I was thinking just the other day in one of my quieter moments, of all of the years that have passed in my life and of all of the many hundreds of people I have known and countless memories that are now just brief recollections of time gone by.
The most memories that really stand out are the ones when I was just a kid starting from when I was very young at 4-5 years old until I was getting on for 11. All were about where I lived, the kids I grew up with and the war which was going on all around me. I vividly remember the troops and the jeeps and armored vehicles and the dog fights and doodle bugs and the lights reflected in the night skies of London burning during the Blitz. I remember the soldiers of different nationalities that my family would invite to our house. One in particular, Henri, a French -Canadian cleaned and polished my shoes as we were all going out to the local pub a couple of miles down the road. I remember night times sitting in our neighbor, Mr Streatfield, shelter that my brothers and Father had helped to build, listening to the guns and planes and hearing shrapnel falling on the roof, waiting for the big explosion as a bomb might fall. As it happened, we were lucky. Later on, we had an Anderson shelter which is like a very large table made of steel, that sat in our living room. Some nights we would all sleep together under this thing, just in case. We lived just 8 miles inland from the coast in a direct line of the German bombers and fighter planes on their way to London and other targets and from our vantage point midway up the hill, could see the tracer shells at night that the Artillery guns were putting up in an attempt to shoot down the enemy planes and the Barrage Balloons during the day.
Early in the war, I often watched dog fights in the sky as the British pilots would take on the German ones. These were very brief and it was not unusual to see a plane fall out of the sky with a stream of smoke emitting from it. Luckily, none crashed anywhere close to me. Another time, I watched a British Spitfire pull alongside a doodle bug which were really Flying Bombs, get close enough for it to get its wing tip under the others wing and flip it over causing it to crash and explode harmlessly into the countryside. Such are my memories.
I remember sitting by the shed in the back yard and looking up as hundreds of planes, each towing a glider, on their way to Arnhem to fight another battle. I was too young to realize that many of those brave men would never return. We had a very tall and solitary Pine Tree that stood on the back corner of our lot and I remember the German plane that flew between my house and the next no more than ten feet off the ground just missing the Pine tree as he desperately looked for a place to crash land. I can even remember the look on the pilots face as he flashed by. He crashed a couple of fields over and was killed. I was probably the last person to have seen him alive.
Living on Huggletts Lane which was about a half mile long, there were several kids all around the same age and we would bum around together. I can remember the names of some of them. There was Ivy Upfield and her brother Radford, Tony Waite, David Farmer and John Holman who was a bit of a sickly kid as he suffered from Asthma. There were Nina and Frieda who were the first to explore the difference in the sexes and used me to help them which I willingly did without a clue as to what it was all about. My best friend was Dennis Baker but he didn’t live on the Lane but a little further down the main road in a place called Cade Street named after Jack Cade, a notorious rebel who was killed in that area by the Sheriff of London back in the 1600’s. With being such a close knit group as we were, it was no surprise that when one got sick with the usual childhood complaints, we all took it in turns to get sick. We had a local Nurse whose mode of transport was a bicycle and she would take turns in visiting us all carrying notes from one to the other as we chose to write them. The Doctor as needed, made house calls but he did at least have a car…
I remember many of the times I spent with my boyhood friends walking the fields and woods learning about Nature although to us, it was yet another game in the ongoing saga of the great explorers. We would leave in the mornings and come home late in the afternoon generally because we were hungry. We made our own fun and were never in need of entertainment. In the evening, there was the radio which we would gather around to listen to the news of the war and the wartime programs like Music Hall performed by people whose one role in life at that time was to make people laugh to take their minds off the terrible things going on all around them. I can remember when the entire family was sitting around the fire place toasting bread. We each had a slice and mine fell off the toasting fork into the fire and I wasn’t able to rescue it. That was the last of the bread due to the rationing and I went to bed hungry that night. Food rationing was something you learned to live with.
