When I was a child, life in the village, compared to today was a world away.
One of the biggest changes has been the amount of cars on the roads.
As children we often played games on the street. Lots of the games I remember were played across the road such as
‘What’s the time Mr Wolf?’
‘Peep behind the curtain’.
‘Farmer, Farmer may I cross your river?’
‘Red Light, Green Light’
It was very unusual for a car to go by and stop the game. Most people walked or biked in those days and occasionally a farmer would go by with his Horse & cart.
One I remember was ‘Talby’ Wright. He used to own or rent some of the land where Chapel Fields estate now is and when he came by he’d often let us ride on his cart. Sometimes he would let one of us ride on his horse when he was ploughing the field.
At harvest time the bales of straw were a lot smaller than the ones they have today and we would pile them up and make dens. Later the straw bales would be taken away and then they would burn the stubble in the fields which was great fun for us children.
Towards the end of October we would start collecting rubbish for bonfires for November 5th and build a guy. In those days children were able to buy fireworks for themselves from Charlie Careless’ shop on Mill St.
I used to keep them in an Oxo tin at home and spend ages counting them and comparing with other kid’s collections. On ‘bonfire night’ there were fires in many people’s gardens rather than the public displays we have today. We used to wrap potatoes in tin foil and roast them in the fire to eat later with butter and salt. The following day we would go off looking for spent fireworks and rockets.
Before the advent of the buggy, many people wheeled their babies around in coach-built prams. Because these were relatively expensive they were often passed on from family to family. When they were eventually discarded we would strip them down and make carts from the wheels and any spare wood we could find. The place for carting in Stocks Lane was usually the pavement down Honey Hill that curves round onto Mill Street. When you met someone walking in the opposite direction on the path you would have to swerve into the road to avoid them.
Kids were, out of necessity, far more self-reliant. We would all build our own bicycles since a ‘new’ bike was unheard of. We would gather frames, wheels & handlebars from rubbish dumps and discarded bikes and put them together ourselves. They would often have different sized wheels and odd shaped handlebars but all of us were adept with spanners, basic mechanics, mending punctures etc.
Opposite our house was the cemetery. When it was getting dark we had great fun scaring neighbours & passers-by. We would tie a length of black cotton to the cemetery fence, stretch it across the road and hold the other end behind the hedge in our front garden then wait for someone to pass by. To have something invisible suddenly touch their face when walking past the cemetery certainly scared them.
In the school holidays we would leave home in the morning, go off to play in the streets and fields for the most of the day and no one would worry that we might get kidnapped or molested. We would spend the day climbing trees, scrumping apples, collecting conkers, nuts and blackberries and playing in the fields and the Brook. Another pastime was going down to the railway track and putting pennies on the line and sitting back until a steam locomotive came by and squashed them flat.
I think that that way of life was partly possible because in those days the village was smaller and much more of a community. Virtually everyone knew everyone else and if any children were seen doing something really dangerous or had hurt themselves then a villager would either tell them off or take them home; people would generally look out for each other. Unfortunately, much of this sense of community has now gone and many children aren’t allowed out of the house without an adult supervising them.
In those days the village looked very different than it does today. There are now so many houses covering what used to be fields.
I lived at Stocks Lane & the area now covered by Charnocks Close used to be a park enclosed by a rickety wooden fence & Holly hedge. There were Elm, Chestnut and Walnut trees in the park and cows and sheep would graze there. It was also used as a cricket ground and had a small pavilion and screens.
On the opposite side of the road where bungalows & houses now stand was what used to be part of the Vicarage gardens. It was scrub land with small trees, bushes and brambles and I remember we dug a large hole there, covered it over with sheets of corrugated metal and used it as a den.
The footpath going from Stocks Lane to Mill St. was called Charnocks in those days and not Holly Walk as some now call it. My grandparents called it The Twitchell and refused to call it Charnocks!
At the other end of Stocks Lane just after the council houses was Gifford’s orchard (now Blythe Way). We would often go there scrumping apples, pears, plums and gooseberries (goozgogs). It was overgrown with grass which we would hide in if Daf or Harry Gifford came out to move us off. I remember a particular occasion when Daf was looking for us and she shouted “I know you’re in there and my gun shoots round corners!”
Opposite that was The Butts where we often played. At the time it was just a sunken field where potatoes were grown and we would tie ropes to the overhanging trees to swing out on.
I, like many other children did a daily paper round to earn a little extra ‘pocket money’. I’d be biking around the village from about 6am to 8am every morning, whatever the weather. I particularly remember going past the Bakehouse at the bottom of Church St. and the beautiful aroma of baking bread. A loaf of bread in those days cost 9d (about 4p).
Another of my paper deliveries was to an old man who lived in a shed in Park Lane off Dennis Green. I remember how filthy and primitive it was. It was heated with a paraffin stove and had a dirt floor. The man kept a shotgun under his bed and once a week he would get me to do a little shopping for him. This included getting him a new battery for his radio. I’ll never forget the comment he made about the batteries: “How do they get all that news and music inside these batteries boy?” Another way to supplement your pocket money was collecting pop bottles and returning them to the shop for a few pennies refund.
