Category Archives: Beyond the grave
The chances are, you’ll never have heard of it. If, though, you ever drive over to the east coast of Yorkshire from the Manchester area (or vice versa, I suppose), take a tip from me. Leave the M1 for a while onto the little-travelled B1217. It’s a pleasant relief to take country roads for a short stretch between the hellpit of the M1, and the hugely horrible A64.
The meandering B road passes an Edwardian mansion, Lotherton Hall, and bends through the village of Saxton. Past the Crooked Billet pub, the narrow road lopes onto rising farmland. Through tall hedges you will glimpse cornfields and copses in this particularly English landscape. Shortly after the hedges give up the ghost, you’ll see something of an anomaly on your left. A big old holly bush squats by the road, dark and gloomy and alien-looking. You can park nearby.
If you then peer behind the old holly, you’ll find an ancient, weather-worn gothic cross. No one knows who first put the cross here – it lay in a ditch for centuries before being righted again. On its base, amongst flowers both dried and fresh, you’ll see a recently added date – March 28, 1461. The anonymous inscriber got the date wrong: it should be the 29th. The 29th of March in that year of turmoil during the Wars of the Roses was a Sunday – Palm Sunday, in fact.
On that snow-driven day, perhaps the most significant day of the entire struggle for the throne between Edward and Henry, 100,000 men met at this place to hack, stab, slice, suffocate, bludgeon and trample each other to death. This was by far the most murderous battle ever fought on British soil, yet most of you will never have heard of it. A hundredth of the entire British population died in the blood-stained snow between dawn and dusk that day; almost 30,000 men – three times the number of casualties than on the first day of The Somme.
This was a horrific, bloody brawl. Imagine, if you can, the driving, stinging blizzard; the deafening racket of clashing arms and armour, the pleading of men, the screaming and howled obscenities; the stench of puke and shit and trampled entrails. If you fall, you’re dead in seconds, the life crushed out of you by the sheer weight of men jammed into this meat-mincer. If hell has ever been upon the earth, this was it. The death toll was so great, and bodies piled up so much, that occasional pauses were called in the fighting in order to drag corpses of the way.
The Lancastrians began to push the Yorkists back, and the core of the fighting drifted into a vale now called Bloody Meadow. If you walk up the lane a little from the cross, you’ll see the bowl of this small valley before you. The slaughter, unremitting, continued late into the afternoon. The Yorkists, led by Edward, the son of Richard, 3rd Duke of York , were outnumbered and outfought. They became ever more desperate as they gave way, inch by bloody inch, across the field. Then, up what is now the B1217, marched an army bearing aloft banners that displayed a white boar. These were the men of the Duke of Norfolk, whose fresh reinforcements pelted into the Lancastrians’ flank. The Lancastrians were stopped in their tracks, faltered, and began to give ground, tripping over the corpses of their own dead. The beleaguered Lancastrians bent, broke and ran like buggery. Then the rout began. If the battle was vicious, the rout added a whole new level of brutality.
Far more men died in the rout than in the battle. Bridges in the path of the fleeing Lancastrians shattered under the weight of armed men, plunging many to a freezing death in the icy water. Thousands were caught and mutilated, for it had been agreed in the parley before the battle that no quarter would be given, no mercy shown. Part-hidden, in a naked stand of ash trees, was the grim Bridge of Bodies, built of Lancastrian dead to form a dam, the rushing waters streaming with crimson grume. Panicked, hysterical men scrambled across the River Cock over the carcases of the fallen. From Tadcaster to Towton, the fields were strewn with corpses and body parts. The fleeing men made easy targets for horsemen, and foot soldiers killed many who had dropped their weapons and thrown off their helmets to breathe more freely. And all the while, the blizzard raged.
In 1996 a mass grave of more than 40 bodies was discovered at Towton Hall. It delivered the bones of some of the soldiers who had fought and died at Towton. The skeletons showed evidence of terrible wounds – there were some with at least 20 head injuries. They all died horribly.
“The thing that shook us was that these people had been butchered. Perhaps the most spectacular ones are where people have had part of their head sliced off, or their head cut in half. There’s much evidence of mutilation. That noses and ears were hacked off.” – Dr Alan Ogden, a palaeo-pathologist.
When you know the history of this place – the significant battle that took place here to decide the fate of the English throne, the awful toll it took, the hellish things that happened to thousands of men, you can’t simply stroll amongst the corn and enjoy the sun. The terrible deaths of those thousands haunt your thoughts. There are ghosts here.
“Walk in the margin of the corn as it is ruffled by the blustering wind. Above, the thick mauve, mordant clouds curdle and thud like bruises, bowling patches of sunlight across the rise and fall of the land. In the distance is a single stunted tree, flattened by the south wind. It marks the corner of this sombre, elegiac place. It would be impossible to walk here and not feel the dread underfoot – the echo of desperate events vibrating just behind the hearing. This is a sad, sad, dumbly eloquent deathscape.” – A. A. Gill, 2008
Arthur Harold Raby, my father-in-law, died on Tuesday 5th February. He was eighty-five. A bluff Yorkshireman with a dry wit, he drove railway engines for his whole working life. His final journey as a driver was an Inter City 125 express from London, terminating at Doncaster. Arthur terminated at Scarborough at about half past four in the afternoon.
