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Farming and Life on Dunstable Downs

by Dunstable Town Centre

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
Dunstable Town Centre
People in story: 
Derek Bonfield
Location of story: 
Dunstable, Bedfordshire
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
01 December 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site by the Dunstable At War Team on behalf of the author and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

I was born on the 27th November 1924; so I was 15 when war was declared in 1939 on a Sunday morning, when my parents and I sat on the front lawn listening to the radio. I was born and brought up on Shepherds Farm along the Icknield Way when it was a poor time for agriculture. All the land had to be ploughed up and put into production. Up until then the ground hadn't been ploughed for many years, so father had to go and buy all the equipment to do this. The government paid you £2 if you ploughed up grassland and turned it into production. Although I don’t think they paid for the machinery and we didn’t get any grants.

We had pigs, cattle, hens, a horse and of course we had a great infestation of rabbits. We also had 2 dairy cows — house cows, my mother used to milk those and look after the hens. On part of the farm near the road was a field called the Chute. Over the previous years they had quarried chalk from there to make up the road. Afterwards, the council in Dunstable tipped spoil and rubbish into it, hence it was called the Chute. We used to see a lot of blue butterflies — Chalk Blues. The best part of the farm was the apple orchard in the valley. We used to put wire mesh around each apple tree to keep the rabbits off. In 1940 we had a very cold winter when the snow was quite deep covering the top of the wire mesh — this killed many of the rabbits.

We were controlled by the Ministry of War who made us grow potatoes. On one occasion this was an absolute failure — the potatoes didn't grow well because of the chalk soil. It was very poor and in places you could see the chalk on the surface. We used to grow corn and we’d under sow the corn with clover and then when the corn was cut, we also had a crop of clover to plough back into the ground. The petrol we used for agriculture was coloured red. It used to leave a red stain round the carburettor so you couldn’t use it in your car.

I went to Britain Street School in Dunstable, leaving in 1938. I had one sister slightly older than myself; she married and went to live with her husband who was a manager on a big farm near Peterborough. In the early 1930s we had an influx of lads from distressed areas in the north, such as Gateshead. A lot of them lived at Cypress Hill where they had a house, a greenhouse and plot of land to enable them to be self-sufficient. They were in poor straits. If you were fortunate and had an apple they would follow you about and ask for the core; quite heart rending really.

Times were tough. The first service we had was a telephone; our number was 38! We didn’t have electricity or water laid on but we did have a well which was 80ft deep. We used a rope to pull the water up which was clear and sparkling, lovely water coming out of the chalk. If you drew the water from the well you couldn’t drink it straight away because it was so cold. We used to get cyclists stopping to ask for a drink but we daren’t let them; we thought they’d get stomach cramps, it was so cold. There was another well in one of the fields near the Chute; 60ft deep where the water was equally nice - we used it for the cattle.

My father also had a haulage business, and in 1940 his driver left to work for Robins the whitening people. At the same time father was taken ill with rheumatic fever, so at 16 I went on the lorry delivering lime from Totternhoe to London and various other places. At night I worked on the farm, helping my mother. The lime was used to build surface shelters as cement would crack because it wasn’t flexible, but with a lime mortar mixture, it held. They also used it to repair buildings that had been bombed.

I drove through Dunstable with the lorry every day in the war, but didn’t really stop in the town. I used to take a lot of lime around the area of Cheshunt, Hoddesdon and Goffs Oak. The lime came from The Greystone Lime Company which was very busy during the war, with all production spoken for. The lime has very high silica content and makes good cement. They used it mixed with horsehair to make their own plaster on the building sites. It was live lime — quicklime. By the end of the war there was gypsum — plaster in bags.

One night, one of the lime kilns exploded. The fire door was quite large and heavy and worked on a pulley; it weighed 2 or 3cwt and blew out about 100yds. Fortunately the chap on duty was barrowing the ash away from another kiln that night and no one was hurt. They had to rebuild the chimney. In 1947 they acquired their own transport at the lime works.

