- Contributed by
- Michael Wessier
- People in story:
- Michael E. Wessier
- Location of story:
- London and Dumfriesshire
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 03 December 2003
Adolph Hitler the "Devil Incarnate" affected millions of people's lives, sadly some in more horrific ways than others. As a result of his megalomania and his efforts to destroy London and its people, a small boy eventually found a world full of beauty and kindness.
This is therefore a true story told through the eyes of this young boy and his awakening to man’s inhumanity to man, the unconditional love of others, and the discovery of the beauty of his natural surroundings. It began a few months before my eighth birthday on a beautiful hot day in 1944. With blue sky above, all was peaceful in our back garden, it was quiet except that in the distance there was the drone of what sounded like an aircraft, which was not a very uncommon occurence as the allied bombers would often mass in the sky above to get into formation for their journeys of destruction over Germany. The drone became louder and louder, then suddenly stopped. Our next-door neighbour shouted across the fence: ‘It is coming straight for us’ (it being a German V1 flying bomb, sometimes known as a doodlebug). Both my mother and I rushed indoors and dived under the shelter which was basically a steel table. My mother lay on top of me and said: ‘Whatever happens do not get up until after the second bang’. We waited for a few seconds which seemed ages, then there was a loud explosion; followed by an almighty rush of air accompanied by a loud noise. It was over!
The air was full of plaster dust and scattered all around was building débris; water was cascading through the cracked ceilings and down the staircase from the destroyed water storage tank in the loft. Mum and I stood in the lounge holding hands looking at my father’s cousin, Jim, lying face down on the floor covered in broken glass, plaster etc. Then mum shouted to him: ‘Are you all right, Jim?’… there was not a movement. Three times this happened, then looking down at me, still holding my hand, she said: ‘I think Jim is dead’. Suddenly he stirred and eventually sat up on the floor. Mum said: ‘Did you hear me calling?’ to which he replied: ‘Yes, but I was waiting for the dust to settle.’ With that Mum exploded in relief more than anger, using words I had never before or since heard her express. The poor woman had suffered enough without Jim’s unwittingly selfish act of ‘playing possum’. My brother Paul then only ten years old appeared on the scene, from where I know not, and jumped through the gaping hole which was once the downstairs front window and went running down the road until he was eventually stopped by a neighbour and returned home safely. Everyone in the street had suffered the same fate so they were all checking to see if neighbours and friends were unharmed. Fortunately no-one was killed, but what a mess! Roofing tiles and other building débris were scattered all over this once quiet suburban street. It is strange that I do not recall ever being frightened during the whole episode; it must have been because my mother was there to protect me, as when one is a child, if Mum is there all will be well.
Within a few hours my parents and Jim had decided that Paul and I should be evacuated to my grandmother’s sister (Jim’s mother) in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. We were to be escorted by Jim to this strange place of which Paul and I had never even heard. So, that evening we left home, leaving our parents and elder brother, Bernard, to repair and make safe our house.
On a platform of London’s Euston station, which was crowded with people escaping the bombarded capital, stood two scruffy little boys holding suitcases full of soaking wet clothes, still dressed as they were earlier when the bomb exploded. When the train arrived Jim managed to fight his way through the crowd to secure our seats for the journey which would take six hours to reach our destination, Carlisle station. We travelled all night in the darkened carriage compartment as the old steam engine thundered and whistled its way north through the English countryside. Arriving about 5.30 am, we transferred onto a bus which would convey us to our final destination just north of the Scottish border.
Eventually we alighted from the bus at Gilnockie Bridge (replaced since with the present steel bridge) that crossed the River Esk at a remote place called the Hollows, located on the old A7 road. Levering ourselves off the ground with our elbows to enable us to peer over the lichen speckled stone parapet walls, we could see motionless trout facing upstream in the clear water, which had been tinted the colour of a weak tea infusion as it flowed through the heather covered hills and peat mosses on its journey to the sea. The banks on each side had beaches of smooth greyish/white rounded pebbles and boulders, shaded by overhanging copper beeches, mighty oaks and other deciduous trees.
We walked in single file, Jim, then Paul, with me bringing up the rear along the narrow inclined country lane known as the high road from Canonbie to Langholm. The tall hedgerows either side were filled with pink and white wild dog roses opening as the early morning sun burned away the blanket of mist floating just above ground level. I then realised for the first time in my life I was on my own, and did not feel afraid. How could I in this wonderful Garden of Eden?
