It was late on a Friday afternoon in November 1987 at Stoke Goldington Primary School. The children had all gone home and the headmistress and her assistant were clearing up.The door opened and a tall, well-dressed man came into the room.
He ignored the two ladies and walked around the room as if in a trance. The assistant coughed and asked, "Can we help you sir?"
The tall man looked startled and then said to them. "I must apologise, you must think that I am very rude but you see that it about forty years since I last came into this room and it has brought back so many memories."
He then explained that how at the age of four, at the height of the bombing of London that he and his elder brother had been evacuated to Stoke Goldington, where they had remained for the remainder of the war. He then started to tell them some of his recollections.
After listening for some time the headmistress made a suggestion. "We have a Historical Society in the village. Would you be prepared to write this most memorable story and send it to them so that there can be a permanent record?".
The man agreed and this is the tale that he told.
Derek George (March 2002)
THE EVACUEE'S STORY
I ought to begin by explaining that anything I write down is drawn solely from childhood recollections and that I have undertaken no checking or in anyway made the least attempt at authenticating what I remember. Should I be wrong then the reader must attribute such errors to the misunderstandings of extreme youth and not to any desire to mislead.
My earliest memories are from the age of three. I was born in September, 1936 and christened in the Garrison Church, Woolwich. My father was a cornet player in the Royal Artillery Band, based in Woolwich. My mother had spent some of her earlier years in service, an experience that, perhaps, gave her pretensions to raise herself from a background of relative poverty. I had (and still have) an elder brother, Ronald, born some three years before me in 1933.
Shortly before my third birthday Britain and France declared war on Germany, leading to six years of continuous hostilities. One of my earliest recollections was of my brother dropping a thermos flask as time went down the dank steps to a smelly air-raid shelter. This shelter must have been communal because I recall being jostled by quantities of other people. He received a sound clout for is pains. I also recall playing with toy pots and pans in a Wendy House at some sort of convent.
During 1940 my mother took us to Manchester to stay with one of her few blood relations. A short northern woman of formidable aspect, she was a prime bully and I caught the full force of her wrath by stealing some dough from her cooking board and trying to make it stick to a kitchen window. It hardly seems likely that such an infant prank provoked our return but before long time were back in Woolwich. Just in time to catch the blitz.
Our house was one of a long snake of late Victorian terraced houses built up a hill and down to a price. The street lay south westwards from the river itself. I well remember being hauled out of bed one evening as three or four adjacent houses blazed from the impact of incendiary bombs, the sparks curving away into the black night with every crashing timber. The way in which the people thrashed about with buckets of water and heaved at their furniture was really exciting, but I don't remember feeling any sense of surprise at, or involvement with, their misfortune and terror. small children accept everything with equanimity.
After this close call most evenings were spent beneath the stairs where the gas and electricity meters clicked and spun. One evening was made memorable by my flushing a shiny black beetle from behind the skirting and trying to bite it in two (one of my favourite pastimes was chewing earth worms). At about this time we were taken one evening to the top of Shrewsbury Hill, a couple of hundred yards from where time lived, and being held high on someone's shoulders to witness one of the great sights of my life - the burning of London's docks.
Across the Thames from Woolwich lay the great Royal group of docks (to the right stood the Ford factory at Dagenham and to the left the Siemens cable works). The Luftwaffe had clearly enjoyed a tremendous success that evening and had blasted the place to kingdom come - the job of navigating having been simplified by the Thames estuary funnelling them to the industrial heartland of east London.
The entire river seemed to be on fire. Livid flames shone and were reflected by the expanse of reflective silver river so that the whole valley below turned into an apparent inferno. Despite my few years my brain was stamped with an indelible image. Never since have I seen anything to equal its Faustian intensity.
But to my childish eye the evening was little more than a fun occasion, more hike an especially vivid Guy Fawkes bonfire than a night of death and destruction. The most amusing episode for me came when my elder brother stooped, with great excitement, to pick up a dud object that had landed in the road. With a scream he let it go and I don't recall that he ever bothered to collect shrapnel again; at least, not without checking its temperature.
It must have been seen after this blaze that my fourth birthday came along my parents had bought me a Dinky toy, a small replica of a barrage balloon and its associated truck. I liked it well enough but my chief frustration lay in the refusal of the little lead balloon to imitate the real thing. Why wouldn't it fly? I could see all the balloons billowing above us, why not mine? It defied all my efforts to remain suspended in the air (one of the most annoying aspects of childhood is our inability to make anything work at all) but I still spent some time on the sloping tiny lawn of our limited back garden struggling with this awkward symbol of wartime life.
