Grandad’s Mother, Granny Challis, died that autumn of 1949 and Nan and Granddad decided to leave Mortimer. All thoughts of going to New Zealand forgotten, Mum suggested that the three of them would start life anew with us until they could find a place of their own. Nan and Granddad accepted Mum’s offer and we were very excited.
The great day arrived and I waited by the camp entrance most of the morning for them to come. Suddenly the big black Pickfords’ furniture lorry was coming up the road and I could see Jim in the front passenger seat waving to me. The lorry turned into the camp and I ran along beside it to show the driver where to go. Soon the lorry was reversed in as far as the driver could get it and Nan and Granddad arrived on their motor cycle and sidecar. We all helped to unload the lorry and it roared off into the distance with us all waving goodbye.
Now there was a big change in our hut. VaI went into Mum’s bedroom with her, Nan and Granddad went into Val’s old bedroom and Jim had a camp bed in my room. It was a bit of a squeeze but we were used to things like that. Everything Nan and Granddad owned was forced into their bedroom and there was just room to move sideways around their bed. It always seemed to be cosy and quiet in there. Val and I were not allowed in there unless we were invited by Nan or Granddad and we respected that wish. Apart from the cramped-up bedrooms, we lived a normal life as a happy family with everyone sharing the rest of the hut.
Nan and Mum soon settled down together and had the housework and cooking sorted out between them. Jim started school at Germain Street School in Chesham and Granddad applied for a couple of positions in the local area. Granddad had worked with steam engines all his life and what he didn’t know about this subject wasn’t worth knowing. One of the positions he’d applied for was as a boiler man at the Joint Services Staff College at Latimer in the Chess Valley nearby, and he got this job. Granddad's duty was to help look after coke-fired steam boilers for heating the water and rooms at the college. At first I didn’t know much about this kind of work but later he would take me and I’d get to know a lot. Granddad worked at his new job as part of a team doing shift-work. The boilers had to be kept going twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. The shifts were from two until ten, ten until six and six until two. I would usually go with him on the two until ten shift; but more of that later.
A short time after my grandparents moved in Mum was taken ill. The doctor suggested that she get away on convalescence for a while. Nan offered to look after Val and I so Mum went to Westgate on the south coast for a month.
It was strange without Mum there but Nan, Granddad and Jim kept us amused. Nan was a good cook who had probably taught Mum when she was younger. The tea-table was always piled up with all sorts of goodies. Nan used to make enormous fruit cakes and I always made sure that I had enough room left for at least two big slices. The oven was on the go all day and she used to ask us to shut the house doors very slowly as the cakes would go flat in the oven. It was now getting cold in the mornings and, instead of making porridge one day, she made some milk-sop. This was heated bread and milk but it had to be cooked in a special way to get it right. It was a winner with Val and I straight away and I still occasionally have it now made exactly the same way as Nan made it. Nan would mix up a few raisins or currents in the mix. Sometimes cocoa or evaporated milk would give us a change and a different flavour but, the old original way was the best and we loved it. Nan would make milk-sop about once a week and, as soon as she started cutting up the bread we would know it was milk-sop day. The rest of the week we’d have cereals as Val and I didn’t like a cooked breakfast. Nan also used to make suet puddings. I remember the first time she made a bacon suet roll, I thought it was a waste to put bacon in something that I had always considered as a sweet but, as usual I wolfed it down (as Nan used to say) and enjoyed it to the full.
Granddad was a big solid man who always seemed to be dressed in a dark-blue boiler-suit. He could mend anything, was a wonderful gardener, liked anything funny and never seemed to rest. Jim was a tall fair-haired lad who never mixed with the other children of his age. He was happy to stay at home with his parents. He would make me all sorts of things like wooden aeroplanes and bow and arrows and guns and swords. Jim was his Father's son alright. I was thrilled to have him with us.
The month soon passed and Mum came home just in time for Guy Fawkes night. Granddad had bought a big box of fireworks, Jim and Uncle Frank built a large fire out on the green and all the children on the camp were invited to gather around the fire and watch the display. Some of the other parents had bought fireworks as well so all these were pooled with Grandad’s and the display never seemed to end. The fire blazed and roared, the Roman Candles hissed in different coloured lights, the Jumping Jacks chased us, and the Rockets swished up to the very Heavens. It was a great night for us children.
Just after that memorable night Nan got a job as cleaner at the Regent cinema in Amersham. Every morning she would go and clean the seats and floors with other cleaners and they were a happy lot. Nan would take Val or myself with her sometimes and it was funny to go all over the cinema when there was nobody there. I was spoilt by Mr. Carr, the Manager of the cinema, who often came over from his home at Pinner on Saturday mornings (Mr. Carr, it may be remembered, put the message up on the screen when Uncle Frank wanted to contact Tommy's parents about the empty hut). Nan used to save the ice cream cups, wash them and bring them home for me to play with and I’d build castles and walls with them, roll a ball at the structure and laugh as the lot collapsed. It wasn’t long before I knew every little nook and cranny in that picture house.
Nan with her new connections managed to get Mum a job there as usherette. She still did the domestic work in the morning and the Christmas club so she was a busy lady with all this and having to look after us as well. But Nan, Granddad, and Jim helped a lot.
My seventh birthday passed with another great party. This time we had a cotton wool snowman filled with little presents but I can’t remember what I got out of it.
As Christmas approached Val and I asked to go carol singing again and we went out a few nights. The first night we went around the camp but, on the next few nights Mum took us around the local roads to the ‘posh’ houses and they were all very kind to us. I remember how funny and daring it felt to walk up the long gravel drives of these houses in the bright moonlight on our own, Mum staying at the gate. Most of the time the people would turn the outside light on and must have been just inside the door listening, but some of them used to open the door and join in with their children. We used to be very embarrassed when they did this at first but soon got used to it. When the people had given us the money we’d dash back down the drive to show Mum and, each time she’d tell us the ever increasing total.
Christmas arrived and with it, now that Granddad and Nan were with us, we had a bigger pile of presents, bigger stockings, a bigger heap of wrapping paper, and a bigger table of goodies to eat.
New years day of 1950 came and went and so did the cold winter days that kept us in most of the time, then suddenly it was spring and, fed up with all the inactivity of the last few months, I thought it was time I went exploring again.
It was a very cold and frosty spring morning when David and I left the camp, walked up the lane past Channor’s farm and out into Copperkin’s Lane. This ‘lane’ was really a road and the surface was made of concrete slabs with tar in the joints.
We were wandering along when I spied a cylinder in the grassy ditch, we scrambled down, dug it out of the soft silt and saw it was a bomb. It was as big as we were and had a tube of metal around the flights. The nose end had rusted through and it was empty, lucky for us. I wanted to take it home but David suggested that we hide it again and collect it on the way back. I was still keen to see what was at the end of the lane so agreed.
