Haunting memories

100_7084They will soon be a forgotten set of rituals, all the practices of amateur photography before the advent of the digital camera.  Each frame was precious when the film rationed you to 36 frames and you assessed your composition more carefully before committing to capture it with the depression of a satisfyingly weighty button and a staccato swish from the shutter. Failure to wind the film on by one frame from spindle to spindle would result, at worst, in two ruined images amalgamated into one confusing double exposure, or, at best, the intriguing appearance of a ghostly figure superimposed on an inappropriate background.

Ever the enthusiast for his hobbies, my dad contrived a a domestic darkroom in our third bedroom to make his own prints from the negatives he had processed in Bakelite canisters. On the wallpaper of this little room, crinoline clad lady ducks, and gentlemen rabbits with their ears poking through their hats still cavorted. These I had studied sideways through the bars of my cot as an infant, until I had been promoted to a larger bedroom at the back.

The wizardry was performed in eerie red light.  The bulbous projector hung like a celestial object in the gloom, suspended over the light-sensitive paper in its frame. My dad told me to hold my breath for the few seconds of the exposure, hoping that neither we, nor a rare evening vehicle passing down Bosty Lane would cause a vibration that might mar it.

Into albums went photographs that presented us safely to the world, shoes polished, happy, and healthy.  The stash of negatives, which I am so glad to have inherited, was the id of photography: it was its subconscious mind, the repository of the forgotten, the secret, and the regretted – even the unbearable. Unflattering portraits; images of friends fallen out of favour; or dear faces, in hindsight showing glaringly obvious pain and decay.  Some things that we can’t bear to see, but can’t bear to destroy.

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Could I convince you that there was no living person in the lane when this particular photograph was taken? That the figure in the middle distance only became visible when the film was developed, and that the unnerving presence of the apparition was what caused the negative to be consigned to dusty ignominy at the bottom of a drawer for so many years until my curiosity ferreted it out?

Probably not – that mysterious, heavily coated figure is most likely to be my grandad, Alfred Noah Horton, “Pop” to everyone, just as my grandmother was “Ma”.  And the dark smudge of its familiar, trotting ahead? –  Just the dog.

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The old photo was taken from that corner of the cottage, some time in the 1950′s.

From the south-east corner of his family’s home, Keeper’s Cottage, near the side door into the tiny kitchen, here my dad’s camera points up Footherley Lane in the direction of Stonnall. The trees whose leafless outlines mark this particular curve of the lane are still easily recognisable from the same spot today, sixty odd years later. A recent fall of snow has shrunk back into the earth – apart from a stubborn patch clinging to the shadiest part of the high hedge banks that flank Footherley Lane, testament to the long history of this thoroughfare. In a hard winter, these solid margins formed a channel in which snow tended to collect, so that my dad and his brothers could excavate a tunnel to walk in, strangely lit by weak, filtered winter sun.

Information is precariously invested in these scraps of celluloid. Out of context, the location of this country lane will be meaninglessly anonymous as soon as I am not here to interpret it. I like the spooky atmospheric charm which the patination of age on the negative has conferred on this image.  Time has not yet destroyed it.

Keeper’s Cottage’s many years as a family home are well and truly over, and it looks much more of a haunted place now, with clumsy breeze blocks filling the window holes and all the garden overgrown, than ever it did at the time my dad took that photograph, when light still streamed through the little windows and a fire burnt brightly in the grate of the range. Whatever ghosts walk there now, no one is there to perceive them. Of the two manifestations that my Horton family witnessed in the 1930s, I can offer no evidence, just the retelling of the stories I was told – no less insubstantial, I suppose, than other folkloric tales of ephemeral family history that happen not to contain the supernatural. There is no narrative to connect the two stories, which I simply present as I heard them – there is, I am afraid, no twist in the tale.

Ghost stories attach themselves to ancient places, and the cottage is old, there is no doubt about that, and the dwelling place, near the brook, near the wood, and near the now invisible course of a stretch of Roman Ryknield Street, is older still.  The building which served as a barn, orientated at 90% from the cottage and the lane, showed signs of doors and windows now bricked up – both indicating that it might have been an earlier dwelling. The Besant family lived at Keepers Cottage for a few years before my family moved there in about 1929, and prior to that, the last Gamekeeper, Albert Reed, a Hampshire man by birth, was still living out a peaceful retirement there in 1911, according to the census of that year.  Did these families, I wonder, pass on to younger generations any tales of strange happenings within these walls?

Ma was up early to light the range one morning, in the decade before the war, and was the first to hear a wheezing, sighing presence in the corner of the room.  Pop perched on the stool to put on his boots ready for his cycle ride to work, and remarked to Ma that he, too, could hear it.  Bill, George, and my dad had the same experience as they bent to tie their laces, casting their eyes about for the source of the sound. When my dad came home from Shenstone school that day, the noise had gone.  Ma said that about 11 o’clock, there had been a final rasping gulp, and it was silent. It never made its presence felt again.

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The boys slept in the bedroom on the left.

Of the three small rooms that constituted the upper floor of the cottage, two were interconnected, and in the third, to the left at the top of the stairs, slept the boys, Bill, George, and my dad, Ted, all in one feather bed. When nights were still and sultry towards the end of the summer, a strange phenomenon repeatedly occurred. A loud thud against the outside wall of the bedroom would be followed by the unmistakable sound of a heavy object rolling across the bare wooden boards.  More intrigued than frightened, one night Bill said “I’ll have the bugger,” and piled all their clothes in a heap in the middle of the floor. Sure enough, in the darkest part of the night, the thud was heard, and the rolling noise began, only to pause thoughtfully at the pile of trousers and vests, before continuing on its way towards the landing.

Whatever will it do, this thing, when the walls of the cottage finally tumble?

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A site to see.

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My dad, Edwin Noah Horton, (1925-2007) , (left in the photo), on site for J.R. Deacon at the construction of Brooklyn Farm Technical College in Great Barr, in about 1951.
At the rear of the site is the “Drake’s Drum” public house.

When me and my dad were discussing our mortality, more ominously pertinent in the last years of his life, he used to say to me: “In a thousand years, Sue, it’ll be as if we’d never been here.”  My mom and my husband would each have staggered off, full of roast dinner, taking the Sunday newspapers to a comfier chair. In the kitchen of my cottage, my dad and I remained sitting side by side; my right mitt would be flat on the table between us, and his, large, yet elegant, dry, warm left hand over mine, anchoring us in conversation, both spoken and unspoken. It was comforting to imagine that we two atheists would moulder anonymously into the quiet earth. Together in our not existing, and together not inhabiting an afterlife.  But there was going to be a terrible parting to be endured.

Just a decade later, and his imprint on life is far from gone. Many of his possessions surround me. I can look through his eyes into his life through his photographs, admire many other examples of his creativity, and feel the smoothness where his strong hand gripped the wooden handles of the tools we have inherited.   In the fabric of our cottage and garden, are walls that he re-rendered and plastered for us, the skirting boards and wainscotting that he mitred and cut and fixed, ceilings we papered together, and vegetable beds that he and I cultivated companiably.  I couldn’t bear to remove the parsnips he had put in for us during his last early spring – in the patch by the greenhouse that he had erected with Ken, on top of the brick base he had built. I worked round them through six tearful seasons, until they flowered and then set seed, to the delight of the bullfinches.

And what about that thousand years into the future he spoke of? As a builder, perhaps my father, Ted Horton’s legacy has a better chance than many of enduring a whole millennium. What, I ask you, does remain, now, as physical evidence of the lives of our ancestors in Staffordshire a thousand years ago? The layouts of their settlements and their thoroughfares are just the shadows of their living movements, but a stone laid upon a stone, with mortar between – enduring in the lower courses of Lichfield Cathedral’s masonry, or the walls of Tamworth castle, is a fragment of tangible immortality for the individual skilled working man who placed it there.

Throughout his working life, my dad must have laid millions of bricks, especially in the early days when he was brickying a lot of the time.  Up to a thousand times per day, the familiar rhythm:  a blob of wet, grainy compo, scrape, scrape, then placement, and a wiggle into its place, of a good Staffordshire brick.  Surely some of them must survive, one overlapping the other, eroding slowly over the coming centuries.

