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The Sprig part 4

I’ve mentioned Hilda before. She came to the house when Sprig was a year old as his nursemaid. Three young children was a lot for Ma to cope with and they never had much help in the house. Pa’s brother had a full set of house staff and his wife had no idea how Ma managed! Hilda would have been about 24 in 1937 and she stayed on and the whole family loved her. But those friendly American airmen – or one of them, at any rate – was her undoing and she became pregnant. So did her sister, though I don’t know exactly when or if another airman was the father. Pa and Ma looked after her and stood by her and so did her brother and sister-in-law, who took on her baby boy and her sister’s child and raised them as their own.

Meantime, young Sprig enjoyed visits to the Americans. They were not encumbered by rations, as the locals were, and they were generous. So he’d be given packets of Smiths Crisps and sweets by men who had no bad motives at all, simply were kind and missed their own sons and young brothers. He was also given a model aeroplane which he treasured for his whole life.

On the way back from bombing raids, the crew had nothing to do – except the pilot and co-pilot, of course. So one of the hobbies was making model aircraft. Tim rather thinks it should be in a museum and I don’t disagree, and we do have a local one at Flixton where the airbase was. But I can’t let it go, it’s part of my family, so it’ll be up to my children. I’ll take a picture of it for my next post.

The Sprig part 3

Later in the war, when the US joined in, there was a local American air force base. The war was very close to here in fact, there were ammunition dumps all around and it was dangerous. Ma and Sprig had, at one time, joined the older children in Derbyshire and they also spent some time in North Wales, though I don’t have an idea of the time – when it was, how long they stayed or why they came back. I mentioned the Skinners yesterday and the American air force took over part of their farm for their planes. They built concrete runways but it was soon discovered that they weren’t up to scratch, when cracks appeared. They had to add several feet more of concrete before they stabilised. In later years, the Skinners’ sons and daughter had this concrete broken up and sold for road foundations, which was considerably more lucrative than farming.

The children were Roy, Aubrey and Doreen. None of them ever married and they lived on the farm all their lives. One of the boys joined up early in the war, but he couldn’t cope with being away and was invalided home. The house is lovely, 17th Century, and had hardly been updated for years. It was well off the road and they had no mains services at all. There was a generator for basic electricity and they had their own well. After her brothers died, Doreen managed there for years on her own, just coming into town on market day. She looked a picture book old-fashioned farmer’s wife, with curly brown hair and a ruddy, apple-cheeked complexion.

There are lots of other ‘concrete roads’ in the area, from Air Force days. They’re quite potholed nowadays, after all these years of being driven over by tractors. Eloise learned to drive on some of them – she was keen to pass her driving test as quickly as possible and, after her 16th birthday, persuaded her father and me to take her out on these bumpy tracks – it wasn’t illegal as they’re not public roads. She never got out of second gear but it was excellent for learning clutch control and the dimensions of the car – as she put it, you had to know where the wheels were.

The US Air Force people were friendly, which had its good points and its less good.

The Sprig part 2

Russell and his mother had lots of anecdotes about the wartime. One, told me by Ma, was about a car journey that she and Pa were taking with a lady from Yagnub called Mrs Sidney Owles. Sidney can be a girl’s name of course, but it wasn’t here: her husband was Mr Sidney Owles. I have no idea why she was always given her full, formal title, but I suppose there were other Mrs Owlses and it was for clarity. The Owles family still has a business in Yagnub.

It must have been at a time of petrol rationing so there was a good reason for the journey. On the way home, coming along a pitch black country road with just sidelights to show the way, they were frightened by an enemy aircraft swooping down without warning. Pa switched off the lights but the pilot either knew where the main road was or had seen the thin beams. Shots raked along the road and Pa and Ma ran for it and dived into the ditch. Once there, they realised that Mrs Sidney Owles hadn’t joined them – and they thought she’d been caught in the gunfire. It was all over in seconds, the plane was on its way home and just taking potshots with the last of the ammunition. They returned to the car, reluctant to look. Mrs Sidney sat there, splendid in her fur coat. She wasn’t risking it to a ditch and would rather face Hitler.

