By Beryl Dale
I was born in May 1938 on Romney Marsh near the Military Canal and when I think of the summers of my early childhood the sun seemed to have shone all the time. It is especially strange as those years were set against the back drop of war and all that entailed. We lived within walking distance of Rye, close to the Kent border. We were on an approximately straight line between London and the main French airfields with the Lydd firing ranges, designed to shoot down enemy aircraft, close by. The beaches, where we might normally have swum had been planted with mines. War raged all around us and sirens would sound at all times of the day and night upon which would hasten to our shelter which had been built into the hillside behind us.
My father had the house built in a corner of his four acre field with the river Rother in front of us and an escarpment and woods behind. The nearest houses were at Star Lock, half a mile away, and at Boons Hill and Iden Lock a mile or so away.
Our house was built with all mod-cons but there was no supply of mains electricity, gas, water, drainage or telephone. Rain water was stored in a tank on the roof. Dad was able to divine water using a willow branch before sinking a well. It was pumped up indoors to use very sparingly. Food was cooked on two hobs and an oven above an open fire. My Mother was a fantastic cook but it must have taken some while to adapt as she had lived in Edinburgh for eight years prior to her marriage. I understand that two evacuees, young girls from the East End of London were billeted with us in August 1939. She felt for them but their families visited often and assumed, wrongly, that country people lived off the fat of the land. We now realize that it must have been awful for them but my Mother was trying to cope with nightly bed wetting, homesickness and nits as well as her young baby. She didn’t have a washing machine so had to wash everything by hand and try to dry it as soon as possible in front of the fire. I was of course oblivious to these matters. It was only after my brother was born in 1940 that I started to be aware of the environment in a conscious way. By then things had really heated up.
The road in front of our house was initially an unmade road designed to confuse Napoleon should he invade, but when the Army started to use it for their service vehicles a paved road was put in place using Tarmac. There was no public transport and we didn’t have a car so we walked everywhere. My Mother pushed us in a large pram when we went to Rye, the nearest town which was around three miles away. I remember that when a siren sounded she would grab us both and jump into a ditch so as not to be seen.
She always carried identity cards with her as we could be stopped by soldiers enquiring who we were and where we were going. We received two deliveries of letters each day by a postman on a motor-bike, the groceries came courtesy of Mr Pettett each Wednesday delivering in his horse and cart. Longs the bakers came in a van three times a week. Ashby’s the butcher’s also came in a van and brought not only meat but also several large bones which my Mother made into stock for soups and other dishes. On Fridays, Mr George Salmon the fishmonger came and we occasionally had friends bring us freshly caught fish and shrimps from Rye Harbour. Our milk was delivered daily by Norman Burt who had a dairy at Boons Hill. It was carried in a milk churn straight from the farm and measured out into our own jug.
Although hard work, we grew all our own vegetables and had fruit bushes. My Mother spent a great deal of time preserving the excess produce to last throughout the year. There were hens and ducks on the farm and we were able to use their eggs but we had to relinquish coupons against their use. Dad had a registered twelve bore gun and thus shot pigeons to make into pies. Rabbits also provided meat for the pot. We picked mushrooms in the surrounding fields and blackberries in the late summer. Other items of food were all on ration.
My Father was too old to take part in the Second World War. His war had been in 1914-18 when his brother was killed on the Somme at the age of twenty. He worked during the day for “The Rother and Jury’s Gap Catchment Board” and then as a volunteer Special Constable at night. This meant that my mother was on her own at night, constantly terrified that a German plane would be shot down and it’s pilot hold her up at gun point. It was very clear to us, Hitler was the bad guy and Churchill was our Saviour.
We had a wireless which worked using an accumulator which had to be changed every Friday by a man called Mr Smith. We listened to the news every hour and at other times programmes like ITMA and Much Binding in the Marsh, which provided light relief. As we grew older, my brother and I listened to Uncle Mac on Children’s Hour.
I started to attend the local Primary School that was about two miles away. I walked there each day with some older children from Iden Lock. They were called Pat, Jessica and Jean Rendall. I remember walking along Houghton Green Lane with the scents of dog roses and honeysuckle and the sound of a lazy bee buzzing as it entered each bloom to remove the nectar. After a while I rose to the heady climbs of milk monitor. The milk came in small third of a pint bottles with cardboard tops. There was a hole in the centre of each one for the straw insertion. These tops, once washed could be used in twos to make pom-poms by stitching wool round the milk bottle tops and cutting them in such a way as to achieve the required result.
Most of the time, we were able to roam around and play in the fields and woods. We knew all our neighbours and it all seemed like an extension to our own land. We used to chase butterflies but didn’t catch them and make daisy chains and put buttercups under our chins to see if we liked butter.
We would stop when we heard planes flying overhead, look into the sky and sometimes saw a plane spiralling down. We knew that the pilot had been heading for London in order to drop its bombs and had been shot down by the anti-aircraft guns nearer the coast at Lydd.
We would all cheer, little realising then that the pilot was a young man serving his country and terrified to boot. The world scene was black and white: we were in danger of being invaded and all means must be used to save us from that awful plight.
On one occasion we experienced the consequences of such an event at first hand. We were in the kitchen with my Mother, when my brother pulled her into another room as he wanted her to read to us. We sat beside her and moments later heard an ear-splitting noise. She responded by pushing us under a table and I remember the look of pure terror on her face as we crouched, huddled together. I thought that the house would cave in around us. Then the noise stopped and an eerie silence followed.
We didn’t move for what appeared to be a long time. She asked us to remain under the table while she investigated our position. She returned and took hold of our hands to lead us out into the garden. There were bricks and rubble everywhere and the house didn’t look like a house anymore but we were alive! It transpired that the pilot had aimed his air cannon at Star Lock and caught our house and other lesser targets in addition. A Morrison Shelter was subsequently fitted into the room where we had sheltered from the blast. Soon the house was rebuilt around us by tradesmen from The War Damage Department. I remember best the carpenter who seemed to wander round all day with a pencil behind his ear!
Friends of ours who owned a nearby farm invited my Mother to help with the Harvest. It was in order to take her mind off the fears she had of further damage to the house. We were able to have such fun. We sat and ate sandwiches and tea came in large Billy cans. We viewed each day as a holiday, every day an adventure.
Then to our amazement Dad came to tell us that he had heard on the wireless that the war had ended. I couldn’t believe my ears, I had no idea it would end. I was totally shocked. I had no conception that life as we had known it all our lives could end. What on earth would we do now?
From the August 2014 issue of Rye’s Own
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