On Shoreham Hills
On Shoreham Hills,
I sat a thousand years,
And watched the seasons change
Like fields, from green, to brown, to white.
And on those hills,
I saw the Norse arrive and change the way of things,
Our lives belonged to others now.
On Shoreham Hills,
I watched as paths were walked a
Hundred million times, which turned to
Roads, and streets and lanes,
The poor, the plagued were taken in
And healed and fed, and given up
To God’s own grace.
On Shoreham Hills,
I saw the wooden structures changed to stone
And homes were built to hold those hearts
That felt this secret valley
Theirs to keep.
I sat beside, as William Blake did spy Jerusalem
Among the waters of the Darent streams,
Forever caught by Samuel Palmer’s paints.
Then one fine day, the smoke appeared of rail and train
And in our hearts, we knew those hills were not for only us.
I lifted eyes to watch the Zeppelin raids on London Town,
Replaced by Messerschmitt and Spitfire trails.
The buildings rose, as did the streets
Our village grew to meet the age.
I sat on Shoreham Hills, a thousand years
To watch it comfort and console,
And as I watched the sun arise,
I hoped to sit a thousand more
One Weekend In Shoreham, November 1939
He looked at the little calendar which his young sister, Emily had made at school. She had written the 9, of 39 backwards at the top of the sheet. She hadn’t even spelled September correctly – but against the day of September 2nd was a reminder that her big brother, Robbie was in the final night of the play at the village hall.
He had hated the whole process at first, having to stand up in front of folks and say things. Learning the lines was even worse, and it wasn’t just Robbie who forgot them. When someone else dried up, the rest of them tended to make it up as they went along – although he did remember his father in Midsummer Night’s Dream saying the word ‘spiffing’ which he was sure Shakespeare hadn’t written.
And now it was the final night of whatever play it was that he was in. He’d fancied himself as the dashing male lead but that part had gone to Archie Conway, just like all the girls – Archie could have his pick of any of them.
Robbie had thought that maybe standing up in the village hall would have made him a bit more noticeable to the female population but, so far, it hadn’t happened. He was going to be 18 next week and he couldn’t wait. His father and he were going to go to a football game and then maybe have a beer.
Robbie got really nervous just before he was due to go on stage – not that he had that many lines to say, but he was on the stage a lot of the time. If he grew bored, he would just look out at the audience and last night he had seen the vicar sleeping on the front row. On Thursday night he had seen Tommy and his girlfriend kissing in the back row, until Tommy’s mother slapped him on the back of the head. Robbie let out a little laugh which didn’t really fit in with the play but no one was really paying that much attention anyway. Well not except Archie’s family and all the young girls in the audience who seemed to Robbie, to be swooning every time Archie said something.
Some folks get life too easy, thought Robbie. Just then he noticed everyone looking at him and realised it was his line. What was it again? Was this the long speech or the short one?
He decided it was the short one and said, ‘sure thing, Elsie’.
The rest of the cast looked pleased and carried on, so he must have got the right part of the play. Although on the opening night he had said ‘sure thing, Elsie’ to Roderick who was playing an army Captain, which had caused a bit of a titter in the hall.
This acting life wasn’t that easy as far as Robbie was concerned, but he still had a passing fancy that he might become a matinée idol of the silver screen – assuming this war thing all died down.
It had been the talk all week with the cast – ‘what if we go to war with Germany’, ‘what if the Germans invade Kent’. Archie Conway blurted out loud that he’d just bang the Krauts on the nose and show them who’s boss. All the girls in the room started to swoon. Robbie stuck his fingers down his throat as if he was going to be sick, which caused a few of the men in the room to smile.
Like a family, this village was a wonderful, safe place to grow up. What would happen if the Germans turned up? Okay so everyone lived on top of everyone else, and that sometimes caused friction but didn’t that happen in all families? And that’s exactly what this village was, a family.
The final night of the play went extremely well. Robbie thought that maybe folks were having one last night of fun and forgetting their troubles before……well before whatever was going to happen. Robbie wasn’t exactly sure what.
They took their curtain call and the audience stood up and applauded (they hadn’t done that on the other nights). Robbie could see the vicar was there again but this time he wasn’t asleep.
As much as he had hated all this acting stuff, he was sure he was going to miss it all. Really that was why folks acted in these plays in village halls, it brought people together and allowed kids (like Archie) to show off and make people swoon.
Miss Trebor, who had directed and produced the play, clapped her hands for attention and reminded everyone that after church, they were to come to the hall and help clean up.
Robbie whistled all the way to the village hall on the Sunday. One girl, Jenny had asked him for his autograph after the performance. He couldn’t sleep that night thinking about it.
They all met in the hall at 11.00am the next morning,September 3rd, and Robbie was given the task of sweeping up. A short time later, Miss Trebor came rushing in and told everyone to hush as she switched on the radio. She informed everyone that it was the Prime Minister and we all had to listen:
“This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final Note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.
I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.”
Robbie looked over at Archie who was comforting his sobbing mother.
It was going to take more than a punch on the nose to fix this, thought Robbie.
The Shoreham Wild Ones
I suppose it all started on that wet Wednesday, at the cinema on St John’s Hill. Mavis had been walking up towards town when it had started to rain and had nothing to keep her head dry.
Mavis had never been into one of those racy films before, certainly not one with an X certificate but she liked the look of the star on the poster. He seemed strong and mean in his leather jacket: the film was called The Wild One and the star was someone called, Marlon Brando.
So Mavis gave up her money and sat with three other soaked people in the cinema hall. If Mavis was being honest, she would have to say that she was rather excited. Firstly, she’d never been to the cinema on her own, Bert always took her (God rest his soul), and he would certainly never have approved of a film called ‘The Wild One’. Still, what no one knew about her wouldn’t hurt them. Just to make sure, Mavis looked around certain that there were no friends up to the same shenanigans.
By the time the film had finished she felt all strange and put it down to the chocolate ice cream she had eaten. What she couldn’t get out of her mind was thought of her in a leather jacket on a motorcycle. These thoughts persisted all the way home on the bus.
When she got into her house, she drew the curtains – just in case anyone passing by could guess what she’d been up to. She turned Bert’s photo towards the wall as a precaution.
Mavis decided that night that she wasn’t going to her grave until she had ridden on a motorcycle, while wearing a leather jacket. The really tricky thing was to find out who had a bike. She knew there was one in the village but who?
Her next action came at the weekend. She had often seen bikers sitting drinking outside the George pub and so Mavis decided to sit with her orange drink and wait for one of them to stop by. Like all best laid plans, a biker and his girlfriend had just stopped at the pub when Mrs Lightfoot came over to ask Mavis if she would help her arrange the flowers in the church. Of course Mavis couldn’t refuse and say she’d rather not as she was waiting on a biker.
Plan B was to knit herself a jumper with the slogan ‘Hell’s Angels’ on the front. It took her several days and when she’d finished she felt quite giggly and had a small sherry to settle herself down.
