MEMORIES OF HARLESTON (continued)
1936 – 1942
We were crafty in the places we chose to have our fags. One favourite and secret place was in the wartime pill box at the top of Mendham Lane. Pill boxes were rapidly constructed about the time the war started. They were of concrete or brick with concrete tops, had one entrance, and slits in the six or eight sides for soldiers or Home Guard members to fire at the Germans if necessary. Inside they smelled damp and musty and of course used for purposes for which they were not intended. They were never used officially except for training and many still stand today.
The local Home Guard (at the beginning briefly called the L.D.V. – Local Defence Volunteers) was under the command of Rosemary W’s father who held the rank of captain. They used to drill on the meadow opposite the Drill Hall up Station Road I think on Sunday mornings. We would cycle there to watch, I suppose to the Mickey!
Alan and I seemed to have known all the girls in the town and there were many. Some, like Rosemary W and Jean B were away at school during term time. Many years later when I was a Beat Policeman I came across Jean B in Norwich when she was an elocution teacher. Rosemary W. I also came across in Norwich when her husband had a photographic business. Valerie S who’s parents kept the ‘Cherry Tree’ public house owned a folding, flat bottomed boat which she kept in the garden of a cottage on the river bank just into Wells Lane at the bottom of Shotford Hill. I believe it was Mr. Bowman a milkman who lived there. Alan, Valerie, another girl and myself had a trip down the River Waveney. I believe we were invited so that we launched the boat for Valerie. No life jackets in those days! It was a lovely warm day, the water was clear and we made a fair speed going downstream with two paddles but it was a different story going back! I don’t believe we were invited again, why I do not know.
Just downstream from Mr. Bowman’s was Shotford Bridge. Under it Alan and I spent many happy hours fishing for dace, roach, gudgeons and probably perch. The summer holidays always seemed to be sunny and hot. At harvest time the word would go round that a certain corn field was being cut and we would chase there on our bikes with sticks hoping to catch a rabbit as they ran from the last piece of uncut corn. I don’t think either of us ever caught one but it was fun trying.
At some stage I was given a cycle. It was second hand and was tidied up for my birthday. This was in the cycle shop, Feaviours, a couple of doors down the street from our house. I spent a lot of time in the workshop at the back of the shop while the man cleaned up and painted what was to be my cycle. Oh the joy when I went with my father to collect it one Friday evening after he had been paid. Unfortunately some black paint on the handlebars was not dry, resulting in me getting some on my hands, much to Mum’s disgust!
Alan’s Dad had been in business at the old mill at the Thoroughfare making potted meats but the business had closed. Alan and I were still able to get into the mill. There we found greaseproof bags and various spices and peppers. We would make ‘bombs’ to throw at our enemies but I don’t think we ever did actually throw them! During the war the mill was used by Sometimes Denis L from next door and I would go off on our bikes usually on Saturdays armed with my copy of ‘Bacon’s Cyclists Map of Norfolk’. We would find churches and try to get up their towers but we weren’t lucky very often. However on this map I would mark the locations of airfields and army camps which would have been a boon to enemy spies! Denis and I befriended a farmer’s son, Kenny K. We devised a most dangerous game of creeping about in the farm buildings noiselessly until spotting one of the others. We would then through a dart not at but close to the other person. On an occasion Denis threw one which hit me in the leg and that was the end of that silly, dangerous game.
I was very envious of Alan when his father took the family to an Air Show on Empire Day, I believe May 24th 1938. Afterwards he told me of all the planes they had seen. As Alan had two brothers and a sister they had birthday and Christmas parties to which I was invited. My favourite party game was ‘Post man’s Knock’ getting the girls in the cupboard under the stairs. I wasn’t able to have parties as my mother was rather disabled even then. I would be allowed to have one friend for tea on special occasions. I liked Christmas when Dad would put up a Christmas tree in one corner of the front room and presents would lay underneath. The front room was only used on special occasions. A fire would be lit making it warm and cosy after a while. There was of course no television in those days, only a radio powered by a wet accumulator. I would have to take the discharged one to a garage (Knights?) on London Road and bring back a freshly charged one. This would happen every two weeks.
One Christmas present I remember was a shooting game where a thin cord was fastened high on the picture rail on one wall and low at the other side. Cardboard ducks would slide down the cord and I fired a gun which shot elastic bands at the ducks. Another present I remember was the book ‘Treasure Island’ which had been packed in a box smelling of California Poppy perfume. I remember another Christmas time a few years later when we were living at Methwold. I was determined to find my presents because I had seen my uncle from Thetford surreptitiously bring a large cardboard box over. Eventually I found it and investigated its contents which of course spoiled things as there was no surprise. The box contained some model aircraft made from balsa wood and a genuine French Army helmet.