Most things were rationed, of course, but the family kept chickens and a house cow called Molly. She was small and black – a Dexter, perhaps. The lean-to shed by the big barn is still called the black cowshed and it was where Molly lived. There’s several acres of grass on the two fields so I suppose a farmer grazed cattle there during the summer. They’re unsuitable for ploughing as they sometimes flood (much less frequently now than then, because a weir was built upriver after the war) or else they would have been used for crops. I don’t know what Molly thought about living on her own in the winter, assuming she did, nor what she thought about her calf being taken away from her at its birth. Apparently, if the cow never sees it or has a chance to feed and lick it, she doesn’t realise what has happened and isn’t upset, so it’s kinder than removing a calf after a few days. This is what Ma told me, anyway. I guess that the calf went off to the farm to be reared. The first few milkings, the colostrum, would have been sent for its first feeds. Pa and Ma never kept a pig, though a lot of country people did. They were great friends with the Skinners, over the fen and up the hill on the other side of the Roman road and Mrs Skinner would tip Ma the wink when there was any spare butter or cream. She’d phone for a chat and, of course, could never be sure the woman at the exchange wouldn’t be listening in, so they used code – something simple like a remark on the weather.

Any of you who are much younger than I am wouldn’t remember this, but you used to be put through manually to the person you were phoning. You picked up the phone and a voice said “number please?” This house was Yagnub 36 and it’s always had the same number, though of course it’s been added to several times, it’s now an eleven digit number.

The Sprig, part 1

The Sprig hardly remembered anything before the war started.  He had an elder brother and sister, but they were already at school.  He spent most of his time with his mother and his nursemaid, Hilda.  They had a dog called Button, a wire-haired Jack Russell, chickens and a cow called Molly, but what memories were of his earliest times and what came later was not clear, they merged.  It was when things became more unusual that memories were triggered to last all his life.

Austin and June started at the local school, St Mary’s in the town.  The village school was a bit rough, having more than 100 children of all ages taught together.  At home, Austin was very much the ringleader.  He was adored by his parents, being good-looking, clever … and alive.  Their first twin boys died soon after they were born.  It had been a dreadful shock as it wasn’t known that twins were expected until their premature birth and death.  Austin was healthy but, two years later, June was premature and was nursed night and day by Lily (the name comes to mind, I’m not quite sure).  When June was teething, she became feverish and, afraid for her life, Lily took a gold thimble and rubbed June’s gum until the tooth came through, when her temperature magically dropped.  A few years later, Lily married and moved to Canada.  For her 40th wedding anniversary, Russell and June sent her that gold thimble – clearly, she’d forgotten its significance as they received a slightly puzzled and perfunctory letter of thanks.

When the air raids started to come closer, Austin and June, who were at prep school by then, were evacuated.  Austin’s whole school was evacuated to Derbyshire and sisters went too, as far as I know.  At that time, Sprig stayed home with his parents.  One of his earliest memories was of riding his big tricycle in the town.  Children didn’t have bikes with stabilisers, they kept their trikes until they could manage a big bicycle.  A bomb dropped over on the Common and Sprig was bumped clean off his trike.  “I hope Mr Hitler doesn’t do that again,” he said in his solemn way.

The threat of air raids was a worry.  The front garden was dug up and an Anderson shelter installed, where little Sprig slept on his own, so he wouldn’t have to be taken out of his bed if the sirens went off.  But he was nervous, so a string was run from the front door to the shelter, which he could pull if he woke and wanted his mummy in the night.  Pulling it worked the front door knocker; the old horseshoe on the Tudor front door.  If there were an air raid, his parents would join him in the shelter.


LT and I tend to sit chatting over dinner. When he’s away, dinner takes five or ten minutes to eat but usually it’s an hour or so. It’s probably why we never watch television, that we’re too busy talking.

