When war broke out in 1939, my parents Joseph [Joe] and Elsie Woods, my sister Beryl and I were living on the east coast of Norfolk at Gorleston-on-Sea. Along with many others we were evacuated further inland to Brandon in Suffolk. From this period I have memories of improvised picnics in buttercup-laden meadows and watching small fish from the banks of the Little Ouse. My efforts to capture one of these in a jam-jar were mostly thwarted by a vigilant and perhaps over-anxious mother. The Ouse flowed under a picturesque medieval bridge which, sadly, was replaced in 1953 by a new construction that, whilst being more ‘fit for purpose’, retained none of the original charm of its predecessor. For years the river had followed its leisurely, untroubled course past the old maltings that towered above that ancient bridge.
The Flint Cottage
On arriving in Brandon our first home was a flint-built, ‘two up two down’ semi-detached cottage not far from the local Methodist Church that we attended on Sundays. Our new-found accommodation, cosily settled at the end of a long, narrow garden off a spur of the London Road, comprised a living room and kitchen downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs. Each of the adjoining properties had a detached outbuilding – the washhouse – and an outside toilet. Standing in the garden and facing these conjoined cottages ours was the dwelling on the right-hand side:
My overriding memory of our first Brandon home was that it was overrun with mice. When I went to bed at night I could sense the mice running over the coverlet. I tried closing my eyes in an attempt to dismiss them from my mind, but if sleep would not come I would often go and sit at the top of the stair-well outside my bedroom door. I felt safer there. At the bottom of the uncarpeted stairs was an ill-fitting, latched wooden door under which light filtered through onto the bottom stairs from the sitting room beyond. This created a comforting doormat of light. If I was feeling particularly brave I would creep down the stairs closer to this light source.
From my stairway seat I could hear my parents’ voices beyond the door and I found this reassuring. As soon as I heard my mum or dad making moves to come upstairs to check on me, or to retire for the night, I would scuttle back into bed and pretend to be asleep. After my parents came to bed my trials continued for the rest of the night when the darkness was punctuated by a series of spasmodic bangs. This was neither bombs nor anti-aircraft fire, but the even more terrible sound of mousetraps being set-off at irregular intervals throughout the night. My parents had set these all over the house in a desperate attempt to reduce the resident rodent population. My maternal grandfather had contributed several of his home-made mouse-traps. These comprised a narrow tunnel above which hung a solid block of hardwood. On the floor of the tunnel, between the parallel side-walls, was a catch-plate attached to which was a small piece of cheese or other tasty morsel. These mousetraps incorporated a ‘trigger’ arrangement which was activated when the mouse entered the tunnel part of the trap and sought to detach the cheese from a pair of prongs fixed to a ‘catch-plate’. The slightest movement of the catch-plate released a wedge that was loosely lodged in a small rectangular aperture. The displacement of the wedge caused a heavy wooden block to fall on the unsuspecting mouse, killing it immediately.
The more conventional types of mousetrap were purchased from Woodrow’s ironmonger’s store. Waiting for the next crash became a sort of variation on the Chinese water torture. It was almost inevitable that just as I was about to fall asleep another one would be activated, thus prolonging my insomnia. My father’s first job every morning was to empty the traps, re-set them for the following evening and transfer the dead mice to the dustbin. I think that I was about six years old before I appreciated that mice were three dimensional creatures! They looked as though they had been run over by a steamroller. I had no fear of the Germans, for Nazis were just something that appeared on cautionary notices on wall-boards and in public buildings and who were regularly referred to on the wireless and occasionally in my parents’ conversation. They were mostly an intangible threat. The ubiquitous mice, on the other hand, were an ever-present source of fear.
Inside the wash-house was a brick and concrete copper for boiling the weekly wash, a mangle for wringing out the wet clothes and a ‘dolly’ for stirring the wash-load while it was still in the boiling water. The dolly was like a short broom-stick, but of greater diameter. Other essential washing implements were a scrubbing or washboard and a pair of wooden tongs for extracting the clothes. Nearby would be a box of washing powder – Oxydol, Persil or Rinso depending on preference or availability – a scrubbing brush with well-worn bristles, a bar of Sunlight soap and bags of Reckitts blue.
