Unknown to me, Mum had been very ill while I was away and still was. Apart from going to Amersham to buy Val and I things for our parcels she was forced to spend all her time in bed. She didn’t want to see anyone and didn’t eat. She started to waste away to nothing. Her friends were very worried. Finally, Nan got to hear about this crisis and went over to see Mum. But Mum couldn’t even get out of bed by this time. Nan dashed back and got Granddad and he went over to our hut, wrapped Mum up in blankets and carried her over to their hut. He returned for Val’s bed and soon Mum was settled down in their spare room. Nan called doctor Howell and he told them that Mum had had a nervous breakdown. My grandparents decided to keep her over at their hut to help her recover.
And that’s how Nan came to be standing in the crowd at the Houses of Parliament waiting for me to step off the coach. I was so pleased to see her again and she told me that Mum didn’t feel too well, so had stayed at home.
While Nan was signing for me in the big room, a lady asked us children just off the coach if anyone had been to St. Anne’s. I said that I had and she asked me what it was like as her son was just going. It really pleased me to tell the lady what a wonderful stay I’d had there and how the staff had looked after me so well. The lady sounded a lot happier and I asked her son to give my love to the cook. I showed him how all the boys wore their toothbrush in the top of their sock and told him that the time would flash by. The lady thanked me and went outside to see her lad on the bus.
Nan and I followed them out and Nan told me there was a surprise for me just around the corner. We walked right under Big Ben and there, beside the River Thames, was Jim. I could hardly believe my eyes and ran to him, thrilled that the argument had obviously been patched up. As I reached him, I took a flying leap with arms outstretched and would have sailed head-first into the River Thames if he hadn’t have caught me. It was good to see him again.
Soon, the three of us were on the Underground going towards Baker’s Street station with Jim and I pointing out all the interesting things we could see. At Baker’s Street we hopped on the familiar dirty red and brown train and were soon through the tunnels heading up towards the Chiltern Hills and home. We were almost at Amersham before I was able to settle down enough to tell Nan and Jim what a great time I’d had at St. Anne’s. Granddad had got the range going in our hut and he and Mum were there to greet me as Nan, Jim and I arrived home, tired but happy.
It was so good to see everyone laughing together again. Mum said that she felt a lot better and had spent the day preparing a family party for me as I’d missed out on my birthday and Christmas. I told them how my birthday had been remembered and celebrated at St. Anne’s, and what a wonderful Christmas I’d had there. But it was a lovely surprise to come home to another celebration.
Granddad brought out a large Christmas box that they’d saved for me and, when I opened it, I was amazed to find a Red Indian outfit inside. There was a pair of trousers with an Indian belt, a jacket with cut-leather strips across the chest and down the back of the sleeves, a head-dress of feathers, a plastic knife, and a plastic tomahawk. It fitted perfectly and was the only Red Indian suit that I had ever seen.
In my Red Indian guise I was an instant success with all my friends when I changed sides and allowed them to hunt and ‘kill’ me when we played cowboys and Indians. But, seeing a different side of our game as I, in return, ‘killed’ my cowboy friends, it wasn’t long before my friends also changed sides. Soon we had all Indians and no cowboys. In the end Nan suggested that I be an Indian for a few days, and a cowboy for a few days. As my friends never really knew which I would be when they called for me, some of them would be dressed as cowboys and some of them would be Indians. This idea settled the problem.
After telling my St. Anne’s story once more to Mum and Granddad, I had a bath and was soon fast asleep in bed.
I began to settle back into the routine of being back home and one event I remember very well from this time was the attempt to save ‘The Flying Enterprise’, a ship that had listed in heavy seas due to cargo shift. I can’t recall the date or which sea this all happened in but, a tugboat called ‘Turmoil’ went out in those terrible seas to try and tow the stricken ship back to port. I followed the story in the paper each day and there were pictures of the listing ship that fired my young imagination. Sadly, in spite of the brave efforts of the tugboat and her crew, the ship sank before it could reach port, I think that the story of those valiant efforts were the first events I was ever interested enough in to follow through the media of a newspaper.
Then Mum took ill again. Doctor Howell decided that she should go into hospital, and Nan said she’d look after me. I went down to Amersham hospital with Nan on visits and stood outside the ward window where Mum could see me and we could wave to each other. She looked very ill to me at that time.
Exactly a fortnight after I returned from St. Anne’s, Mum was sent on convalescence to Bexhill by Doctor Howell in an effort to help her recover from her lingering nervous breakdown. Nan and I were allowed to accompany her in the hospital car as far as Gerrards Cross. It was a bitterly cold, frosty winters day. Everything was covered in thick white frost and all of us were wrapped up in our warmest clothes. The driver had to keep wiping the windscreen so that he could see out, and he was having to drive very carefully as the roads were so icy. All of us were shivering with the cold. Mum, Nan and I huddled together to try and keep from freezing to death. I remember that the nurse in the front passenger seat was sitting on her hands in an effort to try and keep them warm. Finally, we reached Gerrards Cross, said goodbye to Mum, the nurse and the driver, and watched them literally skid off in the direction of Slough.
If Nan and I had thought it was cold in the car, it was nothing compared to the bus ride home with the draught from the open back entrance. The windows were covered in frost and, in the end, Nan and I went upstairs where it seemed a couple of degrees warmer. The driver was going very slow and cars were sliding around us on the icy roads. We were jolly glad to get back to Nan’s hut in the warm. Granddad worked out the hours by the distance, took the bad weather into consideration, then told me the rough time that Mum would reach Bexhill. I watched their big clock eagerly until the appointed time. Val was only a couple of miles along the coast so she and Mum would be happy.
And so was I with my grandparents and Jim. I had settled back in with my old friends at the camp but, I was just as happy staying home with Nan, Granddad, and Jim. There were so many interesting things to do at their place. Granddad and Jim gave me a few old tools and allowed me to make little ships and ‘planes out of odd scraps of wood that were laying around. Nan would let me help her make cakes and prepare the meals. There were plenty of books to look at, like ‘Picture Post’ and ‘Motorcycle’ magazines. And I even did some gardening, which I dislike.
Granddad and Jim had more tools in their work-shed than you could poke a stick at, I’d never seen so many tools in such a small area. They also had a small lathe. At this time they had just started building a working model steam traction engine. The boiler and fire-box was already made but, never having seen a traction engine in pieces, it didn’t really mean much to me at that time.
The stories that Granddad told me were mostly about his working life on steam-driven machinery. He exaggerated a few points but I’d hang on to every word. I remember that he told me once that the police pulled him over for speeding. He said that it was only when the police car was up beside him that he realised he was doing seventy five miles an hour. He told me that he was driving a steam lorry, with a trailer in tow, at the time. I believed the story then but, I wonder to myself these days, if the steam-lorry and trailer, with solid rubber tyres, could have reached that kind of speed and stayed on the road. I don’t know how true the story was but it went into my memory bank along with other stories he told me.
Like the tale of his mate who was running late for work because he’d misplaced his waistcoat. Mumbling to himself, he’d apparently searched high and low for it until his wife asked him what he was looking for. He told her that he couldn’t find his waistcoat and she pointed out to him that he was wearing it. “Good job you told me”. He’d replied, according to Granddad, “Or I’d have had to go to work without it!”. Or another friend who was leaning over the driving-wheels of Grandad’s Marshall road roller, when his top false teeth had dropped out. The chap had called to Granddad to stop but it was too late. Apparently, his mate had asked if the roller wheel could have damaged those dentures. When the roller was moved on, according to my Granddad, the blokes top teeth were grinning up at them from where they lay, embedded in the new road surface. Yet another friend had Granddad laughing when Granddad went to pick him up for work one morning. He stood in the doorway of his caravan and shouted that he was going to ”Stay home and go to Pompey”. Of course, he meant that he was going to have the day off from work and go to Pompey (Portsmouth), but Granddad laid a bet that he wouldn’t do both.
These stories would make Granddad chuckle and he never seemed to get tired of relating them. He had worked for ‘Wards of Egham’ (near Staines), he claimed to know the Foden family personally (they were responsible for the Foden steam engines and the modern-day Fodens and ERFs, very successful lorries). And he also claimed to know Amy Johnson and Jim Mollison, the famous aviators (according to Granddad, they owned a posh, almost all-glass, house at Sonning, a village just near Reading, in Berkshire). He told me stories of these people and what he knew of their lives. It all sounded genuine and I was always impressed. He told me of many accidents he’d seen and sometimes left me feeling a bit sick after he’d describe legs hanging off here and arms missing there. During the Second World War he was employed on airport maintenance work and he told me many tales of crippled bombers and fighters limping back home with bits of fuselage and wings missing, and, of course, there were always the mangled and smashed bodies of fliers everywhere.
My favourite story was of the time that he was driving his traction engine along the side of a field when the driving wheels began to spin and bog down. Of course, Granddad knew what had caused this problem and he'd quickly reached for a big club that he kept by his side for just such an emergency. He’d driven through an 'adders nest' and, as the adders clung to the wheels and were brought up level with the footplate, Granddad had to hit them off before they could bite him. The way he explained the scene caused me to have visions of Granddad, up to his knees in adders, hitting out at dozens of them on each wheel until the engine regained traction and he moved off again, leaving a trail of dead and dying snakes.
None of my family, my grand-parent’s, nor Uncle Frank’s family touched alcoholic drinks, but, Granddad did smoke tobacco and he taught me to roll his ‘St. Julian’ tobacco into a red ‘Rizla’ paper until I became a real expert at rolling cigarettes. Nan smoked ‘tailor-made’ cigarettes and Mum occasionally had one. None of Uncle Frank’s family smoked and Jim was too young at that time.
Granddad had settled down at his boilerman’s job now and knew a lot of the officers and men up at the college. He talked of a large room full of models, the Mansion, the N.A.F.F.I., the goldfish pond, and the waterfalls. I would sit and listen, my young imagination conjuring up pictures of all these magic-sounding places. One Saturday morning, while I was staying with them at this time, Granddad asked me if I’d like to go with him on the two until ten shift that afternoon. He didn’t have to ask me twice and Nan packed up a flask of tea and lunch for myself, just like Granddad had. The hours wouldn’t go quick enough. I picked over my dinner until, at last, it was time to go. Into the sidecar I went with the two lunch-boxes, flasks and warm coats for the cold night ride home, then we were off.
Granddad was never a mad or speedy driver and we pottered down Chesham Hill, turned into Waterside, chugged past the incinerator and sewerage works, and out into the beautiful country of the Chess Valley. After three or four miles the motor cycle turned left and Granddad tapped the window of the sidecar, to attract my attention, and pointed to the left of a small hump-backed bridge that we were just about to cross over. With a stomach-churning drop we went down the other side of the hump, he quickly slowed down, and there, through the fence, was a wonderful waterfall. It was about two metres high by three metres wide and about five metres upstream from the bridge. There were rocks Protruding into the falling water causing cascades to splash out fan-wise. Small trees and shrubs hung over each side of the falls, although they were bare of leaves as it was still winter. With that fleeting glance we rode on into Latimer village.
This small village was real ‘Olde Worlde’. The very high chimneys suggested to me that it had been built in Elizabeth the first’s reign (I had learned something from school!) and it was a very pretty village. Another turn to the left, a winding climb up a hill, then suddenly, we swept into a large courtyard behind an enormous building. There, at the back of that building was the boiler-house with the coke-bunker beside it.
