Maureen Arrowsmith

The following recollections are from Maureen Arrowsmith (nee Birks) who lived in Gamlingay from childhood to the late 1950s, initially in Green End and later in Long Lane.
They are both lovely accounts of life and activities as a child in the village prior to and during WWII.

Memories of Gamlingay
By Maureen Arrowsmith 2012

I have only very happy memories of my childhood in Gamlingay, both during and after the war years. My father was away in the war fighting for his country in N. Africa and Italy and my mother and I, along with her 80 year old father in law, who was escaping the blitz, lived in a small cottage in Long Lane. The house was, and still is, surrounded by fields and meadows and most seasons of the year the house held wild flowers and fruits which I had plucked from the hedgerows.

Our only neighbours lived in the other half of the semi-detached cottage (it has since been made into one house ) were Dick and May Norman, known to me then as “Uncle Dick and Norman.” He was a quiet and dignified man and she a small and shy, rather earnest lady. They had both spent their lives in Gamlingay, he working on the land and both of them growing their own fruit and vegetables and keeping hens, which I suppose most Gamlingay people did during the war. They had no children of their own and it was who taught me to read and write before I went to school.

It must have been a rather lonely life for my mother and quite a hard one too, by today’s standards. The cottage had no mains and all water for household use and drinking came from a well in the back garden that served both households. The well was very deep and the water clear and fresh and cool and was protected by a lid. I was always forbidden to go near it when they were drawing the water in case I fell in.

There was no electricity and in the evening oil lamps were lit which cast a cosy and warm glow over the room. Cooking was done over a black coal fired range, which my Mother had to regularly “black lead.” In the winter evenings the only entertainment was listening to the radio which ran on large batteries which had to be re-charged from time to time. I remember we took them to Empson’s garage in the Waresley road to do this, and in the summer they also sold lovely tomatoes there.

Similarly the toilet facilities were just as primitive being housed in a little tiled “house” away from the cottage and sheltered by an overgrowing Elder tree. It had a huge seat with a lid to cover it when not in use and it never needed emptying as it went into a huge pit!

On Sundays mornings I was taken to Chapel in the Baptist Chapel near Honey Hill, by Uncle Dick and Norman who were devout chapel goers. I cannot recall much about what went on in the chapel, but later I went to Sunday School in the afternoons in the little chapel at the end of the Alms Houses, which was attended by other village children. I quite enjoyed this and I can recall some of the boys being particularly rowdy and the teacher had difficulty controlling them.

Of the actual war I can recall very little beyond sitting at the bedroom window of the cottage at night with my mother watching a red glow in the sky, which she told me were raids on London. There were many airfields around Gamlingay and on two or three occasions I remember aircraft crashing.
One is particularly vivid in my memory as it crashed at the top of Fullers Hill and the youth of the village would pedal furiously by on their bikes to see it, and a good few adults went too. Being at the foot of Fuller’s Hill my mother and I followed the rest of the villagers and there in the middle of a ploughed field was an apparently uninjured German pilot leaning against the wing of his crashed plane and unconcernedly smoking a cigarette. We had all arrived before the rescue squad from the local airfield. Not all were as harmless as this one seemed. I recall an occasion when one crashed on a house Tetworth way killing the occupants as well as the pilot.

I was six years old when I started school at the Victorian School next to the Statty field between the Cross and Green End, and although a long walk from Long Lane it was very near where my grandparents lived in Green End, in an old detached house with a thatched roof, next to the “Spotted Cow” – both now, sadly, gone. My first day at school stands out clearly in my mind, being taken there by my mother and left with a lot of other children. As an only child I enjoyed the company of other children and my years there were very happy ones. On this first day I remember the “big” girls picking me up and holding me and walking around showing us new ones off. The school leaving age was then 14, and these children seemed very big indeed to me.

I began school life in Miss Wright’s class, a huge room divided by a partition from the next class, where the chanting of tables could clearly be heard through the partition. I was soon moved up to Mrs Arnold’s class and I remember my first friends there – Roma Jarvis and Margaret Dew, Ann Luff and Pat Giles. Mrs Arnold was very firm but fair and we worked hard, chanting our tables and learning by rote.

I particularly remember the pleasure of Friday afternoons when we did craft. We were given sheets of plain paper which we had to rule neatly into squares about one and a half inches square and we had paint and small wooden stencils from which we made patterns in the squares. Can anyone else remember these Friday afternoons?
I was ill at the end of the first term, Christmas, with blood poisoning and Dr. Gastein used to visit me at home. Imagine my joy and surprise when some “big” boys from the school delivered a dolls cot to me for Christmas, made in woodwork classes, together with a large rosy red apple. I had that dolls cot for years, in fact, I still had it around for my own children!

