Mum’s nervous breakdown a couple of years earlier had taken its toll on her and she didn’t travel far at that time without feeling very sick. It was decided that Nan would take me over to the Isle Of Wight then come back home the next day. I was amazed when Mum said that I could take my bike with me.
I was ready when my grandparents arrived on the appointed day. I had my best suit on, my case was packed, my cycle was by the gate, and Mum had just taken a photo of me. Granddad put my case into the sidecar, Nan climbed unto the pillion seat, I hopped onto my bike, and away we went, waving like mad to Mum until we turned into New Road. Granddad chugged along slowly, but I still had to pedal like crazy to keep up with him. It was a fairly cold morning but, apart from my hands, I soon warmed up from the effort. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing openly at the thrill of it all. At last we arrived, with me puffing and panting, at the station. I pushed my bike onto the platform, Granddad carried the case, and Nan bought the train tickets.
After a short wait, the old steam train came hissing and squealing into the station. Granddad took my cycle and case along to the guard’s compartment while Nan and I found empty seats. Then we were waving goodbye to Granddad as the train started to pull out. He’d be waiting at Chalfont station for Nan the next day as that station was closer to their home than Amersham station. As we rumbled over Black Horse Bridge, I looked down at the school I’d left so abruptly. I hadn’t gone back there since I’d been taken ill a fortnight earlier, and I imagined that Alf had been very relieved. As it turned out, I never went back to that school again.
The train raced off the Chiltern Hills and up into London. We got off at Marylebone station and Nan decided to go by taxi to Waterloo station. The taxi driver was a typical Londoner and he laughed out loud when he saw the surprise on my face as he asked me if I was going to follow him across London on my bike. His jaw soon dropped when I said that I’d be willing. I thought it would be great to ride through the big city. He ruffled my hair, said that there was no need and soon he had my cycle tied to the side of the taxi. Off we went through the crowded streets until we reached Waterloo station. The driver untied my cycle and he was still laughing to himself as we said goodbye.
The station was just as I remembered it from the time that Mum and I had taken Val to Hastings. The rows of green trains were lined up at the platforms, there were crowds of people and the noise was very loud. It wasn’t long before we’d found our train, put my luggage and cycle in the guards compartment, and were settled in our seats. Soon we were rushing through the countryside at a fast pace.
As usual, I was taking everything in. I watched the stations come and go, walked the whole length of the train along the corridors, and nearly fainted with excitement at the sight of all the great ships in the Southampton docks. We changed to a slower train at Brockenhurst and soon we were steaming into Lymington harbour. As the train stopped at the harbour station, I suddenly saw a car ferry right beside us on the other side of the platform.
There were two car ferries going between Lymington and Yarmouth whose names I can remember from that time, the ‘Freshwater’ and the ‘Farringford’. There might have been another whose name I cannot now recall. (In 1981 I went across to the Isle Of Wight via Lymington, while on holiday in England, and I was delighted to see the old ‘Freshwater’ berthed at the exact spot where I saw it as we steamed into the station that day in the spring of 1954). The locals used to call these ferries ‘Crabs’, presumably because they seemed to sail along sideways.
Nan and I collected my cycle and case from the guards compartment of the little steam train and went aboard the ferry. I remember that it felt funny wheeling my bike down the concrete slope and on to the slightly moving ferry ramp. I was very keen to explore that vessel, but Nan told me to push my bike right up the front so that we'd be ready to get off quick at the other end without having to wait for the cars and buses. I did this then Nan took me on a tour of the boat while the cars were brought on deck.
Although these ferries were relatively small in comparison to the channel ferries, they seemed enormous to me at that time. They were drive-through ferries where vehicles could drive onto one end and drive off the other. The passenger decks were built up on each side of the car deck with a gap of three or four car widths between them. Each side had an open seating area on the upper deck, an enclosed seating area, with windows all around, on the main deck, and plenty of room to sit in under the main deck. There was a cafe on each vessel, and there may have been a bar as well.
I was leaning on the rail of the upper deck as the ferry got under way. The engines roared, the ropes were untied from the pier, and we sailed down the Lymington River towards the Solent. There were many yachts moored each side of our course and, as the ferry crept down the channel in the middle of the winding river, I was amazed that we didn’t hit any of them. From where I stood it did sometimes seem that our vessel was slewing along at an angle.
As we left the river and sailed into the open waters between the Isle of Wight and the mainland, there started up a bad vibration and I thought that the keel was scraping the rocks on the seabed. The back end started to corkscrew in the swell, first to the right then to the left. It all felt very scary until Nan saw me watching the swinging stern and told me that the Crab always did that as it entered the open waters. Fears of manning the life-rafts forgotten, I turned my attention to the scenery around us.
As we plodded across the Solent waters I looked to my right and could see Hurst Castle, which is situated on the mainland coast just west of Lymington. Beyond was the exit from the Solent to the English Channel. The irregular blue line of the Isle Of Wight ran all along the horizon in front of us. Southampton waters were on our left. The sea around us was dotted with ships, yachts, and motor boats, of all different shapes and sizes. As I looked behind us at the receding coast line, I could see secret looking inlets among the tall reeds, going to goodness knows where. I felt very vulnerable when we were out in the middle of the Solent waters, especially as there were plenty of big cargo ships passing from left and right, and we were crossing their path.
A ferry passed us coming back from the Isle Of Wight and all the passengers on it waved and shouted that they hoped we’d have a good holiday. We all waved and shouted our thanks back across the hundred or so metres of water and the two ferries continued on their erratic ways.
Nan and I were almost the first passengers off at the Yarmouth slip-way and a porter rushed down to help us. He grabbed my case from Nan and helped me push my bike up the ramp. He didn’t know us at the time, but he turned out to be Uncle Bob’s friend. He made me feel an important traveller with his eagerness to please and showed great surprise (pretending I suspect) when I told him how far we’d come that day. He laughed when Nan told him how I’d been keen to ride my cycle across London. My bike was going to be delivered by the railway parcels delivery lorry the next day as I couldn’t ride it to Freshwater behind the bus. The porter, who’s name I did know but cannot now recall, showed us the parcels office then went off with a wave to help someone else. He was a very obliging person and I never saw him standing still all the times I went to the quay at Yarmouth.. He was always happily helping someone.
Nan and I rode the bus into Freshwater, and there was Auntie Eun to meet us at the bus stop. The two sisters (Nan and Auntie Eun) lovingly greeted each other and I got the usual crushing cuddle then we set off for Afton.
I was surprised when we reached Afton and Auntie Eun led us to the old cottage below the house where we’d stayed the last time we’d visited them. Auntie Eun explained that they had decided to move as there was much more garden around the lower house. At first I didn’t care, a house was a house as long as I was on holiday, but their new home had a lot more advantages for a young boy, such as myself, than their old home.
As usual, it had taken the whole day to reach Afton. I had my supper and was soon laying in bed looking forward to the adventures to come on that beautiful holiday island. The Isle of Wight was a very relaxing place to go for a holiday and the people who lived there were so friendly. There were green rolling downs to walk over, miles of beaches, and plenty of things to see and do to help the holiday-maker forget work for a while.
On the northern side of this diamond-shaped island the land sloped down to the Solent. On the southern side were miles of high chalk cliffs with empty coves and beaches below and the English Channel beyond. To me, it was just as if the island had been tilted over like a listing ship. There wasn’t far you could go without going up or down a hill and there was very little industry. Some of the places had funny names. I remember that Auntie Eun said they had “Cowes, you can’t milk, Newport, you can’t bottle, Freshwater, you can’t drink, Needles, you can’t thread, and Ryde, where you walk.” Years later I’d recall her words when I’d see post cards with the same written on them.
Auntie Eun had a very stern, no nonsense look about her and could fix me with an iron-hard stare that I was a bit frightened of at first. But I soon got used to her little ‘joke’ and would try and imitate the stare back at her and we’d laugh at the fun of it. She only ever got cross with me once and I’d realise the difference between her playful stare and the real thing. She was a beautiful person and I grew very fond of her.
Uncle Bob had no icy stare. There was always a very friendly twinkle in his eye and I always felt that he was discussing some mischief when he chatted to me. He spoke very fast and seemed to laugh all the time. He took a genuine interest in what I’d been doing each day and would chuckle away happily when I told him of my day’s play or what I’d done at school. He also, was a beautiful person and I never did see him get cross.
They were both probably in their late fifties at that time. After I’d been there a couple of days, they asked me to call them ‘Nan’ and ‘Granddad’. Well, I only had one Nan and Granddad as far as I was concerned and it went right against my grain to use these titles on someone else. But they were so much like my own grandparents that I gave them their wish. It was little price to pay for their hospitality and love, although, I did feel a bit of a traitor to my own grandparents at the time. I soon settled in, treated as a son by this good, honest, down to earth couple.