Monday wash-days were undoubtedly the most demanding day of the week for my mother. As I sat having my breakfast in the kitchen I would hear her cranking the pump handle outside filling innumerable buckets of water for the copper. The fire beneath the copper then had to be lit. By the time she had finished doing this it was time to see me off to school after having checked that I had not forgotten my gas-mask:
By the time I returned home at lunch-time the washhouse would be full of steam and water would be running, in innumerable rivulets, down its window-panes. What I did not appreciate was that during my absence my mother had agitated the washing in the copper, drawn it out with the tongs, heavy with hot water, scrubbed individual pieces on the washboard, rinsed and fed the entire load through the mangle and hung it out to dry. And, later on, there was the ironing to do. The only help my mum ever received was during the occasional visits of my grandmother. This heavily demanding ritual had to be undertaken every Monday morning whatever the weather. I can recall days when the washing froze on the line and had to be taken back into the washhouse to de-freeze. On such days I would linger in the outhouse as it was invariably the warmest part of our home.
I am shown wearing my new best suit ready to go to the nearby Methodist Church with my parents. Goodness knows how many clothing coupons this cost my parents. This suit was to involve me in a traumatic event not long afterwards. One Sunday, running home from Chapel in advance of my parents, I tripped over an uneven paving slab, fell and tore the knee of my first pair of long trousers. I don’t know who was most mortified – my parents or me.
We did not stay in the cottage for many months. My parents were soon looking for alternative accommodation in Brandon. The mouse infestation of the cottage almost certainly prompted the move. Despite my parents’ best efforts a hard core of the resident mouse population defied all efforts to exterminate them. The most they managed to achieve was to maintain the status quo. When we eventually moved it was with great relief that I discovered that our new home was rodent-free.
The Woodrow House
Our new home was a large house with numerous rooms at the junction of the London Road and Market Hill. Incorporated into the front of the house was Woodrow’s Ironmonger’s Shop. Mr. R. J. Woodrow, the owner, gave me my first employment. I must have been about eight at the time. Each weekday before I left for school and when I came home it was my job to sweep the wooden floor of the shop and sparingly replace the special sawdust that was spread over it, presumably to keep down the dust and to absorb some of the dirt and moisture from the footwear of the incoming customers – particularly on wet or snowy days. This oil-impregnated sawdust was called Dusmo and was delivered to the shop in large paper bags. Dusmo is a general purpose compound that allays and collects dust, whilst it cleanses and freshens the floor. It was suitable for use on untreated wooden board floors such as were found in Woodrow’s shop. Seventy years on, this product can still be bought under the same trade name.
To Mr. Woodrow I owed more than the very modest remuneration I received. When business was slack he would invite me into his office and show me a photograph album full of black and white prints of Tasmania which he had visited before the war. There were photographs of mountains, waterfalls and what I perceived as jungles, but that were really areas of rainforest. I watched fascinated as he slowly, and lovingly turned the pages. These photographic viewings were accompanied by brief descriptions of the various locations and a few words about their owner’s determination to settle there once the war was over and the time came for him to retire. I’m not sure that he ever achieved his retirement dream. During a recent conversation with one of Mr. Woodrow’s younger contemporaries, Charlie Wharf, I learned that Reggie had married a Welsh lady late in life and, to quote my informant, ‘was taken to the cleaners’. When this lady died Reggie went to live with his sister Doris once again. They had co-habited earlier in the Woodrow House which before the war had belonged to their parents.
My employer certainly deserved to fulfil his long-cherished ambition for he had served in the First World War at Gallipoli and during the Second World War, he not only ran his ironmongery business, but also filled the roles of parish ARP organiser and Head of Civil Defence. Occasionally I would hear snippets of conversation between my employer and a delivery driver on the price of petrol. As far as I could understand the increase to 1s 8d a gallon at the outset of the war and the subsequent increases to 2s 1½d had made a real impact on his business. But he would usually finish off with the rider, “But we must all do our bit for the war effort.” By a strange turn of fate I had received my first employment in an ironmonger’s shop and my father finished his working life – after serving as a trawler man, a stevedore, a saw mill operative and a roofing slater and tiler – in the same kind of establishment. I seem to recall that Mr. Woodrow had his own rooms in part of our house, but they must have been quite separate as we never saw him, other than in the shop. I recall him as being a very kindly man. Sometimes, when he was alone in his office, he seemed rather detached, as though his mind was elsewhere. Perhaps he was thinking of Tasmania. I cannot recall a Mrs. Woodrow. Perhaps his wife had died earlier. Was this the cause of his distraction? I must have been quite an observant little boy as I can remember the somewhat wistful look on his face as clearly as if it was yesterday. I developed quite an attachment for my employer. I think I must have adopted him as a surrogate grandfather – both my maternal and paternal grandparents had remained in Gorleston. By the same token I think that Mr. Woodrow quite enjoyed sharing with me the contents of his beloved photograph albums. Was I the grandchild he never had?
