A Long Walk to Anywhere
by
Lawrence Garner

Part 4. A Few New Horizons

 

The village of Ringmer was just three fields away from home, but when I first started school it might just as well have been savage Indian territory as far as I was concerned. I was christened in the church and I suppose I must have been taken to see the doctor occasionally during my first five years, but otherwise my mother had few reasons to go there. But daily walks to and from school over the next six years were to make it very familiar to me.

Even in the 1940s it was a sprawling place that had grown up beside the main road and stretched in a long, thin ribbon from Paygate to the Broyle. Nevertheless it was a close-knit village community of long-standing residents, quite unlike the miniature town it has become today, and it provided a variety of shops and services for a wide rural area where few people had cars.

Perhaps it is worth recalling those businesses. At Paygate itself was the yard of Hobden's, the agricultural contractors, who did the threshing for all the local farms. Their steam traction engines were a familiar sight on the roads around Ringmer, competing for our interest with the County Council's steam lorry, an antique well past its sell-by date that used to hiss and rattle at a surprisingly spanking pace along the lanes.

If you walked from Paygate into the village on a shopping expedition you would first arrive at the little sweet shop opposite the point where Church Lane met the main road. I can't remember the names of the couple who kept it, but even when the shadow of Hitler threatened the destruction of civilisation as we knew it you could still get a Lyons Individual Fruit Pie here, of a generous size and in its own cardboard box. Whether you could also get sweets depended, of course, on your coupon state. Sweet coupons came in strips of eight valid for four weeks. It was a complex system for a child to work out, but most of us mastered it as soon as we could read. Sweet coupons were the only ones allowed to be removed from the ration book, and each strip consisted of four coupons marked E and four marked D. The ration might vary a little from month to month, but my memory is that E coupons were usually worth four ounces and D coupons one ounce. The first day of each four-week ration period was always a Sunday, when you often had to fight your way through the crowd besieging the shop. Wise parents kept a close guard over sweet coupons, which could easily become playground currency, with tiny spivs flogging them in much the same way as their elders discreetly traded clothing coupons.

A few yards further on was the Ringmer Motor Works.  This, like the Ringmer Building Works at the Broyle, was an enterprise set up by John Christie of Glyndebourne as an admirable attempt to bring new economic prosperity and much-needed employment to the village in the 1930s. The Motor Works was a vital feature of our family life. We didn't own a car but we did have a cumbersome radio designed specially for households with no electricity supply. It required a big high-tension battery with a long life and an acid-filled accumulator that needed frequent re-charging. My father and I shared the task of cycling to the Motor Works each week to take in the exhausted accumulator and collect the charged one, carrying them in a specially made box slung on the handlebars. If they weren't over-busy the mechanics would do quick running repairs on the bike too.

The Post Office was a few doors further along. I think it also housed the local telephone exchange, which must have been an attractively simple affair since the Park Farm phone number was Ringmer 28. The only heavy breathing likely to be heard on the phone in those days came from the operator listening in, so nobody would dream of making a confidential call.

Directly opposite, in one of a small group of weather-boarded cottages that encroached on the village green, a barber offered a part-time and rather amateur service. His efforts did much to compensate for our lack of school uniform because you could always identify a Ringmer schoolboy by the stark quality of his pudding-basin haircut.

Next came the Anchor Inn, a puzzling name in view of Ringmer's lack of seafaring connections.  It was one of the few buildings in Ringmer that came close to being picturesque, and its position right next to the village hall ensured that even the dullest community events could have a happy ending. In the early 1940s it was the obvious choice as the unofficial headquarters of the Ringmer platoon of the Home Guard, of which my father was an enthusiastic member.

If you continued walking down the village street you came to Hooper's the butchers and Geering's the bakers, occupying two purpose-built shops directly opposite the cricket pitch. Their delivery vans covered a wide area so we were long-distance customers of both, and I very quickly became a regular after-school caller at the baker's shop, discovering that one of their penny buns (bought on credit until my mother checked her bill) would fortify me comfortably before the walk home.

A short row of small villas separated these two shops from the newsagent and tobacconist situated opposite the village pump. The war years were a lean time for this sort of business. Cigarette supplies were spasmodic and unpredictable because priority went to the armed services, so the bulk of the stock remained under the counter, to be dealt out in miserly fashion to regular customers only. Similarly it was rarely possible to buy a magazine on impulse. The newspapers had first call on paper supplies, and once the wretchedly thin daily paper was read it was carefully stored away for a variety of uses ranging from toilet paper to meat and fish wrapping. (Woe betide you if you turned up at the butcher's without your piece of newspaper). Magazines and comics had to be ordered, and they were recycled many times by means of neighbourly swapping, usually ending up months later as highly prized bundles at jumble sales.