My dad and his two brothers all chose to work in the building industry.  The coal mines in Walsall Wood and Aldridge – that were becoming  worked out as Bill, George, and Ted reached employable age in the 1930s – had seduced their grandfather’s generation of the family from agricultural labouring in and around Stonnall to better wages and more modern housing.  Pop and Ma – that is my grandparents, Lizzie and Noah – had come back to a primitive country smallholding to bring up their brood of five in Footherley. This, my father knew. But he may not have had any idea that his great, great, grandfather (his ancestor twice over, thanks to our family tree’s habit of “kissing” branches) had built walls for a living like him.  William Horton, (1792-1872) lived all his life only a mile or so away, in Lynn,  from my dad’s home at Keepers Cottage, Footherley. This patriarch is documented on the 19th century census returns, up to 1871, in his 77th year, as “bricklayer.” My dad certainly loved his job, for which he had a natural talent.  Perhaps it was “in the blood.”

My dad at about the time he was leaving Shenstone school in 1939, with the obstreperous goat, Billy. In the field at Keepers Cottage, Footherley, with the bridge over the Footherley brook in the background.

My dad at about the time he was leaving Shenstone school in 1939, with his obstreperous goat, Billy. In the field at Keepers Cottage, Footherley, with the bridge over the Footherley brook in the background.

Edwin Noah Horton left Shenstone C.E. school in the village in August 1939 with the following kind words on his report from Mr Saxton, the headmaster: “A steady and reliable boy.  He works well and can be trusted to finish a job.  Has shown great improvement in the last year.  I can recommend him.” Earlier in his school career, Mr Saxton had been more stern: “Does not do himself justice”  “Could do very well indeed if he would”  “He is inclined to let other things take his attention” are among the remarks written on school reports earlier in the 1930s, when “recitation” was a skill to be prized beside mathematics and reading, and the one academic discipline at which my father seemed to excel.  That other things took his attention was true. Book learning had not been high on his list of priorities.  Distractions included his rabbit breeding business/hobby, the odd day’s building work with his brothers, and being fetched out of school by Ma, for him to remove his unbiddable billy goat who would be head-down in the middle of Footherley Lane, defying any traffic to pass their cottage.

My dad turned 14 on August 31st 1939, the day before war broke out, which meant an unusual employment market for the young school leaver, as able bodied men volunteered for military service.  His first position was as a chauffeur-gardener to the Godrich family at Shenstone House.  Abraham Godrich had made the family fortune rapidly as a wire manufacturer in Nechells, Birmingham, and the family had gentrified as they relocated, via a villa in Streetly to the little mansion in Shenstone.  Remarkably, young Edwin Horton was tasked with driving their daughter Patricia, only a few months younger than himself, to school and back each day in their limousine.

The Lichfield "Mercury", Friday September 15th, 1944: "Guardsman Edwin Horton, of Keeper's Cottage, Footherley, Shenstone, joined the Welsh Guards in February of this year and celebrated his 19th birthday on August 31st.  He is a former member of the Shenstone Home Guard, and up to joining the Forces was in the employ of Messrs. J.R. Deacon and Co., Lichfield.

The Lichfield “Mercury”, Friday September 15th, 1944: “Guardsman Edwin Horton, of Keeper’s Cottage, Footherley, Shenstone, joined the Welsh Guards in February of this year and celebrated his 19th birthday on August 31st. He is a former member of the Shenstone Home Guard, and up to joining the Forces was in the employ of Messrs. J.R. Deacon and Co., Lichfield.

His bricklaying apprenticeship with J. R. Deacon in Lichfield followed.  Employment with them was interrupted by his service in the Welsh Guards, but they were pleased to re-engage him after the war.

In about 1951, J.R. Deacon and Co were fulfilling a large contract in Great Barr – the construction of the Brooklyn Farm Technical College.  This was an impressive project for the time, and my dad took his camera to work with him to document the construction of the building and some of the men who worked on it.  The building’s still there – now renamed the James Watt Campus of Birmingham Metropolitan University – as is the “Drake’s Drum” – the pub over the road which can be noticed in the photos.  Like my dad, most of those depicted will now be playing rainy-day, three card brag in the great site-hut in the sky – but it would be so good if some of them could be identified. Perhaps, in the computer networks of the future, there will be another way for a working man to be remembered after a thousand years.

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From a deep, muddy hole in the ground, Brooklyn Farm Technical College is born, while the “Drake’s Drum” public house looks on, anticipating many years of future business

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The steel superstructure rises out of the ground.

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Insert your own remarks about Health and Safety at work here.

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Parts of the building are clearly recognisable today.

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I love this photo of two of my dad’s colleagues. Look at the chap pointing in the background. Worthy of Picture Post, I think.

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Where is this building site? Who is this chap who looks like an extra from “The Grapes of Wrath??” What is this car?? The badge on the grille says “S.M” if that’s any clue. Looks non-British. I have trawled the web in vain for clues.

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1947. For you the war is over….

100_6302“Unterschreiben Sie hier Gefangener,” ordered the translator.

“Baier; Alfred” the prisoner inscribed, obediently, in blue ink on the form.

Prisoner number 535139, from POW Camp 96, Wolseley Road, Rugeley, was scrutinised and measured for the records: ” a) Colour of Hair.. dark brown: b) Colour of Eyes..grey c) Complexion…fresh: ……..d) Height…156cm.”

Although strong and stocky, “Gerry Alfred”,  (so called to distinguish him from his farmer-employer, my uncle, Alf Cooper) was, it seems, not very tall. He was the last in a numerous line of varied POW’s who augmented the workforce of the Owletts Hall Farm, and the Dairy Farm on Lynn Lane, Shenstone in the 1940′s – all hard workers, and some who remained friends for years after the war.

A copy of the comprehensive list of rules applying to the conduct and treatment of Prisoner Baier was left with the Cooper family, my Uncle Alfred, Aunt Mary, and their infant daughter, my cousin Rosalind.

For their part, they were to provide the prisoner “with suitable lodging quarters and full board”.  The conditions of the accommodation were described in detail – the man should be supplied with

“straw to fill palliasses, artificial light, heating, crockery, facilities for washing.” This might be within the farmhouse or “in a suitable farm building (e.g. barn or outhouse)”

Sternly underlined was the admonition: “Empty cottages which are suitable for civilian farm workers must not be used for  accommodating prisoners.”

A cottage should stand unused rather than offer shelter to a German, but in matters of food, there should be strict impartiality: “Each prisoner who lives and works on your farm must be provided with three meals a day on the same scale as for a British farm worker who lives in.  The prisoner will come under the civil rationing scheme. The Camp Commandant will issue ration books.  Farmers will be able to obtain the agricultural cheese ration for prisoners”  The standard cheese ration, per person, per week, which had been as much as 8 ounces earlier in the war, was now down to 2 ounces – a quantity equivalent to a couple of bites of a single evening snack in today’s gluttonous times.

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Alfred Baier at work on Owlett’s Hall Farm in the 1940s. Puppy Duppy sits happily at his feet, unaware of the German’s culinary designs upon her.

Aunt Mary was a resourceful cook, but like everyone, Gerry Alf was prone to complain about the monotony of the austere diet.  ” Feesh …feesh…all the time blutty feesh, ” was his frequent refrain, and although she was very young at the time, Ros remembers him looking, with wide, mischievous eyes at her little dog and saying,  ” Pup in oven…gut “

Conditions of employment included the receipt of modest wages, and the POW’s medical and dental treatment for was to be paid for by the Army Authorities, who also supplied his clothes. He was to wear battle dress, but emblazoned on the back with an almost comical large patch of felt, which displayed his POW status.  The authorities had been at pains to determine each captured alien’s degree of loyalty to the National Socialist regime he had been fighting for. The colour of the patch on their costume indicated the result of their assessment.  Lighter coloured patches indicated a relative indifference to politics.  Black patches flagged up an unrepentant Nazi – but such prisoners were seldom seen in a camp like No. 96 at Rugeley – (now invisible under the site of a sewage farm on the Rugeley-Stafford road) – they were usually dispersed to camps in remoter areas of the country, well out of harm’s way.