The following images show the London Road façade of the Woodrow house with the frontage of the ironmonger’s shop. R. C. WOODROW can just be made out above the large shop windows. There were fine views of the avenue of lime trees extending as far as the Avenue Cinema. The lush summer green of these trees, like the riverside meadows, was far removed from their wartime setting. Next to the corner on this side, and high up, was the sign shown in the second image. The third image below shows the Market Hill side of our property, looking out onto the square. The location of the blacksmith’s forge is indicated in red. Again, from the upstairs windows there were panoramic views of the square.
Our ‘front room’ looked out onto the market square and in one corner of this room stood a Morrison shelter. This had a flat top with a cage like construction underneath. When the siren went dad would remove the detachable side of the cage framework and we would crawl into the shelter. Once inside we would settle down into the bed which was always made up in readiness. My father would replace the wire from the inside and we would wait anxiously for the ‘All Clear’. Sleep was at a premium. Like my parents, I had learned to listen for the tell-tale drone of the Doodlebugs – the colloquial name for the V-1 flying bombs – and to hold my breath if the drone cut out almost immediately above us. Would the falling trajectory of the bomb take it beyond our house or not? We had only a few precious seconds to await the outcome. On those occasions of regular night-time bombing raids my sister and I slept in the Morrison shelter all night and when the siren went our parents would come to join us. Many of our nights were disturbed by our parents’ comings and goings. From the outside we must have looked like four caged lions – two fully grown and two cubs. The top of the shelter was often used as a table.
The front, or shop-end, of the house was connected to the back – where the kitchen was located and where we had our meals – by a long corridor. This was covered with a veritable river of coconut matting. It was so long that it had to be rolled up by my mother and steered along the remaining stretch of passage and outside the back door. Today, whenever I see a field with round bales of hay I’m reminded of the Woodrow house rolls of coconut matting. This then had to be dragged and man-handled over our heavy-duty washing line, draped in a series of fancy, pelmet-like, curves. Thus suspended above the yard my mother would attack it from both sides with a sturdy yard brush. The much flimsier wicker carpet-beater was totally inadequate for the coarse, and surprisingly heavy, coconut matting. Boudicca could not have attacked the Roman legions with more vigour than my mother expended on this thankless task! The very first glimmerings of an aesthetic awareness came into play at that time when I became fascinated by the intricate patterns formed by the dust that had worked its way through the matting. This residue from countless footfalls would be carelessly swept up and removed with a dustpan and long-handled brush. I can recall thinking, albeit in a very simplistic and ill-defined way, that that it was wrong that such beauty had to be destroyed in the name of cleanliness. It’s amazing what kind of memories are stored in that reference library we call a mind.
Because of the size of the property we had several Land Army girls billeted with us. My mother had the very demanding job of feeding and generally keeping an eye on them. She must have done a reasonably good job because several of the girls continued to correspond with her when the war ended.
As described above, the Woodrow house filled the right angle created by the intersection of the London Road and Market Hill. Sometimes the large U.S.A.A.F trucks that plied to and from the railway station, where they collected munitions destined for a large dump over towards Elveden, would break their journey on the main squareclose to Woodrow’s corner. These trucks were a magnet both for us children and for the local girls. Our interest lay in the sticks of chewing gum and more exotic commodities like pieces of chocolate and small squares of dates which our colourful allies dispensed from their ration packs. The older girls were more interested in dates of a different kind and if they were especially lucky, or perhaps particularly accommodating, a pair of nylons – the most cherished of all gifts – might be produced from the dark, inner recesses of one of the tanks. Our engaging transatlantic compatriots were viewed with suspicion and not a little envy by the locally based British servicemen. The aphorism of them being, “Over-paid, oversexed and over here,” was frequently applied. For my part I can certainly recall a certain buzz amongst our Land Army boarders whenever the Americans were in town. At such times I think my mother reluctantly accepted that on such occasions her role as guardian of the morals of her newly liberated charges was a virtually impossible task. I still have the mental image of a near-demented mother hen desperately trying to gather up and protect her chicks in a henhouse that has been penetrated by a family of foxes.