Granddad took me into the boiler-house, said a few words and good-bye to his mate who we were taking over from, then he showed me around. The boiler-house was very large and it housed two big black boilers. They stood at least seven metres high. I remember that they looked like steam-train boilers that had been stood up on end. The fire-box doors were let into the side just above ground level, and there were sight glasses and pressure gauges at eye level. There was a cat-walk above these gauges that went along the front of both boilers, and a few steps led off this cat-walk to enable a person to reach the maze of lagged hot water pipes that almost hid the ceiling. In front and just to the right of each boiler was a small pump and this was used to keep the water at the correct level in the boiler, as seen through the sight glass.
Granddad opened each fire-box door in turn to check that the fire was burning to his liking and I felt the blast of heat on my face as I looked in. I didn’t like the feeling of being so close to all that power but, as the afternoon wore on and I became more confident, I soon forgot my apprehension. He took me up along the cat-walk and I remember how hot everything was, the very air seemed to throb with heat. But, it wasn’t long before my curiosity got the better of me and caused me to go up there on my own to explore those dark, hot heights.
There were coke-bunkers outside and soon I was happily helping to load the wheelbarrow with coke. The shovel was as big as I was but, the coke was very light and I felt that I could easily handle the job. In the end, Granddad stood back grinning and let me get on with it. When the wheelbarrow was full, I took hold of the handles and pushed it through into the boiler-house so that the coke would be there, ready to top up the fires whenever needed. From then on, each time that Granddad took me to work with him, that became my job.
After we'd topped the fires up and made sure there was enough water in the sight glasses, Granddad took me around the side of the big building and there was the goldfish pond. It was about fifteen metres in diameter with a large ornament in the middle but, what caught my eye was the size of the goldfish. I'd only seen little ones like Victor at home and those at the fair, but these were whoppers of thirty centimetres and more. There seemed to be many of them gliding in and out of the old water-lilies and I sat there for ages watching them. In the end, Granddad suggested that we go and look at something else and we moved on around the corner to the front of the big building. As we rounded the corner, a wonderful view of the Chess Valley opened out in front of us,
We were high up on the side of the hills, just below us was a grassed field leading down to a large long lake on the floor of the Valley. To the right we could see the River Chess snaking out from among the wooded hills and flowing into the lake. At the left end of the lake the water crashed over a large waterfall and vanished under a pretty wooden bridge, only to re-appear as flashes of silver through the trees farther left. Except for the evergreens that were dotted around, all the trees and shrubs were bare of leaves but it was still a lovely sight to me as I took in this view under the thin late winter sun.
(Now Latimer House I believe).
We walked out into the sloping field and looked back up at the big building and Granddad told me it was the Mansion. This mansion also looked as if it too had been built in Elizabeth the first's reign with its very tall ornate chimneys. It was an enormous building of red bricks set in beautiful gardens with plenty of large yew trees scattered around. I expected to see none other than King George the sixth himself step out through the front door at any moment. (little did I know that the King would die after a long illness, that very month.) The mansion had belonged to some lord or other at one time but, I can't remember who it was now. The services had it as long as I could recall and I would spend many happy hours in and around the building.
But we didn't go in there that first time. Granddad took me back to the boiler-house where we topped the fires and water up, then we set off along a road away behind the mansion. I was amazed to see that there was an army camp in the woods behind the Mansion that I hadn't noticed on the way in. We walked around this camp, checking and re-fuelling half a dozen small boilers in different locations. The last small boiler-house we checked was beside a very large Nissen hut, similar to the hut we lived in but much bigger. After we'd topped up the fire with coke and pumped some water in, Granddad took me down the side of this enormous hut, lifted me up on his shoulders and told me to look through the window. I could hardly believe my eyes, the room was full of models. There were model ships, tanks, tank landing craft, lorries, planes and dozens of other items that go to make up a powerful war machine. How I had wished that they would let me loose in there. This was the famous 'Model Room' and I was very impressed, but Granddad told me that it was strictly forbidden to go inside. I was still thinking about that room when we arrived back at the main boiler-house.
It was then time for tea. I got the lunch-boxes out and reached for our flasks, but Granddad told me to leave the flasks for later. He made two large scalding tin mugs of tea, put three or four spoonfuls of condensed milk in each and passed one to me with a warning that it was very hot. I sat down contentedly beside him with my corned beef sandwiches and that great mug of sweetened tea. The dark night descended on us and the weather turned cold but Granddad and I were in our shirt-sleeves as we tended the hot boilers, shovelled the coke and pushed the wheel barrow. The whole area was spotlessly clean and Granddad carried a piece of rag with him that he used whenever he touched the brass knobs, handles, and levers. It wasn’t long before I had a bit of rag in my hand just like Granddad.
Quite a few of the officers and men came in for a chat and a warm. They were all very friendly and I was made to feel very grown-up, almost like one of the ‘boys’. I was beginning to look dirty by this time and all the men told me that I would make a good boiler man when I grew up. They were tickled pink at the way I rolled Grandad’s cigarettes for him.
Granddad and I did one more trip around the small boiler-houses to bank them up for the next shift then we topped the main boilers up after cleaning the ash-pan out. This job was very dirty and dusty and I became dirtier by the minute as I wheeled the hot clinkers out to the clinker dump, Granddad tipped them in a shower of dust and sparks, and I wheeled the barrow back for the next load. It was all very good fun to me.
I thought that we’d finished but Granddad told me that we couldn’t leave the boiler-house in such a state. I looked around for the dirty areas but it looked so clean everywhere. Granddad chuckled to himself and pulled out a hose which he handed to me, he grabbed a stiff broom and for the next half an hour I sprayed water all over the concrete floor while Granddad used the broom to ‘scrub’ the area clean. He showed me how to wash everything out of the door and down the gully outside. A few minutes more with the rags soon saw the dust cleaned off the pumps, pipes, window-sills, table and chairs, and we finished just in time to change shifts at ten o-clock that night.
We put our overcoats on, packed the lunch-boxes into the sidecar, said goodbye to the night shift boiler man, and were soon chugging off into the cold dark night heading for home. It felt very cold after spending the last few hours busily working in the warmth of the boiler house, but it didn’t seem long before we were home and Nan was ragging Granddad for letting me get so black. Granddad chuckled and said that I’d earned my black face, hands and dirty clothes through hard work and sweat. I was ordered to have a bath straight away, then Nan made us both a big mug of cocoa, and I rolled Granddad a last cigarette while we told Nan of the wonderful day. I slept like a log that night after my ‘hard day’s work’.
Granddad and Jim started preparing the garden for the spring vegies and flowers, but I hated gardening and was quite happy to let them get on with it. They were working out in the garden one morning when Nan asked me to go on an errand for her. I took off up the track towards the camp entrance only to be confronted by the Benning's dog at the square. This dog was a vicious animal, it hated everybody and quite a few people had been attacked by it. Mr. Benning, of the cat in the tree incident, had been told time and time again to keep it on a lead or indoors and yet, here it was standing about twenty five metres from me, staring right into my eyes and defying me to move.
I knew that I’d never get back to the safety of Nan’s hut before it got me so, keeping my eyes on the dog, I shouted to Granddad and Jim who were still out in the garden about a hundred metres behind me. Jim shouted to ask what was the matter and I yelled that I was trapped by Mr. Benning's dog. I heard Grandad’s chuckling laugh and the slam of the gate as he and Jim started coming my way.
Suddenly, my nerve broke and I turned tail and ran towards them, but the dog was very quick and I just had time to see the surprised looks on Grandad’s and Jim’s faces, before I felt the dog’s teeth sink into my leg. As I went down I saw them break into a run but the dog still had time to bite my three more times before they were close enough to frighten it away.
Granddad was furious and he stormed over to Mr. Benning's hut and told him that, if the dog ever bit anyone again, he’d have the dog put down and Mr. Benning would be sued. I’d never seen Granddad get cross before and I could only stand there in open-mouthed amazement. To see him so angry even made me forget the pain of those bites for a minute. We had no more trouble with that dog. Nan bathed the bites on my leg and soon I was none the worse.
And that was the only time that I ever saw Granddad get cross. He was always so calm and that very calmness seemed to demand respect. He wouldn’t interfere unless he thought things had gone too far then, usually the sight of him was enough, he was built like a bear. Some of this must have rubbed off on Jim for I never once saw him get cross. Twice he threatened bullies to leave me alone while he was at school, but I wasn’t there to see it. He too, was built like a bear and I wouldn’t have liked to be the object of his wrath. Nan would let us know if she wasn’t very happy with any of us. Twice she was really cross with me but, both times I had asked for it. I came to love all three of them dearly and they tolerated my occasional misdemeanours with a patience that only people like them could have done. Neither Nan, Granddad, or Jim ever raised a hand to any of us grand-children. I had a wonderful time with them while Mum was away for that holiday.
In march, Mum returned home looking a bit better and Nan asked her to stay with them, so Mum and I moved in for a while longer. Nan suspected that Mum still wasn’t her usual self.
A few families were being re-housed at this time and new families were moving into the empty huts. People were still living with friends or relations waiting for a council house at this time and the huts offered a chance of independence at least.
One of the new families that moved in at that time was the Wells family. They were the most quarrelsome family that I ever met. They didn’t speak, they shouted all the time. Their hut gradually started to fall to pieces and their garden was soon like a pig-sty. The oldest son, I shall call him Hubert (which was not his real name no more than ‘Wells’ was his surname), was about as old as I was but very big for his age. He was also one of the worst hit-and-run bullies I ever knew. Mum recognised the second oldest son as the lad who had been in such agony with the broken leg in the hospital the year before. We soon learned to try and avoid mixing with the Wells family.
Spring slipped into summer and one morning Arthur asked me if I wanted to go ‘horse chasing’ with him. I had never done this before so we set off down Chiltern Road where he would show me how it was done. The idea was to get a pocket full of stones, creep towards the horses while they happily munched the grass, then suddenly jump up and hit as many horses on the rump with stones as possible before they got away. I was still smarting from the day that the girl had turned her horse on me up the lane and I felt a real power over all these horses as we chased them around their paddock and through the trees. I came away very elated.
I went with Arthur a few more times but I soon realised that this sport wasn’t so funny after all and I began to feel sorry for the horses. They didn’t once turn on us and I felt like a bully. I told Arthur that I’d had enough and he said that we could chase cows instead as they had no brains. I wasn’t really all that keen but followed him up the lane to the big field. Arthur took off with a rock in each hand and I pottered along far behind him. One of the cows must have been pregnant and it gave birth to a calf on the run, right in front of Arthur. I saw him stop dead then turn around and start running back to me, his face was as white as a sheet. I’d seen all this happen from a long way back but I still ran up and had a look. I was nearly sick at the sight. But it cured my of ever chasing any animals again.
A couple of weekends later, Arthur asked me if I would like to go ‘scrumping’. I didn’t know what scrumping was either so I said that I’d go along and watch from a distance while he showed me, just in case it was something that I didn’t like.
Off we went down Chiltern Road until we reached a garden where there was a tree hanging over the path with, I believe, plums ready for picking. Arthur picked a few while I lurked up the road a bit. I wasn’t all that keen on taking things off people’s trees, especially when it was right outside their house. I was just about to hiss down the road at him to hurry up when I heard my name called and there, in a doorway nearby, stood Val waving to me.
I was astounded as I thought that she was still away on convalescence. She looked a picture of health. She told me that she had been back for a long time, living in that house no more than a mile from the camp. She called the lady of the house ‘Auntie’ and Val wasn’t allowed to go to the camp or see any of us there. It was all very mysterious but, no doubt, part of the plan to get her well again. I soon got to know ‘Auntie’ as well and it wasn’t long before Val was back with us and ‘Auntie’ became another of our friends.
Meanwhile, I was still not getting on well at school with my lessons. The teachers were doing their best to get me interested but, I was just as idle as I had ever been when it came to learning those subjects I hated. A couple of incidents happened at this time that caused a break in the monotony of exasperated teachers and ink-stains in exercise books.