Nevertheless, the movements and conduct of German workers such as Alfred Baier were severely restricted.  Their employer, in the terms of the documents which accompanied his placement in Lynn Lane, was to ensure that he strayed no further than a mile from the premises, extended, with permission, and only during hours of daylight, to 5 miles on Sundays, when he was to enjoy a full day off.  Alfred had also signed his agreement to regulations which forbad fraternisation.  In particular,

German Prisoners of War may converse with members of the public but they will be warned that should any instances occur of a P.W. having entertained an attempted advance of an amorous or sexual nature he will render himself liable to vigorous and exemplary punishment.

Harsh but practical restrictions during war-time, you might say, with resignation, but it may come as a surprise to you that the date of Alfred Baier’s placement with my Uncle was 15th July 1947, over two years after VE Day, May 8th 1945, which marked the surrender of Germany to the Allies, and the end of hostilities of World War Two in Europe.

It was no idle threat that the authorities would seriously respond to breaches of the rules: A couple of months before Alfred arrived in Lynn, on the 30th May 1947 his fellow prisoner at Camp 69, Rugeley, Otto Port, was charged at a Court Martial with “conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline amongst prisoners of war” as a result of being found at 5 a.m. in a  hut on Tatenhill Aerodrome with a 17 year old housemaid from Burton called Eunice Jackson.  The case received extensive coverage in the press, and a very comprehensive account of the trial at Rugeley was published in The Lichfield Mercury of June 6th.  An audience were clearly agog to hear details of the young couple’s antics.  As the paper reports: “The Court was crowded by German prisoners, whilst the proceedings were also watched with interest by the Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire, (Lord Harrowby) and Lady Harrowby.”

Constable Tomkinson was able to relate to the avid onlookers the prurient details of a heap of radar paper strips visible to him in the airfield hut, which bore a guilty impression as if two bodies had been lying down upon them…..together!

President of the Court, Major l’Estrange, remarked that Eunice was “an extremely foolish girl,” for giving a false name, refusing to answer questions, and being so impertinent. The Defending Officer’s suggestion that it had been Eunice who was running after Otto, seems to have been widely accepted.

Otto was just 20 years old.  Can we blame him, far from home, for succumbing to the attentions of a flibbertigibbet housemaid from Horninglow Street? The court heard that the “accused was a product of Hitlerite Germany, and yet, despite the doctrine and teaching of the creed of the superior race he was not a Hitlerite Nazi.  In fact he had taken an active part in assisting victims of Nazi persecution.”  How I would love to hear Otto’s account of his war.

If the purported romance between Otto and Eunice does not impress you as a great Love Story, there were other contemporary liaisons formed between British girls and German prisoners which endured despite overwhelming opposition from their families and the authorities. June and Heinz Fellbrich celebrated their Diamond Wedding Anniversary in August 2007, their 1947 nuptials in Hampshire being said to be one of the first to have permission to take place between a POW and a British girl, following a slight easing of the anti-fraternisation rules.  Despite being given permission to marry his pregnant girlfriend, (a degree of fraternisation had evidently escaped the eagle-eyed authorities) Heinz spent his wedding night back in the Camp, only being finally released some six months later. When ATS Sergeant Monica Cann married POW Leo Ganter clandestinely in Shropshire some months earlier, questions about the misdemeanour had been raised in Parliament.

In their treatment of German prisoners, Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government seemed to be barefacedly flouting the Geneva Convention of 1929 which stated that at the end of hostilities all prisoners should be released and repatriated without delay. They were actually exploiting a “loophole” created by the circumstances of Germany’s surrender  - the Potsdam agreement was, technically, “provisional.”* But they had good reasons of their own to adopt this policy.  Food shortages were a continuing and worsening problem.  As many hands as possible were needed to work the land. During a parliamentary debate in April 1947, the Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, Mr Ness Evans, revealed the statistic that 163,500 German prisoners of war in Britain were currently allocated for agriculture, and assured the House that there was no intention of decreasing that number before the harvest. The Conservative MP for Leominster, Archer Baldwin,  spoke up for this sizeable army of forced labour in the debate, and enumerated the shocking fact about the “wages” they were receiving for their work:

It is of importance that the German prisoners should be kept at least for this season. We are desperately short of men. But after two years, I think it is time that these prisoners of war were paid appropriately for the work they are doing. It is disgraceful to think that these men are being paid twopence halfpenny an hour while farmers pay one shilling and fourpence for their work. We can never get good work out of these men if we are paying them in a disgraceful fashion which makes them slaves. We should educate them in the fairness of British traditions, and not give them the impression that we are keeping them as slaves after two years. Let my hon. Friend tell us that we are going to pay these men, not give them slave rates.

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The letter from Phyllis Chapman, county secretary of the WLA, confirming my mother’s placement in Lynn Lane, accompanied by her terms of employment including the modest wages she could expect to receive.

Mr Baldwin was active in the National Farmers Union, and may well have been as outraged by the “profit” on the prisoners’ labour which was being kept from the farmers by the government – a practice perhaps not confined to the employment of prisoners and displaced persons.  My mother, at just 17 years old, having joined the Women’s Land Army, also arrived in Lynn Lane in the summer of ’47, ready to work on the land, and under conditions which resembled, in some respects, those of the German prisoners.  As a trainee, and living-in (in the WLA hut in Lynn Lane) she was paid just 21 shillings and sixpence for her 48 hour week’s work – the princely sum of 5 and a half old pence per hour.  Under the supervision of the hut Warden, Mrs Brand, she and her colleagues were also accountable for their movements whilst not engaged in agricultural labour!

By the autumn of 1947 my mother was being courted by my father, and began straying just a couple of fields away from the hut in her leisure hours, to spend some time with her future brother and sister-in-law at the Owletts. She remembers Gerry Alfred as the first German prisoner she had ever encountered, and confesses to having been afraid of him, and not a little startled when she passed the open door of the outbuilding which was his billet on the farm, and came across him scrubbing his back, deep in a hip-bath of water, singing loudly in German. We can conclude that Mrs Brand kept her girls’ work parties well away from the Prisoners of War on the local farms.

Gerry Alfred didn’t want to leave Staffordshire when the time came for him to be repatriated.  His home was now in the Russian sector, and the Soviets’  treatment of the prisoners they had taken during the war was already notorious.  His apprehension about returning to Germany was probably very well founded, but it had been decided that repatriation should be completed by the end of 1948.  British men needed their jobs back now.

Rosalind’s account of the last time she saw him suggests that he was reconciled to his fate:

……it’s one of my earliest memories, seeing Gerry Alfred with his kitbag and an army lorry pulling into the yard with flapping canvas sides and men in the back singing and stamping their feet, leaning down to give him a hand up, everybody so happy, and me peeved that he was so keen to leave us.

* Some pedants might argue that the second world war only really ended with German reunification in 1990

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My early years between The Red House and The White House.

"In the rear view": Through my wing mirror I can see the erstwhile site of Red House Farm.  Those who farmed there are still commemorated, if you look for the evidence.

“In the rear view”: I know – I’m always looking back.
Through my wing mirror I can see the erstwhile site of Red House Farm.
Those who farmed there are still commemorated, if you look for the evidence.

Who is qualified to weigh the merits of only-childhood against the rough and tumble of a busier family life with siblings?  Or assess the benefits or dangers to a young child’s healthy development of lengthy confinement to the company of its parents alone? I am child-free. My opinions have limited validity. I can only lay open how it was for me.

For the first five years of my life, I was rarely in the company of other children, and even more rarely in the company of other little girls. On my father’s side of the family, my three cousins, are all, like me, only-ones, and were born a decade or two before I was hatched in 1961.  One of my mother’s four siblings had married, and although Irene’s three boys were nearer to me in age, I was still the youngest, and we only saw them a couple or three times a year, driving down to Worcestershire in my dad’s Ford Thames van, where my Aunt and Uncle made an interesting, hybrid living out of farming and running a pub in Powick.

On most of the fatherless, working, weekdays my mother and I had only each other for company, and the scope of my infant experience were the immediate environs of our orderly, ordinary, semi detached house and its well tended gardens.

The box of delights in the corner of the living room.  As captivating as my own fizzog.

The box of delights in the corner of the living room.
As captivating, in fact, as my own fizzog.
I still have that chair.

The outside world seeped in through the red brick walls of 155, Bosty Lane, Aldridge, in the form of radio and television broadcasts. The wireless was tuned to the Light Programme at a quarter to two in the afternoon, to receive Daphne Oxenford’s mellifluous presentation of Listen with Mother. The title seemed a perfectly sensible description of what we contented pair were doing, as we took our cup of tea, and glass of milk, in front of the Parkray fire.