We plodded on to the end and turned left, walked along a mile or so and came into another camp similar to ours, but all the huts were wooden. The whole camp was in the shelter of a big wood with the road winding down. through it. This was Piper’s Wood camp and the first man we saw there was Mr. Kissman.
Mr. Kissman asked me if my Mum knew that we were away from the camp and I told him that she didn’t. He took us into his hut, gave us a meal and soon we were chatting like old friends. I happened to tell him about the bomb and he decided to come back with us to look for himself. We all set out and reached the bomb. When he saw it he told us off for touching it and sent us on our way, telling us to go home without stopping. I was most upset that he wouldn’t let me have the bomb but, of course, it was for our own good and children don’t understand these things. Sadly, we walked back up Copperkin’s Lane, passed the lane to Channor’s farm and went on until we turned into Bois Avenue that would take us back to the main road outside the camp.
As we were passing a ‘posh’ house in Bois Avenue, we heard a voice call out, we turned around and a lady called us back. She asked us if we were from the Beech Barn camp and we said yes, myself thinking that this lady had heard our descriptions from the radio again, after all, it was fairly late. She took us back to her front door and asked us to wait a minute, I was very tempted to run but, before I could she was back again with a box. She told us that the toys in the box were her children's old toys that they had grown out of and she’d saved them for children less fortunate than themselves. With great excitement we thanked her and sorted them out on the step there and then while the lady obviously enjoyed our pleasure. From that moment on she became the ‘toy lady’ and we all became very good friends but I never did see her children once.
Arriving home with our new toys we had to face the music once more. We told our Mums that we’d gone to see Mr. Kissman and Mum said I could go and live with him at Piper’s Wood if I wanted which, of course, I didn’t. My excuse made Granddad laugh (they all knew that I hadn't known where Piper's Wood was, let alone that Mr. Kissman was living there). But he laughed even more when Mum told him that my last excuse, when with Arthur, had been that Arthur had fallen into a hole on a building site and I’d spent all day trying to get him out. He chuckled for weeks about that one. 0nce more I was confined to the garden and once more David was banned from seeing me.
As soon as I was allowed out of the garden again David did see me and we were soon playing together as usual. A few days later we were playing in the lane and some big girls came riding by on horses. We asked for a ride and one of the girls hissed at us to go away. We followed them up the lane because we’d never seen people ride horses up there before and were keen to find out what they were going to do. The girls told us to clear off a couple of times more but we still followed. Suddenly, one of the girls swung her horse around and made it rear up above me. The hoofs crashed down each side of me and I could feel its hot breath in my face. I screamed in terror and fled back down the lane for all I was worth, with David chasing behind. Finally, out of breath and heart pounding, I glanced around and there wasn’t a horse to see. We ran back up the lane and could see them right down by the dell. Due to this incident I was to have a hate for horses that was unfair, but more of that later.
Tommy had become a good friend of mine and we’d played a lot together. I could never get him out of the camp limits usually, but one day he agreed to go down the bottom camp with Val and I. We set off with Tommy still not very happy about it. I’d been to the bottom camp a few times with David and we’d been in most of the old, empty buildings like the hall, the officer’s mess and the stables. Above the stables was a loft that could be reached by climbing a ladder attached to one of the inside walls. A hatch had to be lifted above the ladder to gain access to the loft. David and I had been up there a few times and had noticed a lot of carved wood, as if a church had been demolished and all the carved pews, windows and doors had been placed in storage up in this loft. We’d never really explored the loft and I’d used this as bait to get Tommy to come with us.
There was a hole in the brick wall of the stables just near the ladder and I crawled through followed by Tommy and Val. Tommy was right with me as we climbed the ladder and I opened the hatch, then something extraordinary happened. There were a few missing tiles on the roof and the sun shone through in rays, lighting up most of the loft. As I looked into the loft I became aware that I could hear footsteps coming towards me and, peering in the direction of the sounds I could see puffs of dust rising up from the floor. It was as if someone was walking across the floor and kicking up the dust. But there was nobody there. There was plenty of light and I could see everything clearly. There were the puffs rising up in the dust and all of us heard the sounds, but there was no body.
I screeched in pure terror, dropped the hatch and fell onto Tommy. He in turn, lost his grip and fell onto Val. The three of us fell into a heap on the floor of the stable. We didn’t stay there long and each made a dive for the hole in the wall, fighting to get out before the ‘ghost’ got us.
Somehow we wriggled through and ran as hard as we could back up to the top camp, very shaken and scared. I still can’t explain what it was and the three of us have talked about it many times since with no result. But, over the years more things would happen of that nature that would be just as baffling (see my True-life Mystery Stories).
Nan decided to take us to see Granny Moon, her Mother, at the little cottage where she lived in Langrish near Petersfield. We had another great bus and train ride and finally arrived.
Granny Moon was very old but sweet and Val and I loved her. She lived there with Nan’s youngest sister, Mabel and her husband, Darkie, as everyone called him. They had children and Bertie, the oldest boy, and I played together in the meadow next door to the cottage. The grass was long and the butter-cups were high in this meadow and it was wonderful to run and roll all over the place in such joy.
is on the right.
Bertie had a couple of old broken air-rifles and we spent most of that holiday playing at wars. I was sad when it was time to leave but Bertie gave me one of his old air-rifles to take home and I was thrilled. We wrapped it in newspaper, tied it all up with string and I couldn’t wait to get home to show my friends. I remember a porter on one of the stations putting up his hands and pleading me not to shoot him. I showed him how the trigger was wrapped up and he said he was very relieved. We arrived home with another great holiday to remember and I gave my mates a go with the rifle at the first chance. They were all impressed.
A week or so later David and I decided to take the rifle up the lane and ‘ambush’ anyone who passed. We picked a tree with very thick branches around the bottom, where the leaves had fallen over the years and made a very nice big ‘nest’ around the trunk. David couldn’t get up into this ‘nest’ so I tried to push him. Suddenly he gave a shout and, thinking that he was worried about falling, I pushed even harder. He struggled and shouted more and more until I finally lowered him down where he started slapping at himself like a maniac. He told me that he’d been stung by something and, when we looked at his arms and legs, he had many swollen lumps that he said were very painful. I took him home and, luckily, his Gran was there.
She knew straight away what it was that had caused the bad swellings and pain. She told us that we’d tried to climb up into a typical ‘Horse-fly breeding area’ and these were what had caused the nasty swellings and bites. She also told us that the horse-flies were burying their eggs under the skin, not biting him. This made David sick all over the floor. I beat a hasty retreat.
Uncle Frank took Val and I for a Sunday walk with his family a short time after this incident and we walked about two miles until we came to Weedon Wood. Auntie Joyce had Brian in the pram so we kept to the easy paths. I was still on the lookout for the dreaded horse-fly but, there was something even more deadly waiting for us.