I’d started spending my bus fare and running home after school. If I ran hard, took all the short-cuts and wasn’t way-laid by any bullies, I could get to the camp at the same time as the bus. Alf always seemed to have plenty of spending money and the penny-half-penny that I saved by running home made me feel a bit more on a par with him.
Mum had made a dentist appointment for me one evening after school. My dentist was in the Chesham High Street, at least five miles from the school, on the day of the appointment I went off to school, but Mum didn’t mention anything about the dentist. As I didn’t want to go anyway, I was quite happy to forget it as well. At lunch time I went to the tuck shop in White Lion Road with Alf and spent my bus fare on sweets. Later that afternoon, one of Mum’s friends popped into my classroom to remind me of the dentist’s appointment. Now I was in trouble!
I dare not tell anyone that I’d spent my bus fare so, as soon as I left school that afternoon, I started running as hard as I could. I took all the short-cuts that I knew but was very late for the appointment. I was also hot and sweaty and the dentist wasn’t very happy but, I soon had him laughing when I told him what had happened.
After the appointment I had to run all the way home up Chesham Hill. I was dead beat when I finally staggered into the hut. Mum was furious with me as she’d waited at the bus stop outside the camp to give me more money, only to find that I wasn’t on the bus. Val, quite fairly, could only tell her the truth and that ended my free-spending days for a while.
It wasn’t long before I was in trouble again over money. This time it was my first, and only, go at gambling.
Mr. Dwight was our teacher at the time and we were just starting a painting lesson. The palettes of powdered paint had been handed out to each desk and we were all armed with a jar of water and a brush. Just as we were about to start, Mr. Dwight was called out of the classroom and we were left to our own devices.
I don’t know who thought up the idea but twelve of us agreed to put a penny each into a kitty and whoever made the biggest paint-cloud by blowing into a palette would win the shilling. There were a few half-hearted attempts that barely stirred the surface of the powdered paint in the little row of cups and the rest of the class boo’d at the efforts. When my turn came, having foolishly donated a penny towards the shilling prize in spite of the recent warning from Mum about spending my bus fare, I was determined to show them how it was done, and win that shilling.
Finally, the moment came. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and blew into the palette of paint as hard as I could. There was a great roar of laughter and I opened my eyes to see a large, psychedelic cloud of red, white, yellow, and blue paint dust billowing up in the room. Alf, myself, the desk, and the boys sitting in front of us were covered in the different coloured paint dust. Sadly for me, it was at that very moment that Mr. Dwight came back into the room.
He summed up the situation straight away. Nobody could stop laughing and he looked furious as he opened the windows with the big pole used for that purpose. I knew that I was in trouble but my laughter was uncontrollable, until he reached into his cupboard and brought out a tennis-shoe. I looked at the rippled sole and my thoughts went back to the hiding Mr. Kissman had given me. I was suddenly very frightened at the sight of that sole.
Mr. Dwight put me over his desk and I waited in despair for the pain of the thrashing I fully expected. He gave me six of the best on the bottom and I was surprised at how little it hurt me, almost as if he was pretending to do it. I produced the correct gasps of pain and rubbed my bottom after he’d finished. Then I was made to clean up the whole area around my desk. Soon the stifled laughter and giggling quietened down and we returned to normal.
I was presented with the twelve pennies at playtime, not so much for the psychedelic cloud that I’d produced, but for the giant cloud of dust that was seen to rise from my pants as I’d been whacked by the tennis-shoe. They all agreed that it would have been impossible to do better than that. I felt very grateful that I’d got off so lightly and resolved never to gamble again.
A few weeks later, Mr. Dwight asked for some volunteers to do a bit of gardening around the front of the school. Arthur, Mick, Alf, and I all put our hands up although none of us liked gardening one bit. Much to our surprise, we were all chosen along with a couple of other lads. I think that Mr. Dwight was glad to get rid of the class ‘dunces’ for a while. Armed with the gardening tools, we were soon busily digging, hoeing, scraping and prodding at the garden, treating it all as a great holiday.
Suddenly, Arthur noticed a glint of silver in the dirt beside the little green hut that had been my first classroom at that school. He reached down and let out a quiet yell as he picked up a two shilling piece. Alf and I were nearby and had wished that we’d been digging there. Arthur dug a bit more and found another two shilling piece. Alf and I raced over, calling Mick at the same time. Soon we were all digging like mad and the two shilling pieces kept appearing in the dirt, and disappearing into our pockets. The other lads joined in and, before long, the whole area had been dug up. We all had a dozen two shilling pieces jingling in our pockets. We were rich, none of us had ever had so much money to ourselves before. Someone said that, if we took the money, it would be stealing. This calmed us down a bit. Then someone else said that he’d heard that if we handed any money over and nobody else claimed it, the police would give it back to the finders. We decided to take this safer way out and hope that we’d be lucky.
Eventually, Mr. Dwight came out to see how we were getting on and was surprised to see us digging as if we were enjoying ourselves. With a big smile on his face, he commended us for our efforts and the good job we’d done. His smile turned to a look of surprise when we produced the money. Soon he was laughing and could hardly speak as he tried to explain that he thought we’d done a good job because we were keen, not because we were finding ‘buried treasure’.
The whole gardening group was taken up before Mr. Laverty, the headmaster, and we told him the whole story. I believe the police were called in and it was discovered that the money was the weeks school dinner payments that had been stolen from the infants class months before. It was supposed that the thief had buried it there beside the classroom so as he could come back and collect it after the hue and cry had died down. I never heard if the thief was ever caught and none of us saw the money again.
Two shillings was the price of five dinners and sweets (puddings) at that time. Each school dinner period all the children who lived too far from home to have dinner with their family, would be marched in two’s along to a big hall about half a mile up White Lion Road. The meals were cooked at the back of the hall, and we’d all sit around long trestle tables and be served by other children. These ‘servers’ were picked on a roster system and all the children had to do it. They missed out on most of the playtime as they had to eat their meal after all the other children had gone from the hall. It was their job to serve up all the meals, empty all the uneaten food into the swill--bins, clean all the tables and chairs and stack them all away. They would always be given an extra helping of sweets by the canteen staff for their efforts. I always looked forward to my turn although we worked hard for that extra sweet, and missed out on some playtime. It was fun and the canteen ladies were a happy bunch. The meals at the canteen were always plentiful, hot and delicious, a steal at two shillings a week.
Alf often asked me to go back to his ‘prefab’ house to play in the evenings after school. The ‘prefabs’ were about a mile from the school along White Lion Road, in the opposite direction from the way I went home. I kept on forgetting to ask Mum and, in the end I agreed to go home with him if we could reach the prefabs before my bus came along (we always caught the London Transport number three, three, six, bus from Watford that had to travel the whole of White Lion Road as part of its route). I knew that I’d be in trouble with Mum so, if the bus came I’d jump on it. But, if I didn’t see the bus, then I could tell Mum I’d missed it (with a clear conscience) and catch the next one. That was my reasoning, anyway.
We set off towards the prefabs after school but, there were so many things to look at on the way that the time flew by. We’d only got as far as the hall that served as our school canteen, when I saw the green bus coming along the road in the distance. A bus stop was just over the road. We called it the ‘cook stop’. I believe this was because there was a bakers shop just opposite where the lady ‘cook’ used to sell us stale cakes for only a halfpenny each. If we were well-mannered (which we always were), she’d give us a bag-full of stale cakes for a penny. I shouted to Alf that the bus was coming and I’d see him the next day. Without a thought, I ran between two parked cars, straight out into the road, heading for the bus stop across the other side. There was a sudden bone-jarring bang and the next second I was flying through the air.
The driver of the car that hit me had no chance whatever to stop as I ran out in front of him. I crashed back down onto the road amid the squeal of brakes and screams from a couple of ladies nearby. After rolling along a few times I finished up in the gutter sitting up on the kerb. Alf was standing a way back down the pavement, staring in open-mouthed amazement at the sight of the trick I’d just performed.
Suddenly, people were running towards me from every direction. The bus drove straight past the bus stop with me still on the wrong side of the road.
I was made to lay down on someone’s coat that had been spread over the cold path, and a man started checking me out for broken bones and the great gory wounds that everyone seemed to expect me to have. But, I was a let-down and, apart from a few bruises, a bump on the forehead, and a grazed elbow, I was fine although a little shaken up. A lady was crying and I could see the driver having a smoke. He could hardly hold the cigarette for shaking, it must have shocked him very badly. I was asked if I could get up and walk. This I did and everyone seemed very relieved. My legs felt very wobbly to start with but I soon settled down and it wasn’t long before Alf was laughing and saying that it served me right for not looking, which, of course, was right. I had been very lucky to get off so lightly.
The driver asked me where I lived and said he’d run me home when I told him. I think we were both glad to get away from all the fuss of the crowd and soon we were chatting away like old friends as we drove up to the camp. It wasn’t long before he was having a cup of tea with us at home as we told Mum the whole story. If I remember right, he was very worried about the whole affair as his car wasn’t insured or something like that. When he went to go, he shook hands with me and slipped half a crown into my palm. My eyes must have nearly popped out of my head for he and Mum laughed. By the time I’d got over the surprise he had gone.
I never saw him again but, the following Saturday Mum let me go down to Amersham and I bought a toy ‘Bedford’ lorry with the two shillings and sixpence. I still had that toy lorry in 1981 and was able to pass it on down to my eldest son.
Back on the home scene, Mum had brought a puppy home one evening. It was a black and white Collie and Val and I were thrilled. Both its front legs were bowed out and Mum said that it had rickets, a disease that causes the softening and distortion of bones. Mum said that we would have to look after him as he’d been very ill-treated. Val and I watched as Mum made little splints and fitted them onto the dog’s bowed legs with bandages. She hoped that the legs would straighten as the dog grew up. We named him ‘Muffin’ and he soon became a part of the family as he padded around the house looking very front-heavy due to the splints.
Val came running in one day and told me that there was a dead man on the green. We both dashed out to the green and, sure enough, there was a body laying in the grass. We ran back and got Mum and, just as the three of us were approaching the green, Mr. Benning came out of his hut and went over to examine the ‘body’. It turned out to be Mr. Wells and he wasn’t dead, he was in a drunken stupor. Mr. Benning lifted him up over his shoulder and carried him over to the Wells’ hut. Mr. Wells was so drunk that he was out to the world, his body hung limply over Mr. Benning’s shoulder and his tongue was hanging out of his mouth. He earned the dubious honour of being the first drunken person that Val and I had ever seen.
Then I got into trouble with the farmer from Chesham which ended those wonderful days of helping him up in the field. And it was all caused by Mr. Wells’ oldest son, Hubert.
As already mentioned, all of us other children on the camp tried to give Hubert and his family a wide berth. We had already helped the farmer that year, all the corn sheaves were in stooks, and we were looking after ‘our’ field (as we called it) until the farmer returned. Unknown to us youngsters, Hubert had been going up to our field and throwing sheaves all around, causing us plenty of extra work as we stacked them up into stooks again.
Eventually the farmer returned and made a haystack of all the sheaves. Gradually, over the next couple of weeks, the haystack began to look very sad, a bit like a ruined house. Then we discovered that Hubert was going up there and pulling the haystack apart. He openly told us that he had been responsible for throwing the sheaves around and destroying the haystack because we hadn’t asked him to help us look after ‘our’ field. He bragged about how he had watched us each evening (we had to go through part of his garden to reach the gap in the end of the fence), going up to the field, and how he’d gone up there later to make a mess of things again. Of course, we were all annoyed but we were also still a bit afraid of the great lout.
