A SELF HISTORY
A series of weekly published chapters by Ken The Pen written in a humerous and informative style.
GOODBYE LEYTON – HELLO PONDHILL
Our delayed departure from London was because my mother had another baby late in 1946, Johnny was born in November so we had to hang on over the winter. We finally left Leyton and then London altogether, on a long bus ride that took forever and, when we stopped we got off the bus where a tractor and trailer picked us up with all our luggage, before carrying us along a winding road to a place aptly named Pondhill, because we had moved to a house on the top of a hill, by the side of a pond. We lived at 3 Pondhill Cottages, West Flexford Farm in Wanborough, Surrey, next door to 2 Pondhill Cottages which was the only other house within about two miles of us, so I wondered what had happened to house number 1. On our way up the hill on the tractor we passed a farm house with a huge barn and a big yard where there were lots of chickens and ducks as well as massive birds which I learned later, were turkeys. This is where my father had chosen to work and he would have to walk up and then down the hill every day; as I was to find out later so would I. This was where I really began my education about the meaning of countryside, we had a huge garden which was filled with snowdrops, primroses, violets and daffodils in the spring then nature’s own constant fruitshop, bearing raspberries, gooseberries, blackberries and blackcurrants in the early autumn, and then damsons, greengages, pears, plums and apples, in the garden; hazelnuts by the thousand and chestnuts in the woods. It was almost like having our own fruit shop, except that everything came free. It was here too that I saw my first frogs and toads, rabbits, jays and jackdaws, magpies and robins, swifts and swallows. There I saw my first country dogs, that were actually foxes and lizards on the rockery. Hedgehogs that I’d never seen the likes of and hares that looked like rabbits to me; but the oddest creatures I had ever seen, were the bats that only flew at night. Because they never flew in the daytime I had never seen one properly, until one day my dad found a dead one on his way home and brought it back to show us, it looked like a little mouse with wings! Another bird that I loved to see, but which only flew at night, was the owl, my dad took me down to the farm at the bottom of the hill one night and we sat under the barn until he touched my arm and pointed up, and I saw my first owl coming in from a hunt. It was the biggest bird I had ever seen apart from ducks and geese and swans and turkeys; but I couldn’t puzzle out why it hunted at night, how could it see anything in the dark? Later I found out that there weren’t just owls, there were different owls, barn owls and tawny owls and long eared owls and short eared owls, and the same applied to other types of birds, like finches and tits and sparrows and thrushes, and the list went on. I also learned about nesting birds and finding out which birds built their nests in which places, and how big or small the eggs were and what the nests were made from, clever birds that made their eggs look like other eggs and laying them in other nests, so that other birds would do the work of feeding them. There were nests in the bushes and in the reeds and on the ground and in the trees, but even more exciting to me there were slithering snakes! Yes London had been an exciting place, but suddenly, everywhere we looked, an entirely new world seemed to be opening up before us. Pondhill had really opened our eyes, or certainly mine, to the adventure of living in the countryside. Usually my father would be collected in the morning by a tractor and we children could ride down the hill to the farm if we liked, of course we had to then make our own way back up the hill, which was exhausting. During the harvesting season,the combine harvesters collected the corn, after which all the stalks were cut, then baled into sheaves for the coming winter so we went into the fields to help collect the sheaves or the bales which were stacked as high as a coach on top of the haycarts. Before the last layer of bales were put on, we children were lifted and climbed up onto the top of the bales and then the last stack of bales were thrown up to us with pitchforks, then we dragged them around the top to create the last layer. The workmen then got aboard the tractor or the tailgate of the haycart and we set off down the hill to the farm, with we children precariously balanced on the swaying load. We could reach out, and touch the branches of the highest trees as we passed under them, while winding our way down the hill and revelling in the danger. On the way down the hill, we saw cows and sheep in the fields, and one huge field that was covered in leaves, but no animals; we would go there later and work till we ached, but that seemed ages away. When we reached the farmyard we drove in and up to the huge barn where we were helped down, which was an adventure in itself; you had to sit on the edge and then just slide down off the side and one of the men would catch you, or sometimes not! Inside the barn we reversed the process, the bales were carefully stacked by the workmen and then as the pile grew higher, we children and one workman would climb up onto the top of the bales and then more would be hoisted up to us as we pushed them into place until they were almost up to the roof. The next exciting but scary part was getting back down again, it was scramble and slither, slide down as best we could until someone grabbed us to safety. Our time at Pondhill was exciting and carefree, I have no recollection of ever going to school while I was there, though my sister