About the old days, tonight, both his and mine – plus Russell’s wartime boyhood too, which I came to in a roundabout way because we were talking about family businesses. At the end, Tim said I should write these things down because they’ll be lost otherwise. And I said, I have tried but it’s hard to do so: to write someone else’s story in a readable voice. You can do it for yourself but it becomes stilted when it’s about someone else, unless you are a very good writer, which I’m not – blogging is just a matter of sitting down and talking to friends – and possibly if you fictionalise it. I did start stories from Russell’s childhood, quite some time ago, but I didn’t keep it up. I should look for it and try again. He was born in 1936 so remembered the whole of the war, through a child’s eyes. I’ll have another go.

I can’t remember someone’s name tonight. I knew her better than her two brothers, but I know that they were Roy and Aubrey Skinner and I don’t remember her first name. The three of them inherited their parents’ farm and lived in the lovely old (completely unmodernised, they didn’t even have mains electricity) farmhouse all their lives. But what was her name? It’ll come to me, but it hasn’t yet.

Doreen. As soon as I said I couldn’t remember, I did. I published the post and then, immediately, remembered. Pfft, innit.

Z is nosey

A few weeks ago, we went to a day of Nadfas lectures. After lunch, Tim and I returned earlier than most people to our seats, which were in the middle of the back row of the small lecture theatre (being considerate types, we didn’t want to disturb anyone by pushing past them), so watched everyone else coming back. Ever since, I’ve been rather fixated on noses.

A woman caught my eye. She was probably a few years older than I am and very chatty and cheerful. She had a big round, plump face (and body, in fact) and was pretty but her nose, while a perfectly nice nose, didn’t quite fit her face. It was small and tip-tilted to the extent that the nostrils almost faced forward. I did wonder if she’d had a nose job at some time. If you remember the actress Susan Hampshire, she was frank about having her nose altered early in her career – I’ve never seen a picture of her before that happened, but her later nose was quite distinctive and pretty. This woman’s was not dissimilar but a bit more piggy. I’m sounding rude and I don’t mean to be, I thought it was rather charming. Anyway, it prompted me to look round at other noses and think how different they all are. I’ve been doing it ever since. I can only hope I don’t stare.

Tim arrived home today after a few days in Reading. While he’s away, my food shopping changes somewhat. Mostly, I impulse-buy vegetables. Just the sight, as well as the prospect of the taste, of lots of different veg cheers me immensely. Tim came back with more vegetables, in fact; specifically big bunches of coriander, curry leaves and a kilo of chillies. I had a kilo of jalapeños that I’d grown, which I’ve turned into relish, but while I feel enthusiastic I’d like to make some more. It’s quite an effort because every one has to be topped, de-seeded and shredded by hand, but we do love the relish so it is worth it. Most of the family like it too, so jars will be distributed. I must look for the weekend food supplement from Tim’s paper before it vanishes into the recycling bin, because there were some relish/jelly recipes that looked rather good. A smoky beetroot one (smoked paprika gives the flavour) and an apple and grape one, in particular. This Christmas, the family will receive the gift of luurve – or at any rate, their mother’s long hours slaving over a hot Aga for their gastronomic benefit.

Z still lives. And blogs!

Oh dear. I’ve almost turned into an ex-blogger and I always thought I’d be Last Blogger Standing, as far as the general chatty everyday blog is concerned. I’m too tired in the evening or else I’m talking to LT: I just don’t get to the computer. I should blog in the morning, as long as I can think of something to say when the day has hardly begun.

I’m not sure if I told you, a few weeks ago, about the painting that fell off the wall. We were having breakfast at the time and heard a ‘whump’ sound, as if a pile of newspapers had collapsed. I save newspapers for the local hedgehog rescue, so I thought that was it, but it wasn’t. A while later, Tim came in the drawing room and didn’t notice it at once but then called me through to show the disaster. A rather appealing oil painting of a Dutch river town scene had slipped its moorings, as it were, and slid down behind another piece of furniture, landing with a hard thump on the carpet.

The frame is quite badly damaged but fortunately it’s not the original one from about 1880, which had been beyond repair when Russell bought the painting some 40 years ago. The picture is jarred more than damaged – luckily, it didn’t fall forward – but needs remedial work and there’s no point in doing that unless it’s cleaned too, which is a specialist job and takes a long time. I’ve watched it being done and it takes patience and skill.

