EAMS: Early Memories

Thursday, January 19, 2006


The first of my school friends who came to stay was Gloria J-----. Gloria was a little older than me, but we had been best friends at school for some time and shortly before Christmas, when we were aged about eight or nine, I went to her birthday party. It was at this birthday party that my mother suggested to Gloria's parents that it would be nice for me if she would like to come and spend Christmas with us at Belfield. Of course Gloria and I were delighted with the idea, and greatly excited.

To start with, the visit went well. Gloria enjoyed playing on the swing under the yew tree, and even decorated it by buying several packs of different coloured raffia from Herrings (the art shop in High West Street, Dorchester) which she then used by tying one end of each strand of raffia to the ropes, from top to bottom, so that when we used the swing, all the raffia strands made a rather nice wooshing sound as they swept to and fro. But after the excitement of this had worn off, Gloria no longer wanted to play in the garden, but retreated indoors to the drawing-room fire where she sat, shawl around her shoulders, doing her needlework.

This was not what I had in mind. What I wanted to do most during the holidays was to play outdoors, whatever the weather and however cold it was - and that included climbing trees, for which Gloria had no aptitude.

Up until then, I had no experience as a hostess over such a long period, and was used to having things pretty well my way. In a fit of devilment - but never really expecting poor Gloria to react in the way that she did - I grabbed the William IV naval sword which was kept in the hall umbrella-stand, drew it from its scabbard, and chraged whooping into the drawing-room in my best pirate fashion. I was rather keen on pirate stories at that time, and acting them out in the garden.

The unfortunate Gloria screamed with horror, jumped to her feet, and dashed from the room with me in hot pursuit, out into the garden with Gloria still screaming loudly as she ran. I could hardly believe how successfully my ploy was turning out; at last, I thought, we are going to have some fun.

But not so. Mr W----- heard Gloria's desperate screaming and fetched my mother, who ran to see what was happening. On seeing her would-be rescuers, Gloria fell weeping into my mother's arms and was led back indoors to be comforted. I was in deep disgrace.

The next day I refused to play with her at all, and after breakfast managed to disappear into the one part of the house I had not shown to her: the attic where I kept my museum. Some time later, I heard the bell ringing and came downstairs to the kitchen where Gloria was waiting with my mother. I took one look, turned round, and ran back to the attic.

Not surprisingly our relationship never recovered, and once back at school I do not think we ever spoke to one another again.

Far more successful were several visits, during the summer holidays, of my next best school-friend, Diane H-C---. Diane lived with her widowed mother in Dukes Avenue, Muswell Hill. Her late father had been a bank manager in Ludlow, where they had lived before he died.

Years later, I admired some small landscape oil paintings hanging on the wall by my mother-in-law's bed in Doncaster. She told me they had been painted by a great friend of theirs when they had been living in Ludlow before the War. He was a bank manager there, with the name H-C---.

Diane had inherited her father's artistic talent, but he probably would not have been happy with the turn her stage career took after she left school, about which her mother was strangely naïve. She told us that Diane had got a marvellous well-paid job as a hostess at Murry's Night Club in Soho.

"The men are all so kind to Diane", she told us. "They give her such expensive presents, and take her out to dinner." She could not imagine why.

Another former school friend called Josephine S-------, whose birthday parties I used to attend, became a topless dancer at the famous Windmill Theatre at about the same time. Perhaps my father got me away from Arts Educational just in time.

Diane was no more an outdoor tomboy than Gloria had been, but I had learned my lesson and never tried to get her to climb trees. Instead we would put on little theatrical performances staged under the yew tree, to which our mothers, my father and Mr and Mrs P----- would be invited.

Her mother and mine became good friends too, and we all enjoyed their visits, which continued even after I had gone to Queens Gate and was more into horse riding than theatricals. My stepmother Evelyn was not really interested in continuing the friendship with Mrs H-C-, and the last I heard of Diane from her mother was a few years later when she told me that she had got married in rather a hurry to a young man of whom even her kind-hearted mother did not approve. They had a baby, but Mrs H-C- did not see them very often.

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Thursday, January 12, 2006


As well as the Portland expedition, we went on others to both Cerne Abbas and Abbotsbury. I remember our picnic on Giant Hill when we went to Cerne, and trying a sip or two of cider which I did not like very much, but pretended I did in order to appear "grown-up".