The next day, the l5th September, was a big day for the people of this country firstly because it subsequently came to be called Battle of Britain Day and secondly, because it was the day that my brother and I were evacuated from London our parents having decided to send us from the bombs.
I can remember many details of that day; being dressed in a smart baby blue suit, whose double breasted coat reached my knees, and whose trousers were buttoned down their lower sides to a strap under my instep. On my head sat a matching flat blue cap, with a press stud camping the peak in place. Around my neck a baby gas mask hung in a cardboard box while a label with my name on it was pinned to my lapel.
"You're going off to have tea with some nice people in the country. " I was told," Be good."
From this simple attempt at reassurance stemmed most of my inevitable doubts in, and suspicions of, people. There can be little surprise that the promise of a brief tea, the day after one's fourth birthday, which turns into a four and a half year absence, might lead to a certain lack of trust. No matter how much one attempts to rationalise, and tries to come to terms with, the reasoning behind the adult suggestion one is still left with the emotion of betrayal and it is emotions that provide the greatest force for the human pump, not logic.
Children are entirely at the mercy of their feelings. They lack the experience of life that pretends to find logical analysis so attractive. Instead they must fall back onto more basic and less contrived reasoning - you hurt me when you pretended to be kind therefore I shall be wary and less trusting in future.
Together with hundreds of other children from our part of London time were taken to Euston station and put on a train. The journey was chiefly remarkable because of the table which extended between the seats. It was on this table that my sandwiches lay. They were egg sandwiches. I liked egg sandwiches. I fell asleep. When I awoke the sandwiches were missing. My brother had eaten them. An act of treachery that was not easy to forgive. But if, when we are four, we cannot get worked up over the theft of egg sandwiches what shall we be permitted to react over - diamond rings, fur coats, women?
When the train stopped many of the children were taken to a sequence of halls and displayed, as though we were in a Roman slave market, to the gaze of interested and uninterested potential foster parents. Had the government not agreed to recompense them for their expenses there might have been even less enthusiasm from the locals.
I have no idea where these places were but I imagine they were probably in Wolverton, Newport Pagnall and nearby villages. One of the reasons for our being rejected so many times, and for having to move an to so many places, was that time were two brothers whose parents insisted should not be separated. Eventually, we were chosen by a couple from the little village of Stoke Goldington.
When we reached their home, Archway Cottage, it was still light and we sat down to tea. I can remember climbing down off the chair and going across to the door on which hung my little blue coat and stretching to reach it but failing even to touch it. I was too short and the coat was too high. Two or three years later, when reading Alice in Wonderland, I found the passage dealing when Alice's frustration at being either too tall or too short unbearably painful. I've had my tea," I declared. I 'm going home".
But I wasn't. Not until I was eight and a half would I be going home. By which time home had become Stoke Goldington and Woolwich was no more than a strange name on other people's lips.
My brother and I had been chosen by George Bull and his wife Alice. They lived in the left hand half of Archway Cottage, the other half being occupied by Mrs Bull's mother, a formidable old lady whom I knew, only as Grandma Botterill. She was small, thin and bent, like an old witch wrenched from the pages of a children's storybook. Nearly all the elderly ladies in Stoke seemed to have been cast in the same mould. They mostly wore long black dresses which hung rather disconsolately to a point just a few inches above the insteps of tightly laced, old-fashioned high black leather boots.
Mrs Bull, or Auntie Doll, as we were instructed to call her, was a large, rather red-faced countrywoman in her early forties. Although prone to plumpness she had an uncommonly small mouth with pursed lips and virtually no make-up. Her hair was pulled to the back of her head into a bun. She had few possessions. Indeed, although I did not realise it, we were about to endure a life of considerable primitiveness.
She had been married to George Bull for an indeterminate number of years and, unknown to me at the time, their small daughter had died in 1932. We were substitutes for what had been stifled in their own lives. George Bull is not so much a face in my memory now as a sensation. He must have been below medium height, prone to stoutness and with grey eyes. One eye was greyer than the other because it was made of glass. He walked with a distinct limp, having only one leg. The other had been lost at the Somme and he wore a disabled serviceman's badge in his lapel buttonhole as a matter of course. Sometimes, when I accidentally caught a glimpse of pink painted false leg above his sock, I would wonder what his stump looked like. I never found out.
In later times he often talked of the First War, but in a distant fashion as though recounting events from ancient history. As if Ajax or Hector might have had a hand in the action. He was sixteen at the time of the battle. Funnily enough I cannot be sure to which regiment he had belonged; it must have been the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry.
George Bull was not an educated man. I never saw him write anything, and it never crossed my mind that he couldn't. He took the Daily Express. Nevertheless, despite his lack of sophistication, he was a great man. He knew The countryside and taught me to look at the 'ground' in a way which has never left me.