As a boy I used to go up onto the Dunstable Downs to watch the gliders. Before the war we used to help launch them with an elastic rope. As many as we could muster would pull on the rope and somebone would hang onto the back of the glider. We used to walk, and then they would tell us to run, and then, run like hell! They would let go of the glider and you would fall in a heap. They were very basic things. They used to land with an enormous bump. They weren’t gliders as such; they had a tubular frame and a bucket seat. I can picture the pilots now with their Oxford bags flapping in the breeze.

In the final stages of the war, the gliding club was turned into a POW camp. We had 2 Italian POWs to work on the farm and eventually we converted one of the stables so they could live on the farm. One of them had been in the Italian Air-Force and was educated at Oxford while his father was a Miller in Rome. His English was perfect with an Oxford accent, although he assured me that he used to fly very high and drop his bombs in the sea. We had no contact after the war.

The German planes used to fly up the estuary towards Fords (a huge factory manufacturing vehicles, and a prime target). The Becontree estate, made up of many roads of houses built for the Ford workers regularly had slates blown off their roofs. It was more dangerous in the latter stages of the war. I had a near miss with a rocket in London, it did my ears in. Everybody carried on though. There’d be a warning but everything would be operating, buses running and so on.

When the Met station opened in Dunstable there was a RAF chap named Sgt S, who hailed from Essex and had been a butcher in civilian life. He cycled by one day, saw all these rabbits and asked if he could come and shoot them. He used a .22 rifle and was a good shot. It was through him that we were allowed to harvest the hay around the Met Station. We had the hay in exchange for cutting it and keeping the place tidy for them. My father was up there one day with the tractor and mower. He liked to do a tidy job and was getting close to the mast; he then accidentally cut through one of the wires and the thing came whistling down. They very soon had it up again, though.

The perimeter hedge used to run down where Drovers Way is now, and I was up there mowing a piece we hadn’t previously cut before, so father said keep tight to the hedge. While doing so the tractor plunged into a hole where they had put some phosphorus grenades but forgotten about them; fortunately they didn’t go off!
It was all very hush hush, what was going on at the Met Station, we knew and referred to it as a Met Station but the actual running of it, we didn’t know anything about it.

Most of our groceries were delivered from the International Stores. Mr P used to come round with a model T Ford and then later an Austin. I can see him slinging his money bag on his back now and cranking it up. He used to come late at night sometimes; I suppose we were last on his round. The baker used to come from Eaton Bray.

The biggest businesses in Eaton Bray were the glasshouses, growing tomatoes. My wife’s relatives worked there in the war. It looked like a lake from up on the Downs. I think Mr Bates from Church Farm in Whipsnade grazed sheep on the Downs. There was a bomb dropped between the village hall and Poplar Farm in Totternhoe and there was a bungalow up a track near the Travellers Rest known as the Frenchman’s house. I never saw the Frenchman, it may have been General De Gaulle, but it was isolated and I never saw anyone there.

I belonged to the Home Guard and occasionally we trained up on Totternhoe Knolls. Every Sunday morning and once or twice in the evenings we also trained but we didn’t have rifles. We also did a regular night at the mill at Eddlesborough, up on the tower and we did night duty on the main road by the Plough. A shepherds hut was used as a guard hut. Any traffic was stopped, but there was very little. Parrots Lorries from Luton were the first things along.

The nearest farm to us was at Valence End, the next was Ebenezer’s, where the RAF place was based at the Travellers Rest. It was a signals station but we never knew what its function was, mostly it was underground. We found that out when we carried out a raid in the Home Guard. The exercise was to capture it. We managed to get over the fence and we came across what we thought was an air-raid shelter; we climbed down, fell over a dispatch rider who was asleep in the passage way and found it all happening! We had achieved what we wanted. They were connected with the Stanbridge RAF station, a kind of sister station.

In 1948 father sold the farm and moved to Devon. I stayed here, I had married by then.

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