Mavis found her grandfather’s old pushbike which had lain in the garden shed as long as she could remember. She went to the library and took out a book called ‘Bicycle Maintenance for Beginners’. It was ever so helpful and within a couple of days she had the old bicycle back on its feet again.
On her first excursion, she waited until it was dark then pulling on her jumper, she pushed he bike to the top of Church Street and proceeded to freewheel all the way down. All she was missing was Marlon Brando and she’d be good to go.
There was talk in the village shop of strange sounds in the night: ‘it sounded like a banshee,’ said one. Another was sure that there was a crazy biker riding through the village at night to scare the good folks. Mavis overheard one of these conversations and was about to tell all, when she thought of a better idea.
The following week it was her turn to hold the Village Knitting and Sewing Night at her home. It was also her turn to provide a pattern that the good folks of the knitting Bee could follow.
On that night – after she had plied them with more than the usual amount of sherry – she went into her bedroom and returned wearing her ‘Hell’s Angels’ jumper.
Mrs McLarttey nearly fell off her seat, but the rest of them seemed to like what she was wearing. Perhaps they would feel different in the morning when the sherry wasn’t controlling their thoughts as much. Yet, one by one, she talked them all around to knitting themselves the same jumper.
During the weeks that it took to complete the work, Mavis still freewheeled her bike down Station road, around into Church Street and over the bridge, all the time shouting ‘whee’ as she went. She couldn’t recall Marlon Brando shouting ‘whee’ but she was sure he would have been doing what Mavis was doing.
Each week she would tell a little more of her story about the Wild One and about her fixing up her Grandfather’s bike.
By the time the jumpers were ready, so were the ladies (and Mr Jasper). One quiet dark night they all pushed their bicycles up to the top of Station road, whipped on their ‘Hell’s Angels’ tops and ‘whee’d’ their way all down the road into the street and over the bridge.
Some of the biker ladies were present at the Parish Council Meeting when Mr Hotten brought up the complaint about the gangs that had recently started invading ‘our little quiet village’. He banged his fist on the table and said something must be done and quickly. Mr Hotten felt that a spell in the army might do the offenders the world of good.
Some of the gang shook their heads and then winked to each other.
They knew the truth and they weren’t going to tell.
The Year Of Smiling Again
The year after the war was one of the strangest in Alfred’s life. Even now, looking back through the years, he still got shivers running down his back when he thought of those days.
That was when summers stretched from one end of the year to the next, when holidays lasted a lifetime, when perfection was always in front of you and it was never questioned.
Ever since his father, Andrew, had gone off to war, Alfred would sit up at the Cross-on-the-Hill watching as far as the railway station. Knowing that one day his dad would come home to the family. Yet the war had been over for a long time and the only thing he understood was from the screwed up telegram that he had found in a corner: ‘missing in action’, it said. Only three little words but they had the power to change lives.
Alfred’s mother had been working for sometime at the Rising Sun. It was one of the more popular public houses in the village and it had proved popular with the soldiers billeted in Shoreham during the war. She was happy in that place and she worked hard, scrubbing, cleaning and keeping her thoughts under control. There was the odd tear in the cellar when no one was looking but compared with some of the other families in the village, hers was a lighter burden. She had her boy, Alfred, who had been a Godsend. He was just like his father, strong and sensible. He had taken on the mantle of man-of-the-house and it fitted him well. Yet she knew Alfred had his sad times too, and she would often see him sitting up at the Cross just as the sun was going down.
Some days, he waited at the railway station watching everyone and anyone who got off the trains, and on those days when he returned home, he would say nothing, go to his room and then she could hear him sobbing. It broke her heart, every time.
On the odd occasion, Greta, Alfred’s mother, would be asked to help out at the Rising Sun in the evenings; perhaps for a celebration of a new life, or for a remembrance of a life well lived. On those nights she would take Alfred with her and he would settle in the back room with a good book and a nice cool lemonade. Alfred was a curious boy and would peek through the keyhole at the Rising Sun’s customers. He would watch some of them change from sad to happy and others would go in the opposite direction, he wasn’t sure what part beer had to play in all of this but he found it all exciting. His father liked to drink beer and he wondered if it made him happy or sad.
There was one particular customer – Jazz, as everyone called him but Alfred doubted if that was his real name. He was a large Canadian who had come for the War and had stayed. He rented the large cottage on Church Street and it was his plan to marry Agnes, a young English girl who worked in a shop in London and who had stolen Jazz’ heart.
Opposite the Rising Sun was the clearest of little rivers and across it was a bridge where Alfred liked to sit and watch the fish, while waiting on his mother finish her shift at the pub. On their way home, Alfred would run into the Kings Arms and collect a pie or some cheese from Rita, Greta’s pal. Rita had lost her husband in France.
And in their stories lies the truth of villages. For most of the time – in peacetime that is – villages can be claustrophobic and full of busy bodies who should mind their own business, thank you very much. But in the dark days when a helping hand or a kind work is very much-needed, it is in those days that the strength and purpose of a little village can be found. Rita and Greta, inseparable since their days at Shoreham Primary School, helped and gave each other strength (and pie when it was called for).
One afternoon, instead of sitting on the bridge and because of the increasing heat of the day, Alfred sat down by the river and cooled himself on the breeze that was blowing between the bridge arches.
“You Alfie?” Came this booming voice.
To Alfred’s ear, which was now tuned to accents after the number of soldiers who had passed through Shoreham, he knew it was Canadian rather than American. Standing all 6 feet 4 inches above him was Jazz and Agnes, his English sweet heart.
“You’re Greta’s kid, ain’t cha?”
Alfred was taken back at first, no one had called him kid before and it felt good. People only talked like this in films.
“Alfred,” said the boy who stood to shake hands with Jazz.
“Well would cha look at that, you have manners boy.” And with that handshake, Jazz and Alfred (or Alfie as he was known after that) became the firmest of friends.
It warmed Greta’s heart when she looked out of the Rising Sun window to see her son sitting on the bridge and fishing with his Canadian pal. Something good was happening to him. He had stopped visiting the railway station so often and on some wonderful sun-filled mornings, she found her son smiling. It had been so long, too long, since he’d done so.
Even Rita had found a skip in her step. She was walking out with a teacher from Bromley. She felt guilty at times, considering she was a war widow, but as Greta had told her, it had been six years since James had died and she needed to smile again, too.
One autumn afternoon when Jazz and Alfie were looking for rabbits up in the woods above the village, Jazz said he needed to have a sit as he wasn’t young anymore. He seemed old to Alfie in those days but looking back he was probably only in his early thirties.
“You, Alfie are the luckiest kid alive,” said the big booming Canadian voice. “You have the sweetest mama, you live in the prettiest village I have ever seen and there is everything a kid could want here in order to grow up happy. I know you ain’t seen your Pa for the longest of times, but you keep the faith and the world will turn from good to perfect.”
Then Jazz reached into his pocket and pulled out a Canadian coin. He flipped it in the air and caught it on the back of his hand.
“Now I ain’t sure if it is ‘heads’ or ‘tails’ but I want you to call it, and if the universe wants you to have the coin you’ll call it right.”