He supplemented his war pension by shooting rabbits and selling them for half-a-crown. His chief joy was a double-barreled shotgun that he cleaned and polished with a pride which I have since noticed the poor often display in treasured possessions. It wasn't just that his income depended on it but rather that it was simply the most valuable, and valued, thing he owned.
The smell of the gun oil, as he stroked the blue metal, and the pungency of the wax, as he rubbed it into the stock with his fingers, were constant background smells in my early life. Before long no one seemed to be a complete person unless he had a shotgun car his arm and a dog by his side. In the cramped backyard of Archway Cottage stood a kennel and in the kennel, no matter the harshness of the weather, lay a large cross breed dog. His name was Jock and he became as much a part of my life as any person.
Jock was a working dog, a gun dog, and he had been trained within a hair's breadth of believable discipline. Uncle George (as time were expected to call George Bull) told us that he was crossed between a Collie and a Spaniel. Jock was brown and white with a very individual V-shaped nick cut his tongue, taken by a rat. In the mornings George and Jock would go off up the road, past the rectory, to a small allotment, behind a dry-stone wall on the other side of the road, where he grew a few vegetables and kept a few hens (or fowl as everyone in Stoke called them).
After that he tended go over the hills, towards Ravenstone, where he would stand very quietly, his dog by his side, and wait for the rabbits to appear before despatching them to their bunny heaven. Sometimes he came back with stoats and weasels, but most often George would arrive home with four or five rabbits their plaited hind legs looped on a piece of string. He would hang them just to one side of the kitchen window, adjacent to the dustbin and at get down to his work. Slowly he would take out his pearl handled clasp knife and slit open The rabbit's warm furry underbelly before putting in his hand and gently easing out its steaming intestines and giblets. The damp, slightly unpleasant, smell haunts me still.
We lived on rabbit. We had rabbit stew and rabbit pie until I reached the point where I never wanted to eat rabbit again (Nor have I). But at least, although I did not appreciate it at the time, compared to the people in the towns we lived very well. We always had fresh food. Eggs were stored in buckets of liquid 'glass' and potatoes were sheltered beneath quantities of straw and sacking. milk was always fresh and brought to the house in churns and ladled out in different sized cylindrical measures. There were no bottles. People held out jugs.
Butter was unsalted and bacon came from local pigs slaughtered in the village. Indeed, a pig slaughtering seemed to be a bit of a communal event. The school room, in which I had my lessons while in Stoke backed onto Two Nicholls' farm (I never knew and still don't know why he was called Two, and whether it was spelled that way or another) so that at slaughtering time our lessons were interupted.
The scream of the assaulted porker, and the gibberings of his various relatives, used to howl across the playground and through the classroom windows and make the girls cover their ears while the tough little boys giggled and made throat cutting gestures at each other. The grown-ups saw it all very differently. Indeed everybody seemed to end up with a bit of pig. There was lard, back and gammon. I remember Aunt Doll coming home with a huge galvanised steel dish thick with pig fat.
She was to forever telling us that we needed fat to keep us warm. Our breakfasts registered on The John Ridd scale of over-eating. No one left home without fried bacon, eggs, fried bread, tomatos and mushrooms (the latter picked from the fields). Mushrooms were huge, plate-sized things which went black and oozed the most amazing, ripe juices when cooked. The idea of a twee continental breakfast had no place in Stoke. It would have been laughed to scorn as being nothing but an alien trip down a gentle path leading nowhere but to foreign-ness, alienation and influenza.
Aunt Doll may well have been right for the winters were certainly bitter. Although Archway Cottage was small (don't forget at the time, we lived in only half of what's one house now). The wind whistled ferociously through the central arch (which gave the cottage its name) and nipped the fingers and hands in a way I have never suffered since.
The kitchen was heated by a cast iron, coal burning range. This blackened casting stretched along the wall furthest from the door and gave of considerable heat. Every now and then Auntie Doll attacked it with black lead and fiercely brushed its grimy teeth into glistening splendour. Black leading was as much a part of the housewives life as whitening doorsteps. Apart from providing extermely hot surfaces for boiling the kettle, or cooking vegetables, the range also incorporated an oven fan roasting.
On Sundays we always had roast lamb, pork or beef. I used to watch her, fascinated by her skill, as she walked about the kitchen with a large mixing bowl clamped to her large and mobile chest beating away with a wooden spoon at the batter of a Yorkshire pudding. All her frustrations were released in the sloppy liquid as she strove to fill it with air. Her Yorkshire pudding was the purest ambrosia.