It was just a few steps further to Moore's Stores, the grocery shop. (If my memory is correct Mr. Moore also ran a sideline in bicycle sales in a separate wooden shed). And Ringmer's commercial enterprises did not end there; if you walked a hundred yards further towards the school you would see on the left the squat and definitely unpicturesque Brewer's Arms, and just beyond it the little wooden hut that housed the shoe repairer's shop.

Finally the blacksmith plied his trade in an untidy clutter of sheds opposite the school gates, providing a clanging accompaniment to our lessons. With the number of farm horses diminishing rapidly and recreational riding confined to the rich, he should have been an anachronism, but his business had been given a boost by the wartime scarcity of farm machinery and spare parts, so he spent most of his time manufacturing widgets for geriatric binders and hay mowers.  Even so, I would occasionally come out of school to find a couple of the Park Farm horses in for shoeing, which meant a majestic ride home on the broad back of a Clydesdale.

The school's most important neighbour was a large house shielded by an impenetrable privet hedge and called Elm Court, a hotel when I last saw it, but occupied by the army in my day. Just inside its main gate were a couple of houses, one of them the residence and unofficial surgery of the district nurse. Nurse Hall touched our lives at many points. In addition to her official visits to the school she was constantly in demand to staunch the flow of blood which was an integral part of our daily routine. Since she had brought most of us into the world and knew us all by name we took it for granted that she would be happy to provide free after-care, and she did so with good-humoured tolerance and a large supply of sticking plaster. A dedicated and widely respected lady, she was for most villagers the first resort in medical matters in preference to the slightly forbidding Dr Rice, who lived, conducted his surgery and dispensed his medicines in a large detached house on the other side of Elm Court.

When I first started school my mother would accompany me, pushing my baby brother in his pram. The need for a road surface meant going the long way round via Ham Lane, which linked the village with the Uckfield Road. We would take the left turn before the church, pass Geary's disreputable scrapyard (another village business, but one not discussed in polite circles) and walk along the lane which skirted the vast village green, passing a scatter of cottages before emerging directly opposite the school.

Later, when I was judged safe to be let out alone, I would take the short cut across the fields from our house, climbing the stile at the back of the new churchyard and entering the village at the top of the main street. The path through the old and new churchyards was a right of way but I was always nervous of the sexton and gravedigger, a stern and unfriendly man who would stop whatever he was doing as soon as I appeared and watch me until I was out of sight. His intimidating behaviour may have had something to do with an occasion when I innocently rifled a new grave in order to conciliate my teacher, Miss Taylor, with a tasteful bouquet. It was a well-meaning way to acquire a criminal record.

That incident reminds me that we children were seldom free from the scrutiny of grown-ups. On all but the wettest days my walk through the village would be observed by a succession of old codgers sitting on the benches that bordered the green, plus other adults working in their gardens, conversing outside their front doors or just standing and staring into the middle distance. They were like a series of security cameras, and twice as effective because the first sign of anti-social behaviour would be quelled by a fierce bellow.

At weekends and during the school holidays the village played no part in my life, and I wish I could remember more clearly what I got up to during those hours of idleness. The farm was strictly out of bounds, but I know I roamed around the fields with the children next door, playing endless games of soldiers, building dens, damming streams and generally interfering with the processes of nature. I would like to be able to claim that I gained a profound knowledge of wildlife and the countryside, but to this day I can hardly tell one flower from another or identify more than two or three common birds. This ignorance confirms something I have long suspected - that the 'country child' versed in natural lore is a creature derived from fiction or from over-romanticised autobiography. I was not alone in my ignorance. Miss Liversedge was keen on taking her class for nature walks and must have suspected us of a subtle conspiracy when we eagerly besieged her with requests to identify primroses and cowslips. To me the fields and woods were just a convenient playground, and when we later moved to the town I didn't miss the countryside one little bit.

With that sort of blasé attitude it is hardly surprising that urban expeditions remain far more vividly in my mind. My mother took a weekly Saturday bus trip to Lewes to visit my grandmother and do any shopping that was not covered by our deliveries from Ringmer. That meant a visit to the Co-op, which occupied a mock Tudor building in West Street almost opposite the dark and rumbling hell-hole known as 'the needle factory', where the doors were always open to reveal fearsome machinery and shadowy figures singing along to 'Music While You Work'.