At 2 o’clock, the next scheduled item would be announced, quite inexplicably to my ears, as Woman’s Ahhh! When the schools’ programme Music, movement and mime came on the air, I joined in with the imaginary other children prancing around the “hall”.  I could only imagine that by this they meant the small irregular space that our downstairs rooms led off, but felt faintly puzzled .

Spot the difference.

Spot the difference.

The nightly television news prompted further confusion. The versatile David Nixon was popular in our house and his career as an affable television host and expert magician was in full swing in the mid 1960s.  The simultaneous rise in the profile of American politician Richard Nixon caused me to conflate the two middle aged men on the tele’ into one truly versatile operator. I interpreted the  revelation that this paragon was intending to take up residence in The White House to mean that he might, in future, be very close at hand.  The White House being, of course, the large public house at the “top” of Bosty Lane, sitting at its junction with Walsall Road.

My father never drank in a pub, but as a treat, some evenings, fancying some crisps of some chocolate, we might walk up to the “Outdoor,” of the White House where a separate door to the building opened into a tiny room with a counter.  Such a facility was a point of interest at a time when no other type of retail outlet would be open much later than tea-time.

THe White House Public House today.

THe White House Public House today.

The White House is not completely without architectural merit. Its exaggeratedly tall chimneys, curving walls and roof-lines, and dormer windows, reveal it as a grand-child of “Arts and Crafts” design, filtered through Lutyens and that enthusiastic exponent of inter-war pub design, Basil Oliver.  There is a touch of a grossly overgrown Home Counties cottage about its profile.

A decorative band of tile work.

A decorative band of tile work.
You can see the nibs on the bottom layer, with which the tiles would be latched onto the roof lats.

Close observation reveals that great trouble has been taken over a decorative band comprising edge-on tile work under its eaves. The White House is now indeed white. A new visitor could be forgiven for thinking that was always the case, and that its name is derived from a prosaic description of the building.  That is not the case.  It has only been white for a handful of years.  The site where the pub now squats by the traffic lights was once “White House Farm.”

A quarter of a mile away, 155, Bosty Lane, with another family now resident in it, looks forward over an old hedge to College Farm and Berryfields Farm. Beyond this still-surviving Green Belt, lies the Black Country conurbation.  The highest point on the horizon is the plateau to the left where Dudley Castle sits, and even now it is obvious why the Norman knight Ansculf and his son William chose it as the site from which to oversee the lands that they controlled – including the manor of Aldridge.  A distant row of amber street-lamps, which twinkled on frosty nights, delineated for us where Walsall began, as my parents waved off their evening guests near midnight, clouds of Woodbine and Kensitas smoke shamefully billowing into the cold night air.  In September, the gayly coloured lights of the late, lamented Walsall Illuminations in the arboretum were visible too.

100_6722Despite the inexorable increase of traffic on Bosty Lane, (unbelievably, cows were still being driven down it in the 1950s) the view across the road remained a constant source of pleasure, and my dad photographed it, and even drew it, repeatedly, and in various weather conditions.   From their bedroom at the front, my parents could observe hares boxing on the stubble in spring, and a vixen hunting, dainty and dark against the snow in winter. Through both bay windows they watched the changing seasonal activities of the neighbouring farms for half a century, from when the house was newly built in 1957, until March 30th 2007 when we moved their furniture from this Aldridge house to a bungalow in Kings Bromley. By bad luck or by some design, that was the day my dear dad died.

How long, I wonder, did my dad imagine he would live in Bosty Lane when he was setting out the plot of his future home, the momentous day recorded on this photograph?

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My father, Ted Horton, (right) measures up the plot for 155, Bosty Lane.
Linley Wood is in the background.

I wish I could swing the camera around to the right, and see what the view looked like in the direction of the Red House Farm, north-east of Bosty Lane, then also undergoing intensive development into a housing estate. The 1951 Ordnance Survey map captures the layout of the fields as they remained before their post-war development, and assists me to imagine the scene.  The exact position of the farm house and buildings can be pinpointed.  Its land, recorded on the 1881 census as a sizeable farm for the day at 130 acres, was bounded by the railway line, beyond which were small abandoned colliery workings.  Before any of the new building took place, before the war, would it be the pit head gear of the larger Leighswood Colliery that was most visible on the skyline from where we three were going to sit at the dining table in the back room of 155, Bosty Lane?  The chimneys of the brickworks? Or was the 14th century tower of St Mary’s church visible across the mile or so of flattish terrain? “High Ridge”, the builders chose to call one of the roads on the Red House estate, but its supposed altitude is not perceptible.

Charles Walter Gretton, farmer of Red House, died in 1953, having retired to “The Limes,” in Leighswood Road.  His estate amounted to a respectable £9834 and 16 shillings.  Of this, £5735, 11 shillings and fourpence was his bequest from his wife Ruth, nee Myatt, who had passed away the previous year. Ruth’s family had farmed Red House before Charles Gretton married her, and it seems clear that ownership of at least some of the property remained in her hands. After all, she was a mature woman in her forties when they wed in 1905, and several years her husband’s senior.   In their names lie the origins of the names of Myatt Avenue and Gretton Crescent.  Between these little roads sit four blocks of three storey flats where chickens once scratched in the dusty farmyard of The Red House, and beasts lowed from the byres.

Neither the Myatts nor the Grettons had been local to Aldridge for very long, but there was a time when they dominated the farms around Bosty Lane.  Ruth’s father James, had been born in Wollstanton in around 1825, and was installed in College Farm with his family by 1861, when the census describes him as a “Lime Agent” – Lime working being, then, the dominant industry of the area around Daw End at the “bottom” of Bosty Lane.  By 1881, he had moved to The Red House Farm, which his widow, Mary would continue to run after his death in 1895.  James’ eldest son, John Myatt, was farming nearby Calderfields Farm by 1891.  John married Miss Dora Hellaby, a farmer’s daughter from Warwickshire when he was 40 and she was 34, their ages and acreages suggesting another ‘dynastic’ alliance. From 1901, John and Dora had moved a short way from Aldridge and farmed at Lynn, where their young assistant was none other than the Charles Walter Gretton, from Branston, who was to marry John’s younger sister Ruth and take over The Red House Farm for its last decades of operation.

Bonner Grove extends in a loop from Gretton Road and Gretton Crescent.  Sometimes thought to be named for Charles Bonner V.C., who had died so recently in 1951, the name nevertheless sits well with Myatt and Gretton, since the Bonners had been another prominent Aldridge farming family, moving in from Warwickshire in the latter part of the 19th century to The Manor Farm near Aldridge Church. Charles Bonner is proudly claimed as Aldridge’s own, and his ashes are interred in its churchyard,  but he was born in the Warwickshire village of Shuttington, and spent scant few years in Aldridge before going to sea. To neatly connect the Bonners to the Myatts, the 1881 census catches Charles Bonner’s aunt Catherine on a visit to the family of Dora Hellaby – later Myatt- on their farm in Grendon.

You might look at the scruffy Red House Housing Estate now, six decades later, and wish the fields and the farmhouse back, but the expanse of spacious new family homes, with their indoor plumbing and their surrounding gardens must have seemed a bright and cheerful new thing in the 1950s.  Beyond it, factories on the new industrial estates provided jobs in a clean and safe environment, and the detritus of the old coal workings was gradually being cleared away. The housing estate was provided with its own public house, “The Bowman”, the building a boxy affair, on which expense seemed to have been spared, unlike The White House.  Had architectural fashions just changed, or, just as the best views were afforded to the privately developed houses along Bosty Lane, was it just a question of it, so unfairly, not mattering as much what the working man’s drinking hole looked like? A little row of shops – shuttered and forlorn on a Saturday morning when I recently revisted them – were, in my childhood, friendly and appealing.  A fruiterer and a grocer were often where my mother shopped – “round the back” as we called it –  with her wicker basket over her arm.  Do you remember those now rare drapery shops which sold baby clothes, haberdashery and knitting yarn, which had wire torsos in the window displaying a pretty blouse or two.  Ours was run by Mrs Love and Mrs Lavender.  Love and Lavender, - it’s almost too sweetly appropriate isn’t it, along the lines of the apocryphal “Dr Payne”, or “Constable Lawless” ?