We had other excitements besides the bombers and doodle bugs when a Flying Fortress returning from a bombing raid over Europe flew over with one wing that looked like it may come off at any time as it flopped up and down. The Captain had ordered the crew to jump and they all floated down in a leisurely drop with one of them landing at the top of the Lane only to be met by most of the people that lived there all concerned for his welfare. He was OK and it was not long before the local Squire drove up and collected him to take him back to his home until the Authorities came to pick him up. We heard later that the pilot crash landed the plane on one of the temporary runways built for such events and made it out safely.
I remember learning to ride a bike only to have it taken away for a while as punishment for riding down the hill with my arms outstretched and not holding onto the handlebars, not realizing that my sister, who was looking after me in lieu of my Mother having left for America to marry a GI that she met, was watching from the window.
I was ten years younger than the my sister who was the youngest of her and two brothers. They all went off to fight in the war even my sister who was in the ATS. My oldest brother went to Egypt and came home with an Egyptian wife. My middle brother was invalided out with rheumatic fever from which he eventually died of a heart attack at a very young age. My sister was released on a compassionate discharge to look after the family.
Because I was the baby of the family, I never got to do too much with the other three but I remember one time that the four of us went out into the woods together and I managed to fall into a stream and get totally soaked. They happened to have an old bike that did not have any tires on the wheels, just the hard metal rims and Peter loaded me on to the handlebars and biked home as fast as he could. I can even remember that bumpy ride home which was worse than the soaking. When I think about it, it must have been really hard to get that bike moving without any tires.
In 1947 when I was eleven, the South of England had one of the hardest winters in history with more than twelve inches of snow falling and remaining on the ground for several weeks. During that time, I contracted an ear infection that left me deaf in both ears. I can remember sitting on the bus on the way to the Hospital for treatment and seeing a horse standing in a field covered in snow with icicles hanging from it’s mane. It was not there when I came home and I later learned that the farmer had put it into the stable.
There was a hill close to my home and following the snowfalls, all of us kids would congregate there with anything that would slide down the hill. The more prosperous of the kids even had real toboggans much to the envy of the ones that had sheets of tin or even large pieces of cardboard to make that trip down. Regardless of our means of transport, we all had fun. Snow in the South of England was a rarity as it is known as the Sun Spot of the South and generally has the mildest temperatures of the entire country.
I attended a school named the Round School in Old Heathfield. It is now called All Saints And St Richards Church Of England Primary School. The Head Mistress was a dragon of a lady by the name of Miss Ray who was very fond of her use of the cane, usually across the hands but for what she decreed as more serious offences, to the buttocks. This was administered in front of the entire class as a supposedly lesson to them all. By the way, I am no worse off for the corporal punishment meted out by Miss Ray
While we were in school, the older boys took it in turns to stand watch. We were supposed to ring the school hand bell which was a monster of a thing that was as much as one kid could handle IF we spotted any German planes in our vicinity. If we did ring it, the rest of the kids inside the school were all supposed to get under their desks. Sometimes, we would ring it just for the hell of it.
Besides learning the three R’s, we learned practical things like Gardening and how to use hand tools and we even put on school plays in which I got the lead role one time although, I can’t for the life of me remember what part I played or even the name of the play. I do remember learning my lines on the long walks home and practicing on my friends. I found the use of the hand tools very useful and would make models in the shed that stood in the garden. I truly believe that the basic hand tool schooling I got also served me well later in life and gave me the first ideas of what I might accomplish. My Grandfather had a cabinet shop in Heathfield where he hand made the most marvelous furniture so maybe some of his skills rubbed off on me. I like to think that is the case. I also remember standing at the bottom of Huggletts Lane as my Grandfathers Funeral procession drove by and I said goodbye to that wonderful man.