At the risk of digressing I feel I ought to say more about the Co-op.  At that time it still carried out its original function of providing necessities at a discount for the poor, and you could not shop there unless you joined the Society by taking out shares at a nominal price.  All co-operative societies were affiliated to the CWS - the Co-operative Wholesale Society - which used its huge bulk-buying power to supply the retail shops with goods at favourable prices.  Unlike modern discount supermarkets, however, the shops did not pass on the reductions directly to customers.  Members bought their goods at normal prices but were entitled to a cash dividend on the total cost of their purchases. The dividend, or 'divi' as it was usually known, was fixed each year, and news of the figure, which varied between five and ten per cent, was eagerly awaited. If I remember rightly it was paid out in half-yearly instalments, providing a welcome windfall.

The Co-op was certainly a godsend for isolated households because if you couldn't get to the shop you could list future requirements in a special book and hand it to the van driver for delivery the following week. If you preferred to visit the shop in person you sat on a stool at one of the polished wooden counters and were attended to by a man in a white coat. The unique feature of the shop was the complex system of overhead wires terminating at a corner cubicle, where the lady cashier sat in state. When a transaction was completed the counter assistant would unscrew a container from the wire, place in it the money paid with a note of the customer's share number, replace the container and send it hissing on its way to the cashier. If change was required it came shooting back the same way. It certainly made shopping fun for children, a fact that strikes me every time I go into a supermarket and see bored youngsters being dragged listlessly round miles of monotonous shelves.

While my mother would usually make a few impulse buys the main purpose of our visits was to order for the following week. For that we went to a special section where obliging men would take the order book and later assemble the goods in a cardboard box and mark it for delivery.  Ordering in person had advantages in wartime, because you could make on-the-spot changes to compensate for unpredictable shortages or to snap up any rarity that happened to be in.

The counter assistants certainly earned their money in those days when sugar, rice, tea, currants and similar goods arrived at the shop in hundredweight sacks and had to be laboriously weighed out and wrapped in paper cones.  Biscuits, of course, were never pre-wrapped but lifted straight from the tin and weighed into paper bags. Bacon was always sliced to order. It meant that each customer sitting on her stool was the centre of busy and dexterous activity, punctuated by the continuous hiss and click of the overhead railway.

Evidence of thriving commerce was music to the ears of the shoppers, with their personal stake in the business. It was always a solemn moment when 'divi time' came round and we climbed to the office at the back of the shop and presented evidence of membership to a clerk, who would consult his ledger and formally count out our share of the profits. It goes without saying that while this admirable system was open to anyone it would have been social death for a middle-class housewife to be seen shopping at the Co-op, in preference to the Home and Colonial or Roberts, the posh grocer at the top of School Hill.

Our shopping was essentially functional and there was no time or money for fripperies, so the ports of call did not vary much. Wyborn's, close to the County Hall, was our chemist. The Scotch Wool Shop, directly opposite, provided supplies for my mother's never-ending knitting, while the Mac Fisheries next door was always good for a pound of sprats. In the Cliffe, at the bottom end of the town, we might call in at Tickner's the 'baby shop' before the inevitable visit to Woolworth's. This small, dimly-lit and inconvenient branch of the giant American concern still proclaimed itself as 'The 3d and 6d Store' on its trademark red and white fascia, and a shilling would indeed buy you quite a lot if you were prepared to negotiate the dark and narrow aisles between counters staffed by watchful but uncommunicative girls. I remember once being sent there to buy a light bulb.  As usual the girl tested it casually in a socket fixed to the counter, but on this occasion she fused all the lights in the shop and a few seconds later slumped to the floor in a dead faint, unnoticed in the pitch darkness. I don't think the manager actually locked the doors and searched each customer but it was some time before order was restored, and I quietly made my escape, racked with guilt and without the light bulb.

There was never any danger of this sort of fiasco when we visited the Town Hall, where stern WVS ladies (almost certainly patrons of the Home and Colonial) kept firm control over the queue of mothers waiting to collect their free orange juice and large tins of National Dried Milk - the government's contribution to the diet of wartime babies. Since adequate quantities of fresh milk were one of my father's perks I am not sure why we carried the big grey and blue tins home unless it was to avoid feeding my brother with unpasteurised stuff more or less straight from the cow. I can only say that it never did me any harm.