This post is not so much about Arthur, however, as about his funeral, and the people I met there. East Riding Crematorium in Octon, near Driffield, is a quiet and beautiful place. Grassy lawns and reflective pools, and inside a lovely stained glass window showing a boat buggering off into a beautiful sunset beneath a rainbow. ‘Ship of Souls’ it is called, and made me think of the ending of the Lord of the Rings.
Amongst many cards we received was this from Arthur’s Salvation Army friend, Albert Skinner, one of only three people ever to be made an honorary citizen of Filey. “Please excuse scribble,” he says, in writing far better and more legible than mine, “But it’s not easy at 94.” Albert did attend the funeral, although it is hard for him to walk now, and he proudly wore his Sally Army uniform. The service was led by the lovely Major Susan, although I kept forgetting and almost called her ‘Major Barbara’ a few times, and once ‘Major Tom’.
I also had lovely talks with relatives not seen for a very long time, including a fascinating chat with Mary’s Uncle Bob, a one-time FIFA referee. He once sent off three players and booked eight in one match. For swearing. Imagine that happening now, eh? One of Arthur’s domino mates was an ex-goalkeeper who had played at Rawmarsh Welfare, the now-defunct football club next to the street where I grew up. We used to sneak in through a hole we’d dug beneath the boundary wall.
I called shotgun to sit in the front of the limo going back through the picturesque villages that dot the East Yorkshire countryside. Wood-panelled dashboard, gorgeous interior, and a driver who was also a grave-digger when he wasn’t driving. Another fascinating chat.
We’d arranged a ‘do’ at Arthur’s Snooker Club, one of the places he played his dommies, and a belting ‘spread’ it was. They also had Theakston Mild on draft – win! A tear came to mine eye when they told us that they have honoured Arthur by creating ‘The Arthur Raby Memorial Trophy’, to be competed for annually by the club’s domino players.
Arthur would have loved that. Sithee, Dad.
John lived down at the bottom of the village. A decade and a half ago, his wife left him. John descended into gloom and agoraphobia. He shut himself away in his house, alone mostly, although for some years he had the company of a pustular dog that was only ever allowed out of the front door on a long rope, in order to crap on the footpath. He (John, that is) was discovered dead a few weeks ago, having fallen headlong down stairs.
Today a couple of vans arrived bearing several men who proceeded to dress in plastic overalls and blue rubber gloves. Two of the men, let’s call them Barry and Vern, joked as they walked down to John’s house – they were here to clean it out, and they weren’t particularly looking forward to it. Now, I’ve not seen beyond the front door, but I did notice that they put their hoods up before entering, which may give an indication as to what it might be like in there.
Six hours later, the total remnants of John’s life had been dumped out by the road to await removal. A cardboard box of shabby Christmas decorations on the top was a particularly wistful reminder of how normal his life must have been once. Have you ever considered what you might leave behind when you cock your clogs? What will your Barry and Vern joke about as they carry your remnants to the dump? Which particular item will be your shabby Christmas decoration?
I thought I’d posted this already, but can’t find it in the archive, so maybe not. This is a film we made in 1966; directed and edited by my Dad. Last year I added sound and subtitles. Enjoy.
The chances are, you’ll never have heard of it. If, like us, you ever you drive over to the east coast of Yorkshire from the Manchester area (or vice versa, I suppose), take a tip from me. Leave the M1 for a while on the little-travelled B1217 for a short stretch between the M1 and the hugely horrible A64.
The meandering B road passes the Edwardian mansion, Lotherton Hall, bends through the village of Saxton and the Crooked Billet pub, and lopes on into rising farmland. Through the hedges you will glimpse cornfields and copses in this typically English landscape. Shortly after the hedges give up the ghost, you’ll see something of an anomaly on your left. A big old holly bush squats by the road, dark and gloomy and alien-looking. You can park nearby.
If you then peer behind the old holly, you’ll find lurking there an ancient weather-worn gothic cross. There’s no record of who first put the cross here – it lay in a ditch for hundreds of years before being righted again. On it’s base, amongst flowers both dried and fresh, you’ll see a recently added date – March 28, 1461. The inscriber got the date wrong: it should be the 29th. The 29th in that year of turmoil amidst the Wars of the Roses was a Sunday – Palm Sunday, in fact.
On that snow-driven day, perhaps the most significant day of the struggle for the throne between Edward and Henry, 100,000 men met at this place to hack, stab, slice, suffocate, bludgeon and trample each other to death. This was by far the most murderous battle ever fought on British soil, yet most of you will never have heard of it. An astounding 1% of the British population died in the blood-spattered snow between dawn and dusk that day, almost 30,000 men – three times the number of casualties than on the first day of The Somme.
