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A Breath of Fresh Air: Part Two

by John Wilkie

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John Wilkie
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John Wilkie
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01 January 2004

A few days after returning home from Saltburn I was evacuated again. This time along with my brother George, aged 8 years and sister May, aged 6 years, to ‘the country’ we were told. I didn’t think anything could be more beautiful than the East Coast but that was when my love affair with the Yorkshire Dales began and still continues today.

We arrived in Grinton, Swaledale, ten miles west of Richmond, Yorkshire, into the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen. I knew nothing about the countryside at that time.

George and I were billeted with a young, newly married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Holland. Sister May was taken in by Mrs. Martin and lived nearby. Sadly, Mrs. Martin’s husband was killed in action and May was then billeted with the Vicar and his wife. She was very happy there on her own. The house was extremely big, with a huge staircase going up the middle. Since that time it was been converted into flats. They were very kind to her as they only had one adopted son who was at University at that time. They clothed her well and when she eventually returned to Gateshead she had lots of new clothes and a couple of dolls.

Grinton is a very small village, population approximately 50 before the evacuees arrived. I remember the sight of the autumn colours of the trees. Everything was so fresh and green. The gardens were brightened by the flowers, especially the marigolds which provoked memories of Sunday mornings at home. Then I would be up early, go to the nearby stable with a carton, collect manure and take it to the Allotments where the holders were pleased to have it for their plots. In return they would give me a bunch of marigolds and some sticks of rhubarb which I carried home in the now empty manure box. The rhubarb was used in a pie and baked for Sunday tea.

The house where I lived is now part of the Bridge Hotel. The first memory of the village was the silence and the lack of noise from trams, trains, ships’ hooters and the like. Also the sound of unfamiliar birds each morning. We had no timepiece in the bedroom and consequently always being hungry I found I was first up each morning! The house was a big, two-storied building adjoining the Bridge Hotel at the side and the back so there was no back entrance. I believe the property was built in the 17th century. It fronted the main road to Reeth a village about a mile away. It had three steps down leading to a sunken patio. The door led to a cosy living room with a coal fire. Here we took our meals and relaxed in the evenings listening to the battery-operated wireless, or, in the case of Mr. Holland, dozing by the fire. Sometimes he would be nursing George and the two of them would be fast asleep in the wooden slatted rocking chair!

Paraffin lamps provided the lighting (there being no gas or electricity) and the cooking was done on two primus stoves or on the grill above the coal fire. There was a highly polished fender surrounding the fire.

A door to the left led to the Sunday Parlour. It was rarely used at any other time. On a rack in the corner were Mr. Holland’s two 12 bore shot guns, (he was employed as shepherd/acting gamekeeper) and later a 303 calibre Enfield rifle, which was supplied when he joined the LDV (later to become the Home Guard). Also in the rack was a selection of walking sticks and umbrellas.

To the right leading off the living room was the kitchen. This had a sink (cold water only) The two primus stoves stood on a bench. Off the kitchen was a walk-in pantry. The shelves held a number of the previous year’s storage jars of home-made jams and chutneys. It also had a stone slab for ‘perishables’. The milk was delivered in a churn from where the milkman used a dipper to measure the required amount into Mrs. Holland’s large enamel milk jug. The milk float had rubber tyres and was pulled by a horse.

A staircase led to the three bedrooms upstairs. At one time the third bedroom was occupied by an elderly lady from London. She was kind to me but didn’t see eye-to-eye with Mr. and Mrs. Holland and returned to London soon afterwards. We all went to bed by the light of a candle. My household chores commenced early each morning when I primed the two stoves and lit the fire, which I set with cowlings (a form of dried heather) and coal.

The nearest school, Fremington, was located about one mile to the north but only catered for children up to the age of eleven, so they had no facilities for a couple of us. One of the Government slogans at that time was ‘Dig for Victory’ so the schoolteacher put us to work growing vegetables in the school garden. Mr. Holland and I dug up the Vicar’s tennis court and we planted more vegetables. The fresh air gave us quite an appetite and we were very well fed. We developed muscles and in the summer sported healthy suntans. The school at Fremington (at the top of a hill) comprised one large building with a pot-bellied stove in the centre and a group of children in each corner. One lively boy, about nine or ten years of age, came out of school one day, raced down the hill and was instantly killed by an army truck. On the day of the funeral the school was closed and I remember leading the children behind the hearse to the cemetery about three-quarters of a mile outside Grinton.

