Wartime memories of a Stanhoe child
by Ivy Scales
I was two when the war started, so grew up to a background of air-raid sirens, the “all-clear”, searchlights in the night sky, planes overhead, men in uniforms, ration books with sweet coupons, the black-out, listening to the wireless, gasmasks, etc.
We lived overlooking the village pond, a habitat for waterhens and a source of glorious mud for us kids.
We had fun climbing the elms close to the water’s edge. The massive oak that dominated the far side was easy to get up thanks to its dangerous lean! Finally it disappeared, no doubt for safety reasons. In severe winters we enjoyed skating and sliding on the ice.
At the Post Office and General Store I loved to watch rations of cheese or butter being so carefully cut off and wrapped in greaseproof paper and things like currants being weighed in ounces and put into tiny white pointy paper bags. So neat. On the front corner of the building was the cobbler’s shop, manned by Tom Curson. It was small and cluttered and your shoes got soled with great thick pieces of leather, the smell of which filled the whole small space. Mr Curson had an old friend who often sat in there “reading” the daily paper. He fooled no-one as it was usually upside-down.
The Grocery Shop
The grocery shop was kept by Mr “Puffy” Blower. He had a bacon-slicing machine, adjustable for thick or thin. I can hear its metallic swishing noise to this day. More intriguing was his vinegar tap. It was hidden behind a tall cabinet and when I was sent to fill up the family vinegar bottle I couldn’t see what was going on but wondered what he was up to as the sound of something trickling filled my head with rude thoughts!
I got my come-uppance for a suspicious mind when I had a very close encounter with the thick, twisted, dark green-painted railings which protected the shop from the road. Learning to ride my first bike fitted with wooden blocks on the pedals, I was nearing Puffy’s shop one day when a huge army lorry/tank came roaring up the road past the pond. I was terrified and looking back to plan the best route of escape, my front wheel rammed Puffy’s railings and my front teeth hit the handlebars! The evidence has been in a crooked smile ever since!
The Sweet Shop
The “pièce de résistance” for the village kids. A magical place, with a very tall door which opened in the middle, admitting no-one more than 18 inches wide, with a snack which when pressed on entering set off a vigorous bell to summon Mrs Bloy the owner. The counter was so high I could only just reach it on tiptoe to pay with my big pennies. The small space was crammed to the ceiling on all sides with huge, glass jars filled with scrumptious boiled sweets of bright colours. Some I remember were sherbets, liquorice allsorts, gob-stoppers, lollypops, toffees, humbugs, barley sugar, orange and lemon drops, etc, etc. Smith’s salt and vinegar crisps were very popular and much was the disappointment when you discovered later that your packet lacked the little salt supply screwed up in a tiny piece of blue paper. For Id you could get a packet of broken crisps. She sold lots of “pop” too, such as Vimto, American Cream Soda, Corona, Bestyett, lemonade, ginger beer, etc, etc. Outside there was a dear little bay-window where you could choose a present for someone. They were mostly for grown-ups though, such as lipsticks and “Evening in Paris”, “White Fire” or “Devon Violets” perfume.
This was no romantic affair as in days of old with a bucket on a rope but a massive square aluminium tank on four tall legs. Here the men of the village congregated to gossip and take it in turns to fill their tanks on wheels with drinking water from the powerful brass tap. How it thundered when the water hit the bottom of the empty tank. I used to go up there with Grandad Margetson and we still have his last water-tank, in use for horses to drink from. All other domestic water came from the water-butts.
The Blacksmith’s Shop
Now sadly neglected and covered in ivy, during the war it was working at full blast, shoeing the big shire horses still used on the land. It was fascinating to watch the blacksmith at the anvil and the calm horses obediently lifting each foot in turn, never flinching at the flames. If only it could be fitted out as it once was, and opened as a small museum.
The Village School
While the infant teacher, Miss Pike, held out at her post in the small room with a nice big fire, we didn’t have much continuity with teachers for the older children.
I remember a Miss Wake and another female teacher. One had lived in New Zealand and the other in Switzerland. Hearing about those far-away lands gave me itchy feet. We kids never knew why no-one wanted to stay and teach in Stanhoe.
I so often accompanied Grandad, who like others too old to fight, had been called back to work on the farms. It was fun riding in the back of the cart – as long as Grandad remembered to put the holding pins in! Once he forgot but luckily remembered before I got tipped out on the road.