Redhouse Infants, and then Redhouse Junior School were where I scampered off willingly to begin my education, and my quiet days with mother were at an end.

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The introduction to Redhouse School’s 1972 Diary was able to say: ” The School Badge ["Persevere"] symbolises the aim of the school to provide a Christian Education in an area of progressive British industry”
The school no longer exists.

If you enjoyed this pavane for the area of Aldridge I knew so well, so long ago, you will love the pieces written about it by my schoolfriend from Redhouse, Linda Mason in her fabulous blog http://ramblingsofamadoldbaggage.blogspot.co.uk/

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Holiday

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Girl and calf at Owletts Hall Farm, mid 1960s

My Aunt Mary and Uncle Alfred “retired” from farming at Owletts Hall Farm at Lynn, near Shenstone in the late 1960′s, to the beautiful Llyn Peninsula in North Wales.  Taking on a small hill farm, with an ancient stone farmhouse at its centre, they seemed to be busier than ever.  Uncle Alfred soon built up a herd of the hardy Welsh Black cattle, and still kept a Jersey to milk by hand for the house.  Aunt Mary ran a thriving business offering bed, breakfast, and evening meals to visitors to the area.  We missed having my dad’s favourite sister nearby: We missed Sunday teas, and family gossip, and games of cards in the evening.  I particularly missed the farmyard at the Owletts, and the orchard, and the animals.

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His wife and daughter in North Wales c. 1970

But there were compensations, too.

I’m sure that we would have made visits to Mary and Alf wherever the winds of fate had blown them, but how fortunate for us, that when they began their new life in Gwynedd,  we could now spend blissful summer weeks in the beautiful mountains, with gorgeous sandy bays near to hand in all directions.

As a self-employed tradesman, my dad was only willing to tear one week from his diary in summer.  He charged unambitious hourly rates for his highly skilled work, and so there were financial considerations.  Also, disgruntled customers might grimace at the thought of a more than a week’s delay to the construction of their extension or stone fireplace.

A golden evening walking home under Craig Goch. Me and my dad in the 80's.

A golden evening walking home under Craig Goch.
My dad and his daughter c.1980

For 51 weeks of the year their needs came first, but now, on a bit of a busman’s holiday, my dad helped me to turret and battlement some magnificent edifices in sand instead of brick. We might spend afternoons evicting unhappy creatures from Criccieth’s rock pools to examine them, or trying our luck fishing for bass from the shore at low tide. Such days would still, now, be ample manna to feed a whole nights’ pleasant dreams. The days remain duller without him these past six years, but behind my shut lids the sea is bright and blue and the sand is golden, and the fleece speckled fields are green. The Welsh farm is still there, and is little altered. The little crackling thrill to walk this very summer where we walked together arcs straight to the core of me and has an astringent effect on my lumpen middle aged heart.

After over 40 years, I remain of the opinion that novelty is an overrated quality in vacations, and should season them sufficiently to provide interest, but not to provoke an alarming dislocation from everyday life.  If you are able to pay for a short interlude of “perfect days” that are tropically alien to those you normally endure, then I might argue that something fundamental needs to change.

A small, and manageably stimulating adventure.  That’s my summer poison.  Does that make me a true introvert or a risk-averse coward? I’m still so easily pleased  - by ticking off a list of dolmens, reached over anonymous, rutted Welsh fields – or pondering on medieval battles of which no visible trace remains.  Just glimpsing Cardigan Bay has remained an enduring thrill. Do you ever tire of looking into the eyes of a loved one?

An anxious child, awestruck by its beauty, but secure among my extended family, I saw Gwynedd in 1969 and fell in love at first sight.

Me, and Mom, and Dad were able to view the fresh remnants of colonial pomp in Caernarfon Castle following Prince Charles’ investiture that summer.  As the sun began to melt behind Holyhead, we bounced happily to what truly felt like home-from-home up the steep lane winding around Bwlch Derwin in the Ford van (me on a customised bench-seat in the back, peering forward from my windowless perch for a view of the fading ruddy glow.)

Reassuringly, the antique furniture, the china and the curios, were still ranged about a farmhouse kitchen (albeit of smaller dimensions) just as they had been at the Owletts.   A much more vast, inglenook fireplace was now home to the horse brasses – some of them the very ones which had swung and shone on the flanks of the heavy horses used on the Coopers’ Staffordshire farm in the early 20th century. Mary’s books about Staffordshire’s history were still on their shelves. Outside, there were still animals to be interested in: the Welsh Blacks, the sheep, the ducks and chickens. A biddable sheepdog and a traditional surfeit of cats.

More intimately than in the large milking parlour in Staffordshire, I could stand quietly, taking in the sweet smell of cow cake and disinfectant, and the rhythmical hissing noise of Uncle Alfred stripping the milk from “Jersey” into a foaming bucket.  What delight –  when the warm top layer of goodness was transferred into the old fashioned butter churn, and, cheered on like a panting athlete by Aunt Mary as I turned the rattling handle, I could cause globs of golden curds to form out of the liquid.

The final stanza of “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me

Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,

In the moon that is always rising,

Nor that riding to sleep

I should hear him fly with the high fields

And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

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Other peoples houses…

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“Wallingfen”; 81, Broadway, is now the Walsall Chiropractic Clinic.
The house next door retains the original style that is now obscured on number 81.

The post-war housing shortage was a bit of a Curate’s Egg for my mom and dad. It was easy then for any chap to find work in the building industry, and my dad, with a bricklaying apprenticeship under his belt, served at J.R. Deacon and co in Lichfield before his military service in the Welsh Guards,  was soon in demand as general foreman on some biggish jobs. On the other hand, in 1948, this young married couple, like many others, didn’t have anywhere to live. Mom’s parents didn’t like the idea of them paying out for a couple of poky rooms in a house near the Walsall Arboretum, and so they lived with the family in their 1930s council house in Bentley for the first couple of years, escaping, for recreation, to the farm run by my dad’s sister and brother in law in Shenstone most weekends.

Then Mom heard that a friend of a friend was looking for a “nice” couple to share her house in Broadway North with her.  Landlords could be the choosers then. What would be the ideal tenants? A childless couple,  both with good jobs, the wife neat, house-proud, and (according to Sister Magdalena’s letter of recommendation when she left school) refined and ladylike?

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Their last ration books – while they were living with Mrs Lee in “Wallingfen”

Mrs Hilda Lee found herself living alone at 81 Broadway after selling her late father’s grocery business in Walsall.  The family had moved to the Midlands from the East Riding of Yorkshire.  Mr Lee, whoever he was, had been a feckless type and the marriage had not lasted very long.  To all intents and purposes Mrs Lee styled herself as a widow. She was an independent minded woman, and had enjoyed a good career at the Tax Office.

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Mom prepares to climb on her bicycle in front of “Wallingfen” in the very early 50′s

Number 81 was one of an impressive development of detached, faintly Tudorbethan family homes which had been built during the wars when the new “Broadway” had been cut through the previously rural community of Maw Green, forming a ring road on the east side of Walsall.  Mrs Lee had called the house “Wallingfen” after her Yorkshire place of birth. My parent’s several years there, despite rationing and general austerity, have always sounded to have been very happy ones to me.  The spacious house, of which they had sole use of one bedroom and one living room, boasted an upstairs bathroom, carpets, and a secluded rear garden. The cinema on Caldmore Green was a short stroll away for weekday evening entertainment, and at week-ends they could set off on their bicycles to enjoy picnics, fishing trips, archery, or visits to the family.  Or on their tandem.  Which my dad also used to get to work – with a comical empty rear saddle.

As a very poverty stricken new graduate, one of my homes was, incongruously  in the hideously affluent Surrey stockbroker belt, where I shared a single room with my boyfriend,  and, in turn, we shared the house with another four people: two builders who said they weren’t gay and a Dutch couple. “Weycroft”, near Byfleet, belonged to the Ambassador of Somewhere, who evidently didn’t need it, and it struck me as the sort of house that the protagonists of an Enid Blyton story would live in.  The huge old fashioned kitchen was crying out for a bosomy “Cook” with a West Country burr who “did” for The Family, and there was a good acre of pergola and rock garden rich Home Counties garden. You could walk to a little lake, ruffled with water-lilies, where an abandoned punt swayed on a rope, begging questions about the fate of its last owner. The whole sepia tinted effect was ruined when a digger turned up entrench for new houses in the beautiful garden, only yards from the back door. Still –  my modest share of the rent was fair exchange for the opportunity of living in a house like that for a while.