In Gateshead I had witnessed may funerals of very young children who died of diptheria, scarlet fever or tuberculosis. Adult suicide deaths were common, due to the despair of non-employment and lack of money. The hearse would be drawn by four big, black, beautiful horses proudly displaying large, black ostrich plumes. Very impressive! A death was a very sombre occasion — blinds were drawn, no wireless was played, the men wore black armbands and the ladies wore black from the obligatory hat to their black shoes and stockings. These were known as “widow’s weeds’ and they went ‘into mourning’ for a considerable time. It just wasn’t done for a man to attend in brown boots — hence the Stanley Holloway evocative monologue entitled ‘Brown Boots’. The Cortege walked to the nearest cemetery, ignoring the severe weather conditions in winter. All the bystanders would stop whatever they were doing until the mourners had passed by.

When I was not needed elsewhere Mr. Holland took me up on the moors with him and we mended the fences which marked the Estate boundary and kept in the sheep, which were quite numerous. There were sixteen miles of fencing and I arrived home each evening tired, hungry but very happy. I was even allowed to ‘worm’ the sheep after a while.

Mr. Holland was like a father to George and I, and after a few hiccups, we settled in perfectly. At first George was homesick and set off to walk to Gateshead regularly but his legs didn’t carry him very far and I was able to bring him back. I remember Mr. Holland sitting some evenings with George, teaching him to read and write. George was a great favourite in the village. When not at school he would sit with his legs dangling over the bridge which spanned the river singing some of the bawdy songs the cattle drovers had taught him in Gateshead. This greatly amused the villagers although I suspect they couldn’t understand his Geordie accent. He also came in handy for us. An ex-army Officer in the village was well-known for not particularly liking children. However, when harvest-time came around George was the only one he would allow to pick the fallen fruit in his orchard. Then George would throw the ‘spoils’ over the wall to the eager hordes.

Mr. Holland made us each a sledge that winter and one day we found ourselves speeding down the bank from Grinton Moor along with our 96 year old neighbour when we met an army lorry coming up the hill towards us so we immediately had to swerve to avoid a collision. That was the end of that venue but we soon found a new one.

There was a large Army encampment in a nearby field. These boys were training for action on the Continent. Eventually they left Grinton and on their way to Richmond one lorry left the road and ended up in the River Swale. Some of the boys were killed.

Mrs. Holland played the organ in the local church so we found ourselves at Services three times on a Sunday. Sometimes I was allowed to pump up the organ for her. I was also in the Choir and sang solo until my voice broke. I never thought then that one day I would return to Grinton with my family, visit the church, see the organ and sit in a pew reminiscing.

There were no buses at all but our entertainments included an occasional silent film show given by the Vicar — usually featuring Charlie Chaplin — a great favourite. We listened avidly to the battery radio as we had no gas or electricity. Once Gateshead Council arranged for us to be taken to the Zetland Cinema in Richmond — another treat! The film was ‘Pinnochio’.

They also arranged for my mother, two younger members of the family and my cousin to visit us twice. Each week we wrote letters home and each week we received a postal order for 6d. Of this, I got 2d, George and May also 2d. Mr. Holland cut a slot in an empty Fynnon Salts tin and this was for my savings. Other outings included trips with Mrs. Holland to the Women’s Institute. They had a small library on the premises so I spent the time reading. I remember on one occasion Mrs. Holland discovered me reading a book she considered unsuitable so she removed it.

She bottled all sorts of jams and preserves, some of which were donated to the local Fayres. The recipes were taken from Mr. Woolton’s radio programme. He was the Minister of Food. Sometimes I was allowed to go on her bike for the shopping in Reeth. Another treat was to ride pillion when Mr. Holland and I mended the fencing. Other times I was allowed to visit his four gun dogs which were kennelled away from the house.