“Heads,” said Alfie and ‘heads’ it was which meant that Jazz handed over the coin to his friend.
“It’ll give you one wish,” said Jazz with a huge grin on his face. “At least, it worked for me,” then he winked at Alfie.
“See Alfie, my Grandmother back in Canada, gave me that coin, and she told me the same story. I didn’t believe her at first, but she swore to me it was true. She said it would keep me safe in the War and it did funnily enough ‘cause I found a way to get two wishes out of it. I squeezed the coin in my palm and I said that I wanted to find the love of my life after the fighting was over. That meant I had to stay safe and get to meet the sweetest girl in the whole world.”
Then Jazz let rip with the biggest and happiest of laughs as the two of them made their way off the hills with rabbits slung over their shoulders.
Alfie thought long and hard about his wish. The basic one was easy, he wanted his Dad home and back with the family, but what if he wanted to try for two wishes, just like Jazz. What if he wished that as a family they all went on holiday together, then he’d get everyone back and get a holiday.
So early one morning he went up on to the hill next to the Cross and squeezed the coin in the palm of his hand and wished that he and his family would go on holiday.
Then Alfie waited and waited a little more.
It was the Spring of 1947 and nothing had been heard of his Alfie’s father and they were no nearer to going on holiday. So one day in passing over the bridge going to meet his mother, he threw the coin into the river and with it his childhood.
By 1948, Greta had started to talk to a racing driver from Brands Hatch who used to stop by at the Rising Sun. She served, from time to time when it started to get busy. His name was Jack and he drove for a team. Within six months Greta and Jack were married and although Alfie was pleased for his mother, he never gave up on seeing his father again. Jazz moved back to Canada with his new wife and his parting shot was asking Alfie if he still had the coin. Alfie nodded, but felt guilty at lying.
“And when you have kids, Alfie you can pass the coin on to them.”
Alfie’s life became more exciting and Jack would take the boy to Brands Hatch to sit in the racing cars. He decided that racing was probably the life for him too.
One day when he was sitting on the bridge waiting for his mother, he noticed a glint of sun reflecting off the bottom of the nearly dry river. When he investigated further he found it was the coin he’d thrown away. He stuck it in his sock and promised himself, he would never throw it away again.
A couple of weeks later, Jack, Greta and Alfie went on holiday to Jersey in the Channel Islands. It was the best holiday that Alfie could remember and he also remembered it for one other reason, it was on the second Saturday that he heard his mother laughing out loud, not just chuckling but laughing from the bottom of her heart.
Life didn’t always work out the way you wished but sometimes it worked out the way you needed.
As old Alf sits in the back garden thinking back over the years when he was a boy in Shoreham, he smiles.
They are all gone now but he did get to see his father’s grave, it was located in late 1965.
Sometimes when you are in the middle of things they don’t make sense until much later. Alf looks over at his grandchildren playing in the garden.
“Robbie,” as Alfie calls the eldest over.
“Have you still got that coin your daddy gave you, the one I gave him?”
“I do, Grandad.”
“Have you made your wish yet?”
“Not yet, Grandad.”
“Did I ever tell you about a man called Jazz who said you could get two wishes from it….”
Aunt Gertie’s Lost Shoreham Diary
To be honest I’d never actually heard of Gertrude Swansway. She was one of those ‘larger-than-life’ characters and to the locals in Shoreham at the end of the 19th century, she was simply known as ‘Aunt Gertie’.
When ever you needed anything organised, arranged or distributed, Aunt Gertie was your lady. The reason that so much is remembered about her life is the fact that she left so many diaries.
However there had always been one journal missing, that of the year 1901. This question was answered when the diary turned up several weeks ago under the floorboards of one of the large houses down by the river, currently being renovated. In Gertrude’s journal of 1901 was recorded the funeral of Queen Victoria and the opening of the new Co-operative shop on Shoreham High Street. So why did she hide the journal?
Contained within the pages were scribblings to suggest that Aunt Gertie had been a paramour of the new King of England.
We’ll leave those stories for another time and get to the part that is pertinent to this evening. 2009 is the 85th anniversary of the Shoreham Village Players, although this wasn’t the first drama society formed in the village – in her journal, Aunt Gertie discussed how she, along with Minty Minton and Sasha Dogoody in July 1901 formed the Shoreham Strolling Troubadours.
Minty had mentioned at their inaugural meeting that “Something should be done to cheer the ballyhoo village up” “Weren’t we now in the modern age, the Edwardian age” at which point Aunt Gertie blushed. “I suggest we put on a ballyhoo show” said Minty. Sasha Dogoody said “As long it does not involve that dwedfull Oscar Wilde”. Minty felt that was rather a shame but Aunt Gertie insisted we should not mention that horrible man’s name again. Then Minty came up with a corker – “why don’t we put on Three Men In A Boat?” Shasha Dogoody said “You mean dat rawwer spiffing little story by Jerome K Jerome?” “Exactimondo”, said Minty and “I know the very ballyhoo place to stage it”.
And that, dear friends, is why the first ever recorded drama production in Shoreham was actually held on the river.
Minty had taken charge from the word go. “I see myself as J, said Minty, “you Gertie can be George and Sasha shall be Harris. Mrs Trafalgar’s pooch can play Montmorency. So it’s all settled”….and apparently it was.
“I see the whole thing taking place upon a little boat in the middle of the Darent river” said Minty getting ever so excited. ”We shall tie the boat to the bridge and the audience will bring hampers and sit by the river”. Gertie was to write the ballyhoo play and Sasha could stitch together some marvellous costumes.
The rehearsals went ever so well, although Minty suggested holding them after dark “to maintain secrecy”. Therefore there was many an inhabitant of the village that made their way home from the nearby hostelry believing that they could hear supernatural voices. One such man, Ebaneezer Twislewaite was so frightened by the experience that he took an oath never to drink again – at least until the day he got hit by a runaway horse and sadly expired.
As far as the three of them could judge – in the dark, that is – the rehearsals had gone exceedingly well.
Then came the big day, ”the grande journee” said Minty in his rather over excited manner. Many of the great and good were sitting in anticipation on either banks of the river. Hampers were opened and oodles of food consumed.
However dear friends, I have to mention at this juncture – that the evening prior, when the three were having their dress rehearsal in the dark – it had rained very heavy, very heavy indeed.
To say that the river was torrential on the day of the performance was to rather underestimate it.
It was just as Aunt Gertie was shouting (very deep voice) “Montmorency, Montmorency where are you?” that the tiny boat began to slip it’s mooring – that is to say, from being tied to the bridge. No one noticed at first and as the boat edged down the river a little, the picnickers just moved their derrières a few inches further along the bank.
However when the boat finally did break loose , it was actually very noticeable since Sasha Dogoody somehow managed to remain tied to the bridge and went flying off the back of the boat – just as Aunt Gertie and Minty started on a rather fateful voyage down stream.
The last they heard of Sasha was as she shouted “be bwave fellow thespians, be bwave”.
Minty shouted to Gertie “.. I do believe that you should also play the part of Harris, Gertie”
(Deep voice) “Why should I?” “Because I don’t know the ballyhoo part, that’s why” screamed a panicky Minty.