We were happily walking along listening to the birds when Auntie Joyce gave a scream and stopped dead, nearly shooting Brian out of the front of the pram. I looked and could see a yellow snake rearing up just near her. Uncle Frank ran into the bushes, broke off a big stick and, just as the snake was moving closer to Auntie Joyce he ran up and killed it. That was the end of that walk and I was very frightened to go into that wood after that when I was young.
David recovered from his bites and we decided to go down the bottom camp one morning. Ken, our local Express Dairy milkman, was doing his deliveries and had left his milk-float near the entrance of our camp. As we walked past the parked milk-float I took a look around and, seeing no sign of Ken, decided to sit in the driver’s seat.
It was an electric-powered machine and, as I climbed onto the seat I accidentally trod on the accelerator. The float shot away with me still inside and not realising why it was going. David was running along beside, laughing and squealing with delight and the bottles were jingling like mad. The whole lot of us was heading straight for the main road.
I’d never been behind the steering wheel of a moving vehicle before, but I quickly realised that I had to do something. I grabbed the wheel and sat up on the seat, meaning to try and steer the float somewhere other than into the main road. As I sat down my foot came off the throttle and the float almost stopped dead. This caused me to slip forwards off the seat and start the wretched float going again. But, in doing so the momentum threw me out of the float and it stopped almost straight away again - right on the corner kerb of the main road and the camp entrance. I was lucky enough to get away without any serious injuries other than being a bit bruised and battered. I picked myself up and we scooted back into the camp to watch the events.
Ken came out of the hut busily counting money into his leather shoulder bag and writing in his book. He walked to where he’d left the milk-float then suddenly stopped as he looked up to discover that the vehicle wasn't there. His head turned first in our direction then the other and we saw him straighten as he spied the float down by the main road. At that point we took fright and fled while we had the chance, laughing with the thrill of it all. But I was a lot wiser.
Then, a few days later an incident occurred that caused David and myself to be banned from seeing each other for good and we would never play together again.
Jim had helped me make a wonderful bow and arrow and David and I were taking it in turns to fire the arrow at a target drawn on a fence with a bit of chalk. We were having a good time until David ran across in front of the target just as I fired an arrow. The arrow hit him in the chest and, as he looked down, the other end bounced up into one of his eyes. I was shocked and very frightened and couldn’t believe that it had happened so easily. David spun around holding his face and screaming out in pain. I looked at his eye to try and see if there was any damage and I could see a red hole in the blue of the iris. I helped him home to his front door, knocked then ran before his parents came out for I knew that I was in real trouble.
Breathlessly I told Jim what had happened and he broke the bow and arrows up. David and his Mum came past on the way to catch the bus to the hospital and she told me that she was going to get the police onto me for this. I was terrified and had visions of being sent away somewhere (I didn’t really know what ‘jail’ was then). David landed up in Stoke Manderville Hospital and, apart from seeing him a few times after that, I never really went around with him anymore. Happily his eye healed and, as far as I know he had no more problems with it.
Just after this incident hut number twenty one became vacant and Nan, Granddad and Jim moved into it. Suddenly our hut seemed very empty and it was funny not to have them there.
Their hut was on the opposite side of the green from ours and it was good fun to be able to visit when we wanted to. Granddad and Jim quickly built a workshop and set to making all manner of things to improve their hut and garden.
Now that I wasn’t so tied up with David I found more time for my other friends and not just the boys either. The Dumbarton family lived on one side of us, their children were mostly girls but, I soon learned that girls can be as adventurous as boys. What was better was that one of these girls, Cherrie, was older than myself (though not the oldest of the family’s children) and I was allowed to leave the camp limits if I was with her. The very first place I went with her was to the pond. Cherrie, two of her younger sisters, Freda and Joyce, Francis, Val and I made up the group but Francis went back home as we reached the common. .
We arrived at the pond and started looking for newts. We all had a jam jar each and Cherrie had an old nylon stocking on a piece of wire like a pond net. We found a few newts and studied them in our jars of pond water then Cherrie caught the biggest newt I’ve ever seen. She called it a ‘King newt’ and it was at least thirty centimetres long. It wouldn’t fit in any of our jars so I dashed over to the lady where Mum did her domestic work and pleaded for a bigger container. She was very kind and gave me a large square biscuit tin. I thanked her very much and rushed back to the pond where the enormous newt was placed in the tin after filling it with water.
I wanted to take the newt home to show my Mum and grandparents so, holding the tin very steady we slowly made our way back to the camp. I ended up by showing the newt to half the families on the camp before we took it back to the pond and let it go. I felt sad to see it swim off but Mum had taught us to put animals back where we had found them after having a look.
That was the only ‘King newt’ that I ever saw in spite of many trips to the pond and I wonder if it was a newt or something else. It was exactly the same as a male newt, but four or five times the size.
It was a beautiful summer and Mum was always taking us somewhere. We went on picnics galore and many walks around the local countryside. Her favourite walk was down past the ‘dream house’ but Val and I were happy to go anywhere. We went to Bovingdon Aerodrome again that summer but there wasn’t much movement as far as aeroplanes were concerned. One day she decided to take us to see ‘Auntie’ Sally and her family at Reading. Neither Val nor I could remember her but we were very keen to go.
After the usual early start, we caught the buses from home to Reading via High Wycombe. We went shopping in Reading first and Mum bought me a tin gun. After shopping we caught a trolley-bus back to the Cemetery Junction and walked along to ‘Auntie’ Sally’s place above the fruit and vegie shop.
We were not allowed to walk through the shop but had to go around the side entrance which was in Cumberland Road. The back yard was packed with boxes, rubbish, and rotting fruit and vegies. The smell of oranges was heavy in the air and there were many flies in amongst this rubbish, I didn’t like it at all. After running the gauntlet of the flies, we went through the back door into a very dark passage-way. There was no light and we clung on to Mum’s dress while she found a flight of stairs, and we felt our way up them until we could see a thin light, almost dazzling, from under a door in front of us. Mum knocked and the door was opened by a little, very dark-eyed, white-haired lady. This was ‘Auntie’ Sally and she was thrilled to see us. 'Uncle' Bill and the boys were equally pleased and it wasn’t long before Val and I were listening to some of the stories of when we used to live with them.
It was great to sit in the front windows and watch all the traffic down in the London Road, the very road where Mum and her friend had hopped up onto the lorry on V.E. day to dance around the Cemetery Junction. Just over the road was the cemetery with the arched entrance in the corner and over the other side of that was the Wokingham Road. There were many buses, trolley-buses, lorries, cars, and cycles going up and down these roads and this kept me happy for ages.
When I did eventually tire of looking out of the windows, Mum gave me permission to go down the stairs (if I was careful) and out into the yard, the gate was locked so I couldn’t get out. I wasn’t interested in going out into that filthy yard so I played in the dark, shooting pretend enemies that were lurking in the black corners, The noise of the gun echoed weirdly.