The next day after my arrival, we were all up early. Uncle Bob had to go to work and Auntie Eun and I went to see Nan onto the ferry at Yarmouth as she started her trip home. After Nan had gone, Auntie Eun and I went to Freshwater for some shopping to take home with us to the little cottage at Afton.
It was a charming little place called ‘The Dell’. That first afternoon was spent exploring my new home and the garden. There was no electricity, oil lamps and candles were the only lighting at night time. The wireless was powered by accumulators, only important programs, like The Archers, Mrs. Dale’s Diary, and the news, were switched on. There was no bath and every night we’d go through the ritual of filling a tin tub from the copper and squatting in it while we made the effort of washing off the day’s dust and grime. The toilet was a large bucket placed in a wooden box. There was a hole in the lid of the wooden box and the bucket was placed below this hole. This toilet was in a shed down the side of the garden and we had to use a torch at night to find our way there and back. The bucket was emptied every so often by the local council. There were three very cosy bedrooms upstairs, and below, on the ground floor, was a scullery and washing room, a living room, and Auntie Eun’s special room.
This special room had glass fronted cupboards all around the walls that were full of antiques. There were ornate jugs and vases, beautiful tea and dinner sets, many souvenirs and nick-knacks, and a lot of silverware. Auntie Eun was a royalist to the core and she had plenty of jubilee and coronation plates and cups. Pride of place went to a miniature coach and horses set, that was a replica of the set used in the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the second. The room was locked at all times but Auntie Eun would give me the key and let me go in and look at her wonderful collection when I felt like it.
Uncle Bob also had a special room. It was the end bedroom above the scullery. His special room was full of first world war souvenirs. After I’d been there a couple of days, he took me up to this room and unlocked the door. I couldn’t believe my eyes at the sight of his collection. There were uniforms, helmets, belts, rifles, handguns, bayonets, badges and medals, binoculars, and a drum (that he said he used to play when he’d been in the army). As we stood there, my eyes popping out of my head, he told me that he’d brought me into the room so as I wouldn’t be curious as to what lay behind the locked door. He went on to explain that many of the items in the room were very dangerous and that on no account must I ever go in there. I told him that I understood (which I did) and he looked at me with that twinkle in his eye saying that he knew he could trust me not to do anything silly regarding his room. He let me handle some of the weapons, showed me his medals, gave me a go with the drum, and I had a peep through a pair of his binoculars. Then we went out and he locked the door. I knew where the keys were to both of these rooms and they were not hidden from me. I never went into Auntie Eun’s room without her permission and never did go into Uncle Bob’s room again. They trusted me and I didn’t break that trust, although I’d be left on my own in the house many times.
There were other things there, I discovered that first afternoon, that soon made me forget about the two rooms. With their little blind dog running behind me and bumping into the back of my legs, I walked out into the garden. There was a large chicken run at the side of the garden with plenty of chickens and ducks along with half a dozen noisy, bad-tempered geese. It became one of my favourite jobs to go and find all the eggs in this run and Auntie Eun gave me a special board to hold in front of my body so as the geese wouldn’t get me. At first I was frightened of the geese, they’d come running towards us, wings flapping and head low, honking and hissing. But I soon got used to them and as long as I had the board, we were all good friends.
The chicken run had what I thought was a pond at the far end and I wandered down there for a look at it. But it wasn’t a pond, it was a small stream running through the whole length of the garden. It was about two metres wide and twenty centimetres deep. Auntie Eun called that stream ‘The Brook’ and I thought it was a great place to play. If I went missing, the first place that they looked for me was down at the brook. It was only about fifty metres from the house and I would spend hours and hours down there without any worries.
Over the other side of the brook was a small wood. We referred to this as ‘The Copse’. It had many plants and bushes that I’d never seen up to that time and it looked like what I’d expected a jungle to look like. It was mysteriously quiet in the copse and I would creep amongst the trees as if I was the Great White Hunter himself, expecting wild animals to appear from behind every bush. There was a large fallen tree with branches still on it in a clearing between the brook and the copse, this became my ‘pirate ship’.
Across the road from the cottage was a farm and I wandered into the yard a few times to look at the animals. .
Over the back fence was a large field and, for some reason, Auntie Eun called this ‘The Park’. This park also became part of my playing area.
There was another playing area just up the road that I often wandered along to for a change. This was called ‘The Causeway’ and was a causeway and bridge that crossed over the River Yar just below the back of Freshwater church. Being a tidal river, the river offered plenty of scope for a young lad interested in learning about river life amongst the mud-flats. Only once did I wander away without permission. Auntie Eun took me to plenty of places so I was well satisfied that I was getting to see new sights.
Each morning I’d waken to the early sounds of the cocks crowing, the geese honking, the birds singing, and the cows over at the farm bellowing. I’d go down and have breakfast then, if I didn’t have to go to school, the day was my own unless I was going out with Auntie Eun. I was never asked to do anything but I soon volunteered and helped out with the daily jobs of keeping the oil lamps filled and polished, collecting the eggs, emptying the ash pans and lighting the fires, watering the garden, making my bed, and occasionally washing up the dishes. I managed most of these jobs before I went to school or out to play and the watering was always done in the evening, after tea. Uncle Bob’s watering can was quite large and very heavy once it was filled with water, my arms used to ache as I held it over the plants while I watered them.
The nearest shops were at Freshwater and it was but ten minutes ride to do an errand to these shops on my bike. These jobs were small returns for the way that I was waited on hand and foot, and some of the trips I was taken on.
Auntie Eun also used to buy me a ‘Superman’ comic every week. On the days that I received my ‘Superman’ comics, I’d go to bed early and read them by the light of my little oil lamp. Another diversion was a newspaper called ‘The News Chronicle’ and I started reading the items that interested me each day in this paper. After a while, they changed papers and started getting the ‘Daily Mirror’. I started to follow a comic strip about a muscle-man called ‘Garth’ and would look forward to each day when I could get my hands. on that paper and see how he was progressing in his adventures.
They had two dogs. One was a little ‘Jack Russell’ type dog and was completely blind. This dog took to me straight away. We became good mates, and I’d feel so sorry for him when he walked into something. He’d come down to the brook and lay for hours while I played. The other dog was an old Collie working dog from the days when Uncle Bob was a shepherd. It was a very obedient dog and would have nothing to do with anyone else except Uncle Bob. Having given up his job as a shepherd, Uncle Bob was then working for a Freshwater-based coal delivery firm called ‘Honour and Jefferies’. His son, Bert, also worked for the same company. Auntie Eun did domestic work for a lady in Freshwater six mornings a week.
But, back to that first afternoon after the day of my arrival. I hadn’t been eating too well at home and Mum couldn’t make me eat any vegetables at all. I just felt sick at the sight of them. That first afternoon Auntie Eun called me away from my exploration trip of the garden to say that dinner was ready and I went indoors and sat down. When I saw the mountain of potatoes, cabbage, brussels, carrots, and meat that was piled up on my plate, I felt terrible. I sat there very crestfallen.
Mum had obviously written to Auntie Eun about this problem for she put a bottle of sauce beside my plate, fixed me with her iron-hard stare and told me that she didn’t care if I used the whole bottle of sauce as long as I finished the meal. She suggested that I mash the vegetables up and put sauce all over them (I hate biting through the stalks of cabbage, etc. even to this day). I tried doing as she’d suggested. Soon my plate was empty and I’d thoroughly enjoyed the meal. Auntie Eun had found a way to make me eat my vegetables and I never looked back although, there are still some that I can’t stand the taste of even if they are swimming in sauce, mainly parsnips, garden peas, and onions. But I enjoy most of the others and was soon eating them without sauce.
That evening, Auntie Eun took me to Bert and Doll’s (Uncle Bert and Auntie Doll to me at the time) home for a visit. (Bert was one of their sons, Jim was the other.) They’d been looking forward to meeting me again and I was made very welcome. It was good to see their children, Sheila, Rodney, and Michael, again. We all exchanged visits quite often while I was there on the island.
For the first few days I didn’t have to go to school. Uncle Bob said it was a ‘settling in’ period. I explored the area a bit more thorough, went on visits to other relations on the island with Auntie Eun and generally got the feel of things in that new environment.
I’d only been there a couple of days when Auntie Eun took me up on Tennyson's Downs, just west of Freshwater Bay, to watch the life-boat men practice their rescue techniques.
It was a cool day as we set off on our cycles and rode down to the bay. Leaving the bikes at a friend's house, we toiled up the hill until we reached a group of men setting up their gear at the edge of the cliffs on one side of a small cove. Some men were on the top of the cliffs on the other side of the cove. Auntie Eun wouldn’t let me go too close but, I could see the sea below the cliffs on the other side of the cove and it looked a long way down to me.