Nearly reaching the top of the hill we arrived at Hollows-hill-gate where there was a small isolated, semi-detached, whitewashed cottage (now demolished) with corrugated iron sheeting replacing the once thatched roof, which was to be our home for the unforeseeable future. Standing at the door was my father’s Aunt Janie, a short elderly woman with grey hair, no teeth, dressed in a black frock under a flower patterned pinafore, sleeves rolled up exposing plumpish arms with dimpled elbows, and wearing wooden soled leather clogs on her feet. Naturally she and her family spoke with Scottish accents, which for the first couple of weeks I found difficult to understand, but my brother Paul was always at hand to interpret. Little did I know at the time that this gentle country lady would become for me the very epitome of unselfish kindness and security. She had nothing, but gave everything, demanding nothing in return. So, within twenty-four hours a small eight-year-old boy had witnessed evil rubbing shoulders with goodness and kindness, the latter winning the day!
Crossing the threshold of the tongued and grooved green painted latched door into a lobby approximately five feet square, we turned right into the kitchen. Immediately on the right was a low shelf with curtains underneath hiding four enamelled pails containing fresh drinking water, which had to be replenished twice daily from the well at the bottom of the hill. Next was a small dining table covered with a patterned oilcloth, with a settee under the only window in the room. Continuing into the far corner, there stood a large grandfather clock with English fox hunting scenes on the dial. As the clock was too tall for the low ceiling, the top had been removed so that it could be accommodated. Turning left was an open black-leaded cooking and heating range fuelled with blocks of dried peat. In the centre hung a large kettle that was on the boil all day every day, to one side there was an oven that must have held the secrets of many tasty country dishes cooked throughout the years. In front of the range stood a wooden rocking chair, on which Aunt Janie sat at the day’s end, hands in her lap with fingers interlaced, fast asleep. By the range was an occasional table supporting a rather large wireless, powered by wet acid batteries that had to be recharged at regular intervals at the local garage. This wireless was used only to listen to the daily news from the European war front and the local weather forecast. Turning left again along the back wall which was opposite the window, there was an impressive washed wood dresser, with the best china plates standing edgewise on its shelves; this dresser and the grandfather clock were our Aunts pride and joy. Left again and returning to the door was a large double brass and iron bedstead shared by Aunt Janie and her twenty-two year old daughter, Jean. The flagstone floor was covered with large homemade rugs, made with strips of material in assorted colours, looped and knotted through a mesh backing fabric.
On the left side of the lobby was the only bedroom containing a chaise-longue, covered with a woven horse hair fabric on which George, Jim’s elder brother, slept. There was an eighteen inch passage way between the chaise-longue and a chest of drawers, giving access to the box bed that I shared with my brother which was in an alcove recessed into the stone cottage wall, with a privacy curtain to draw across to separate us from the rest of the household. Although I was idyllically happy living my new rustic lifestyle, lying in bed in the early mornings listening to the cockerels crow was always the time that I missed and wanted my Mum. Would I ever see her again?
In front of the cottage, across the lane, was a wide grass verge where the chicken coops were erected, to house at night the free-range hens and the noisy, arrogant, strutting cockerels decked in their splendid plumage. These hens and a few ducks were free to wander in the fields, woods and hedgerows, supplying the household with enough eggs for its requirements.
Adjacent to the side of the cottage was the garden yard, where there was a rainwater butt containing more than enough water for us to wash ourselves in the mornings and evenings. There was also a large shed for storing the peat blocks and firewood. This yard would sometimes fill with the smell of burning peat from the smoke ascending from the cottage chimney, a delightful experience never to be forgotten. One would often find Jean in this yard hand washing the clothes in what looked like a witches cauldron over an open fire, rinsing, mangling, and then hanging the clean laundry to dry on the clothesline. Adult’s tasks were extremely hard under these conditions and life was not easy, especially for the women. Around the back, the garden was well stocked with all kinds of vegetables and salad produce. At the end of the garden stood a Victoria plum tree, which usually had a dead fish suspended from it by a short length of string, providing George with a plentiful supply of maggots for his nightly fishing trips to the river. Fresh trout for breakfast was not an unusual event and although it was wartime we had wonderful home grown food and plenty of chicken and meat to eat.