We went to Abbotsbury by train from Weymouth via Upway Junction: one of the small stations between Weymouth and Dorchester which no longer exist. The first station was Radipole Halt, followed by Upway Junction, Upway Wishing Well Halt... and I think the last one was called Winterborne Came Halt. The branch line from Upway Junction also stopped at Portesham, but it terminated at Abbotsbury. It had never continued on to Bridport which, together with West Bay, was served by another branch line from Maiden Newton.

I expect we visted the Swannery, but the part of the day clearest in my memory was our walk up to St Catherine's Chapel; the first part being along a very muddy and deeply rutted lane, before the long and steep climb to the Chapel at the top of the hill. Once there, the view down to the Fleet, and along the Chesil Beach stretching to Portland in the distance, has always remained most memorable and is just as impressive as it was that first sighting.

We would have returned home to Belfield at the end of a long day, perhaps enjoying a cream tea on the way, and as we all sat around the dining room table for dinner, Elizabeth B--- was once heard to murmur: "Ah, gracious living!"

Belfield had remained a place of pilgrimage for various members of the Buxton family who, from time to time, used to call at the house and introduce themselves to us. They were always made to feel welcome, and we enjoyed learning more about the family and their historical connections with Belfield.

In August 1946, a Captain R.H.V. Buxton and his wife made such a call on us whilst they were in Weymouth for the day. We happened to be out, but Mr W----- the gardener was there and had taken them on a tour of the house and garden. After returning to his home in Romsey, Captain Buxton, who had last visited the house twenty years earlier, wrote a letter of appreciation to my father, commenting on how pleased he was to see everything in such good order despite the Army's wartime occupation. His great-great-grandfather had been Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton Bt. (the grandson of Isaac Buxton, the builder of Belfield). Sir Thomas, with William Wilberforce, had been a prominent campaigner for the abolition of the Slave Trade.

Another quite frequent Buxton visitor was Miss Howell. She was rather elegant in an almost 18th century manner, with her white hair swiped up into a loose bun on the top of her head. To me she looked very like the portraits of Queen Charlotte. The last time I saw her was when she came to see us, only a few days before we left Belfield in July 1957. She was almost as devastated as I was over our impending departure.

Not long after the end of the War, my Whittaker grandparents and Auntie May left Grange-over-Sands and moved to Bournemouth. They bought a house in Winton at 51 Norton Road called "Monksrest", a name which gave my parents cause for great mirth. However they were not so amused when the Whittakers all came to stay with us at Belfield for a few days. On being asked which train they intended returning home on, they said, with some indignation, that their tickets were valid for a month, so why the hurry to get rid of them?

Indeed, Grandpa meant to make himself useful around the house, and had brought his screwdriver with him. He used this to dismantle most of the door handles, which he decided needed repairing, but managed to leave them in an even worse state than before.

If there was any friction amongst the adult - and there always was between my mother and her family - I was blissfully unbothered by it. Whenever we went to stay at "Monksrest", Grandpa would always give me a stick of Bournemouth Rock when seeing me off at the station. I accumulated quite a lot of sticky half-eaten sticks of rock in my bedroom back in London.

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Friday, December 23, 2005


The visit during one summer holiday of friends of my parents from Oxford days, John and Mary B---, together with their daughters Elizabeth and Catherine, led to my first visit to Portland, and was by train.

John B--- had been an Oxford Don who married Mary P------, a great friend of my mother. They had both been undergraduates at Lady Margaret Hall at the same time. Elizabeth and Catherine were both older than me. Elizabeth was about to go up to Oxford herself, where she had obtained a place at St Annes, and Katherine was still at school.

This visit must have taken place in the 1950's, as I was about to start learning Latin the next term at Queen's Gate. My father thought it would be fun to teach me a Latin sentence which I could recite to John B--- on his arrival, using beginners' vocabulary from the first Latin Primer. The English translation was: "The sailor is kissing the pretty girl under the table", the Latin of which I have long since forgotten - but at the time it brought the desired response of great amusement, and set the tone for a relaxed and enjoyable visit.

Further amusements in the shape of excursions were laid on for the B--- family too, and these excursions were both exciting and memorable events in the days before we owned a car. Meticulous planning must have taken place beforehand for our visits to different parts of Dorset by publio transport, and although I have forgotten the order of these visits, one of them was our outing to Portland on the train.