She poured the mixture into the fizzing roasting pan so that the cooked beef was lifted from a ring of autumnal coloured pudding which itself dripped with golden fat. Auntie Doll was a fine cook. One of her great delights was to make an old fashioned suet pudding. Sometimes it was simply wrapped in a cloth, sometimes in a basin. Unlike modern cooks she did not place it timidly in a pan of water but settled it at the bottom of the large copper that was bricked into the corner of the kitchen to the left of the range.
This copper had a fireplace underneath so that, once a week, she would full it with sheets and shirts and boil the whole lot for as long as she fancied. A circular wooden lid more-or-less fitted the top but the enameled kitchen walls still dripped with moisture whenever Monday came round. Afterwards she would crush the clothes with considerable violence between the wooden rollers of a huge iron mangle in the outside archway, before hanging the clothes on a line in the yard.
I must admit to enjoying her puddings. They were always made with suet. Sometimes they contained bacon and onion (when they took an the appearance of unhealthy blisters wrapped in bandages) and sometimes they dripped syrup an marmalade. Whatever their contents they smelt of dampness and tasted of heaven.
But life did not consist always of joints of beef and fine puddings. Mostly it was made up of scraps, fried on beaten into submission. The village butcher (who also docked puppies' tails with his chopper) had a ready line in faggots and I often found these soggy lumps lying in a sea of gravy when I got home. Because the war was at its height we rarely had tinned vegetables, which meant that our diet was conditioned by the seasons.
One particular curiosity was pea soup. The truth is that it was not soup at all but no more than water in which the peas had been boiled poured into a cup. ( It doesn't work with frozen peas). Auntie Doll did her best to give me (for my brother, being nearly four years older, was soon sent off to school during the day to Newport Pagnell) a sweet at lunchtime.
The trouble was that it was invariably made of tapioca, rice or worst of all, Creamola. This insipid stuff came from a packet and, was mixed with water or milk produced something closely resembling wallpaper pasta, both in looks and texture. Years later I discovered that Creamola was of Scottish origin and was widely considered to be the lowest of the low amongst packet potions for the poverty stricken.
A table covered with American Cloth, and some simple Windsor chairs was the only furniture in the kitchen. Very occasionally we were allowed to arrange the chairs in such way that my brother became convinced that time was flying a Lancaster and dropping bombs an Germans.
Beneath the kitchen's only window, which opened on to the back yard, stood a shallow earthenware sink. Above it a cold water tap jutted from the wall. The wooden draining board was clipped to the left of the sink. Auntie Doll (and the entire village for all I knew) was hell-bent on avoiding waste. Even bits of old soap were saved to be swirled about in the washing-up water inside a small metal basket on the end of a handle. Outside the window a large square metal tank gathered rainwater from the roof gutters although I don't think I even saw it put to any use. There was no running hot water and no central heating.
At the bottom of the yard stood the privy. I say privy because I cannot properly suggest a better euphemism for one of the great shock horrors of the middle twentieth century. My mother, when she visited us, could never come to terms with it. Behind a loosely fitting door, and against the back wall, a two feet long, wooden plank lay jammed between the narrow walls. In the middle was a hole and beneath the hole was an ordinary galvanised bucket with smeared copies of recent newspapers plastered to its sticky insides.
Once a week a character called Charley would call with his cart, ironically known as his scent cart, and trot with the buckets through the archway and into the street before heaving their noxious contents into the boiling liquid mess of corporate filth slapping in his cart. His horse's head hung lower than any other's. Charley (who was a vigorous member of The Church Choir) spread his accumulated deposits across the fields some distance from the village. If one was incautious enough it was possible, even after several weeks, to read the headlines poking from the greening grass.
One of The great, but occasional, treats in my young life was to go to Northampton to visit Auntie Doll's sister's house that had a flushing lavatory. How amazed I was. Where did it go? Why didn't it come back ? What a waste it might have improved the vegetables if properly handled.
Aunt Doll's front room had a table and four chairs, a couple of armchairs and a cabinet with a radio on it. I also remember a tall cupboard of some sort with a stuffed black cat, with arching back and stiff legs, glaring red-eyed from its top. The fireplace place had an oven but it was used only for drying out firewood, never for cooking. This room was used every evening. George would listen to the radio and smoke his Players cigarettes, while Doll did her darning. She was forever patching and saving bits of old clothes. The thought of throwing something away while it might still have a purpose was anathema to her.
George often made extended chains from the circular Players' trade marks' cut from his cigarette packets. Ha linked them together, by some sort of looping. Over months these chains became quite long. He smoked a lot. But everyone smoked in the 194O's. A non-smoker was a rarity. George also made us little tractors out of cotton reels, rubber bands, matchsticks and cross-sections of candle (years later I did the same for my own children).