Suddenly there was a pinging noise and a sound of something small bouncing down the stairs. The trigger spring had shot out of my gun and was somewhere down below in the dark. There was no light on the stairs, the rooms had gas lamps. Nobody had a torch or candles so I groped around in the blackness for the spring as I knew that Granddad would be able to fix my gun. I hunted for ages but couldn’t find it. The whole lot of us were hunting in the end and ‘Uncle’ Bill was lighting matches, but the spring was nowhere to be found. In the end we had to give up.
Finally, it was time to go home and we said our good-byes and thanked them for their hospitality. It was a beautiful cool evening as we plodded home in the bus with me shooting everything in sight, with my, now silent, gun. Tired and content we reached the hut and were soon fast asleep in bed. Granddad fixed my gun the next day with a bit of a spring from an old clock. He was a marvel and I never had any more problems with it.
Chiltern Road, opposite the camp entrance, had an abandoned house in it, that we called the ‘haunted house’. It probably wasn’t haunted but, in spite of their promise after our fright down at the old 'Stables' in the bottom camp a few weeks earlier, Tommy and Val decided to join me for a look around the place.
It was very weird and quiet and we were scared, but we’d probably already frightened ourselves with our imaginations. Bravely, we crept around the ground floor. The musty smell seemed to add to our fear and all of us were ready to run for our very lives. Plucking up courage, we went up the stairs as quietly as we could and peeped into each bedroom. I don’t know what we expected to see there but nothing happened, there were no ‘horrible things’ and we relaxed a bit. l looked out at the brambles that was once the garden outside then we started back down the dark stairs. I went first followed by Val then Tommy.
As we were walking down Val said, laughing, that it was a fairy tale that the house was haunted (or something to that nature). Suddenly, there was a big crash and, with a scream Val vanished from sight. Where she’d been there was a black mark on the dark steps and we could hear a groaning sound just below. Terrified, I crawled back up to the mark and, feeling the spot I discovered that the black mark was actually a hole. Then I almost died as a ghostly face popped up just in front of me. With a yell of pure horror, I turned to flee the building and get help. Tommy turned to race back up the stairs.
As I reached the bottom of the stairs I heard Val call and glanced back to see an arm waving beside the ghostly face. All at once I realised that the face belonged to Val and I ran back up the stairs to her. She had fallen through the stairs and had been a bit bewildered as to why she was in that black hole. She was in a cupboard under the stairs and had only fallen about two metres. Terrified and speechless with horror, her only thought was to get out. She picked herself up, groped around a bit until she discovered some shelves, then she’d climbed upon the shelves to get out of the frightening hole that she was in.
And that was when her head popped up in front of me. I yelled up at Tommy to come and give me a hand to pull Val up out of the hole. But he’d had enough of frights for the moment, and he was getting out while the going was good. With a rumble of feet on the steps, he raced down past us, smashing me to one side as he did so, and, with a final clatter of feet along the passage, he was soon gone. I was kneeling on the steps just in front of Val’s head and shoulders and she panicked even more as Tommy ran off. With sudden strength, she used me to pull herself up out of the hole. I collapsed to the steps, felt an elbow in my back, a knee smashed my head, then Val was clattering down the passage and out of the house, leaving me a bit stunned but staggering out behind her. Within seconds we were racing as fast as our legs would carry us back up towards the camp with the distant figure of Tommy way out in front.
This incident only boosted our belief that the house was haunted and, although Val and Tommy refused to ever go there with me again, I used to take friends there and show them where Val had fallen through the stairs.
Of course, the stairs were rotten and it was just a coincidence that Val fell through after saying what she did, but we were young and ready to believe anything.
The close-knit spirit and friendliness that existed between the two camps when we first went there began to fall apart, Most of the original people seemed to have moved away from the bottom camp, to be replaced by strangers, or at least, that’s how it seemed to me. There was no visiting between the camps anymore and there seemed to be a feeling of animosity directed at us top camp people when we went down there.
This was well illustrated when some of us children went into the old dance hall one day. There were already some of the bottom camp children playing in there but, as we walked through the doors a lady from that camp came in behind us. She asked who had turned the camp electricity off at the fuse-box which was in the hall and easily reached by a child. She must have seen us walk in just in front of her and the other children had been over by the fuse box area at the time but, the question was directed at us from the top camp. We, of course, pleaded innocent but the bottom camp children said that we’d done it. With them smirking behind her, the lady very nastily told us to clear off up to our own camp and never show our faces down there again or we’d each receive a box around the ears. She wouldn’t have said it a second time in front of my Mum but we’d been brought up not to be rude to people so we retreated back up to our camp.
Now, this incident gave Arthur the idea to sneak down there now and again and really switch the fuses off, and I must confess that I went with him a couple of times. It was very exciting as we crept, in the dark, through the bottom camp gate, over to the hall, across the floor beside the stage and found the fuse-box by feel. The doors were really French windows and we would look towards them where the lighter area outside showed up against the pure blackness of the inside of the hall. One of us would pull the fuse-box lever down to switch off the electricity then we’d both run for the lighter area, pass through safely and easily find the gate from there. None of us was ever caught and we thought it was a great game. But the idea would never have come to us if the lady hadn’t given it to us.
Gradually, we became to regard the people at the bottom camp as nasty unpleasant persons and we were very careful when we went there. I think that it was a case of the bottom camp folk being loyal to their own camp and the top camp people being loyal to their camp. But anyway, the camps became separated and the old spirit gradually faded.
As the summer of 1950 crept on in all its glory we found better things to do than to cause trouble down the bottom camp. The ‘posh’ people in the houses around the outside of the camps always seemed to be doing something interesting and very often we were witnesses to some of those interests. Sometimes we’d see an orange oblong rise above the trees in the direction of Channor’s fields and we’d race up the lane, sit on the five-bar gate of the big field and watch the ‘box kite’ family (as we came to call them) flying their large, orange box kites. Those kites looked small up in the sky but, on the ground they looked enormous. Another family made and flew model aeroplanes and we’d spend hours watching the ‘planes soar high into the sky. And yet another family, in a house just near the dell, had a lot of trees in the back garden, with stout poles leading from tree to tree high up in the branches and one could walk along this ‘cat walk’ if one was daring enough (which one was).
Harvest time came around once again and we had a great time in the fields helping the farmer from Chesham to put his sheaves into stooks. A few weeks later we helped him to pick up all the sheaves and load them onto a trailer so as he could transport them to the hayrick at one end of the field. I was lucky and got a job up on the trailer passing the sheaves from those on the ground to the stacker and then helping to unload at the hayrick. It was hard work for us youngsters but we thoroughly enjoyed it. All too soon, it seemed, the work was done and we were waving goodbye to the farmer and his men. The field always seemed strangely quiet for a while after all the action.
Fluffy, our wonderful cat, died that late summer. Val and I were heart-broken. I don’t know what she died of but we held a little funeral, put Fluffy into a shoe box and lowered her into a hole that Mum and I had dug in the garden. We filled the hole in, fitted a wooden cross at the head of the little grave and placed a jar of flowers on the mound. Many times after that we’d expect to look around and find Fluffy walking along behind us as she used to, then remember that she wasn’t with us anymore.
