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Extraordinary Schooling in WW2 - Part Two

by Ernie-the-Author

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Myself (Ernie)
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17 October 2004

Extraordinary Schooling in WW2 — Part Two
(a sequel to Part One) by Ernie-the-Author


St Mary’s School’s second wartime location was just as beautiful as the first - but in quite different ways. The only similarities were the very fertile land and its rich red soil. Yarkhill in Herefordshire is in the heart of rural Britain, in the rain shadow of the Welsh Black Mountains betwixt the city of Hereford and the Malvern Hills.

We moved into Yarkhill Court, a small manor house attached to a working mixed farm. The gentleman farmer owner was away on military service. This was about six miles east of Hereford and lying between the villages of Tarrington and Stretton Grandison. Our local Great Western Railway station was Stoke Edith (now defunct, I believe) less than half a mile from Tarrington and 1.5 miles from the school.

The house was early Victorian, two stories, plus attic and, unlike the rather ornate Victorian interior decor, unpretentious. It had a large mature yew tree by the front gate. Adjacent, stood a small church within its graveyard, to serve the immediate district. To one side there was a huge walled kitchen garden, mainly overrun with course grass and horseradish. The only other garden was to the front, chiefly lawn with the access drive from the main farmyard on the other side and to the rear. There was also a conservatory, which we used as one classroom.

The small river Frome flowed close by, where we often swam in the red muddy waters, which we shared with Hereford cattle, chub, perch, water-rats and otters. This was a tributary of the river Wye.

The farm then included some of the largest hop yards outside Kent, having its own oast-houses. Traditionally, hops were used in the breweries - but the war created another demand: as a khaki dye. The unique aroma of hops is still one of my favourite. Opposite the school and across the access lane was a little moat, surrounding an islet.

Shortly after the move to Herefordshire, I was told that father had been sent to camp. I remember my response that he would like that, as he was good at camping (it was much later that I learned what internment really meant*). Because of this, with the resultant shortage of funds, my sister Marian had to return home and to a local state primary school in Highgate Village, to save on costs. But for my speech difficulties, I probably would have joined her. It was felt, however, that such a move may have been too brutal for me, so mother scrimped and, helped by some patience from the Pauls, I remained at St Mary's. Naturally, the funding problem was remedied shortly after father's release from this arbitary imprisonment a few months later, when he could start to earn a living again. (*see separate article: WW2 — Interning the Innocents.)

It was a sad day when Marian left. Of necessity, having had to leave home so very young and because we were only 15 months apart in age, we had become very close. Marian's propensity to care and nurse came to the fore very early. This probably helped her as much as her intent to comfort me, particularly living my speech and resultant temper frustrations with me, which she recalls more vividly than I. One legacy Marian took away with her was her sustained wont to vegetarianism, although never as strict or peculiar as Mrs Paul's own diet.

St. Mary's grew in numbers within the first year of our Herefordshire tenancy. Miss Gardener joined us, an excellent and most enterprising young teacher, who came with and lived in a genuine lantern roofed original Gypsy caravan, set near the top corner of the kitchen garden. I can still clearly recall the beautifully bright hand painted decor inside and out, and the ornate cut and bevelled glass and interior furnishings, all being examples of the most exquisite dedicated craftsmanship.

Later, as the school numbers grew still more, we were allocated three conscientious objectors as teachers - but I doubt how well qualified they were, as two of the three had not much of a clue. Children are very quick and astute in sensing weaknesses and fallacies and we were merciless with these two. They did not survive their first term. The other "CO" turned out to be an inspired teacher.

We saw little of the war, only very rarely seeing anything of the military in our rural setting. We experienced a little of the blitz only at home during school holidays - but met crowds of military personnel when we travelled on the then steam trains at the end and start of school terms.

Travel then was a lottery: trains were overcrowded, we very rarely found seats, standing, or sitting on our battered suitcases, usually in the corridors. Trains were late, or cancelled - sometimes very late and then much to the consternation of those awaiting our arrival. The railways were the butt of both radio comedy and music hall jokes. Many people today may claim that nothing much has changed, despite the demise of steam and, more recently, the advent of partial re-privatisation (the railways were nationalised the when war began).

I recall the awful news of the expeditionary force's fiasco at Dunkirk and the small ship flotilla coming to the rescue - probably the greatest escape in human history. I guess that every primary schoolchild in 1940 was expected to draw or paint a picture of this desperate escape scene.

Mr Paul joined the Home Guard. He looked quite like Field Marshal Montgomery when he wore his uniform and beret and was very proud of this resemblance. We all knew that Mrs Paul was the prime mover in their partnership and she really ran the school, so we felt that she was quite happy to see him with some important community service to undertake.