The men had a large tripod type frame set up on both sides of the cove and we hadn’t been there a few minutes when there was a ‘whooshing’ sound as a rocket snaked across the gap between the two groups of men, taking with it a very thin string line. The rocket vanished over a ridge behind the men on the other side and the line dropped down to them. They grabbed the line and started hauling it towards them. The men on our side had tied a heavier line of rope onto the thin line and it was hauled across the gap by the far group. In this way, the system was set up until there were two flimsy looking ropes across the gap at the mouth of the cove (looking like two strands of cotton to me). The distance must have been at least eighty metres.
Watching with excited interest, I saw a man on the other side fit a round thing to one of the ropes then pull it up around him like a pair of shorts. Suddenly, he just walked off the edge of the cliff. My heart missed a beat as I saw the rope go tight with the weight of him dangling on it. I was struck with terror at the thought of doing such a thing and yet, it did look so exciting.
The man slid quite easily down to the lowest point in the crossing then the men on our side took over and started pulling him towards them using the handline. As he came closer, I saw that he was suspended below the main rope in a life-buoy with, what looked like, a pair of canvas shorts fitted to the lower rim. The man was sitting in the shorts with the life-buoy around his chest. Auntie Eun explained that this was the breeches-buoy rescue technique for getting people off sinking ships. I was very impressed. I was also sure that nothing that I could ever wish for would get me to do such a dangerous looking exercise. He was a brave man as far as I was concerned and I looked at those men who risk their lives for others in a much different light.
As Auntie Eun and I walked back down to the bay. I wondered to myself why I was so scared of being near the edge of those cliffs and going across the rope when those men seemed to think nothing of it. It made we suddenly realise that I was frightened of so many things. I didn’t like heights or enclosed spaces, I was scared of most wild animals, I was almost a pure coward when it came to being bullied, I hated the thought of going to war and being shot at, I couldn’t stand the idea of going into a jungle and, worst of all, I was absolutely terrified of being. near deep water.
It was all so different when I played at being the ‘hero’ and crept through the ‘jungle’ looking for game that I knew wasn’t there (hopefully), dived into the raging sea to save my drowning crew (I couldn’t even swim), or took on an army to keep my freedom (I’d never even fired a shot). But the real thing made me quake in my shoes. As we rode our bikes up to Afton I shamefully resigned myself to being a coward for life.
I soon forgot my despair and started to concentrate on more immediate matters. The little ‘settling in’ period ended and Auntie Eun told me I’d have to start school at Freshwater the following Monday. She had already pointed the school out to me on the way to Bert and Doll’s house so I knew where it was. But I wasn’t at all happy at the thought of going alone, on that first morning, to a strange school where I knew none of the other children. Neither Auntie Eun nor Uncle Bob could go with me as they had to go to work. I was very apprehensive at the thought of the coming Monday.
But, as usual, things worked out all right on the day. I rode my cycle there and parked it in the cycle shed. As I turned to look at all the strange faces in the playground, I saw Sheila (Bert and Doll’s daughter) coming over with some friends. It wasn’t long before they had taken me to the headmistress and she was introducing me to the master of my new class room.
Miss Hammett was the name of the headmistress, if I remember right. She was a very pleasant woman and I quite liked her although she could be stern at the right times. She must have liked to hear us sing as that’s what I remember her most for. I learned a number of new songs while I was attending that school and it always seemed that she was out in front directing us.
The master of my class was Mr. Canal and I remember him for (of all things) the black hairs he had on the back of his fingers. He was a good teacher and I liked the friendly way he went about his job.
Needless to say, I quickly made a whole lot of new friends and became very happy at that school. I didn’t see any bullying or fights while I was there and I’d only land up in one spot of bother with Miss Hammet. But more of that later.
Mum had attended this school when she was a young girl and I recall that it felt funny going to 'Mum’s' school. I tried to imagine her playing in the playground with her friends but, it was hard as she always seemed so grown up to me.
On the very first week that I started at the school, I had an accident on my bike. It happened as I was riding home one afternoon. My foot slipped backwards off the pedal and somehow went into the back wheel as I lost control. My shoe was ripped off and an agonising pain shot up my leg as the bike and I collapsed and skidded across the road. A couple of people ran over and helped me to get my leg out of the wheel. That wheel was a sorry sight, it had buckled badly and most of the spokes were badly bent. It wouldn’t turn in the frame at all. Blood was seeping out from behind my torn sock where my ankle had been badly gashed and I had grazes on my back and elbows.
I didn’t know how Auntie Eun would take this so, forgetting about the pain, I hoisted the bike on my shoulder, thanked the people for their help and staggered towards home prepared for the worst. The cycle was heavy and soon I had to push it along the road on it’s front wheel while holding the rear wheel off the ground. In this manner I reached Afton.
As I limped up the garden path, Auntie Eun came running out with such a worried look on her face that I thought I was really for it. But it was a look of genuine concern and she rushed me indoors where she tended my cuts and grazes while I told my story. Just like Mum would have done, she lavished me with care and in a few days I was none the worse.
Uncle Bob bought a new rim and spokes for the wheel and I was very pleased to be able to show him how I could re-build the wheel again, using the three-speed from the old one. It wasn’t long before I was out riding again.
I was kept home from school for a few days while my cuts healed and, on one of the mornings, Auntie Eun took me to her place of work. The lady who she worked for was a kindly old soul and I had plenty of lemonade and cakes while I was there. She asked me if I’d like to do a bit of work for her. I’d never worked for anyone before and it sounded very grown up. It was agreed that I would go in the following day, if my cut ankle was up to it, and tidy up some bottles that were laying around her garden.
The next morning, I was led out into the back garden by the old lady and nearly fainted at the sight of hundreds of bottles scattered about in the undergrowth, across the overgrown lawn and around her out-house. The lady gave me a great big wooden wheelbarrow and left me to it. The job took me two whole mornings to complete. All the bottles had to be sorted and I filled dozens of milk-crates, boxes, and bags as I systematically worked round the garden. There were bottles of all different shapes and sizes that must have been there for years because I had to dig a lot of them out from amongst the undergrowth and weeds. When the job wad done, there was a mountain of bottles, packed in the crates, boxes, and bags, along the side of the house ready to be carted away.
The lady was very pleased that her garden. was, at last, free of the bottles and she gave me two shillings and sixpence for my efforts. I had done well at my first ‘job of work’. Although it had been hard, I’d earned half a crown and plenty of lemonade and cakes. Working wasn’t so bad after all, I had thought to myself.
All too soon I was back at school again. I’d become very friendly with a young lad named Barry Deakin. who lived near Freshwater church. On weekends and school holidays we’d often ride off in search of adventure together.
Our favourite place was an old fort that jutted out into the sea just east of Colwell Bay. I think it had been built during the war (WW1?) to help protect the western entrance to the Solent. It was a perfect 'playground' for us young explorers.
The first time we went there I couldn’t believe my luck at having such a wonderful place to explore. We climbed through a broken door and investigated all the lower rooms and the old empty magazines. It was very gloomy in those rooms and, although we hunted in every nook and cranny, we could find no way of getting to the upper stories. But, we had seen an ammunition hoist in the wall of each magazine and had looked up the long shafts at the sky above.
The hoists were two endless chains with racks between and a cradle on each rack for a shell. Using this hoist, the shells could be put into the cradles at the magazines and sent up to the top of the fort where the guns were. The cradles would turn over the top sprockets, come down the back of the shaft upside down then turn the right way up at the bottom sprockets ready for the next shells. These hoists were the only way we could find to get up to the business part of the fort.
Barry set off, climbing in between two of the frames and working his way up the centre of the hoist using the frames at the back and front as steps. I followed with the thought in my mind that we’d be mincemeat if the hoist started up while we were inside it. The shaft became pitch black inside as we left the gloomy magazine below and we had to feel our way up for a while until we could see by the light that filtered down from above. I wasn’t very happy, as usual, about being in the dark confines of such a place and hoped it would be worth my efforts and fears.
Barry had already climbed out from the hoist by the time I reached the top of the shaft. I could hear his excited voice telling me to hurry and look at the view. I scrambled out from between. the frames at the top opening and stood up. The first thing I noticed was the sound of the sea again after the silence of the shaft. Barry was kneeling beside a low wall looking over the edge. We were on the gun platform at the top of the fort and could see for miles.
I knelt beside Barry and looked over the wall, then pulled back very quickly as I saw the sickening, sheer drop to the sea below. More cautiously, I peered down again keeping low behind the little wall and not leaning too hard against it. I became fascinated by the height and the feeling of being in such an exposed position. It all felt very, very daring to me.
