Farming must be in my blood; my great-grandfather was a farmer in Mid-Norfolk. Of course that is non-sense; farming can no more be in my blood than looking after cart horses, catching rabbits or baking bread – the occupations of my other great-grandfathers. Nevertheless, during my schooldays, I was a member of the Young Farmers Club. You might have expected me to have had more academic interests, but at that period it was still possible to study Agriculture at Oxford University; not that I ever contemplated doing so, but my contemporary at school Paul Howell did just that, at St Edmund’s Hall. Unfortunately this route to academic success is no longer available; he later became an MEP, and the European Parliament itself will soon not be a way to political prominence either. Paul was undoubtedly a fellow member of the Young Farmers, but his presence at their meetings has completely escaped my memory.
I attended several trips with the Young Farmers. The first was a visit to the Westwick Fruit Farm. Westwick is a small village on the North Walsham Road. It is notable for the two lodges which stand on either side of the main road. They were erected in the early 19th century to provide an impressive Gothick approach to Westwick Hall. In the 1960s the arch between the two lodges still remained. The wooden arch was due to be upgraded to listed building status in 1981, but in the course of repairs it collapsed. At the farm I can remember the boxes of fruit; they were blackcurrants, and at the time I went it was the height of the blackcurrant season. The Fruit Farm is still there, and it is also a general arable farm. I can recall nothing of what I learnt on my visit, but I must have learnt something because I remember going home and telling my father about it.
Another outing was to the Royal Norfolk Show. We youngsters were particularly interested in the tractors and other farm vehicles on display. There were plenty of animals too of course, but what I was most attracted by were the Ford minibuses, trucks and vans. This was on the 30th June 1966, and the Ford Transit had been introduced in the previous October, so it was virtually brand new. Many years later I found myself driving a Mk I Transit minibus round the streets of Wymondham. Although it was old by then, it was easy enough to drive.
Browsing the catalogue for the 1966 Show it is evident how many old names that we once thought were there for good have now long gone: for example Fisons Chemicals. They were there to provide fertiliser for you crops, and to destroy the pests and diseases that attacked them. Based in Ipswich, it was one of the top hundred companies on the London Stock Exchange, but succumbed to financial dealings and was taken over in 1995. David Brown, the firm behind Aston Martin cars, also made a range of tractors, though these have long since disappeared. Even the old Colman firm, where all the mustard seed (as well as the mint) needed for its products was grown locally, will soon have severed all its connections with Norwich. I wish the Co-operative, which intends to launch Norwich Mustard on Norfolk Day this year, all the best; it deserves to do well.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
It is never too late to learn, and I am still learning things about my schooldays. Yes, as long ago as that! I have known for a long time that it was a pretty rigorous education that I got at the school that I attended, but what I am now realising is how relatively unengaged with their pupils’ development most schools are. This not because they are bad schools, or that they employ bad teachers, but their involvement with the day’s activities ends mid-afternoon; then the young rascals are free to engage in every kind of mischief, or else do nothing at all. This leaves the parents with a heavy responsibility, and one that they cannot even begin to undertake if they are themselves working. I have been hearing people’s tales of adolescence, and how they wasted countless opportunities through natural teenage ennui. The difficulty for most young people is not committing vandalism or general devilry, it is merely getting them to get off their backsides.
My life was not like that. There is no doubt that the extra mile that my school went with its scholars was because it was a boarding school. Virtually every second of my waking day, from rising in the morning to going to sleep at night, was organised for me. As a result I had no chance whatever of vegetating. I was immersed in all kinds of activities from making my bed and polishing my shoes in the morning to cleaning my teeth at night. I wonder how I fitted it all in. I played games on most days, read novels, went sailing, target shooting, played in the school orchestra, painted pictures, took part in the debating society and acted in numerous plays. I wasn’t particularly good at many of these things (especially games) – although I was literary editor of the school magazine – but that was not the point. Doing things – anything- was. When I went home I was equally showered with great choices by my dear father – working an Adana printing press, railway modelling, dance lessons, canoeing, photography and gardening, to name but a few. Growing up was an endless round of opportunities. I could decide whatever I wanted to do, but doing nothing was not an option; doing things was expected of me. In this I was so lucky compared to most adolescents, as I am only now realising.