My friend Scamp
When we were living in the Woodrow Shop house I sometimes encountered Mr. Woodrow’s sister, Doris Rawlings. This was particularly so when I had my after-school job in the ironmongers. Doris had a small hat shop in the same building as the ironmongers. Her shop window was just round the corner from the London Road and looked out onto Market Hill. She also sold hosiery and other articles of female attire in her shop which I believe was rather unimaginatively called The Hat Shop. The pragmatism of this name was somehow very much of its time and reflected the austerity and highly focussed vision of the war years – no looking back to the past and a name like The Hat Shoppe or a more futuristic name like The Hat Box or Mad as a Hatter. No, this was plain, unadorned, straight-down-the-line The Hat Shop for middle class ladies who wanted to forget the war with a little indulgence in the local milliners. After Doris was widowed Reggie lived with his sister in a bungalow in Church Street. But it was not really Doris or her hats and hose that interested me, but her little black and white dog called Scamp. Scamp was very playful and I spent a lot of time making a fuss of him. We became real friends. I really loved Scamp and he always seemed pleased to see me when he came into the shop. Perhaps my love of dogs started during these sessions.
Next door to Woodrow’s, along the London Road, was the Co-op. The following is an early photograph of the Brandon Co-op. Leaving aside the dress of the female employee this is much as my hazy recollection remembers it. I don’t think the façade had changed much by the outset of the war.
On the opposite corner to Woodrow’s shop, at the junction of London Road and High Street was another shop with the somewhat obvious name of The Corner Shop. This hackneyed name, however, belied the many wondrous things that could be found in this general store. It was the occasional stopping-off place for sweets [before rationing really took hold] and if you wanted a postcard or an anniversary or greetings card this was the place. This shop was run by two spinster sisters – the Miss Owens. They were real old maids, but nice with it. They invariably had a cheerful greeting for my mother and father who, because of the proximity of where we lived, were frequent customers. Somewhat further down the High Street was Gentle’s the butcher’s which is where our family were registered. During the war everyone had to be registered with a butcher [and other retailers] and you could only shop there.
Now and again an extra sausage or two would be produced from under the counter with a meaningful nod and a wink. This was hurriedly slipped into the shopping bags while the necessary food coupons were cut out of the ration book and payment made. I can recall waiting in long queues outside the butcher’s with my mother. There was a newspaper shop called Green’s much further down the High Street near the bridge and a stand selling newspapers at the station. I can remember that the ration books that our parents had for Beryl and me were green.
Shortly after we moved to Brandon my parents obtained a place for me in the local dame school or kindergarten. I could only have been about four at the time. I have vague memories of my mum walking me to this establishment, but no recollections of the school itself. The experience could not have been too traumatic as no adverse memories have surfaced from my subconscious. However, the highly protective environment of the dame school had left me unprepared for the rigours of the Council School.
Almost as soon as I moved to the local Infants School [5-8 years age range] I encountered a phenomenon known as the Barnardo Boys. They were children from the local Dr. Barnardo’s Home who were brought in each day to attend either the Infants [or lower building as it was known] or the Juniors [the upper building]. New entrants to the Infants School were particularly vulnerable to the wiles of this group of street-wise children. The Barnardo Boys operated as a group. If one of their group was threatened the rest soon got stuck into the protagonist. Perhaps because of their background these children appeared to have a flair for intimidation. Before school they would wait in ambush to relieve artless children like me of their Id milk money or dinner money. Having a head of curly hair made me even more vulnerable. I soon developed strategies to circumnavigate this threat. These included finding ploys to delay my departure for school so that I would arrive just as the hand-bell was being rung or, when this was not possible, by offering my services to my form-teacher as soon as I arrived.
Eventually I achieved a kind of security by becoming the teacher’s pre-school class monitor. If you were caught by the Barnardos the only recourse was to hand over your milk penny and protest that you were not staying to dinner. Whilst this survival strategy seemed to work for me I knew of several village boys who went hungry at school dinner time for days on end. My early experience with the Barnardo Boys and my resultant deviousness undoubtedly stood me in good stead many years later when I was called up to do National Service. I was in possession of an extensive repertoire of strategies for avoiding parades and dealing with other forms of ‘bull’. I have no doubt that the Dr. Barnardo’s charity did their very best for these orphaned children whilst they were in their care, but as soon as they were beyond their immediate supervision they were a law unto themselves. As the Headmaster wrote in the school log book [Entry for March 8,1943]:
“I have had no case of theft among the Brandon children, but very many among the Barnardos. They are a problem, as the only means of making them pay is force. They are a demoralising influence among the little town’s children and I see no improvement. They are the only children I have to punish.”
