Chitterne Remembered: Reminiscences of an Evacuee

These memories were sparked off by reading Sue Robinson’s carefully researched and informative “Chitterne – a Wiltshire Village", obtained after seeing it advertised in the Wiltshire Family History magazine. The memories are, of course, recollections coloured by emotion, and after such a long time particularly so.

The book carried me back to what must have been the very end of 1940, shortly before Christmas, because I remember as a ‘just turned’ 11 year old sitting in the assembly hall of Warminster Avenue Elementary school and listening to the headmaster, I think the Harold Nelson Dewey whose mother Henrietta is referred to in the introduction, reciting one of Edward Slow’s poems about ‘tha girt big figgetty pooden’. I tried to become fluent in this language as quickly as possible.

Like some other children in Chitterne, I had been evacuated from south London to escape the bombing. Arriving almost overnight at a small thatched cottage, I suddenly found myself in a new world and free to roam over what to me was a great expanse of emptiness . This began immediately without warning outside the back door. The book suggested to me or reminded me that the back door belonged to Ivy cottage. Emptiness then to me meant a place where there were no houses or people. I soon came to discover that it was not empty at all but full of all sorts of things that were far more interesting than streets and houses. It was a new experience for me and one that touched a chord. I fitted into it so well that never once did I want to return to the city or feel homesick for it. I have remained a Wiltshireman ever since (by adoption and marriage!) even though events have taken me away. If ever I have been homesick for anywhere it has been Salisbury and the Plain. I carried a little book of pictures of it with me on my travels at one time. My wife tells people that I am more of a Moonraker than she is. It is true that even now, when coming back and seeing the familiar countryside I become suddenly more animated! The relatively short time that I spent in the village had a disproportionate effect on me.

Anyhow, I was soon rounded up by the authorities and sent on the bus to school in Warminster. This was something of a novel experience for me because 1940 had done little to advance my formal education. My memories of Warminster Avenue are happy ones not least because it was there I gained the nickname by which I was known until I changed it for an army number. That is another story.

I had arrived at the cottage with my mother because a friend of ours who lived across the road in London had taken her family there in the great exodus and invited us to go with them. Another family, the Johns, also evacuees but unknown to us, was already there. There is a school photograph in the book showing Trevor Johns, who must have been about my age, and his younger sister Winnie. We all lived together in Ivy Cottage.

I remember that the upper floor was reached by short wooden open ladders. The upstairs couldn’t have been much more than standing height above the ground floor because, when the ladies had gone out in the evening to the pub up the road, where my mother had taken on the role of official piano player, we would often climb out of the window overlooking the road and disappear into the darkness for a while. I can’t remember how we got back in. We were left in the charge of the one grandfather available to us. There was a space at the side of the cottage with a corrugated iron roof where activites like skinning rabbits took place.

We used to borrow a small terrier from somebody and set off with various wire nooses to catch them and bring them back and hang them up ready for the cook. The meat ration was increased considerably by this. Stuck on to the wall was a black and white picture of a place called Salisbury Cathedral. I remember when I first saw it, sounding out the syllables and asking where sal-is-berry was. I was to find out.

A night time activity was playing a game called ‘Jack show your light’. This usually took place more in the centre and at the other end of the village, such as up in ‘Gasson’ as we called it or out on the Tilshead road. More boys were involved. One of us would be given a head start with a masked torch and then be pursued by the others. Occasionally he would show a glimmer of light to reveal his whereabouts. I can’t remember the ARP Warden ever catching us. We certainly had plenty of exercise in those days . Looking at the map long afterwards I discovered that our wanderings would take us as far away from the village as Sutton Veney and the Deverills apart from the more usual excursions to Tilshead and Shrewton. We would not walk all the way. We had a good idea from the position of the sun whereabouts the Pig Swill Lorry would be and used to lie in wait for it on a hillside so that we could chart its progress and then rush down to wave it to a halt so that we could leap on the back amongst the bins and ride home in luxury. The lorry was driven and manned by a father and son who lived a little way up the hill towards Shrewton. One night for some reason I called there and on the round table in the living room was spread a wonderful watercolour painting they were both working on. I can see the rich bright colours now glowing from the light of the oil lamp. Another means of transport we devised was occasioned by our coming into the brief possession of a bicycle and sharing it in the way that the communism of war-time childhood demanded. One of us would ride the bike to a pre-determined place and leave it by the roadside and walk on. When the others arrived , another one would mount up and ride to the next staging post and so on until we all reached our destination.