Luckily, most of our parents knew how us youngsters had worked to ensure that ‘our’ field was well looked after. And, what was better, most of us youngsters went home that evening and told our Mums what Hubert had done.
A few weeks later I heard a rumble coming up the lane and rushed out just in time to see the farmer pass by on his tractor, with a trailer in tow. Soon I had collected all the friends that I could find and we raced up to ‘our’ field with the usual offers of help. But the farmer told us to “Clear off.” I had never seen the farmer in such a bad mood but, nevertheless, I climbed up on the trailer ready to help pass the sheaves from the haystack to his mate.
I just had time to feel the throbbing of the tractor engine through the deck of the trailer, when suddenly, the farmer pulled me off the trailer, put me over his knee, and gave me a good thrashing. I was so shocked by this onslaught that I was promptly sick all over his trouser leg. My friends had watched in open-mouthed amazement but, when the farmer let me go and shouted that he would do the same to any other young ruffian who ruined his work, they quickly turned and ran for it. None of us were old enough, in those days, to protest and stand up for our rights.
But Mum was old enough, and so were some of the other parents. No sooner had I arrived home and explained why I was so sore, there was a banging on the door and five or six parents were there, all seeking recognition for the work that their youngsters had done, and justice for the way that they had been wrongly accused. Mum was livid and had already decided to go up and confront the farmer with the truth. With these other parents backing her up, she stormed off towards the field with us youngsters and the other parents in tow. As we walked up the track and through part of the Wells’ garden to the gap at the end of the fence, other parents and children joined us. There was no sound or movement from the Wells’ hut!
The farmer saw us all coming into the field and climbed down off the haystack, obviously ready for the confrontation he had surely expected. Mum walked straight up to him, told him how we had worked to keep his field tidy, explained about what Hubert had done, and then she had demanded an apology for what the farmer had done to me, or else! (I don’t know what the ‘or else’ would have been, but the farmer visibly cringed, even though, as I now realise, we were on ‘his’ land.)
Amazingly, to me at the time, the farmer did apologise for what he had done, and his mistake. He told us all that he had been happy to have us youngsters help over the last few years but, that he had been disappointed at the sight of the haystack, thinking that us youngsters had been responsible. The apology forthcoming and honour satisfied, we all made our way back to the camp amid many under-breath mutterings about the Wells’ family.
I don’t think that all those parents being there had forced the farmer to have a change of heart regarding what happened, I feel that he was angry at the sight of the wrecked haystack and had taken his anger out on the first person that had crossed his path. That person happened to be me. Nevertheless, It would be the end of us youngsters helping out anymore, not necessarily through our distrust of his future actions, but through the changes that were gradually taking place in the camp and our lives.
The summer passed into autumn and the days became cooler. There was a golden carpet of leaves on the ground for us to play in and once again the trees were bare of their green canopies. There was a tree in our garden that I liked to climb on, it had a long branch about five metres up, that grew out at right angles to the trunk, and another long branch directly above it.
One day that autumn, I decided to climb the tree and, reaching the first branch, I was able to stand on it and just reach the higher branch with my out-stretched hands. I walked out along the lower branch until my feet came off and I dangled from the higher one, swinging on my arms. I moved out about another metre before feeling the need to go back again as my arms were beginning to tire. But I’d already gone too far and suddenly, I couldn’t move. I just hung there knowing that, when I finally had to let go, I would fall onto the lower branch and probably be pitched head first onto the hard ground below.
I hung on for what seemed an age, shouting feebly for Mum. Then I could see her out of the corner of my eye, running from the hut with the usual shocked look on her face. As luck would have it, Arthur’s two older brothers, Cyril and Sidney, came into view along the path outside our garden and Mum roped them in on the rescue attempt. By this time my arms were an agony of pain, my strength was failing fast and it was taking all my determination to hang on. I could see the two brothers running as hard as they could down our garden path, Mum was standing below ready to ‘catch’ me as I fell (memories of ‘Auntie’ Julie?) and calling at me to hang on. I was screwing my face up with the effort of trying to hang on and my whole being seemed to focus up into my hands.
Everything seemed to go black all around as I concentrated as hard as I could to make those hands stay wrapped around the branch. I felt the tree shake as the lads began to climb up and one hand started to slip. The three rescuers were yelling encouragement but I could feel myself going. I put everything I had left into my hands and arms but I was spent and, slowly my fingers lost their grip although I fought desperately to gain a little more time. Then I fell.
It was all over in a flash. My feet landed on the lower branch, I tottered there for a split second before my legs buckled under me and I began to fall backwards. Barely had I started to fall backwards when an arm wrapped around my waist and I was snatched back to safety. I had just managed to hang on long enough for the brothers to get into position to save me from, if not death, then certain serious injury. Such a narrow escape should be reserved for the writers of fiction but, this was real and Cyril and Sidney, probably only 15 or 16 years old at the time, were the heroes of the camp. In my eyes they deserved all the praise they received. I got off with no more than arms that I couldn’t lift for a while although I was pretty shaken up.
Tea and scones were the order of the day for rescuers and rescued. We sat around the table chatting about this latest bit of excitement and I wallowed in the simple friendliness of these two brothers. Arthur, their younger brother and one of my best friends, was thrilled that his brothers had ‘saved my life’. But, as was typical of all those good people on the camp, the two brothers were happy to have helped but didn’t want any fuss. Mum didn’t forget how the lads had helped though and we often had them and Arthur over for tea. Naturally, I have never forgotten the incident nor my two rescuers!
Meanwhile, the outside world was producing a few interesting snippets of news. The Korean war was still being waged, Dick Barton was the hero of the radio, Sugar Ray Robinson was the world middle weight boxing champion, and Geoff Duke was a name on everybody’s lips as a top motor cycle racer.
In may of that year the world’s first scheduled jet service was introduced by the British Overseas Airways Corporation (B.O.A.C.) using De Havilland ‘Comets’. It wasn’t long before the Comet became as common as America’s D.C.6s, Constellations and Stratocruisers of that time.
The American passenger liner ‘United States’ had taken the ‘Blue Riband’ (an award for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by a passenger ship) from the English liner ‘Queen Elizabeth’ in 1951 and was happily carrying thousands of passengers between Europe and America. But, the writing was on the wall for these and other great liners for they would gradually be put out of service by the jet plane.
One event that happened in the summer of 1952 was the ‘Lynmouth floods’. Again I can’t recall the date. The papers showed how bad this disaster was in North Devon where the waters of the East and West Lyn Rivers, swollen by torrential rains on Exmoor, destroyed much of the village of Lynmouth.
Mum decided to try and do something to help. She asked Val and I to collect a group of our friends and bring them back to our hut. Off we dashed and were soon back with some of our mates, all very impatient to find out what they’d been roped into.
The group consisted of Pat Wilkes, Edie Hill, Brenda Benning, Joyce, Freda & Cherrie Dumbarton, Arthur White, Val, and myself. Mum took us all indoors and dressed the lot of us up in fancy dress. I recall that Arthur was dressed as a gardener complete with wheelbarrow, Val was Mrs. Mopp complete with mop and bucket, Edie was a wizard, Joyce was a queen, and I was her king, Brenda, Cherrie and Pat were Gipsy flower sellers, and Freda was a hula girl. The ideas came quickly and other mothers helped with bits and pieces as their children raced home for more clothes.
Finally, dressed in these outfits, we set off for the posh areas. Val lugged her mop and bucket, I escorted my queen, Freda did her ‘hula’ dance, Cherrie, Brenda and Pat carried a basket of bright flowers each (taken from Grandad’s garden), Edith was ready to cast a spell on those who didn’t help, and Arthur pushed his wheelbarrow that gradually got heavier as we put any rubbish that we found into it.
We had a banner with ‘Save Lynmouth’ written on it and soon we were having a ball with all the people in the posh houses. They entered into the spirit of things, dug deep into their pockets and it wasn’t long before we were taking it in turns to carry the money tin as it gradually became heavier. Then Mum suggested that we put the money loose in the wheelbarrow, so that the people could see how much had been donated already. A lady put our rubbish into her dust-bin, and the money started to pile up in the wheelbarrow.
It was great fun for us children, we didn’t think of it as trying to help someone else more unfortunate than ourselves so much as the enjoyment it was giving us while we were doing it. All the posh folk were so kind and, after the initial surprise, they joined in with the fun.
The following Monday, Mum took the money collected down to the local newspaper office (The Bucks Examiner) and handed it over. Us children thought no more about it until a few days later when our names were in the paper with the story of what we’d done. We were heroes for a day at school. But also, we were sneered at by those who thought we’d done it for our own glory. I was starting to learn about petty jealousies.
In September 1952, John Hunt was asked to lead an expedition that would eventually end up in putting the first two men on the summit of Everest. Also in that same year, a rock climber put up a climb on Dinas Cromlech in the Llanberis Pass, North Wales, called ‘Cenotaph Corner’ that would inspire me in a sport that I would come to love eleven years later. His name was Joe Brown.
None of my family was really interested in any ‘ball’ sports, horse racing, motor- or motor cycle racing, or in fact, any sports at all. They were all happy to make things with their hands, go for walks in the country, or just sit at home with their families. I knew very little about sport although I played a bit at school. Mum did give me the money once to go to a soccer match at the Chesham sports ground. I received some weird looks when, upon entering the spirit of things, I cheered all the goals regardless of which net the ball went into or which team scored. I never went to a match again.
My tenth birthday passed and it was the biggest at that time. I had invited all my friends on the camp, plus some friends from school. Alf came, Roger Nixon (a new friend to the ‘clan’) also came, and of course, Arthur, Cyril, Sidney, Tommy, Mick, and Jim. All the girls came and it was probably the last party that I had before us boys started really looking at females in a different light.
As Christmas drew near once again the excitement and preparations began. Mum had the Christmas clubs going full-swing, we made paper-chains to hang up in our living room, and Val and I brushed up on our carols.
I broke with tradition that year and, for the first time, went carol singing with someone else but, as usual, trouble wasn’t far away.
Arthur asked if I’d go carol singing with him. Mum said it was alright so the two of us set off one evening. I wanted to save the posh houses until I was with Val, so Arthur and I headed down to the Moor area, Working along Waterside Road, it wasn’t long before we had a bit of money jingling in our pockets. We’d just got into gear and were beginning to relax when a gang of bullies grabbed us as we came out of a garden. We had no chance of running and I thought to myself “Here we go again!”.
The thugs took our money and told us we were going to sing for them. They pushed us up the next garden path and threatened that they’d bash us if we told anyone. Then, hiding in bushes and behind walls, they told us to get on with it.
Arthur whispered to me that we should sing very badly so that nobody would give us any money and maybe the bullies would let us go. We tried it but, the people obviously felt sorry for us and forked out their hard-earned money, not knowing that we’d have to give it to the thugs outside. After a couple of houses in this manner, Arthur suggested that we just ignore the people when they came to the door. We tried it at the next house and the lady gave us money for “Singing even though we were obviously shy”. Arthur suggested that we even be rude to the folk, but that was too much against our grain. In the end we sang and the bullies got the money.
I watched for any little opening to get away but, they gave us no chance. I was seething with rage most of the time and told Arthur two or three times that I was going to have a go at them. But Arthur was calm and told me that we would win in the end. I remembered the last time that we’d been bullied and how he had run away and left me, I was very annoyed at his attitude.
In the end, the bullies let us go. Penniless, we made our way home to face our Mum’s wrath for being late. I was wild with fury that I’d let those bullies get the better of me without striking back somehow. Mum wasn’t very happy with me after I had told her what happened. “You’ve got to start standing up to bullies.” she told me. But, I still didn’t really have enough confidence in myself to face up to bullies as soon as they confronted me, and I didn’t really like fighting.
