towards home.
It was so dark that we couldn’t see and had to follow the faint white line up the middle of the road, diving into the long grass at the edge of the road every time a car approached. Two or three times a group of cyclists came swishing by as we lay in the grass, having been warned of their approach by their chatting and lights. Once we just had time to dive for cover when a group of cyclists had come up behind us and we hadn’t heard them so had not looked around for lights. It was a good ‘game’ to us and we tried hard to stifle the uncontrollable laughter that threatened to expose our positions.
As we entered the woods near the top of the hill, Arthur went very quiet. We were down on our knees now, crawling along the road because we couldn’t see the white line when we were standing. He suddenly said in a very frightened voice that he was scared. I was surprised as he was a confident lad and nothing seemed to bother him usually. I asked him what he was scared of and he told me that his Mum had warned him about `leaves’ who kill people at night and steal their money. Well, I had never heard of killer leaves and I had no money so I said that we shouldn’t worry. Nevertheless, I began to look into the blackness all around just in case, expecting a giant leaf to come rustling along at any moment.
The `leaves’ (thieves, of course) left us alone that night and we felt our way into the camp at last. I left Arthur at his hut and crept over to ours. The light was still on and I tip-toed past and, once more found a spot to lay down in the bushes nearby, where I soon fell into a fitful sleep covered by dead leaves. I thought I heard my name being called out a few times but was too tired to stay awake. At one time I thought I saw torches flashing down the lane and crawled deeper under the leaves.
I’d caused plenty of trouble again and, when it got dark the exhausted searchers had returned empty-handed. Then Arthur arrived home and told the searchers at his hut that he’d just left me and they hurried over to our hut only to find that I wasn’t there. Mum had guessed that I’d hidden somewhere in the lane and they all searched in that area. Their efforts revealed no sign of me and they gradually went home for a few hours sleep and a fresh start in the morning.
It was daylight when I awoke to find a smiling man standing above me in the lane. Soon I was home but nobody was smiling there. They were beginning to tire of my wandering spirit and I felt it very strongly. Once again I was banned from leaving the garden but was not punished otherwise. I considered myself extremely lucky. I suspect that the man was only smiling because he had found me.
Whilst still serving my sentence a couple of weeks later, I was playing in the garden and it suddenly came to my notice that I could hear a cat crying out somewhere over the lane in the trees. I looked hard and there, in one of the highest trees, was a cat stuck in a fork of the topmost branches. Dashing indoors, I called Mum and Val out but there was no way that we could climb up to it. Soon Mum had rounded up some of the camp men and they couldn’t climb the tree either. Four ladders were collected, tied together with rope, then leaned against the high tree. Very slowly Mr. Benning, one of the men, crept up those ladders. We all watched, fearing for his life, as the ladders bent and bounced, but he bravely struggled on at a snails pace. He had to stretch up off the top ladder to reach the first of the branches, and he was a long way up. Mum couldn’t look. He swung on the branch, left the ladder and pulled himself up. As he reached for the cat above him, it moved higher. He climbed a bit higher and the cat went out on a branch. Mr. Benning went along another branch and shooed the cat back then, with a swift movement, he scooped it up.
The cat scratched and fought like a tiger, but it was soon in a bag and they started down. At the lowest branch, Mr. Benning swung down and had a bit of trouble finding the top rung of the ladder. Then he couldn’t let go from above as he was out of balance. I had visions of him falling to the ground, but he managed to wrap an arm around the trunk, grip enough with his nails and move onto the ladder safely. Down they came and Mr. Benning was a hero to be forever remembered by myself.
Mum decided to take me around the local countryside to see if she could cure my wandering urge herself. One afternoon she set to and made up a scrumptious picnic. The three of us caught the bus to Chesham, changed onto a Darvell’s bus and travelled on up past Ley Hill until we came to a bus-stop miles from anywhere. As the bus drove away I glanced around. We were standing on a wide grass verge with the road down one side and a high wire fence down the other. Upon looking through the wire fence and into the distance, I suddenly spied an aeroplane parked near some buildings. With growing interest I pointed this out to Mum and she told me that we were at Bovingdon Aerodrome. The astonished surprise must have shown up on my face very clearly for both Mum and Val burst out laughing.
We were standing on the verge just near the end of the runway. I could see a few more planes scattered around in the distance, but there was no movement where we were. Val wasn’t all that impressed at all. Mum spread the table-cloth out on the grass verge and we got stuck into our picnic.
All was quiet out on the aerodrome for a while. Then Mum pointed out a plane at the far end of the runway and said that it might be taking-off in our direction. We watched and, sure enough, it started to come our way. Nearly mad with excitement I ran over to the fence. The plane vanished into a dip along the runway then suddenly appeared again much closer. It left the ground, roared across the road in a flash of silver and white about fifty metres in front of us, and soon became a dot in the sky. I watched every second of this with wonder until the plane circled high in the sky and vanished.