This was a horrific, bloody brawl. Imagine, if you can, the driving stinging blizzard; the deafening racket of clashing arms and armour, the pleading of men, the screaming and howled obscenities; the stench of puke and shit and trampled entrails. If you fall, you’re dead in seconds, the life crushed out of you by the sheer weight of men jammed into this meat-mincer. If hell has ever been on earth, this was it. The death toll was so great and bodies piled up so much that occasional pauses were called in order to drag them out of the way.
The Lancastrians began to push the Yorkists back, and the core of the fighting drifted into a vale now called Bloody Meadow. The slaughter, unremitting, continued late into the afternoon. The Yorkists, led by Edward, the son of Richard, 3rd Duke of York , outnumbered and outfought, became ever more desperate as they gave way, inch by bloody inch, across the field. Then up the B1217 marched men bearing banners displaying a white boar – it was the Duke of Norfolk, with fresh reinforcements who pelted into the Lancastrians’ flank. The Lancastrians were stopped in their tracks, faltered and began to give ground, tripping over the corpses of their own dead. The beleaguered Lancastrians bent, broke and ran like buggery. Then the rout began. If the battle was vicious, the rout added a whole new level of brutality.
Far more men died in the rout than in the battle. Bridges in the path of the fleeing Lancastrians shattered under the weight of armed men, plunging many to a freezing death in the icy water. Thousands were caught and mutilated, for it had been agreed in the parley before the battle that no quarter would be given, no mercy shown. Part-hidden in a naked stand of ash trees was the Bridge of Bodies, built of Lancastrian dead to form a dam, the rushing waters streaming with crimson grume. Panicked, hysterical men scrambled across the River Cock over the carcases of the fallen. From Tadcaster to Towton the fields were strewn with corpses and body parts. The fleeing men made easy targets for horsemen, and foot soldiers killed many who had dropped their weapons and thrown off their helmets to breath more freely. And all the while, the blizzard raged.
In 1996 a mass grave of more than 40 bodies was discovered at Towton Hall. It delivered the bones of some of the soldiers who had fought and died at Towton. The skeletons showed evidence of terrible wounds – there were some with at least 20 head injuries. They all died horribly – Dr Alan Ogden, a palaeo-pathologist, said:
“The thing that shook us was that these people had been butchered. Perhaps the most spectacular ones are where people have had part of their head sliced off, or their head cut in half. There’s much evidence of mutilation. That noses and ears were hacked off.”
When you know the history of this place – the significant battle that took place here to decide the fate of the English throne, the awful toll it took, the hellish things that happened to thousands of men – you can’t simply stroll amongst the corn and enjoy the sun. The terrible deaths of those thousands haunt your thoughts. A. A. Gill said it well in 2008 –
“Walk in the margin of the corn as it is ruffled by the blustering wind. Above, the thick mauve, mordant clouds curdle and thud like bruises, bowling patches of sunlight across the rise and fall of the land. In the distance is a single stunted tree, flattened by the south wind. It marks the corner of this sombre, elegiac place.
It would be impossible to walk here and not feel the dread underfoot – the echo of desperate events vibrating just behind the hearing. This is a sad, sad, dumbly eloquent deathscape.”
You can read his full eloquent and evocative history of the Battle of Towton by clicking on this sentence. I highly recommend that you do.
I went a bit wibbly when I found this. I’d forgotten how much Ben’s happy grin made me smile.
oooOOOooo! Hah, were you scared? It’s your favourite ghost again – Wombat’s dead Dad, blogging to you from beyond the grave. As I told you last time, I wrote most of this down shortly before I died in 2003, so that my grand-daughters (and perhaps even their children) would know what sort of life we led in the dim and distant past. Today I’ll tell you something about my RAF career. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Starting out
In 1942 I was 16 and allowed to leave school. I had to decide whether to get a job, or stay on for what are now ‘A’ levels. I’d had enough of school, and decided to join the RAF as an Aircraft Apprentice. I passed the entrance examination, had a reasonable interview (during which it was decided which particular job I was most suited to), and was accepted into the service. I was told to report to Marylebone Station in London, and my Dad was sent a warrant so that he could obtain a ticket for us both to go to London, and a return ticket just for him.
In London, I took my leave of Dad, and a very polite Flight Sergeant got us all on board a train. He also made sure that we all got off again when we reached Aylesbury station. From the station it was a short ride on a rickety bus to our training station, Halton, near the small town of Wendover in Buckinghamshire.
We were to stay here for two years, after induction, learning the various trades that we had been assigned to as a result of our original interview. Trades included Fitters Class 2, either Airframe, Engine, Armourer, Wireless & Electronic equipment.
We did a LOT of square-bashing, in addition to guard duties undertaken on a rota basis. I actually quite enjoyed this part of the training, as it was not unlike being back at school (except for the square-bashing practices), and therefore not too dramatic a change. At weekends we used to go to Aylesbury or Wendover, either to the pictures or to take part in various sports and pastimes.