We had many adventures and much fun in and around this small, primitive dwelling which lacked electricity, gas and running water, standing amid the woods and fields.
Rising from our bed when the crowing cockerels became unbearable, because the pillows over our heads could no longer muffle the sound, our days began early in the morning. We, the young males, would vacate the cottage and go into the woods to perform our basic bodily functions, returning to the side yard to wash in the soft rainwater stored in the butt. Then we went mushroom picking in the fields and searched the hedgerows for any stray hen’s eggs for our breakfast. Once this was completed, if George had not had time to fetch the drinking water from the well before going to work, we would attempt to do so. We would half fill the pails and lug them up the hill, spilling and splashing the water over our socks and feet. By the time we had reached the cottage, the pails could not have been more than a quarter full, but with praise from Aunt Janie we felt our mission had been a total success! After breakfast and a chat with Aunt Janie, our carefree days would begin.
Followed by the cat and Tierrie the dog, with Jimmy Armstrong, the boy next door, we would climb over the dry stone walls into the meadows, always a little scared that a bull might be amongst the cows. Our journey was always in the same direction down to a spot by the river called the Broomie Holm, a place that played such a major part during this period of our childhood. Skimming flat stones across the surface of the water and counting the bounces was one of our favourite pastimes, as was lifting larger stones to catch gudgeon, small fresh water fish locally known as beardies, using loops fashioned from the roots of aquatic grasses that grew by the river’s edge. We played and waded in the shallow parts, aware that danger lurked in the deeper pools where the undercurrents could be very strong. At certain times of the year whilst we were playing on the riverbank, in the distance we could hear the advancing otter hunt, whose hounds and terriers were baying for blood, encouraged by the horn blowing hunt master, who was leading them, and the equally blood thirsty human followers. The Otterhounds would pass us swimming down river, while the terriers searched the riverbank undergrowth flushing out any unfortunate otters from their holts. Fortunately, I am pleased to say that hunting and killing otters is now unlawful, as they are a protected species.
After playing for several hours our tummies would inform us that lunchtime could not be far away. Our route home would be through the wood which consisted mostly of oak trees, bracken undergrowth, hazelnut bushes and large rhododendron bushes whose flowers, when in bloom, gave bright splashes of mauve and purple between the trees. This journey would often involve short breaks whilst we ate berries and nuts, and investigated the flora and fauna. Everyday I saw something new; I was fascinated by the smallest moss covered pebble to the rage of the river in full flood. I was rapidly and unequivocally being seduced by Mother Nature, and eagerly became her infatuated lover.
This wood started immediately adjacent to the cottage and extended up the hill, bounded by a dry stone wall which hosted various mosses, lichens and ferns. Water seeped through the open gaps between the stones, irrigating the flowering verge that grew between the wall and the stony lane. On the opposite side of the lane was a five-barred gate leading through the hedgerow onto the peat moss that had been divided into family size plots. George would dig out the blocks with an “L” shaped spade, placing them into well ordered stacks, leaving holes in each layer to enable the drying wind to blow through. Other local residents did likewise, leaving stacks scattered all over the boggy marsh. To avoid sinking to the waist strangers had to be careful not to tread into the very soft spots. When the blocks had dried in the summer sunshine, George would hire a horse and cart and together with the owner, load the cart making several journeys back and forth to the storage shed in the side yard. For us this was great fun, because it was our chance to have a ride, and at the end of the day we would be very dirty covered in peat dust and probably smelling strongly of horses. Whilst all this was in progress Aunt Janie or Jean would have made a large pot of broth left heating on the range all day, waiting to be readily consumed by all those involved with this heavy work.
Continuing along the lane towards the Bowholm and Canonbie, was the “Nick Wood” which for us was a dark and sinister place, believing that it may hide demons and other spooky spirits, it was not a place to linger. We would hurriedly pass by on the opposite side of the lane not stopping or talking. On one occasion whilst walking home at dusk with the usual flying bats swooping in the air around us, we saw a white ghostly object coming silently straight towards us floating in the sky. Feeling exceedingly uncomfortable about this apparition, we thankfully realised it was in fact, the rounded white face of a low flying barn owl hunting its unsuspecting prey. In hindsight the “Nick Wood” was a plantation of tightly planted conifer trees, which made the interior very dark and mysterious, making it impossible for any undergrowth to flourish.