The view of the western end of the Solent was quite spectacular from the top of that old fort. We could look down on the yachts and ships, and see the mainland opposite for miles in each direction. It was a warm day with a nice sun shining through the scattered clouds. Barry and I sat up there for a while, quite content to look at the sights all around. Finally, we poked around the ammunition. lockers and rooms up there, had one more glance at the sea below then climbed back down the hoist.
There was a jetty beside the fort and we played on it for a while, but it wasn’t much fun after being up on the fort. We wandered back along to the beautiful golden sands of Colwell beach. The waves were mere ripples and we could see the sandy bottom through the clear water.
Barry said he was going for a paddle. Off came his shoes and socks in a flash and he was splashing into the water even before he’d rolled his shorts up. I stood on the beach while he shouted at me to come and join him. Finally, I had to confess my fear of water. He was a good sport and he never did say anymore about it, but I’d see him swim like a fish later and wish that I could be like him.
up that day.
A couple of weekends later we went down to Freshwater Bay. There was no fort or golden sands at this beach. But, there was a pebble beach, plenty of rock pools, and cliffs at each end of the bay. The first thing that I wanted to do was walk to the top of the cliffs. After the struggle up, I found that I didn’t like being too near the crumbling edge and we soon came back down again. We played around throwing pebbles into the waves on the beach then met some other children from our school. It wasn’t long before I had my shoes and socks off and was paddling among the rock pools with the rest of them looking for crabs and shells.
Somebody said that we should go swimming. I’d been getting very confident while we were paddling around the rock pools and I was quite determined to make the effort to get in the water with this group. I thought that if they could do it (and some were younger and smaller than I was) then so could I. We all arranged to meet back there that afternoon with our bathing costumes. Barry went home to get his bathers and I raced back to Afton for mine. But Auntie Eun refused to let me go swimming as the weather was too cold. I was disappointed but she was right, it was cold and I hadn’t thought of that. I met the others that afternoon but only a couple went near the water and they didn’t swim.
I’d really felt a determination to make myself get into the sea that day while I was with those other children, but I soon reverted back to my old cowardly ways. Barry and I did some good things together and our weekends were always full except for the couple of hours on Sunday when I went to church.
Most Sundays that I was on the island I went to church at Totland, not far from Freshwater. The Catholic church was very large compared to the little church we attended at home. I’d abandon whatever I was doing, wash and change, race to Totland for the midday service, race back to Afton after the service and help demolish the Sunday roast, then I’d change into my old clothes again ready for whatever the afternoon offered. I enjoyed going to that church.
Auntie Eun had a friend who lived in some cottages just over the road at Afton. She was a nice lady to me and I liked her at first. She never failed to buy me a bag of sweets each week. She and her husband often told me that, if they had the chance, they would like to adopt me as they thought that I was ‘such a nice boy’. No doubt my Mum would have told them the truth about the real me. Auntie Eun had a nickname for this lady, she called her ‘Nitten’, and I will use that name in this story.
Not long after I arrived, Auntie Eun and I were sitting at the table when we spied Nitten coming through the front gate. Auntie Eun told me to keep quiet and follow her. We crept upstairs and peeped out of the bedroom window. Auntie Eun said that she often played this game with Nitten, although it cost them a lot of fruit and vegetables. I didn’t understand what she meant but she said that I’d soon see.
Nitten vanished from our sight as she went along the front of the house and soon we could hear her banging on the front door. I started to giggle. Nitten called out and banged the door again. I was having a real job trying to stifle my laughter, especially as Auntie Eun had also started laughing. Then we heard the back door being hammered. I went into a fit of laughter and the tears rolled down my face. I actually thought we were playing a game with Nitten and Auntie Eun would go down and let her in.
But, I was wrong, Nitten appeared again as she walked back down the path and Auntie Eun told me to keep quiet and watch. The miserable woman looked furtively all around and, through my watery eyes, I saw her step off the path and start pinching from Uncle Bob’s garden. She had her pinafore held out with one hand aid soon it was full of barely-ready-to-eat vegetables. On the way out she pulled up a handful of spring flowers and took them for good measure.
I couldn’t believe what I saw and expected Auntie Eun to shout down and tell her off. But Auntie Eun remained calm and was still laughing when she told me that if Nitten had to stoop so low as to steal a few bits of fruit and vegetables from a friend, then she must be very short of money.
She told me that she and Uncle Bob turned a blind eye to it and that I must never let on that we knew. I would see it happen three or four times while I was there and never let on but, although I was still polite and treated Nitten and her husband as I would have normally, I’d lost all respect for them. Uncle Bob would go out in the garden and fill in the holes left by the stolen plants, as if nothing had happened. I think he must have planted extra vegetables to help compensate for having a thief for a friend. Some friend!
A while later, Nitten’s husband was beaten up in a brawl and his face looked a mess. Auntie Eun told me that he’d probably asked for it as he was very argumentative. I resolved that they’d be the last people I’d want as adoptive parents.
But I was getting on real well with Bert and Doll and their children. Sheila, Rodney, and I played quite happily together down at the brook and in the copse. One afternoon Bert asked me if I’d like to go to Newport in his coal lorry with him. Of course, I was delighted, and was up ready at the crack of dawn on the appointed day. If I remember right, the train service had just been withdrawn from the Newport to Freshwater section of the railway system. Bert and his workmates had to go over to the Newport railway coal yards, weigh out and fill all their bags of coal, load them on the lorry then bring the lot back for delivery to their customers.
It was a full day’s work for them but an adventure for me. Bert’s mate let me sit by the passenger window of the little old Bedford lorry and I watched the countryside passing by. It was a funny feeling to actually be allowed into a railway yard although I was told to keep a sharp eye out for engines and moving wagons.
For a while I watched Bert and his mate load the lorry. Parking near a wagon filled with coal, they positioned a set of giant balance scales beside the wagon door. These scales had a large pivoting scoop on one end of the balance arm, and a platform for weights on the other end. Selecting two half-hundredweight weights, Bert placed them on the scale platform and his mate filled the scoop with coal from the wagon. When the scales tipped at the right weight, Bert emptied all the coal from the scoop into a coal sack and stood it to one side. Then they repeated the process. Soon they had a dozen bags of coal standing up beside the wagon. Bert’s mate jumped down and the two of them loaded the full bags onto the lorry. Then they started on the next dozen or so bags with Bert up on the wagon and his mate filling the bags on the ground.
I had a go with the shovel but didn’t last long. I also tried to lift one of the full bags of coal. Those bags had two special lifting ‘rabbit’s ears’ each side of the opening at the top for gripping as the bag was lifted. But, I wasn’t tall or strong enough at that time. The men laughed at my puny efforts but I did manage to lift a half-hundredweight weight in each hand and it made me feel a lot better. They were not so tall and bulky as the bags of coal.
After a while, I sat and watched a little green steam engine shunting the wagons around the goods yard while Bert and his mate finished the job of loading.
When they were done there was a full layer of bags standing up on the deck of the lorry, the front ones leaning against the headboard, and almost another full layer standing up on top of them. The headboard was just high enough to take the two layers. That full load made the lorry struggle up the hills on the way home but I didn’t care, it made the trip last longer.
Finally, I was dropped off at Afton with another experience under my belt. I also thought that it would be great to drive a lorry for a living.
Auntie Eun had planned for us to spend a weekend with their other son who lived on the mainland. His name was Jim (Uncle Jim to me at the time) and he worked on a farm at Chidham, just to the east of Portsmouth. He had a wife, Em (Auntie Em to me at the time), and a son, Kenny.
We went by bus, right across the island to Ryde, hopped on the little train that took us to the end of the pier, and boarded the passenger ferry for the trip across Spithead to Portsmouth. I had fully expected to see the old paddle steamers but, they had been replaced by modern motor vessels. To me at that time, they looked very sleek. I believe that one of these vessels was named ‘Southsea’ and another was named ‘Brading’. There may have been others that I cannot now remember.
We sailed across the water while I explored every nook and cranny that Auntie Eun would let me near. Then, satisfied that I’d seen everything possible, I turned my attention to the sights as we entered Portsmouth harbour.
Portsmouth, being a naval port, had plenty of sights for young boys and I saw all different types of warships as we made our way towards the pier. We were just tying up when I looked ahead and could see a mountain of grey-painted super-structure bristling with guns, masts, and aerials.
Somebody said it was HMS Vanguard, Britain’s largest battleship. Now, that was something to write home about!
We followed the crowd off the ferry, went into Portsmouth station, and caught the green, Southern Railway electric train for the ride east along the coast. Soon we were getting off again at the small station just north of Chidham (I think the station was called ‘Nutbourne Halt’).