The best part of our training was the trips we used to get in an old Tiger Moth biplane that was kept on the airfield for training purposes. I love the feeling of flying high above the ground. Towards the end of our 2 years training we had to rehearse for our passing-out parade. This was endured by all apprentices who had passed their exams, after which we were given three weeks leave to await our first real posting.
At some point during the second year of training, some of our entry, including me, had volunteered (subject to our being fit enough and passing our exams) to train as aircrew (those who actually flew in the aircraft). We volunteers had to go to Birmingham for a medical exam and aptitude tests. I was chosen to train to be a navigator, but we would have to wait several months until the next course became available. I was pleased, but didn’t realise at that time (and the powers-that-be didn’t tell us) that the life expectancy of a navigator was just six weeks, dependant on what sort of a unit you were sent to. (Luckily, as it turned out, the war ended before I could be appointed to the navigator’s course, so I wasn’t needed).
Anyway, towards the end of my after-training leave, I received a letter posting me to Driffield airfield, which was a Base Maintenance Unit. We travelled to Driffield by train via Hull.
On arrival I discovered that it was a base for seven Halifax Bomber squadrons. Three were actually at Driffield (two Australian and one Polish), and two each at Lisset and at Leconfield, with a further airfield at Carnaby. There were no squadrons based at Carnaby – it had an extra-long runway so that any aircraft in trouble could try to land safely. It was also one of only three or four airfields in the country to have FIDO installed. This is a method of burning petrol through pipes with holes along a runway, thus dispersing any fog, and allowing pilots a better view of the runway as they were landing.
In January or early February of 1945 I was given seven days leave, and ordered to report to Blackpool for eventual despatch to overseas service! Ooer! I began to be both excited and scared.
Initially we were billeted in a guesthouse at Blackpool and after getting all our inoculations and vaccinations we were kitted out. We received tropical uniforms, a Sten sub-machine gun and ammunition (quite exciting in itself), and we were ready to go. We were marched to Blackpool South station at 8 o’clock in the morning, and arrived at the dockside in Liverpool at about 3 p.m. The train had taken seven hours to travel about forty or fifty miles! However, this wasn’t to be my last slow journey while in the RAF, as you’ll find out.
After we emerged from the train, we were then stuck on the dockside for an hour and a half with all our kit while the people in charge sorted things out. Finally, we were let on board a ship called the S.S.Britannic (see right). This had been a luxury liner before the war; the successor to the original Britannic which was one of Titanic’s sister ships. This luxury liner had now been conscripted as a troopship. We were directed to our various mess decks where the crew gave us a hammock each, and showed us where and how to sling them. After this, at about six o’clock, we were given something to eat, our first food since seven o’clock that morning.
I’ll tell you, that meal was the finest I think I have ever had! We were told it was a lamb stew, but all it consisted of was a billycan full of gorgeous thick gravy with loads of bones bobbing about in it, with a big hunk of bread. Doesn’t sound much, but it was beautiful!!
Soon after eating, we heard the engines start up and we were off into the unknown. Only the Captain and senior officers knew where we were going. It could have been the Far East, the Middle East, North Africa or perhaps even Italy. After struggling with our hammocks for some time, most of us finally got to sleep. When we woke in the morning we had a little breakfast, and crowded up on deck. And oh, what a sight!
There must have been at least thirty ships all around us. There were liners like ours all carrying troops; there were ammunition and war material ships; there were oil tankers, food ships and humble tramp ships, all gathered into one huge convoy, at the centre of which was the Britannic. The convoy was steaming along in “zigzags”, so as to provide a ‘moving’ target, and all the while the escorts – destroyers, corvettes and smaller gunships – were dashing up and down between the lines of ships, on the lookout for “U-boats” that might want to target us. Above us, aircraft buzzed to and fro, covering us until we were far enough out into the Atlantic Ocean to be safe.
After about three days we ran into a terrific storm (and remember that this was the Mid-Atlantic, in February/March). I think every single passenger on that ship was seasick for a couple of days. The smell was, how shall I put this, not nice. However, fortunately we soon ran into calmer water and nicer weather. Shortly we passed the Rock of Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean Sea. From here it was just a day and a half to our destination, which turned out to be Naples, where we disembarked to the transit camp to await posting to our various units. We stayed in this camp for about a week, and I remember marching up to the cookhouse, which was a hotel that had been requisitioned by the RAF.
When we marched up for our first breakfast after landing at Naples, we passed a corner where there was a huge pile of fallen pine cones, presumably swept from the road. As we got near, they suddenly started moving and about 6 boys poked their heads out and peered at us. They then rushed over asking for chocolate, or cigarettes. The Sergeant quickly chased them away, however, and carried on marching us to breakfast. When we emerged after breakfast, ready to go to our billets, we were amazed once more. A crowd of women, with raggedy children of all ages in tow, were waiting for us. They carried empty cans, and pleaded with us for any leftovers. We all scraped our leftovers in, and they devoured it. They didn’t care what it was, they were so hungry. For the rest of our time there, most of us kept something back from our rations to give them. Until then, I don’t think any of us had realised what conditions were really like for the native population.