At the beginning of the war, about October 1939, there was a big government campaign to ‘Dig for Victory’ encouraging the growing of vegetables at home. Alan had an allotment on a small field at the rear of his home. The field belonged to a local builder. At the other side of the field was an orchard also belonging to the builder. On an occasion his two daughters and another girl were playing in the orchard. Alan wasn’t there much to his disappointment but I was with his two brothers Ron and John. We played with the girls in the nicest possible way of course! I seem to remember they danced for our entertainment and then there was a game something like doctors and nurses but I best leave it at that!
During the war all sorts of commodities were short. I was ill on one occasion and my mother was so pleased she was able to buy a few bananas from the greengrocer for my benefit. Anything like that was very scarce and rationed. This was in wintertime and the bananas had come from the Canary Isles. Another time Mum was able to buy a few tomatoes which smelled of straw. In the summer time I would be sent to some nurseries up the yard beside a private school for girls. They wore purple blazers, also straw hats in the summer. A land army girl would sell me some tomatoes from the greenhouses. They smelled warm, greeny and cost one shilling and two pence a pound. To the right of the alleyway was a shop selling crockery and gifts. I used to buy presents from there for my mother. I particularly remember a jug coloured in primrose yellow and green . It was still about some twenty or thirty years after.
A little bit of history, in an alleyway between Broad Street and the Thoroughfare was a very large stone. It was called Harold’s or Herolfs Stone and history would have it that this was a mounting block used by King Harold and it has been suggested that Harleston got it’s name from it.
One lesson we had at school was about China so Mum bought some China tea which wasn’t very nice as it was perfumed. We couldn’t waste it but I was glad when it was finished. Once on a special occasion we all walked from school up to the Methodist Chapel just into Mendham Lane for a slide show. I haven’t a clue what it was about, no doubt I was mucking about as usual! Up a yard somewhere about here lived to girls we fancied. One was thin and the other plumpish. We would cycle round and round hoping to see them but nothing developed.
Like several of the other boys, I was in the choir at St. John the Baptist’s church, Harleston. The choirmaster and organist was Mr. Allured. He had two sisters, one of whom was Clare. They all lived in Broad Street and had a budgerigar which plucked out all its feathers so the ladies knitted it a little coat. It could talk though. I would get dragged round there sometimes by Mum after church while the ladies chatted. Choir practice was once a week. We were paid a few pence for each attendance and this was saved towards our annual summer outing. The only one that I remember was to Clacton by coach. It must have been the summer when war broke out on September 3rd. 1939. I don’t remember any other outings like that. On the Clacton Sunday School outing Denis L. and I each bought fishing lines on wooden frames to try our luck catching crabs off the pier. I don’t know what we used for bait but we didn’t catch anything. Also we each bought a Dinky toy model. Mine was a green petrol tanker. Denis pulled the top off mine so he was made to swap. We would spend a lot of time with our collections of Dinky toys on the concrete in the back yard of the police houses.
One summer my parents took me on holiday, I believe that also was in 1939. Dad had bought his first car, a Morris, blue and black. We stayed at a bed and breakfast house on Lawn Avenue, Great Yarmouth. Oddly my eldest son Kalvin lives on the same road now. The house backed onto the River Yare and at low tide there was a strong smell of sewage from the mud! My favourite breakfast was kippers and my favourite past time was sailing my model yacht on the paddle boat lake along the sea front.. It frequently got run over by the paddle boats but it soon righted itself again. It was light blue with white sails. A clear memory I have is of a boat trip with my parents along the illuminated waterway one evening after dark. It was magic. The boat loaded with sightseers slowly chugged and wended its way along the waterway. On the banks were lighted images of flowers, fish, birds and all sorts of pretty things.
As a choirboy in the early part of the war to while away the long sermons I used to draw German and British planes in battle on the white pages of the hymn and prayer books. I would change my seat the following Sunday to have more books at my mercy. After a while my voice broke and I was given the job of pumping the organ for Mr. Allured. Between the side of the organ and a wall was a narrow passageway. The wall was whitewashed providing me was a wonderful large area for my artistic efforts. This was about the time of the Battle for Britain in 1940. Unfortunately I would become completely engrossed in my drawings of air battles that I would forget to pump air into the organ. There was a lead weight suspended on a cord and as it rose it indicated more air was needed and many a time I had to pump like crazy to get the weight right again! I visited St. John’s about fifty or more years afterwards only to find that my artistic works were no longer. What a waste of my talents, my efforts could have been of considerable value! We attended confirmation classes held by the vicar and eventually were confirmed at the very fine and large Victorian church of St. Mary’s at Redenhall by Canon Pickering. I believe he died in 1966.