It was also obvious to those ashore that the audience had now broken into a trot, and then a run, attempting to follow the boat down stream.
“Gertrude, please speak up and please try to make the voices of George sound different from that of Harris”
Aunt Gertie got ever so cross and warned Minty (deep voice) “I may be a lady but one more derogatory word about my acting and by God I’ll give you a sound thrashing within an inch of your life”.
Monty had never heard Auntie Gertie talk like that and to say Monty was stunned was an understatement – that is, until he was actually stunned when the boat hit the second bridge. Unfortunately Monty was standing and took the full force, ending up face down in the river. Aunt Gertie had fallen backwards on to the deck and so avoided hitting any large objects.
Nothing could cool Gertie’s temper however, and when Police Constable Wikenshaw of Otford constabulary tried to help her to her feet – his face appeared to stop Aunt Gertie’s fist.
That evening Minty was taken to a hospital in Bromley, Aunt Gertie cooled her heels in Sevenoaks’ jail and everyone forgot about Sasha Dogoody who literally hung about the bridge for several hours afterwards.
The following week, the Shoreham Strolling Troubadours was officially closed down by a vote of 3 votes to nil.
Minty suggested they never speak of it again.
And that dear friends is the real beginning to the Shoreham Village Players.
Tommy And I Cycle To Shoreham Village
Whenever Tommy was excited or stressed, which to be honest was most days, he’d put the word ‘chuffing’ in front of everything. For instance, today was going to be a blooming chuffing day with loads of chuffing hills to cycle up and when we got to the ballyhoo top well we’d chuffing have a pick nick.
You see what I mean?
Tommy was a good egg, a decent sort who would lift a finger to help anyone, a talented tennis player, cyclist and a very good footballer. On the other side, he was a frightful drunk, which thank goodness had only been that once, he was extremely competitive – he would bet you a farthing on who would blink first and he was useless with money. Apart from that he was the kind of gent you would be proud to call a friend.
So come Saturday morning, Tommy and I would be on our chuffing bicycles, out of the chuffing city and heading for the chuffing countryside (I promise to limit the use of chuffing in future) and this Saturday was no exception.
Tommy knocked at my door at 5.30 (in the morning may I say – I didn’t even know there was a 5.30 in the morning, if truth be told) “Get up, you chuffing wastrel” was the morning cry of the Tommesara Smitheratist bird and it tended to waken everyone else up as well.
“Will you please tell that very stupid friend of yours that it is far too early in the morning for his buffoonery” said my rather grumpy father without opening his eyes (apparently it helped him get back to sleep quicker). Like Tommy, my father tended to hook in a word and then beat it to death with its overuse. ‘Buffoon’ and ‘buffoonery’ were both in the process of getting six shades of purple knocked out of them. Luckily he hadn’t heard Tommy’s current obsession or that would have resulted in me having to leave home and declaring myself an orphan.
“Apologies Holmes but we have the whole of the south east to explore and time is chuffing moving on.”
Every since he’d read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I had received that name. It was better just to smile and accept my fate because he might come up with something far, far worse. On our cycling trips Tommy wanted to be known as Moriarty because he said the name felt good on his tongue. I know what you’re thinking, Tommy wasn’t the most intelligent of my friends.
By six o’clock in the morning we were happily cycling over the Thames and heading down the Old Kent road where the world was waiting to entertain Holmes and Moriarty.
“First stop, chuffing breakers” said my pal.
For those that don’t speak Tommyese, that meant breakfast must be had with all haste.
Toast, crumpets and coffee were the order of the day at Mrs O’Reilly’s tea room in Lewisham, a bargain at one shilling. Mrs O’Reilly had long since departed this life and gone to the big tea room in the sky. The place was actually run by a man with the name of Derek.
“’Mrs O’Reilly’s’ sounds that bit more romantic” said a very tattooed Derek. “People knows what to expect, with that name, but Derek’s Cafe, well it just don’t sound right, do it?”
Both I and Tommy left the premises agreeing that Derek was correct in what he had said but that we should avoid the place in future as Derek seemed to be two seagulls short of an aviary.
Although it had been five months, Tommy still insisted that he wear a black band on his right arm as a mark of respect for the old Queen. I told him that this was a new and exciting time, that this was a new century , this was 1901, after all, and goodness knows what the next hundred years would bring.
Tommy felt that the new century could chuffing well wait until his mourning was chuffing done. I know I promised to keep the use of ‘chuffing’ to a minimum but it seems impossible when in the company of Tommy Smithers, I will try harder – I promise.
Just as we left Bromley, Tommy declared that the countryside had properly started and although I tried very hard to see it, I was at a loss to notice the difference. Still Tommy knows what he’s talking about or so he tells me.
After a mile or so I hinted that perhaps an ale might be the order of the day. Tommy stopped so fast that I almost ran into the back of him.
“I have a plan” he said (actually he said ‘a chuffing plan’ but I thought I would spare you that nonsense).
“And your plan is what, Tommy?” that was my contribution to the discussion.
“I know of a little village in the Darenth Valley where the ale is like nectar.” Tommy was tasting the ale in his mind’s eye.
“Why haven’t you told me of this place before?” I ask.
“Because my dear friend, it is not a place for the unwary.”
“Why is that Tommy?” I ask.
“Because my fine fellow, it is a hot bed of liberalism and creativity. People have really let things slide in this village. There are some women who are so close to looking like men, that one might wish them ‘a good morning sir’ without realising.”
“Well I never.” I declared.
“Worse still..” Tommy looks around before whispering “..there are men in this village who do not like the company of women. There I’ve said the chuffing thing. It’s too late but it’s out in the big world for all to know.”
“Don’t like the company of women?” I think I may have look perplexed.
“Really, you know what I mean, stop being a chuffing idiot. They don’t like women.”
So I had to have my say and I mentioned “I don’t know any men who don’t like women apart from Father who hasn’t spoken to Mother since she tried to fry the porridge. That must be eleven years ago, now.”
“Your mother tried to fry porridge?” says Tommy.
“She did, and Father said that any woman who was stupid enough to try to fry porridge shouldn’t expect any conversation to be thrown her way in future and that was that. He never said a bally word to her again. He said she was an imbecile, a harsh word I grant you, but I think that was his word of the week at that particular time.”
I expected Tommy to be impressed with this story but instead he said that I should stop talking chuffing rot and stop acting like an imbecile.
That is why, by the time we got to the little village, Tommy had dropped the word ‘chuffing’ in favour of the word ‘imbecile’. Why hadn’t I said that my father had called my mother ‘lovable’ or had given her money to shut her up? Maybe then Tommy would have done the same.
“Hey, ho, oft we go” shouted Tommy, adding “you imbecile.”
I do rather make things difficult for myself when I don’t bally mean to.
The village clock was striking one o’clock as we freewheeled our way down the hill into the centre of this dastardly liberal little village. I had to be honest with Tommy and tell him that I thought the people looked jolly normal.
“Nonsense, you imbecile” was his reply.