It was quite a long walk from the station down to the farm where Jim and his family lived. I remember that the telegraph lines used to hum where they passed over the insulators on the poles. As there was only Auntie Eun and I on that lonely road, it all seemed very eerie. Finally, we reached the farm where we were made very welcome and soon settled in.
I had a great time helping Jim and Kenny around the yard that weekend. The weather was still cool but, I soon warmed up as Kenny and I dragged bales of hay about and cleared the floors of the sheds with a hose and stiff broom. I even had a ride in a Landrover.
On the Saturday afternoon we all went into Chichester and had a look around the beautiful cathedral. Then we caught the train back to Portsmouth. We had tea in a restaurant, and went to see a show in a theatre. Then, feeling tired but contented, we caught the train back to the little station and walked down to the farm.
I recall that, while we were in that theatre, Auntie Eun leaned over and whispered to me that I wasn’t allowed to say anything out loud if I saw a naked lady on the stage. Never having ever seen a naked lady, I looked very hard. But she must have been at home with a chill that day as I saw nothing but the boring (to me) play. It turned out that Auntie Eun had read in the programme that one character would only be dressed in a leopard skin. This, to her strict way of life, was classed by Auntie Eun as naked. I’d seen the lady in the leopard skin and hadn’t given her a second glance.
It was very dark when we walked back down that lonely road to the farm and the humming of the telegraph lines sounded even more eerie. I was glad to get into the cosy warmth of the farm cottage.
Our little stay with Jim, Em, and Kenny ended and we travelled back to Afton. I looked for HMS Vanguard at Portsmouth, but it had gone. Then something happened that really caused me to be upset.
Uncle Bob had given me a naval badge with ‘Nelson and Rodney’ written around the edge and a crest in the middle. I treasured that badge and it was pinned to the lapel of my coat. As I leaned out over the rail to get a better view, I felt something on my coat snag the rail. I drew back to look and saw that precious badge drop over the side and vanish under the waves. For some reason, the loss of that badge has annoyed me ever since.
When we arrived back at Afton and I told Uncle Bob how I’d lost the badge, he didn’t get cross but told me that I’d have a lot of disappointments like that before I was through. Those wise words didn’t get my badge back.
Meanwhile, at school, a young girl had fallen ‘in love’ with me. Her name was Joyce and she followed me all around the playground and playing field, ambushed me on the way home, and tried to get me to go out with her at weekends. Very often I’d have a day off from school and go somewhere with Auntie Eun, then Joyce would come running up and fling her arms around my neck as soon as she saw me back in the playground again, much to my embarrassment. She was far too gushingly forceful for my liking and I had better things to do than worry about girls having a ‘crush’ on me.
When I was left alone by this young girl at school, I happily played with my mates. During the lunch hour Barry would go home for his dinner and I’d turn my attention to other friends. There were a group of energetic boys, a lot younger than myself, that I became friends with. I used to let these lads ‘bash me up’ and they loved the fun. They’d come rushing at me in a bunch and I’d push them aside like ninepins. But, their sheer numbers would see me gradually vanish under a pile of bodies, then I’d have to use all my strength to survive. One time, after I’d slithered out from under the pile of legs and arms, I stood and listened as first one boy, then another, shouted that he had me. The shrieks of anguish told the story of mates ‘bashing up’ mates in the mistaken thought that it was me they had. On another occasion, I was under a pile of a dozen boys or more when a young female teacher came rushing over to break up what she thought was a big fight. Upon hearing the young boy’s shouts of delight and seeing the happy looks on our faces, she stopped and was soon laughing at the sight. She told me that I must be a very good natured person to let the young nippers jump over me like that. I felt very embarrassed and was relieved to bury myself under the scrum once more. I really enjoyed the rough and tumbles I had with those young lads.
But, Barry was my best friend while I was on the island. We often played in the fort at Colwell, rode to Yarmouth to watch the ferries, or wandered along the coastline. He was a good, easy-going boy with similar interests to mine. I recall one incident when I was with Barry that would cause me to think that I was in real trouble with Auntie Eun.
One Saturday morning I’d volunteered to go into Freshwater to get some groceries for her. It was a beautiful, early summer day and, as I had the whole morning in which to do the ‘chore’, I decided to walk instead of taking my bike. As I was coming home with the bag of shopping, I thought I’d knock at Barry’s door and see if he was still going to meet me that afternoon. He answered the door, told me that the meeting was still on and decided to walk down as far as the Causeway with me for something to do.
We arrived at the Causeway and I placed the bag of shopping on the bridge parapet wall while he and I went down to the water’s edge to skim a few stones across the surface of the river. After ten minutes of this game, I thought I’d better get a move on. Telling Barry that I’d meet him later, I went up on the bridge to get the groceries and was staggered to find that they had vanished.
I couldn’t believe that I had lost Auntie Eun’s groceries and I thought that they must be around somewhere. Barry and I searched both sides of the road and each bank of the river. I ran all the way back into Freshwater in the blind hope that I might see somebody with the bag of goods, all to no avail. As it was early afternoon by that time, I had to admit defeat. With sinking heart, I left Barry and went home to face the music.
I knew that it would be no good beating about the bush and I blurted out the whole, sorry story to Auntie Eun and Uncle Bob as soon as I entered the house. Uncle Bob said nothing, but Auntie Eun asked me what efforts I’d made to find the lost groceries. I told her how Barry and I had searched all around, and how he’d carried on looking while I had run into Freshwater and back. She asked me if I’d been worried, I assured her that I had, and told her how sorry I was. Then she started to giggle and I could see that Uncle Bob was looking at me with that twinkle in his eye. I wondered how they could take it all so lightly and I felt very uncomfortable.
Auntie Eun reached behind her chair and produced the bag of groceries with a flourish. I was both astonished and relieved. How had these goods found their way home on their own? Then they told me that Nitten had followed Barry and I down to the Causeway, seen us go and play by the river, and had just picked up the bag of shopping and taken them back to Auntie Eun.
Although Auntie Eun and Uncle Bob were not really happy that she had done this, they had decided to have a game with me about losing the shopping. But, they hadn’t expected me to spend so long looking for them. As it was getting late, and fearing that I was frightened to go home without the goods, they were just getting ready to go and look for me when I turned up. Their worry and my obvious distress had cut the game very short.
They both agreed that she should have told me that she was taking the groceries. In my mind, I thought that she should have minded her own business and not interfered with other people’s things. Of course, my up-bringing wouldn’t have let me tell her that.
Secretly, I knew that it had all been my own fault and I was annoyed with myself for just leaving the groceries in the first place. I felt that I’d let Auntie Eun and Uncle Bob down. I had realised that a real thief could have come along and done exactly the same thing and the story might have ended differently. I learned my lesson and always took the shopping straight home from then on.
After that incident it became very hard for me to accept sweets from Nitten. Finally, I told Auntie Eun how I felt and why. She explained that Nitten hadn’t had very much pleasure through her life and it made her very happy to be able to give me a bag of sweets each week, she had to save hard out of the few coppers in her purse to get them. She told me that I should try and learn to be patient with other people’s ways and try to be forgiving. She suggested that I be grateful for the sweets, but more so because I was making Nitten happy by accepting them and It was good to make people happy. I can’t remember all she said but I got the feeling that Auntie Eun would be hurt, as well as Nitten, if I let my feelings be known to Nitten. So, I accepted the sweets (and enjoyed them) from then on. Both Nitten and I had a good friend in Auntie Eun.
While on the subject of the causeway again: Just on the Afton side from the Causeway (and the railway line that used to be there) was beautiful thatched cottage that my own Nan lived in. I took a picture of it in 1981 and Nan, then living in Australia, was amazed that the place was still standing.
There was another time that I was lucky not to be in trouble with Auntie Eun. Barry had gone out with his parents and I was left to my own devices one Saturday morning after Auntie Eun and Uncle Bob had gone to work. It was a strict rule (and rightly so) that I told them where I was going if I went out, so that they knew where to start looking for me if anything happened. Of course, I was only allowed to go to the place that I’d stated. On that particular day I told them that I’d be quite happy to play in the garden and away they went to work.
It was a bit of a foggy day and I could hear the fog-horn on the Needles lighthouse as I played down at the brook. Suddenly, I had a desire to see the lighthouse again. I remembered how Mum had taken us to Alum Bay on our last trip to the island and the feeling to see the place again was so strong that I just grabbed my bike and rode away.
I followed the signposts to Alum Bay and eventually I was standing on top of the cliffs. But the fog was still too thick to enable me to see the lighthouse. Leaving my bike in the car park, I went down the slippery path and walked along the pebble beach. There were already quite a few people climbing up the cliffs to get at the coloured sand with their bottles and I sat for ages watching them.