In the main I got on well with the evacuees as they were reasonably well behaved. During the early stages of the war the school had taken in 84 children and 1 teacher from Green School in Tottenham. However, it is clear from other entries in the school’s log book that discipline was a problem for the Head Teacher and his staff – many of whom were untrained and on temporary appointments. The following two entries may give some idea as to the kind of problems that arose [Entry for October 19, 1942] & :
“I am having trouble with unruliness of children hitting or hurting each other and shall have to resort to corporal punishment. The lobby has been flooded 3 times and the dustbin emptied 4 times in one morning.”
The problem of flooding may be explained by the following entry [Entry for February 8,1943]:
“I find the drains are all blocked with large lumps of flint, the children have taken off the traps and filled up the holes. I have tried to clean them up myself, but with very little success. The next boy doing this will be caned, as we get perpetual floods.”
One of the great discoveries I made at my new school was the wall fountain in the playground. In the bowl of the fountain there were several heavy, metal cups which were chained to the wall. If you wanted a drink you simply filled one of these and drank until you had quenched your thirst. Or that was the theory. In reality more water finished up on our clothes than in these iron gourds. The durability of these vessels was demonstrated a few years ago when they were produced for me by the current caretaker. Sixty years on and they looked as good as new:
Calder’s Sawmill and Woodyard
My father worked at Calders Sawmill throughout the time he lived in Brandon. He was a sawyer operating one of the circular saws. I was taken to see where he worked on the crossbar of his bicycle on several occasions. I seem to recall seeing half of the circular saw sticking up through a long, narrow slot in the top of the flat metal surface of his machine. I cannot remember there being any guard around the blade. Indeed, I was shown how a spare piece of wood was used to push the plank being sawn as soon as it got near the rotating blade. No Brussels’ Health and Safety regulations then! My father’s experience of working in Jewson’s timber yard on the quayside at Great Yarmouth in the 1930s must have stood him in good stead for this job. I believe he still had his leather shoulder-pad from those days. This was used to protect the shoulder when unloading a cargo of timber just arrived by boat from Scandinavia, the Balkans or elsewhere. To get to the sawmill my father had to cycle down the High Street, over the bridge and the railway crossing and then turn left into the woodyard.
Dad and his ‘docky’ bag
Before my dad left for work each morning – he cycled in all weathers to Calder’s wood yard – my mum would prepare him some sandwiches for his lunch. He would put these in his khaki docky bag, throw it over his shoulder and set off cycling down the High Street. I subsequently found out that ‘docky’ is an East Anglian word that means ‘lunch’, but it also refers to how farm labourers had their pay docked if they took a lunch break. I also discovered that ‘docky’ is used to describe food given to a horse when resting from work. I am not sure whether this was a subtle comment on the quality of the fare given to their human counterparts! It is probably from ‘docky’ that we get the modern term ‘doggy bag’ for left-overs brought away from the table.
In conversation with Charlie Wharf, who knew my dad well, he recalled that he smoked cigarettes [most men did at this time] and that he had a fine sense of humour. Whilst he gave up the tobacco habit after the war he never lost his quiet sense of humour.
As mentioned above, we attended the Methodist Chapel in London Road. My parents were staunch Methodists. The Minister of the Chapel – I believe his name was the Rev. John Wiffen – was greatly admired by my father and had a great influence on him. It was probably largely due to this wartime encounter in Brandon that my father eventually became a Methodist lay preacher.