We returned to our picnic and I was full of amazement at the size of that plane. It had been so near that I had seen the people looking out of the windows. A few weeks later I found a picture of the Douglas DC 3 `Dakota’ in one of David’s books. It was the same type of plane.
As we were finishing our picnic Mum said that she could see another plane. I looked and could just make out the line of a plane coming in to land at the far end of the runway. It crossed silently onto the brown of the runway, vanished into the dip, then was suddenly in front of us, the two engines making a tremendous noise. We covered our ears to block out the sound. I remember that this plane looked scruffy. The paint-work was all blistered and peeled. I imagined that it had flown through the most horrific storm on its journey to make it look such a mess. It was a real contrast to the one we’d watched take-off earlier.
It also stirred my thoughts onto a new desire. From that second I wanted to fly in a plane and dreamed of soaring up through the blue skies in my quest to see the world. Not in my wildest imaginations did I envisage the many flights that I would take, nor terrors that flying would eventually hold for me in the future.
The plane passed in front of us as it taxied off the runway. The pilot and a few of the passengers waved through the windows to us and we waved madly back. Soon the plane had disappeared amongst the buildings and, although we waited for a while longer, nothing more happened. We caught the bus home and I was well satisfied with our afternoon out. The bus driver laughed as I `flew’ his bus along the road but I didn’t care, I was at the front of the plane that had taken-off earlier and flying to goodness knows where.
A week or so later David and I absconded again but, this time nobody knew we’d been out of the camp limits.
We set off early to go to Chesham Park so that I could show David how different it looked there now that the trees had gone. We reached the park, didn’t take much notice of the difference, and played on the swings instead. I mentioned about Chesham station and we decided to take a walk up to see that as well. We were walking up a street when I heard my name called. I looked around and there, just inside a shoe repair shop, was Mr. Kissman (I can only suppose that he'd given up the (at that time) hard work of 'trench-digging' (with a shovel) and had decided to mend shoes instead - and that was an important job as everybody had their shoes repaired rather than waste money on a new pair - as seems to be the case now in the mid-nineties. But then, to be fair, shoes were made to last and be repaired in those days).
Old wounds forgotten, I politely said hello and he invited us into the shop. Soon we had been shown around and had learned a lot about repairing and polishing shoes. We were duly impressed and he gave us enough cash to buy an ice cream and catch the bus home. He told us where the best ice cream shop was (just a few yards up Church Street), and we had to promise to go home straight after eating them. We thanked him, had our ice creams and rode the bus back up Chesham Hill to the camp. As we walked into the camp entrance I could hear Mum’s shrill call. It had been close.
Meanwhile, Mum had felt the need for another decent holiday. She’d written to a hop garden manager applying for a working holiday. Not being very rich she thought that, even if she worked, the change would do us good. Her application to Weston’s Farm in Bereton, Hants., was accepted and, after a great train ride we arrived.
The first thing we noticed there was a sloping field full of white bell tents. We were allotted one of these tents and put our bags and cases on the `bed’ of straw inside. There wasn’t time to explore any further as it was getting dark. A deep pool of water was situated at the bottom of the field and we had a wash in that pool, went back up to the tent, and rolled up in our blankets on the straw. I was very frightened that the Red Indians would come back and find us sleeping in `their tents’. Mum explained that Red Indians lived in North America and didn’t own these tents, but I was still a bit worried. It was very weird laying on the straw in that cold tent. We could hear the other people chatting so easily all around. Eventually, I dropped off to sleep.
Then it was morning and the cold, misty damp seemed to get into our very bones. A man on a horse and cart came by and threw a large faggot of wood off at each tent. Soon there were a dozen smoky fires with families sitting around them. We had breakfast then walked out to the hop fields to start work. Val and I didn’t last long and were soon attracted over to a group of children who were playing nearby. Mum plodded on picking the hops and filling up enormous wicker baskets that were emptied by a man on a tractor and trailer who drove around the hop fields for that purpose.
The day grew very hot as Mum struggled on, until, towards the late afternoon, everyone decided it was too hot and knocked off. We arrived back at the tent only to find that Mum’s purse was missing. We searched everywhere but it was no use, it had gone and nobody knew where. It must have been a terrible blow for her after saving up and planning for the holiday, having to work on that holiday then losing all her money as well.
We spent two more nights in that damp tent and Mum worked each day. Then Mum decided to go and stay with our Auntie Rose, who lived nearby at West Meon. Auntie Rose was another of my Nan’s sisters. We were welcomed, made comfortable, and stayed with her for the rest of our holiday. Each day we rode to the hop fields and back in a green baker’s van. I didn’t like this van very much as it had a roller door at the back which had to be shut while travelling, leaving us in the dark to bump and roll around.