We parked up outside a delightful little public house called The Crown. The door was at an angle to the building and led into a small bar for gentlemen.
“Just in case this pub is over run by liberals let me do the talking” said reliable Tommy, “just to be on the safe side.”
Now to me, the person serving behind the bar was clearly a man but Tommy insisted on calling him ‘Mam’ then winking to me in a very obvious manner followed by him touching the side of his nose with his finger.
“I didn’t want to drink in the place anyway” said a rather surprised Tommy, “the establishment looked totally unsavoury. We are well shot of it.”At least the barman only asked me to leave whereas he caught Tommy by the collar and threw him out of the door.
Tommy said that he was right about the place all along, it was a den of liberal-minded imbeciles and he would be writing to his Member of Parliament just as soon as he returned from the country.
We tried to gain access at the next pub, the Two Brewers but apparently Tommy had been there before and was no longer welcome. I didn’t realise that you could use so many cursing words in one sentence but the manager of The Two Brewers must have broken a record.
“Another den of imbeciles?” I asked.
That is why we came to be sitting outside the Kings Arms drinking two of the most wonderful glasses of ale. Apparently this was not a den of imbeciles and the prices were exceedingly fair.
Having slaked our thirst we mounted our trusted bicycles and headed towards the large town which sat at the top of the hill, above the village.
About one-third of the way up the hill, Tommy suggested that we dismount and push our bicycles up the rest of the way. Apparently it didn’t do the bicycles much good to be treated to a hill in the manner we were riding them. To be honest I thought maybe Tommy found the hill a little too steep but in fear of being called an imbecile, I refrained.
The climb was worth the effort and the view over the North Downs was spell binding.
Why people steal bicycles is beyond me, and two of them at the same time. You have to ask yourself – was the thief a member of some circus troupe? However the dastardly deed was done and it meant that cycling back to London was now out of the question. A train was called for and a train it would be.
Tommy suggested that we travel back by First Class and that I should foot the bill seeing as I was the last one to see the bally bicycles. I actually think the last time I saw them, I said “Tommy, do you think the bicycles are safe by that public house? ” Whereupon Tommy called me an imbecile and told me in no uncertain terms that if I was worried about people stealing our property, well that sort of thing just didn’t happen in the countryside. Then he said “Grow up man.” The next time I looked the bicycles were gone.
In the railway carriage, on the way back to the city, a rather plump man and his rather plump wife were playing cards. The husband seemed to have won a round as he let out the most frightening cry of ‘Ballyhoo’.
I could see the glimmer in Tommy’s eyes as he tried the word ‘Ballyhoo’ out on his tongue.
The word was not found wanting.
A Shoreham Rose
Perhaps I should start way back at the beginning.
The first time I laid eyes on Sally – Ludlow as she was called then – she had a permanent band-aid on a pair of National Health spectacles. She was nothing special, at least not to me, she was just one of those children who run through the streets of Shoreham on any given sunny evening. Kent, back then, was a different place than it is today. It was a gentler, kinder time and in the years after the war, there was still rationing but with that came a feeling that we had to look after one and other.
Sally and her family lived on the High Street and we lived on a small farm on the back road. On those summer evenings the kids used to meet up by the Cross on the hill. The Cross had been cut out of the chalk hills in the years after the Great War to remember those who had given their lives and by a strange irony it had to be covered up during World War 2 as the enemy bombers used it as a landmark.
That night, the night it happened – we both must have been about fifteen back then – I was sitting on the hill overlooking the village and I knew that when the lantern came on outside the Rising Sun pub, it was time for me to head over the hill and back to the farm.
I loved this view and even on a warm evening there would still be smoke rising from the chimneys and leaving a ghostly drift across the valley.The smell of the grass and the fields and the fires was like nowhere else on earth.
“Is it okay, if I sit?”
And there she was, Sally standing over me as she pushed those spectacles back up her nose, they always seemed to be trying to escape her face.
“Sure” I said to the funny little girl wearing the funny little glasses.
“I always see you sitting up here from my bedroom window.”
“It’s the best place in the world to sit”, I said.
“My father doesn’t like me watching you.”
“Why?” I knew I was going to regret asking this.
“He says you’re a weird one, always on your own.”
“And you, what do you think?” I asked.
“Oh I don’t think you’re weird, I love you.”
And that was that. That was the night, the first time ever, a person, other than my grandmother, told me that they loved me.
The rest of the summer we were inseparable and even her father got to like me. When I wasn’t working on our farm, I was over at Sally’s and some days she would come and help at our place.
The night before we were due to go back to school, she made a small ring from the grass on the hill and asked me to propose to her.
“Sally Ludlow will you marry me?”
She said ‘yes’.
“And you can’t ever get out of it, James. Till death us do part.”
So at fifteen years of age Sally and me were engaged to be married. Sally said we should start saving right away so that way we could have a big wedding and invite all the family. She reckoned we’d be really old by the time we could afford it.
“Maybe nineteen or twenty.” That seemed such a long way away.
Every penny I earned went into our secret wedding box and it lay side by side with Sally’s contributions. Of course we were going to get married in St. Peter and St.Paul’s, the local church.
Then Sally moved to High Wycombe, it seemed her grandmother was poorly and her family wanted to live with her.
“It’ll only be a few weeks”, she said.
But it wasn’t, it was almost a year. I met Sally in London on two occasions but as we were saving our money, we decided to write to each other instead.
To start with we wrote every day but eventually it was one small note, once a week. I almost gave up and thought she was never coming back.
Then I got called up for National Service and I was shipped out to Aden. Before I left, I heard that Sally’s father was coming back to Shoreham to work in the butcher shop at the corner of Crown Road and that Sally and her mother would follow on.
Her father rented a room above the butcher’s while he waited on his family but since his mother-in-law was in a state of decline, his wife and daughter stayed on in High Wycombe.
I came back home twice but there wasn’t any time to travel to see Sally as I was needed on the farm.
By the time that Sally and me were in Shoreham she turned up accompanied by her boyfriend, Andrew. Apparently he was studying to be a doctor and his family were something in High Wycombe, least ways that’s what her mother told me. I don’t think she meant anything by it.
Sally and her parents moved temporarily into the Station Master’s house at Shoreham as the wife of the house and Sally’s mother were the best of friends.Every time I called at the station I was told that Sally was out but I’m sure I saw the curtains twitch in a room upstairs. I wrote to her a couple of times but never got any reply.
That year my family decided to send me off to Agricultural college in deepest Sussex and this allowed me to return from time to time to work on the farm. I had a few girlfriends while I was studying but none of them was ever Sally, she was always on my thoughts one way or another. Then one day I ran into Sally’s mother who told me that her daughter had married and moved to High Wycombe.
That’s one of those moments in your life when you feel as if everything inside you has been ripped out and yet you still manage to function – I continued to speak to her mother without missing a beat.
I threw myself into working on the farm and from time to time I got involved in the Village Players: a drama group which helped me take my mind off of Sally.
Once a week I would meet up with pals in The Royal Oak, the best of all pubs in Shoreham and really that was my life for the next ten years.
