For­get-me-nots: A Life Changed By War

This England - - Contents - Gil­lian Parker

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

More ‘FOR­GET-ME-NOTS’ over­leaf

Learn­ing about life in the coun­try­side at Chapel Cleeve in Som­er­set.

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