Dance on a Tractor
There were twelve of us in a group and together we met each night in the pub. There was little else to do in the week other than go to the new twist club that had started up on Wednesdays or to the local cinema once a week, and always on a Sunday when they showed a horror film or two. Saturday was the day we all longed to arrive. Half the gang did not have to work and the others stopped early, having only half a day. Ballroom dancing was our scene with the girls for unless you saw a girl on Wednesday, you never had the chance to meet.
The heavy snow on Boxing Day in 1962 brought chaos to all transport in the British Isles. The whole country had been experiencing sub zero temperatures for a month now. Twelve inches of snow halted everything; even trains on main lines got snowed in. For the first week we rammed drifts and dug away with shovels but eventually things began to free up and we got used to the conditions.
Dancing in the larger towns was still going ahead; our trouble was transport to and from the places. A car full of youths would leave home only to find their way blocked at the end of the evening with driving wind and more snowdrifts. Very few people had a four-wheel vehicle in those days; then it was a land rover and there is not a lot of room in them. We came up with the perfect solution. I don’t think it was my idea for a minute as it involved me out in the cold, driving!
The method of transport capable of transferring at least ten boys and the equal number of girls in the warm could only have come from a gang of sad, lonely country lads like us, missing all the fun of dancing once a week. My father owned a new Fordson Dextor tractor and a brand new two-wheel trailer. With the trailer’s front and sides raised with wooden hurdles, then sheeted over, the place made was at least wind and water proof. Bales of straw lined around the sides made excellent seats, for heating, yes they even thought of that. An old Alladin paraffin stove was screwed to the wooden floor, giving off a blue glow and heat. I was the lucky one, they said, as I would see where we were going. What was really meant by that was that it was my job to sit out front on the tractor in all the cold and drive them to tonight’s elected destination, stopping at all the houses and picking up all the party-goers.
With a corn sack on my lap and another tied around my head to keep my suit dry, we toured all the village and town halls. On the way home at nights I would quite often hear the fun going on in the trailer above the crackle and crunching sound of the frozen slush in the road as I ran over it. Many times it was touch and go late at night whether we were ever going to get through the huge drifts that had invaded the Queens carriageway we had come along earlier.
I never did get a ride in the trailer on any of those cold dark nights along with the girls. That must say a lot for being the leader of the gang that year!
The Rye fishermen were having a party tonight and the wife and I were going. The weather was foul; high wind and rain heralded the evening in. We arrived at the house hosting the gathering, bordering the main road that ran alongside the river. All the fleets’ skippers were present with girlfriends and wives. The odd young lad was girl-less. The one that sticks in my mind is Alan, a boy who lived on his trawler alone and was very partial to a drop of rum. Tonight he started off the evening drinking beer. At ten o clock the guest we all feared arrived with his beautiful black haired Italian wife. The reason we all feared their appearance was that his young wife could not stand the sight of one of the other fisherman’s wife. Their encounters never ended amicably. Tonight was to be no exception.
Alan had finished with beer and found a bottle of five star brandy. He was paralytic by eleven and on everyone’s suggestion decided to go home. The host watched as he left staggering out of the house and promptly went straight across the road and fell into the river. A cry went up.
All of us men ran to the door and across the road to rescue the spluttering drunk victim up the muddy bank and back onto the road. It was then the host’s wife who said he could not go back to his boat in that state, being likely to fall into the river again and drown.
“Bring him in and take those wet clothes off him.”
So Alan was duly de-clothed and as he was in such an alcoholic state, put to bed in the bottom bunk in the empty children’s room. After all the bedclothes and mattress had been removed, Alan was placed in the hole to lie face down so as not to choke on his vomit. The door was closed to the room, the light put out and it was back to the party.
The Italian wife had spied her arch-enemy in the next room and it was not long before they were facing each other. Her enemy was a much smaller woman of twenty six who wore a neck full of beads, a prime target for the latest guest to give a yank on and break the string. That got things going! Hair was pulled and clothes were ripped and the two were soon rolling around the floor trying to kill each other. On such occasions neither husband ever tried to intervene as it was more than one’s life was worth! Always before one or other of the girls would give way and flee the arena. Not so tonight, for as the fight was getting interesting with no holds barred and nails starting to draw blood, an almighty scream from the dark nursery room grabbed everyone’s attention. Even the fight on the carpet came to an instant halt.