The winter of 1943 was particularly harsh and the snow lay deep. I remember waking up one morning and all was eerily quiet and the cottage had a strange white glow around it. The snow was over the window panes of the downstairs windows and half way up the back door. It was Uncle Dick who dug a pathway to our door, cleared it and dug a path to the well. I remember walking to the village with my mother treading in the cart ruts, where the snow had been pushed aside to make a path and the snow was as high as my waist.

The fields around Long Lane were all arable during the war, for food. I remember Zacky Payne would till the huge field next to the cottage, that stretched right up Fullers Hill towards the Gransdens. He had shire horses and a plough, and the huge shire horses were beautiful creatures. I remember being lifted onto the back of one of his horses as a treat and crying to get off as I was afraid of the height! Zacky Housden lived in the thatched cottage in Dutter End, the last one on the right as you left the village to go up Long Lane. After a day’s hard work he could always be seen leading his beautiful horses back to the village.

The fields on the other side of Long Lane leading up Fullers Hill were always in long strips. I recall harvest time and on one occasion I remember riding on top of the hay wagon back to the village with a girl, my own age, called Joan Caress whose grandparents then owned “The Bull” in Dutter End. (I believe they call this end of the village Church End now.)

It was double summer time in the war years and it was daylight in high summer until about 10pm and I remember “helping” with the gathering in of the stooks of corn for the men to stack for it to dry. Nothing was wasted then and after the harvest the villagers would go “gleaning” – collecting the stray bits of corn to feed to their hens, which everyone seemed to keep in those days. I recall, too, the painfully sore legs you could get when the sharp stubble tore into your legs as you gleaned.

Nothing seemed to be wasted in those days of rationing and in the autumn months villagers were allowed to glean apples from the farm at Hatley known as “Copos”. The apples were cox’s Orange Pippins and delicious they were too. They could be stored in straw until Christmas.

Depending on the season we also went “nutting” in the woods for sweet chestnuts and blackberrying in the late summer. In the summer we school children were encouraged to collect Rose Hips – big orange/red berries left after the wild roses had gone. These was all part of the “War Effort” and schools got children to collect them and they were sent off to make Rose Hip Syrup.

When I first started at Gamlingay school the head teacher was a Mr. Hacker. I liked him. A gentleman who always seemed to wear striped blazers, and he was very quiet and dignified. He had a son, Brian, who was in my class at one time. Mr. Hacker was followed by Mr Robinson and his wife, who seemed to make a very definite impression on the school and village life. I remember him as being very strict and somewhat frightening when I was small and I clearly remember him “teaching boys a lesson” by caning them in front of the whole school. This he did with great gusto and on their behinds, not their hands. It may have disciplined them but it frightened the life out of me!

More memories of Gamlingay
By Maureen Arrowsmith 2012

I spent all my school holidays in Gamlingay, except the Christmas one, until I was 17 years old.

During the 1950’s the village was completely self sufficient for all shopping needs. I remember shopping with various aunts and it was always a serious affair. They always dressed properly to go out and at each shop gossip and conversation was of as much importance as the transactions.

Saunders, the grocers shop in Mill Street, stands out in particular. It was run by “old” Mr Saunders and his daughter, Mollie, and at some time by son-in-law, Wallie. It had clothes and household things on the right as you went in and grocery provisions on the left. There was always some bent wood chairs for customers to sit on as, with the chatting, and weighing everything individually, it all took quite a time. Cheese had to be cut and wrapped, and sugar weighed and put into bags, as was rice and other dry goods. The atmosphere was always very pleasant and they knew each of their customers by name.

Across the road was the green grocery shop ran by Nellie Bedford, and what a lovely character she was. Such a loud booming voice and always appeared pleased to see you. She would announce loudly to anyone else in the shop who you were – not by your name but by whose niece or grandchild you were! It seems in those far off days that it wasn’t who you were but where you came from that placed you in society! She ran an annual trip to Hunstanton during August, and it was one of the highlights of my school holidays in those days.

She hired a Bartle’s bus and, literally, crammed it with people for the long, slow drive to Hunstanton. What happy days they were. There were crates in the aisles and children would often sit three to a seat designed for two. No “health and safety” back in those happy days. People would often sing their way there and a stop would be made somewhere on the way for refreshments and an opportunity for people to relieve themselves, very often on the heathlands, covered in bluey, mauve heather.