From the age of ten it was boarding school for me. Terror is not too strong a word to describe the feeling of dread that descended on me as the fateful hour approached when I was to be abandoned; to what disasters I knew not. The prospect of leaving home at such a tender age was appalling, but the reality was positively wonderful. After my initial misgivings I soon settled into school life. Of course I looked forward to the holidays, but the journey back at the end of the break was no longer at time of apprehension. The school was single sex during my time, although it is now fully coeducational. There are virtually no boys’ schools left – Eton and Harrow, and maybe a few others – but I have no regrets about my education having no feminine influence. I may have had a few problems relating to the female sex once I left school, but these soon passed. As an adult I have in fact had more female friends than male ones. However the male friends that I made all those years ago have remained friends ever since. I may not see them very often, but even those who live far away in distant lands can now contact me easily by email.
I know that the possibility of attending such an excellent boarding school is not an option for most people, but if they did not exist the life of the nation would be the poorer. County Scholarships were a great leveler in this respect. These enabled those from poorer backgrounds to go to a really good school. The abolition of this excellent system of State Scholarships by the Labour Government in the 1970s, along with the closure of most grammar schools, has only increased social segregation massively. This has been a terrible and regressive thing. The importance of going to a boarding school was the key; the local day-boys, who attended on scholarships that were provided from the school’s own financial resources, didn’t do anything like so well. The day-boys went home mid afternoon, when they were free to engage in every kind of mischief, or else do nothing at all.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF THE PAST
MY BRUSH WITH THE PREACHER
You must understand that this wasn’t a brush with Billy Graham in the flesh; it was merely with his image on a large screen in Norwich Cattle Market. He was definitely in the UK, but not actually in Norfolk. Even fifty years ago the technology existed to relay him preaching live across the country. This was in 1966, and the Chaplain at my school had organised a group of us to attend one of Billy Graham’s addresses which was being broadcast to Norwich. The Cattle Market had moved to Hall Road in 1960, and the market had a large corn hall where we could watch the screen. The Chaplain had merely intended us to experience the spectacle, not expecting any of us actually to be born-again; he no doubt felt that we were already faithful adherents of the church under his tutelage. The Revd Douglas Argyle (our Chaplain) did not think we needed to be born again, having been attending his services in the school chapel for years.
He had not however reckoned with me. I was deeply moved by Billy Graham despite his presence being only on in black and white on a large screen. I found myself leaving my seat and going up to the stage with a number of other converts, though none of them were colleagues from my school. We were each assigned an earnest leader to guide us to the light. All was going well in my conversation with my mentor until he queried me on my future course of action: “Have you,” he asked, “Any particular church you would like to join?” “Yes,” I replied, “I would like to become a Roman Catholic.”
Now you must understand that Billy Graham, although moderate by the standards of many Southern Baptists, came firmly from the Protestant tradition. I was very young and naive at the time. You might think the whole affair was just me making mischief, but I was completely serious. I had been researching the Catholic Church for several months, though without contacting any actual Catholics. It was all done through reading the book ‘Teach Yourself Roman Catholicism”. After my announcement you could have heard a pin drop, even in Norwich Cattle Market. “I don’t think that is a very good idea,” I was told. I had very different ideas from Billy Graham after all, and the interview rather ground to a halt. I returned to my seat and my school-friends un-reborn, but rather bemused.
I had plenty to think about on the coach going back to my boarding school that evening. As I said, I was young and naive. I was studying history after all, and was well aware of the historic antagonism between Catholic and Protestant, but I cannot have realised how deep the difference still ran in the Bible Belt. I don’t know if this is still so, but I suspect it is. As far as the C of E goes, in several crucial respects the division between the Church of Rome and the Church of England is deeper now than it was when I was a teenager. Female priests and female bishops are now accepted without a murmur in the Anglican Communion, but no movement in this direction has occurred in the Vatican. This, it seems to me, makes any thought of closer union an ever more distant prospect.
I know that most people neither know nor care what is meant by ‘apostolic succession’ (and I don’t intend to go into it here), and just see bishops as a slightly quaint and irrelevant echo of the past; perhaps that it what they are. Certainly the Evangelical Protestants like Billy Graham do not have bishops at all, male or female. The only reason the non-believing members of the press delight in female bishops is that they are seen as progressive; this, rather than any interest in their message, accounts for their popularity among the secular media.
What is my conviction today after all these years? It is merely this; no atheist or Buddhist or any adherent of any other religion could produce anything as moving as Mozart’s Requiem. Make of that what you will. I never became a Baptist or a Catholic, nor even a confirmed member of the Church of England, although I occasionally attend their services. The sense of community is important to me. I am intrigued by Dr Jordan Peterson’s lectures on the Bible, but he says he never goes to church. As for all the theological details, I am prepared to leave them to others better equipped than I to understand them. I will just go on enjoying Songs of Praise on Sunday afternoon.