Since my mother was a great reader any visit to Lewes was bound to take in Richardson's library, the sort of institution that disappeared completely when Boots gave up lending books. It stood in the High Street next to Barbican House and did brisk business at a time when the public libraries had a rigorous policy of not spending public money on popular fiction. If you wanted a detective story, a Western or a romantic novel you went to Richardson's and paid 2d to borrow it for a week.

One thing my mother seldom bought in Lewes was clothing. That came from the 'Williams' Catalogue' which had an honoured place in our home. I was delighted to see recently that the old-established mail-order firm of CE Williams is still in business, though no doubt its catalogues are rather different from those of the 1940s, with their line drawings of impossibly tall adults and plump, angelic children.

Each Christmas we had an afternoon out in Brighton, a town sadly deprived of much of its character by the wartime closure of the piers and the beach. The missing lights, the peeling white paint and the barbed wire along the promenade created a dismal atmosphere and made the war seem much nearer. For a time Brighton had funny buses too. With petrol in short supply the Corporation decided on a short-lived experiment, converting its vehicles to methane propulsion, with the result that the buses had to tow trailers with ballooning fabric containers of gas. However, wartime austerity did not prevent the big shops in Western Road putting on a show of seasonal cheer, and at Wade's department store you could still get a present from Father Christmas. Santa's Grotto was ingenious but, on the first occasion, distinctly unsettling for me. With a group of other children I was ushered into a small darkened room fitted with a ship's wheel. A woman in the dress uniform of a Ruritanian admiral seized this and uttered a nautical monologue while an engine chugged away and simultaneously the 'windows' lit up to reveal a moving panorama of landscapes, including, I recall, the Pyramids, the North Pole and the African jungle. Having arrived at some exotic destination we followed the admiral out of the ship and discovered Santa sitting in a cave ready to hand us each a present with a few gruff ho-ho's. By this time I was terrified, convinced that I was whole continents away from my mother and demanding to be allowed back on board immediately for the return voyage. But there was no return trip. When I was led round the corner to find that it was still mid-afternoon at Wade's and that my mother was sitting there showing no signs of panic at the abduction of her child my confusion was complete.

I had to make a less welcome visit to Brighton at the age of eight when Dr Rice decreed that that my tonsils should go. Having your tonsils out was a common operation for children in those days, although I am not sure what the benefits were supposed to be. The removal of adenoids, equally popular at that time, is something else that seems to have gone out of fashion. Anyway, both operations were on tap at the Brighton Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital, a grim red brick building in Queen's Road.  Harold Owen, the brother of the poet Wilfred Owen, describes in his autobiography the experience of sitting in the kitchen of his home while the doctor sawed out his tonsils on the spot.  Medical techniques had fortunately advanced a bit by 1943, but going under the knife was still a serious business involving foul-tasting preparatory capsules, nauseating general anaesthetic and several days with a sore throat in a ward run by a dragon of a Sister who had no sympathy with homesickness. I didn't have much to show for the ordeal either, unlike some of the other patients with problems that required immense and grotesque head bandages.

Thanks to my father I was able to see something of London during the war. He used to spend part of his annual holiday on visits to his sisters, one of whom had married a postman and now lived in New Malden. (It was their son Clifford who had spent a short time at the farm as an evacuee.)  On a couple of occasions he took me with him, and I can remember the shock as the train rumbled over Battersea bridge and I saw for the first time the vast river Thames, although what impressed me even more was the forest of barrage balloons that hung over the city and seemed to darken the sky.  I took my first tram ride too, grinding down the Vauxhall Bridge Road to Vauxhall station, where we caught the train to New Malden. It was not an exciting place. In fact life in this featureless expanse of identical suburban roads and houses was deadly dull, and my father took every opportunity to escape.  So it was that I found myself one night at the Kingston Empire, enjoying one of those variety entertainments that have now passed into show business history. The famous ventriloquist Arthur Prince with his sailor doll was top of the bill, advanced in years at that time but still looking pretty good to me. On another occasion we paid a visit to my father's other sister, who lived with her family in a block of Peabody Buildings in Pimlico. These model tenements, erected by a nineteenth-century philanthropist, were built round a courtyard that echoed with the cries of children, and with their concrete stairs and open walkways they were not unlike modern council flats.  No sooner were we inside than my aunt called in my two young cousins from their game in the yard and ordered them to 'look after' me. They were none too pleased at the prospect, but cheered up when she handed over some money for the pictures. A vague memory of cartoons and battle scenes tells me that we must have gone to the news theatre on Victoria station, and it may well have been my first visit to a cinema. I didn't enjoy it much, fearing that my cousins would slip away in the darkness and abandon me. It was Santa's Grotto again without the present.