Mrs. Holland’s two brothers owned a farm in Ribblesdale. In 194O I boarded a train in Redmire (after a car journey) and was met at Horton-in-Ribblesdale station in heavy rain by one of the brothers. He had a push-bike and I was allowed to ride to their farm while he walked. They lived alone on the farm but their mother came each day to look after them. They had another sister, Maggie, who was quite a character. They made their own entertainment and they all played in a band with Maggie on the drums. Much later I was given an L.P. which the band recorded at one of their Saturday night ‘dos’. They used to regale me with anecdotes about the local farmers. I remember one of a farmer who used to graze his cattle on lowland at the foot of the mountain, Pen-y-ghent. One day he took them to the top of the mountain and when asked why he had done this he remarked that the grazing may not have been better but the cows had “a bloody good view”. Another even-tempered farmer had a constantly nagging wife. One day he decided he had had enough so while she was haranguing him he took down his gun from the wall, broke it, put in a cartridge and blasted the window. That was the end of the nagging.
My jobs at the farm commenced at 5.00 a.m. I was given two buckets of feed and two bridles and set off firstly to feed the hens. I didn’t like this job as I was scared of the cockerel which seemed to take an instant dislike to me. When I had plucked up courage I picked up the eggs and put them in the empty feed bucket. Then I would gingerly approach the two Shire horses (Mona and Jewel) and while they were busy feeding from the second bucket I contrived to attach the bridles. By standing on a nearby wall I was able to mount one horse and lead the other down to the farm. I wore a specially made pair of clogs as the horses were not above standing on my feet. Back at the farm I was given a huge breakfast of a mug of porridge, bacon, eggs, toast and tea (the latter being poured into the empty porridge pot). When the haymaking began we started work very early each day and didn’t stop until dusk. This was very tiring but we were sustained during the day with bottles of water then at mealtimes the women brought us plenty to eat. By the end of each day I was thoroughly exhausted and often fell asleep while eating my supper. When all the hay was safely gathered in I was jubilant until I discovered we had to go and help the neighbouring farmer.
During some of the haymaking the men employed an Italian prisoner-of-war. Naturally I had difficulty communicating with him but I gathered he had a farm in Italy. He loved England and in due course returned to Yorkshire and bought the farm when the two farmers retired. Also employed during the haymaking was an itinerant Irishman. I enjoyed our conversations in the barn in the evenings.
Back in Grinton the Vicar had an orchard from where we were allowed to pick up and eat the windfall fruit. What we couldn’t eat my pal and I squirreled away in the hollow of an old tree. We also tickled trout in the beck.
The Vicar was the only person in the village (apart from the Post Office) who owned a telephone. He was also the A.R.P. warden and one occasion he went around the village with a hand-bell to announce that a land-mine had been dropped on Grinton Moor leaving a huge crater but not doing any damage. The following day I went up and picked up a piece of shrapnel and a length of multi-coloured parachute cord. I was fascinated.

Life in 1941 carried on as usual but the outstanding memory of it was the winter. This was particularly severe. Mr. Holland’s sheep were kept up on the moors and during the winter they would take shelter in the lee of the dry-stone walls and fences. Unfortunately this was where the snow drifted and a considerable time was spent digging them out. Mr. Holland and the dogs knew exactly where to look for them and consequently we managed to save the majority. But as the winter dragged on we were digging out dead sheep. These we attached to the spade with rope and dragged by the horns to a nearby bog where they immediately sank. This I found very upsetting and exhausting but Mrs. Holland had a meal ready for us home-made stout to wash it down with! Sheer heaven.
By 1942 I was well and truly a Yorkshireman and delighted in it. I even spoke their dialect. About this time the Gateshead teachers who taught in Reeth (about one mile from Grinton) decided to stage a play they had written. It was called “The Black Evacuee”. I had acted for them before and they asked me to play the eponymous hero. Unfortunately Gateshead Council decided I was now old enough to be bombed so they instructed me to return home. I was nearing school-leaving age (14) and was required to collect my School-leaving Certificate and find a job. My brother and sister were too young to remain on their own so they returned home with me. I don’t remember much of the parting except that it happened very quickly and my elder brother came to collect us, but I did not feel I had said a proper ‘goodbye’ to Mr. and Mrs. Holland and my friends.

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