When I was a lad we always had two papers brought to the front door every morning.
My mother read The Eastern Daily Press for local news and my father took The Times for national events. He also read the EDP, but my mother never did reverse and read The Times. Her religious principles discouraged her from reading the worldly daily papers, but she could not resist a peep into the EDP. My father enjoyed the columnists in the EDP too – especially Jonathan Mardle, Adrian Bell and EAE (Ted Ellis).
When he thought I was old enough to begin reading a paper he took out a subscription to the Manchester Guardian (as the Guardian was then called). I was about eight years old and of course it was far too grown up for me. I was more interested in the Beano and Dandy; these comics didn’t come within my father’s cognisance, and I had to purchase them surreptitiously in collusion with my older sister Tiggie. I could get quite involved in the Eagle however, which comic was more to my father’s taste and which he purchased for me every week.
Newspapers were improving by leaps and bounds on a technical level in the 1950s. In particular the quality of the press photographs was very good. This was partly from an artistic point of view, and partly because cameras were becoming more compact. They were therefore easier introduce into everyday life. The images themselves were no longer the smudgy products of the pre-war years, as printing machinery and paper-making were upgraded. The quality of press photographs nose-dived when colour was first introduced in the late 1980s. The contrast, colour balance and general appearance of coloured newspaper photographs were awful. Things have improved enormously since then, but the whole newspaper industry has been eclipsed by the growth of the internet. The high point of press photography was the 1960s. Now it all too automated for much individuality in the photographer’s work, with digital cameras that can fire off a continuous flow of images; the nuances of focusing, setting the aperture and controlling the exposure have all been lost. These were not merely technical requirements; the intelligent use of these now redundant features influenced the appearance of the photograph. Even the different speeds of black and white film affected the end result. So it has not always been a story of uninterrupted progress, and perhaps the golden age of illustrated journalism preceded the advent of photojournalism itself. In the mid nineteenth century The Illustrated London News burst on the scene and opened the eyes of the nation to its beauties and interest; all the pictures had to be engraved and it set an extremely high standard from the very first issue.
In contrast the appearance of The Times remained as it had been at its beginning in the eighteenth century. Even in the 1950s, when I first remember the journal, the front page was the agony column, covered with rows of personal adverts. It had photographs by then naturally, but these appeared on the inside pages. The crossword on the back page had been started by the journalist Adrian Bell (q.v. above) in 1930 and he was still responsible for many of these when we began to struggle with the cryptic clues during the 1960s. It was seldom that we completed the puzzle, and when we (i.e. my father, sister Tig and I) did it was a red-letter day.
Under pressure from me my father had by 1970 transferred our daily reading to the Telegraph. The Telegraph has always been a Tory newspaper, and although I wasn’t politically conservative myself in those days, the standard of journalism in the paper was so good that I just had to read it. Peter Simple was the best columnist, but they were all exceptionally talented. The Telegraph is now a third-rate journal that I have very little time for.
We were fortunate at both school and university in having all the daily papers laid out for us in the common room. While I was at senior school these did not include the brash tabloids, although bizarrely for the eight year olds in the junior school they did (in this respect we had a very liberal housemaster). The tabloids included the Daily Mirror and the Daily Sketch. The Sun had not then risen in the journalistic firmament, and when it did it was as Liberal and rather dull newspaper of a format larger than tabloid. It was introduced in 1964 as a replacement for the failing Daily Herald. The Sunday papers included the Sunday Pictorial and the Sunday Mirror, and the News of the World. In the 1960s this paper was still a broadsheet and not a tabloid in format, although it was always this type of journal in content, and remained so until the end. I remember being enthralled reading the stories they printed about Zoe Progl, the ‘Queen of the Underworld’.