It was at a wedding in the new golf club that our paths crossed again. Sally hadn’t aged in all those years, she was still as beautiful as ever but there was a sadness on her face.
“Hi” was all she said and how long had I waited on that?
She had nursed her husband for the last three years and he’d died just before Christmas. This was a grown up Sally I was talking to. She was only back for a weekend to remind herself how beautiful Shoreham was as a village. She had begun to think she’d only dreamt the place up.
I told her that the next time she was in the village she could stay on our farm. She said thanks, and told me she’d think about it but she had to get back to her family. She had an eight year old daughter and a five-year old son and she had to work out what her future was going to hold.
Then the following summer she came for a weekend with the kids to stay on the farm and that was the happiest I had been in years. She too, looked less sad.
What can I tell you?
We married the following the year and we set up house in one of the farm cottages.
We had one further child between us, Simon and the five of us had the best of times. Sure we struggled but I was with Sally and my family and anything was possible.
The older boy, James and the girl, Sue moved into London and both had families of their own. Simon settled down and took over the farm, letting me and Sally travel for the first time. We even drove across the States.
Sally left me in her 65th year – she had been ill for several months and her leaving took my heart. Sure the kids and the grandchildren visited the farm but once again I spent my days missing Sally.
When I felt strong enough to clear out her clothes, I found a small box in the back of the wardrobe and in it was the small ring made from grass. She’d kept it all those years.
When the time comes I’m going to be buried in the church next to Sally.
It’ll just be me and her again.
The Great Chaos of Sh*****m Village
– names have been changed to protect the guilty (and innocent).
That summer, that glorious glorious summer, sat on the shoulder hills of the little village and warmed the hearts of its inhabitants.
The heat had slowed everything and everyone down to a more comfortable life, more in tune with that of the eighteenth century than today’s horrors. This suited perfectly Miss Sligerhorn, the village spinster – a role, by the way, that she had been born to play. No harsh word would leave her mouth regarding the heat wave, not for her the fast and furious lifestyles of some of her more racy neighbours; no, Miss Sligerhorn was definitely in her comfort zone.
Each morning at precisely 5.52am the Colonel, a strange fruit indeed, would cross Miss Sligerhorn’s path and they would greet each other in a polite and courteous manner. Yet an outsider would probably sense an underlying hostility to the proceedings. There had been talk, and I emphasise that it was only talk, that Miss Sligerhorn had been left at the altar by the Colonel; a most distressing state of affairs.
Every day, pleasantries met, exchanged and forgotten, Miss Sligerhorn would continue on her way to the cake shop which she had inherited from her mother. A mother who deserves a story unto herself but we will put that excitement aside for another time when the days are shorter and we can rest by a large fire.
Miss Sligerhorn was the gentlest of all creatures and considered most men to be brutes. The Colonel, on the other hand, was a brute and considered most women to be useless.
They lived in the little village of Wetherby-by-Soot which had one pub, where the men would congregate and quaff ales, and Miss Sligerhorn’s cake shop, where the women would meet to discuss in great detail the men that they had unfortunately married. All of them had entered matrimony with careless haste and all of them were now regretting their actions at leisure. This had been the way of things since the dawn of time but things, as we shall see, were about to change.
In London Town life was increasingly fraught and was made all the worse by the heightened temperatures. It would be a truth to say that living and working in the city was far from a pleasant experience.
Especially for the great and good who ran the country.
For several years now there had been an increasing criticism of the politicians who controlled the purse strings, who made the laws and fiddled the expenses. Greed was the order of the day and such were the financial cutbacks that if one were to be a politician nowadays it would have to be for the love of the job rather than the benefits.
In the current dog days love was a very rare thing, a very rare thing indeed. So one bright Friday afternoon the Prime Minster and the rest of the blameless walked out of Parliament and closed the store, as they say. They shut up shop and refused to return until the people of the land came to their senses and saw what a spectacular job they all had been doing – which was never going to happen, if we’re being honest.
So there we have the situation, a Mexican standoff where neither party is going to back down causing the world around them to begin sinking into the mire.
Some of the local authorities attempted to collect rubbish, clean the streets and keep the services rattling on even as the money ran out.
“Look chaps, we’re looking for volunteers this weekend to clean the sewerage system. So if you could raise your hands to show interest that would be truly marvellous; what, no one, no one at all?”
So not only did the heat wave cause the country to revert to eighteenth century travel, the simmering politics caused the villages and towns to close in on themselves and each little hamlet became judge, jury and council for all of its inhabitants.
Wetherby-by-Soot was no exception but I guess you knew that. If it had been possible to build a castle keep around this village then they would have done so, but time and money constraints put paid to that idea.
The good folks of Wetherby didn’t want the scoundrels from Axton-under-Soot, the neighbouring village, to come looking for those things that were in short supply in Axton. This was a time for fortitude, for kindness, for mercy, for every village looking after itself and to hang with the rest.
Wetherby-by-Soot had two streets: Church Street and High Street. They were laid out in a letter ‘T’, meaning there were three entrances to and from the little haven that had to be manned and guarded. The fact that anyone could freely drive through the lanes that crisscrossed the fields did not appear to come into the equation. Defence was more a matter of visibility than practicality, it was a Maginot line populated by Miss Marples and Colonel Blimps.
The kids of the village ignored the gates as if they didn’t exist and when the ‘Gate Controller’ (the Colonel’s idea) asked ‘Who goes there?’ – the kids would just stare at the questioner, utter ‘like, whatever’ and walk on.
This whole indiscipline issue was beginning to annoy the Colonel, so much so, that he’d teamed up with Roger Hartness – agreed by all, to be the angriest man in the village. Roger was known to shout at cats that’d peed anywhere other than their own gardens. He had photographs in his study of which animals belonged to which property. Roger was married which came as a shock to most people when they first found out. His wife, Tina, was the gentlest soul in the universe, perhaps she had to be – two angry people in the one house would have been difficult to maintain.
“Curfew!” that was Roger’s summation of the problem. “The oldies are always in bed relatively early, so the only folks to be upset with the curfew would be the youngsters. I propose a village wide curfew of say, 9pm.”
To enforce the curfew Roger and ‘friends’ would patrol the streets after that time and ‘encourage’ the stragglers to get home as quickly as possible. Naturally there would be shift workers, but as long as they registered with Ground Control (Roger’s idea that one) things would go smoothly or ‘tickety boo’ as Roger liked to say.
Now this is where things get a little sticky – the Colonel, Roger and ‘friends’ controlled the south gate, at the bottom of Church Street. Miss Sligerhorn and her posse controlled the High Street and the two exits involved with that road. Since the Colonel suggested a curfew and patrol then you can bet your sweet bippies that Miss Sligerhorn went out of her way to avoid such an action.
There was a de-militarized zone at the junction of the High Street and Church Street which had to be crossed frequently by the drinkers of the former due to the fact that the Pub was in Church Street and therefore under the jurisdiction of the Colonel.The cake shop and tea rooms, on the other hand, sat on the High Street and were under the patronage of Team Sligerhorn.
