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by Croft Castle WW2 event

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Croft Castle WW2 event
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Peter Attridge
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27 July 2004

Excerpt from ‘Schoolboy at War’, a chapter in ‘Wayward Journey’, Reminiscences of Peter Attridge (1930 — 2000)

Late in the summer of 1940, the bombing of London intensified and developed into what became known as the Battle of Britain. My mother, greatly concerned for my safety, decided to take me away from London. My brother was fourteen and beginning to prepare for his School Certificate examination, so moving him from John Fisher School was inadvisable. Encouraged by her sister, Hilda, whose son, Anthony, was a pupil at Belmont Abbey School, Hereford, Mother entered me in the preparatory department of a convent school run by the Sisters of Charity at Croft Castle, Herefordshire. The school, St Elizabeth’s, had been moved to the castle for reasons of safety from Bullingham near Leominster.

The journey to this remote part of Herefordshire was long, tortuous and intimidating, taking us through Shrewsbury to the north and many small stations whose names had been obscured to outwit enemy agents, situated on branch lines, which no longer exist. To add to the mystery, the windows of the trains were blacked out after dusk. It was truly a Journey into the Unknown.

While negotiations for entry to the school were going on, we stayed in the house of the caretaker of Lucton School, a small private institution near Croft. Jack Wylde was a bluff countryman with a brogue who told lurid stories about his poaching adventures, the products of which, usually rabbits and salmon, appeared on our table, helped down by strong, rough cider he concocted in the garden shed. I began to get up early to help him feed the pullets, glennies, ducks, geese and turkeys and some evenings helped him lock them up. It was my first experience of farm animals and one I enjoyed immensely. On a field opposite the school was a stream in which I played for hours, damming and diverting it to my heart’s content, getting plastered with mud and being thoroughly scolded by my mother afterwards.

I was deeply unhappy at Croft throughout the autumn and the early months of the following year. Our family was a close one and this was the first time I had ever been separated from it. I was desperately lonely and sobbed my heart out at night in the dormitory. In fact, I wasn’t entirely abandoned: Mother spent several weeks at Lucton before returning to London and came back to see me at Christmas and Easter, whilst Aunt Hilda stated at Lucton for much of the winter, and her sister, Nan, and niece, Josie, spent some time there. Nevertheless I was heart-broken at the absence of my parents and the loss of home life. When I returned home in July 1941, I was a changed person, more detached, less open, spontaneous and trustful of others. My mother deeply regretted the change. Croft was a significant emotional turning point in my life.

I was undoubtedly upset by the lack of affection at the school, the unfeeling nuns, the nastymindedness of some boys, the bleakness of the castle with its great gloomy rooms and secret passages, and the awful institutional food. There is no hint of complaint in my letters, all of which have survived, though in my first note to Mother, left in her absence at the Wyldes’ house, there is an almost tangible biting back of tears:

I still find it strange, but I am trying to settle down. I do my lessons all right and at the music Sister said I was very good… I didn’t want to see you, as I wanted to last a week so as to get used to it.

Again, in a later letter, I ended with

I still say our prayers and pray that you may soon come back, with love from Peter.

P.S. I hope I will see you back very soon.

Writing home was a fortnightly duty imposed by the nuns; since each letter was checked by Sister Pauline, the nun in charge of the boys, the restraint shown in them is understandable. Of course I knew also that little boys were expected to keep a stiff upper lip.

Although letter-writing was a duty, the letters reveal a loving little boy who wrote willingly, never missed sending a special letter on family birthdays, reported every detail of the plots of films shown in school, promised he was saying all his night prayers and a rosary every morning, never failed to send love to his grandmother and signed each letter with several kisses. Although I remember much unhappiness, the letters show that I succeeded well in class, usually coming second, was a sharp-shooting inside forward in the soccer team and captain of cricket, was trusted to run messages in and out of school and was one of the six best altar-servers; I was also keen to win not only the Good Conduct but the coveted Fidelity medal. In a later letter I listed to my parents the six ‘ornaments’ on my jacket: a fountain pen and pencil, a key chain, an RC (Roman Catholic) badge, a good conduct badge and one for the blue Virgo Potens house. I made considerable progress at the piano, pleasing the music teacher, Sister Joseph, ‘because he doesn’t thump as the other boys do’. I learned to play Barcarolle, Minuet in G, Londonderry Air and ones entitled Narcissus and Silver Stream.