I have mentioned that I was not interested in the intellectual content of the Guardian when I was introduced to it as a boy, and nor was I interested in the intellectual content of newspapers in general (articles about Zoe Progl didn’t count as intellectual), but as far as graphic design went it was quite a different matter. Well before I was ten years old I was producing a paper of my own called the Mouse Times. With pencil and paper I laid out the masthead, adverts and headlines that recorded my imaginary adventures as Master Mouse, and those of my mortal enemy the Rat. My sister Christine joined in the fun with two other mice called Ferocious and Atrocious who she made up stories about. As far as the paper was concerned I was perhaps even more engaged by designing the adverts, and in making up suitable slogans. One that I remember was ‘Soap makes Big Bubbles’. I think that sometime during my adolescence I may have lost some of my early sparkle. Journalism had obviously made some impression on me, and eventually I was to write a daily column in our local paper, but it was nothing like the fun I had enjoyed as editor of the Mouse Times.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF THE PRESS
Many people will immediately identify E. Nesbit’s book The Railway Children as the most famous piece of fiction involving railways. This children’s story was first published over a hundred years ago, and has proved an enduring favourite. The story is one of a false accusation of espionage set in a political situation far removed from the present day; its popularity must rest with Nesbit’s ability to tell a story. I saw the 1970 film version shortly after it came out, and most people these days know the story from its film or television adaptations. But there had already been several film versions before 1970, from 1951 onwards. Although the story is set in Yorkshire, the railway setting is thought to have been inspired by the railway that runs through Chelsfield in South East London, near Nesbit’s home.
Perhaps as famous as The Railway Children is Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express; this uses the backdrop of the broken down train to provide the enclosed environment in which the typically involved Christie plot is played out, but otherwise the railway does not feature largely in the story. Both The Railway Children and Murder on the Orient Express first appeared in book form, although they have long been adapted for the screen. The Titfield Thunderbolt must be the most famous work of fiction that appeared as a film from the start. Its plot is about railways, whereas the works so far mentioned only incidentally involve this form of transport. It is one of the Ealing Comedies, released in 1953. The Titfield Thunderbolt celebrated the first Heritage Railway (although the term had not then been invented), the Talyllyn narrow gauge line in Wales, which had been taken over by volunteers three years earlier.
A whole series of books by the Rev W. Awdry has been a runaway success. The first book in the series, The Three Railway Engines, was published in 1945, and Thomas the Tank Engine, the most famous locomotive, had to wait until the second book was published in 1946 to be introduced to the world. The anthropomorphic locomotive and his railway engine friends exhibit all the human frailties that you meet in life, and the stories all have a strong moral tone, in keeping with the author’s clerical background. It is a pity that the illustrator Reginald Payne has not received more credit for his iconic work.
Wilbert Awdry was among the first undergraduates to study at the newly created St Peter’s Hall in Oxford. This was founded by the Bishop of Liverpool to provide a Low Church environment to instruct the clergy of the Church of England, in contrast to the High Church Keble College. From the start the Hall was fully integrated into the intellectual life of the University, and a broad range of subjects was studied, though railway engineering was not one of them! The Reverend Awdry first composed the railway stories to amuse and educate his young son Christopher, and was encouraged to publish them by his wife Margaret.
Ivor the Engine should also be mentioned in the context of children’s stories on a railway theme. These are a series of stop motion animated films for television, produced from 1959 by Oliver Postgate. The subject concerned a Welsh railway, though not a narrow gauge one. Ivor has no face, unlike Thomas, but has other human characteristics; he is for example a member of the local Male Voice Choir.
I should mention among other works of fiction with railways at their heart The Signal-Man, an 1866 short story by Charles Dickens. This is a horror story and is centred round a railway tunnel. Tunnels are pretty spooky places at the best of times. Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar is one that author’s best known books, but it does not count in this list as it is not a work of fiction. The non-fiction books written on railways form a subject in themselves.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY of RAILWAYS
Trowse Millgate is part of the city of Norwich; it lies across the river Yare from Trowse Newton which used to be in the Hundred of Henstead. It has long been on a busy roadway, bringing traffic from Lowestoft, Beccles, Loddon, and Bungay into the City. King Charles II arrived in Norwich via Trowse on his visit in 1671, and Celia Fiennes described the fields there as being covered in woollen cloth laid out to bleach in the sun. In the eighteenth century this way into the city was via a toll bridge, and possibly the river Tas still had its confluence with the Yare before reaching the bridge. There had been a watermill on the river Yare since the eleventh century, and by the nineteenth century this was one of the largest corn mills in the county, being powered by a steam engine as well as water wheels. No doubt it was able to bring coals from Yarmouth directly to its doorstep by wherry. This gave it a commercial advantage over all the other mills in Norwich. Daniel Bloome the miller was certainly a very rich man.