Secretly though, I knew that I would have to do something the next time as I was beginning to feel a bit of a coward.
The next afternoon, Jim came over after school and gave me some money. He’d taken it off some ‘bullies’ in his class, after giving each of them “A lump under the ear’ole.” (as he put it.) Unknown to me, Arthur had recognised one of the bullies of the night before and told Cyril and Sidney. At school that next day, they’d told Jim and the three of them had sorted those thugs out. It would be the last time that I’d let anyone fight my battles for me.
A couple of days later, Jim, Cyril, and Sidney left school to begin their working life.
Over the next few nights, Val and I went carol-singing around the ‘posh’ area together but, this time, without Mum. The very first night it snowed and everything was very Christmassy. How happily we sang with the snow swirling all around and our breaths coming, out of our mouths in white clouds. After an hour or so, the snow stopped, the clouds rolled away, and a full moon shone almost as light as day. The new snow squeaked under our shoes and we felt that the families could see and hear us as we advanced up their driveways.
Slowly our money increased until Val stopped under a street lamp and said that she wanted to count it. As she pulled a handful out of her coat pocket, a threepenny bit dropped into the snow on the path. The snow was about three centimetres deep and we searched for it under the yellow light of the street lamp. Soon we were down on our hands and knees in the snow, hunting for that coin with the cold gradually creeping into our bodies. We could have made ten times the worth of that coin if we’d have carried on singing around the houses but, our natures wouldn’t let us abandon a coin in those days, even such as a lowly threepence. In the end, we had to give up and leave a whole threepenny bit laying somewhere there in the snow.
That year, Val and I earned enough from carol singing to buy Mum a beautiful box of ‘Black Magic’ chocolates. It cost us over eleven shillings but, we had such fun in choosing the present, wrapping it up, and presenting it to her on Christmas day. Mum couldn’t even guess what her present was. It was the first year that we’d done the whole lot on our own, Val and I.
The excitement of that special Mum’s present over-shadowed everything else about that Christmas. For once, Val and I were more excited about giving and the chance to give, than receiving. The box that the chocolates were in was like a black jewellery cask with a red tassel and Mum was still using that box in 1990.
I had mentioned that I would have liked a train set for Christmas and Mum, Nan, Granddad and Jim had clubbed together to buy me one for a main present. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the picture on the box and realised what it was. It had an oval of track and I set it up in my bedroom, using the space under my bed as a tunnel. Uncle Frank gave me some old coal trucks to hitch on behind the carriages and I was hardly out of my bedroom for weeks.
And so we slipped into 1953. Jim started work as a projectionist at the Regent cinema in Amersham. He’d already been spending evenings up in the projection box after school and knew the job inside-out. He was happy there and I spent many evenings with him. I always got the job of winding the films back onto the original reels so as they were ready for the next showing. This was done with a special two-reel winder and worked by hand (turning a handle like a lady used to turn the handle of a mangle). It was good fun working the curtains, lights, and music. Sometimes I’d feel very important as I sat by the projectors and was seen by the patrons walking past the open door of the projection box. I also learned how to get into the cinema without paying although I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing it at that time. I was never allowed to go into the cinema when there were ‘X’ rated films being shown.
School started again and Alf and I began to take it in turns to visit each other’s home. When I went to his home, we’d play in his bed-room with his toys. But, when he’d come to my home, we’d go off down the woods to play, never forgetting to drag a few branches back with us for the fire.
We usually burned coal in the range but the coalman only came to the camp once every two weeks and, sometimes we would run out before he came. It was always handy to pop up to the woods and get some branches to tide us over and, indeed, to save a bit of money.
I remember one evening when Mum met us off the bus after school, because the coal had run low. The snow was thick on the ground and we were cold through sitting on the bus doing nothing. We all entered into the spirit of the emergency, crossed Bois Avenue and went into a small wood beside the main road. The snow was so thick that it was hard to see if there were any fallen branches laying on the ground. We waded through it until we finally found one and it wasn’t long before we were sweating with the effort of dragging the big branch home. It was always fun doing this and we didn’t care who saw us, or what they thought. We would all crowd around the branch and tug, push, or lift, amid lots of laughter. Back at home, Alf and I chopped and sawed while Val stacked and it wasn’t long before we had enough firewood for two or three days. We all had tea and I remember Alf saying, as we walked down to the bus stop when he went home, that it had been a really great evening.
Winter passed and, once again we were bathed in the beauty of spring. I’d been to work with Granddad half a dozen times by now and we had always gone to the boiler house behind the Mansion. I was thrilled when Granddad asked me if I’d like to go with him to another boiler house. This one was up at the North Kitchen. It could have been up on the moon, I wouldn’t have cared as long as he took me.
We piled onto the motor cycle, pottered down to Chesham, then turned along the Chess Valley. But, this time Granddad took me past the Neptune’s Waterfalls. As we approached the bridge just below the falls, I could see the Mansion up on the hill in front of us.
Granddad stopped on the bridge and I saw the biggest waterfall I’d ever seen up to that time. It was at least twenty metres long by three metres high and had a statue of King Neptune, complete with trident in hand, sitting in the middle of the falls at the top. Granddad had promised to show me these falls each time I went to work with him, but, there were always other things he wanted to show me as well, so we seemed to miss them each time. I thought they were well worth the wait. These falls, like the, now familiar, original falls a bit farther down stream, also had rocks sticking out into the falling water, creating ornate cascades of spray.
We carried on up a different hill, missing Latimer Village altogether this time, entered the camp and followed the winding road between the huts. We passed the model room, the small boiler houses and the farthest point I’d ever been to before. Then a large building appeared on the right. Granddad shouted over his shoulder (I was now allowed to ride on the pillion seat behind him) that this building was the N.A.A.F.I. Finally, we turned left and swept into a small courtyard on the right. As I stepped off the motor cycle I could see the big bunker of coke on the left and the boiler house on the right, with, Granddad told me later, the North Kitchen behind. I was a bit of an old hand by now and looked around with a more experienced eye at these new, but familiar surroundings.
Granddad and I said goodbye to his shift mate and it wasn’t long before we had checked the fires and water levels and were off exploring. The previous shift always ensured that a spotless boiler house, with full fires, water, and wheel barrow, was handed over to the next, so there was usually a period of inactivity at the start of each shift.
Granddad took me over to the N.A.A.F.I, where we met some of our old friends and a few new ones. We chatted for a while then he took me into the North Kitchen where a cup of tea was waiting for us. The chief cook presented me with a packet of army ‘iron ration’ biscuits, Granddad called them ‘dog biscuits’. They were very hard and tasteless but I ate some and saved the rest for Val. Opposite the boiler house, behind the coke bunkers, was an enormous sports field and Granddad took me over to have a look at it. In the far distant corner of this field was a cottage, surrounded by trees except for on the sports field side. It looked like a scene from a fairy story and Granddad told me that the man who looked after the sports field, Mr. Needham, lived there. He said that Mr. Needham and his family would be visiting Nan and Granddad for tea the next afternoon and Mum, Val and I were invited so that we could meet them.
We went back to work and was soon tending the great boilers and all the little boilers at that end of the camp. We went into the kitchen again later that day and the cooks spoiled me with cakes and trifle. I found it very hard to do Nan’s corned beef sandwiches any justice.
As it got dark, a very pleasant man came into the boiler house and cheerfully said hello to us in a broad Irish accent. It sounded very funny to me as I’d never heard such an accent before. This was Mr. Needham and he’d dropped in to check that the Sunday tea was still on for the next day. Granddad said it was and he went on his way.
The shift finally came to an end with the usual scurry round to ensure that all was tidy and ready for the next shift. We said goodbye to the night shift worker and rode off into the dark night. Nan was still up when we arrived home and she told me that I could sleep in their spare room that night instead of going home and disturbing Mum and Val. I was happy to do that for Nan allowed me to have the light on for as long as I liked at bed time and there was always a pile of new magazines to look through. It didn’t take me long to have my bath, get snuggled down in the great feathery bed and lose myself in the adventures of those magazines.
The next day, we were all dressed in our Sunday best when Mr. Needham and his family arrived at Nan’s for tea. Mr. Needham’s wife was Irish as well but, their two daughters had been raised in England and spoke better English than I did. Margaret, the youngest daughter, was the quiet, studious type and was very shy. Veronica, the older daughter, was the closest thing to a freckled-faced, gangling Tom-boy that I ever saw. She and I hit it off right from the start. She loved the out-door life, adventure, climbing trees, cowboys and Indians, and anything else that got us out of the house and into adventure. I showed her all my best secret camps, climbing trees and hide outs. Soon, we were as inseparable as two friends could ever be.
The Needham family were devout Catholics and, as I’d been baptised a Catholic in St. Paul’s Church, Blackpool. (21 st. March, 1945.) they asked me if I’d like to go to their church for Mass on the following Sunday. The Catholic Church was only just down below the bottom camp. Mr. Needham had an old Austin Seven car with a hood that could be folded down and he offered to pick Val and I up on the following Sunday in time for the mid-morning Mass. Val and I said that we’d give it a trial. All too soon, it was time for them to go back to the little cottage by the sports ground at Latimer camp.
The next Sunday, Val and I were ready when Mr. Needham and Veronica came to collect us for church. Off we went in great spirits, waving to Mum through the faded plastic window at the back of the car. Veronica was her usual, excitable self and we all giggled as we drove out of the camp and down to the church. It only took five minutes for the ride and soon Mr. Needham was introducing Val and I to Father Tomlinson, the parish priest. He welcomed us to the church and we went in. There was a choir singing in a language that I couldn’t understand but, later learned, was Latin. Everyone else was very solemn except Veronica and I, we giggled together all through the Mass, me at the thrill of this new experience, her at the thrill of sharing it all with me and, my clumsy inexperience through the service.
Everything about the service in that church was beautiful to me. It made our usual Sunday School service seem dull in comparison. The whole church was very clean and interesting, whereas, the Sunday School had seemed dreary and the hall was dark and dusty. After Mass I came out happy, not because it was over for another week (as I always felt at Sunday School) but, because I felt happier, the sun seemed brighter, and everyone else there was happy. It’s hard to explain, but I felt so much better in myself. We’d been brought up to believe in God and I suddenly felt closer to Him through being in this church.
We all arrived back at Nan’s hut where Mum and Nan had prepared dinner for us all. Val and I told Mum all about the Catholic Mass as we ate, while Veronica kept on kicking me under the table to hurry so as we could get out for a bit of adventure before her family took her home. After dinner, us children had a great time in the Austin and on Grandad’s motor cycle playing ‘cops and robbers’. Granddad chuckled in his usual way and said that it wouldn’t be long before we would be let loose on the road with our own cars and motor cycles. Mum said that we’d all be as good a driver as he was.
Granddad asked Mum how she would know as she couldn’t even drive herself. Mum took up the challenge and decided to show Granddad just how good she was. With Val and Margaret in the sidecar, Veronica sitting on the ‘bonnet’ of the sidecar, and me sitting on the pillion seat, Mum kick-started the motor cycle. Away we went around the track, stopping and starting in jerks with us children hanging on for dear life and Nan, Granddad, Jim, and Mr, and Mrs. Needham laughing and cheering as we progressed. It was good fun for us children and adults alike. Mum might not have been as good as Granddad but we enjoyed the bumpy rides. Mum was still very ill and had been for more than a year at that time. She never went far from the camp and we all seemed to spend more and more time at my grandparents hut. Nevertheless we were always happy.
Things were changing fast in the camp at this time. Uncle Frank and his family had been moved out and were living in Briary Way, off Green Lane, Amersham. Arthur had gone (and I never met him, nor any of his family again). Tommy and David had gone, and so had Mick. More and more huts were being emptied and other families moved into them as they became vacant.