As we grew older, our classes became more formal than those in Beesands. There was emphasis on languages and the arts - but very little on the hard sciences. Learning was usually in mixed age and ability sessions and we were split into small groups working on our own subjects, problems and projects. We had weekly round table spelling games and I shall never forget how to spell "unnecessary", as this went round the table of about 14 of us at least four times before the right answer was given.

Living quite close to the school, in Bartestree, was a superb pianist, musician and teacher: Michael Mullinar. He would have been a top concert pianist but I believe that he had some phobia about playing in public. He gave W.E.A (Workers Education Association) lectures, however and performed at these. They were given at the school, as Mr Paul's most prized possession was a Bechstein concert grand piano. There were usually seats to spare and a few of us kids were allowed to sit-in. In this way, I learned to love classical music.

Unfortunately, despite wishing to become an instant Schnabel, I had insufficient patience to persevere with scales, so my aspirations in this direction were very short lived, which I have much regretted since. Marian, however, had a few piano lessons before she left and Mr Mulliner felt that she showed promise. This encouraged her to continue with lessons with another teacher in London until she started her nurse training.

The ever-resourceful Miss Gardener had the idea to re-cultivate the kitchen garden. Volunteers were given plots within the box-hedged areas and there were competitions with prizes for the best cultivated garden and various best produce grown, monthly every summer and autumn terms. Soft fruit bushes were still in abundance: red and black currents, gooseberries, strawberries and raspberries. Also, there were other fruit trees bearing plums, pears, apples and peaches.

A communal effort to clear the horse-radish required double digging (two spits deep) to clear the long roots - very long hard work indeed. We used this area for higher volume crops; firstly for potatoes to help regenerate the soil, then spinach, onions and brussel sprouts. We also kept goats, rabbits, ferrets and a few chickens and bantams. We took it in turns to tend them and muck-out. We had the run of the adjacent farm, the barns and the apple orchards: Blenheims, Worcesters and cider apples, with the odd crab-apple.

We had no gymnasium. On fair days, we exercised on the front lawn. Alternatively, we had school runs along the lanes and through the fields. Our games training was in a cow field. We played soccer against a few of the local schools - like Felstead Prep, where we usually were thoroughly trounced. We had our cycles. I was given mine by Manfred, a school friend, who was with us for a short time before he emigrated to the States. We often toured the local lanes in groups or pairs. As traffic was very sparse, the roads were quite safe.

For recreation, we often cycled to Hereford on a Saturday, to visit a museum, have tea, or go to the cinema to see films like "Western Approaches" or "In Which We Serve". Once, we went to a travelling circus in Stretton Grandison - the first I had ever seen. On other organized occasions, we travelled to one of the three Malvern towns, where we sometimes climbed Worcester Beacon (just a mountain at 1,000 feet) or one of the adjacent hills.

During the summer, there was also hop picking. We were allowed to join the "professional" hop-pickers, to pick on weekends and late afternoons and evenings. We were paid per bushel, the proceeds went to the school recreation fund. This was good fun. The hop-pickers were a mix of real (Romany) gypsies and travellers from Bristol and east London. They camped with their families in tents, or sackcloth igloo like structures (as tinkers) and a few had old vans (somehow managing to acquire petrol for these) in a field adjacent to the hop yards (as the fields where the hops are grown were called). The latter looked a bit like vineyards with posts and wire box structures about 7-8 feet high.

Our teachers were not very keen on us mixing too closely with the pickers' kids, as they were unlikely to have had a bath for weeks! We found their chat, accents and “street” wisdom fascinating and, of course, highly educational. I smoked my first cigarette then, an Embassy, supplied by a tiny cheeky faced 11 year old girl urchin called Veronica, from the hop-pickers camp. It would be unfair however to blame her for my subsequent heavy smoking habit, which I was not to give up until my mid 50's.

There was one dreadful tragedy. Ann, on the crossbar of David's bike, crashed into an army lorry, which ran over her. She died from internal injuries within minutes. She was but nine or ten years old and such a bright, sunny and happy girl. What a tragic family: their half brother, an airman, was reported missing about a month before this accident - leaving Ann's other older brother Robin the only child. I am not now sure if the father also went missing earlier. David survived, with a badly scarred leg and with the most horrendous memory to have to live with. I remember visiting him a couple of times at his home in Dolphin Square, Victoria in London, to try to cheer him up during the holidays.

The infectiously enthusiastic Miss Gardener also ran pottery classes, using the red clay we excavated from the river banks. With her we built an outside firing kiln from fire-bricks. Before each firing, we had to collect a huge mound of wooden logs for fuel - enough to last for 24-36 hours. We took it in shifts to tend to these day and night continuous sessions.