The construction of the railway to Ely in the 1840’s brought yet more traffic to the settlement. Tens of thousands head of cattle came from as far away as Ireland annually for sale at the cattle market. These were unloaded in the sidings at Trowse Millgate. If they arrived during the previous week they would be grazed on the adjacent water meadows until market day on Saturday. To begin with the railway line crossed the road by means of a level crossing, but the number of trains must have meant that it was more often closed than open. When the railway bridge was built (some time before 1880) the arches were occupied by a number of commercial enterprises. The Pineapple had been the local on the main road since at least the 18th century. After the bridge was built it was on a dead-end road that led merely to the railway station. The station closed to passengers in 1939, but the pub struggled on until 1985. In 1789 the Pineapple had almost two acres of fruit trees on the land between lower Bracondale and the river.
Following the passing of an Act of Parliament in 1867 a sewage pumping station was built between the railway station and the river Yare; the sewage is treated a mile away at Whitlingham before the clean water is discharged into the river. A new pumping station was built in the 1960’s, when the old buildings fell into disuse which is how they remain today. The picture opposite shows the coal siding for the pumping station shortly after closure.
Trowse Millgate was also the terminus of the tramline from Orford Place via King Street. This was built at the beginning of the 20th century, but the line from Bank Plain to Bracondale was lifted in 1918 to be used on the Mousehold extension that carried aircraft from Boulton and Paul’s factory to the aerodrome. Trowse Millgate was without a tram connection for two years until a shorter route was opened from Queen Street along Bracondale.
Opposite the Pineapple a meadow was developed after the Second World War and this is now where Ben Burgess Ltd established their agricultural machinery sales showroom. All this activity was going on against a backdrop of motor traffic that was a constantly growing flow through Trowse Milligate. This all came to an abrupt halt in 1992, when the Southern Bypass sealed off the road and for the first time in its history turned Trowse Millgate into a backwater. As well as stopping the road access from the east, the building of the Bypass also required a large amount of aggregate that was extracted from the water meadows along Whitlingham Lane; this has produced two new Broads. These, and the ski slope (also on Whitlingham Lane), have replaced some of this traffic with that intent on leisure activities. On the whole however Trowse Millgate has never been so quiet.
There is one other way to approach Trowse Millgate, besides by road or rail, and this is by water. There is no problem going as far up the river as the bridge, although this is seldom done because beyond that the mill has prevented further progress along the Yare for the best part of a thousand years. I approached the bridge by motor boat in 1958, and a dozen years later I went under the bridge in a canoe. There is an island between the bridge and the mill arches and the water around it is extremely shallow; although the canoe drew less than six inches we nearly went aground on the eastern branch of the river.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
YOUTH and EARLY ADULTHOOD
Frank was my father; he didn’t like the name and (to be frank) neither do I. We do not choose our names, and we have to stick with what we are given. I cannot find another Frank or even a Francis among his ancestors. (I, by contrast, can find several Josephs in the family tree going way back to the early years of the 19th century.) Frank was born on September 21st 1911, the second and youngest child of his parents William and Emily. His father spent his life making packing cases for the electric equipment manufacturer Laurence (and) Scott. They were a working class family, but (especially Emily my grandmother) they were ambitious for their children. The family portrait above shows Frank as an infant on his mother’s knee.
When he was nearly three the Great War broke out, and this affected his earliest years, not always for the worse. Because the school he would have attended (Lakenham Council School) was requisitioned for treating the war wounded he was sent instead to Carrow School. This had been set up by the Colman family as part of their paternalistic care for their employees. My grandfather was not a member of the staff at Carrow Works but non”etheless his son was able to benefit from a rather higher standard of education than would have been available in the Council School. He remembered his earliest teacher ‘Olo’ with respect and gratitude; his name was Mr Olorenshaw.
When the war ended he did indeed go to Lakenham School, before winning a scholarship to the recently opened Grammar School, the CNS (City of Norwich School). He remained disappointed throughout his life that Latin was not on the curriculum at the CNS; this made it very difficult to apply to Oxford or Cambridge Universities, which required the language in those days, although one of his friends managed to teach himself Latin and went on to Cambridge and a distinguished academic career in America. His parents must have made great sacrifices to support their children beyond the normal school leaving age. Frank did very well for himself when he left Grammar School. Aged 16 he got a job as an apprentice optician. Now the training for such a health professional demands a university degree, but then it was all done on the job. His ability as an optician would certainly be regarded as university level today. His employer was Cecil Amey, a man not many years older than my father. It is a name which survives in the Norwich optical business community. My father was well treated by Cecil Amey, who let him ride around Norfolk on his BSA motorbike in his spare time.