A week or two later my mate and me were posted to a squadron which was stationed in the northern part of Italy. This was worryingly close to the front line, and all the fighting, so it was a worried couple of nineteen-year-olds that boarded the noisy Dakota transport plane (se right) that took us north. Immediately on landing we were supposed to report to the Adjutant’s office, but before we could get there we were forced to rush to the shelters, as German fighter planes were approaching the airstrip hoping to destroy some of our aeroplanes. After a few noisy passes over the airfield, the Germans either gave up or were driven away, but this start to our new posting didn‘t help our nerves.
Once the hubbub had died down, the Adjutant found us, and told us that they had just received a message to the effect that, because we were trained Fitters, we had to be sent to Malta where there was a Maintenance Unit with facilities for major repairs of the type we were specifically trained for. He apologised for this sudden change of plan, but given our somewhat frightening welcome, we were quite pleased about it.
The following day we were flown to Malta, met at the airfield, and taken to our new barracks. These were at a place called Kalafrana, which is on the edge of the sea. Kalafrana was used as a base for Sunderland flying boats. During our time there, whenever we were off duty we used to walk the fifty yards from our huts and swim in the perfect blue sea. When we were ON duty, every morning we were taken by lorry to our work place, which was known as Safi Strip.
It was just a small airstrip with one runway, but was connected to the main airfield, Luqa, by a network of small cart tracks that had been widened and equipped with blast pens to accommodate all types and sizes of aeroplanes. After about 3 months came the end of the war, and about 6 months after that we were moved from our seaside barracks to huts at Safi. This irritated us all, since now we had to wangle ourselves lifts on lorries in order to have our daily dip in the briny.
A few months or so after the war had ended, all regular members of the forces were given a long leave to Britain. Regulars were those who had volunteered to join – the rest, who had been conscripted, were not allowed this break, as they were soon all to be demobbed. Going on this leave turned out to be quite a journey in itself.
First, we caught an old, slow tramp steamer which went across to Sicily, then over to Italy, and up to Southern France, following the coastline all the way. During our voyage we passed close by the island and volcano named Stromboli, which was erupting at the time. It was dusk and we could see the molten lava oozing out of the crater and running down the sides of the mountain. I got quite homesick, because it reminded me so much of the slagheaps I used to see as a kid at Parkgate. Remember, I told you about it in my last blog? No? OK, here’s a picture to help you remember.
After we disembarked in France, we went to the usual transit camp – I think almost my entire military life was spent in transit camps. From there we were taken to the local railway station, where all of us were given piles of books, cards and games, and ordered onto a passenger train. The reason for these unexpected gifts slowly became clear, because we were on that blinking train for thirty-six hours. A day and a half in a compartment for 6 people – our sleeping arrangements were: one man (the more athletic of us) on each of the luggage racks, one on each seat, and one under each seat. Luckily, this was only for one night. The train stopped every five hours or so at special feeding stations for us to have a meal and a wash, and to visit the toilets. We were freed at about midday on the second day, when the train reached Calais.
We transferred to a ship, and crossed the English Channel to arrive in Dover at about teatime. We were then put up for the night in – yes, you’ve guessed it – a transit camp, and sent on our own way the next morning with our precious leave pass. At the end of our leave we made the same journey in reverse, as this tedious journey was run as a routine service, until all regular members of the forces had taken their end-of-war leave. In the winter, Malta was much cooler, and sometimes pretty cold. At these times, we spent our off-duty hours visiting Valetta, the Maltese capital. Although the war was over, bomb damage was all too evident. The streets had been cleared of rubble, but there were still many ruined houses and burned out buildings, especially in the townships around the dockyard. Our other activities were mainly sporting, my favourites being football, hockey, or table tennis. Football could be somewhat of a hazard as the pitches were made of rolled sandstone and padded shorts and shirts only provided small protection.
Although in Malta there was virtually no chance of any attacks by the enemy forces even before the war ended, we still had to do sentry duty. This was on a promontory on cliffs at the other side of Kalafrana Bay where we were stationed. We were given a day’s rations and taken up to the sentry post to do our guard duty. The rations were mainly tinned food, and included two tins of sausages. We often swapped one of these for a small sack of potatoes from the local farmer. We’d empty the sausages from the tin, then use the congealed fat left in the bottom to fry chips, cut roughly from the potatoes. To make a fire on which to cook our feast, we would use an old petrol tin about 30cms diameter and 60cms high. We filled it about three quarters full with sand and then poured petrol in so that it soaked the sand, which then burned nicely when lit with a match. It always made a lovely meal, too. We were in Malta for two and a half years altogether, and of course we were entitled to take leaves of absence, so long as we got permission from our Squadron Leader. During our first year, we went on a cruise! We managed to wangle three weeks leave on board a Royal Navy corvette. This ship toured the Mediterranean Sea, patrolling for ships which might be trying to get to Israel carrying illegal immigrants. If any were intercepted they were escorted back to where they came from. We found it an excellent way of touring the Med.