In the summer, when I was a little older there were always casual jobs to be had. Merton Grange on Station Road had a huge greenhouse where they grew Tomatoes and we would spend a few weeks in the summer sorting them by size. Also local farmers sometimes employed us picking Potatoes, Peas or Beans.
There were several barns in the village where we played. The Tithe barn, once located in St. Mary’s field, was popular, not just for us kids but for courting couples too.
Not far from there was the Great Barn off Station Road. At the time it was used by Len Berry who ran a small haulage business.
Another barn we played in was located near where the Telephone Exchange now stands. It was full of old straw and I remember that after playing in there for a while you’d get bitten by mites, gnats & flees.
Occasionally, films were shown in the Women’s Institute & I remember the first one I saw was ‘Carry on Sergeant’, the first of the Carry On films.
Of course, so much has changed over the last 60 years; the telephone exchange was originally sited outside the school on Cinques Road, Empson’s Garage stood for many years where Bell Foundry Close now is & opposite that was the Conservative club.
The building of Green Acres estate started in the mid 1960s where previously there were fields.
In Stocks Lane the park became Charnocks Close & opposite that many bungalows & houses were built on what was the Vicarage grounds.
The long gardens of the council houses and Gifford’s orchards and land became Blythe Way.
Chapel Fields was just that: fields where Talby Wright & his horse once ploughed.
Of the shops that I remember, now all gone, were:
Nellie Bedford’s greengrocers
Charlie Careless’ newsagent
Flinder’s Electrical store.
Gosling’s Barber & Newsagent
Chapman’s Grocer & Fish & Chip shop
Savages Grocer & Draper where the Pharmacy now stands
Mayston’s Shoe Shop
David Jones’ Hairdressers
George Lawman’s Blacksmith
Alec Norman’s Cycle shop
Keen’s Car showroom, once the site of the Maltings & now Maltings Estate
Marcus Arnold’s Butcher
Post Office run by Don Parker
On Sunday afternoons our parents insisted we went to Sunday school at the Baptist Chapel and so we would have to dress in our ‘Sunday Best’ and go listen to stories and sing songs for an hour or two.
It wasn’t until I was a little older that I began to understand why my parents might want a couple of hours of ‘peace’ to themselves.
The best thing about going to Chapel was the annual coach trip to the seaside, usually Hunstanton or Caister. I remember we all took a packed lunched which we’d often eaten by the time we arrived.
It was around the late 1950s that Billy Graham came to prominence followed shortly by similar evangelical missions and I remember one of them visiting Gamlingay in the early 1960s. They erected a large marquee in the park, put posters around the village and held a series of meetings over a weekend at which they encouraged people to come up to the stage and ‘open their hearts to the Lord’ or something similar. Because it was a novel event for us kids we all went to listen.
It made little impression on me but afterwards I remember that there was an argument going on outside the marquee. Apparently the people from the Baptist Chapel were protesting that the evangelists were stealing their congregation. I’d never really thought about religion until then but that episode started me wondering why there were opposing denominations of what I’d innocently considered to be all part of the same thing. I don’t remember going to Sunday school much after that.
Food and self-sufficiency
Life was a lot harder yet probably healthier when I was young. The back gardens of the houses in Stocks Lane were very large and each stretched from the houses almost to Mill Street – about 130 yards long and 8 yards wide. Most of the gardens were kept cultivated and on a Sunday morning the men would be up there digging and planting and shouting ribbing comments to each other.
There was Hubby Busby, Len Allen, Fred Bettles, Jock Jakes, Bert Kefford, Ted Careless and others growing potatoes, beans, peas, cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, tomatoes and onions.
We also kept chickens and at the top of the garden was a small orchard with plum, gage and apple trees.
My uncle, Fred Bettles lived next door & also reared and kept chickens. If the eggs hatched in winter he would set up a little run in his front room to keep the chicks warm.
People were far more self sufficient out of necessity since there were no supermarkets at that time.
Other foods were bought locally: bread from Lindsay’s Bakehouse, meat from Knibbs and Marcus Arnold’s butchers, fruit and vegetables from Nellie Bedford’s, other groceries from the Co-op & Hancox Stores where cheese & ham were sliced individually for you and wrapped in greaseproof paper.
Similar to today’s’ supermarket deliveries today there was The International. Once a week a delivery van would turn up at your door with the goods you had ordered the previous week & you would then give the driver your order for the following week.
September was pickle and jam making season. We would go off picking blackberries in the countryside and strawberries and gooseberries from the garden then my mother and Aunt would spend the day making jam, preserves and pickles. I distinctly remember the eye-watering fumes from pickling onions and cooking chutney.
Since refrigerators were almost unheard of, many people kept perishable food in a ‘meat safe’. This was a small wooden cupboard on legs with wire mesh on the front and sides and was kept in the shade outdoors. Milk didn’t last more than a day in the summer and I remember an interesting arrangement to keep butter cool.
The butter was kept in a dish which stood in a larger dish containing water. Over the top of that was a third inverted dish covered with a piece of material whose edges hung in the water. This kept the material wet and as a result helped keep the butter cool.