Frank had to go to London to be examined by the Spectacle Makers Company, one of the historic Livery Companies of the City. He was awarded a fellowship of the company (FSMC), though this did not qualify him for membership; that was reserved for the most influential businessmen. It did however entitle him to be elected Freeman of the City of London, an something he was rather proud of although he never took the honour up. By the time he was twenty one he had qualified in the profession. He worked for a time in Stamford in Lincolnshire and back in Norwich he was employed by the firm of D. R. Grey. D. R. Grey (in spite of his style as ‘Dr Grey’) was not himself a qualified optician, and had to employ those like my father who were to carry out the sight tests. The firm specialised in going out into the countryside seeking business; my father hated going unannounced from door to door like this. He called it ‘going on the knocker’ and regarded it as very unprofessional, but it did give him reason to drive around in a Morris car.
The pastime which Dad loved the most of all was flying; remember that this was less than thirty years after the invention of powered flight; it was not the everyday experience that it has since become. He did not fly as the pilot; he would take the controls in flight but not in take-off or landing. His companion was his friend Henry Stringer, who owned a two-seater de Haviland Gipsy Moth. They would take off from Mousehold Heath (the City’s first airport) and fly to places like the Isle of Wight and the River Humber.
We have nearly forty more years of his life to record, and already it had been an eventful one. He had married in 1935 and by 1938 he was living in a bungalow in Poringland with two young daughters. My parents had been forced to leave the Old Hall in Alpington where they had first set up as a married couple; in spite of the elegant environment it was infested with fleas, which proved immune to all attempts to eradicate them. With £300 from his father in law he had established himself as a self-employed optician in 1938. In his shop in Orford Place he was a successful professional with a growing business, and all this before he was thirty years old.
The next part of the Frank Mason story will cover the wartime years and the difficulties of that time.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
SLEEPING UNDER CANVAS
I remember the small white canvas tent I crept into in those long-lost summers when I was a lad. It was a real tent for two, but I never actually slept in it. However it was fun to do the things that were ancillary to spending the night there, like arranging the ground-sheet and slackening the guy ropes when it rained. These are things that would puzzle most people today. Wasn’t the ‘ground-sheet’ part of the tent? And guy ropes; – why did they need slackening if it rained? I won’t bore you with the answers, but believe me, if you didn’t take these things into consideration you would have spent a wet night under a heap of collapsed canvas.
I didn’t begin real camping until I was a teenager. For most youngsters this would probably have entailed being a Girl Guide or a Boy Scout, but I was never a Scout. Instead my camping was done as an Army Cadet. Things had hardly moved on since Victorian times in terms of the technology employed. Heavy wooden poles held the tent up, and for the larger tents the pegs were still wooden wedges that had to be hammered in with a mallet. The tents I slept in were bigger than the one I had put up on my lawn at home, but you still had to watch those guy ropes and make sure the ground-sheet wasn’t outside the tent (and so letting in the rain). The canvas of an army tent was very tough, and so they were very heavy. Consequently, on one expedition, the four of us cadets decided to do without a tent at all, and sleep under the stars. It was midsummer, and the worst problem was the heavy morning dew. We did take a ground-sheet with us, and therefore slept under it instead of on top!
Some of my camping took place in Norfolk, but mostly it happened elsewhere. When I was sixteen we went on a three-day exercise from Sennybridge, a large army base that still exists in the Brecon Beacons in Wales. This time we did load our packs with tents. We also had to take a map and a compass, and we were given a map reference to rendezvous with our CO three days later. All our food we had to carry on our backs; this consisted of tinned Compo Rations army style. On the other hand, all our water was provided by the mountain streams. This was fine until we discovered a drowned sheep a few metres upstream of our watering hole; this was after we had filled our water bottles and taken plenty of swigs!
Much of my camping was done under the auspices of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, but the effect was just the same. Once I had left school my camping days were almost over, but after I had joined the Territorial Army this part of my life was revived for a short period. The experience of spending the night outdoors was not an enjoyable one in the TA; I only had a waterproof poncho for protection, and sleeping was out of the question due to fire-crackers being let off all through the night; added to that, the threat of a tear gas attack was not conducive to a good night’s rest.