“Alan!” we all said at the same time, and rushed to his aid. The poor unfortunate lad had woken from his drunken stupor to feel the wooden planks he was laying on. He turned over and found more wooden planks, then rolling on his back had felt the floor of the bunk above him, also made of wood. With that he had panicked thinking one of his mates had nailed him in a coffin. He was making such a noise as someone switched the light on. He was delirious with panic and swore never to drink again. It frightened him to such an extent that he never has either. The Italian girl was so concerned for his welfare that all animosity to her arch rival was forgotten. The girls fussed over Alan for the rest of the night.
We left that party after finding all the spilt beads and rethreading them. It was a few weeks later that one, then the other girl, fell pregnant and attended the same clinic, never to fight again. Instead they have become firm friends.
So the highlights of all fishermen’s parties lost that magic touch as we all had looked forward to the fights!
The weather was foul with snow and a hard frost at night. The date was the nineteenth of January 1964, a Sunday and as always us lads were in the local cinema in Rye. As I pulled up in my car, the brother of my mate drew up in an old land rover.
“I knew you would be here tonight so I brought the pheasants along for you.”
“How many have you got then Peter?”
“Seventeen,” he said. “All in these sacks. Where do you want them?”
“Not now,” I said. “When we come out later.”
And I strode in to watch the film with my pals. It was the usual Sunday stuff, a short film, then the news followed by a couple of trailers for the forthcoming week; then an interval to be followed by the feature, a boring ghost story. Still it was Sunday and nothing else to do. We always attended. To us lads it was like a religion; every Sunday flicks. Today we had sacks on our lips to keep us warm as the heating was sparse in those days. Mr Chippy Jorden always sat centre of the front row with his pipe and made vast clouds of tobacco smoke. The film dragged on and on until near the end when things suddenly livened up. Unknown to me Peter had thought it best to accompany his two sacks of pheasants into the show rather than leave them in the land rover to get cold. Now a wily old cock bird had escaped while he opened the bag to see that all was well within as the pheasants were rather quite. With a cock-cock and a beating of wings he headed straight down the projector’s beam of light, to hit the screen with a thud and cloud of feathers to fall to the floor stone dead. Not a head turned to see from where the bird had come from but a figure of a man walked the width stooping to pick the bird up while not missing a step and vanish the other side. Who he was we never found out and heard nothing of the occasion. Most odd. Unlike Peter ten minutes later outside, he had plenty to say and only wanted me to pay him the ten shillings that it had been worth alive and in the bag. No hope! No bird, no dosh! He even had the nerve to ask the manager if he could have the dead bird back so he could at least sell it for eight shillings but the manager told him he had no idea that any bird had flown that night.
Living where I do, surrounded by water, it was only natural that my brother and I had a boat of some kind. Ours was an eight foot dingy from a wreck in the bay off Rye in the Second World War. Heavy and made of pine, painted brown, it did sterling stuff with us kids. Up all the ditches until we were old enough and mother let us float it in the main river behind our house. This little vessel was like a magnet to all the other lads in the area nearby. Most school holidays and every weekend, our house was full of the lads from the town up on the hill. Even today if you reminisce with them, the one thing they all remember is that if you went down Sutton’s you got wet and on the odd occasion, went for a real swim as the boat sank or capsized!
An old mate called Chummy Barden, who got married and moved away to Bedford many years ago, still has fond memories of his young days playing in that old boat we called Jolly Roger. He even recalled the time another lad who lived in Winchelsea and is now too grand to associate with the occasions that he wishes to forget. One such time was when he fell into the river in his best clothes after school and demanded from my mother that she gave him my best clothes to go home in. His manner was such that he had to trudge off up the hill home in his wet togs.
Chummy remembers the day as if it was yesterday that him and I were along the canal fishing in a canoe when I hooked a mute swan. He safely made it to the bank. I foolishly showed off thinking I alone could net the large angry white bird into the boat and unhook him. That was the day I lost my rod and he and a mate helped me swim ashore from a capsized canoe, then had to swim back to the middle of the canal and retrieve it.