We probably went into Weymouth on the bus, in order to catch the train; or maybe we started from Radipole Station. I do not remember, but I do remember well the scenic route.

After passing Sandsfoot Castle, the railway crossed the Fleet at Ferry Bridge and continued along the harbour, parallel with the road and Chesil Beach, until it reached Chiswell, the first station on Portland. After this the line turned east, again hugging the harbour shore, before dramatically starting its climb up the side of East Weare Cliff, past the station for what had been the Convict Prison, but was by then a Borstal Institution, and finally ending at Euston Station.

Even on a warm summer's day, Portland is a bleak, rocky and wind-swept place. Since the 17th century its main industry has been the quarrying of its famous stone, and later the building of the breakwater in the 19th century created one of the largest and safest naval harbours in the world until its recent closure.

Convict labour was largely used in the building of the breakwater, and this brought about the building of the Verne Prison. Few prisoners ever made successful escapes from Portland as the only way off the island by land was across Ferry Bridge, where immediate road blocks were set up the moment a prisoner went missing.

The island used to be famous for its own breed of hardy sheep, and in recent years sheep farming with this breed been re-established in a small way.

From Easton Station we would have walked the short distance to Wakenham, past some of the few remaining traditional local stone cottages with their stone-slated roofs and porches with the entrances set at right angles to the inner door so as to give protection from the cold Portalnd winds. One of these cottages, called Avice Cottage, was and still is a museum of local history which I am sure we must have visited before taking the path next to it down to Church Ope Cove, passing the ancient Rufus Castle on our way.

Near the top of the path we would have seen a large house called Pennsylvania Castle, surrounded by some of the only trees on Portland, with its spectacular view down to the Cove past the ruins of St Andrew's Church.

The house is not really a castle, but was built around 1797 by John Penn: the son of William Penn, founder of the state of Pennsylvania USA. William's wife was one of Queen Charlotte's ladies in waiting, and John was frequently in the Royal party on its visits to Weymouth.

It was during an excursion to Portland with the King that John first saw the site which he purchased from the Crown, employed James Wyatt as his architect and proceeded to build the house. It took three years to build, and was finally opened by one of George III's daughters in 1800. Three years later, John Penn founded the Portland Royal Legion to defend the island against a possible invasion by Napoleon in 1804.

Not long after our visit the house came up for sale and my parents were interested in possibly buying it, but after going round it one afternoon they quickly realised that it would be totally impracticable. It needed a lot of money spending on it, and shortly afterwards it was sold for ₤10,000 - half of what it had cost to build in 1800 - and was turned into an hotel.

On this, our first visit, we continued our exploration of the island with the B--- family. I expect we brought a picnic lunch with us, which probably included a bottle of ginger beer or fizzy lemonade for me, and a flagon of cider for everyone else. I do remember us all sitting on the grass verge outside a pub in Wakenham Street, while John B--- went into the pub, perhaps for a beer and to check the latest cricket score.

I do not think we went to Portland Bill on that occasion as it would have been a bit too far to walk - although we might have taken a bus - but I do remember that we went to see the 18th century St George's Church at Reforne before we left.

St George's was in a poor state of repair, having been disused since 1917. Inside was all dust, cobwebs and flaking plaster. Half way down the aisle were two pulpits, and there was an organ loft at the west end into which we climbed.

Elizabeth B---, who was inclined to be what my mother called "highly strung", was quite overwhelmed by the melancholic atmosphere, while her more prosaic sister attempted to play the organ. Elizabeth imagined herself to be intensely "in love" with the long dead notables. Around that time it was with the 18th century artist Richard Wilson; after him came John Stanley, the 18th century blind organist at the Temple Church.

A few years later, she became engaged to be married to another blind organist, a Frenchman, but his parents objected so strongly to the match that the engagement was broken off.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

BELFIELD 1945-56. (6)

Weymouth was always overcrowded with holiday-makers during the summer holidays, many of them coming by train from the North of England and the Midlands. So rather than use the beach there, we would go down to the nearest beach to Belfield at the bottom of Rylands Lane, not far from Sandsfoot Castle; about a twenty minute walk.

Rylands Lane was also unadopted, and only a few houses had so far been built there, about halfway down on the left. This area is now totally built up.