There is no doubt I was a bit of a prig and demanded far to much of my parents, continually asking for all sorts of tuck to supplement the dull school diet such as meat paste, honey, jam, marmalade (fussily specifying the grapefruit version), biscuits, fruit cake, Horlicks, dates, Marmite, nut crisp, toffees and what appear to be the chief parental remedy against infection, tins of malt. There must have been a stream of parcels arriving from home, containing food as well as the shirts and suits, underwear, wellies, football and cricket boots and boxes of games I asked for. My attitude to my father was rather special and he always received personal reports on football games, positions in class and excuses for boasting of success; there is a jocular, familiar note in some letters: in one, I address him as Sergeant-Major and send him ‘a punch in the ribs’. I was clearly not in awe of my parents.

Some painful memories remain of Sister Pauline, the stern-faced disciplinarian who put the fear of God in us. She would stand spare and straight under her crisp white butterfly wimple, handing out savage punishment with a long, inch-thick washing stick. One dreadful night a group of boys were caught at some unmentionable act and were lined up against a wall, ordered to kneel down and drop their pyjama trousers. The row of white bottoms gleamed in the half-light and howls of pain rent the night as Sister Pauline laid into them with a will. I suffered her wrath on at least one occasion, receiving the full force of her washing stick on my bare knuckles. The Sisters of Charity had perfected their own special forms of good deed, intended no doubt to expunge original sin.

One night, intending go to the toilet, I groped my way along the dark corridor, when the swishing of Sister Pauline’s habit and the clicking of her large wooden rosary beads broke through the silence. I froze and pressed myself to the wall but was discovered at once. In the severest tones she bade me control myself and return to bed. Another night, in terror at her approach, I slipped my diary into a crack in the castle panelling and lost it for good; she knew enough about me from my letters and I did not want her to pry further. Some day, a hundred years hence, when the panelling is renewed, the owners of Croft may have the doubtful pleasure of reading my juvenile scribblings.

As an altar-server, I had to rise at the crack of dawn from a warm bed and change in the chilly morning air and, in front of the assembled sisters and the priest, mouth the tongue-twisting Latin of the Mass without stuttering. But reward was in store. After Mass I was taken to the kitchen by the cook-sister, the only kind and smiling sister I recall, and given a steaming mug of extra-sweet tea and a huge slice of bread and dripping. It almost made everything else worthwhile.

The winter of 1940-1 seems to have been exceptionally severe, with snowfalls from January to April. In January, snow was two feet deep and the huts alongside the castle couldn’t be used for teaching. Two of the lay women didn’t arrive for work. I slept near a window in the dormitory (a large room in the front of the castle) and woke up one morning to find snow on my bed. A bread van was stuck in the snow on the private drive and the boys helped to dig it out. One boy fell in a drift with a basket of eight loaves on top of him.

At Easter 1941, Mother took a room for a week at Mrs Connupp’s, Pound House Farm, Yarpole, not far from the Castle, and I went to join her. It was the first time we had been alone together for so long. On lengthy walks to Birch Common, the Roman Camp and the forest where ‘we got a bit lost’, we exchanged all sorts of confidences. It was a wonderfully happy week. The weather was fine and spring flowers, primroses in particular, were blossoming everywhere. I felt very adult and privileged as Mother poured out her heart to me, revealing her worries about air-raids, Dad’s daily journeys to London and his safety at work and about Patrick attending a school bang in the centre of the flight-path of German bombers. In return I told her of my loneliness, my problems with the Sisters and schoolmates, and all my trivial hopes and fears. We learned to confide in each other, something that continued for the rest of her life.

The last term was the happiest. The countryside burgeoned and the weather was often halcyon. I was over my homesickness and beginning to enjoy life, in particular the games of cricket and the beauty of the castle park, the magnificent trees and lawns. When the time came to leave and return to London I was quite regretful. Nevertheless the worst of the Blitz was over, my parents wanted me back and I knew that John Fisher was a far better school. In any case, boys could not stay beyond the age of twelve at St. Elizabeth’s.

One night in 1941, after my return to London, I slept in the Morrison shelter with my cousin Anthony, three years younger and also quiet and shy. He was on holiday from his prep school at Hereford and poured out his home-sickness to me. His distress, combined with my experience at Croft, turned me completely against education in boarding schools.

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