All at once, I turned around to find that the fog had cleared and I could see the Needles. I scrambled up the path again to look at the lighthouse from the top of the cliff, which was where I had first seen it from. I lay up there for a long time, just looking at the blue waters of the bay sweeping around to the point of the Needles rocks. It was so peaceful.
Finally, I looked around behind me and spied some old gun emplacements just along the cliffs on the other side of the path down to Alum Bay. They looked very interesting and soon I was happily exploring them.
Then a doubt started to creep into my mind. I found that I was getting the old nagging feeling in my stomach that I used to get when I’d leave the camp at Beech Barn and know that I’d been out too long and would be in trouble when I got home. It was an excited feeling mixed with a worried fear of apprehension, the thought that ‘what was done was done and I might as well make the most of it but I wish I hadn’t done it and, annoyance with myself for doing it’.
As I hopped on my bike and started to ride back down towards Afton, I had visions of an extremely annoyed Auntie Eun and Uncle Bob signing the police missing persons book just like Mum had had to do so many times before when I’d absconded from the camp. I looked at the sky and it seemed as if it was late afternoon. I hadn’t realised that the time had gone so quickly. Auntie Eun would have been home long ago and wouldn’t know where to look for me. Once again I felt that I’d let them down.
I swooped down into Afton and reached the cottage expecting the worst but, there was nobody home. I thought to myself that they were probably out looking for me, or down at the police station. I began to wish that they were there so as we could get it over with. No more than ten minutes later, I saw Auntie Eun coming down the hill on her cycle. I stood in the garden ready for the punishment I knew I deserved.
As she reached the gate, Auntie Eun happily waved and asked me if I’d had a good morning (or something to that effect). At first I was astounded, then suspicious, and I wondered if she was playing a game with me. I noticed that she had her work-bag on the handle-bars of her cycle. She never took that work-bag anywhere else except to work. I’d known her to ride all the way back to Afton to change bags before going to the shops. Then I thought that maybe, in her worry at finding me gone, she had forgotten to change bags. I was very wary as we walked indoors. It was then that I thought of looking at the clock to see that it was only a quarter to one, the usual time that she got home from work. I could hardly believe it, or my luck. I hadn’t been out for as long as I’d thought and had just got home by the skin of my teeth. I felt very lucky.
By the time Uncle Bob came in though, I was feeling very guilty. As we all sat down to dinner I told them what I’d done. While I related the story and explained to them how worried I’d been, I looked for signs that they were cross but, there were none. When I’d finished, Auntie Eun simply said that she was glad that I was safe and hoped I wouldn’t go off again without telling them (which I didn’t). Uncle Bob didn’t say anything until he and I were alone when he told me that he’d been young once, he understood how easy it was to get into that situation and was pleased that I’d trusted them enough to be able to tell them.
It was a good job I did, because one of Auntie Eun’s friends came to visit us that evening and told us that, having seen me at Alum Bay that morning, she’d realised that she had not visited us for a couple of weeks. As usual, honesty had paid.
Another time that I was saved by telling them of an incident occurred on another errand into Freshwater. This time on my bike. The bag full of shopping that I had just bought was hanging on one side of my handle-bars. As I left the shops and started riding out of town, I came up behind a lady who was riding her cycle slowly along the middle of the road, just to the left of the white line. Knowing that I wasn’t allowed to pass anyone on the left unless they were turning right, I slowed down. I said “Excuse me”, but the lady continued to ride in the middle of the road and didn’t even look around. The heavy bag of shopping was causing me to lose my balance and wobble all over the place at that slow speed. Then, although I didn’t like to do it, I rang my bell. Still the lady ignored me and stayed out in the middle. I looked behind to see if there were any cars coming that might have made her move over but, cars were few and far between in those days on the island. In the end, I had to take a chance. I called “Excuse me” again and rode past carefully on the left.
You’d have thought that I’d knocked her off her cycle by the way that she shouted at me for passing on the inside. I didn’t say anything else but rode on feeling justified at the action I’d taken. When I got back to Afton, I told Auntie Eun and Uncle Bob exactly what had happened during the conversation at dinner.
That evening the lady came to our house to complain about me. It turned out that she was a bit of a friend of Auntie Eun’s and had seen me out shopping with her. She’d recognised me when I passed her on the left and had decided to drop in and tell Auntie Eun that I needed some lessons on road behaviour.
I said nothing while she told them how I’d come racing through on the left hand side, giving her a terrible fright and nearly causing her to swerve into the on-coming traffic. She also said that I shouldn’t be on the roads as I was obviously unsafe, and that maybe a bit of walking might give me the incentive to learn some road manners.
I saw Auntie Eun give me a sly wink, then she put on her very stern look and asked me if this was true. Of course, she knew that I wouldn’t have come home and told her the story if it hadn’t happened that way, and Uncle Bob said later that he was always having to sound the horn of his lorry to get her to move over when he came up behind her in the street. Another thing in my favour was the fact that they knew that I was a good, considerate user of the road when on my bike (my Granddad and Jim had seen to that).
I retold the story to them just as it had happened, and it was the lady’s turn to sit in silence. Finally she started to realise that all was not going her way and she’d made a bit of a fool of herself. She eventually apologised to us all, saying that she hadn’t realised that I was trying to pass. Soon we were happily having tea and cakes and chatting together like old friends.
Of course, I was very grateful that it had turned out alright in the end. I didn’t feel any smugness that the lady had apologised to me. I hadn’t known that she even knew Auntie Eun at the time of the incident. But, I was jolly thankful that I’d told her about it during the course of our dinner conversation. It may have done some good anyway for, although I saw that lady a couple of times on the road after that, I noticed that she rode her bike more to the left, giving us all plenty of room to pass legally.
About this time, I’d started to get a bad toothache. I told Auntie Eun and she whisked me down to the dentist the next morning. Up to that time, I’d never been frightened of going to the dentist. Our dentist in Chesham was always so gentle. If anything major needed doing, he’d give me a whiff of gas and I’d wake up after it was all done. But, things would change on this occasion and I’d never trust a dentist again.
Unsuspecting, I sat in the chair and the dentist examined my teeth. He found that one of my back teeth was broken and decided to remove it. Well, I’d had teeth removed before, it was no big deal and I sat there quite relaxed.
But I wasn’t relaxed for very much longer. Suddenly he was waving a hypodermic needle under my nose and, before I could say anything he’d stabbed it into my gum. He wiggled the needle about a few times then, even as he was getting it out the nurse was handing him the extraction pliers. Without a break, he clamped the pliers on the offending tooth and started to lever it out of my gum.
It all happened so quick. One minute I was happily having my mouth examined, the next I felt as if my head was caving in. Tears almost spurted out of my eyes as he yanked the tooth from side to side. The pain in my jaw and head was tremendous and I screamed out in raw agony. The nurse was holding the top of my head against the back of the chair and, as I struggled to get away, the dentist tried pushing his elbow into my chest. The tooth refused to budge, but it felt to me that my jaw and half my head was breaking away quite easily under the force of his efforts.
Then his knee was in my chest and, using two hands on the pliers, he finally managed to rip that tooth out of my gum. My howls subsided and I sat in numbed terror, blood pouring from the toothless crater and a couple of cuts I’d received for good measure. My face was wet through with the tears that had flowed freely throughout the ordeal. The dentist was still very red-faced and panting when he told me that I could go.
I shot through the door into the waiting room like a rocket. The pain was starting to ease as Auntie Eun and I went out into the street. By the time we’d reached our bikes the pain had gone and my mouth felt dead, although the side of my face and mouth had swollen up alarmingly.
As usual, things soon healed up. My mouth was numb for the rest of the day, and a few days later I was back to normal. But, I never forgot that ordeal and my visits to the dentists would never be the same as they had been before.
As we crept towards summer it seemed that I was never indoors. I learned how to throw a arrow, in a special way, with a. piece of string. It was easy enough to make an arrow out of a straight Beech sapling and a home-made paper flight. I’d go out in the park behind the cottage, or down through the copse hunting those imaginary animals. I became a dead shot with this weapon, although I never used it when anyone else was around.
Most of the week after school I’d play in the garden
but, occasionally I’d go for a spin on my bike until
tea-time. I remember one evening when I rode down to Freshwater
bay very well.
I saw a bottle floating in the waves just near the beach. Visions of some stranded sailor putting a note into the bottle conjured up in my mind and I tried to retrieve it. But the waves were too rough for me and the bottle didn’t seem to be floating towards the beach.
I looked around and spied a real old salt of a sailor, sitting on a lobster pot beside his boat mending a net or something. I dashed over to him and asked if he thought that marooned sailors still sent notes in bottles. “Arr!” he said. “They might if they ‘ad a bottle, pencil and paper.” I thought he was sounding very enthusiastic, so I pointed the bottle out to him and suggested that it may have a note inside. “Oh, Arr!” he replied with a laugh and went back to his work. Clearly, he was too busy to help.