Just past the “Nick Wood” stood a small cottage next to the church in which Mary Armstrong, a friend of Aunt Janie, lived. She often used to visit Hollows-hill-gate in the afternoons for a chat, a cup of tea and hot buttered scones. Mary Armstrong was probably a very nice person, but during a visit, and in my presence, she poked her tongue out at Aunt Janie behind her back, in fun I now suspect, an act that in my innocence I thought was both unnecessary and rude. How dare anybody do that to this person who was so kind to my brother and me? I made no comment about it, but as a child, I never liked or forgave her. Isn’t that terrible?
In the evening time when it was dark we sat around the table with the oil lamp burning, watching Aunt Janie or Jean ironing the clothes. This was a somewhat laborious task, as stones the shape and size of the box iron had to be heated in the fire and when red hot, removed with a pair of tongs and placed into the rear of the iron via a small upward sliding gate. Our knowledge of biology would be improved during these evening gatherings, when a chicken was being prepared for a meal the next day. Having already been plucked by Aunt Janie during the day she would start to draw it, and as each organ saw the light of day our education would begin with every piece of offal being explained in great detail. What intrigued me was the ever-decreasing size of the unlaid eggs, at their various stages of development. In this modern day it would be considered somewhat gruesome, but in those days it was the normal way of things.
On many occasions soldiers stationed at Langholm would hide their motor cycles down by the wood next to the cottage and call in for a cup of tea and, no doubt, a bite to eat in the warm homely atmosphere of the kitchen. It has also been known for the household to be awakened during the night by Army officers seeking a place to read their maps, with a line of armoured vehicles waiting in the lane outside the front door. George would emerge from the bedroom to ascertain exactly what was going on, whilst Aunt Janie, dressed in her usual flower patterned pinafore, would light the oil lamp and rekindle the fire, while Jean sat up in bed, curlers in her hair! A scene to be treasured.
I remember on one occasion we were entertained by Charlie, a friend of Roy, Jim’s younger brother, playing his accordion, the music reverberating around the kitchen, with Tierrie howling his accompaniment. Great fun!
After several weeks we went to stay with Roy and his wife, Annie, in a hamlet called Glen Tarras, a picturesque spot on the bank of the Tarras Water, just south of Langholm. This hamlet was set into the side of a hill and consisted of a row of two storied terraced cottages with the Tarras Water, a tributary of the Esk, flowing past the front door. Ours was the last cottage at the end of a cul-de-sac, with a two-storied stone barn attached. The ground floor of the barn was an Aladdin’s cave storing a variety of domestic and old agricultural tools, linnet and finch decoy cages, all relics of a past era, that must have been there for years, left by the previous tenants. There were also chicken feed, logs, bales of straw and a hutch in which was kept a cream coloured ferret. On the walls hung numerous fishing rods and wicker creels. The stairway to the upper floor was an open riser type without banister rails making the unsure unsteady. I found ascending reasonably easy, but to descend I took one step at a time on my bottom. On the upper floor were two rooms each containing a high-sided table housing dozens of baby chicks, which were being nurtured and protected under controlled conditions.
Next to the barn was a large area of land where Roy kept a multitude of chickens and geese, farming the eggs and despatching them at regular intervals to the local area collection depot. This overgrown space was once the foundation of an old whisky distillery that had been demolished several years previously. Paul and I collected the wild strawberries that grew there, which Annie would set in lime flavoured jelly for us to eat.
On fine evenings with a chill in the air, when the sun was casting long shadows as dusk approached, Roy, Paul and I frequently strolled across the meadows to where the Tarras Water merged with the Esk. As we progressed, agitated and protective greenish, black crested lapwings dived and swooped over our heads crying their familiar call “peewit...peewit” in an attempt to drive and lure us away from their nests which lay on the ground hidden in the grass. Surviving this aerial bombardment we continued our journey stealthily to the top of a gentle gradient. Over the brow was a shallow depression where rabbits fed and gamboled in their well-manicured warren. Their constant nibbling of the grass had carved this closely cropped area onto the landscape, thus creating a putting green like swathe. However one sudden or noisy move on our part, would cause the rabbits to signal their imminent danger by exposing the white underside of their scuts, and within a fraction of a second vanish down their burrows, leaving this once busy little corner of the countryside apparently deserted.