I remember walking the three miles to the school rain or shine, picking up others kids along the way until there was quite a crowd when we finally arrived. The walk home was the same except for those kids who had things to do or chose to walk with their friends. There were a few shops in Old Heathfield proper including a Post Office and a grocery shop where we could buy nibs for our pens as we used old fashioned pen and ink for our schoolwork. One of the duties of the older kids in the class was to keep the inkwells filled as the ink was apt to dry out. There was another shop that sold cigarettes and tobacco and one time, my friend Dennis and I bought a ten pack of Woodbine’s. The owner had no qualms in selling them to us as the perils of smoking had not yet been identified and everyone smoked. We found a place to smoke them each having five that we smoked one after the other. We had no idea of what we were doing and didn’t realize just how ill they were going to make us. Needless to say, that cured me of any future smoking and I have never smoked since. Sometimes, if we had any money, myself and others would stop by the local Tea Shop and sit and drink a cup of tea. All this before we were eleven years old. A cup of tea cost us two pennies each and the Woodbine’s for a pack of ten was five pence. There was an Army base on the way and we would stop in to chat to the soldiers whose main job was to maintain the heavy equipment. Our big thing was to get them to sound the very loud klaxon horns just like the horns on the modern day trucks and they would be happy to oblige at least once.
A bit later on because of the problems I was having with my ears, my doctor decided that I should have my tonsils out which meant a stay in a hospital for a whole week in a small village named Uckfield fifteen or so miles from my house. My Sister took me there on the bus which was also the way we got back home following the hospital stay. Luckily, by that time most of the air raids were over as the German Forces were on the retreat. So different than from today when a Tonsillectomy is just an overnight stay.
When I was a little older than ten, I took what was called back then, the Eleven Plus exam to see if I was smart enough to attend the local Grammar School which was located in Lewis more than sixteen miles away. I passed it with flying colors. If I had not passed that exam, I would have remained at the Round School until I was fifteen, then off to work doing goodness knows what, probably training to be a Carpenter with my Uncles Construction Company. As it was, the start of the next term saw me catching the bus at the bottom of the Lane into Heathfield and then getting on another Bus that took me into Lewis and the Grammar School along with about forty or so other kids of all ages between eleven and eighteen. The Grammar School was really directed to sending the smarter kids to college. Those that did not make College would get a very good education, much better than attending the local school even without the College. As it happened, circumstances later in my life really interfered with all of that education.
No longer would I take that 3 mile walk to the Round School which I had taken every day except weekends and holidays with the kids I had grown up with. The war had been over for almost three years. My oldest brother had returned bringing his new wife and started to produce a family of three kids which were all born by Midwife in the room upstairs. Imagine what sort of impact the screams of a woman in labor had on a ten year old boy as I listened to the wonders of childbirth going on in the room above me.
My Sister had been dating a Scotsman for some time and had then married and had moved out leaving my Brother and his growing family and my Father and myself. My Father met a woman who owned a Fish Shop in Heathfield and was dating her for a while. One evening, there was a knock on the door and a Constable was standing there to inform us that my Father, biking home in the dark from one of his interludes with his new lady friend, had been in an accident and was in the Hospital in Uckfield, the same one where I had my tonsils out. He was not seriously hurt and was back home with us a week or so later. This must have convinced them to get married which they did within six months and we moved out of the house I had been born in to the Fish and Chip shop on Hailsham Road in Heathfield. As is usual with most adult things, I was not consulted as to the future of my life and so ended my life on Huggletts Lane. With the exception of Radford who came into Hailsham one time, I never got to see any of my childhood friends ever again although I did hear that Ivy had moved to Canada. I sadly said goodbye to the first part of my life with its long supply of beautiful memories that I have no trouble in recalling and can clearly envision in my mind seventy years later. There are many stories still untold of growing up on Huggletts Lane. Would I like to be back in those times even with the war on?Apart from the obvious of being young again, I would have to say that yes, I would. Things were so much simpler then with no Internet or TV and we lived in our own comfortable little world the boundaries of which did not extend very far. Alas, there is no going back…
And so started the second phase of my young life but that is another story…