If you want a really good story about the window on another world afforded by renting a little bit of a big house, I am going to refer you to my cousin Ros – whose experiences on the subject were going to be a short aside within this piece, but, encompassing as they do a unique, evocative and occasionally hilarious description of a Staffordshire Stately Home –  then in decline and now gone forever, have grown and grown into a real, live guest blog post!

Me and Crakemarsh Hall 

by Rosalind Cooper

100_6256I loved living in Crakemarsh Hall. I couldn’t believe my luck when I moved to Staffs Moorlands from the South of the County and found there was a flat vacant in this once wondrous Georgian Mansion. Okay, it was a bit basic. It was around 1966 so the bluey grey enamelled brute of a cooker on stout little legs was only about 30 years old, and the kitchen in which it stood was part of one of the many corridors. The draining board was wooden and a bit seedy, but there was room for a fridge and there was a bit of worktop.

 When I got the key from Bagshaws and went with Mum to view I fell instantly in love. I have long had an interest in history, so the opportunity of being a tiny part of this once prosperous estate was not to be missed.

 Turning off the Uttoxeter/Rocester road we passed a dainty little chocolate box gatehouse and drove a short distance beside iron park railings and past a grove of yew trees which lowered in front of the stable block, its clock stopped long since.

 Tyres crunching we swung round to the side of the house, there was a tantalising glimpse of the front with its pillared portico, but we needed the side entrance, up several stone steps between rendered balustrades showing some of the bricks beneath the crumbling rendering. The sound of the opening door crashed cavernously in the echoing reaches of the servants entrance hall, our footsteps reverberated in the emptiness as we crossed to the next door, pausing to push the timer of the lights illuminating a stretch of corridor from the front of the house to the servants staircase, which was a nice little C18th example., but you had to be quick to get to the top before the frugal timer clicked and plunged you into gloom.

The next corridor from the top of the staircase ran back above the one just traversed to yet another staircase leading to another level. There was a little natural light from a window looking on to the rear courtyard of the house, and a light-well beside this second staircase which led even further up to the very top of the house, but we needed to turn off through a door to the right and back again in the same direction as the first corridor. We were wanting flat 2.

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Flower Child. Rosalind, with companion. Her dress is Biba.

As we entered into the little kitchen, its further reaches were defined by yet another door, locked from “,my” side which led into  yet another flat accessed from the rear courtyard up an outside wooden staircase. From the kitchen to the right was a door leading into a long low bathroom,  a useful airing cupboard just behind, and housing a magnificent Throne at the far end next to the window, looking down onto the roof of my red Mini parked below, as did the wash hand basin in front of the window sill. Of course there was a monster bath on claw feet boxed in with hardboard. Part of my decorating scheme was to paint some “Love Baby” daisies on the cistern, gather some giant Reed Mace which I stuck in a big box of earth as a screen in front of the loo and some Art nouveauxey girls heads, full face, right and left profiles with tangling Medusa curls on the bath panel . When the Hall became derelict I was quite flattered to think someone had felt this panel was worth stealing.

On the opposite side to the bathroom two steps led down to a large bedroom with a capacious sitting room to the right. The windows to both were twelve feet high. They had wooden shutters which folded back into embrasures in the walls. They made THE most glorious clattering and rattling when they were closed and the iron bar dropped down to secure them. Who cared how much curtain material it was going to take !

 I used to imagine what the sound had been like as the house was put to bed by servants clattering through every room, shuttering window after window to keep residents and contents secure for the night.

 The house was an intriguing design of two three story ends linked by a two story range, and my flat was a cross section of this, with the bathroom overlooking the yew grove and stable block, and the bedroom and sitting room looking out onto the lawns and sprawling rhododendrons which sported the most massive blooms in their season. At the top of the lawn was a wood , and hidden within its shelter was a sunken ice house, only its domed roof obvious amongst the trees. The ice was taken from one of the lakes which was just beyond the rhododendrons in the park –  now grazing land. This lake would have been beside the original main approach to the hall, still visible as a dry hard area amongst the grass in times of drought. An old illustration of a previous house indicated it was tree lined and was accessed beside the now demolished South Lodge, the twin of the remaining one which we had passed when we first entered.

 At one point the lake was dredged and cleaned for the benefit of the angling club who rented it , and amongst the mud were hundreds of oyster shells. Yet another delicacy for the residents.

 A walk through the grounds showed just what a variety of foodstuffs was produced on the estate. There was an utterly delightful Garden House with little pointy Gothic windows. One of the originals was still hiding in the warren of cellars beneath the hall. It was intricately leaded and I am sure the building it came from considerably pre dated  the Hall in its present state… in fact another resident told me that when the present Georgian building was under construction, the family lived in the Garden House. The Hall had had several incarnations, there were Norman foundations in the cellars and the staircase in the front of the house was C17th – but more of that later……

 Around the Garden  House was a range of areas to keep the estate self-sufficient : a heated mushroom house; pineapple pits; peach, apricot and grape houses… and how I longed for  one of those great greenhouses with the robust Victorian mechanisms for window opening. There were two gardens for vegetables and fruit, walled with warm red brick; and a tall water tower- a vital component. At night I sometimes heard a Nightingale singing in the abandoned gardens.

 Along Hook Lane opposite the kitchen garden entrance was a “Halt” for the trains running into Uttoxeter, and when the family was up in London, the staff would take the fresh produce, especially grapes, up to the halt and despatch them to the capital for same-day consumption, and in times of glut – selling.

 What a huge number of local people found employment there, apart from  the army running the house, and the bevy of gardeners there would be estate carpenters, grooms , coachmen and manual labourers to lend a hand to anyone requiring a bit of muscle.

 But it was all gone.  Grass, rosebay and brambles suffocated the special houses, and fertile gardens , broken glass crunched underfoot in the greenhouses. The doors of the coach house where I had my garage were only just hanging on to their jambs, but I spotted in the stables the beautiful curved stalls with  round wooden knobs on their finials and wondered what beautiful creatures had turned their gentle heads to look at the grooms bringing their fodder.

The stable yard was cobbled sloping gently to a central drain, all grassy and overgrown, with some slightly worn areas indicating which parts of the coach house contained somebody’s modern day carriage. Mine was a red Mini which had cost me £450 brand new..

 Not everyone could have coped with living there I am sure…. coming home after dark and locking away the car, I had to teeter across the uneven cobbles without getting my stilletos stuck and then walk between the soaring dark yew trees to the steps leading into the hall where the light could be put on. The thrashing branches in a storm could be a little unnerving.

 Many of the flats were empty when I lived there, some at the back condemned as unfit for accommodation, but JCBs  Company Clerk and Chief Executive, lived in the first one on the ground floor :  Basil Catford and his wife Nancy – Known as “B” and “Sammy” . Joe Bamford had actually used some of the stable block buildings for manufacturing trailers before the earth began to move for him.

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Betty and Geoffrey engaged in the Herculean task of keeping the gardens at Crakemarsh tidy.

 He had been educated at Stowe, his elder brother at Eton, and he worked hard at pretending to be vague and ditzy, but had been a highly qualified engineer, and played rugby for England, somewhere I have a picture of him in one of those glorious early racing cars whizzing round somewhere like Silverstone or Brands Hatch… and one of him on a London street in full fig with top hat looking like the Man Who Broke The Bank at Monte Carlo.

 I did have a proposal of marriage from him but was regrettably unable to accept, as he was slightly older than my father, and by this time I was already caring for two nonogenarian parents and couldn’t cope with a third, despite being told that I would ” ….enter the Aristocracy under the Dukes of Devonshire and bear the name of Cavendish”….. ah me ! What might have been…..