Our second lot of leave while in Malta came the following year. We were offered the opportunity to go for two weeks to Sicily, and stay in a hotel on the slopes of Mount Etna, a volcano which was still capable of erupting. We flew there in an old Anson aeroplane that was being used to transfer, well, anything that needed transferring really, between Malta, Sicily and Italy. When we got aboard the Anson, the weather was foggy (dangerously so, it seemed to me), and when the engines roared into life I saw that the wings started flapping up and down! A few of us expressed our worry, but the pilot just grinned and said that this was normal for this type of aircraft, and we should just relax. So off we went, but we were not relaxed. After about half an hour we landed at Catania, on the south coast of Sicily. We transferred to a lorry which had benches for seats, and rumbled off up the mountain road. It wasn’t long before we reached the snow line, after which it took about an hour to reach the hotel. We had a lovely time! We went skiing and explored the nearby woods, and made new ski runs every day. It snowed almost every night, but when it didn’t the sky was clear with more stars than I’d ever seen in my life. During the day, the sun shone without interruption so that we all became really sunburnt. However, so much snow fell overnight that the snowploughs were working every morning to clear the roads.
Anyway, after this I didn’t do much repairing of broken aeroplanes, as there were so many fitters there for the work to be done that I was detached to run the Station library. That job I enjoyed immensely, given how much I like books. However, all good things must come to an end, so after about a year of being a librarian, in 1948, six years after joining the RAF, I was posted back to the UK.
On the due day we were taken to the Grand Harbour in Valetta where we boarded the ex-liner Circassia. We landed back in Liverpool after an uneventful journey, which took a lot less time than the original trip outwards!
Next time, if I can summon up enough astral energy, I’ll tell you a little bit about post-war life back in Britain.
Hello! Pleased to meet you. You are looking well! Wombat’s Dad here! Now, since today is my 83rd birthday, my rather hirsute son is graciously allowing me some time to tell you a few things about my early life. Actually, I originally wrote most of this down shortly before I died in 2003, so that my grand-daughters (and perhaps even their children) would know what sort of life we led in the dim and distant past, and could compare it with their own. Now I’ve just tidied this collection of nostalgia up a little for this blog thingy (whatever THAT is when its at home) using a ghost writer. See what I did there? Little death joke to lighten the mood. OK, let’s get started –
My first memory is of sitting in my pram at Belle Vue Zoo, Manchester, looking at the lion. I was about three years old at this time, so that would be in 1929. Four years later I was a pupil at Netherfield Lane Primary School, and as usual on Mayday and Empire Day we were forced to pair off with a girl and dance round the maypole… Yuk! In those days the council workmen were more often than not repairing the roads with tar, and mothers used to send their children out to stand in the smoke and breathe the tar fumes, as it was believed that it would cure and prevent colds.
In the early Thirties, the milkman used to come round every day with a milk churn on a flat bed lorry. Mum used to ask usually for a gill (half a pint) of milk, which Mr. Milkman got out of the churn in a gill-dipper and poured into mum’s own jug. He had two sizes of dipper, half and one pint, so that he could supply any quantity of milk required. I also used to go to the Co-op at the end of the street for the weekly shop, and used to love watching the manager or his assistant making the pats of butter from the huge churn, which was kept behind the counter.
Another memory is of playing Street Hockey with a tennis ball and roller skates, when I was about eleven. At this time there were water meadows about a mile from our home, with lots of holes scattered around between three and five yards wide. We used to go down there on our bikes and play at scrambling in and out of the holes. Some were steeper and trickier than others, and we had quite a few falls whilst trying to master them. In the winter, the pools used to spread wide, and in cold weather froze. The locals went skating on them, and there were a number of fatal accidents. I never did this, although with some of my friends I went down and made slides along the edges of the ponds.
On the way down to the meadows stood the mighty Parkgate Iron and Steel Works, where ingots of iron and steel were made. At the end of this process a large quantity of molten slag (waste products) was left. The molten metal was poured into moulds and the rest was poured into large tipping wagons and made into a small train. This was then driven up to the top of the slagheap and then tipped sideways, allowing the molten slag to pour down the sides of the tip – a spectacular sight for young lads!
Another of our favourite outings was to go to a place where two railway lines were very close together so that we were able to see all the trains on both lines. The idea was to record the numbers or names of the engines (even though anoraks had not yet been invented). Most kids loved to put a penny on the rail when a train was due, so that it would be flattened and enlarged when the train went over it. People weren’t aware of the dangers of doing this at all.
During the autumn when the nights were drawing in and the days were getting colder, we used to go up to the playing fields where there was a high brick wall. There was a ditch running alongside the wall with lots of clay in the bank. There were also numerous frogs and toads living there, as well as minnows, newts and tadpoles in the spring. We’d get a lump of wet clay from the bank and make it into a box shape without a lid, then fashion a hole in the front. When finished it looked rather like a hut without a roof. Getting another piece of clay we shaped this into a flat oblong which covered the box so that it was like a flat roof for the box. A small hole in the lid followed by a hollow cylinder of clay formed a chimney. We then took the box home and if mum was in a good mood she would let us put it in the oven and harden the clay as potters do today. Next morning when the clay was dry we went back to the fields and got some tinder wood (there was plenty about) and broke it into small pieces. This was put in the box with some dried grass and lit. The smoke came out if the chimney and when the fire inside got going, the box made a lovely hand warmer.