The sixteen acres of orchard contained five acres of mature cherry and I mean mature. Some of the trees were over thirty feet high and we had a problem attracting people willing to climb a forty rung wooden ladder let alone move the huge contraption from tree to tree. We were fortunate to know four lads from Rye who I went to school with who were willing and able to risk life and limb. Between us we stood the ladders up in the middle of the rows and lay them into the tall trees. Then they swarmed up and holding onto the top rung with one hand, leaned out to gather the sweet fruit, balancing on one foot with the other leg stuck out to help give balance. Holding on with one hand took some doing with a large wicker basket for company to put the cherries in. Once up the top level with the ripe fruit, it seemed senseless to come down to change trees so they lay back on the top of the ladder with both hands and let their body weight pull the ladder away from the bough and scrambled around the top rungs to be on the right side as the ladder crashed into the opposite row.
Those were the days when we were young and foolish. No one luckily ever got hurt and the fruit got picked.
In the late Sixties, eels were worth their weight in gold so long as they each weighed over four ounces. I was fortunate to know of a piece of water that contained eels of gigantic proportions. My mate and I were out after the fish every night of the season. The weapon we used to catch them was no other than a shrimp trawl with a very long cod end, incorporating a funnel trap. This trawl we towed along all the ditches on the marsh and it only worked when the weed was not too long.
As summer came and the eels stirred from their winter sleep in the mud, the weed also stirred and within six weeks became too thick to tow the net through. This bit of water we knew about was connected to a ditch that we had often fished but we had never attempted to fish the large pool at its very end. Tonight we decided that we would give it a try. The weather was warm and the night still. We fished the ditch up to the pond then cast our net into the water. It was wide and surprised us by its depth. Quietly we towed the net across its bottom when it became snagged up. We heaved and tugged but got nowhere, even trying to tow it backwards. Nothing gave and we had no right to be there. We were afraid to make too much noise. Eventually we had to give up and go home leaving our net behind, hiding the draw ropes from sight in the pond’s perimeter weed.
The following day in the light, I inspected the pond casually while walking by; nothing showed. So that night my mate and I returned with a hand operated windlass that had a steel wire attachment to it and anchoring it to the sluice gate that controlled the water level of the pond. From the winch we connected a length of new two-inch diameter rope to the drum. Then my mate took his trousers off and walked out into the pond to find the trawl. Tonight the weather was not as calm as last time we had ventured to this spot and our noise was muffled by the wind. He found with his feet something, which he said he thought was large and solid and could I get a stick so he could prod around? Now the marsh is devoid of trees, where he thought I was going to magic up a piece of wood from I had no idea! The only thing to hand was a three-inch steel post with a footpath pointer attached. This I was able to wrench from the ground and on passing it out across the water where he stood waist deep, I let it drop onto his head. It was a good job the wind snatched his comments away or the whole row of houses nearby would have been alerted to some funny goings on! He floundered around and got the pole, then started jabbing the obstruction our net was snagged on. It was huge, he said, as he tied the rope to a slab of old steel, but was sure together we could rip the net free. To secure the rope he had to duck his head under the water and it tasted horrid he said being brackish and now well stirred up I suppose it was. Together we set to with the handle of the winch and took the strain up. Ever so slowly the net began to move; we were winning! The tautness of the rope sang as many fibres parted under the strain and we feared it would snap. The winch fixing to the sluice began to bend the steel frame. Eventually we were able to detach the chain ground rope off our torn net and beat a hasty retreat leaving the object just under the water.
Next day I was intrigued to know what we had caught that was that large and foreign to our marsh’s drainage system so that we had to resort to a winch to move it. The answer lay snugly under the water, a fearsome sight in the light of day and very recognisable, a whole Doodle Bug from the last war!
Rye again and Bonfire Night on Conduit Hill. The old Monastery was doing a roaring trade for then it was a place to party the night away. The night was like many others dark, cold, wet, a real November’s bonfire night. A group of lads, no doubt by their haircuts, army lads from Lydd, were coming out. As I tried to enter, one of the boys turned to his mate and produced quite a large brown packet sized parcel, which I immediately recognised as a thunder flash as used on the ranges while practising warfare. He promptly lifted the lid from the dustbin standing by the door, dropped it in and slammed the lid back on. The group legged it. The three people following were barged inside as I made a rapid entrance to the hall.
“Look out,” I said and at the time the present from the lads exploded with an ear shattering bang. It was only with good fortune that no one was on the receiving end at the time for on going to investigate the damage, there was only the naked bottom of the bin left. We never did find the bin or lid, only one of the steel handles was found wedged into the doorpost of the off licence fifty yards away. The other handle was never seen.