Then Val and I had a real adventure. Mum was just outside the garden gate talking to Mrs. Hill, Val and I were playing in the hut. Suddenly, I noticed a flickering light from the direction of the kitchen. I glanced idly that way to see the paraffin cooking stove well alight along with half of the kitchen. Val and I would be trapped if we didn’t do something quick as we had to go through the kitchen to get out. We held hands and ran for our lives. I aimed for the door, looking under the billowing smoke. I felt the searing heat as I passed the flames and panic took hold of me for a split second, then we were through tumbling over the doorstep into fresh air.
Mum and Mrs. Hill were still happily talking, oblivious of the events taking place behind them. I can still remember the shocked look on Mum’s face when I called that the hut was on fire and she turned around. I recall that her eyes nearly popped out of her head as she looked past Val and I at the smoke billowing out of the front door and the vent above.
Suddenly there were people coming from all directions, Val and I were bundled away to a safer distance and the fire was soon out. Amazingly, there was hardly any damage and everyone set to and cleaned up our kitchen. Somebody brought up some distemper paint and brushes and soon our kitchen was better than it had been before the fire. Granddad came over, found the fault in our stove and fixed it and we all settled back down to life again with a real adventure under our belts.
Old Amersham, a separate town about one and a half miles from Amersham, was the venue for a yearly steam-driven fair. The main street was very wide and the fair used to be spread all along this street leaving just enough room for cars to pass. Old Amersham was made up of mostly very old buildings, but there were a few modern buildings like the London Transport bus garage, the hospital and the Brazil’s pie factory.
There was also a large town hall half way along the wide street that caused quite a bottle-neck as it stood well out from all the other buildings. The steam-driven fair started on one side of this town hall, went right through the supporting arches of the same and spilled out from the other side in a trail of side-shows, traction engines, Foden lorries, caravans and round-a-bouts all up the street. The town hall was once used as a location for a film called ‘The Circus Of Horrors’ (I think) where the villain was chased under its dark arches before he was finally caught.
Mum thought it would be nice to go to the September fair that year and Nan, Granddad and Jim decided to go along with us. We all caught the bus down to Old Amersham and could see the glow of the fair lights in the darkening sky long before we got there. As we got off the bus and walked away from the noisy engine, the loud music filled our ears along with the laughter and squeals from the people already enjoying themselves.
Val, Jim and I went straight on the swinging boats. These were like a swinging box with a seat at each end and the riders worked the swing themselves by pulling on pieces of rope hanging down from the cross-bars above. If you pulled hard on these ropes and really got swinging, you had to hold on very tight for it was easy to topple out at the end of each pendulum. I suppose it was nothing to what is around now but I loved swooping back up through the arc of the pendulum, seeming to teeter above everything for a second then feel my stomach scrabble to climb up my throat as I’d swoop back down again with the wind roaring in my ears. The ride was always long but seemed to flash by and all too soon the man in charge would force a plank of wood Under the swing to slow us down to a stop. To me, this was always the best ride.
It was great swinging with Jim for he was very strong and soon had Val and I hanging on for dear life. We both squealed with the thrill and happiness of it all. Granddad was in amongst the steam engines but Nan and Mum said that our faces were a sight to behold, One second fearful, the next laughing and delighted. All too soon it was over and we staggered back onto solid ground, our legs feeling very wobbly for a few seconds.
There were the usual fair rides and stalls but I was never much interested in dodgem’s and shooting galleries and would have been quite happy to just walk around after the ride on the swinging boats but, this fair was different. It wasn’t only the rides that attracted people to that fair each year, the lights, laughter and rides were secondary to persons such as my Granddad who had gone mainly to see the showmen’s steam engines.
As I stepped off that swinging boat, I looked over at a huge red engine gently rocking back and forth. I could see the eccentrics working busily up on top of the boiler and the flywheel racing silently around with a large leather belt over it that stretched along to drive a large generator situated just in front of the chimney. There was a long roof on top of the engine and coloured lights were glowing all around the edge of it helping to make the glossy red paint and polished brass shine in a thousand sparkling garish tints. A gentle ‘chuff’ could be heard from the chimney along with the quiet sizzle of steam escaping from tiny cracks or leaking pipe joints. Thick electric cables ran from the generator to the stalls and side shows that were situated nearby, we had to be careful not to trip over these cables.
Scattered around between engines, roundabouts, stalls, caravans and all the other things that go to make a fair so exciting, were half a dozen steam organs. These steam organs were a marvel of ornate carvings, gold paint, silver organ pipes, and coloured lights. There were moving figures that played drums, clashed cymbals, or just danced around, and sometimes the music cards could be seen folding down into tidy stacks. The music was always very stirring and the bass notes seemed to make the whole street shake. As soon as we’d walk away from one organ the music from the next one would start battering our ears. They were a wonder to see and we used to watch them for ages until we’d move on to see what the next one had to offer in way of moving figures, working instruments, music, and lights.
Jim took Val and I up to the top of the helter skelter and I saw that we were as high as the top of the nearby church tower. We could look down on the whole brightly lit scene from the dim platform that we were standing on. Then it was my turn to go and I sat on my mat, took a deep breath and let go. There was a swirl of lights, a feeling of being forced against the wooden sides of the slide then I was tossed willy-nilly onto the safety mat at the bottom laughing with the thrill of it all.
Yes, this was a real fair and the engines, organs, rides, side-shows, caravans, and food stalls seemed to go on along the road for ever. We all had a wonderful time that first year together. We went on a few more rides and I got to stand up in one of those engines with my Granddad (who used to drive the same type of machinery before he came to live with us). The fair people were very friendly and always eager to see us enjoy ourselves. The September steam fair became a yearly event that we looked forward to.
Auntie Lil, my Grandad’s sister, had married a man called Edward Duncan (Uncle Ted to Val and I). They owned a small engineering shop called ‘The Cambridge Car Works’ at Thornton Heath in south London. They’d been over to see us once before in an old three-wheeler Reliant and Uncle Ted had given Val and I a half penny each to spend. They came to visit again that autumn and this time they had an old lorry, probably an Albion or something similar. I remember that it must have been used in a parade just previous to that as there was a big board up on the deck with writing on it. If I recall rightly, the writing said “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! Is Justice Dead?” Then went on to complain that they thought the local council had done them an injustice where they lived. I thought that this board spoiled the look of that lorry but it didn’t stop me from sitting in the drivers seat and, in my imagination I ‘drove’ that lorry for miles.
In the afternoon Uncle Ted asked me if I’d go down to the local garage to get some fuel as he’d run a bit low that morning. I was very pleased to do an errand for him so Granddad gave me a five-gallon can and, with a one pound note in my pocket I set off to walk along to the garage on the road to Amersham. The can was very large and made of heavy steel, before I reached the garage I was already swapping it from hand to hand as each arm got tired. I reached the garage, purchased the fuel, put the change in my pocket and started back.