Summer Days by the Ouse
On warm Saturday afternoons during the Summer months, and at other times during the holidays, my mother would pack up a picnic lunch and we would head for the far Bridge Hotel bank of the river. Here the Little Ouse “glistened in a hieroglyph across the country.” Just beyond the riverside hotel gardens was a lush meadow full of daisies and buttercups. Close to banks the river was quite shallow and ideal for paddling. There would be lots of other boys down there, including some of the Barnardo Boys from the nearby Brandon House Hotel where I believe they resided. The older boys would be swimming across to the far bank or along towards the bridge. I was more interested in trying to catch one of the small fish in the jam jar that I had brought with me for the purpose. This had a length of string tied round its neck and I would trail the jar after the swimming fish as silently as I could. The fish were difficult to catch as they were continuously darting here and there. I usually managed to trap at least one fish, but I was advised to release it back into the river before we set off for home on the grounds that it would die in such a restricted area devoid of food. When I wearied of this pastime I would go and sit by my mother on the blanket we had brought with us. Sometimes I would lay full length – it was less tiring than sitting at right angles – and look up at the cerulean blue sky with just the occasional fluffy white cumulus cloud. This, I later appreciated, was one of Lawrence’s “white-and-blue days” when “big clouds, so brilliant went by overhead while [their] shadows stole along on the water.” Occasionally, a rook or a crow would float above us drifting towards the nearby woodland. At other times the hum of insects in the nearby grass would draw my attention. I truly believe that my love of the natural world was born in this meadow. These were halcyon days. At such times the war was a million miles away. The only reminder was when a military vehicle towing a long trailer with a downed aircraft carcase – covered over with a tarpaulin so that no one could identify whether it was one of ours – trundled over the bridge. At a remove of some seven decades I still look back on such times with a wistful nostalgia. If only my own children could have experienced this kind of beauty and innocence. But inevitably such joy comes at a price – and that price was the very real threat of invasion or lone fighter planes or bombers firing off a few rounds or releasing the last of their payload before crossing back over the coast. Perhaps we can only fully appreciate the beauty around us when it lies in the shadow of ugliness – a patch of rose-bay-willow-herb seen amongst the rubble of a derelict building or a wild flower growing beneath the barbed wire fencing of a concentration camp. I believe that Lawrence makes the same point in Sons and Lovers.
Pop-guns and Finger-Rings
At a time when pain – and even sudden death – was an ever-present shadow across our familiar landscape it is perhaps surprising that so few of my memories are of pain or injury. Early one morning, just after I had woken up in the Morrison shelter in the living room, I was startled by the cry of my mother as she missed her footing on the stairs and fell, in a series of sickening bumps, to the bottom, breaking her arm in the process. Her call was quickly followed by the sound of my father rushing from the kitchen where he had been having his breakfast and the Land Army Girls coming to her aid from their bedrooms. My mother had just taken the girls their early morning cup of tea. On another occasion I noticed the obvious distress of my father when he returned home from the dentist after having several teeth extracted. Such occurrences, however, were as nothing compared to the experiences of children living in or near the larger cities.
At this time my father had a small saddle on the crossbar of his bike and this was my main form of transport during the period of our evacuation. Of my father’s many attributes those that I can remember best were his skill in making pop-guns and fashioning finger-rings from fragments of aeroplane canopy glass. The overall shape of the ring was first cut out of a piece of aeroplane glass with a fret-saw. The inner aperture was created by drilling a hole through the centre and then enlarging it with round files of different sizes. The outer shape was finished off with a selection of flat, round and triangular files. Aeroplane glass had the virtue of being quite workable. I once took it to the Infants School where I showed off my treasure to the other children. I think I might have started a trend. Doubtless there were one or two fathers who blessed me in the following days. The pop-guns were made from the hollowed-out sections of the stems of elderberry trees and fired acorns.
Fragments of aeroplane glass were commonly encountered. They were a constant reminder – as were the long, covered trailers with the remains of downed aircraft that sometimes made a funereal passage through our village – of the proximity of war. The aerial conflict that raged above our heads, both during the daylight and darkness, became etched on our minds and eventually became an integral part of the wartime psyche. But even here there was a strange dichotomy. On the one hand the unrelenting ferocity of the aerial combat bespoke the sheer ugliness of war and the ever-present threat to civilisation as we knew it. The fragments of broken glass and twisted metal had no place amongst the acorns, the beechnuts, the daisies, the cornflowers, the rose-bay-willow-herb and the riverside meadows of rural Suffolk. And yet the complex pursuits sometimes took on the appearance of an aerial ballet with a strangely incongruous beauty of their own, totally removed from the conflict taking place. Perhaps only a writer of the background of Cecil Lewis or Antoine de Saint Exupéry could fully empathise with such an unnatural disunion.