did; but I did have a host of accidents there, especially broken arms, falling from trees or when we played on the bales in the barn or on the haystacks when we shouldn’t. My main job seemed to be to walk from our house down the dusty winding roads on my own, to whatever field my father was working in, and carrying some sandwiches and a flask of tea to him. I hated this task partly because I had to walk back up the long hill home, but also because I would sometimes drop the flask and then when I got to my father he would get furious because I had broken the glass inside, so that the tea was wasted and he had nothing to drink. I knew that he would hit me, so was frightened even on my way to meet him. There were only a few children around where we lived, one next door, a couple who lived at the bottom of the hill and one who lived in the farmhouse, I spent much of my time with just my mother. I missed all of my London friends and even though of running away, though I don’t know where or how, I just remember sneaking out of our house and then going along the road until I came to a field and sitting there thinking of where I could go. The choice was taken out of my hands, with the changing of that season. The huge field on the way down the hill that I had mentioned was actually a potato field and when the crop was ready all the workers and their families were called upon to collect the potatoes. A tractor and plough or harrow , was used to unearth the potatoes which needed packing into sacks, which is where we came in. Because the men were doing other work on the farm the task of potato gathering had to be done by the wives and children, which was a normal part of life on the farm in those days. The work was hard and hurt your back because you were bending and stretching all the time and taking potatoes to the sack and then going back for more. Each family had their own sacks so the farm manager could see how hard you were working and you got paid for how many sacks you filled by the end of the day. Some families had three or four children while my mother had only two big enough to work so we had to work harder and still didn’t gather as much, so we actually worked more but got paid less! We hated the work and my mother was upset because we weren’t earning enough, there were times when life could be so cruel. My mother and father had arguments, Babs and I weren’t happy any more and also my mother had two year old Trevor and the new baby Johnny, to take care of as well as Babs and I, so my parents decided that now was the time to move, despite the fruit and the animals and the fun of the hayrides, Pondhill had finally lost its magic.
OUT OF THE FARMLAND AND INTO THE HEATH LANDS
My father had gone away for a couple of days and when he got back we piled all our furniture into a lorry and set off again, this time it was to two houses behind a high hedge along a narrow country road with a high bank on the other side, we had arrived in Burgh Heath. There was to be trouble ahead! Our house, Number 1 Reach Rest was the first as you approached and had no front door, you had to go around the side of the house to the back to get in, and the road, named Common Lane, was actually an old and muddy track rather than a road. There was no electricity so we had paraffin lamps in the downstairs rooms and a candle to light us to bed, there were marble topped wash stands which my mother had to fill with hot water brought up from downstairs to wash, for there were no taps upstairs. The inevitable happened, I went sleepwalking off the end of my bed one night, landing on the marble wash stand, another broken collarbone! I just loved adventures so if they weren’t there I created them! Babs and I explored the surrounding countryside, we also went bird nesting and started our joint collection of bird’s eggs, my father took me hunting with his shotgun and we laid rabbit traps in the fields, one rabbit could feed our family and we grew carrots, cabbage, peas and potatoes in the garden. In the summer we grew cucumbers, beetroot, onions, shallots and celery, and sometimes my dad shot a pheasant or a partridge, so we were partly fed off the land and so much more than we had been at Pondhill. My sister and I went to the primary school at the end of our road and made a few friends that lived in between us and the school, so they used to often come and play with us during the summer and at weekends. Unfortunately our neighbours were not very friendly so that one day, when we were all just playing outside, I was hiding up near the top of the bank across from our house when our next door neighbour’s son who was older and bigger than us, hit me on the head with a brick so I had to go to hospital, but all that happened was that a policeman came and told the boy off. When he had gone, the boy called over the fence that he was going to get me, but he never actually did. My biggest outstanding memory of the primary school was having to stand in a queue with all the other children then each of us being made to stand naked in turn, on a trestle table while we were painted with pink coloured calamine lotion (for poison oak, poison ivy and chicken pox) from a bottle! My next idea was to have a head to head with Coco Chanel, so I started making perfume by crushing hips and haws mixed in with rose petals but the idea never really worked out, even though we tried selling samples to ladies along our road. Life went smoothly for a while and then one day after the holidays my sister and I were on our way to school when we called to collect a couple of friends and before we got to school we came across a parked army lorry, so for fun we climbed into the back and laid down to hide. Unfortunately the driver suddenly