Our pleasures were innocent and few. The war was at its height and there were few toys, even for the children of the rich. For the poor there was none. My birthdays were keenly anticipated, as was Christmas but the presents were, in retrospect, mean and inadequate. It was only when I saw a copy of a pre-war Meccano Magazine, some years later, with its advertisements for wondrous trains and games, that I realised what wonders had been denied me, and how our lives had been hemmed in and reduced (on, some romantics might say, extended and raised) by poverty. We knew no different. We were like pit ponies denied the sight of something better.
In any case nobody in Stoke was wealthy or, if they were, they certainly failed to flaunt their status. I had been brainwashed into accepting my place in society. Everybody seemed to be aware of his position in the pecking order and nobody gave any sign of wishing to break The mould of comforting conformity. The village was, to all intents and purposes locked in the early l8th or, even, l7th century.
At the top of the pyramid sat the rector, a kindly man called Leachman. I still have a New Testament with his dedication to me for 'Good attendance'. He was straight out of Trollope. When during times of great tribulation for Auntie Doll, he came across from the huge rectory to sit with her, playing cards and swallowing her onion gruel, he was acting the role of the traditional pastor.
The Old Rectory
He wasn't really interested in the great events of the world. The war went on and on and I imagine he accepted that life for his parishioners would be largely untouched by its horrors. There can be little doubt that he would not have subscribed to the trendier notions of the Anglican Church today. Charity began where he was, where he found himself, and he was determined to retain a strong grip on the souls of his flock.
The vicarage sat at the heart of the village. Occasionally I went into the grounds, when no one was looking, and tried to explore the large gardens. In 1944 the stonewall which guards the grounds from the main read was moved inwards a few feet and the angle of the road adjusted to reduce the chances of accidents. This made the grounds a little smaller.
The rector must have been hard up for he ran a small prep school in the vicarage. Who these children were and where they came from, I do not know. I suppose (or 'daresay' as we would have said in Stoke Goldington) they came from the more prosperous farms and isolated big houses in the surrounding district. Certainly, as far as I know, none came from the village itself. These prep school boys always seemed too neat and 'wet' for my liking and I was always in fights with them. They nicknamed me 'energy', although I had no idea why.
Beneath the rector came the richer men of the village. I was never aware of any squire. The powerful men seemed to be called Whiting. They wore leather leggings. Most of the farmers did. I recall one called Webb, who had a little pre-war Ford with a wheel strapped to its back, whose farm was in Ravenstone. He was a friend of Uncle George's with particularly splendid leggings. By the time I was seven my ambition was to have a pair of brightly polished leather leggings and became a farmer.
The whole community was based on the land. Farming was labour intensive in those days. Indeed, in the 1940's at harvest time labourers could be seen using scythes to clear a path at the edge of fields for the grand entrance of the reaper arid binder. No wheat was allowed to be wasted by such advanced machinery crushing the first six feet of corn.
There were no combined harvesters. Instead the reaper and binder was towed into battle behind a tractor or, even, a pair of horses. The wheat to one side of the advancing team was swept against the oscillating horizontal knifes of the reaper by a whirling windmill it was then despatched into the binder where each sheaf was tied with string. A couple of men walked behind the reaper to build stooks from the sheaves.
As the binder made its progress round the field, with an ever decreasing area of standing wheat remaining, other men with guns and boys with sticks would wait until, at the last moment, dozens of rabbits would make their dash for freedom from the diminishing security of their home. As they did so the man blasted their shotguns and the boys chased about among the yapping dogs swinging their clubs and braining as many rabbits as they could. Few escaped such a combined assault.
At this point the gleaners entered. These were women and small children who moved systematically across the field picking up ears of grain dropped by the reaper and binder. I suppose the farmer paid for the gleanings, although no money came my way. Similarity The hedgerows, thick with blackberry bushes, were stripped of their spontaneous bounty by women and children and their creaking baskets of fruit taken home to be converted into thick jam against the winter.
After the stooks had stood in the sun for a few days they were collected onto broad backed farm carts, whose horses halted and plodded a few paces before stopping again at the next row, while the labourers pitch forked the sheaves into the cart. The sheaves were then taken to the farmyard and built into a large rick where, some weeks later, starting from the top they were removed and thrashed by a tractor driven thresher.
As the hayrick was disassembled, it was the turn of the rats to get it in the neck. Completely encircling the base of the nick was a wire netting fence. As the hayrick reduced in size the rats moved nearer the ground and, as the last sheaves were taken off, they ran for their lives. Unfortunately the netting prevented an easy escape and they spent the last few seconds of their lives dashing, in maddened velocity, in circles around the base of the hayrick while the terriers chased them inside the netting and time boys swung our sticks to try to kill the hapless rodents from the outside.