Not to be beaten, I asked him if I could please borrow one of his oars so that I could try and get the bottle out of the water. A gleam came into his eye, he got up and grabbed an oar saying “C’mon matey, let’s ‘ave a look at yer bottle.” Off we went together, down to the water’s edge where he walked in as far as his boots would allow and hooked the bottle out with the oar. Sadly for me, it was empty. But the old sailor laughed and said it had been an exciting bit of fun. He told me that I must not be disappointed as, one day I might find a note in a bottle and be a hero for saving someone. My imagination let fly and there were many stranded sailors ‘saved’ over the next few days.
Although I can’t recall his name now, he was a nice
old boy and I got to know him quite well in the last few weeks
that I spent on the island. He knew Uncle Bob and one day asked
him if he could take me for a trip in his rowing boat and
permission was granted. The next day I raced down to the bay and
was soon floating up and down in the swell. That first trip
didn’t seem to last long but, it was great splashing out
through the waves from the beach, having a go with the oars,
seeing the beach from the sea-ward side, and skimming back in
with the surf. Although the old sailor hadn’t asked me if I
could swim (or not), he handed me a huge, cork life-jacket anyway
(for which I was grateful) and showed me how to put it on. It
felt very daring to be so low down near the waves and so far from
the shore but, I felt safe with him and thoroughly enjoyed
myself. I thanked him very much for taking me and he promised
we’d do it again.
And we did, I went out with him a few more times and gained a lot of confidence, although I was still scared of actually getting in the water.
Meanwhile, Auntie Eun was still taking me to interesting places. We went to Blackgang Chine to see the whale. I had never seen a whale and was told that I could actually walk inside this one. With visions of ‘doing a Jonah’, we arrived and there was a skeleton of a whale whose cage of bones, indeed, I could walk inside of. Not quite what I’d expected but, exciting just the same.
The following weekend we went to Carisbrooke and Auntie Eun took me around the castle there. The castle had a deep well inside and a donkey used to get into a big wheel beside the well and turn the wheel by walking forward. This method was used to raise the bucket of water from the well. It was very deep and a light had been installed right at the bottom just above the water. When I looked down at the light, it was like looking at a single, distant planet in the blackness down below. After the donkey had raised the large bucket of water (it was really a brass-ringed, wooden barrel, not a bucket) the guide asked us to keep quiet and tipped the water back down the well. Just when I thought I’d missed the sound, there was a muffled roar as the water finally reached the water at the bottom. It seemed to take ages.
We had a bit of excitement on the way home from Carisbrooke. There was only Auntie Eun and myself upstairs on the bus and a couple of people sitting with the conductor downstairs. We were happily plodding over the downs towards Freshwater when suddenly the bell started to ring and the conductor shouted up to us to get off the bus quick. The driver screeched the bus to a halt, throwing Auntie Eun and I into a heap on the floor. But we recovered quickly and hurried to the top of the stairs where we were met by thick, billowing smoke coming up from below.
I could see the conductor through the smoke and he shouted, between coughs, for us to hurry down and get off the bus. Feeling a thrilling anticipation of adventure, I hurried down the stairs, across the rear platform, and jumped down onto the grassy verge with Auntie Eun close at my heels. The conductor urged us to run further away and soon we were looking back at the smoking bus from a decent distance.
The driver and conductor searched the bus, coughing like mad, until they found that some clothes in the luggage compartment under the stairs were on fire. The clothes, a case, and some bags of shopping came hurtling out of the smoke-filled bus, followed by the near-dead crew. The other two passengers dashed over and stamped out the smouldering clothes and soon order was restored. The case and shopping were untouched by the fire.
After the smoke had cleared away from inside the bus, we all piled in again and continued on our merry way, myself happy with the thought that I had a good story to tell my mates at school on the Monday.
Another time Auntie Eun and I walked all the way up to the top of Tennyson’s Down from Freshwater Bay. This down was named after Alfred Tennyson, the poet, and there is a tall stone cross on the summit in his memory. It was a beautiful summer’s day and, when. we reached the cross the views all around were magnificent. Auntie Eun had carried up a picnic lunch and we sat on the course grass munching away with the breeze gently cooling our hot faces. The western end of the island stretched out below us with the Solent and mainland as a backdrop. Behind us the cliffs plunged into the English Channel far below, the Channel itself vanishing into the haze.
It was a blissful way to spend an afternoon and, all too soon it seemed to me, we started making our way down. Auntie Eun took me along to see Farringford House where Tennyson once lived. Then, happily chatting, we rode slowly along the quiet roads back to Afton, myself with another memory to treasure.
But one memory that I don’t treasure is that of an event which happened at school one afternoon a few days after that picnic on the downs.
It was a short time before the afternoon playtime and I needed desperately to go to the toilet. I hung on a bit hoping to last until I could go at the break but, in the end I put my hand up and asked Mr. Canal to be excused. He told me that, as it was nearly playtime, I could wait.
Things got more and more uncomfortable over the next few minutes then finally I put my hand up and told Mr. Canal that I just had to go and he gave me grudging permission. I walked out of the classroom as normal as possible but, the urgent need made me race down the corridor (strictly against the rules), across the playground and into the toilet block.
But, just like that first trip with David all those years ago, I’d left it too late. Once again I was a real mess. My shame and annoyance knew no bounds.
Furtively, I looked out into the playground, knowing that the bell would soon be going for the break. There was nobody around so I dashed over to the cycle shed, grabbed my bike and rode away. It wasn’t long before I was at Afton, having had to stand up on the pedals all the way.
There was nobody home so I filled the old tin bath with cold water, stripped off my soiled clothes and jumped in, my shame making me overcome the initial shock of a freezing cold tub of water. Soon I was bathed, dried, and dressed in clean clothes. Then I got stuck into washing the dirty clothes. I’d just started to rinse the soap out when Auntie Eun came home. I explained what had happened while she finished the job and she told me not to worry as accidents will happen. I was very relieved.
But I wasn’t very relieved when I went to school the next morning to face the music. Mr. Canal was at his desk as I walked to my chair and sat down, not quite sure how I should handle the matter. I’d just decided to go up and have a quiet word with him when my luck gave a turn for the worse.
Miss Hammett stopped two girls in the corridor right
outside our classroom door. At that moment the classroom
‘sneak’ decided to shout out and remind Mr. Canal
that I’d absconded the previous afternoon (in my unhappy
state of mind I made a mental note to ‘fix him’, but
I soon forgot about it). Mr. Canal had obviously reported the
matter to Miss Hammett for she looked up, dismissed the girls,
and shouted at me from the door for an explanation.
Every eye in the classroom was on me as I stood up and tried to think of some way out of that situation, my face feeling as if it had turned crimson and my cheeks burning with shame.
Miss Hammett shouted again for an explanation. I couldn’t refrain from answering any longer so I told her a downright lie.
I lied that I hadn’t felt very well the previous afternoon and that I’d had pains in my body (the same symptoms that had caused me to be on the island). I went on to explain that the doctor had told me to go straight home when the pains occurred so, I’d gone home (giggles and sniggers from the other children). Miss Hammett exploded and told me that she ran the school not my doctor, and that, in future, I should ask her before I took off or I’d be severely punished. And that was the end of it as far as she was concerned.
But it wasn’t the end for me. I now had the shame of what had happened, and the shame of telling a deliberate lie to someone who had been decent to me. That evening I told Auntie Eun how I’d lied. She was very sympathetic but said that I should have asked Miss Hammett if I could have spoken to her privately, and then explained the truth. I could see her logic and knew that I’d messed things up but, it was too late then.
She said that, maybe I’d learned another lesson in life that would help me as I grew up. I hoped I had.
Auntie Eun and Uncle Bob were both royalists and, one day about that time, the three of us joined a crowd along the grass-covered, chalk dunes near Colwell Bay to watch the Queen pass up the Solent in the royal yacht, ‘Britannia’. We were up on a hill near, I think, the Bramble’s holiday camp. Soon the yacht came into view from the direction of the English Channel, accompanied by a swarm of little boats. As the yacht sailed up the Solent towards us we could hear the roar of cheering, from the people along the coast, coming closer and getting louder.
Soon the yacht was nearly level with us and we started cheering and waving along with our section of the crowd. Uncle Bob had lent me a pair of his binoculars and I could see the Queen quite easily through them. She was standing on the bridge waving back to the crowds that had gathered all along the shore and coastal hills to see her pass. Finally, we could see her no more as the yacht sailed by and we lapsed into a contented silence. The people all around us were happily chatting about the wonder of seeing their Queen. I listened to the cheering as it progressed along the coast away from us and soon it was just a murmur in the distance. Auntie Eun and Uncle Bob were thrilled that they’d seen the Queen and couldn’t stop talking about it for the next couple of days.