Ike Knib’s butcher’s shop was another delight, with all the carcasses hung about and my Aunt selecting exactly which cut of meat she wanted. I can hear his broad Gamgy accent to this day.

William Watson the bakers was another favourite shop. He used to deliver bread to us in Long Lane during the war – by bicycle. It was he who gave me my first puppy, a small runt of a dog, whom I loved. The fresh bread from his shop was delicious and I was still buying bread there long after I was married on my, by now, far less frequent visits.

Perhaps the most exciting shopping trips of all were by Bartle’s bus to St. Neots on Thursdays. The Aunts always insisted I changed into a smarter cotton dress for going out in the afternoons (no jeans in those days!). They always put on a smart dress and a light summer coat and a hat! We would wait in Green End as the bus chugged up from the Heath, there were no real bus stops then. We stood a better chance of a seat getting on in Green End rather than the Cross where a lot of people got on.

St.Neots market and cattle market was a wonderful place for children. Sadly gone now, but I loved watching the farmers bid for and sell their cows and watch then loaded into the lorries. Bartle’s buses would often come home full, with live hens in coops in the middle of the bus, and people loaded with goods from the markets.

In those days we only had buses on Wednesdays and Saturdays to Biggleswade and on Thursdays to St. Neots and to Bedford on Saturdays. There was, of course, the trains then to Cambridge and Bedford each day.

Sundays were very quiet days then. My aunt did not like us children playing and “being noisy” in the garden and certainly not allowed to play out of the garden. We had a swing and a slide and a hammock under the greengage trees in the orchard and lots of things to amuse us, but we were not encouraged to do so on Sundays.
On fine Sunday evenings everyone seemed to take a stroll in the afternoon and evenings, along the Heath Road towards the pond at the Brickfields, where I was not allowed to go unaccompanied. Although, as I got older I frequently did visit there, a rather magical place for children to play, although, in retrospect, somewhat dangerous if you slipped off the path and fell in!

Another Summer pleasure was the coming of the fair to the Statty field next to the school. It seemed the whole village would turn out in the evenings to visit and the noise of the music and the smell are still very nostalgic.

There was a farm on the cross roads then, and the cows would walk from a field in the Heath road up to the Cross everyday for milking. The lad who led them, with only a stick, was quite young and his name was Gillett. I used to love watching them pass our house and the traffic, such as it was, was always very patient.

Opposite our house in Green End was old Mrs Ridgley’s house-cum-shop. Her son, Bill, later worked at the glove factory. She was a lovely old lady with a ready smile and ruddy rosy cheeks. I believe Bill had a watch shop there, but I remember her as selling boiled sweets during and immediately after the war. Every holiday I would go to visit her and she would remark how much I had grown and pinch my arms and tell me how “bonny” I was.

The pub next door to our house was “The Spotted Cow” and the landlord was Tom Toft. He had only one arm, I believe he lost it in the first world war. I was not allowed in the pub, but I would go there clutching two old pennies and buy crisps – the sort where you had a blue twist of paper containing the salt.

During the war and my early days at the village school I had a friend called Pat Giles whose father, Jock, worked in the factory and her mother in the canteen. I have good memories of going into the canteen with Pat after school when they were clearing up the canteen and being given bread rolls spread thickly with butter (although I suspect now it was a mixture of margarine and butter) but, then, they tasted delicious!

During the early fifties during my return on school holidays I would play with Jean and John Scott, whose father also worked at Wales’ and they lived in the end house (well, it was the end house then) on the right as you go along the Heath Road. We would roam the countryside and ride bikes and they were very carefree days.

Although Wales’ factory had spread over a lot of Green End it did not cover the big field at the end, near Havelock cottages, (now sadly gone). It was a very large field and was used by the village as the official football pitch. It sloped towards one end and a stream ran across the bottom and you could cross into the next field which took you up to the lane that led to The Moon. (Another fascinating place to explore!). Next to the football field was another large field that stretched right up to the Cinques Road, now I believe it is covered in houses. It had a rather deep pond at one end of it in which Moorhens nested.

The village did not have a proper fire brigade in those days. Most of the firemen worked full time in Wales’ factory and when the siren went it was fun to see the mad scramble as they stopped whatever they were doing and rushed on their bikes to the fire station at the other end of the village, near the church.

There was a lady called Millie Hodge who lived in the row of houses near Wright’s the wheel wrights work shop. During the war she used to keep a pig in a sty in her back yard (far too near the house for modern “health and safety!) and I used to love to go over with left over “swill” and feed it. She later moved to a houses on the Cinques road where she lived until her death. In her later years she was crippled with Arthritis.

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