The very first night at Auntie Rose’s house saw us cringing from a terrific thunder storm. The rain gushed down in bucketfuls and the wind roared around the cottage noisily. It seemed that the house would collapse as the thunder crashed and the lightning flickered almost continuously.
Upon arriving at the farm next morning the campsite was a forlorn sight to see. Not one tent had stood up to the storm. The pool at the bottom of the field was over-flowing and full of straw, wood, clothing, bags, rubbish, and the odd tent here and there that had been washed down the hill. The campers were all wrapped up in their wet blankets, huddled as close to their spitting fires as they could get, and the steam from their sodden belongings mingled with the thick smoke. There was mud everywhere.
We felt very sorry for these unfortunate holiday-makers. The driver took us back to each home belonging to the ladies in the van and we all helped to collect blankets, coats, sweaters, scarves, and anything else that could be found to help get those poor people warm once more. Gradually, the van became packed high with all these things and we had to squeeze in where we could for the return journey. Back at the farm, the wet people were soon laughing and saying what a holiday it would be to remember.
This was all very exciting for us children that were there, any thought of games were forgotten for a while and we joined in with the grown-ups as they worked to restore order. A couple of hours later the sun was shining, everything about the campsite was back to normal and, except for the patches of stodgy mud around the field, it was just as if the storm had never been.
Through the village of West Meon ran a small river. There were a couple of bridges over the river in the village, one being just near Auntie Rose’s cottage. One evening I was playing on the doorstep of the cottage and wandered down to this bridge. There were no sides to it and I lay on the arch to look down into the water. I could see a red shotgun shell case on the bottom of the river and wondered if I could reach it. I pushed myself over the edge of the bridge as far as I could on my stomach and reached down into the water with my out-stretched arm. But I reached too far and in I went head first. I had never been under water before and it was awful. No sooner was I in, there was a splashing of water and I was dragged out again, coughing and spluttering onto the slope of the bank.
Inside the cottage Mum had seen me walk away from the step. She knew the dangers of the river for she had lived there when she was a young girl. She was washing and, by the time she’d dried her hands, walked to the door, saw what I was doing and raced over to the bridge, I was in. She hadn’t tried to warn me with a shout as she had thought I would fall in with surprise. She wasn’t surprised herself that I had fallen in anyway. Off came her shoes and she paddled in to save me from disaster once again. The river was only about twenty five centimetres deep but, it was enough to soak me through. Auntie Rose said that I looked like the people in the camp after the storm and everyone laughed loud.
All good things must come to an end and so did our hop-picking holiday, if it could have been called a holiday for Mum. We packed up, said goodbye to Auntie Rose and her family and headed home with some more experiences and memories added to our lists.
August Bank Holiday arrived and Mum decided to take us to the Rickmansworth Aquadrome, about eight miles from Amersham. This was an area of old water-filled gravel pits that had been turned into a swimming and boating park. There were also swings, picnic areas, and plenty of fish for those with a rod.
The day started well. Mum took us out in a rowing boat, we had a picnic, then in the afternoon we went paddling in a safe area for children at a corner of one of the pits. There was a sandy beach at this spot and posts had been driven into the sand under the water to mark the limit that was safe for children. Val and I splashed about happily within these limits and Mum watched us from the little beach.
Suddenly people began shouting. Two men quickly launched a wooden dinghy, rowed out past the posts, and commenced to throw grappling-irons, tied to lengths of rope, into the water.
One of the patients from a nearby epileptic hospital had vanished. A short distance past the posts, at the bottom of the lake, were thick weeds and it was feared that the man had got his legs caught in the weeds and drowned. Everybody else watched in horror, but Mum quickly dried and dressed us, and we packed up to go.
Just as we were walking away, the boat heeled over under one of the men pulling on his rope and the body of the man appeared on the surface. As Mum hurried us away, I was immediately struck by a terror of weeds under water that would be with me all my life. In later years I’d purposely swim across that lake and lose a bit of the fear but I’m still not very keen on weedy water.
Meanwhile, Mum had decided to emigrate to New Zealand. Val and I were unaware of these plans. She had written away to get details of the requirements, applied to go, and we had been accepted. But, before she had a chance to sign the forms, something happened that would change everything.
The Amersham Historical Museum has a Beech Barn Camp section (including Hodgemoor, Piper’s Wood and the other temporary housing camps) on their so wonderful and interesting website. Please, if you have any stories or photographs that you feel could be added for the interest of future generations, don't be afraid to get in touch with the good folk of the museum who are making every effort to ensure that as much as possible is recorded. Click here if you would like to visit the website.
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