got in and started driving down the road and we went for miles before he stopped. Before he started off again we all jumped out and ran away, but we didn’t know where we were, so we started off back across a common. We spent some time climbing trees and pinching apples from a garden, then we went back onto the common and decided to start a little fire to roast the apples. The fire went out of control and started to spread so we ran to get help from the nearest houses, the fire engine had to be called out, our names were taken and we were driven back to our school, which by now was closed for the day. Babs and I dropped off our friends then made our way home, ready with a list of things that we had supposedly done at school, we went around to the back of our house where a man stood waiting with my mother. He spoke just a few words and my head just filled with terror, he simply said “I am The School Board Man. You are both in trouble!” My sister loyally sprang to my defence by saying “It was all Micky’s fault, he made us go, and he made us all climb in the lorry, and he pinched some apples, and he started the fire too!” That was when I realised that there really is nothing like sisterly love! A couple of weeks went by and my sister went to school, but I was not allowed to go back and then I was told that I was going to a private school that my grandparents were going to pay for. I could hardly even remember them, though I knew I had visited them when we had lived in London, but anyway all was arranged so off I went to a school in the country, the first intervention by my grandparents, but I don’t remember what the school was called, or even where it was. I think I was then about eight years old. What I can remember is that the School was on the top of a hill with a winding road that went around and around it until you reached the top. There was a lovely matron there who told us stories in her room before we went to bed each night and that there were three teachers, some canteen staff, gardeners and people to make our beds and clean and help dress us. Every Saturday we went down the hill then through a little forest by the side of a stream, until we came to a shop where we were given about sixpence to buy what we liked before heading back. The ladies that took us on these walks, told us that the forest was haunted, and that the sand by the side of the stream was quicksand, so we should never go near it, or we would sink and might never be seen again. I think we were all sceptical about that, but I also know that none of us ever put it to the test! My mother came to see me whenever she could, but it was never a certainty until she arrived. I know that she always cried and hugged me when she first arrived and that she always cried again as she was leaving. Her favourite flowers were always Lilly of the Valley and several years later she told me that it was because whenever she came to see me, she had would see great swathes of them on the sides of the road as she walked up the winding hill toward the school and then again as she left. I think maybe the school was difficult to get to, but it would also have been an extra expense for my parents to visit me, although my grandparents actually covered the cost of all of the school fees. Burgh Heath hadn’t been a very good choice of country living, the rather nasty neighbours, my crossed swords with the School Board man, our heathland escapade and then my being separated from my family again, even though it was to get a better education were all important factors. We had only lived there for one year, but when I returned home it was to find that my family had moved yet again, this time to a place called Hollandwood.
HOLLANDWOOD MY COUNTRYSIDE EDUCATION
We had a lovely cottage on the edge of a huge wood and with a small forest in front of our house and a hill up to our left. I loved this place generally and had great adventures here, as I had at all the other places we had lived. Our house was the first of two cottages down the end of the farm track, passing a barn on the left. My first adventure came when I had only been there a couple of weeks and one of my jobs was to take an axe into the wood behind our house and chop some wood for our fire. I was cutting some wood when I saw a snake so I threw the axe at it; unfortunately the axe landed near the snake without hitting it and though I tried everything, the snake wouldn’t move. I waited for ages but had to go home without the axe and no wood; when my father got back from work I had to take him back there and of course the snake had long gone, so my dad picked up the axe then clipped me around the ear before taking me back home with some wood that we had both collected on the way. He taught me the differences between adders, grass snakes, and slow worms, and that only adders are deadly, so at least I had learned a valuable lesson, and I would use it to play practical jokes in later years. In the same wood, I found a bluetit nest in a little hole in a tree so then marked the tree and ran home to get a teaspoon, put the spoon carefully into the hole and brought out the eggs one by one to find out how many eggs there were, I counted twelve of them and then carefully put them all back into the nest. My father took me on some specific long walks around the area where we lived and showed me how to look for a rabbit run, and where to lay a rabbit snare along that track, he then showed me how to kill a trapped rabbit to take it home. After one week of going over this routine with me he took me along the same route and we alternated in finding a rabbit run then setting a trap until we had run out of snares. After getting back home he said that he was very pleased with my snare