The part of the shore which we used to go to was the west of Sandsfoot Castle; a much better and sandier beach lies to the east and was used by Castle Cove Sailing Club, but that would have been further to walk. Being within Portland Harbour, the sea was always calm, but the end we used was largely rocky and covered with lots of seaweed; tiny crabs could be found in the rock pools.

Before Buxton Road was made, the old road from Weymouth to Smallmouth (the ferry link across to Portland) continued from what is now Rodwell Road and Old Castle Road and passed along this stretch of the coast. Until the line finally closed in 1965, the Weymouth to Portland branch line ran along here too.

The summer holidays were idyllic - but as in London, without central heating Belfield in the winter was exceedingly cold and we had to rely on open fires for warmth. These were usually a mixture of coal and wood, with an electric fire for background heat.

A fire would normally be lit in the Drawing Room, but if it was very cold there might be one in the smaller Octagon Room instead. When a fire was lit in the Dining Room grate, the firelight beautifully illuminated the shell surround.

An electric fire would be turned on in my bedroom at bedtime, but it was agony to leave the warmth of the fire downstairs, go into the icy Hall and up to bed. We had hot water bottles, not always reliable. There was a pre-war stone one, whose rubber washer round the stopper had perished and so was liable to leak - and the post-war rubber ones were made of inferior quality rubber, and did not last long.

My mother was fanatical about damp beds, which she would strip and air thoroughly with the aid of an electric fire when we arrived at the house on Friday nights. My clothes would get so damp overnight that steam would rise from them when aired before the fire next morning. I would even resort to getting dressed under my bedclothes rather than shiver in my icy bedroom.

There was a small triangular piece of our garden bordered on one side by Belfield Park Avenue, and on the other, behind a tall cypressus hedge, by the garden of a house called "Maymolly". In 1945, a surveyor in Weymouth, acting on behalf of the owner of "Maymolly", had written to my father asking if he would be willing to sell this piece of land to hin, in order to "square up" his own land. My father had refused to sell, and as far as I know that was the end of the matter.

Some years later when I was playing on the lawn one day, I noticed a small boy, aged about five, watching me rather wistfully across the railing from the garden of "Maymolly". After a while I went across to talk to him. He told me his name was Robin, and I invited him to climb over the low railing to come and play with me.

I showed him all round the garden and into the wood on the other side of the house where I had built myself a shelter of sticks, very much like Eeyore's House at Pooh Corner.

Robin was most impressed, and begged me to help him build one like it in his garden, insisting his parents would not mind. So we collected together the longest sticks we could find (probably some of Mr W-----'s pea-sticks), and we started to build another stick house in the corner of Robin's garden, just over the railing from ours. It was well hidden, just where the cypressus hedge met the easily climbed over iron railing.

We had almost finished when the bell rang for me to return home for my lunch, so we agreed to meet there again after lunch.

We had not been back there for long before an extremely angry woman, who announced herself as being Robin's mother, came storming into view.

"I don't know who you are or where you've come from", she told me, "but how dare you come into my garden and create this hideous mess. I cannot think what the people next door must think."

I did not let on that "the people next door" were my parents who, I was sure, couldn't care less! I tried to explain that Robin had asked me to build him a house and this was it, whereupon she flared back at me saying that Robin was only a baby and too young to understand such matters so couldn't be blamed. She gave me five minutes to clear everything away, to clear out and never dare come back - then marched back to her house with Robin, who had not said a word, in tow.

Feeling like some desperate criminal, I quickly dismantled the stick house, flung everything back over the railing to my side, and did a quick disappearing act, hiding in bushes some distance away, from where I could watch the return inspection in safety.

I never told my parents what had happened and I did not want her to discover who I was, so unless Robin told her - and she might not have believed him - it must have remained a mystery as to where this awful urchin had vanished with all the rubbish I had brought with me.

I never saw Robin or his mother again.

Belfield House and garden, 1945-56.
Click the diagram to enlarge it to full size.

On the other side of the kitchen garden from "Maymolly" was an old "Tom Putt" apple tree. It produced a crop of small apples, but most of them were infected with a type of worm which burrowed in under the skin. So much of the apple had to be cut out before eating that they were hardly worth the bother.