Knurr and Spell
Another game which has nowadays been virtually forgotten was ‘Peggy-top’. In the Barnsley area it was played in leagues by the miners, but they called it by its proper name, Knurr and Spell. It was a bit like golf really; the players had a striker (in the proper game this was a pick-axe handle) called a Knurr, and the Spell, which was a piece of wood with a wedge shape at each end and about three inches long. A lump of flat wood or stone was also carried, for the same reason as golfers use a tee. The spell would be placed either on hard ground, or on the base wood or stone, and hit with a sharp downward stroke on the wedge end with the knurr. The spell would fly up into the air, and the striker would try to hit it as it came down and knock it as far as he could. Players took turns in knocking their spell to the end of the field and back, the winner being the one with the smallest number of hits around the field.
When I was about eight or nine I remember that every Saturday I used to be given spending money every week… one old penny! Doesn’t sound a lot, but it was of course, worth much more then than it is now. I used to go down to the shop at the corner of Albert Road and Hollybush St. and spend it straight away. My most common buy was to spend halfpenny on five toffees, my favourite flavour being ‘creamy whirls’. Another of my favourites was a sherbet dip.
To Auntie Emma’s Sunday mornings
From being in my pram until I was about twelve, I used to go with my Dad to Aunt Emma’s house at Rawmarsh (the district was nicknamed Silver City because the houses were all occupied by miners). We kids were always given a tasty glass of elderberry wine and a thick piece of moist fruit cake. My Dad’s cousin was also a frequent visitor. He was a member of the Magic Circle and spent most of the time he was there entertaining all us kids with close-up magic.
Stocks Lane Blacksmith’s
When we went home from Rawmarsh, if the weather was fine and there was time to spare, we walked instead of catching the bus. Our route took us up Stocks Lane and we were often lucky enough to see the blacksmith making the new horseshoes in the forge, hammering them noisily into the correct shape and size for the horse and then nailing them on. I used to love watching; it seemed so skilful.
Threshing Machine on the Island
When we lived on Hollybush Street, at the top of the road was a spare piece of rough ground surrounded by streets on each side, known as The Island. It was used as a playground by the local kids. Each September, however, the local farmer who owned the ground used to bring in threshing machines and all the associated paraphernalia, which was all driven by a Steam Traction Engine. The harvested corn, oats, etc were brought on horse-drawn wagons and loaded into the hoppers on the threshing machine. When the bales of straw were ejected out of the machine, men threw them onto a lorry to be driven away. Meanwhile, the ears of corn, oats and so on were sent into a hopper at the back of the machine where a man operated a tap to let the corn fill a sack. From there all the filled sacks went to the corn mill for grinding onto flour.
Back wall fair
At Hollybush Street there were three houses in our yard, and about three yards from the back doors was a brick wall about four feet high. When the fair came to the town, twice a year in the spring and autumn, me and my pals used to jump over the wall when we got home from school and watch the operators putting the rides and stalls up. The fair arrived on Tuesday and ran Thursday to Saturday, then spend Sunday and Monday morning taking the rides down and travelling to the next venue. As soon as we could after school on the Monday following a fair, we went to the fairground and searched under where the various stalls had been. If we were lucky, we would find a number of coins that had been dropped by the people attending.
We used to go on day trips quite often, mainly to Cleethorpes, sometimes to Bridlington, or Mablethorpe and very rarely to the Lancashire resorts, Blackpool and Morecambe.
I remember a day trip to Cleethorpes, when we got up at the crack of dawn and walked down to the local station to catch the steam train for the four hour journey. After a glorious, exhausting day on the sands, and walking round the amusements and shops, we trudged back to the station to catch the train home only to find a terrific queue for the trains. In those days, lots of trains went to the coastal resorts from most of the towns and cities east of The Pennines. You can imagine all of these people turning up at the same time to catch their trains home. (You see, in those days there were very few buses, and private cars were as rare as hen’s teeth. Only the well-off posh people owned a car). There were so many people waiting for our train that extra trains had to be put on, and all trains were also given extra carriages. In spite of this, our train was still so crowded that we had to go in the guard’s van (like an ordinary wagon with a roof on and a seat for the guard) and all we kids were lifted on to the pile of mailbags and parcels. Adults stood in whatever space they could find. We were finally settled in the guard’s van by about six o’clock, and we didn’t get off until half past midnight. Exhausted, we had to walk home to bed and then get up early for school the next morning.
Another day trip that I remember was to Skegness when I was about eight or nine with Mum and Dad and my Uncle Norman and Auntie Hilda. There we are on the right. That innocent little lad on the left, clutching tightly to his spade, is me, then Dad (Wombat’s Grandad, of course), Mum and Norman. Look how well wrapped up we are. Although it was supposed to be summer, there was a howling gale and it was really cold. After about half an hour on the sands we packed that up and spent the rest of the day looking in the shops and riding in the fairground to pass the time till the train arrived to take us home.