There were new families to make friends with and one of these families, the Barretts, moved into number twenty two, next door to my grandparent’s hut. Trevor, one of the sons of this family, was Val’s age and a good sport. He was a tough little devil and was also the object of the first crush that Val ever had. Trevor had the uncanny knack of being able to pass wind noisily every time he threw a stone. We both discovered this one evening when throwing stones at bats as they flew about the sky feeding on insects. I kept hearing a noise and thought it was Trevor’s shoes. In the end I asked him to wear quieter shoes next time. He laughed and explained what the noise really was. I was amazed that he could perform such a ‘feat’ and it earned him a place in my memory.
Uncle Frank and Auntie Joyce visited us at the camp one Sunday afternoon that spring and told us that they’d bought a television. I didn’t know what a television was so Uncle Frank invited Val and I over the following Sunday to see the modern wonder.
The next Sunday, after Mass and dinner, Val and I walked all the way to Uncle Frank’s house to watch their television. Granddad and Jim had told us that television was like having a small cinema in the living room and, I must confess that a small cinema was what I expected to see.
We reached the house, went inside and there, in the corner of the living room, was the television, not what I expected but exciting just the same. The cabinet was huge by today’s standards, it stood on the floor and was a piece of furniture in its own right. By comparison the screen was tiny, probably only 23 centimetres from corner to corner. We all sat around the room and Uncle Frank turned it on. It took ages to warm up but, slowly a black and white pattern emerged. We waited impatiently then, at last, the first show I’d ever seen on a television came on. It was ‘The Cisco Kid’ and, as he and ‘Pancho’ fought for justice across the little screen of the television, I marvelled at the way the picture appeared without any projectors or darkened rooms. It would be another five or six years before we would bother to buy a television.
Hubert, the oldest son in the Wells family, had a working air-gun that he wanted to swap for a knife that I had. The transaction was completed but, he came back later and said he’d changed his mind. I held the gun out to him and, as he reached for it, he threw the knife into the bushes.
But, I was a bit too quick for him and snatched the gun back from out of his reach. He threatened to smash me if I didn’t give him the gun but, although he was bigger than I was, I’d had enough of being bullied and told him to ‘Try it’. I was shaking in my shoes as he drew himself up to his full height, but I didn’t budge and he suddenly turned and ran back to his hut calling for his mother. I was amazed that he hadn’t bashed me but, knowing how argumentative his family were, I went over to my grandparents hut where Mum was at the time, just in case his Mum bashed me instead.
It wasn’t long before Hubert and his mother were standing outside the hut shouting for us to come out. We walked out of the door and straight away Mrs. Wells advanced at Mum, with her finger almost in Mum’s face and threatening what she would do if the gun was not soon returned. She wouldn’t give us a chance to explain what had happened. I could see Mum getting more cross as the woman shouted louder and the finger got closer to Mum’s face.
Mrs. Wells was a big woman and was standing over Mum, literally frothing at the mouth. I heard Mum say over the shouting that, if she didn’t calm down and stop waving that finger under her nose, she would hit her with the clothes-prop. If we thought that Mrs. Wells was bad to start with, she really went into top gear after Mum’s threat and her furious rage seemed to know no bounds. She started pushing herself up against Mum and I saw the finger prod Mum’s face. As the finger touched Mum’s cheek, there was a flash of movement like a snake striking, a loud resounding clap of noise and Mrs. Wells was suddenly staggering back into the grass across the other side of the track, holding her face and, with a shocked look, shouting “0h! She hit me, she hit me.”
It was one of the most unforgettable scenes that I ever saw. That big woman had pushed Mum, who was a lot smaller, a bit too far and got her just desserts. She staggered back up the track towards her hut shouting filth and abuse at us all and warning us that we’d all pay.
Nan, Val, Granddad, Jim. and I had all watched this event with opened mouths and goggling eyes. We were speechless and stunned and not one of us moved until the door of the Wells’ hut had slammed shut in the distance. Suddenly, Granddad started to chuckle, then a great laugh seemed to start deep down in his stomach and burst out of his mouth with a roar. Jim started laughing, then myself. Soon we were all roaring with laughter and Trevor’s Mum, who had seen everything, came running over with tears rolling down her cheeks. She’d watched the whole incident and thought it was the funniest thing in ages. We all celebrated with a tea party on the lawn and Granddad was still chuckling when we went to bed. Mum had certainly put her actions where her mouth was when it came to dealing with bullies!
Mrs. Wells took Mum to court for assault or whatever the charge was but, after hearing the evidence, the judge bound both Mum and Mrs. Wells over to keep the peace. I had already given Hubert the gun back although I never saw the knife again. Just like Francis Ridgeway, Hubert and I, in a way, would come to a clash.
A week or so after this incident, Mrs. Needham invited Val and I up to their cottage for the weekend. Mr. Needham picked us up in the old Austin on the Friday night and it wasn’t long before Veronica and Margaret were showing us around their beautiful home. I always think of that cottage as if it were straight from a fairy story and that’s the only way I could describe it. A fairy tale cottage set on the edge of an enchanted wood. It was ages before we got to bed due to the excitement and games we played. Mr. and Mrs. Needham were very tolerant and didn’t seem to mind as long as we were happy. In the end, we quietened down and went to bed exhausted.
I awoke the next morning to find the sun streaming through the lead-light windows and soon we were all down stairs ready for breakfast. This turned out to be another new experience for Val and I. We were introduced to a breakfast of Puffed Wheat covered in Golden Syrup. We couldn’t believe it as we’d never had such a lavishly sweet breakfast in our lives. But the Needhams thrived on happiness and the good, simple things in life. I, as usual, was content to wallow in their friendliness and generosity. We didn’t even have to wash up the dishes although Val and I both offered.
Veronica and I spent the morning climbing trees and exploring the wood behind the cottage while Val and Margaret were happy to play with their dolls and do other things that girls like to do. In the afternoon, after dinner, the four of us went down to the army camp. Veronica and Margaret knew their way around and we were soon sitting in the N.A.A.F.I eating an ice cream each that had been given to us by some soldiers.
These ice creams deserve a mention as I never tasted any like them before nor since other than at that N.A.A.F.I. The only way I can describe them were as if a strawberry mousse had been set in a rubbery strawberry mousse covering and wrapped. We could actually bite the rubbery covering and it left a wonderful strawberry tang in our mouths.
We walked on along to the model room and helped each other up to look into the high windows. Granddad was working that afternoon, so we went down to the Mansion boiler house to see him. We took Val into the Mansion to show her the rooms we were allowed in to, then spent the rest of the afternoon playing on the great yew trees that were dotted around. All the time we were waving to old soldier friends that Veronica and Margaret knew or, I’d got to know through my trips up there with my Granddad. It was a wonderful, friendly, relaxing day all round.
The next day, after church, Mrs. Needham packed a picnic lunch and we walked through a corner of the wood until we emerged out on the side of a hill and there was the Chess Valley in front of us. We wandered down the hill until we reached the river. There was another waterfall at that spot, about the same size as Neptune’s falls a bit farther down stream. And, just as with Neptune's Falls, above these falls were a row of posts sticking up out of the water and the gaps between the posts were spanned by a wooden plank, making a very effective bridge that could be crossed in single file as long as nobody wanted to pass from the other side. It felt very daring to cross these planks with the roaring waterfall just below and no handrail. Up on the bank was a large tree with a big branch that was so springy that all four of us children could climb out onto it and bounce up and down together.
The sun shone warm that afternoon, the silver water sparkled, the fish swam lazily against the current, insects flew busily amongst the tall reeds nearby and our squeals of delight told how happy we were as we splashed about in the water or bounced high on the branch.
That weekend was the first of many spent up at the little cottage with the Needhams. I’d go and stay in all weathers and there never seemed to be a dull moment
The following weekend, I was in trouble again. Val, Cherrie, Freda, Joyce, some other children from the camp and myself went for a walk. We were passing the ‘dream house’ when we decided to creep into the front garden and look into the ornate pond that was there. All went well so we went up on a wooden bridge that was also in the garden. Nobody shouted at us, we became brave and crept up to the house where we looked through the tiny windows. It was just as ‘dreamy’ inside as it looked from the outside. We wandered into the back garden and were admiring the rows of lettuce, carrots, potatoes and the many other vegetables, when a bell started ringing loudly. Somebody said that we’d set an alarm off and we began running for the back fence.
This fence was a very high chain-linked fence with three rows of barbed wire strung along the top. I climbed up on top one of the concrete posts and helped all the others over, keeping my eye open for the owners that, we were sure, would be searching for whoever it was that had started the alarm. At last all the others were over and, still looking over towards the back of the house, I lifted my leg over. As I was balancing on the top of the fence with one leg still cocked over the top strand of barbed wire, my other foot slipped. There was a tearing pain in the back of the leg, where a barb had ripped it open, before I had managed to get a hold of the fence again. I finished up, turned completely upside down, hanging from that barb in my leg and a bit of support from my arms where I had, luckily, managed to grab the fence.
I was in agony but didn’t dare shout out in case the people from the house heard me. I could feel the blood running down into my pants and I hung on with fast tiring arms. I had to do something quick but, I didn’t know what. Without warning one hand gave way, there was another stab of pain from my leg as the barb was ripped out, then I was lying in a heap on the ground. It all happened so quick.
The girls, who had started running for the woods, only had time to see my plight and stop before I hissed at them to keep going before we were all caught. They hurtled down through the woods with myself bringing up the rear, all thoughts of a painful leg forgotten for the moment with the thrill of it all now that we had escaped the ‘peril’ of being caught in someone’s back garden. We didn’t stop until we were exhausted.
It was very late by that time so, after cleaning most of the dried up blood off my leg, we headed home by a round about route. This made us even more late and it was getting dark by the time we all entered the camp.
Mum hadn’t been at all well again and was over at Nan’s hut lying on the bed that they now kept for her in the spare room (Val and I usually stayed at Nan’s as well unless we were staying with the Needhams, Nan always found somewhere for us to bunk down). We went in and Mum was furious because we’d stayed out so late. Val was sent straight to bed as I tried to explain about my gashed leg and what had caused our delay. Poor Mum was so ill that she wasn’t in the mood to listen to any more of my ‘lame’ excuses. I hadn’t seen her that cross with me for a long time. She cut me short and told me to stand sideways beside the bed so as she could give me a hiding. When it was over I tried to explain again but, I’d ‘cried wolf’ too many times before and she started to get out of the bed to me. Realising that she was so ill I went straight to bed.
During the night the gash opened up again and my bed became wet through with blood. But I was stubbornly determined not to go and seek help, and finally dropped off to sleep still laying in the mess.
The next morning Nan came in to wake me and her eyes shot out on stalks when she saw the dried up blood all over the sheets. She called to Granddad and he, in his usual calm, unruffled way, saw the mess of my leg and told Nan to get a bowl of warm, disinfected water to clean me up. As Nan was doing this they listened to my story of how I’d come to injure myself. When the mess was washed away they found that I had a ragged gash, thirteen centimetres long, down the back of my right upper leg. They bandaged it up and soon I was none the worse.
But, Mum was most upset that she’d given me a hiding and sent me to bed in that state. She kept saying that she wished she’d listened instead of getting so cross. Of course, It was all my own fault anyway, and Mum was very ill, after all. I didn’t dare tell her, at the time, that I’d let her hit the uninjured side of my body and that, as she was laying down, she didn’t really hurt me anyway.
With plenty of care from Mum and Nan my leg healed up and soon the incident was past and almost forgotten. But, I still have the large ragged scar down the back of my leg as a reminder of the event.