For some reason one day I was not allowed to go with him, but being all of four years old and knowing where to find him, I sneaked off up The Green. Some way further along the grass track struck off across the fields on a diagonal course for about a mile and a half until I could see a large mound of sugar-beet being topped and tailed and loaded onto a cart on the road leading to North Creake.
Feeling pleased at how happy Grandad would be to see me, I burst through the hedge and gave him the shock of his life! It was another shock for me when he angrily said, “What are you doing here?!” Sometime later Mum arrived on foot by the road, much puffed and red-faced, to take me home.
My little friend Brian fancied some fresh new potatoes so we sneaked into Mr Terrington’s garden and grubbed up a few. We were ensconced up in a nearby thorn tree devouring them raw when Mum caught us. They were pretty horrible anyway, all covered in dirt.
Troops from USA
One day the field down Cross Lane was a sea of khaki. A large contingent of American GIs billeted there, I believe only for one night. There were so many tents.
With an older friend we paid a visit and wandered around – no security then! I’ve often wondered if it was towards the end of the war, when they could have been en route for the Normandy landings, where so many died.
During the war the village kids went around in little gangs of friends, only coming home for meals. One day I was with a mob way down Station Road when the unmistakeable sound of a German plane was heard approaching (we could tell by the sound of the engines if it was Jerry or RAF). The noise got louder and before we had decided whether to dive for cover in the hedge, black smoke appeared and it spiralled down to crash in a field on the left towards the village.
We all took off as one to get to it as quick as we could and were busy dragging out the anti-radar foil ribbons when the village Bobby arrived on the scene and sent us packing.
It was like a little furnished room underground in the garden and I remember having to get in there quickly early one morning when German planes were coming over. We pulled the window-curtain of the entry door aside to see them. Luckily they passed over. After the war I watched as Grandad filled it in with earth and planted Sweet William seeds on top, which eventually bloomed gloriously two years later.
Rose-hips harvesting. This was a way for kids to earn a little money from the Government, which was paying 6d(?) for a paper bag full of hips collected from the wild roses which had graced the summer hedgerows. The idea was that the berries would be crushed to obtain a rich source of Vitamin C for warbabies.
The Village “Social”
These were popular events held in the old village hall. There might be a bit of entertainment of someone singing but best of all were the competitive games like “pass the parcel”, etc, and “doin’ the hokey cokey”. Halfway through the evening refreshments were served behind the stage.
Such a mountain of triangular sandwiches heaped up high and tea in large urns. A good time was had by all.
It must have been a break for parents to see us all troupe off on Sunday afternoons. When the collection bag came round we each put in a big penny. In recent years I discovered a cheeky carving on the back of a pew, made by self, on the subject of the rector. We didn’t know about vandalism then!
In those days it was quite safe to play hopskotch and spin colourful tops on the road. For the latter Tom Curson the cobbler supplied leather thongs for our whips.
In the winter we used to make icy slides on the roads – most dangerous. Cars often leaked some sort of fluid (oil/petrol?) and when it was wet this made pretty, multi-coloured patterns.
The War Memorial. A favourite seat for us kids where we used to take down car number-plates in little notebooks.
(What for? No-one ever asked!). We would read the names on the memorial, not knowing that more would be added when the fighting was over.
I didn’t quite understand what it was all about but everywhere you looked there were little flags and red, white and blue ribbons. A big celebration. After that we didn’t have to carry our little gas-masks boxes around any more.
We survivors were the lucky ones and grew up to learn the true horrors and cost of the struggle that had gone on during those years to preserve our way of life, while we played in innocence in our country village. Now here and there across the land, “Back to the Forties” weekends are growing in popularity. Leaving inhibitions in the wardrobe, all ages dress up in forties civilian clothes as land girls, spivs, elegant ladies with seamed stockings and fox fur stoles, firemen, policemen, etc, with the majority preferring a military role as soldiers, sailors, airmen, GIs, etc, strutting their stuff, some in their own genuine uniforms, others posers. The higher the rank, the greater the swagger! Babies are pushed out in magnificent high Silver Cross prams and a few pampered pets in pushchairs. The NAAFI dishes out spam sandwiches and Camp coffee and after a ride in a vintage steam train there is dancing on the platforms until late in the evening to Glenn Miller and Vera Lynn.
Wartime posters warn us that “Careless Talk Costs Lives” and ask “Is Your Journey Really Necessary?” Everyone is smiling and has a huge, nostalgic whale of a time, celebrating having come through those grim, dangerous years and living to enjoy it.