My first school in Harleston was at Jays Green. Mr. Rhodes was the head teacher and there was a lady as well. Mr. Rhodes was a good teacher but on some Friday afternoons we had a session where we had to tell a story, joke, or sing a song. I didn’t like it at all, in fact I was terrified. Night after night I would lay in bed worrying, and eventually made up a joke. Not a very good one – ‘Why is an Eskimo like a dog’s dinner? Answer – Because he is all done up!’ Mr. Rhodes wasn’t very impressed but accepted it. I was most relieved when these sessions finished. I had to sit next to a boy from a poor family. He smelled ‘cheesy’ and when it was wet the smell was even stronger. Wet clothes were hung on the fireguard in front of the open coal fire in the classroom and this didn’t help the aromas either!
Every so often my mother went to London by train for treatment of her rheumatoid arthritis. It was called ‘Gold’ treatment which made me think we were rich only to find out years later that it was a Doctor Gold who had devised this particular treatment. I don’t think it helped much because her condition slowly deteriorated. On the days she went to London I would ask to go to the toilets which were across the playground and from where I was able to see her train heading towards London if I timed it right. It makes me think I was a bit of a cissy in those days.
At the beginning of the war evacuees arrived and for a while some of us were moved from our school at Jays Green to the Infants school at School Lane. I don’t remember much about them apart from one boy who was billeted with the butcher at the top of London Road. It was at this school that I fell over carrying a bottle of milk and cut a finger rather badly. I still have the scar today on the third finger of my left hand. We were all given a bottle of milk each mid morning. The Headmistress was Mrs. Rayner, a kindly lady.
Soon after the war started Mr. Rhodes joined the army and a Mr. Pilch took over. He didn’t like me because my father had told him off for riding his bike without lights. Mr. Pilch took a delight in taking it out on me in petty ways. Some afternoons an ice cream ‘Stop Me and Buy One’ man on a tricycle came to the school railings at playtime. The tricycle had a box on the front which contained ice cream also ice to stop the ice cream from melting. As well as ice cream he also sold lolly pops. I had one once which gave me severe stomach problems so I kept to ice cream after that.
One Saturday 23rd July, 1940 from Alan’s allotment I was with his brother Ron. Alan wasn’t there, probably at his grand father’s farm. Looking in the direction of Norwich we saw German planes apparently dropping bombs at Pulham Airfield. The Germans did try unsuccessfully to destroy it. It had been an R.A.F. Station during W.W.I, with airships. It had been the home of the R34 and R33 and others. Today the village sign depicts the R34 at moorings. On the occasion in 1940 sixteen high explosive bombs were dropped but there were no casualties. There were several other raids and the big hanger was hit on one occasion.
One wartime memory is of a captured German Messerschersmitt fighter plane being put on display just into the top of the Recreation Ground on the right. The object was to boast the morale of the public. Quite distinct in my memory is the sickly sweet smell of the oil. Some of the boys spent a lot of time trying to remove bits and pieces as souvenirs. On another occasion German bombs were dropped into a field up Mendham Lane just past Spurgeon’s premises and two ponies were killed. I didn’t see it happen but saw the bomb craters a few days later. I wrote an essay about it but my teacher was not impressed.
A most vivid memory in my mind, one night in October of November of 1941 I was asleep in bed. I was then thirteen. I was awakened by the load roar of aeroplane engines. Quickly looking out of my bedroom window I saw a Wellington bomber go past, very low in a ball of flames. The next day I learned it had crashed into a field just beyond my school at Jays Green. It had come down with such force it was almost fully buried into the soil. All the crew perished. On yet another occasion Denis L and I were up near the Drill Hall getting walnuts off a tree just outside someone’s gateway. A twin engined German bomber came over so low we could see the crew inside looking down at us. We were frightened and hurried home on our bikes but nothing untoward happened.
A vague recollection I have is just once having a ride in a Bren gun carrier I think an Army sergeant took us. His wife was staying at Alan’s home on Candlers Lane. I do remember seeing the first coloured American airmen at the Market Place. They were used to help with the construction of airfields round about, and there were many. Laings carted the gravel. When the Americans first flew from Hardwick it was 310 Bomb Group using B26 Mitchell medium bombers. They were at Hardwick from September until November, 1942. Alan and I would cycle there and throw sticks up at them as they took off overhead but of course they were too high for use to hit them. My parents and I moved from Harleston in October of that year to Methwold, much to my disappointment at the time but once I was settled it was alright.
Another memory of the Americans was the items which Denis L and I discovered they had left behind in a small copse in the lane at the bottom of Needham Hill after they had sessions with some of the local girls. They unfortunately left more permanent reminders with some of the girls, two in particular so I have been told.