Cutting to the chase, I took it to my restorer who appraised it and then took it to the framer. And, with considerable anxiety, I phoned my insurance company. Who just said yes, get it done. Such a relief that I didn’t have to shop around for quotes and that sort of thing. It’s small change for them, but worth claiming for. I’ll tell my broker, because it’ll affect the shopping around next year, but I’m pretty sure I won’t lose overall. I haven’t claimed for anything for several years, and that was for an iPad that Russell damaged accidentally by knocking on the floor.

Anyway, I suppose the reason I don’t blog much is because not a lot happens that I haven’t mentioned many times before. And yet, there’s always something to say if one makes time to talk to friends.

Rose wanted space on the wall in her hall and asked if I could find room for the painting that’s there at present. I can’t, sadly. It’s at least 4 foot long and 3 foot high and, at ceiling height, the bottom of the frame would be at my knees. It won’t fit here and it won’t even go up the attic steps to be stored out of the way; and it’s a family heirloom so I only have it for my lifetime, I don’t own it. So I’ve had to say sorry, it’s a fixture. She’s rethinking….actually, I have had a thought and must mention it to her. Tomozz, darlings.

Z enthuses

My mother did throw fabulous parties. I’d like to think that, if someone who knew me fairly well was describing me, one of the words would be ‘enthusiastic’ and that would be spot on for both my parents. I make life easier for myself than my mother ever did, but it was a different age and, actually, one of my other descriptive words might be ‘efficient’ which would be less likely to apply to her. She’d work until she dropped and then get up early the next morning. I prioritise and dump the non-essentials, if it comes to it. But then, it depends on your definition of non-essential. Hers was rest, sleep and mine is percentage of effort compared to result.

Not that I’m knocking high expectations. I remember the weeks of preparation for parties, when the whole house – downstairs, anyway – was decorated with fabulous hand-made paper flowers or actual garlands. The food – she was never big on sweet foods, so I used to make cakes and puddings – involving hours of work on food that would outclass Masterchef even now. largely because of the time it took. Both my parents were beautiful cooks and took such care in preparation.

I’m not in the same league. However, I made some lovely stock the other day, which was turned into French onion soup this evening. I sliced the onions on the mandolin. wearing my anti-cut glove because I’m not an idiot, and then gently cooked them for at least an hour until they were nicely browned without being anywhere near burning, And then the home-made stock and the white wine were added and cooked for another hour. A long time for the simplest soup. But it was good.

Z remember, remembers

Last night, hearing fireworks being set off round the village, LT and I started to talk about various bonfire parties, whether organised ones or the back garden sort, that we’d been to over the years. He has blogged about long-ago ones in the past (link at the bottom) and I certainly have about family ones here, when they happened. Tim reminded me that we had a family party here three years ago.

Bonfire Night was never taken much notice of when I was a child, in fact. I gather that Wink, as a very small child, was chased round the kitchen garden by a Catherine Wheel that hadn’t been fasted properly to its post and my parents were put off completely: too risky. So it wasn’t until I had my own children that we did anything about it. The Sage’s father was born on 5th November – and known as Guy, which is quite odd when you think about what happens to the guy on the bonfire – so there was always a bit of a celebration here.

The firework parties that my parents held were grown-up ones and they took place in the summer. As you know from previous posts, our house Seaview was by Oulton Broad, opposite the park. The broads are the man-made lakes (made thousands of years ago) that link the rivers of Norfolk and, in this case, North Suffolk. In August, a sailing regatta is held every year, the small yacht club being at the edge of the park next to the marina. As well as all the yacht races and so on that took place on the water, there were all sorts of attractions in the park; stalls, funfair and so on and there were various evening entertainments, though I don’t know what, as we never went to them. My parents weren’t very interested in unsophisticated sorts of jollities and it never occurred to me to mind. I’m sure, if ever I’d asked, I’d have been taken along, though probably not by either of them.