setting and that he had another surprise for me. The good news was that in the morning each day, before going to school, I was to go around the route collecting all of the snares and killing any caught rabbits to bring home with me! I collected the snares but could not bring myself to killing the rabbits, so I kept them in the snares which I used like dog leads and walked the rabbits home! My mother would not kill them either, so they were tied to the kitchen table legs and left there till my father came home from work. He was annoyed at my squeamishness, but because I had done a good job otherwise, he allowed the practice to continue; the only person to really suffer was my mother, who had choking rabbits around the kitchen on any day that we had trapped some! My father sold any spare rabbits to other farm workers, and even to the farmer he was working for. The forest at the front of our house led to the town of Petworth except that there was a river between the two so nobody used that route, but I used to go adventuring there often, until one day I found a tree that had fallen across a narrow part of the river. Babs and I, and even my mother, would go to town that way from then on, it was fun traversing the rapids over a moss strewn tree and shortened our journey quite a bit. Needless to say I had to repeat my routine, I was running through the forest on my own one afternoon where a spider had spun a web across the path which had trapped a wasp. I ran into the web, which wrapped around my knee, the wasp stung me and I started racing for home in extreme pain. Crossing the tree bridge too carelessly I slipped off into the stream and ended up breaking my arm again, so had to be taken to hospital for the sting and the arm! My parents bought a bike for my sister and she used it for a few weeks, then one day a bully who lived along the road to Petworth, threw a stick at her front wheel, it went between the spokes and she fell off, which left a small, but permanent scar over her eye. The boy was called Popsy Dunford and was dreaded by all the children, but I vowed revenge; I caught a grass snake one day then creeping up behind him, I shoved it down his trousers, he was terrified and ran screaming home watched by other kids. It was quite harmless, but he was embarrassed because some other children had witnessed it, so he never bothered me or my sister again. My sister would not ride her bike again so I kept pestering my father to teach me to ride and then one day he took me up a nearby hill, then held the bike while I got on, then he started running along behind me holding on. I suddenly thought that I was going too fast but couldn’t hear him so I looked over my shoulder and he was about fifty yards behind, it was the first time I had ever been on a bike so I had mastered it in a single lesson, I was allowed to use the bike from then on. My father was totally unpredictable though in regard to me; he asked me one day while in the garden, to get some water and I asked if he wanted a lot or just a bit. He was really furious with rage, because I’d said “A bit” of water instead of a drop. He took me for a walk one day when we came upon a rabbit warren, so reaching in he pulled out a tiny bunny which he brought home with us. When I got home from school the next day he had made a rabbit hutch and stuck the baby inside, it was a surprise present for me and then he taught me how to feed it with a bottle and teat because by then we had another child in the family, my brother Colin Anthony. One day I went into our woodshed and saw a bat lying on the floor, before he could fly off I managed to throw a sack over him and then shook him into a bucket and put a board over the top of the bucket. When my father arrived home I excitedly took him into the woodshed to admire my catch, I pulled back the board to reveal – an empty bucket! Where the handle connected to the bucket there was a gap on one side, the bat had just squeezed through the gap. Babs and I had to go two miles across the fields to collect a sack of coal every three weeks, needing to push Colin’s pram across the field, lift it up over fences or stiles, drop it down over the other side and then cross the next field until we came to the coal yard. We then made the same journey back, while this time emptying the sack of coal first before we could lift the pram over the next fence, then refilled the sack before we crossed the next field, each trip took about three hours. We hated having to do it, but children were expected to help whenever there was something they could do, whether they liked it or not; it taught them that a family was a unit not an expectation that only grown ups should be expected to work! My greatest claim to fame at Hollandwood,was both accidental and exaggerated, I had gone for a walk across the fields one day and heard screaming. I climbed a bank to look into the wood where I saw a lady and a young girl clinging to each other. On the ground in front of them was a grass snake, I jumped down the bank, grabbed the snake by its tail and swung it around my head before hurling it away through the air. The person I had “rescued” was Mrs Hoskins, the housekeeper to the farmer that my father worked for and the girl with her was her ward, an orphan that she had adopted, named Jacqueline. They asked my name so I just gave my name reluctantly, led them out of the wood to the farm track and left them. When he got home my father said that we had to go up to the farm because the farmer wanted to see me, he wouldn’t tell my father why, so my father asked if I’d been up to mischief but I was as mystified as he was and so off we went to the farmer. When the farmer came to the door he was smiling, so I knew I wasn’t in