Occasionally the ongoing conflict did impinge on the routine of our everyday lives. One day in the winter of 1942 my mother fetched me home from school as usual. We sat down to our midday meal and afterwards I remained at the kitchen table because it was too cold to go and play outside. [My sister Beryl was asleep in the bedroom and was going to have something to eat later.] Suddenly, we heard the sound of a low flying aircraft and gunfire close by. Mum made a grab for me, but before she could push me under the table, the aircraft was over us and the sound of its engines quickly trailed away to nothing. My mother went up to see if my sister had woken up, but she had slept soundly throughout this unexpected intrusion into our midday meal. It was only later when my mother went out into the street that she learned that a low flying aircraft – a German Dornier 17 bomber – had flown almost at rooftop level along the London Road and had then strafed the school and nearby buildings in George Street. Years afterwards my mother told me that the whole thing was over in a matter of seconds giving no one time to react or to seek shelter. She had heard the siren earlier, but had decided it was just another false alarm. At first she had thought that a plane that had come off worse in a dogfight or a returning aircraft in trouble was about to crash nearby, but when she heard the machine gun fire she thought that “it was one of our boys chasing one of theirs.” What had actually occurred did not become apparent until she had an opportunity to talk with neighbours. A first-hand observer mentioned that the aircraft was so low that the German aircrew could clearly be seen. In common with several of my peers I was kept at home for the afternoon in case there were further attacks. I spent much of this unexpected holiday crayoning in my colouring book. This incident must have made a great impression on my mother because, decades on, when reminiscing about the war, she would invariably make reference to the events of that winter’s day. My memory was hazy about what had happened –it was over so quickly – but with each maternal retelling I learned a little bit more. It was not surprising that this occurrence made such a lasting impression for this was the nearest our family came to hostile action during our time in Brandon. News had filtered through about odd bombs being dropped on nearby farmland [but no one knew how true this was] and we heard the occasional Doodlebug flying overhead, but the building that had been hit was only a few hundred yards from where we had just finished our dinner. That was close! Instead of the school’s cookery room being hit by gunfire it could just as easily have been our house.
Memories of such incidents are outweighed by recollections of long summer days with blue skies and the warm sunshine glistening off the surface of the Ouse. As we lay in the grass by the river’s edge we would become aware of the meadow grass being moved in a sea of ripples as a gentle breeze swept across the verdant landscape. I’m sure there must have been summer days when it rained and was cold, but such memories are mostly sublimated in the lighted cities of the child’s mind.
The Local Home Guard
Like most other men in the reserved occupations my dad was a member of the local Home Guard unit. On the opposite side of Market Hill was the Flintknappers Arms. Behind this was a long, shed-like building where my father went for Home Guard meetings. This was the Home Guard Headquarters building and quite convenient for my father who lived just across the square. My mother was never quite certain when he would get home from one of these meetings or what he would return with. I can remember my dad’s increased self-esteem – and my mum’s consternation – when it was his turn to bring home the Sten-gun that had to be dismantled and reassembled on our substantial kitchen table. Even then, to my observant eyes and already active imagination, there seemed something incongruous in the scene being played out before me. Here was my pacifist father struggling to master the workings of a lethal weapon of war. But this did not stop me taking a pride in my dad’s willingness to mount a last-ditch stand against the invading Hun.
At home we had an atlas in which there was a map of the world and I would study this earnestly trying to remember the names of the different continents and countries – many of which, at that time, were coloured pink. Seeing my interest in this map my father one day produced a large sheet of white paper. I’m not sure where he managed to get it from, for paper – especially in large sheets, was quite scarce at the time. Then, sitting down with me at the kitchen table he proceeded to draw a grid over the world map in the atlas and a similar, but enlarged grid on the sheet of paper. This sheet occupied a good half of the kitchen table. He then painstakingly, over many nights, copied the outlines of the smaller map onto the larger sheet, doing it all be eye, square by square. I watched entranced as this new world took form. My dad pointed out to me where Australia was and the nearby island of Tasmania about which Mr. Woodrow so often spoke. They were so far away – right on the other side of the world. Once again my world was burgeoning as I was introduced to new countries and islands. At that time I had no concept that one day I would travel right across that map and visit many exotic locations.