The first ‘takeaway’ I remember was Dennis Chapman’s fish & chip shop in Church End but later George Knights’ blue fish & chip van used to do the village rounds once a week.
Water and Wash day
There was no running water in many parts of the village until the 1950s and so most houses had a well. In Stocks Lane there were originally eight wells, each one serving two households but my earliest memories are of just one cold water tap in the kitchen (or scullery as we called it).
Monday was wash day and the first job of the day was to fill and light the copper.
The copper was a small brick built affair in the shed with a large metal bowl in the top and a fire grate at the bottom for heating the water. Every Monday morning it had to be filled using buckets of water from the well or the cold tap and then emptied afterwards.
Once the fire was lit and the water was hot some was taken out and poured into a tub for the ‘coloureds’ and the whites would go into the copper. I remember my mum using Sunlight Carbolic soap and Reckitt’s Blue Bags for the wash and a washboard, a bar of hard soap and a stiff brush for clothes with more stubborn stains. The sheets were poked around with a wooden copper stick and when they were done they were hauled out and rinsed using a wrought iron mangle.
They were then hung out on the washing line to dry or if it was raining, hung on a clothes horse in front of the living room fire.
Baths and toilets
The copper was also used for heating water for bath night which was usually on a Friday. We had a large ‘tin’ bath which was filled with buckets of hot water from the copper and in the winter this was placed in front of the fire in the ‘living room’. You had to be really careful that you didn’t touch the fireside edge of the bath with your leg or you’d burn it.
There was no sewerage until the late 1950s and so the toilet was in a small shed in the garden and consisted of a rough wooden seat with a bucket beneath.
There was no quilted toilet tissue in those days. Some people would tear old newspapers into squares, thread a piece of string through the corner and hang them on a nail in the privy. Later we went ‘up-market’ and used rolls of Izal Medicated. To avoid going out into the frosty night in one’s pyjamas most people kept chamber pots under the bed.
The only heating for the house was a coal fire in the living room & a Paraffin Oil Stove in the scullery for cooking. The houses there actually had fireplaces in two of the bedrooms but to haul coal & ashes up & down the stairs was pretty messy so we rarely bothered. There was also another fireplace in the ‘front room’ but this was considered the ‘best’ room and only used at Christmas or special occasions.
Double glazing and insulation for cavity walls and lofts was unheard of so the house was very cold in winter – so cold that ice would often form on the inside of the bedroom windows.
Coal was delivered on a lorry filled with 1 hundredweight sacks. Many people would order ½ a ton at a time (10 sacks) which the coalman would carry on his back to your coal bunker. The coal bunker was outside of the house when we moved in but it must have been a recent addition because the previous occupants kept coal in a cupboard in the living room. Although I was only three at the time I remember my parents dismantling the cupboard and painting several times before the coal stains had gone.
The coalman in Gamlingay at the time was Harry Cook. I remember his name because if we ever had coal that didn’t burn too well my mother would exclaim: “That bloody Harry Cook!”
The only other heating we had was paraffin oil stove in the scullery which also served as for boiling water & cooking. Once a week Mr Jakes the Oilman delivered the fuel in a van. Later on Worboys had a paraffin vending machine outside their garage.
My first school was the one in Green End.
We started there as infants and at the time you would stay until you were 16. My first teacher was a Mrs Ersky, a slightly scary lady with black unkempt hair. When we first learned to write we used slates & chalk.
Later teachers were Carol Arnold, Mrs Armond and Mr Freeman. I remember them all quite fondly but they were rather strict, especially Mrs Armond. Every few days you would have to stand in front of the class and recite the times tables. Any mistakes and you would be sent back until you had perfected the tables up to 12.
Mr Freeman taught both woodwork and sports. Once or twice a week we would have to walk up to the football pitch which, at the time was located at the back of R & H Wale’s industrial estate. You often hear the phase ‘level playing field’ these days but that one certainly wasn’t.
Mrs Brend’s class was in the old Methodist Chapel at the other side of the school field in Green End.
Another classroom was at the Conservative Club on Waresley Road which was also used for local dances and other events. Out the back of that was a bowling green.
On the way from the school to the Conservative Club you would pass the school swimming pool and then a small children’s sandpit, both of which were built during my time there.
In 1964 the Village College was built which took children from the ages 11 to 16 from far & wide: the Gransdens, the Hatleys, even Gravely & Toseland, & I became one of its first pupils.
The Headmaster was a Mr Grounds who had two beautiful Samoyed dogs.
Another teacher at the time was a Mr Philpot who taught English. He’d previously lived in South Africa & loved telling us of his experiences there. We soon caught on to this & often asked him questions about it. He then proceeded to spend the rest of the lesson talking about it which of course meant that our ordinary, boring lesson was suspended while we sat back & listened to his tales.
Other teachers there at the time were Miss Rook (Art), Miss Davies (Domestic Science) & Mr Freeman who lived in Merton Manor Farm. Apart from teaching woodwork he had a special boat-building project in an old shed, formally the Carrot-wash near the Brook.