Roy worked for a local grocer/greengrocer driving a lorry delivering orders to outlying farms and houses. We would often accompany him on his travels, either sitting in the cab or amongst the orders on the open back, visiting farms, watching the cows being milked, whilst coming into contact with a variety of other animals.
We visited Hollows-hill-gate on Sundays walking the three miles along the railway line with arms outstretched balancing on the rails, or leaping from one sleeper to the next, this only being possible because the trains did not run on Sundays. Eventually we arrived at Gilnockie station, where Andrew Cairns, the husband of Mary, my grandmother’s sister, had died of a heart attack in 1943. She lived in Rowanburn where my great grandparents, Robert and Georgina Graham, had lived with their four daughters, Agnes who eventually married Joseph a Frenchman from Guebwiller, Alsace, destined to be my grandparents, Annie, Mary and Jane. After Robert died in 1889 the family moved to Hollows-hill-gate when Aunt Janie was, like myself, only eight years old. She lived there for the rest of her life, marrying Robert Rodger, a Company Sergeant Major in the 1st Border Regiment who died in 1922. She died in the cottage on 7th August 1953, and was buried on the very same day as Mary Armstrong. It is comforting, believing that two old friends accompanied each other on their final journey as they ascended the staircase to heaven. May they both rest in peace.
Bernard my eldest brother eventually joined us, causing even more overcrowding in the already congested household. Therefore, to remedy this situation and enable us to attend school, we three brothers moved to Carlisle to stay with my father’s half-brother, Bob Graham, his daughter Una, wife Meg and Meg’s niece Margaret. Their son George was away serving in the Royal Air Force. On our way to school we would buy apples from a basket left outside the front garden gate of a house, costing one penny for a large one or a halfpenny for a small one, leaving the money in an honesty box. Could you do that these days, I wonder? My class teacher was a very volatile woman, violent both verbally and physically, thinking nothing of hitting us around the head with the back of her hand or a wooden ruler. We sat four to a desk frightened to move, speak or make an error. There was no room for individual creativity. We were robots. I hated going to this school, and could not understand why a person could be so nasty, especially as I had never experienced such behaviour before. I tried to run away once, but having chased me around the cloakroom, Bernard managed to stop me. On the other hand Bernard settled down and started a lucrative business in the playground. He was always good at art so, after obtaining mauve and purple indelible pencils he began work drawing imitation tattoos on the other children’s arms, charging a halfpenny for local Carlisle boys, evacuees free. Returning home in the afternoons we would call in at the blacksmiths to watch him shoeing the horses, and hammering into shape the red-hot steel from the furnace on the anvil. On warm evenings as a special treat the family would occasionally reserve seats on what were known as mystery coach tours, these trips were very popular with us boys and enjoyed immensely. However the mystery destination nine times out of ten was a seaside resort called Silloth, situated at the mouth of the Solway Firth, the estuary of the rivers Esk and Eden, that flowed into the sea just north of Carlisle and Hadrians wall.
Sadly, whilst we were having a party at Uncle Bob’s house celebrating my birthday, I clearly remember there was a knock on the front door. After it was opened there was a lot of activity and commotion in the entrance hall, and within a few seconds all the guests were asked to leave. The grim reaper in the guise of a telegram boy had delivered a message from the War Department informing Una that Barney, her husband who was in the Royal Air Force had been shot down and killed. Only after fifty years had passed did the War Department divulge the details of Barney’s death. Unknown to the family he was a flight engineer in Squadron 644, a Special Unit based at Tarrant Ashton, Dorset. Whilst on a mission delivering supplies to the "Maquis" the French Resistance, North West of Bourges, in the area of Cher, France, his Halifax LL400 was shot down, killing all crew members on 31/08/1944 (my birthday). His name, George Bernard Fitzgerald, is inscribed on panel 229 at the RAF Memorial, Runnymede, Berkshire.
We were finally reunited with our parents when the hostilities ceased in 1945, returning to our home in New Malden, Surrey. Since then all but one of my Scottish relatives have unfortunately died, they of course were not all angels, but they loved us, whilst many other children all over Europe suffered the full violence of the Nazi holocaust. To have a happy childhood, which I certainly did, is a blessing particularly as it is part of a learning process that moulds ones personality, moral code and general attitude to life.
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