A mobile shop used to come to the camp every week at this time. This van was loaded with all sorts of groceries and goodies. The driver used to move slowly around the track ringing a large hand bell outside the drivers window to let his customers know he was there. Upon hearing the bell, we’d rush out and stop him and while Mum and Nan bought the groceries us children would stand looking at the toys and sweets until the van moved on. Mum or Nan would always buy us a little something from this van but, we were still not allowed to ask for anything.
We couldn’t always buy what we wanted from this mobile shop and each Saturday, after her job of cleaning the Regent cinema was done, Nan would go shopping in Amersham and come home with her large grey shopping bag brimming with extra groceries. Val and I called this bag ‘Nan’s magic bag’ as there was always a little treat and a bundle of comics each hidden amongst the items.
At that age I was well into comics. At first I’d been happy with the ‘Dandy’, ‘Beano’, and ‘Knockout’. In the ‘Dandy’ I would follow the adventures of such noted characters as Desperate Dan, Freddy the Fearless Fly, Hungry Horace, Keyhole Kate, Korky the Cat, Wuzzy Wizz, and others. The ‘Beano’ had Pansy Potter, Biffo the Bear, Dennis the Menace, Lord Snooty, Jimmy and his Magic Patch, and I well remember wishing that I had wings on my feet like Jack Flash. The ‘Knockout’ was well known for Billy Bunter, Sexton Blake, Sporty (and Syd), Tod and Annie (two runaway orphans relentlessly pursued by old Silas Stiggins from the orphanage), and Our Ernie (who always finished with the words “What’s for tea, ma?” while his dad always muttered the words “Daft I call it!”.
Then Mum bought me a large, glossy comic called ‘Eagle’. This was a more mature comic and soon I couldn’t wait for Mum or Nan to come home with the shopping to get that comic and see how Dan Dare (with Digby, Professor Peabody, Sondar, and his other crew members) was faring in the space war against the fearful Mecon. Harris Tweed, Jeff Arnold, P.C. 49, and Tommy Walls were other memorable characters in this exciting comic. I recall that there was always a large, center-page cut-away illustration of a ship, plane, or something similar, to show the workings. The pages were full of interesting items to the young inquiring mind and I’d read them from front to back, except for stories and items on soccer, cricket, tennis, etc. which gave me no interest at all.
VaI would get the ‘Girl’ comic (which was the sister comic to the ‘Eagle’) and ‘School Friend’. I was quite happy to read these ‘girl’s’ comics and remember Wendy and Jinx, Lettice Leefe, and the story of Mary Slessor, in the ‘Girl’ and The Silent Three, and Dilly Dreem, in the ‘School Friend’.
Nan would also bring home the ‘T.V. Comic’ with Muffin the Mule, Mr. Pastry, and Hank (with his horse, Silver King), being the main characters that I can recall. And a small book called ‘Sunny Stories’ that was more a book than a comic. Val and I shared these two comics. We had no television but those comics kept us quiet for hours.
Then Jim fell in love with a young lady. She was a lovely girl and her name was Kathy. Suddenly Jim started playing soft and sloppy music on the gramophone he’d bought specially for when Kathy visited Nan’s hut. We started having Sunday tea to the sounds of such tunes as ‘Theme from Limelight’ and ‘Blue Tango’, and such singers as Perry Como, Mario Lanza and Guy Mitchell.
As far as I was concerned, songs and music on the radio had always been something in the background, or that one hummed to oneself as one pottered around at whatever one was doing. But, now songs and music began to take on a whole new meaning as Jim started buying all the latest ‘seventy eights’ and played them to Kathy whenever she was there. (Seventy eight r.p.m. was the speed that the turntable had to be set at to listen to these records properly). It wasn’t long before I knew all the current tunes and songs off by heart and I go right back to that beautiful summer in the camp whenever I hear any of them now.
And it was a beautiful summer! If we weren’t at the camp or at Latimer with the Needhams, we were out wandering the nearby woods and hills. Nearly every other Sunday, after church, we’d have the Needhams and Kathy over for dinner. Then, in the late afternoon, we’d take the table out on the lawn for an evening garden tea.
Val and most of the other girls from the camp started getting interested in dancing and doing plays at this time. Val became very serious about ballet dancing and Mum made her heaps of ballet dresses to try and encourage her as best she could. Mum was one of the best dress makers I ever knew and could make or repair anything, and she sewed everything by hand. Gradually the girls were becoming young ladies and losing their interest in climbing trees and playing cowboys and Indians. Veronica and I still got up to our pranks but we seemed to play more and more on our own without the other boys and girls of our age.
Then, right in the middle of that summer, the Dumbarton family moved away and the camp seemed very empty without the three girls, Cherrie, Freda, and Joyce, who had been such good friends to us. I would never see any of the Dumbarton family again except Joyce, who I’d meet as I lay in a hospital bed years later. Then the Wilkes family moved away, taking Valerie and Pat, and also their Mum who had been one of Mum’s friends.
Also about this time, the Wells family was re-housed, but none of us who were left had missed them!
The coronation of Princess Elizabeth drew near and Granddad had managed to get a ticket each for Val and I to attend a big party and firework display at the Latimer camp that was being put on by the Joint Services Staff College. Val and I were very excited and really looking forward to the event. And of course, Veronica was thrilled that I’d be there to share the fun with her. Jim came over with a big Union Jack and fixed it to the top of the old cherry tree at the back of our hut. There seemed to be flags and bunting sprouting out everywhere.
Meanwhile, John Hunt and his team were struggling to put the first man on the summit of Everest. On 29 th. May they succeeded when the Sherpa, Tenzing, and the New Zealander, Edmund Hillary, reached the top after a wonderful effort by the whole team, most of them knowing that they had no chance of reaching that magic point themselves. It was a great achievement and a big boost for the British Commonwealth at that time, especially as we were about to get a new Queen.
June 2 nd, 1953, was a memorable day for thousands of British subjects as Princess Elizabeth was crowned Queen Elizabeth the Second after the death of her father, King George the Sixth. How everyone had prepared for this event and the red, white and blue was in evidence everywhere. I can truly say that it was one of the most memorable days in my life.
A fete had been arranged at Chesham on that day as part of the coronation celebrations. The Latimer camp party wasn’t until the evening so Mum agreed that we would also be allowed to attend the fete as it was in the early afternoon. Mum decided that Val and I would go in the fancy dress parade and soon she was sewing like mad. A week before coronation day Mum had made up her mind that Val would go in the parade dressed as a queen ( Queens were all the rage at that time due to the coming coronation). She made a beautiful long white dress for Val with all the trimmings, a shining crown, an orb, and a mace. She put a lot of effort into that costume and Val looked more like a Queen than the queen herself. As usual, she didn’t know what to send me as.
A few days before the event, Val and I were eating our breakfast when Mum happened to notice that there was a cut-out ‘witch’s’ face on the back of the ‘Corn Flakes’ box. It was decided that I would go as a witch. Mum made a tall pointed hat, flowing black cloak, and a cardboard black cat to hold under my arm. Granddad made a proper-looking witch’s broom. Mum covered the whole lot in stars and moon crescents and, with the mask from the ‘Corn Flakes’ box to complete the costume, I looked like a terrifying witch.
On the great day, with much excitement, Val and I put on our costumes with Mum fussing around and adding the finishing touches. Then we caught the bus down to Chesham (much to the delight of the other passengers) and walked along to the fete. This time there were no problems and I won first prize, while Val took the second. So we really made up for the previous year when I’d been disqualified for advertising. As we rode the bus back up to the camp I felt very content at winning first prize and, at the same time, sickly excited about the coming party at Latimer. I couldn’t wait to tell Veronica that I’d won that first prize. But, something happened that made me almost completely forget about coronations, new Queens, prizes, and parties.
We’d just arrived back at our hut and had changed into our best clothes ready for Granddad to take us up to Latimer. As we waited in our garden for Granddad to come over on his motor cycle and side-car to collect Val and I, I saw him walking across the green towards our hut. With sinking heart I thought that his motor cycle had broken down (an un-heard of thing with my Grandad’s motor cycle, anyway). He reached our hut and asked us all to go over to his hut for a minute.
Mum, Val, and I followed him back over to their hut and I remember that I had wondered what all the mystery was about when there was the urgent need to leave for Latimer and the exciting time that awaited Val and I. Soon we stood in the living room with Nan and Jim while Granddad went into their main bedroom. What happened next would cause me to have another wonderful milestone in my already crowded memory to recall.
Granddad re-appeared out of their bedroom pushing a small, two wheeler cycle. He came over to me, leaned it against my leg and told me to learn to ride it within a month. Then he chuckled for, as he said later, my face was a sight of amazement.
And amazed I was. When Granddad pushed that cycle over and gave it to me it was just as if I’d been given the world. I’d never ridden a cycle in my life at that time, they were things that grown-ups had when they went to work. Uncle Frank had had one ever since I could remember, Jim had one, and now, unbelievably, I had one. I was dressed in my best clothes ready for the coronation party, but that was banished from my mind now that I had my hands on that bike.
I wheeled it outside onto the track and everyone crowded out of the door to watch me. I ran along side of it and jumped on the saddle just like Uncle Frank and Jim did, and went flat on my back as I lost my balance. Granddad picked me up, gave me a few pointers and promised me that, if I learned to ride the bike within a month (including traffic signs, road sense, etc.) he’d buy me a better one. I took up the challenge and it wasn’t long before I could wobble a few metres along the track. Mum took a photo of me then I was off again having another go.
In the end Mum and Granddad had to take the bike off of me so as we could leave for Latimer. How I howled and begged Granddad to leave me behind so as I could learn to ride that cycle. But, he knew that I’d soon get the hang of it and he wasn’t going to let me miss out on the party. He got round me in his own special way and soon the cycle was put away for the next day and away we went to Latimer.
As I sat behind Granddad on the pillion seat, I thought how lucky I was to have such a wonderful family. I recall that my chest was bursting with real happiness at the efforts that Mum, Nan, Granddad and Jim were making on my behalf. All the time my thoughts kept springing back to that cycle. It was an ugly little machine with two tiny wheels and a tall, red frame, but I didn’t care, it was a bike and I felt so lucky.
I was also lucky that Granddad had talked me into going to the party, it was a beauty as he, in all his wisdom, had known it would be. The cooks had done us youngsters proud and there were tables full of all the wonderful goodies that children like to eat. The soldiers (male and female) waited on us hand and foot while we gorged ourselves silly, it was a feast fit for a royal children’s party. We played many games with prizes but it seemed, whether we won or lost, we still had a prize. VaI and I each came home with a bag full of little presents. Each of us children were presented with a coronation mug to commemorate this great occasion. At the end of the day we all went to a field between the village and Neptune’s falls and watched a spectacular firework display.
Val and I were very fortunate to have been a part of those celebrations up at the camp, We were treated almost like royalty by all the wonderful people up there. They had given us another great event to remember, as Granddad had known they would. I had even forgotten all about the bike and my determination to learn to ride it as soon as I could. All too soon the party and fireworks display ended. We thanked the cooks and soldiers for a wonderful evening, said goodbye to the Needhams and rode back home through the dark night. It was very late and I was dead tired when we reached our hut but, I couldn’t resist one look and feel of my cycle.
For the next few days I was on that cycle every minute that I could spare. The whole family helped to teach me road sense and proper signals. I spent hours and hours on the bike practising until, not only could I ride it, but I knew all the required signals and when to use them, how to read the road and, very important according to Granddad, how to check the traffic behind before any change of direction. I had to prove to my family that I could handle a cycle in the safest possible way and I was well warned of the consequences if I larked around on the road. It was strictly against the law to ride on the pavement in those days but the traffic could still be quite heavy so we had to be careful.