However, about half of its branches overhung the road, and the sight of apples was irresistible to the gang of small boys who would come along and throw stones, trying to get them down. My father used to get very annoyed about this because a) the boys were stealing, even if the apples were practically inedible, and b) because there were cold frames near the tree in which Mr W----- grew cucumbers, squash and melons, and he feared the glass would get broken.

One day he managed to catch a handful of these boys in the act, and marched them up to the house where he lined them up in front of his desk and gave them a severe ticking off. They came from a nearby Approved School (a type of reformatory school).

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Monday, December 12, 2005

BELFIELD 1945-56. (5)

We would return to London on Sunday evenings - a taxi would come to drive us to Weymouth station. As well as our luggage there would be many bunches of flowers, cut from the garden by my mother after lunch and given a good drink in buckets of water before being tied into bunches for the journey. Once on the train, she would suspend them from the luggage rack in our compartment, where they hung throughout the journey, swaying with the motion of the train. She also had a long wicker basket with a lid, and that would be filled too.

This all helped to deter other passengers from entering our compartment, which my parents hoped to keep to themselves for as long as possible. As a further deterrent, I was ordered to hang out of the window when the train was standing in the station; the sight of a potentially disruptive child and bunches of dangling flowers was enough to put off all but the most determined.

Before the start of a train journey, my father would go to the bookstall to buy what he called a "female magazine" for my mother, often Woman or Woman's Own, and perhaps Picture Post or Illustrated for me. Comics were frowned upon, but occasionally bought when we went to the grocer's shop on Buxton Road during the holidays.

Belfield House, Weymouth, c.1952.

The grocer's shop was near the end of Buxton Road, just before the railway bridge over the old Weymouth to Portland Line and opposite a church which had, I think, been bombed and rebuilt out of corrugated iron: my father called it the "Tin Tabernacle".

Next to the grocer, on the corner of Clearmont Road, was a bakery run by a couple of Greek sisters. The baking must have been done on the premises, as you could smell it cooking and the bread was often still warm from the oven. It smelt so delicious that I once nibbled off the corners of a loaf whilst carrying it home. They also made very good cream buns.

I used to walk to the shops with my father, taking with us a large wicker basket on wheels, pushed along by a long handle, rather like a walking stick. When not used for shopping, my mother used it in the garden when weeding.

For the most part my school holidays fitted in quite well with my father's legal vacations, though he had longer than I did at Whitsun, which was usually Half Term, but we only had a long weekend for it. We had to return to London early too for the start of my Autumn Term in September: Michaelmas Term did not begin until early October.

But these were the times when we could all enjoy Belfield to the full. It was wonderful to leave hot and dusty London and head for the Weymouth train from Waterloo - and even more so to climb out of the taxi at the end of the journey to head for my favourite parts of the garden, revelling in the thought of the long holiday ahead, whilst also hoping to avoid too much enforced piano practice or spelling exercises set by my mother, anxious for me to catch up on at least some of my educational deficiencies.

Until Diane and Lesley Y---- came to live at the bottom of Belfield Park Avenue in 1954, I had only one friend of about my own age living nearby: this was Catherine P--, a year or so older than me, who lived with her parents in the topmost left-hand corner of the avenue. Her other friend was Jennifer P----, the vicar's daughter, who was nearer her age. However for the most part I was perfectly happy to be on my own, playing in the garden or reading story books which fueled my imagination for the make-believe world in which I played.

The only time we were away from both homes was for the occasional few days' stay in towns which had a Public Record Office, where my father could spend happy hours carrying out further research into whatever piece of genealogical work he was involved with at the time. I can remember several visits to Taunton and staying at the Castle Hotel, where I enjoyed playing in the garden which incorporated the ruins of the medieval castle which had once stood there.

We also went to Wells, Salisbury, Exeter, Chester and Bath, and frequently to Oxford - usually in the autumn - staying at the Randolph Hotel. I would be taken round the Colleges, and particularly liked New College garden because there were several chestnut trees where I could search for conkers.

Watercolour painting of Belfield House by Sarah Godman, 1907.

A brass bell was kept by the back door which my parents rang to call me back to the house when meals were ready. One day I thought I would ignore it, just to see what happened. So when it rang that lunch time I stayed where I was, sitting under a bush on the grass bank beside the road.

After a few minutes the bell rang again, with greater urgency; then a long silence while my poor parents must have been searching the garden for me.