 For one week I had the incredible experience of being sole resident. B and Sammy were on holiday, as was Betty, and Geoffrey had gone up to London on one of his jaunts and I had free run !… I had the key to Betty’s flat to keep a check on things. Her bedroom and living room had enormous bay windows, and between them there was a soaring arched doorway leading into Geoffrey’s part which I was also looking after. I cannot tell you the joy of my first being able to walk through that archway and onto THAT STAIRCASE…. oh who had swept down there in their glorious gowns… from Civil War to Flappers and slinky bias cut art deco vamps ……

It was a great broad descent from the galleried area in front of the archway. The whole thing was a riot of carving, each newel post boasting an overflowing basket of fruit and flowers, acanthus leaves swirling between each post. The first descent was towards the window on the front of the house above the portico, then a turn down to the right and a small area housing a weighty console table with a marble top and a fat gilt cherub clambering through golden overhanging foliage  , and then another right turn down into the entrance hall which it dominated.

 To continue straight ahead from the bottom step took you along to Geoffrey’s sitting room to the left and opposite the former ballroom. This now housed an antique bed of enormous proportions where visiting daughters occasionally roosted. Both rooms were entered by flinging wide ten-foot high double mahogany doors. What a way to enter a room…

 The fireplace in Geoffrey’s sitting room was white marble with a carved portrayal of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Daniel looking slightly chipped about the arms as if the lions had decided on a little snack. Either side of the doors was a pair of Regency bookcases recessed into the walls , They looked like rosewood with gilt trims , and some inlay. Sadly, they were some of the first things to go as Geoffrey ran out of funds. There was a black C17th display cabinet on stand which I admired enormously.

 The entrance Hall was impressive in a restrained way. Entering from the portico there was a pair of half glazed double doors, the bottom of the staircase was to the left and to the right sturdy pillars supporting the first descent of the staircase. It was the exact twin of Sudbury Hall staircase, though Geoffrey swore it was by Grinling Gibbons. Opposite the exterior doors was a hefty oval gilded mirror reflecting the light from the glazed panels, and indeed the identity of anyone who happened to be entering… maybe it was to give staircase-descenders the chance to bolt back upstairs if it was an unwelcome visitor. The area behind the pillars formed a small room and it was here where Geoffrey kept his porcelain , he was a noted authority on ceramics in The Potteries, particularly Longton Hall of which he had the best collection in existence… but that all went the way of the bookcases.

 In typical country house style walls were smothered with paintings and prints.. pictures of every description, until hardly an inch of vacant wall remained. On the side of the staircase wall was a copy of the triple portrait of King Charles I, from full face right side and left, and some priceless Moghul Indian miniatures given to an ancestor after service on the sub-continent.

 The most intriguing picture carried a curse. It was of a Victorian Worthy standing before a balustrade, I think it was of Richard Cavendish who had been the first of the Cavendish family to live there and he had so loved the place that he insisted that this portrait should hang there ” whilst a wall of Crakemarsh stood…” – and it did , until the staircase was taken out by the Bamford family along with the mahogany doors “for preservation”.

 Even then it still hung there, with bare bricks marking the former position of the staircase and facing the gaping doorway to the crumbling ballroom. Until of course the obligatory Toe-Rag cut it out of its frame and rolled it up under his jacket and sold it for a fraction of its worth. I wonder if the curse did befall him?. I do hope so.

 Betty Old and I actually thought for a fleeting moment that there was something in the curse when  the Hall was on the market and Mr Stott came to view and asked us  ” Why is that gruesome portrait left hanging in the entrance hall?”… I think my hackles and Betty’s rose at exactly the same moment. We asked falteringly ” Why… gruesome?”, ” There is blood dripping from the hand.” The most significant of looks passed between us before she explained the legend, but he wasn’t in his car before we were skittering down the staircase to check, hearts in mouths, but it was only shading on the underside of the hand caught in the light from the windows of the doorless ballroom. Phew!

If a fine summer’ s day happened to coincide with a day off work, attired in my bikini, I would unlock the door at the end of my kitchen and walk through to the far end of the empty wing and climb up to the top room where small windows opened directly onto the leads. I would climb through and stretch out on a towel , utterly hidden from the world behind the parapet which surrounded the roof.

 The view was stupendous, all across the parkland and woods over the ha-ha and down to the meandering River Dove and towards Uttoxeter…. pronounced variously Yew-toxeter; Utt(as in utter)oxeter; Geoffrey said something like Axe-eter and locals pronounced it Ootcheter which was probably the most ancient.

 There were various hefty ancient specimen trees dotted around and two lakes, but only one could be seen from my sun-bathing spot, the other being on the Rocester side. On the roof slates were scratched names and initials of workmen who had been proud of either building or re-roofing. Nobody had been up there for decades and I well remember an extremely startled jackdaw, of which there were tribes, sailing a thermal and aiming to land on the parapet, only to find a sprawled human in his territory. He quite distinctly said “ERK!!!” as he dropped off the edge as the quickest mode of escape. I did laugh but felt very guilty for having invaded his home.

 In the scheme of things it wasn’t an overly grand house, with only about 38 rooms I think. It was Grade II listed and I do not know to this day how it had got into the sad state it was in, although far grander Markeaton Hall in Derby,where Geoffrey had spent his childhood under the watchful eye of the fearsome Mrs. Munday, had already been demolished. There was a giant stone urn from the parapet , about five feet high, standing in the flower border as a keepsake  from his former home.

 Mr Stott bought the house  and I asked if I could rent the front part after Geoffrey left, but was refused and it was left empty and disintegrating.

 Across the road from the kitchen gardens was the Home Farm to the Hall, and I subsequently married Henry, the son of the Prince family living there. It wasn’t far to move my furniture and what I could carry over, I did.. Whilst struggling to carry my long case clock – works removed and already at Home Farm,- I must have cut a comical figure with my arms around its body and my feet tottering beneath. I met B coming back from garaging his car after work and he rendered me helpless by quipping as he passed ” I don’t know why you can’t wear a watch like everybody else.”

 But I was used to hauling and mauling. If I wanted a fire I had to carry my copper coal helmet down all the corridors and stairs and outside, through the yew grove and into the area at the back of the Hall which housed the Offices – laundry, bakehouse, brewery etc, and one range was the resident’s coal holes. By the time I had lugged it back up the stairs I was too warm to need a fire for a while. I used to think of those who had gone before me up and down all day keeping fires going throughout the house, a great cooking fire in the kitchen, the meat jack mechanism still hung in the chimney, roaring fires in the living rooms, smaller ones in the bedrooms. No wonder they had to employ so many people.

 Eventually it was re-sold and bought by JCBs and the staircase and mahogany features removed, so was then little more than a shell, and when the lead was stolen from the roof , it of course began to let in water, so very sad .

 The house was no stranger to sadness, old buildings all have witnessed their share, Betty had told me about the lady who had lived in the flat beyond mine who had lost her husband and would constantly cry out ” Why have you left me ?” accompanied by the mournful howls of her dog.

 Geoffrey’s father had been drowned when the Titanic sank, his mother and her maid were rescued in one of the lifeboats. She was a New Yorker, daughter of the Siegel Stores Empire and spent the years she lived as a widow at Crakemarsh removing the white paint from the staircase, I know not at what point it had been so decorated, but it was her life’s work to clean it off. She died a very few years before I got there… I was THAT close to being able to speak to someone who had been on The Titanic… though I expect there was an aura around her head which gave off the message ” Do NOT mention The Titanic”

 The saddest thing which happened to me was after I was living at Home Farm, and Chrissie, one of my cats, had been missing for five days, as a last resort I went into the Hall shouting her name….. and was answered by the most relieved little cries… ” I’m here !… I’m here ….” but the cries seemed to come from all over the house, inside and outside, and Henry and I could only assume she was in the labyrinthine flue system and her voice was coming down all the empty fireplaces in the house. She was desperate and cried and cried. Henry even made a hole in the horizontal flue in the kitchen and put cat food there, but to no avail.

 The following day I went and called again, but was met only by a thick silence. She must have died of fear, despair and dehydration.

 Eventually one wet and windy night with no electricity supply in the Hall a fire broke out in  the entrance hall, spotted by Johnny Walker the author of ” History of Crakemarsh” who was living in the Garden House and as a baker, was up in the small hours to get started early. The fire was put out and Henry later saw some partially charred straw bales had dropped down into the cellars.

 Now beyond saving, the Hall was demolished and new houses built on the site, I wondered if as the demolition team went about their work if anyone spotted the mummified body of my little Chrissie.

