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Oral Reminiscences

an article by Elizabeth Monck ( neé Kirwan)


In 1936 our parents bought a cottage in Helmdon - a pretty village on the borders of Northamptonshire & Oxfordshire. They had decided to buy somewhere in the country partly in order to have holidays with us children, but also because of the deteriorating situation in Europe. Their choice of the Cotswolds was because of their folk dance weekends thereabouts; they had both been members of the English Folk Dance and Song Society for many years. The cottage cost £1005.4.9 [Purchase: £504.3.2; Building works £437.11.7; and Electricity installation £63.10.0] that included the 'extension' which had a kitchen below and a bathroom above. They also added a garage at the side of the house, under the forecourt of which was a rainwater tank which fed running water to the cottage. The extension and the garage were constructed from local stone which they acquired (free) from a farmer who wanted to rid himself of a tumble-down barn that made ploughing one of his fields rather difficult.

In those far-off days the village was served by two railway companies: the LMS (London, Midland & Scottish, which ran into Euston, but only if you changed trains, which would have been very slow) and the LNER (London & North Eastern Railway, which ran into Marylebone): we understand that it was the only village in Britain for which this was true. The LMS station was nearest to our cottage and the railway line ran below the cottage just across the meadows; various cart tracks led across it in a haphazard way, with swing gates but no other control systems. I think a footpath across these meadows also connected our 'arm' of the village with the other 'arm' that had the church and the pub. We two older children (aged 5 and 7 when the war began) often played down in these fields, and no-one thought twice about it being unsafe. Maybe there were not very many trains anyway as it was war, or maybe they travelled slowly and could see if there were children playing on the line.

I remember the LMS station as being full of flowers [presumably not in winter, but memory is selectively festooning it with nasturtiums & roses]; I remember the attractive buildings and two short platforms; I think you simply walked across the line to the other side. When Beeching closed the line, this station was sold as a house, but to me it still looks very odd as though it’s waiting to be a station again.

I have few early memories of going to the cottage for a night or two, as it would have been in the early days. So my vivid memories and attachment really only begin from the age of about 5 after WWII had started and we came to live in the village. 

I remember a Helmdon pub, because when my father appeared from London for snatched weekends, he would sometimes take me along for his pre-lunch beer and let me have a sip or two. I think it was up by the Church. We sat on a bench against the outside wall of the pub, surrounded by hollyhocks, a memory obviously of summer days. And I think we must have walked across over the fields, not gone round by the railway station.

The cottage and its garden are very strong recollected images for me. Ours was the next but one cottage to the end of our 'arm' of the village, and attached to the last one which was lived in by the 'honey lady' and her sister, who (I assume) kept bees. Our cottage was called Juniper cottage, but has since been known as Butt Cottage (my mother and I visited a kind lady called Mrs Thorneycroft, about 25 years ago, who made us very welcome, even though we were calling on the off-chance only of there being someone there!). It is not large, but a comfortable size for children, and I remember it very much full of sun. It faces backwards and southwards into its own garden, and the street side has no door, only two tiny windows. The pavement was up against the cottage, but hollyhocks grew in great profusion against our wall.

There was no indoor lavatory and we used an Elsan bucket which was kept in a small shed away from the house along a path across the lawn. It was unlit and full of spiders, which I hated.

One entered the cottage straight into the room in which we ate, which might have been a kitchen-living room in the old days although the room on the right of the entrance door had an inglenook fireplace which I - as a child - could walk right in to. This latter room became our sitting room. There were stone ledges on either side of the fireplace and let into the wall on one side a bread oven, with a black iron door. So maybe that had been the original centre of cooking activities.

Beyond the sitting room (and so next to the honey ladies’ cottage) was our playroom, but I don't remember using it much. It was made rather dark by the enormous laurel hedge that divided our garden from the honey ladies and which grew right next to the window. By 1940 this room had had strengthening wooden pillars inserted in it, and criss-cross tape over the windows (making it even darker), and this was our bomb shelter. It would not have been easy to dig an Anderson shelter in the stone under the top-soil of the garden. I remember being wrapped up in blankets on more than one occasion and brought down to sleep there. Although bombs did not fall there were many dog-fights over the village and surrounding country-side.

The floors were stone slabs downstairs and wide wooden boards upstairs. Our parents installed new doors throughout the cottage which had high wooden latches; and because neither of us older children (aged only 5 and 3 when we first moved there) could reach the latch they all had bits of string hanging down to our height, which ingeniously 'lifted the latch'.

On the right of our garden was a cottage built end-on to the road so that, like ours, there was no front door visible on the street. This was lived in by Mrs Humphreys, who I believed to be a witch because she had a wooden leg. I was terrified of her. However, she did cure the warts that my brother and I developed later on: we had to collect black slugs after rain and wipe their slime onto the warts and then impale them on thorns. As the slug died so the warts peeled away. It worked. There were always black slugs in the vegetable patch – under the rhubarb leaves. Mrs Humphreys kept a pig (or two?) in her garden.

Once the war had begun our father stayed in London during the week and my mother lived with us and our 1-year old brother and a live-in help who was also a friend.