Thunder flashes were a curse on Bonfire Night. They were capable of doing you harm especially if you tried to protect your girlfriend from one by putting your foot over it. The home-made rouser was tame compared to them. Once, while engaged in letting the display of fireworks off, someone had thrown a thunder flash amid the gang and I got the full benefit of it as my mates shouted out a warning. That year we were up to our knees in mud and where we had dug the mortars in and erected the fireworks, had trodden the ground up rather deeply. Luckily the bomb tossed at us had stuck well in and I got no more than a liberal coating of mud and a ringing in my ears. It was fun but we were playing with gunpowder and it is with luck that no one got hurt each year.
Today such things are banned and with the threat of terrorism now on everyone’s minds, such practises would not go down well in any town at any time. To do so today, you would be looking at a prison sentence.
The history of bonfire in Sussex goes way back in history to the days of dispute over which religion should rule England. Eventually the faith was chosen and the King decreed that the kingdom should mark the day with fires. The Pope no longer would rule so the traditions of Bonfire Night was born but man had long before made fire his tool to mark time. The Arctic people celebrate the midsummer with fires as did prehistoric man mark the coming of winter, but the tradition of lighting fires has been taken over by the fires of remembrance of Guy Fawkes on 5 November and lives on in Sussex but the capital town of the county of East Sussex still preach Pope-ism in its celebrations. Guy Fawkes came along later to be taken as a more appropriate idol to mark the day with and burning the Pope went out of fashion.
The town of Lewes has more than one society. A lot of the villages and towns of Sussex have long since lost theirs but there are enough to keep us busy in the season. Visiting others is an easy option to making a great show on the night in your particular area. Go to theirs; they come to you. The first show of the year, and that is what it is, (the largest FREE show on earth is one way to describe it) starts off with the towns, which put on a carnival with fireworks and no bonfire. Having all got together the previous year and discussed the calendar so as not to clash with each other’s venue. The first real bonfire follows the carnivals and with the darker nights is more conducive to bonfires and blazing torches. Hastings always holds theirs in the Hastings Week when the whole town celebrates. Lewes, the biggest town with all its societies, always has the fifth followed by Battle. Rye is on the following week on the Saturday before Remembrance Sunday and on the Sunday takes part in remembrance by saluting the start and finish of the three minutes silence by firing a large maroon over the town. While one of the members joins the other people in town to lay a wreath on the war memorial to all members lost in conflict. Now a days the Pope is forgotten and the chance to show one’s dissatisfaction is given over to a topic more in keeping with the area. Some of the subjects to be sacrificed on or near the fire, as some are blown up in spectacular fashion, have included traffic wardens, a source of hate to all motorists, the Prime Minister. Gypsies were recently featured on one little village fire and started an uproar that spread the globe on all TV stations and in the National papers. It did more to advertise the Sussex Bonfire Nights than you could ever pay advertising space to do!
That very same year in Rye, in my home town, we had cause to be disgruntled. All year the papers had been knocking on about our summer visitors so we, the Society, decided to make and blow to smithereens an effigy of one such visitor to show what the town thought of the unruly noisy guests. The job to make the effigy was taken up by our artist, Willie, and he undertook to make it in the attic of his home (bad move Willie!) This year the model was big but not high so a farm barn was not necessary. Arrives the day to show the outside world his masterpiece, weighing over one hundred pounds made out of paper mache and stuffed with explosives. The gang ascended his stairs to the top room to collect the huge monster, only to find that it was too big to leave the room. The boys pushed and shoved but no way were they going to be able to bend it around the door and down the stairs. Even if they got that far they still had the hallway to negotiate. There was only one way out and that was through the roof window. Luckily it was quite a large pane of glass but with a tape measure it soon became apparent that the frame also would have to come out. The Society is well thought of in the town and can usually scrounge its needs for the night. Now in broad daylight the search was on to find an amiable window fitter. The effigy, which is always guarded with secrecy, was later that day able to fly the nest where it was born and took its rightful place in the street parade, to be installed alongside the great bonfire. He aptly sat beside the fire all evening taking no interest like all his relations in town that night he faced the wind and said nothing it was sleep time. In his black and white coat that all his type is known by he looked menacing and as he started to disintegrate under heavy internal explosions, the crowds roared their approval. Rye hates its summer visitors when they are the filthy seagulls of the coast nesting on their town’s roofs!
From the “Rye’s Own” Archives.
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