A couple of weeks later Jim asked me to go for a ride with him. With a shock of excitement at actually going for a ride out on the road with Jim I readily agreed. We went down to Amersham and back. I was out in front, happily demonstrating my newly acquired skills the whole way, while Jim rode patiently behind. All too soon, it seemed, we were back at the camp with me wishing that we could have gone farther. As we rode across the square, I could see Granddad standing outside his hut. Jim raced on ahead and said something to him then they both turned and watched me ride up the last few metres to them.
As I reached the hut Granddad said that I’d ridden that little bike enough. He told me to take it up to his shed at the rear of his hut then come indoors. This I did with a very apprehensive feeling in my stomach, wondering if I’d done something wrong while I was riding to Amersham with Jim. After all, Jim had raced on ahead and said something to Granddad. As I walked in, the whole family was there. Granddad went into their spare bedroom and reappeared wheeling a beautiful black shining cycle out of the room which he gave to me. He told me that I’d earned this better bike but, I still had lots of practicing to do even though I had proved that I was on the way to becoming a fairly responsible cyclist.
I was even more stunned than when he brought out the little red cycle. I stood there open-mouthed just looking at this new machine. It was my size, with proper-sized wheels, again I couldn’t believe my luck. Finally, I managed to stammer my thanks to my family (who had all helped towards this most wonderful gift) and I took it out on the track for a go.
It felt very big and high after the little bike, but I was soon riding it around the track and by the following weekend I was allowed out on the roads providing Jim went with me. Within another week I was let loose on my own. It was thrilling to run errands down to Chesham or Amersham for my family, or to swoop down to the Moor and back in half an hour. Places that had taken all day to reach on foot were only an hour away. A whole new expanse of horizons had been opened out before me. This was really being free.
Granddad told me that he wasn’t going to repair any defects in the bike that might arise, he insisted that I learn to do it all myself. I thought that was a great idea. He sorted out some old tools as a further gift and it wasn’t long before I had the cycle in parts under his supervision. He showed me things like using a piece of hard wood to protect the threads when hammering the cotter pins out, how to fit all the bearing balls back in with grease (“Never use butter.” (A 'get-by' trick for those who couldn't afford grease - and there just happened to be some butter on the table!) he’d said, “The salt in butter will make the bearings rusty!”). He showed me how to strip a spoked wheel down to bits and re-build, straighten, and balance it before I fitted it back in the forks, and how to keep my brakes properly adjusted (“Very important!” he’d said.”) He also pointed out little things like straightening forks, adjusting the three speed, how to check the air in the tyres by squeezing the sides of the tyre between thumb and forefinger not by pressing the hard tread, checking the valves with a bit of saliva on the finger, an easy way to find even the smallest puncture, and above all, how to keep my cycle clean so it looked smart and was easy to work on if any problems arose. I was fascinated and in a very short time I could strip the bike down to a mass of pieces and re-build it on my own completely. I’d be very grateful to him for his help when Mum, VaI, and I all had cycles that would have to be kept in good condition and Granddad wasn’t nearby, it saved us many pounds that we wouldn’t have had.
Meanwhile, I had my own bike and it became a very important item in my life. I never once did a ‘wheelie’, skidded the back wheel, or abused it on purpose in any way. It was far too valuable to treat in that manner, although I did once try to do a trick that Jim used to do and it caused me to ‘come a cropper’.
Jim had been riding bikes for years, he’d come hurtling down the track towards his hut, cock one leg over and stand on one pedal as the bike slowed then, jump off and lean the bike against the hut wall in one go as he stopped. This looked easy to me and I thought I’d try it.
I built up the necessary speed, went racing down towards Nan’s hut and cocked my leg back over the saddle. But, it didn’t work for me and I carried on going over until I was rolling along the track and into the deep grass of the green. Through that pain-racked tumble I had a glimpse of the cycle, still upright, racing off the other side of the track into the grass on the right of Nan’s hut. By the time I’d pulled myself together, checked my bruised and grazed knees and elbows and looked around, the bike was out of sight somewhere in the long grass. It took me about ten minutes to find it and I didn’t try that again for a long time.
Although I spent many hours happily tinkering with, and riding, my cycle I still found time for other diversions. Muffin, our dog, had grown up by this time. The splints that Mum had put on his front legs had straightened the bones and he was a normal, healthy animal. We all loved him and spent hours teaching him tricks and taking him and Billy (Nan’s dog and a lot more manageable now that we were a bit older) for walks. Muffin always had to be kept on a lead as he, like myself, was a bit of a wanderer.
One day about this time, he escaped while we were getting ready for school, Mum told me to go and find him. By the time I’d found him and got him home, it was too late for school, the bus had gone so Mum told me to stay home. A couple of weeks later I accidentally let him off as I was saying goodbye before I went to catch the bus for school. Mum told me to go and find him again and, once more, I missed the bus and had the day off.
Then I began to let him off on purpose. Mum would tell me to go and find him and I’d hide up the lane until the bus had gone, call Muffin and wander home for a day of fun riding my bike. I’d tell Mum that it took a long time to find him and she’d grumble about it and wonder how he got off his lead. She soon saw through that trick and one day she sent me off to school instead of’ telling me to go and find him. I fretted all day that I’d lost our dog forever but he came home on his own accord and that was the end of my occasional stolen days off school using that trick.
Then one day in the middle of August, Granddad came over and told us that they’d been given a house by the council. We were so pleased for them until he said that it was in a village called Chenies which, to me, sounded miles away (it was roughly five miles from the camp). Suddenly I was very glad that I’d taken the chance and learned so much about my bike in so short a time instead of just riding around. But I would miss just knowing he was there all the same, in fact I would miss them all more than I realised at the time. Granddad was very excited which was unusual for him. He told us that the house was actually a ground floor flat with a garden at the front and rear and an option of an allotment to grow vegetables, etc, just up the road.
Before the month of August was over they were gone, leaving an empty corner in the camp where they used to live. I remember that I was so upset that Mum took me down to Chesham and bought me a ‘Jeff Arnold’ pair of jeans (the first pair of jeans I’d ever had), belt, and shirt to make me feel a bit better.
Also about this time, Trevor and his family had moved on. I lost one of the last remaining friends left at the camp when they moved down to Piggotts Orchard in Old Amersham, and Val lost the person who was responsible for her first crush.
Things were changing rapidly now as more and more families were given houses and, what was more ominous was the fact that the vacated huts were now being left unoccupied. I watched in pure horror as the Dumbarton’s hut was demolished right before my eyes, leaving an empty space and, luckily, many golden memories. But, I think that Mum had given up on us ever being given a house. It was a bit of a blow that we, one of the original families, should still be living on the camp while many of the later families were given houses.
The same thing was happening at the prefabs, Alf and his family had been moved to a house in Plantation Way, Amersham, just around the corner from where Mick was now living in Weller Road.
Nevertheless, we plodded on happily with our lives. Mum and Val now had cycles that Granddad had acquired for them just before he left and it was good fun to ride our bikes to a nice spot, have a picnic, then ride contentedly home. Veronica and Margaret came to stay for the weekend a couple of times and I went to Uncle Frank’s house once or twice to watch their television.
As well as the television, another attraction at Uncle Frank’s house was his model railway set he had on a board in his spare room. He invited me to stay one weekend that October to watch him work the trains. Mum wouldn’t let me ride my bike there for the weekend so, with a carrier bag full of clothes bumping against my leg, I ran all the way, arriving just in time for tea. After tea Uncle Frank took Brian (his young son) and I up to the bedroom where the railway was set out.
I’d never seen such a layout. The baseboard was built up on a frame, it took up almost all of the room, and there was just enough space to walk around it and open the door. It looked a bit artificial with the factory-painted ballast and the third rail between the lines for power pick-up, but I didn’t care and watched enthralled as Uncle Frank worked the different trains from out of the sidings and around the main lines. Brian controlled some of the trains (although he was a lot younger than myself) but I wasn’t allowed to touch anything.
How I had wished that I could get my hands on those controls. There was a beautiful engine called ‘The Duchess of Atholl’ and another called ‘The Duchess of Montrose’ that I couldn’t take my eyes off. There was also a Gresley A.4. Pacific in blue livery with half a dozen carriages behind, and a little ‘Jinty’ goods engine with a string of coal trucks in tow. There were three or four more engines and a mass of carriages and trucks scattered around the sidings, station, and engine shed. All too soon it was time for bed and leave this wonder railway set. I could hardly wait until the next morning to get into that room again and watch those trains going around the tracks.
As we walked out of the room, with Uncle Frank already through the door and myself casting one last longing look at that railway set, Brian hit some carriages off the board. The carriages crashed to the floor, and Uncle Frank came back asking what had caused them to fall. Brian, obviously knowing that he would get a good thrashing, immediately said that I had knocked the carriages down. I protested but Uncle Frank was very cross. When I tried to explain that I was innocent, he wouldn’t listen and told me to get to bed. Brian was laughing behind his back. I was hurt and began to get very annoyed. Uncle Frank had always been a friend as well as an Uncle, I loved and respected him deeply and would never have done anything against him. Now suddenly my respect for him had been shattered because he had taken the word of his ‘spoilt’ son rather than mine. Brian was taking advantage of his father’s love for his son to get out of trouble. Uncle Frank stormed downstairs still telling me to get to bed. I felt like giving Brian a good thump under the ear, but he was only half my size and I didn’t like bullying.
Suddenly I was seething, I packed my carrier bag, walked downstairs, opened the front door and walked out. I didn’t like being wrongly accused and I didn’t think much of Brian, who let me take the blame and wasn’t man enough to put things right. I’d always got on so well with Uncle Frank and I was a bit stunned by this incident. Uncle Frank chased me down the garden path and asked me where I thought I was going. I told him that I was going home because I thought he’d been unfair about the incident, he hadn’t even tried to find out who was really to blame and I told him so. He asked me if, as it was by then ten o’clock at night, I’d stay the night and go home in the morning. But I refused to go in his house again after what had happened. Even then he still didn’t try and find out the truth. He could see that I’d made my mind up, gave me some bus fare and then rode his bike up to warn Mum that I was on my way. I arrived home and told Mum what had happened. But, instead of giving me comfort, she said that I’d run away from the problem and the matter would never be resolved like that.
The following Sunday, Val, Mum, and I rode our bikes over to Uncle Frank’s house where I had to apologise to Uncle Frank and his family for the way I’d walked out on them. Nan and Granddad were also there visiting, and I recall Nan whispering to me that I'd done the right thing, even if I didn't agree with what had happened! It didn’t change anything for Brian still let me take the blame. I didn’t go to their home in Briary Lane any more after that, and I would be in my late teens before I trusted Uncle Frank again.
But I did see Brian get some of his just desserts years later when he was beat up for crossing a fairground lad down on Chesham Moor. I was held back by other fairground lads but they need not have bothered. It was a fair fight and nobody else interfered. I knew that he deserved a thrashing and the sight of him screaming for help while the lad set about him showed him up in his true colours. But back to my last visit to that house in Briary Way.
To add insult to injury, I was watching Uncle Frank’s tame budgies fly around the room that afternoon when one of them messed in my eye. After Mum had washed it out Auntie Joyce said that it was a lucky sign and I should make a wish. Secretly, I wished that we had a house in the area where all my friends had moved to. But, more than anything, I wished that we had a proper house.
In the middle of that same week a letter dropped through our letter box and, when Mum opened it she jumped for joy, we’d been allocated a house in that very area where all our friends were. Little did I know of the adventures in store for myself as we prepared to move from the old tin hut at Beech Barn. I’d never see the hut again. I have such wonderfully happy memories of those golden days on the camp but, at that time, I was more interested in the new part of my life to come.
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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