I returned to the joys of camping when I was over fifty, because by then our children were in their late teens and ready for the outdoor life. We had gone to Sheffield (where they both were to attend university) to spy out the land. We spent a couple of nights at a campsite in Monsal Head. This is a beauty spot in the Peak District, and this is near Sheffield. By then the technology of camping had changed beyond recognition. None of it resembled what it had been in my youth; cotton canvas had gone, and no longer were tents cumbersome but light and compact affairs. Strong but insubstantial tent poles could be erected in seconds and separate rubberised ground sheets no longer existed. Their function was integrated into the tent itself. Sleeping bags, which once had been filled with kapok (a natural fibre that was warm enough but heavy to carry) are now made of man-made material that is both lightweight and easy to stow. I was really far too old to go camping on this occasion, but apart from the fact that my air-bed slowly went down overnight (some things hadn’t changed), it was an agreeable few days. The fact that we had our car with us meant there were no heavy backpacks to be humped across the country; our camping trip wasn’t one of the arduous kind. When we finally loaded up the car for our return home that really was my last night outdoors. I cannot say that I am sorry that this chapter in my life is now well and truly over.
My son and his girlfriend recently spent a few nights camping. We still had the equipment we had used in Derbyshire, and lent this to them. The weather was fine, and they had a good time round the fire-pit as the sun went down. Although she is Dutch, his girlfriend has lived all over the world from Hong Kong to Venezuela, but she found the attraction of North Norfolk very special.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF THE PAST
NANNY – my paternal grandmother – gave me £15 for Christmas 1962; I was thirteen. She and Uncle Laurie were living in a retirement flat in Recorder Road in Norwich. Uncle Laurie was her second husband, her first husband, my grandfather, had died before I was born. Quite why she decided to be so generous I don’t know; fifteen pounds was a king’s ransom in 1962 – at least £250 in today’s prices. I believe she preferred to give me my inheritance while she was still alive; certainly there was nothing for me in her will when she died three years later, but that was fine. I rather doubt if she had intended me to spulge it all at once; no doubt she would have preferred me to squirrel it away in a bank account.
However this gift enabled me to buy an 8mm movie camera. ‘Super Eight’ had not then come available, and in retrospect I believe the old ‘Standard Eight’ (as 8mm was thereafter called) equipment was being sold off at a discount to make way for the new models. Although Super Eight was promoted as far superior, the main difference was that the four minutes of film did not require turning over half way through. The 16mm film had to be split when it was sent off for processing (which had already been paid for as part of the purchase price). You had to send off your Kodachrome film to the lab and then wait for the postman to call. At least the pictures were in colour by 1962; the previous generation would have had no film at all (it was wartime), and before that it was all black and white. Movie cameras were powered by clockwork, so no batteries were required.
Gregory’s camera shop in Lower Goat Lane had a Paillard Bolex camera going cheap, and this Swiss make was very good. I had hankered after it as soon as I saw it in the window, and thanks to Nanny I was able to afford it. I must have written her an effusive thank you letter, but I am sure I did not reveal my purchase to her. Inflation was soon to gather pace, and soon the £15 would only have bought the family a good meal at a restaurant, so in retrospect it was a wise decision.
Although still cameras were quite plentiful among my school acquaintances, none had a movie camera. They were not common in the 1960s; many of my peers came from much wealthier families than I did. Their fathers were directors of national organisations like Norwich Union, and could easily have afforded a movie camera for their offspring had they wished to indulge them. I’m glad that I had the imagination to make my purchase; I took full advantage of my new toy, and my first film was used photographing the severe winter of 1963. There is a view of us youngsters building an igloo on the snowy wastes of what should have been the junior school football pitch.
I was also able to capture some of the last of the steam engines on East Anglian railways. Diesels had already taken over in Norfolk and steam had vanished from the Norwich shed, but the steam depot at March was still operational. On January 1st 1964 my cousin David Anderson (aged 32) organised a trip to the Cambridgeshire station, where we were conducted on a tour round the extensive sheds by a member of British Railways’ staff . The party consisted of David, my father and me, plus a young train spotter who had been jotting down numbers at March station and who tagged along. David’s children were unfortunately too young to join us.
No longer being cared for, the steam engines were all extremely dirty, but at least those in steam still possessed their nameplates; many of those that stood cold and abandoned had already had their identification plates removed. Even then a brass number was being avidly sought out by collectors. A Jubilee class (Barham) steamed past us, and is recorded on film. The Britannia class Oliver Cromwell stood cold and out of commission but under cover. She would undoubted have gone to the scrap yard like Barham, which succumbed to the blow torch in 1965; however Britannia herself, which had been destined for preservation, was subsequently vandalised. Oliver Cromwell was therefore substituted for preservation instead. As things turned out both locomotives were eventually preserved, Oliver Cromwell as part of the national collection.