My life was full on the island. I hadn’t thought about how my own family was getting on back in Amersham, except to write a couple of letters or send a few post cards. But finally, something happened that caused me to write a letter of plea to Mum to get me back home.
It happened one hot Saturday afternoon. Auntie Eun and I were to meet Doll and her children, spend the afternoon at Colwell Bay, then go to the cinema at Freshwater in the evening after having tea at their place.
All went well until we were walking from Doll’s place towards Colwell. Sheila was in one of her annoying-type moods and, while walking behind me, started stepping on my heels. The front of the soles on her shoes were very hard and scraped painfully down the back of my heels. I moved to one side and she followed. I moved back and she followed me back. No matter where I went, Sheila was there behind me stabbing at my heels with her shoes.
In the end I complained to Auntie Eun but, she told me not to be such a baby. This seemed to encourage Sheila and she went for my heels with a vengeance. I looked miserably around at Auntie Eun and Doll, but they were taking no notice. Finally, I turned on Sheila and told her to jolly well leave me alone.
Well! You’d have thought that I’d taken Sheila by the throat and tried to throttle her, because Auntie Eun flew at me with a fury that I hadn’t thought her capable of. The next thing I knew was that I’d been told to go back home and stay there. I was very confused and hurt. I’d never really seen her cross, and I couldn’t understand why I was being blamed when I had been the one who was being annoyed. I suspect now that Sheila, being her first grand-daughter, was her favourite and could do no wrong in her eyes although, Auntie Eun had always been very fair with me up to that time. My stubborn temper took over and I turned around and walked back the way we’d come. Auntie Eun called me to rejoin them but I ignored her.
When I was out of sight, I stopped to examine my smarting heels. They were red raw, blood had started to seep through the skin, and they were both very painful. Seething with rage and confusion, I walked back to the little cottage, where up until then I’d been so happy, and sat down to await my fate.
I didn’t have long to wait. Auntie Eun came in a while later and she was livid. Before I could say anything, she started to hit me and my rage returned. Suddenly, I couldn’t feel the blows any more. I had a strange feeling that, as none of this had been my fault, I was somehow master of the situation. I stood up straight and solid, and everything happened as in a far-away dream. I think Auntie Eun saw this as a bit of rebellion for she gripped my left upper arm with her left hand and punched me in the back three or four times with her right fist. But I was oblivious to any pain. I just let her get on with it.
Then she’d gone into the living room and I stood there in front of the sink, gazing out of the scullery window at nothing as in a trance. My mind had gone completely blank. It was just as if I wasn’t there or anywhere. It’s very hard to explain and it was all very weird. I stood there for what could have been five minutes or five hours, then I snapped out of it when Auntie Eun told me to go to my bedroom.
Up in my room, I sat looking out of the little window and thinking about that strange sensation. My anger had completely gone and I felt so relaxed. There had been no tears and I had wondered what had happened to me downstairs in the scullery.
Then I heard the old stairs creaking as Auntie Eun came up
them. She knocked on the door and entered. I faced her, ready for
the next onslaught that I fully expected. Then I saw that her
face was red and wet with tears. She stood on the other side of
the bed and asked me if I could ever forgive her for what
Well, who was I to hold a grudge to someone who had been so good to me, and who I loved so much? I dived out of my chair and into her arms. Her tears flowed anew and she rocked back and forth while she kept saying how sorry she was.
My mind was in a whirl, how could I convince her that I still loved her in spite of one little mistake she’d made? Her crying had turned to the occasional sob when I finally suggested that she dry her eyes while I went downstairs and made us a nice cup of tea. It wasn’t long before we were happily chatting together like old times and sipping tea from our cups. But, I could see that she was still upset and wouldn’t forget what happened for a while.
I suspect that the main cause of her anger was the fact that I’d walked off and left her in front of Doll and the other children. This could have hurt her pride and she could be a very proud person at times. By the time Uncle Bob came home we were back to normal.
But, I’d felt somehow that I’d over-stayed my welcome and that night I wrote the letter, by the light of my little oil lamp, to Mum explaining what had happened and asking her to arrange for me to go home.
Letters moved quick in those days. I mailed that letter the next day, having had to ride all the way into Freshwater just to buy a stamp, due to the closer shops (near Freshwater church) being closed because it was Sunday. By the following Friday we’d received a letter back from Mum to say that Nan would be at Yarmouth on one of the Saturday afternoon ferries. I didn’t know this until I arrived home from school on the Friday afternoon. I had to at least say goodbye to Barry, so I rode to his house that evening and saw him for the last time.
On the Saturday morning Auntie Eun asked me if I’d go and tidy up my playing areas around the garden. For the last time I went down the brook and through the copse, making sure I’d left them as clear and tidy as I had found them at the start of that wonderful ‘holiday’. I’d built little wooden jetties out into the stream for my toy ferry and cars. There were poles sticking up out of the stream to show where the deep channel was, just like the real thing, and I’d built wooden quays along the edge of the stream for my big ‘ships’ (My big ships were long, flat lumps of wood).
As I collapsed all my work and tidied it all away, I wondered if I’d ever have such a great garden to play in again. My ‘pirate ship’ returned to its original state of being just a log as I took down my ‘Jolly Roger’ flag. And I went for a last walk up through the copse to ensure that I’d left no rubbish there. Soon, nobody would have ever known that I’d been in the garden.
Auntie Eun had spent the morning washing, drying, and ironing all my clothes ready for packing. We had dinner, I changed into my best clothes, Auntie Eun washed my play clothes and hung them out on the line to dry. Then we went to meet Nan.
As the bus was taking us to Yarmouth, I suddenly couldn’t wait to see Nan. I’d been in a little world of my own while on the island. There had been so much to do and so many new places to explore that I hadn’t really had time to miss anybody. But, as the bus plodded along my impatience to see Nan grew.
Then we were there. A ferry was in the slipway but we couldn’t see Nan anywhere. I looked out across the Solent and could see one of the old paddle steamers coming towards us. It was absolutely packed with passengers and was listing badly to the left. I hoped Nan wasn’t on that vessel as it looked as if it would sink at any moment.
The old paddle steamers (I remember names like ‘Sandown’ and ‘Ryde’) had been withdrawn by their operators, British Railways (Southern Region). But, for a long time they were pressed into service each summer to try and cope with the ever-increasing crowds of holiday-makers that were beginning to take advantage of a place that still retained un-crowded beaches, almost empty roads, and plenty of open space.
As the old steamer bumped against the pier, I heard my name being called and there was Nan’s face laughing down at me from amongst the crowds on the main deck. It wasn’t long before the crushing cuddles were over and we were on the packed bus going back to Freshwater.
Poor old Nan couldn’t get a word in edge-ways as I told her of all the great things I’d done on the island and how well I’d been looked after. When she did get a chance to talk, she remarked on how healthy I looked. She said that she could hardly believe that I was the same pale, scrawny boy that she had left on the island nearly four months before. We chatted happily as we walked from Freshwater to Afton and soon we were sitting indoors having a nice cup of tea and cakes.
The next morning, after my last night at that lovely cottage, Nan and I did the whole exciting (to me) journey back to Amersham. My bike went by British Railway parcel service this time, so we didn’t have to bother with it at all. Auntie Eun and Uncle Bob came to wave us off and we all had tears in our eyes. Nan and I waved to them from the top deck of the ferry until they merged in with the dwindling crowd on the pier, then I watched the shrinking island for a while with a few pangs of regret.
The island is only twenty two miles long and thirteen miles wide but, the slow bus trips and walks had made it seem vast to me at that time. I hadn’t been to all the towns and resorts there, but I’d seen and done so much thanks to Auntie Eun and Uncle Bob. I looked at the old fort at Colwell and the Needles in the distance beyond and promised myself that I would return.
I did return there many times, though I’d never set foot in the old cottage at Afton again. I returned to see Auntie Eun and Uncle Bob settled in another house closer to Freshwater. I returned to visit them after Auntie Eun had gone blind. I returned to visit Uncle Bob after Auntie Eun had died. And I returned to visit their double grave in the quiet little church yard, above the Causeway where I’d enjoyed myself so many times while being looked after by those two wonderful people.
In the summer of 1981, I returned for the last time to find that I could still walk down quiet leafy lanes and go on almost empty beaches. The little cottage at Afton had been demolished and a wooden house had been built just near the brook. As I stood there that day, I could hear the excited laughs of children and had wondered if they were racing their toy ships down the stream, or playing pirates on the old log, or stalking wild animals through the copse.
And so, back in July 1954, I arrived home to a world of music all day, bright lights at the flick of a switch, proper baths, and a toilet that wasn’t down the back garden.
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