Other killing pursuits included ferreting. I knew several men whose mobile pockets demonstrated the presence of several sharp nosed ferrets. At the warren nets would be placed over most of the holes, before a ferret was popped down one of others. The scampering, and screaming that took place, as the rabbits fled in panic or stood in terror of their predators, is horrifying in retrospect but, at the age of six or seven, was merely exciting.
Uncle George also used to fish in the Ouse. I never went with him. I have never liked fish and have eaten it only once. However, he did show me lots of places near the Ouse and told me stories of the olden days, which meant any time before his own memory took over. He told me of Digby's Walk on the edge of Gayhurst. According to him Digby was a member of Guy Fawkes' conspiracy (he was probably wrong but I have never bothered to check it out) who escaped from London, following the plot, to Gayhurst manor.
The government forces, which had chased him to Gayhurst, had no idea where he might have gone in the manor. At night and in secret he walked down to the river. The authorities knew he was there and were desperate to lay hands on him but they were unable to discover his whereabouts. Eventually one chap had the bright idea of placing a candle at night in every window of the Manor so that they could see which room was unlit and, therefore, identify the one in which Digby was hiding. They found him and hanged him.
Another place with a slightly colored history was Blood Brook. This was where a very shallow stream crossed the Ravenstone road. According to George two knights met at the brook during The Middle Ages and one cut off the other's head which, naturally enough, caused the brook to change colour, hence its name.
I was also told that the village originally stood around the church but that a fire had happened which had decimated the houses and caused the village to be moved into the valley. I have no idea whether this is true or not, but it might be. The certainty is that most old villages, such as Stoke Goldington, have had far more interesting histories than we shall ever know.
St Peters Church
Stoke Goldington during the time I lived there was a community. The inhabitants were born and died there. Most of the villagers seldom went to Northampton and most of them never visited London. Auntie Doll had been once - one of her treasures being an old guide book, from Madame Tussaud's. It must have been from the 1920's. Uncle George's prized possession was a superb, hand painted replica of a Royal Horse Artillery team, complete with limber and gun that, I imagine, he must have bought in London.
The community was virtually complete unto itself even though we had neither doctor nor dentist nor any professional people. The village was mostly populated with labourers and artisans. Everyone knew everyone and the extent of life was limited by the power of ones legs. There was no garage but, then, there were few cars. Traffic was sometimes quite dense but most of it was to do with the war lorries, even tanks, would trundle through the village in sullen, khaki convoys. Sometimes the troops would stop to talk, some were American and some were Canadian. Every roadside had its neat piles of shells, sometimes under a canvas cover. The war was ever present.
Often the soldiers would ask us where other villages lay. They had maps but there were no signposts, as they had all been removed. By Act of Parliament. We always laughed when they asked for Ravenstone as it was always known as Rarnston in the local dialect. In fact the way in which time spoke seems largely to have disappeared. At The end of the war, when time returned to London, my mother sent me to a greengrocer for potatoes. In the first place I could see no reason why anyone would buy vegetables in a shop. Everyone I knew dug them out of the ground. In the second place the people in the shop laughed at my Buckinghamshire accent - especially when asking for 'tatters'.
In retrospect I am amazed that a community, such as ours, could have existed in such perfect isolation from London's influence and yet be only some fifty miles away. There was no television but there was radio and newspapers and a continual passage of people but, in some curious way, time remained remote from the busy affairs of the real world or, perhaps, they were isolated from ours.
I find it very hard to communicate the sense of innocence that we all knew. Everything seemed to be ordered from on high. God was with us. He wasn't likely to be with the Germans and everyone appeared to take his cue from what was demanded by the church's authority. There was an agreement, a consensus if you will, concerning the way we should live. Nobody was rich (at least I was unaware of any extreme wealth) yet most people contributed to charities.
At school, for instance, everyone was given a little concertina like envelope into which we were expected to thrust the occasional big penny in aid of 'Waifs and Strays'. We enjoyed a practical Christianity, which could be measured against the life in the fields. Harvest Festival was to do with real produce from farms and gardens. It did not involve tins of foreign food, such a notion would have been ridiculous. The little church was a place of warmth and comfort. In winter the smell of the oil-lamps was especially comforting. They all had to be cleaned and lit. Nothing in life was meant to be easy.