After a while my father came past where I was sitting, wheeling his bicycle and about to carry out a further search along the road before going to the police station to report his missing child.

On seeing me calmly sitting there, his reaction was a mixture of surprise, relief and anger. Where had I been all this time? Why had I not come back to the house when I heard the bell? He and my mother had been worried sick and lunch was spoiled.

By now I was feeling not only very remorseful but also extremely foolish, and tried to look both innocent and surprised, saying I must have fallen asleep and not heard the bell. A silly excuse and not believed for a moment!
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Thursday, December 08, 2005

BELFIELD 1945-56. (4)

Back in Belfield, I would spend much of my time playing in the garden, whatever the weather was like. My favourite spot was probably the magnificent yew tree which I loved to climb. With so much undergrowth and shrubberies there was plenty of scope for hidy-holes and dens.

There were two banks of rhododendrons; inside one of them was an open space large enough to stand up in. It was here that my mother and I made a little "Chapel". We made an altar from three pieces of rough wood nailed together, and above it hung a small cross which we made out of a gilded picture frame.

Many years later, in 1983, I re-visited Belfield with my father, my stepmother Evelyn and my son Michael. The then owners took us all on a tour of the house and garden. When we reached the rhododendron bush where our Chapel had been, they took us inside - where, to my astonishment, they had made a Chapel too. They had found the cross, still where we had tied it over thirty years before, and this had been their inspiration.

Starting with a wig-wam but soon progressing to a proper Swallows and Amazons type ridge-pole tent, I loved camping-out in the garden. I usually set up my camp on the land across the road from the house, which Mr W----- used to call "Down-Over". Here I would pitch my tent and the wig-wam, which I used for stores. Between the two, I cut out a square of turf for my camp-fire, over which I could hang my cooking pot and kettle, and roast marshmallows on the end of a stick. In the embers I would cook roast potatoes.

I furnished the tent with a groundsheet, rug, lilo and sleeping bag, and when I was a bit older would stay out there all night. I once tried to sleep outside without my tent, but once the dew started to form, it became so cold and damp that I soon gave up and went back to my cosy bedroom. In one of the garages, I found an old paraffin hurricane-lamp which I cleaned up and restored to working order to light me round the garden at night.

Mr W----- would come to the kitchen around midday with a basket of vegetables from the kitchen-garden and get hot water for his lunch-time mug of cocoa, before retiring to the secluded brick-built garden shed up the path from the back door. This was his refuge from bad weather and where he would sit to eat his sandwich lunch, enjoy his cocoa, and read the Daily Mirror.

When he had finished with the paper he would give it to my mother, as she and I enjoyed following the exploits of "Jane" - the saucy strip cartoon. Jane was always getting into situations which resulted in her losing most of her clothes, down to her frilly French Knickers, but her virtue always managed to stay intact. In addition there was an entire page of strip-cartoons in the Mirror which I looked forward to day by day; particularly "Garth" and "The Flutters".

When we were at Belfield for only a weekend, and the greater part of the Saturday was spent in Dorchester and the Sunday morning in Church, there cannot have been much time left for my mother's gardening - although I do remember her doing it during the summer as I watched from my bedroom window after I had gone to bed. For a few years after the War we had "double summer time" which gave us an extra hour of daylight in the evening.

On Sunday morning we would walk to All Saints, Wyke Regis to attend Holy Eucharist at 11am. Although this was our Parish Church, my father did not really approve of the Services there, which were of the Anglo Catholic tradition. He would have preferred a vicar who wore a modest surplice, scarf and academic hood - preferably that of an Oxford M.A., conducting a Service of Matins - to Mr Pratt grandly processing up the aisle in his cope and biretta. On reaching the altar he would ceremoniously doff the biretta and bow deeply, at which point my father was inclined to mutter under his breath: "Good morning God". However I was fascinated and rather impressed by all the ritual.

After doffing his biretta, Mr Pratt would soon be relieved of his cope too, revealing a chasuble beneath, and that too would eventually be removed before the sermon, leaving just his alb and stole. He was attended by an altar-boy in lace-edged cotton who seemed to spend all his time, when not meekly kneeling on the altar step, helping with the disrobing, moving Mr Pratt's Service Book from one side of the altar to the other, ringing the Sanctus Bell and generally, it seems to me, acting dogsbody to someone so grand and holy that he was incapable of conducting such menial tasks himself. Indeed I thought Mr Pratt second only to God, if not God himself.