A meeting had to be set up between the parties and the Village Hall was proposed. However it was found to be situated too deep into the Sligerhorn camp to be considered a neutral venue.
Outside the village, and on the main city road, stood a burger van which sold coffee, burgers and onions with fries at very reasonable prices (their slogan). So this was to be the setting for the summit.
Miss Sligerhorn and her followers turned up first and were heard to say ‘typical’ quite a few times under their breaths, even although they had just passed through the Colonel’s territory and saw that his team were still in the stages of getting ready. Thirty minutes later and all in red berets, the Colonel’s Church Street gang arrived.
Miss Sligerhorn had done much ‘tutting’ over the last half hour not just because of the lateness of the other lot but also because of the prices the burger van man was charging.
“We’re in the middle of the Great Chaos or hadn’t you heard Miss Prim and Proper” said the burger van owner with a hint of disgust.
“And that means you can charge what you like, does it?” asked an angry Miss Sligerhorn, who turned away from the van without waiting for an answer.
It didn’t stop the burger van man shouting after her “I’ve got overheads to consider. I’ve got to go and collect the burgers me self, thanks for asking” but she wasn’t asking, she was already drinking tea from a flask she had brought herself. She then turned to Irene, her Lieutenant, and issued a statement “Irene, fifteen pence on all our buns. Make a note of it, if you please.” Irene scribbled the message with a large butcher’s pencil and her tongue hanging out.
“Fifteen pence on buns” said a self-satisfied Irene as she hit the note-book with the lead end of her big pencil.
“And twenty pence on fondant fancies” shouted Miss Sligerhorn causing Irene to bring out her large butcher’s pencil and tongue once again.
When the meeting began Miss Sligerhorn was the first to speak “We are not at war, Colonel” she said, suddenly realising there was a double meaning to her statement.
“So why the need for a curfew?” asked the lady who he may have jilted at the marriage altar (or not).
“Because we are in the midst of the Great Chaos” shouted the burger van owner who had obviously heard that phrase from one of the more down market newspapers.
The Colonel stood up to show off his very impressive 6 foot 4 inches of height and demanded a hush from the throng.
“Dear, dear lady I am not the power-hungry mad man who your people are putting about the cake shop, I am just a concerned citizen that worries about the youth of this nation, the youth of this country – after all these people are our future, our investment, as it were” and the Colonel started to hit his palm with his fist as if this was the culmination of a lifetime of struggle, until someone shouted “Sit down you old fart, you’re ruining my business” and as you may have guessed, it was the burger van man.
A vote was eventually taken and the Colonel’s people voted, not surprisingly, for a curfew and all the Sligerhorn gang voted against a curfew. Someone mentioned that the Sligerhorn part of the village was in the more posh area and that votes should count double over there but that lady was told to take a walk, by someone from the Colonel’s team who also said they would punch her on the nose if she didn’t shut up this minute.
So nothing was decided that day and the village grew, sadly, a little further apart as a result.
On the Church Street side were the village tennis courts, available for hire at subsidised rates. They were now no longer in use, that is, until the Colonel came up with an idea.
The courts had a wire mesh surrounding them up to a good height of 12 feet, this allowed the balls to avoid hitting the nice people of Wetherby-by-Soot. The fence would be hard to scale and that is why the by the following morning most of the curfew breakers who attempted to enter the village by the Church Street entrance were now being held prisoner in the tennis courts.
“We’ll hold them until they’ve learned their lesson” decreed the Colonel. Standing at each corner on step ladders were men holding buckets full of tennis balls. If any of the curfew breakers had dared to move, one of the men would throw a tennis ball to deter them. However being British and in charge of a tennis ball meant that not one curfew breaker ever got hit; a very sad but true fact.
The Colonel had attempted to curtail visiting times to deprive the youngsters of family support but it had a limited effect as the families just sat on the hill above the courts throwing chocolate bars and packets of crisps in to the ‘prison’.
By Saturday the whole of the youth of the village, including those that lived in High Street had been imprisoned. If we are really being honest most of the parents were enjoying the break. They knew where their kids were, that they were being looked after and couldn’t get into trouble.
“Let the Colonel sort them out. See how he likes it” was the common response and to be honest the Colonel was at his wit’s end.
He had attempted to keep the kids entertained by playing something called a ‘record player’ and music by people called ‘The Beatles’ – but none of the kids seemed that interested until he threatened to take away their phones and music players if they didn’t listen.
A child without a phone is a child ready to start a revolution.
The Colonel sent in his men with berets to take away the kid’s phones and pods. Apparently asking them to hand them over hadn’t been a huge success, so forced removal seemed the only option. The team was to be led by Angry Roger, who as it happens had found himself not to be as angry as the Colonel and was more of a slightly miffed Roger.
As soon as the team entered the compound (the Colonel’s description) they were surrounded, stripped naked and tied to the fences. Within fifteen minutes the kids had walked out of the tennis courts free as the day they were born and still in possession of their phones.
But they didn’t stop there, the Colonel was dragged outside his home and a rope tied around his ankles, then hung upside down from a lamppost. Even though he kept shouting that the blood was running to his head, no one paid the slightest bit of attention to him. In fact later in the day, the kids started to play a game where they used the upside down Colonel to play a kind of skittles. Large plastic bottles were stood on end and the Colonel was swung around to see how many he could knock down. Miss Sligerhorn and her team took on the village teenagers and did themselves proud by winning after a tie break.
The following Monday the ‘Great Chaos’ was over as the politicians had enough of sitting at home; the Government returned to making laws and fiddling expenses, Miss Sligerhorn had a re-launch of her cake shop but, like the burger van man, refused to reduce her prices to pre-Chaos levels, especially on those fondant fancies.
Without much ado, the world returned to where it had been before, that is in a much bigger mess but with people talking to each other.
By Tuesday of the following week Miss Sligerhorn and the Colonel were wishing each other a ‘good morning’ with the usual unspoken reservations at 5.52am.
All was right with the world.
The Story Of A Shoreham Photograph
She had been a nurse at the big house during the Great War. That is where she had met him. On the surface, it seemed straight forward except for the complications: he was married and she was engaged.
The war had changed everything, for everyone. Some found that they were stronger than they had imagined, while others had lost their minds. Perhaps her behaviour had been a little of both.
Neither of them had come from this little village but both of them had fallen in love with it, as they had each other. Her name was Helen Trent, and she had lived most of her life by the sea in Whitstable. He, on the other hand, had travelled with the army and considered nowhere and everywhere as home.
Nursing hadn’t been her first choice of career, she had always seen herself as a star on the London stage. But the dark winds had blown in from Europe and people had to do what they must, to keep the home fires burning.
He had improved in health – this was her job, patching up the sick and wounded and sending them back to be shot at again – they had found themselves growing closer. Then that awful day arrived when he was to return to the Front. They took one last walk down from the big house to the bridge over the river.
He promised her that if he survived the war, they should meet up again and she agreed. Within the first few weeks of their separation, she broke from her engagement to Peter, a decent enough chap who had been chosen and approved by her parents. Peter didn’t seem that concerned, folks were getting married or separated all the time during the war years. They shook hands and parted as friends.