One other day out that sticks in my mind was to Liverpool on the train. In those days, in the mid-Thirties, there was an elevated railway which ran the whole length of the docks. If you travelled the length of the line, which was about 10 miles long, you could see all the ships which were in dock – tramp steamers, ocean liners and all manner of vessel in between. After we had ridden on the railway, we went to the dockside and Dad persuaded a man to let us go on board a liner and marvel at it.
In addition to the day trips we often went for a week at a time before the war to my Aunt Lily’s boarding house at Cleethorpes. For the first part of the war I spent quite a lot of the school holidays there. There was a roller skating rink where I went often. I made quite a few friends there and remember that they ALWAYS played “Blaze Away” when the skating started. I suppose that being a march it encouraged everyone to get skating quickly.
Another time I went to Uncle Horace’s for a couple of days during one holiday. His son was my cousin George and about the same age as me. They lived in a small village called Yarborough which was just outside Grimsby. Uncle Horace was a coal merchant, and one day he took us into Grimsby to the railway to fetch a lorry load of coal for selling around the village (there was no gas in the village at that time and most heating was by coal). On the return journey we had to sit on a tarpaulin on top of the coal, with a couple of sacks of potatoes for company. However, we had also bought in Grimsby a couple of spud guns, and had a glorious time perching on the coal firing potato bullets at passers by. It didn’t do much for the state of the potatoes, I have to say.
Just before the war I had an old ‘sit-up and beg’ bike which was in need of an overhaul. I was riding one day down Barbers Avenue on the way home from my friend’s house. I was also showing off by riding with hands off the handlebars. As I was passing the cricket ground the local policeman (who was not in uniform) stepped out and signalled me to stop! As I said before, the bike needed attention and the brakes didn’t work properly so I had to use my feet to help me stop. The bobby gave me a telling off and told me to get the bike fixed before I rode it again. He also told my Dad what he had done so that was another telling off and a week’s grounding.
On most Saturday mornings my friends and me would get up early and go to Rawmarsh Swimming Baths. We tried to get there at about opening time, half past seven, and race to be the first to get changed and be the first in the water. We swam all morning, usually staying till noon, and then made our way home. On the way back we ate our Dripping (beef fat) sandwiches – this was our breakfast which we had saved till then. This did not, however, stop us tucking in to a big dinner when we got home.
During my schooldays, we had an old-fashioned outside toilet which was across the back yard. There was no heating except perhaps for a smoky oil lamp in frosty weather. It was rough when you had to go to the toilet and it was raining, or even snowing hard and freezing cold. In those times not many people used (or could afford to use) toilet paper. We used to cut the daily newspaper into small six-inch squares, poke a hole in one corner, and hang them up behind the door on a piece of string. It was a bit rough and scratchy, but it did the trick.
Buses in winter
I went to Mexborough Secondary School, having passed the exams that were then necessary to go to there. It was about six miles from home, so I had to catch the bus every day. Incidentally the buses were known as ‘Tracklesses’ because although they were driven by electricity from overhead wires, they were, unlike their precursor trams, without tracks and ran on rubber tyres, just as cars and lorries do. Whenever we had a substantial snowfall in winter, all pupils who had to go to school by bus looked forward eagerly to a few days off. You see, no one used road salt then, only ashes or grit, and the traffic packed the snow down hard. If this froze then the roads became so slippery that the buses were withdrawn until the roads improved. If it thawed on the other hand, the roads developed potholes in the packed snow, which also caused the buses, if still running, to be cancelled because of the danger of breaking the suspension on the potholes.
Great! No school! On rare occasions when the buses were able to get through we used to have snowball fights while waiting for the school to open. One day we were having a good game throwing snowballs when I aimed wonky and knocked the hat off a Science Master as he came through the school gates. My punishment was six strokes of the cane on the bottom.
Just before the Second World War started I was at my Auntie Lily’s boarding house in Cleethorpes. About thirty minutes after war had been declared the sirens sounded and everyone expected the bombs to start falling, but nothing happened except that shortly afterwards two RAF fighters flew past, probably from Driffield airfield which was only a few miles away. No doubt the air spotters were being extra careful, it being the first day of the war, and no one was sure what to expect. In the early years of the second world war, most Saturday mornings about half past eleven I used to go to the shops in Parkgate to buy the family Saturday lunch (which we in Yorkshire called dinner). The shop was called Schonhuts, and though they had lived in Parkgate and Rotherham for decades, since before the First World War, they still had a lot of trouble from nutters breaking their windows because of their German name. I used to take a basin with me to Schonhuts and buy half a pound of Roast Pork for our Saturday dinner. It was still warm and had lots of gravy in it and on the way home the aroma was so tantalising that I used to pinch a small piece of crackling (unknown to my Dad, or it would have meant a smack).
… Blog From Beyond The Grave.