Amidst all this , a lot of my time was spent making the most of the solitary opportunities the village and its surroundings offered . A favourite pastime was to walk out beyond the village and climb a small hill where the rooks collected noisily around their twiggy nests high up . There I would sit in the grass watching and listening. I also had secret work to do for the war effort which meant acting on my own to more easily escape detection by enemy agents. This entailed creeping up as close as I could to the perimeter fence marking off the forbidden territory of Imber and watching out for spies and suspicious activity. Sometimes while I was with the rooks in particularly isolated woods, I would watch small planes (possibly Lysanders) land and take off again. If anybody knew I was there, it didn’t bother them.

It was on these journeys that I made friends with a shepherd on the hills and spent time with the sheep, helped with the lambing and began to be educated in really important matters. In the summer I helped on the farm. I was allowed sometimes to drive the Fordson tractor, at least between the hiles as the men pitched the sheaves into the cart. I had helped previously to make the hiles so that the sheaves could dry out before going to the rick. When it rained we kept dry and warm sitting inside these structures. For this I was paid 3d (three old pennies) per hour and since I often worked 72 hours in a week, received 18s. I have never been as well off since. But I much preferred it when the tractor was silent and I led the horse around the field and in the rain pressed up against his side. His warmth and smell and presence was a comfort the tractor could never be. At night I usually rode back to the farm sitting on his back with my feet resting on one of the wooden shafts.

One day at school I was called to Mr Dewey’s office and arriving with a certain amount of trepidation was told to sit at a small desk in one corner opposite him and complete a succession of examination papers . I was subsequently ignored while the usual head-masterly business with its comings and goings went on around me. This lasted all day with a break only for school dinner. I had no idea what I was being punished for and remember thinking that whatever it was it wasn’t working because I quite enjoyed answering all the questions, writing stories, doing sums and fitting shapes together. But I was a little worried by the fact that on the top of each paper was written “Christ’s Hospital School"; obviously I was suffering from some dreadful disease that no one had told me about and was being sent away.

However nothing more was said about it and I forgot it; school days were normal again. Eventually, I can’t remember how long it was, I found myself at Ivy Cottage no more, but in a room in a council house at the other end of the village. It was opposite a shop. Apart from continuing my bus journeys to school, I seemed to have been mainly occupied with my two duties of emptying the toilet bucket into holes I had dug for the purpose and lowering and raising a different bucket to fetch water from the well in the garden. This bucket took very little time going down. In fact one or two close encounters with a fast spinning handle taught me to control more carefully the ratchet that restricted its descent. Control of it was even more important when the bucket was coming up full of water. The slightest loss of concentration would see it plummeting again to the bottom and the whole back breaking business would begin again.

Eventually news reached my mother that I had passed something called ‘a scholarship' and could join Christs’s Hospital, otherwise known I think as the Blue Coat School, which had been evacuated to Horsham. As this appeared to my mother to be a long journey each day from Chitterne, and not realising it might have been residential, though nothing of this was discussed with me, it was agreed that I could instead attend a certain Bishop Wordsworth School in Salisbury. This I did until 1948 when I was called up for National Service . As my mother was no longer living in Chitterne at this time , I was sent to live with a kind person called Mrs Fagg. This I did very happily. A Mr Fagg (I assume the same person that I knew) appears in one of the Home Guard pictures in the book. I remember being told that he had suffered from the gas attacks of the first war.

So it happened that September 1941 saw me cycling early each morning to Codford to catch the service bus to Salisbury. I was accompanied by Alan Feltham who was also starting at the school. He appears in the school photo I mentioned earlier standing next to Trevor Johns. As we cycled we passed lines of tanks pulled in at the road side. We were allowed to park our bicycles at the Bakers in Codford. I think the name of the shop was Norris. I do remember a nice looking blonde girl there who made the journey worthwhile. I saw Alan from time to time at school over the years but we were not in the same class and lost touch.

Inevitably school in Salisbury meant leaving my new home, Chitterne, and finding other lodgings at various places around Salisbury closer to the school. Writing this now I notice that I use the word ‘home' only to describe the village not the houses I lived in which indicates the vital part that the ‘Home in the Trees‘ played in the new life of one small refugee from Hitler’s bombs for which he remains very grateful.

John Goulding 2010

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