She received several letters from her love in which he wrote to say that he would tell his wife that she should divorce him on account of his adultery. He warned her it would be messy but everything these days was messy, thought Helen as she read the letter for the umpteenth time.
Then she lost touch with him. The love of her life was missing in action. She was sure he wasn’t dead, because she felt she would have known in her heart if that were true.
Yet the weeks, and then the months passed and there was no letters. If he were dead, they would have sent the sad news to his wife, and not to her, not to Helen.
Perhaps he had returned to his wife, perhaps he had come to his senses and perhaps he had fallen out of love with Helen. She was certainly still in love with him.
And then the years passed.
And then one day when she was back in Kent, she decided to visit that little bridge over the river, in that beautiful village of Shoreham.
It was 1930 and so much had changed in the world, but very little had done so in this little jewel in England.
And she looked down at the river, she smiled to herself because she was happy.
It was while she was doing this, that he had taken the photo. You see, he had come home and he had told his wife and now Helen and her soldier were married.
This was his photo of her.
Another Story Of A Shoreham Photograph
“Bertie is, as Bertie does”, was what my Auntie Clara used to say just before she would laugh so hard that a bubble would form at the bottom of her nose. Then she would hold her sides and say, “one more laugh and I might just wet my knickers”.
Uncle Bertie had always been the crazy one of the family, or as my mother – his sister – would say, “one day the will lock him up, I swear to God, and throw away the key”.
His first foray into attempting to get to the Tower of London was the day of Queen Victoria’s funeral. The village of Shoreham was understandably sad, and Uncle Bertie decided to dress up as a young Victoria and parade up and down Church Street.
One spinster, herself called Victoria, was so shocked by what she saw through the window, that she took the vapours and lay in a darkened room for several days. It didn’t seem to worry the family just how well Uncle Bertie portrayed a woman, and a royal one at that.
It was in 1906, that Uncle Bertie and Aunt Clara became custodians of the Kings Arms local hostelry. Aunt Clara’s father had made money in some South African mines and had left his wealth to her (he thought Uncle Bertie ‘a buffoon’ and made sure all the money was in his daughter’s name).
Although there was much competition in the village with the public houses, namely The George, The Rising Sun, The Royal Oak, The Two Brewers and last, but not least, The Crown, they still managed to make a living.
People came in from Swanley and Bromley to see Uncle Bertie and Aunt Clara behind the bar. Sometimes Uncle Bertie would get so drunk that he’d get Aunt Clara to play her fiddle while he danced naked on the table.
Uncle Bertie was forever getting into trouble.
When Christopher Landtrap came to stay in the village, he chose the Kings Arms as his drinking den. He brought down many ‘artistic’ London types who would quaff ale and sing songs down by the river. Christopher claimed to be a grandson of Samuel Palmer, the Shoreham artist, it was neither proved, nor disproved but Shoreham being Shoreham, no one disputed the fact.
It was early in 1910 that Christopher got caught up in the photography bug which had spread amongst the bright young things.
Christopher decided to make a record of all the public houses in Shoreham and that he would start with the Kings Arms. Uncle Bertie asked Christopher how long it took to take a photograph and he told him that it would take sixty seconds. So when Christopher asked everyone to stay indoors while he took the photograph – everyone did – except Uncle Bertie who ran into the street just as the photo was being taken.
The photo stands today.
Uncle Bertie died in London when a Zeppelin dropped a bomb in the street where he was walking and Auntie Clara died as she listened to Elvis Presley on the radio.
Shoreham, Christmas, 1944
There is a village, Shoreham, in the south-east of England which stands alone in many ways. None more so than during the years of World War 2 when every building sustained some bomb damage. In this little hamlet, the folks were, and are, made of stouter stuff and for every injury inflicted on the village, the hearts and minds of the villagers came back twice as strong.
I have to say that the place which I write of, is nestled in hills below the metropolis that is London, and like a little brother standing under the protection of an older one, sometimes the punches thrown at the city also landed on the village.
The village had waved farewell to many souls over the war years, and some of those had not returned, some would never return, and some saw the village through sadder hearts and eyes. Some would never speak of what they had seen, except to nod to a fellow soldier on the way to church on a Sunday morning, and in that nod they knew what each was thinking. In their minds there was no point in fighting a war for freedom then burdening loved ones with stories of hate and guilt.
In the month of December 1944, the inmates of this little village were beginning to tire of the constant war and had decided to hold a Christmas party in the village hall. Food was rationed, but the fields and gardens of the hamlet had been used to grow some treats for such a party. Each of the villagers sacrificed a little food here and there and a local farmer donated two chickens to the affair.
There was talk and hope in everyone’s hearts that this would be the final Christmas they spent at war. The enemy was beginning to withdraw from all areas of Europe and there was a feeling that the end would be coming soon.
The men of the village were few and far between, and so one of the older residents Old Harry, who had been to two wars in his day, was chosen to be Father Christmas.
Residents had made gifts from all sorts of scraps of material, wood, dried flowers, and even old presents no longer needed. It was the children who were important and it was for the children for which the toys and gifts were made.
That afternoon, the afternoon of the party in the village hall, a little flurry of snow started to fall. The Cross on the hill, which had been covered over for the period of the war, could be seen in outline as the snow rested on it.
The children were given one sweet each and as they excitedly sucked on them, they sat in a well-behaved line waiting on Santa. Old Harry was meant to arrive at 2pm but by 2.15 there was still no sign of him. Gladys, who had taken it upon herself to organise the party (it kept her mind off her son who had been taken prisoner in the Far East) decided to send Edith to fetch Old Harry as she didn’t want the children to be disappointed.
The snow was beginning to fall heavily and the village sky grew darker. Soon the warden would be doing his rounds and expecting the village black-out curtains to be pulled tight shut.
At 2.30pm there was still no sign of Santa, and Gladys wondered if perhaps she could get away with dressing up as Santa, herself.
Just then Santa arrived in the village hall, covered in snow and with a bag full of colourful presents. One by one the children sat on Santa’s knee and told him what they wanted for Christmas. Nearly all of them said the same thing: they wanted their daddy, or brother, or mother to return home for Christmas day.
Each child took a toy, and each child seemed to enjoy what they had been given.
At 3.10pm, Santa said goodbye and told the children that he’d parked his sleigh up by the Cross and that his reindeer would be missing him. Gladys made a little speech and the children were all made to say ‘thank you, Santa’ – even although they were more interested in their gifts.
At 4pm, Gladys had just finished tidying up the hall, when Edith came running in. She said she was sorry about what had happened, that she had got no answer from Old Harry’s house and she had asked the local constable to break in.
It seems that Harry had died in his sleep and was stone cold by the time they found him. Edith asked if the children were disappointed, and Gladys said that Harry had shown up and given out the gifts.
“You mean these one?” Asked Edith.
Sure enough, the presents they had made for the children were still lying in the baskets at the back of the hall.
and finally the Shoreham Rose Song
bobby stevenson 2016