trouble; he held out his hand and shook mine saying “ I wanted to thank the young man who saved my housekeeper’s life.” Anyway while I stood confused, he told my father that Mrs Hoskins had come back in some state of distress stating that if I hadn’t appeared, and charged over the bank before throwing myself between her and the snake before wrestling with it, Jacqueline or she might almost certainly have killed! While I stood there dumbfounded, he thrust ten shillings into my hand, then turning to my dad, said “Oh by the way John, I’ll be sending a dog across tomorrow, it’s been worrying some sheep, can you get rid of it?” I had no idea what he was talking about at the time, but when the dog was brought to the barn near our house the next day, my dad just went out with his gun and shot it! He was paid seven shillings and sixpence, which was also to covered the cost of the cartridge to shoot the dog, it was so cruel and I’d gone out to the barn with him so saw it first- hand. Three other things stood out during my time at Hollandwood, my father took the ten shillings that I had been given, saying it would help with the bills and that I would probably only lose it anyway. But the third thing was more positive, although my sister went to an ordinary school nearby I went to a private school in Petworth and was driven there each morning by taxi, because there was no convenient bus service! I simply imagine that my grandparents must have paid once again. I loved this school partly because it was so Dickensian, also because the school stood in lovely grounds with beautiful elm trees on the lawns but mainly because this was where I was about to have, though I didn’t know about it then, my first experience of becoming totally absorbed with both the enthusiasm and ideas and really exciting subjects, that would come later on that term as a result of meeting my new school’s newest teacher.
My introduction to the school’s peculiarity occurred within a couple of days, I saw the headmaster walking on the lawn with a train of teachers behind him, all wearing gowns and mortar boards, each with their thumbs tucked into their lapels. The head was engaged in a conversation with the leading teacher and I thought he was the obvious person to ask a question to, so I ran across and tugged his arm; “Please sir, could you tell…” My question was never finished, the teacher behind him pulled me away then passed me back to the next in line, and on until the last teacher said “Go to my study boy, then wait there until we return.” I stood outside, quaking and wondering what I had done that was so wrong, until the teacher came back and ushered me into his study. “You are new here boy?” As a statement rather than as a question, to which I nodded. “Firstly boy you address the headmaster as ‘Sire’, all other teachers are Sir, but the headmaster is Sire, do you understand?” I nodded speechless. “Secondly, if you want to ask a question, you must ask a teacher who will then relay it to the headmaster if necessary.” Here he paused so I nodded again. He paused, I am sure for effect then breathed in and seemed to grow bigger “But most importantly boy, nobody EVER touches the headmaster.” The key word emphasised so that I can still remember it vividly all these years later, exactly as it was said. I think that was the only time I ever spoke to the headmaster in all my time at the school. The greatest impact was the start of the next term, the history teacher had left and the new teacher was to be introduced with all the usual melodrama, the whole school were assembled in the hall, the head came forward and told us “As you all know, we have a new history teacher this term, I would like you to all welcome….” there came a deliberate pause for effect, “Miss Stilwell.” You could have heard a pin drop, I don’t think that there had ever been a lady teacher at the school before. A dramatic flourish, and out from the stage curtains came a really pretty and really young, lady! There was an instant and spontaneous burst of applause. I joined in, I was smitten, and I was only nine years old! About a week later I brought in to school, a collection of fossils that my father had collected over the years, and which I had promised to show to our class. As I ran up the curved stone stairway that led up to the entrance I bumped into Miss Stilwell coming down and the box of fossils scattered across the steps. As she helped me pick them up, Miss Stilwell said “These are fabulous, where on earth did you get them?” I told her they were my dad’s and she asked if I would like to meet her at lunch time and talk to her about them, of course I agree and we arranged to meet later under one of the large elm trees in the grounds. To the envy of all my schoolmates, we met several times that term, always under the elm tree, where Miss brought cakes or biscuits and a drink of fruit juice for a kind of brunch! The fossils were kept at the school for a while after my dad agreed, so they could be shown to all of the other classes under her supervision during various lessons, though the lunchtime meetings were solely reserved for me! It’s funny how little things like an infatuation can lead to an interest in their interests’ I became more keen on history through my meetings with Miss Stilwell and I fell in love with history. But although I didn’t know it at the time, my days at Petworth were almost over. Miss Stilwell left the school for a position at another all girls school but through another twist of coincidence, I left the school at the same time, history was going to repeat itself again. Now though it would accidently open my eyes to an entirely new world in an unanticipated way.
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