Forget-me-nots: A Life Changed By War
In 1939 my mother was a young woman of 30 with two children: my brother aged seven and me, just four years old. We lived in London in what were known as “rooms”, which meant we lived in part of someone else’s house. My father was a petty officer in the Merchant Service.
I was not old enough to understand the preliminaries which indicated that war was imminent. It seems likely my mother and father had been anxiously discussing the situation for months. On 30th August Mother received a telegram which read “Get the children out of London”, which effectively ended the discussion. I have a vague memory of the turmoil of those days and just one clear mental picture. It is of Mother helping the householder stick newspapers on the windows. This was the recommended procedure to counter flying glass.
I do have remarkably clear memories of going to Clapham Junction railway station and the journey which took us to Cornwall. For some reason Mother had decided to travel overnight. Perhaps this was the first available train after she was ready, or perhaps she hoped we children would sleep most of the way.
Whatever the reason, we left London for Exeter at about 8pm. Mother was burdened with two enormous suitcases, one of which had a blanket strapped on the outside of it. It seems likely my brother was carrying something also. The station was busy and the train was crowded. This train would connect with the Plymouth train and all naval leaves had been cancelled. There were two or three young sailors in our compartment. One of them held me on his knee for part of the journey and fed me the last banana I remember having between then and the end of the war.
At about 1am we reached Exeter. The waiting rooms had wonderfully large, square, highly polished wooden tables back then. Several small children, me included, were put to sleep on that table that night. The next part of the journey was a train to Plymouth which probably left Exeter at about 5am. I have no memory of this part of the journey but I think we arrived a couple of hours later.
It was Saturday 2nd September and a bright and sunny morning. My mother, up for some 24 hours by now and burdened by the cases and accompanied by two tired
children, somehow found her way to the bus depot. Presumably she knew before leaving London the last part of the journey would be by bus. At the depot we must have looked very forlorn. Rescue appeared in the person of an unknown, but never forgotten, bus driver who took us all under his wing. Possibly we were the very first refugees to arrive. With great kindness we were ushered to the employee canteen and fed a large breakfast. An offer of payment was refused. We sat in the employee lounge and probably freshened up in the facilities before being escorted to the bus which would take us to Bude, our final destination.
This last part of the journey became a terrible nightmare for my mother and brother. Payment for the wonderful breakfast came in the form of my brother being dreadfully travel sick for the entire two-hour trip.
The last stop on the bus route was Bude Strand. We were surrounded on three sides by hills. My aunt’s house was nearly at the top of the highest one. We were not expected and there were no taxis in sight. Gathering the last of her strength, Mother picked up the cases and persuaded one tired little four-year-old and one grubby, sick little boy to walk the last half mile.
There is no doubt my aunt’s heart sank when she saw us. She lived in an elegant but small house. She had three children, one a baby of only six weeks. Our arrival caused a terrible upheaval in her life and we moved on to other rooms in three weeks.
Meanwhile war was declared the very next day. At the time of the announcement our little family was being given a tour of Bude by my self-reliant five-year-old cousin. The sight dazzled my young eyes. To come from sootblackened London, to a sun-washed, white-painted and clean little town by the sea left an indelible memory which 75 years have not erased. We also went to see the beaches and the sea, but the memories of that are eclipsed by that white and wonderful town.
We moved to another small house not far from my aunt’s house. I think the elderly couple who lived there felt they were doing their patriotic duty to take us in. My brother started school and Mother started to make friends among the neighbours, little knowing how much she was going to need them.
The first disaster struck shortly after we had settled in. The house was on a hill…naturally. There was quite a long flight of steps up to the back door. They were built up the back of the house so that as you came out of the back door you made a 90-degree turn. One Tuesday morning as I rushed out of the house to meet the new little friend I had made, I did not make the turn and I went straight through the railings, to land head first onto concrete some eight feet down.
The doctor who was summoned shook his head over my chances of survival. Mother did not leave my side…that is until the following Sunday when my brother was brought home by the mother of his new friend. The new friend let my brother ride his bicycle, but forgot to tell him, as he started off down a driveway, that the bicycle had no brakes. The choice was a brick wall or a greenhouse and he chose the latter. Mother opened the door to find my brother with his hand wrapped in a blood-soaked towel. He was in the small cottage hospital for three weeks and Mother walked the two miles every day, leaving me with one of her kindly new neighbours.
I rather think the elderly couple with whom we were living became very unnerved by all these goings on and by Christmas we had moved yet again. In the meantime my brother’s hand healed and after a six-week sojourn in bed I had learned to walk again. Our third new home was on the other side of the town.
No accidents occurred in this latest place but the landlady and Mother did not get on very well. One day in March, as we looked out of the window of the back bedroom we occupied, she saw a bungalow in a small row of houses which appeared to be empty. Housing was at a premium but miraculously it was available and within a very short time it was let to Mother for the princely sum of 13 shillings a week. The new friends Mother had made rallied round and somehow provided the basic necessities which made it possible for us to move in. Attics and sheds were scoured and soon we had a table, some chairs, an old brown leather sofa, cutlery, linen, cooking utensils. There were beds too. What an outpouring of kindness we experienced.
The bungalow, though well-built and nicely landscaped, lacked modern conveniences. There was no hot water, no bathroom and only a blacklead stove for cooking and heating. None of us cared about such minor details.
When the war was over, Mother bought the bungalow, made a great many changes and lived there happily for the remainder of her life. She loved the bungalow, the town, the sea and the cliffs. Her life was changed for ever.
Evacuees arriving at Brent in Devon in 1940 and boarding a bus at Kingsbridge on the way to their new homes.
The beach at Bude, whose white houses made a lasting impression. PEARL BUCKNALL
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