If I thought the can was heavy on the journey down to the garage, it was nothing compared to the weight now that it had fuel in it. I struggled for a while by changing the can to a different hand as my arms became tired, then I carried it in my arms until they ached like mad. As I reached the camp and staggered up the path through the small wood towards the wooden huts, I had to have a rest. I sat down on the path beside the can for a few minutes then I was off again and, with screaming arms I finally reached the lorry in utter relief. Uncle Ted asked for the change and I dived my hand into my pocket, but it wasn’t there. Somehow I’d lost it. I felt terrible and Uncle Ted was furious and told me I’d better go and find it.
Setting off at a run I reached the garage with no sign of the missing money. I walked back slowly searching every inch of the pavement but the money was nowhere to be seen. I was feeling thoroughly miserable when I reached the place where I’d rested with the can, then I suddenly noticed a glint of silver in the dead leaves on the path. There was the money where it had probably slipped out of my pocket as I had sat there. I was so relieved and dashed back to Uncle Ted, over-joyed that I’d found it.
But Uncle Ted said that there was still a half penny missing so, as a punishment, Val and I would not be given any money to spend that trip. I accepted that it was my fault that the half penny was lost but didn’t think it was fair that Val should go without. They drove off in the old lorry leaving me owing Uncle Ted a half penny and Val with nothing. Val and I went back to the spot where I’d found the other money and spent a couple of hours on our hands and knees looking for that half penny with no result. Granddad could see that we’d made an effort to try and find the missing coin and, when we got back home he gave us each sixpence “Because we’d done our best”.
The days slowly became colder as winter approached. Then one icy morning a lorry drove slowly up the lane with a couple of men up on the back who were throwing rolls of chain-link fencing down on to the ground. Later they were back again with a lorry load of concrete posts. Over the next few weeks they built a fence between the lane and the camp, no more could we step out of our garden into the lane, but it didn’t take us long to discover a gap at the end of the fence up the lane where we could squeeze through easily. It was a bit of a nuisance just the same but we soon learned to live with it.
About this time there were a lot of army convoys going along the main road past our camp and the lorries, guns, jeeps and bren gun carriers were a sight to see. David, who happened to be standing with a group of us children while we watched a convoy go by, said his dad had told him that they were going to the Korean war. I didn’t know where Korea was, or just how terrible a war could be but it was very exciting watching those convoys go by and we’d wave to the soldiers like crazy.
I had no idea of the time it took to wage a war either. I was chatting to Uncle Frank one day while a convoy was passing and I was absolutely staggered when he told me that the last war had lasted for six years. I had imagined that they were daily events. Such was my ignorance.
Then something happened that autumn that frightened Mum but made Val and I very happy for a night.
It was a cold, dark evening, almost into winter and I remember that the wind was roaring noisily through the trees across the lane, The hut was nice and warm though, Mum had the range going full bore and had just made us some baked beans on toast. As we sat around the table enjoying our supper we suddenly heard Fluffy crying to be let in at the front door. Mum started to ask me to go and let her in then stopped with a puzzled look on her face. Mum jumped up before I could move and told me to stay where I was. Of course, Val and I were thrilled that Fluffy had come back and all three of us rushed for the door at once, in spite of Mum’s warning to stay at the table..
Slowly, Mum opened the door to peep out into the darkness and Fluffy squeezed through the gap as soon as she could and was purring happily as Val and I cuddled her. We were so overjoyed to have her back that we didn’t notice how quiet Mum had gone. Soon we were back at the table to finish our supper and Fluffy was sitting at her usual place near the range. She came out into the kitchen and watched us wash-up just as she used to do and we gave her the scraps and a saucer of milk which we always did after the chores. Mum allowed us to stay up for half an hour longer so as we could play with Fluffy then it was bed time and contentedly I settled down and went to sleep.
Fluffy was gone the next morning. I was up first and thought I’d have her in my room for a while, but I couldn’t find her. I went and woke Mum up and we looked in Val’s room but there was no sign of our beloved cat. We never saw her again apart from when Mum and I dug the grave up that day and there was the decomposing body of Fluffy still in the old shoe box. The stench made us gag and Fluffy was laid to rest forever.
If it had only been myself who had seen Fluffy that night I might have said I was dreaming. But all three of us remember the whole incident very clearly and Mum was quite frightened at nights for a while. Somehow, after this incident, Val and I were not so sad about Fluffy’s death as we had been before that night.
Each time we caught the train to London I used to ask Mum where it came from. One day, just after the ‘Fluffy’ incident, she decided to take us up that way for a look. As usual I was full of excitement at the thought of the coming trip.
It was a cold, foggy morning as we caught the bus down to the station, Purchased the tickets and walked over the foot-bridge to the down-line platform. (There were only two platforms at Amersham station in those days.) Soon the train clanked and hissed into the station, the engine driving bunker-first as it slowed the dirty brown carriages to a halt with a final squeal of brakes. We stepped up into a compartment and the smell of steam and smoke was replaced by the usual aroma of stale cigarette smoke and ash. We had the compartment to ourselves and soon the whistle blew and we jolted into motion.
It’s an upward grade for trains from London on this line and I could hear the engine labouring up front as we headed through Weedon Wood with the Misbourne Valley down below on our left and the wooded tops of the Chiltern Hills on our right. Up through Great Missenden, Wendover and Stoke Manderville we plodded until we finally reached the large market town of Aylesbury, and this was our destination for the day. Aylesbury was an important centre for the sale of local produce and we were going to the Saturday market.
We got off the train, followed a crowd of people out of the busy station and soon we were amongst the stalls and tables of the market, fighting our way through the crush of bodies in our effort to get the best bargains.
Now, Val and I were never allowed to ask for any toys when we were out shopping and sometimes it was very hard to obey that rule. As we stopped at a toy stall in that market, I spied a toy trolley-bus just like the one we’d rode on when we went to see ‘Auntie’ Sally at Reading. I was filled with a desire for that toy trolley-bus and couldn’t take my eyes off it. Finally Mum said it was time to move and, reluctantly I tore my eyes away and we went on around the market. Later that morning we passed the toy stall again and the trolley-bus was gone but I knew that Mum would have bought it for me if she could have afforded it so, I let the matter pass as there was still the exciting train ride home to come yet.
Soon we were back on the train, racing down the grades towards Amersham with the bridges, signals, trees, and telegraph poles flashing past the window. It didn’t seem long before we were passing through Weedon Wood and slowing as we approached Amersham station, one last rumble as we passed over the old Amersham bridge then we were at the station with another trip added to our memory bank.