Anyway, it ended over August Bank Holiday. This used to take place over the first weekend in August but changed, in the 1960s, to the last weekend. So whether the regatta changed then too or whether it had always been later in the month, I’m not sure. It was the end of the main holiday season and finished with a celebration – two of them, in fact, because for a time, there were two firework displays, on the Thursday and then – a bigger one – on the Sunday.

As our very wide garden with its Broads frontage was right opposite the park, it was an ideal place to set up the firework display. It was also a perfect opportunity for a party with built-in entertainment. Never any children of my age there – my parents’ friends were mostly my fathers’ age and, as he was over forty when I was born, they all had older children and it really wasn’t a kids’ do. But the fireworks were fantastic.

I can’t remember the name of the company, though it was the best known one at the time, but the chief firework technician’s name was Fred Faithfull and he became a friend. He and my parents exchanged Christmas cards for years and kept up with each others’ family news. Watching, from the house (we children weren’t allowed anywhere near), the displays being set up was fascinating for a curious child. There were two sets of poles with lines between, one being for the vertical strings of golden lights that I remember as Golden Rain, but surely not? The other had the set piece that ended the evening. On Thursday, it was simply Goodnight in fireworks but on the Monday, it was God Save The Queen. And as those fireworks burned down, we heard the roar of applause from the crowd on the far bank.

The fun was more than the fair and the fireworks, there were lots of boats on the water, all lit up. On Monday, there was the famous Burning of the Golden Galleon. I was told solemnly that the authorities went along the river checking for the most unkempt boat, which was commandeered and set fire to and I always worried that our old launch would be chosen. Of course, it was really a raft piled with scrap wood. It did look spectacular. It must have been secured between two boats so that it didn’t drift to somewhere it shouldn’t go, but that didn’t occur to us at the time.

They were great parties. I was more comfortable than many children of my age with grown-ups and was, in any case, quite happy to potter around handing out food and hanging out with the dogs. We went upstairs to watch the fireworks themselves, for the best view.

Z on the move

The Old Rectory must have had a huge garden originally. They’d built a new house for the Rector next door, which was a spacious five bedroom house with a wide drive, double garage and a garden, and as well as our own big garden, there had been an orchard at the bottom of the lawn which, as I said, we sold.

We bought a greenhouse where I was able to grow tomatoes, aubergines, cucumbers and melons – and had to buy another smaller one a couple of years later because you could hardly get in the door by August for the lush vegetation. I put my tomato plants in there.

As I said the other day, we were there for ten years. But after seven years, Russell’s father died and the decision was made to move to the house where I live now. Ronan was born in the meantime, the annexe was built for my mother-in-law and considerable refurbishment was done to this house. We sold the Old Rectory to people we knew – he was an antique dealer, very successful at the time, though things went badly awry for him some years later. His daughter was the same age as Ronan and they were friends.

We moved the day before Ronan’s second birthday and they invited us back a few times for tea. When they’d done all the redecorating and so on, they gave us a tour of the house. It was spectacular. Gilding, painting effects, quite remarkable. Not to our simpler taste at all, but done with love.

We did well on the sale. That sort of house was in vogue by then and we made a sizeable profit, even after the work was done here. And that was 1986 and we’ve been here ever since. I realised, earlier this year, that I’ve lived here more than half my life.

It had taken me a long time to feel that I might ever make it my home. I used to find it dark and oppressive. My in-laws’ decor had something to do with that. The walls weren’t dark but the ceilings were low and the windows had small panes and the curtains had pelmets, which cut out a lot of light. But eventually I came to love it, or I’d never have suggested moving. We enlarged the windows, got rid of the yellow gloss paint that dear Ma thought would brighten the passageway and did various alterations, with listed building planning permission, to make it more comfortable. Ma only lived in the annexe for six months and died suddenly in her bed of a heart attack.

My stepfather Wilf had a heart attack himself, not long afterwards and it was recommended that they move to a smaller house, preferably a bungalow. So we offered them the annexe and they accepted. But that’s another story in itself. Nothing is ever simple in my family.