 

It’s a hauntingly sad note to end on Ros – but I treasure the whole story.  A very readable and comprehensive History of Crakemarsh by Johnny Walker tells the whole story of the settlement and can be found here:   http://www.search.staffspasttrack.org.uk/content/files/55/177/886.pdf

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For the love of trees

100_6211Advocates of HS2, a high-speed railway that is to link London Euston station to Birmingham and beyond, proclaim a short but persuasive list of arguments in its favour.

The opponents to the new line have a less coherent argument.  Many objections are based around questions about the official predictions about the costs, profitability and usefulness of the new line.  Most people won’t bother studying the numerical data to help them reach a conclusion, but few can fail to be engaged by discussion of the adverse impact of the project on the beautiful British countryside.

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“We all love trees.”
My affectionate, protective, congress with a tree in Footherley Woods, circa 1970.

Residents of the Chiltern Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty have been vocal about the detrimental effect of cutting a high speed line through their culturally and environmentally rich “back yard.”  In south Staffordshire we, too, are told that we have plenty to lose.  The “anti” campaign here has included emotive notices pinned directly to particularly beautiful, mature road-side trees which potentially lie in the path of HS2, pleading for their life.  We all love trees, don’t we? I can hardly count the ways I do.  Here, I sit a mile or two beyond the boundary of the part of the National Forest descended from Needwood Chase (its pre 15th century name), and I can identify from my little pantry window, the tree clad slope of Beaudesert Park on Cannock Chase.  Trees have never been so universally valued and nurtured in Staffordshire, and, at last, deforestation has been arrested or even reversed.  This comes after several millenia during which woodland has been plundered for domestic and industrial fuel, and building materials, or simply destroyed for being the  malevolent sanctuary of ferocious wolves and robbers, and the obstacle to efficient arable farming.  So very recently, even individual trees were still an expendable nuisance in the rural landscape, an obstruction to the widening track-width of agricultural machinery post-WWII, and grubbing them out was one of the jobs to be tackled on the farm in the “back end,” when other tasks were complete, even though from 1947, trees have been defended by the making of legally binding  Protection Orders.

The enclosure of woodlands, as of the vast majority of land held in common, was taking place piecemeal throughout Staffordshire during two or three centuries leading up to the turn of the 19th century –  sometimes by negotiated agreement between local people.  Even in those cases, the very poorest in society will have been further impoverished by the change – and denied the opportunity to life independent of support – by losing their rights to grazing and pannage for their animals, and to collect firewood and wild food, as each acre of land became someone else’s possession: to fence, to hedge, to husband or to neglect as they chose.  Motivation for the enclosures in the early 1800s will have included the cupidity of men, but it resulted in a dramatic increase in food production.

Enclosure remains a contentious issue.

An 1801 Act of Parliament extinguished common rights in Needwood, and it was clear that enclosure of the land and the felling of many trees would follow, swathes of destruction many times more extensive than HS2 may cause.

For every pauper family pitifully anxious about their future source of sustenance, it seems that there was a poet in rural Staffordshire, quill in hand, ready to laud the beauties of Needwood and point out its ecological significance as the habitat of naiads, satyrs, and assorted wood-nymphs.

In 1776, Francis Noel Clarke Mundy published Needwood Forest, a work inspired by fears about the imminent destruction of Needwood, which included poetic contributions by Brooke Boothby, Anna Seward and Erasmus Darwin.  The raw, sincere, feeling for nature in this work is fully in the Romantic tradition of Wordsworth, yet two decades before his first verse was published.  Here is yet another example of the prescience of the Lichfield polymath Dr. Darwin.

The Swilcar Oak was one several particularly magnificent ancient trees in the forest.  It towered beneficently over a natural grazed “lawn” between Newborough and Marchington.  In Mundy’s poem, he describes movingly how the tree itself might speak of its plight:

Huge SWILCAR shakes his tresses brown,

Out-spreads his bare arms to the skies,

The ruins of six centuries,

Deep groans pervade his rifted rind

- He speaks his bitterness of mind.

“Your impious hands, barbarians, hold!”

The words of the elderly, noble oak as he envisions the death of his brother trees in the coming holocaust, and offers, heroically, to sacrifice himself for them are very touching indeed:

…”Deaf are the ruthless ears of gain,

And youth and beauty plead in vain.

- Loud groans the wood with thick’ning strokes!

Yes, ye must perish, filial oaks!

In heaps your wither’d trunks be laid,

And wound the lawns, ye used to shade;

Whilst Avarice on the naked pile

Exulting casts a hideous smile.

Strike here! On me exhaust your rage,

Not let false pity spare my age!”

A volume entitled The Fall of Needwood Forest followed a few years later, bemoaning the failure of the cause. Swilcar however, was spared during the massacre, and he lived on for at least another century, for visitors to the district to marvel at.

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The landscape of the parkland surrounding Yoxall Lodge still gives a fair impression of Needwood as it would have been in the 18th century. Spring 2013

At Yoxall Lodge, the poet and Reverend Thomas Gisborne’s devotion to the forest scenery was publicised in his 1794 book of verse Walks in a Forest.

His campaigning against the enclosure of the forest has been overshadowed by his involvement in another contemporary cause: his friend William Wilberforce was his frequent guest, and the peaceful sylvan setting of Yoxall Lodge was his choice when working on his successful campaign for the abolition of slavery.

Gisborne also made a detailed botanical survey of the forest, and his collection of 600 specimens are now in the British Museum, and I think that he would be pleased with his legacy all round.

The Georgian House he occupied is gone, but the 175 acres of land granted to him when enclosure took place still give a fair impression of what Needwood may have looked like prior to the changes. When the Featherstone family, who farm there now, open the grounds to the public in bluebell time, your own Walk in the Forest is not to be missed!

Thomas Gisborne’s younger brother, John, shared his brother’s upbringing at Yoxall, his appreciation of the natural world, and exceeded him in poetic talent.  Lacking the Wilberforce connection, and of a pathologically shy and self deprecating disposition, his light has been firmly under a bushel for two hundred years.  He even destroyed the letters of praise he received for his work, including one from Wordsworth. He and his wife, Millicent, both of them gentle and delicate, were described thus by Anna Seward:

The second Miss Pole gave her lovely self to Mr John Gisborne, younger brother to the celebrated moralist and poet of that name. Mr John Gisborne’s philosophic energies, poetic genius, ingenuos modesty and true piety render him a pattern for all young men of fortune, and an honour to human nature.

From John Gisborne’s diaries, and the memoir that was lovingly written by his daughter Emma, we can share what unbearable anguish  this Georgian Nimby felt when he realised that the Forest would fall.

Holly Bush House, Newborough, is just a short stroll from brave, avuncular Swilcar, and had been a residence of Francis Noel Clarke Mundy.  In 1795, John Gisborne had purchased it for his family home, and observed with horror the coming developments which were to change his environment forever.  His daughter describes:

….Government gave orders for the enclosure of Needwood Forest, and Mr J. Gisborne,  finding, with his large and increasing family,  that he could not afford (without running a risk of injuring his family) to purchase some beautifully wooded elevations of the adjacent Forest, and which, if cut down would seriously injure the beautiful scenery surrounding Holly Bush; he resolved to sell his estate, as he could not bear the idea of a place to which he was become so ardently attached, being despoiled of any of its varied beauties, and which must be the case if he retained the property in his own hands..

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The avenue of lime trees leading from Orgreave Hall to its lodge on the A513. The trees would already have been a century old when John Gisborne moved here.

In the Autumn of 1806, Holly Bush was sold and the Gisborne Family became Lord Anson’s tenants at Orgreave Hall for the next 8 years.

Then as now, I suspect that he found natural, broadleaf woodland scarce just here, whether to comfort him in his nostalgia for the view from Holly Bush, or to remind him painfully of his loss.

Orgreave “meadows” had already been intensively farmed for many centuries, although a few older trees are dotted around the hedges of blackthorn, hawthorn and holly.

The trees which would have shaded him on his contemplative walks are the avenues of lime trees, placed by man and not by nature.  Beautiful as they are, I don’t feel that they would quite have hit the spot for him after living in the heart of Needwood.

A typically gorgeous Needwood scene near Dunstall.

A typically gorgeous Needwood scene near Dunstall. June 2013

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