Remembering Gamlingay

Charles Grelli. September 5, 2004

Having left my wife at the Royston train station minding our suitcases, I went up a flight of stairs, across the road and entered the North Star Pub in Royston. The place was completely empty. I asked the man behind the counter if I could use his telephone. Before giving me an answer he looked at the clock that showed 2:55 P.M. and said, “Sorry mate we’re closing in five minutes”. I looked at him and without sounding irritated said, “I have just traveled five thousands miles in the last 10 hours, all I need is to make one telephone call and I will be “home” for the night”.

Understanding my predicament and recognizing that I spoke English differently than what is common in East Anglia, he relented and let me use the phone even if Pub regulations back in July, 1977 required that he close the premises for a few hours in the afternoon.

The all-important phone call was to Ken Worboys, my wife’s great uncle in Gamlingay. We had arranged for him to pick us up after a seven-hour flight from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Although my wife had been born in Cambridge, this was her first trip back to England after twenty years. Having also lived in Canada for twenty years it was my first trip to England but not my first trip back to Europe.

Uncle Ken, as my wife called him arrived shortly after with his trusted Triumph Dolomite Sprint ready to collect us and our baggage. After hugging a niece he had not seen since she was a small girl, and exchanging pleasantries, we were on our way to Gamlingay.

Driving past Kneesworth, Bassingbourn, Croydon, East Hatley and Hatley St. George, I quickly realized that although Uncle Ken was an elderly gentleman he was a true road artist. While completely immersed in conversation with Jane in the front seat, he was capable of negotiating what seemed to me some very narrow roads at breakneck speeds without any hesitation. Only later did I learn that having been a motor mechanic all his life, driving cars and motorbikes through East Anglia above the posted speed limits was second nature to him.

After getting a glimpse of the narrow streets of Gamlingay he drove into the Worboys Garage court where we were greeted by Aunt Emily, Keith, Christine and their three and half year old son, David. As soon as Jane said hello to the family, Keith responded in what I learned later to be the East Anglia cadence, “Blimey, she speaks like a Canadian”. I did not think that the comment was made as a reprimand but rather a concern that Canada had had a negative effect on his second cousin. The family did not make any comments on my version of the English language (being a transplanted Italian) but I know they struggled to understand me.

The rest of that afternoon was pleasantly spent catching up on twenty years of family tales (Jane was the oldest of a family of five children that had left Bellevue Farm in Kneesworth) and being introduced to an English delicacy – Victoria sponge cake courtesy of Aunt Emily. The recipe was quickly written down and recreated many times after our return to Canada.

The next day we decided to familiarize ourselves (well at least from my point of view) with the village and it’s shops. It did not take the shop owners very long to recognize that we were not residents. Immediately after we asked our first question the usual reaction was, “you must be the Canadian relatives of Ken Worboys”. Yes indeed, Uncle Ken must have spread the news of our coming throughout the village weeks in advance!

What I remember most about the village in those first days is the number of commercial services provided in such a small place. A couple of doors from the garage (going north on Mill Street) there was a little bakery with its headquarters in Biggleswade) that opened only certain days of the week. The variety of pastries available were new to me but quite delicious. We found it difficult to go by the place and not purchase more than we should have.

Barclay’s Bank was located across the street from the bakery. For the short time we were in the village the people in the bank got to know us well. It must have been due to the fact that not too many people went in to exchange Canadian traveller’s cheques. I can still remember that a British pound could be purchased for a $1.86 Cdn. If that exchange would be the same today I would be returning to England more often.

On the corner of Mill and Church Street there was a one room Pub that we visited with Uncle Ken (it was not there on our second visit in 1991). Although it was only a hundred yards away from the garage, he felt it necessary to change into a suit and tie before leaving the house. I am afraid that all we did was change from one set of blue jeans to another. I don’t think that impressed him very much.

Going east on Church Street there was a fruiter and green grocer (who also seemed to know who we were) that displayed a great variety and quality of fresh produce daily (inside and out) and was always full of shoppers.

We started wondering why this village had so many services available within walking distance. Eventually we realized that history might have offered an explanation. The village existed for hundreds of years before modern day conveniences in the home made it possible for people to stock large quantities of food, thereby making daily shopping necessary. I suppose only outsiders like us, used to a different life style would notice such differences.

The culmination of our meandering down Church Street ended of course at St. Mary’s The Virgin. Although Jane remembered the structure from her many visits to Gamlingay before she had left for Canada, this was all new to me. I had never set foot in a Church of England but it was immediately obvious that in some ways the layout reminded me of the Catholic churches that I had known in my youth, before the second Vatican Council.

As a matter of fact when we attended service that first Sunday, I was asked by the visiting bishop (who must have been warned that I was a dogan) how the church compared to the Catholic Church. I said to him that the Mass reminded me of the pre-Vatican II Catholic Mass, except that we did not sing as much. He asked me if I had sung along during the service. I answered by saying that, “I refrained from singing in the hope that the congregation would return next Sunday”. He expressed his gratitude.

Sunday morning gatherings at the Worboys home after the church services were times to be remembered as friends and Uncle Ken’s war buddies from outside the village dropped by for tea and catch up on the week’s events. Living in a large impersonal Canadian city, I had not experienced this kind of community spirit for twenty years. To me it was something worth cherishing. These gatherings reminded me of the times after Sunday Mass in my grandparents homes in Italy when friends and relatives also met to discuss the progress of their crops and family matters.

We did not spend our entire vacation in Gamlingay but wherever our trusty rented Ford Escort took us
(from London to Edinburgh, Caerphilly to Skegness and many, may points in between) we had to return to the village. We were experiencing the most wonderful places that Britain could offer; but were always moving amongst strangers, so every few days we needed to recharge our batteries, so to speak. We needed to get back to the village to experience meaningful contact and conversation with our relatives and people that they had introduced to us. Gamlingay became “our home away from home” for everything else we experienced that summer.

Three weeks later when we left for the rest of our summer vacation in Paris and Italy; we knew that we would have to return to this village someday but unfortunately that someday would not happen for another fourteen years and three children in tow.