I was conscious of the hard work necessary for success. All our childhoods were conditioned by the old Protestant work ethic. It is one from which I have never escaped. For instance, I was expected to contribute to the household and, despite the tiny size of the house, I was forced to do a lot of house cleaning. My brother and I spent hours polishing tables, and chairs and, if I failed to do a job absolutely perfectly, I received a good hiding for my pains and was made to sit in a chair in the kitchen without moving for half an hour or more. Were I to move, I get another hard slap. Many were the days when I was made to stand outside the door in the Archway until I had stopped 'hanging my blob' (Auntie Doll's language for sulking after having been slapped). She always beat me harder when I cried and then demanded that I should stop by beating me again. I hated her. I would lie in the double bed, which I shared with my brother, and think of escape. I would dream the dreams of the young. Dreams in which I might join the little birds who sat along the telephone wires across the street, like quavers on a stave, and soar away across the fields to a better place.
My resentment of authority and consequent refusal to be dominated was developed early in life. When I was forced to stand in the archway outside, because I had decided to resist her bullying a little too fiercely for my own good, I would continually raise from the ground a large seven pound weight (with a ring through the top) and drop it with a great crash until she could stand it no more and hand out another hiding. But it was worth it.
As boys we wore black boots, grey stockings, grey shorts and pullovers. In the winter we had balaclava helmets and windjammers and most of us had large gauntlet-like leather gloves. Someone cut our hair but I can't remember who, or where.
I shall never forget the dentist. The dentist came from Newport Pagnell. He set up his equipment in the middle of our classroom. It consisted of a large wooden tripod with a treadle attached near its base. One by one we would be summoned from the larger room, where the big children studied, and given sweets if we behaved ourselves. With one hand gripping the tripod and one leg pumping the treadle the dentist would attempt, while standing on one leg, to keep his wavering right hand sufficiently steady while keeping the slowly grinding drill in the appropriate socket. I used to scream. The pigs had nothing on me.
The village had a baker, although Auntie Doll bought her bread from a man who came from Weston Underwood. I think the village baker's name was Adams, but I won't swear to it. His bakery was on the other side of the main road from the school. Some of us would earn a three penny bit by helping to push his two wheeled, brown painted, cart around the village for him in the evening. Sometimes we bought a cheap piece of bread from him. Our favourite was a small plaited loaf known as a twist. He also made some remarkably horrible brown stuff that he claimed was cake. It was unlike any cake I have been called upon to eat since.
One strange sight was to see the wives of the people even poorer than us, whose kitchens had no oven, walking down the road an Sunday with their joint and potatoes in a roasting pan, covered with a cloth, to have it cooked by the baker before taking it home an hour or so later.
The Old Bakehouse
Another strange Stoke sight was a funeral. We had no black limousines, no noble carriages with black horses. Stoke sported a little hand cart an which the deceased, stiff in his coffin, was pushed up Dag Lane to the church on the top of the hill, except for those few people who went to the chapel the church was the center of life and death. I knew some old ladies who could recite, with the greatest ease, whole tracts of the Bible. They would sit with their eyes closed, their skinny hands drawn up on their laps, and the words of eternity dripping from their unquestioning mouths.
These people were believers. When the Bible referred to sheep and flocks and good things they knew what it meant. It meant the same to them as it had to the people of the l3th or l7th centuries. They were unquestioning in their acceptance of God's bounty. They respected the Rector because he had been placed in 'authority over them' and they knew their place. He had book learning. He knew things they didn?t and they felt secure in his knowledge and their ignorance. They were happy to believe, to have faith and to go on doing these things that their forebears had been happy to do for a millennium. The world lay outside, down the road. Everything was a mystery. Truly exotic. There was much talk of goblins and witches.
Most people lived in decent little cottages, many with thatched roofs, but some people lived in extreme conditions. None was more extreme than those of the time old ladies who lived in a very dark part of the woods behind the churchyard. This house must have disappeared by now. Certainly by 1954, when I last walked through these woods, net much of it was left. But when I was a small child this strange little house, surrounded if I remember correctly with red currant bushes, had much of the atmosphere of a ginger bread house. There was no electricity and no piped water, they had a well and were, presumably, not on the list of clients for Charley's scent cart. What these old people lived on, and how they scratched their income, still intrigues me.
There was no absolute poverty and although we might not have worn smart clothes but, at least, we did have a weekly scrub in a tin bath taken dawn from a nail in the yard, and set up in front of the range in the kitchen. In fact bath time was more comfortable under those conditions than in many of the freezing bathrooms I have subsequently endured. During the war just like the King, we were all supposed to limit ourselves to four inches of hot water.