We reached home, put the shopping away and had tea. After the washing-up was done and we were sitting around the range, Mum magically pulled out two packages and gave Val and I one each. I can’t remember what Val had but I opened mine and there was the toy trolley-bus. How Mum had managed to get it and carry it home without me knowing is still a mystery but it was a wonderful surprise and gave me hours of pleasure as I ‘drove’ it all around an imaginary Reading.
Guy Fawkes night passed that year with an even bigger bon-fire and a firework show that seemed to go on the whole evening. All the families on the camp had helped and the bon-fire was as high as the hut roof. It was still burning the next morning.
My eighth birthday also passed by with another party and plenty of fun. We invited so many children to this party that Mum had to borrow two extra tables and a heap of chairs to squeeze everything and every-one in.
As Christmas approached, Mum took us carol singing again and a lot of the ‘posh’ people remembered us from the previous year. The ‘toy lady’ must have been expecting us for she gave Val and I a present each as well as the money for our carol singing. She was a wonderful lady, in fact, all those ‘posh’ people in Chiltern Road, Clifton Road, Bois Avenue and Copperkin’s lane were wonderful and will probably never realise how much better they made our Christmas each year. Five or six families invited us into the warmth of their house for more singing and maybe a mince tart or cake and drink. Poor Mum had to wait, hiding, out by the gate in the cold darkness while Val and I were treated royally to song and eats. A lot of people asked Val and I if our parents knew we were out on our own and we’d then tell them that Mum was just outside their gate and they’d visibly relax. I think that Mum used to enjoy going with us as much as we enjoyed it and we never once had any nastiness or problems.
Then Christmas day arrived, and our excited “Oohs” and “Ahs” told the story of bulging stockings, piles of presents and plenty of goodies to eat. I received a large wooden horse and cart which, when pulled along, caused the horse to go up and down. That toy must have gone around the track a thousand times behind me in the next two or three years before I’d leave it on a building site one day, never to see it again.
Christmas was always a magic time for our family and I believed in Father Christmas up until I was fourteen years old. Mostly, I think, because I wanted to believe in him.
As we slipped into 1951 the cold weather brought snow and freezing winds. The exposed water pipes froze solid and we had to burn news-paper under them sometimes to get the water running again. I remember that the toilet cistern caused a few problems as well when it also froze up a couple of times. Granddad came over and wrapped sacking around these pipes but we still had the occasional trouble with them.
One very cold morning Val and I went for a walk up the lane in the deep snow. The drifts had piled high everywhere and at times we were struggling chest-high in snow to try and get through. We had our gumboots (wellies) on but they were soon soaked and cold inside due to the snow falling into them as we pushed our way through the drifts. We headed along towards Channor’s farm as it was our intention to see how the animals were getting on in the cold weather.
As we passed the second field, Val decided that she’d go ‘skating’ on some ice that covered a small filthy stagnant pool of water in some swamp area nearby. She walked out onto the ice but I refused. I could hear the ice creaking and it didn’t sound too safe at all. Val reached the middle, turned around and told me that I was a coward for not going on the ice. No sooner had she said that when there was a big cracking crash and Val dropped down to her waist through the ice as it gave way. It was the ‘haunted house’ incident in white! She waded back through the breaking ice, barely able to keep going as the thick sticky mud of the swamp clung to her. By the time she reached my out-stretched hand she was covered in the mess and the smell made us both gasp and retch. As we headed home, having abandoned the idea of going to the farm, Val left a muddy brown trail through the white snow where she had been. But gradually it washed off in the wet drifts and she didn’t look so bad as we reached the hut.
As we opened the front door and called to Mum, we were both, by then, absolutely soaked right through and shivering with the bitter cold. Mum saw the state of us and made us strip off before entering the hut. Soon we were wrapped up in warm towels and blankets and sitting in front of the hot range thawing out. I got a telling off for letting Val go out on the ice but she had a mind of her own and didn’t listen to me. I didn’t tell Mum how I had laughed at Val as I saw her standing waist deep in the rusty-brown stained ice with the sparkling white snow all around, she had looked so forlorn and un-loved. No, I didn’t dare tell her that.
Granddad and Jim had spent the winter months building a new side-car for Grandad’s motor cycle. They stripped the old sidecar off its chassis and fitted the new one. I was staggered when Granddad said that I could have the old one. I couldn’t believe my luck but, as soon as the snow had melted he and Jim carried it over and put it on the ground in our garden. That old green sidecar became an aeroplane, car, boat, bus, stage coach, and anything else our young imaginations could think of. It kept me amused for hours. In my own imagination I would be high up in the sky one day, on a river or the sea the next, or cruising down the open road with Val or a friend as my passenger the day after. I felt very lucky to have such a wonderful Granddad and Uncle Jim.
Granddad bought a dog at this time. It’s name was Billie and he was a very powerful dog with plenty of energy. I couldn’t hold him on a lead as I wasn’t strong enough, in fact, Jim could hardly hold him. He was a very good natured dog and we came to love him. He had a bad habit of racing up the track and skidding to a halt on his back legs and out-stretched front paws. Often he’d rip his back paws on stones and leave a trail of blood on the ground, but it never seemed to worry him and he’d race around as much as ever with the fun of it.
All this time the teachers at school had been trying their hardest to give me an education, but I was lazy and uninterested in most of the subjects. I hated maths, English, writing, reading, and history, didn’t mind spelling, was very interested in geography, and enjoyed arts and craft, physical education, and playtime. I normally came in the bottom five of a thirty five pupil classroom when doing exams and must have seemed a no-hoper to those striving teachers.
The public bus to and from school was always crowded with children and a few grown-ups, and I used to sit in my favourite seat upstairs at the back if it was available. There used to be some ‘posh’ college boys and girls on the bus and I was happy to sit quietly with them listening to the many stories of adventures they’d had in other far off countries. Some of them had been born in places like America, India, and Europe, and they were happy to have an audience for their tales. I treated each one as a hero and soaked up these stories for all I was worth. I never took much notice of the other children on the bus as I was too engrossed in those far off lands where the college children had come from.
One early spring morning the headmaster of our school, Mr. Laverty, sent for me. His ‘office desk’ was in the back corner of the top class-room and I made my way up to that room wondering what he required. I knocked, entered the classroom and was very conscious of all the older children looking at me as I closed the door and walked up to the back of the room.
Mr. Laverty was in a furious mood and he immediately asked me about the noise the children made on the bus to and from school. I was at a loss as to what he meant and stuttered a few unintelligible words. This seemed to make him more furious and he told me that, as I was the oldest he’d make an example of me and maybe I’d learn to keep the other children quiet on the bus in future. I was terrified as I had no control over the other children, nor wanted to have. I couldn’t understand why he had picked on me.