I also took pictures of my canoe, Red Squirrel, taking to the river Blyth at Southwold and the sea at Snettisham. Two people could sit in the cockpit, and both my cousins Jill and Tony Sansom went out in her with their father Uncle Arthur. We explored the river Waveney at Bungay. It’s all captured on film. Picnics and picking primroses also feature among my early movies, as does the visit of my sister from Canada with her young family. My cine camera was a marvellous purchase, and fifty years later I am so glad to have this moving record of times long past.
Compared to modern videos the 8mm camera was basic. The definition was not great and you could only shoot very brief scenes; the film was expensive. Now you can record hours and hours on-line or on DVD for virtually nothing, and sound is included. Once exposed the film had to be sent away for processing, so there was no possibility of checking what you had photographed – no instant rewind in those distant days. It was a matter of guess-work. Should it be f 16 or f 22? It depended on how bright the weather was. These arcane terms all passed out of use and out of memory many decades ago. Now you can whip out your smartphone and get a much better sequence than you could ever have done with a 8mm camera; but now that anyone can take a movie, what’s the point? When I was recording my teenage years my ciné camera was a real novelty.
THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
The signs of ageing are always taken to be the obvious ones like wrinkles, cataracts or greying hair. I know that for men the social attitudes to these things are different; a craggy brow and sinking jowls can produce a kind of grandeur in the male face that is much harder to replicate in women. In the not too distant future these physical signs of age may eventually be much reduced (or even eliminated) but this will not mean the end of ageing. In a less superficial sense ageing will always be with us.
“You’re as a young as you feel” is the common cry among those who feel that age is creeping up on them, and the unspoken (and rather pathetic) implied continuation of this phrase is “And I feel really young”.
The last thing I would want is to feel young again, even if this were possible. I remember only too well the lack of self confidence, tongue-tied indecision and general misery of being young. Youth has its positive side, but this is seldom apparent to the young themselves. Trying to find one’s place in the world is a fraught business at the best of times, and the problems of youth are many; young people adopt all sorts of absurd ideas; the adolescent whose legs are growing out of kilter with the rest of his body has an ungainly stride; and the embarrassing effects of a breaking voice on the pubescent male are a penance. Who would want to revisit these things? In contrast age brings a certain gravitas to even the most unlikely candidates.
Even if the passing years do not bring great wealth they bring a certain stability to one’s finances. The young always begin with nothing; wealth, influence, or the sense of acceptance at the lack of theses things – they all have to be acquired over the years. To most of us offspring come with the passage of time, and the trials of having a young family fade as one’s own children shake off the insecurities of youth and progress into adulthood.
The undoubted bodily vigour of youth is not something I would wish to retain or return to. This slowing down in physical activity is another sign of ageing that is likely to remain long after most other such indicators have been banished to the past. The middle-aged may retain a youthful appearance in the future, but I very much doubt they will ever run as fast. The sight of an 80 year old running the Marathon may become more common, but such a competitor will always come way down the field at the finishing line. The twenties are the most physically productive age, and I can see no likelihood of this ever changing.
A certain forgetfulness is a general feature of the ageing process, but that does mean we are all irredeemably stupid. Our brain mass may decrease as its age increases, but the number of wrinkles in the brain tissue grows exponentially. As the wrinkles signify knowledge, this produces the wisdom of age. We may forget more things as we age, but we have an awful lot more to forget. The young brain is a huge blank canvas; it has masses of potential but little content. Potential is a wonderful thing, but it would be sad if that was all an old brain had to offer. We have far less space to store new memories, but that is fair enough as we have little time left to acquire them.
Some people lose all their memories, and this seems sad; but if you don’t know that you have forgotten everything there is a certain seemliness about this. Senility has dropped out of the lexicon of ageing, to be replaced by dementia. This is a pity, because senility has a direct correlation with the concept of ageing, coming from the Latin word senex, an old man. Dementia merely means a loss of reason, which can occur at any age. Senility was used where now we would say an old person has Alzheimer’s. Not one in a hundred has any idea what are the precise symptoms of this disease, and the use of the term only obfuscates the condition. The non-specific term senile dementia was far preferable; we all recognise that it affects the old, but this malady is not an inevitable consequence of ageing.
Like it or not, ageing is something we are all going through. Fighting it is a pointless exercise. Rather than hanker after lost youth you should celebrate the signs of ageing; stop regarding yourself as a time-expired old has-been and return to the idea of the wise elder. You still have a lot to offer.