The heavy work about the house and garden was done by a 'hunchback' we called Moley: his real name was Mr Mole. I have no idea how old he really was, or what his real disability was; he might have been Rumpelstiltskin-old as far as I was concerned, but if young he would obviously have been exempt from call-up. I think the all-female household was very reliant on Moley. One of his tasks would have been carrying buckets of water from the well (which was in Mrs Humphrey's garden but shared with us) to be poured into a great stone filter which stood in the dining room. Each filter had a small tap/spigot at the bottom from which ‘pure’ water could be got. Well that was the theory. There was no potable water in the cottage, though our parents had bought it on the assurance (sic) that mains water and drainage would arrive by about 1938 or 1939. The filtered water was what we drank I believe, but some years later it was found that the rain-water tank had been polluted and my mother and small brother were affected by this; which suggests that they were drinking water from the rain-water tank as well.

For a while we kept chickens in a fenced-in run; they were given a lot of household scraps, but also had a boiled up mash which smelt delicious. They had a small traditional hen-house on wheels with a door which was firmly shut at night to prevent the foxes getting in; this wooden house had to be moved around the lawn - no doubt another task of Moley’s. Hens are stupid birds, but I did like collecting the eggs from underneath them, and I liked feeding them their mash too. The eggs were preserved [preserving being an important part of a housewife’s tasks in the war] in buckets of isinglass. This meant they could be kept until the months of the year when hens don’t want to lay much. Of course, the war also brought ‘dried eggs’; a strange yellow powder which you mixed with water to make an ‘egg’. Actually it made not-too-bad scrambled egg and cakes.

Once when our grandmother was staying, we were sitting at breakfast when there was an enormous ‘crump’ from upstairs. The grown-ups hurtled upstairs and found a large piece of plaster from the ceiling had landed directly on the pillow in Granny’s bed, and would have killed her if she had still been in it. When the builders came they disturbed a lot of bats in the roof. One of the builders showed me a bat which he had caught, its skin was silky soft and, as he explained how clever they were at avoiding bumping into things when they flew and how frightened they were of people, I have never been afraid of them. He must have been a natural teacher for me to be so impressed when I was only about six.

On the other side of the road but much further down the village was a large dairy farm, run by one of the many Watson families; we got our milk from them and at least once I was allowed to sit on the enormous back of the enormous bull as he stood in the yard. This sign of amiability suggests that he was not a pedigree dairy bull, which are notorious for their tempers; but although an odd memory it is a real one. Maybe he was very old; and maybe he didn't even know there was a skinny six-year old on his back.

In 1941, when I was seven [and my older brother about to be nine] our mother managed to get two bicycles for us. Unfortunately the bike shop got our ages the wrong way round and a nine-year old's (girl's) bike arrived for me and a seven-year old's boy's bike for my older brother. Mother was told that she couldn't have a girl's bike the right size for me, but she did get a boy's bike for a nine-year old. So I had enormous wooden blocks screwed into place on my pedals, so that I could reach them. It did make learning to ride somewhat daunting as I was a long way from the ground, but I remember the sheer pleasure of cycling around in nearby lanes. There were of course very few cars and wobbling seven-year-olds could ride in safety. We used to ride up and down the Wappenham rd rather than into the village. We also used to walk along this road to pick blackberries and rose hips which were passed on to the government to become 'rose hip syrup' - a great source of vitamins. Did the WI organise this? About a mile down the Wappenham rd is a pnd where we went pond-dipping, bringing home the traditional tadpoles to live sadly in a jam-jar. That was where I first saw dragon-flies; or where I was first told about them.

On one occasion I remember my mother walking with me and my baby brother in his pram to Sulgrave, where we had tea with the Misses Cartwright, who she had met when they ran a stall in Banbury market. There is a photo of one 'Miss Cartwright' among the photos of Sulgrave on the web. I thought they lived in the Manor, but seem not to have done; I think they had a big and enviable dolls' house: can this be true? We also went once to tea with a lady in Helmdon who had a parrot.

One winter (1939/40) was very severe and frosty as well as snowy. I remember well walking on top of the snow in our garden, though falling through now and again, and fighting my way back to the cottage. What for the grown-ups must have been a terrible time was often fun for children, as long as their parents were not called up into the forces.

I loved shopping in the village store which had a special smell – never the same nowadays. I think it must have come from the fact that so many of the dry goods were in huge sacks or bags; and the fact that the store would have sold grain for chickens. There were also gun boots hanging from the ceiling – or am I making that up?

I have clear recollections of two village occasions which my mother took me to; the first was a fancy-dress show [for children, I suspect] – I wore knicker-bockers and a velvet jacket and my pigtails were converted into a 'queue'. The second occasion was more my line: I had a small wheel-barrow piled high with vegetables and I wore my dungarees. Did I win a prize, or is that just my fantasy?

I left when I was seven to live with another family over in Hertfordshire returning only for the holidays, but the years in Helmdon still hold important and happy memories. As must be obvious from these notes I am nearly 82, my older brother nearly 84. I would love to meet up with or hear from Helmdon people whose memories overlap with mine, and who might be able to answer some of the questions in this account.

Elizabeth Monck neé Kirwan
Spring 2016
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