Learning of former prime minister David Cameron’s purchase of a shepherd’s hut last year, took me back to the post- war period when we lived in a very different England. As far as I remember, nobody talked of austerity and how hard- done by we all were but, instead, we were glad of any opportunity that came along. It was still a cash economy, shops had halfday closing and all day on Sunday.
The economy was not flooded with easy credit and what you couldn’t afford you did without, or saved up for. “Make do and mend”, the wartime phrase, spilled over to the thrifty Fifties. Nobody ever went lightly into the red at the bank. If you tried to pay with Bitcoins people would think they were the foil- wrapped chocolate money you received at Christmas.
Just after the Coronation, my father made his own shepherd’s hut from a former railway horse- drawn parcel van. Upon motorisation some regions of British Railways scrapped their horse- drawn vehicles whilst others sold them for a nominal amount. Dad bought his for 7/ 6d ( 37 pence in today’s money) and rebuilt it.
The timber was either bartered for or was off- cuts from something else and, being a carpenter and joiner, Dad was well- suited to the labours that lay ahead.
I used to love the railway as it meant it was playtime. A workmate, Ike, used to give me a ha’penny to fetch his cigarettes from the shop. “Always ask for Turf cigarettes,” he used to say. They used to smell of Ike’s old socks but that was probably just the turf coming through.
There was still plenty of horsedrawn traffic when I grew up and the weekly rag- and- bone collection by Old Tom and Dobbin — and the milkman with his horse were familiar sights. Motor cars were hideously under- powered and it was not unusual to see cars go up steep hills in reverse, the car being turned round back- to- front.
I remember the depot in Belgrave, Leicester, where Dad worked. To me it was a giant playground with the Mechanical Horses busying about the yard moving goods off the waggons to the liveried green British Road Services lorries. Les Bland, a BRS driver, used to take me around the place in his lorry. When we came to the end of the run he would rev up as we got near to the perimeter wall and I would say: “We’re going to crash. We’re going to crash!” I know now why he used to say, “Do you want to go round again?” and of course I always did as it was exciting and he used to rev up at the last minute on purpose.
A few years ago when visiting the National Railway Museum in York, I opened the cab door of a Mechanical Horse and the smell of the interior took me back to when Dad worked on the railways in the Fifties. I gulped. It’s been years since Dad’s funeral and now I closed my eyes and felt his presence speaking back to me: “Hello, Dad,” I said. It was the first time in years we’d spoken.
The renovations to the parcel van proceeded apace in Dad’s free time and with his available spare income.
It was a work in progress for several weeks before becoming a four- berth caravan with bunk beds.
Looking back in his diaries from the 1940s and 1950s, I saw one entry which started: “Phew. P- h- e- w. I came home tonight and Ruby said the building inspector had been ( to home) and had passed the work in the kitchen. I had plastered the walls which took up two bags of dry plaster. I was allocated only one bag for all the surfaces, but the inspector didn’t spot that the job needed two bags and I got away with it.”
That’s how tight things were; everything was controlled and even bread was rationed which it never was during the war. It was a long time before prosperity came back, but as a small boy I saw the connection between a flourishing economy and our caravan and thought my father had something to do with it by injecting wealth into the country.
Old Mrs. Whykes next door came round one day and asked my mother if she would like to go to the city centre to see the lights going on. This, apparently, was all down to my father for kick- starting the post- war boom. For all I knew Dad was the Chancellor of the Exchequer! Seeing the lights going on was tantamount to saying the war was not only over but also won, and neon lighting, shop lighting and advertising lights were finally no longer restricted. We could now take down our blackout curtains. I then noticed that the night sky seemed to prosper, too, as it twinkled its nocturnal salutation to a little boy’s future wellness against a reddish backcloth.
There came the great day when the van was completed and ready to be transported on a flat- bed lorry trailer. I saw it being manhandled up the ramp, pushed into place and tethered to the sides in a way that would not pass muster with health and safety today!
The journey to a farm near Syston in Leicestershire was precarious but nevertheless passed off without mishap. The farm where it was eventually parked could have been that proverbial corner of a foreign field which is forever England. It was where we were to spend the entire school holidays on a back- to- nature sojourn. We had nettle tea, fried nettles, stewed nettles, boiled nettles, nettles al fresco, nettles à la carte, nettles for breakfast...!
We made our own amusement and I never remember getting bored. I don’t know how he did it, but Dad rigged up a wireless that transmitted.
We were not connected to any electricity, but as we didn’t have any mod cons it went unnoticed by my sister, Susan, and me. Dad, did, however, connect a microphone and sat me down in the middle of the field. I was now a budding disc jockey.
It was on one such broadcast that I declared my undying love for my father. I said, “I wouldn’t swap you, Daddy — not even for a puppy dog.” It was a remark he never forgot. A puppy dog was top dollar to me and I could not imagine how anything could be more expensive. Dad told the story repeatedly and it always guaranteed a laugh from his contemporaries. It was only as a grown- up I understood what had amused him.
We walked to the farm, about ¾ mile away, every morning for fresh milk and carried it home in a galvanised bucket. We bought eggs, loaves and vegetables as needed. Apparently, milk comes from live cows and not bottles! Imagine nowadays buying Co- op milk tokens in order to buy your milk on the doorstep, that was the order of the day back then, but on the farm they took real money instead.
The holiday ended and for years it remained the best one ever — right up to my teenage years when I went abroad for the first time to Nice and gradually that parental farm holiday faded from view in my mind’s eye. That was until I read of Mr. Cameron’s £ 25,000 purchase!
ANTHONY T. RUSH
The city of Leicester where the author’s father worked in the Belgrave railway depot.
Clever conversion. From railway parcel van to shepherd’s hut!
The author ( right) and his ingenious father.