He reached into a cupboard behind his desk and took out a long cane. I’d never had the cane before but the sight of it terrified me to the extreme. He held my hand and hit me with that cane six times on the open palm. I let out a gasp as I felt each stinging shock of pain and the tears flowed freely. He then took the other hand and hit that one six times. I remember that the veins on his forehead stood out under his exertion. Caning my hands seemed to whet his appetite and he went on to thrash that cane across my bottom until he was out of breath with the effort. He then told me to go and stand in the corner in front of the class, which was just as well as I was unable to sit down. I never could remember any swishing noise from that cane only the sharp burning pain.
As I stood in the corner, crying my eyes out and clenching my very painful hands, I had time to reflect on the change in my fortunes that had taken place in that short time since I’d left the relative haven of my own classroom. One minute I was happily bodging up my sums, the next I was crying with the pain of that beating. My hands became very swollen and red until I couldn’t clench them anymore and I held them limply out in front of my chest. Finally I was sent back to my own classroom.
For months after this incident I rode downstairs on the bus and could hear the noise of the children as they happily ran around upstairs. I realised that they were noisy and I’d never taken any notice before. As I said, I had no control over them and I waited in terror to be summoned to Mr. Laverty again. I quite enjoyed riding the lower deck, I felt as if I’d grown up a bit. It was very rewarding when, on a full bus I’d offer the ladies my seat and hear them say “Thank you.” with a smile. Fortunately, the summons never came and one day I went back upstairs. But, it wasn’t the same as in the ‘old’ days when I’d sit happily listening to stories of far off lands and customs.
I’d hardly recovered from having the cane when I was in trouble again but, trouble of a different nature this time.
Arthur and I took off down to the Chesham Moor. It was a beautiful spring morning with a frosty start but the sun soon warming everything up. We played around on the swings, threw stones into the river then made our way over to the storm drain. The drain was quite full after the winter rains and water from the melted snow, so there was no hope of getting into it to look for frogs and minnows as we usually did. As we were about to walk away in search of something else to do, a gang of big bullies came running up and grabbed us.
The leader of this mob asked us where we’d come from and we told him that we were from Beech Barn. He asked us when we’d last had a bath and I told him that I’d had one the night before (we bathed each night at home). He said that they were going to save us the bother of having a bath that night and we wouldn’t even have to thank them (roars of laughter from the bullies).
Somehow at this point, Arthur managed to get away and ran like mad with three or four of the bullies chasing him. They soon gave up and returned to deal with me.
I tried to stall them as I thought that Arthur would go for help. I explained that I couldn’t swim (which was very true), then I told them that my Mum would bash me if I got wet. None of this worked so I told them that I’d get my Uncle Jim on to them. I was getting a bit annoyed by this time. They didn’t care about my Uncle Jim, there was no sign of Arthur and the help I desperately hoped he was getting so, seething with rage I knew that I was beaten. I decided to take this gang of thugs on but they suddenly grabbed me from all sides and, although I struggled furiously, carried me to the edge of the deep drain.
They started swinging me to and fro, chanting counts as I swung out over the water. The leader had my arm closest to the drain and, as they reached the count of three and let go, I desperately seized the leaders flapping jacket with the other hand and clung on with all my strength. The leader must have been out of balance and into the water we both went, he smashing his elbow on the concrete edge of the drain. I actually heard him bellow under the water but didn’t wait around to see how he was. In panic I surfaced and struggled, thigh-deep in the water, towards the far bank a couple of metres away. As I reached the steep concrete side of the drain and scrabbled to climb out the leader started to yell at his mates to get me. I stood up on the bank and looked around quickly, in spite of my predicament I laughed to see the leader standing in the water looking like a drowned rat and almost crying as he held his arm.
His mates weren’t going to get wet and they raced along towards a small bridge in front of the swimming baths about fifty metres up-stream. With soggy clothes and squelching shoes I took off across the moor as if my life depended on it (which it probably did), tore into Waterside Road and hurtled on down into Chesham. Finally, gasping for breath and with a painful stitch in my side, I glanced around and there was no sign of my new enemies. Not wishing to go anywhere near the moor any more that day I detoured around Chesham, walked across the fields behind the sports ground and went up the lane to the camp.
Arthur had abandoned me and had been home for ages. but he was thrilled when I told him the story. It wasn’t long before the whole camp knew about it. I felt quite a hero myself and thought it would be great to tell Jim. He chuckled to himself then told me that I mustn’t let it go to my head as I’d been lucky that time. He didn’t have to tell me twice, I was never fond of fighting when I was young and knew what it was like to be on the wrong end of a bully.
There was an unexpected ending to this story. On the following Monday, Jim and Arthur’s two older brothers were discussing the incident at their school when they noticed that one of the trouble makers there had an arm in a sling. They went over and asked him what he’d done to it and one of his mates blabbed the whole story of the little 'weed' who’d pulled him into the storm drain and caused him to fracture his arm. Jim told them that if they ever bullied anyone again they’d have him to deal with. The sight of Jim in a threatening mood must have been very frightening for the leader mended his ways a bit and I bumped into him a few times with no more problems in the years that followed.
I don’t know it was anything to do with this latest incident, but Uncle Frank decided that I was old enough to go with himself, Jim, Buster, and Billie on one of their walks through the woods. I was more than thrilled to go ‘with the men’ and we set off one Sunday morning just after my run-in with the bullies. Buster and Billie were straining at their leads and it wasn’t long before we were walking through the greenery of Weedon Wood. I kept very close to Uncle Frank as I hadn’t forgotten the adder that had nearly bitten Auntie Joyce.
All went well for a while when suddenly Uncle Frank let Buster off the lead and the dog raced away behind some bushes. I heard a snarl then a squeal and, as we all ran towards the bushes (me well behind the others feeling a bit frightened), Buster appeared with a rabbit dangling from his mouth. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Uncle Frank took the rabbit and stuffed it inside his old army blouse that he always wore. They showed me the holes of the rabbit warren then we carried on with our walk. On the way back, Uncle Frank let Buster go again at the same spot and a second rabbit was stuffed into the blouse.
Uncle Frank warned me not to say anything to Granddad as he’d be very cross if he knew that Billie had come on a rabbit hunt. I promised to keep quiet although I wasn’t really happy about keeping secrets from Granddad but I had to keep my promise as part of the rules. We arrived home tired but safe and Mum made a rabbit stew that day with my share of the ‘booty’.
While we’d been out walking, Uncle Frank had suggested that he fit some wheels to the old sidecar. I thought that it was a great idea and so, after dinner, he and Jim came up and took it down to his house to do the work.
It was late spring to early summer by now and the bluebells, daffodils and primroses were out everywhere. Birds were happily singing in trees that were thickly green with new leaves and there was the occasional buzz of a bumble bee as it searched for pollen amongst the flowers. Now and then a cow would bellow from the lush green grass in the fields up the lane, and a thousand insects flew hither and thither, their wings shining a blurred gold in the sunlight. Fluffy white clouds floated across a blue sky, and a whispering balmy breeze just managed to stir the warm air. I was so happy with life.
Then my grandparents and Mum had an argument and fell out.
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.
Back to top of page.