The school was a lively place - sometimes too lively, especially when we all had nits, which occurred on several occasions. The headmistress was Mrs Heatherington and her assistant, who taught me, was Mrs Shelton. I was in her class the entire time I was at Stoke. When I first started I used to sleep in the afternoon for an hour so on a tiny bed but, with age, I found myself being called on to concentrate harder.
The truth is that our schooling was really rather good. It was certainly a good deal better than I was to find in Woolwich and it was largely due to Mrs Shelton's tuition that I contrived to pass the eleven plus (together with three others out of a class of more than 45 pupils) in 1947 and go to a grammar school.
Because all the village children ware lumped together, regardless of sex, I became a pretty good embroiderer (I still have several dressing table mats which I stitched together at the age of seven) and I have always been able to darn patches on sew on buttons. I never mastered complicated knitting although I did manage to cobble together simple things, such as scarves.
My ambition was to do woodwork, but we were denied essentiality masculine activities and had no football or cricket. Our physical exercise was limited to a few jumps and jerks in the small playground. Occasionally a school entertainment was mounted. I have a cutting from the local Newport Pagnell newspaper, which relates such an event.
One of my own earliest indiscretions was an appearance in one of those little shows. Because the boys and girls did more-or-less anything together I had to take part in country dancing (we even had a maypole on the grass in front of the school) and I often found myself galumphing around the small stage in the big boys' room next door.
On one occasion the school put on a simple play and I was given a couple of lines to learn. When I went home that lunchtime I asked Auntie Doll what I should do if I were to forget them. 'Say the first thing that comes to into your head,' she said, cleanly not thinking that I would forget.
When the time arrived for me to deliver my miserable lines I walked to the front of the stage and forgot what I was supposed to say. Remembering her advice to say something I looked the packed audience firmly in the face and piped, Ain't it shocking? A flea ran up me stocking, it bit me bum and made me run. Ain't that shocking.
I was a star.
Sometimes, the school was visited by the rector who was keen on giving magic lantern lectures. These consisted largely of faded sepia slides of pigmies from Africa or pith helmeted men with large moustaches standing by steam ships on The Limpopo as their full skirted memsahibs looked on, bleakly. Mr Leachman was very taken with the idea of the oneness of humanity and we his dutiful audience, sat on the floor in awe as he discussed the relevance of steaming jungles, and their inhabitants, to us and our own rolling, misty countryside.
My brother and I both sang in the church choir. Naturally I became fully absorbed in the fantastically rich language of the Book of Common Prayer. We went to church for Matins and Evensong. In the summer, after church, together with Auntie Doll we would walk across the field at the back of the graveyard and stroll through the grassy paths, which criss-crossed the woods. Everywhere was the scent of honeysuckle and beneath our feet spread acres of primroses and, in the spring, bluebells.
As I mentioned earlier the church was without electricity. The organ derived its energy from some poor soul working the pump, whose handle jutted from the eastern side of the organ case. My brother often performed this onerous function.
Our choir was not very wonderful. I don't recall ever attending a practice. The only thing to be practiced was bell ringing which was re-introduced after the battle of El Alamain. Stoke had five bells and Ravenstone three. I remember George telling me that Stokes was the best peal for miles around and that Ravenstone's three sounded like someone singing, 'Long Tailed Sow'.
Because of the perpetual blackout (not that anyone thought the Germans would bomb such an insignificant group of dwellings) it was not until quite late in the war that an oil lamp was placed on the gatepost at the top of Dag Lane. Everyone gathered round to see this miraculous event. All the children were impressed by such a demonstration of municipal magnificence.
There was very little crime. Everyone's door was always unlocked and the local policeman, Fisher, had precious little to do. His son, Jimmy, went to school with me and subsequently contracted infantile paralysis, which came to be known as polio. Old Johnson Warren, who lived in one of the cottages opposite Archway Cottage, was a road sweeper and it was widely believed that he would knock his shovel against the head of same errant hen as he made his progress along the roads. But I don't think Fisher even put the hard word on him.
Archway Cottage was very fortunate in having electric light. The majority of the cottages relied on oil lamps for their light and changeable accumulators to power their radios. It is very hard for me to convey the strange mixture of simplicity and the certainty of our life. It was as though everyone had agreed that life outside the village was something which should be kept remote and at arm's length. There was no television with its disturbing images of change. Only the radio and newspapers reduced by shortages to only four pages.
Later in life I have travelled a great deal. I have been as far as Australia, over The Alps on numerous occasions and seen the dawn rise over the kampongs in Malaya and felt the heat of the Sahara. Yet, along with many people, I still find my bedrock in those seasons and years spent in my earliest years. I was fortunate to have been sent to Stoke and, although, I scarcely recognise much of it today, I can never escape the images of the undulating farmland, which flowed around my life all those years ago.