The Blacksmith and his Forge
A few paces from the London Road house was a blacksmith’s forge. From time to time my dad would take me along to the forge to watch horses being shod. To get there we would have to turn right out of the gate at the rear of the house and walk along the western side of Market Hill, past a sweet shop, a house – where the smith lived – that was a pub before the war, Lambert’s fish and chip shop to where George Smith, had his smithy. This was on the corner of Market Hill and Stores Street, just before the school was reached. The repetitive sound of a hammer on metal told us when George was busy with some project or other. I would watch entranced as the as the red-hot strip of metal was curved and beaten into horseshoe shape on the anvil. We jumped this way and that whenever the sparks flew in our direction. Once the shoe was shaped the blacksmith would take a special punch – a bit like a small chisel – and hammer-out a series of rectangular nail-holes along both of its sides. But best of all was when the finished shoe was dowsed in a container of water. The resultant sound was like a hundred angry snakes. I could imagine them leaping out of the cauldron and seeking refuge in the dark recesses of the forge. Despite the overall darkness of the forge I could just make out an assortment of hammers of various shapes and sizes, long-handled pliers and a number of ready-made horseshoes. I remember thinking that if I were the blacksmith I would use the long-handled pliers to capture the snakes. It seemed to me that some of the tools had not been used for a number of years as they were linked by shawls of cobwebs. On one occasion I noticed a strange, concertina-like object leaning against the back wall of the forge. I asked what it was. George explained that it was a pair of bellows and then proceeded to give me a demonstration of how it was used to increase the temperature of the forge fire or furnace. He then went on to say that he could tell what the temperature of the forge was – approximately – but the colour of the coals. I was allowed to hold the bellows and was surprised by its weight. I also noticed that while the main body of this unusual instrument was drab and dusty the handles were a much lighter colour – worn smooth by years of use. And this was how I came to be introduced to the enthralling craft of the village blacksmith. A few years later when I began reading the Arthurian legends I knew exactly how Excalibur had been fashioned.
It is strange how some early memories become completely sublimated in one’s memory. I had forgotten all of these events – I could only have been about five at the time – until quite recently when I was enjoying a production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. As I was watching Alberich forging the ring of the Nibelung from the Rhine gold, I was suddenly transported back to the blacksmith’s forge at Brandon. The sensation was so real that I could feel the heat of the furnace, see the myriad of cascading sparks like so many miniature shooting stars and feel my father’s restraining hand in mine. For an instant I marvelled at this sudden and wholly unexpected re-creation of a long lost childhood memory. It left me wondering just how much else lay hidden, like the snakes in the forge, in the dark recesses of my subconscious.
As well as being an accomplished blacksmith George was a remarkable character in other ways. He had four children of his own. When his wife died he married a widow with seven children and somehow they all managed to squeeze into the Market Hill house. One of the older boys, Lenny, who sometimes helped out in the forge, had been involved in a serious accident and had lost one of his hands and part of his lower arm. I had never seen anyone before who had lost a limb and when we got outside the forge after one of our visits my mum admonished me for staring. It was similar to the time when, several years later, I saw my first coloured serviceman. My world and my range of experiences were expanding.
One of my first friends was a girl with the same Christian name as me – Peter. I thought this very strange. But we got on very well. Peter was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Lingwood whom I believe owned one of the rabbit-fur felt factories. Such factories were heavily employed making fur hats and the linings for boots as part of the war effort. The industry had long been established in the Brandon area where rabbits found the local sandy soil conducive to the construction of extensive warrens. It is believed that the saying, “As mad as a hatter” was coined in Brandon. Additionally, Mrs. Lingwood was a J.P. and regularly sat on the petty session court hearings. The Lingwoods were clearly ‘a cut above’ most of the other families we met and my mother, who always had an eye for social advancement, actively encouraged our friendship. Sometimes I would be invited up to the Lingwoods’ house to play in their large garden, or to amuse ourselves on the heath near their factory which, if my memory serves me correctly, was a short distance down the Thetford Road.
In writing this account I wish that I had more photographs from the early 1940s to illustrate my text. But during the war years film and photographic paper could not be obtained for love or money. Moreover, anyone in a public place with a camera would have been suspected of spying and could have been apprehended by the local bobby or a member of the Home Guard.
If any reader can add anything to my account of the Woods family’s years in Brandon please do not hesitate to contact me via Darren.
 That stretch of road between London Road and what is now called Towler’s Court. To distinguish this dwelling from our later London Road / Market Hill home I will refer it as the Towler’s Court cottage. Although I was too young to remember it, I guess our postal address must have been London Road.
 I should mention that my father was in a reserved occupation, serving first as a fisherman on his father’s drifter and then as a sawmill worker. Before coming to Brandon he had spent a few months helping to man a barrage balloon post at Three Mile Cross near Reading in Berkshire.
 I think this was somewhere on north side of the London Road, just past the Avenue Cinema, going towards Lakenheath. I can recall playing in a large garden.
 Lawrence, D. H., Sons and Lovers, Heinemann, 1953, p. 271.
 Lawrence, op. cit., pp. 193-4.
 Possibly The Half Moon.
Peter has also provided some lovely text which sums up his time on Brandon. You can find it by clicking here.