Anyway, we got home safely for a prolonged tea that took us up to opening time. There was no nonsense about baby-sitters. The whole family plus the odd neighbour trooped along to one of those big, boozy, brass-and-mahogany pubs, where we children were handed lemonade and crisps on the doorstep and instructed not to go away.  So we sat in the evening sunshine on a handy ledge outside the open doors, listening to the hubbub and screams of laughter within, and requesting passers-by to 'give us a fag, mister'. At least my streetwise cousins did. Bumpkin-like I sat and marvelled at their metropolitan sophistication, doing my best to join in their sing-along to the jangling piano inside. I was distinctly relieved when, at blackout time, my father and I said goodbye to the maudlin mob and caught the train back to the respectability of New Malden.

The next day we returned home, with my father in a subdued mood.  It may have been a hangover, but as the train pulled out of Victoria it is far more likely that he was thinking of the long year that lay between him and his next visit to London.  I don't think my mother ever accompanied him on these visits. London was not her world. No doubt she understood that however contentedly he accepted the farming life he needed once a year to tread the familiar pavements and briefly recapture the raucous world of the Pimlico streets where he had been brought up.  Incidentally, I never saw my cousins again.  Perhaps they still sit in a Westminster pub, tut-tutting at the wild ways of the younger generation and boring everyone with memories of the days when you could leave a child in perfect safety on a busy pavement outside the saloon bar.

The sort of excursions I have described were obviously exceptional occasions. Most of my time out of school was spent at home, and there were long winter months when it was too cold, too wet or too dark to play outside - months when dusk descended soon after tea. Imagine a power cut that lasts from 4pm to 8am. You have some form of non-electric lighting providing illumination over a radius of three or four feet. You have a battery radio and a coal fire, and that's it.  Now imagine this situation occurring every night for four months and you have some idea of what winter evenings were like at Park Farm Cottages.

But were we downhearted?  Well yes, I think we probably were a little.  The problem with having no electricity is that you cannot make the instant transition from twilight to cosiness. The picture of a room with curtains drawn and oil lamps casting a soft glow is an attractive one, but there are quite long periods, evening and morning, when there is enough natural light to do most things apart from reading, and when an oil lamp seems to make the surroundings darker.  Life in this grey half-light can be depressing, especially at seven o'clock in the morning. It is easy to forget that winter life was like this for millions of people at that time.  The electricity service was roughly at the stage where gas is today - readily available in towns but very patchy in the countryside. The National Grid had come into operation only a few years before in 1935, and in the 1940s a combination of wartime priorities, fairly primitive technology and sheer expense meant that the electricity supply in rural areas was confined to those who could afford a large outlay. Ryngmer Park had electricity and so did the farm, but when we left the cottage in 1948 there was still no sign of it being connected up.

My parents had long since become accustomed to tending the temperamental oil lamps, of which we had a variety ranging from the large globed models for use in the living room to the miniature ones we carried up to bed.  A lot of time was spent in keeping them filled, trimming their wicks and cleaning their fragile glasses, which sooted up immediately if you turned the lamp up a fraction too high. Of course we also had torches for popping upstairs, fetching coal or going to the lavatory. But the war brought irritating shortages. Everybody knows about food rationing, but I think it would be true to say that any country dweller in the early 1940s would gladly have traded a month's butter ration for two or three lamp glasses or half a dozen torch batteries. (My mother would probably have swapped a lot of clothing coupons for a regular supply of babies' bottle teats; I remember at least one expensive bus ride undertaken solely on the strength of a rumour that a chemist in an obscure Brighton street had a supply of them.) With paraffin occasionally subject to unofficial rationing it is easy to see that you didn't need to be under enemy attack for life to become stressful.

Fortunately we had books, and we had our trusty radio provided that the accumulator didn't fail. My father and mother were both happy with a novel, and I was a fairly precocious reader myself, so with the lamps suitably positioned we would spend quiet evenings punctuated by radio programmes like 'Music Hall', that long-forgotten Saturday night showcase for stars like Suzette Tarri, Layton and Johnston, 'Hutch', Nat Mills and Bobbie and the great Elsie and Doris Walters. And since my father had to be up at 5.30 we would all be in bed by nine o'clock at the latest.