Then there was the time that we discovered the trap door to the cellar under the conservatory and a crate of opened fortified wines, sherry's, ports and liqueurs. I cannot say that we all acquired the taste for these - but our moderate and secret samplings from time to time created interesting and intriguing diversions!

The school was quite enterprising also with half-term holiday adventures. During the early years, we camped on Tarrington Common. These outings usually comprised a long weekend, hauling ourselves, with all the gear, about a mile up the hillside, where we camped "wild" but under supervision.

In the latter years we went into the Black Mountains in Wales. We stayed at a tiny village called Capel-y-ffin, between Hay-on-Wye and Llanthony. Firstly, we stayed in a Youth Hostel there, the Blue (timber) Bungalow and then at the Monastery (now a hotel). I remember the tiny sleeping cubicles, with slit church style windows and the full size slate and mahogany billiard table, which pivoted to turn over to form a huge dining table. We travelled there by rail, via Hereford and Hay-on-Wye to Glasbury (the line has since disappeared). Then we walked and climbed over the pass, with Hay Bluff (over 2200 feet) on our left and down the Gospel Pass. We enjoyed our adventures, despite the rain at times.

There were the usual epidemics of children's diseases: measles and German measles, chicken pox, plus mumps, which I had just as I reached puberty and was extremely embarrassed, uncomfortable and painful! I forget after which one but we had to sterilize the entire school by fumigating with burning sulphur sticks for a whole day, which probably put paid to all the fleas and bugs too!

On the one occasion when my parents visited, with her usual hawk-eye efficiency, mother discovered fleas in the bedding. But then she could spot cobwebs at 100 paces, to the despair of our domestics at home! At school we also were subjected to head delousing sessions, with special long tooth stubby fine combs and gallons of Dettol. I think that there was an army of special district nurses ("nitty Noras") appointed for this, in those days.

During the first half of 1944, London was subjected to the V1's, the "Doodlebugs" or "Buzzbombs", which were rocket propelled pilotless flying bombs. One fell close to my younger brothers' primary school, Byron House, in Highgate Village, causing much damage and frightening the kids, especially Peter. The school closed for repairs, so Peter and Robin (aged 6 and 4) came to join me at Yarkhill for the three or four weeks prior to the summer holidays. Meanwhile, father arranged to rent a bungalow in north Wales for the entire seven week vacation. Our parents, with Marian, collected us from school. We all travelled by train, from Hereford via Shrewsbury to Pwllheli and then by two taxis (one with all our luggage) to Abersoch. We were out of harm's way for the entire summer holidays of 1944.

Our seaside bungalow was called "Craig-y-ogoff" and was on the rocks, with a cave beneath it, which was flooded at high tide. We had our own direct access down stone steps to the sandy beach, which the bungalow overlooked. We had a wonderful sunny August and September there.

During my last year at St Mary's, a few of us were billeted out, as the schoolhouse ran out of space. Six of us boys, stayed at a little cottage at Shucknall, just over a mile west from the school. This belonged to an elderly spinster who lived there and gave us a cup of something in the morning and at bedtime. She was warm and kindly. There was no bathroom or running water, only an outside hand pump and a "privy" of traditional country two seat earth type at the top of her typical and beautiful cottage garden.

I remember the aroma of wax polish, that unique gentle mellow tick of each swing of the pendulum from the grandfather clock, the sweet smelling lavender, stock and honeysuckle and the sharper lemon-like thyme from the garden. We cycled each way, morning and night (sometimes running the gauntlet with local mischievous youths) - all of which gave us a little taste of apparent privilege and independence.

When petrol became available again, Mr Paul bought a very old car during my last term, an early to mid 1920's Singer 4 seater. The radiator cowl was polished brass, the wheels were cast iron spoked affairs, the battery sat on one of the running boards to the front. The brass headlamps were of the acetylene gas type. Its top speed was about 25 mph when hot and having a crash gearbox, its transmission ground and howled its laboured progress.

When I was 12 the war in Europe ended (in May 1945) - about two months before the end of another school year. It was time for me to switch to secondary education, which my parents felt would need a change of school, as there were very few qualified secondary teachers then at St Mary's. Hence, I transferred to The Beltane School, another independent but much larger and more progressive school.

My time at St Mary's had been happy, despite the war creating upheaval and making some of us boarders at a much younger age than normal. We were all well looked after and safe from most of the blitz. Although I would not have been able to pass the Common Entrance (to Public School) examination, a few brighter pupils managed to.

So I guess that we received a reasonable elementary education, with a sound foundation on which to develop into decent members of society. Above all, we were protected from war damage.

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