We never stayed for the Communion part of the Service, but would discreetly leave during the last verse of the Offertory Hymn.

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Monday, December 05, 2005

BELFIELD 1945-56. (3)

We went to Dorchester every Saturday when we were at Belfield. This meant catching a bus at the bottom of Belfield Park Avenue into Weymouth to the bus station, and from there another bus to Dorchester where we would get out at South Street. It was a double-decker and, as in London, we would try to get the front seat upstairs where there was a good view - especially when coming down the Ridgeway on the return journey.

My father had been appointed a J.P. in 1943, Deputy Chairman of the Court of Quarter Sessions in 1950 and Chairman from 1953-1971, so if the Court was sitting, that would take up most of his day. At other times he would spend many hours in the Muniment Room at the Dorset County Museum, cataloguing the Museum's collection of archives.

Sometimes he would work in the Turret Room which overlooked St. Peter's Church next door and Cornhill. The turret itself was a snug place in which to sit watching the street below, and I would sometimes join him there, when he would give me a rubber stamp and ink-pad and the job of stamping documents when he checked them.

On the ground floor, before the Museum's re-development, there used to be a door to the left of the main staircase which led to a narrow passage, along one side of which ran a long wooden table. Here packages and parcels could be left and we would leave our shopping, to be picked up at the end of the afternoon before catching the bus back to Weymouth.

We used the Museum Library as a meeting place in which to rest weary legs and read the magazines arranged on a round table near the window. During the winter there would be a fire in the grate, tended by Mr Hammet the Attendant, whose main job was to collect the entrance charge from visitors to the Museum. His method of keeping the fire going was to chuck a scuttle of slaggy coal on it from time to time, which successfully doused any flame which might have struggled through.

Mr Hammet was a great friend of mine. When I told him I was making my own museum in one of the attic rooms at Belfield, he secretly supplied me with some "exhibits" from a store of artifacts which had presumably been given to the Museum from time to time; because they had no connection with the County, they were never put on display but had been stored away in a cupboard and "forgotten". My father wondered if Mr Hammet had any right to give me these things, but thought it wisest "not to know". They were only small items, nothing of any great value.

Another member of the D.N.H.A.S. (Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society) who also liked to frquent the library was Miss O'Rourke, who had once been Thomas Hardy's secretary. She was impressively ugly, very garrulous, and talked so fast she used to spit. Mr Hammet nick-named her "the Blowfly", because she "settled" on people and there was no escaping her incessant chatter. He would warn us, before we entered the Library, if she was there.

Frank Hammet was the Museum's faithful attendant for over thirty years, not retiring until he was 75. When he died, five years later in 1968, my father wrote his obituary for the Proceedings of the D.N.H.A.S.

Lunch, and tea before catching the bus back to Weymouth, was always at "J.J's". Most of the waitresses stayed there for many years. The nice waitress at our table called Dorothy was there for about twenty years. There was one called Mrs Squibb, and another who was small and thin, who looked as if she was in a permanent bad mood. An efficient one in the back room used to wear celluloid cuffs on her uniform, and always polished the table with great vigour between customers. From our table in the front window we looked across the street to the wartime British Restaurant which was still running for a few years after the War.

My favourite shop in Dorchester was Longmans, the bookshop at the Cornhill end of South Street. It ws here that I used to spend my pocket money on adventure books, particularly those by Arthur Ransome. The children's department was upstairs, and like the waitresses at J.J.'s, the same assistant stayed for many years. She was friendly, had grey hair, and soon got to know me and the sort of books I liked.

Longmans was next door to Parsons, the grocers shop which my father used to call the "Fortnums and Masons of Dorchester". They had a machine in the window for roasting coffee; it had a revolving drum to turn the coffee beans over and over as they were being roasted, and there was always a delicious smell of roasted coffee as one passed the shop. Further along, on the same side of the street, was Shepherd and Hedger: a furnishing shop still run by Mr Hedger, a tall man and always most courteous.

At the bottom of High East Street, opposite Mr Legg's antique shop, was a fishmonger/game merchant. Here, as well as fish, my mother would buy rabbit and chicken. On one occasion we were fascinated to watch the fishmonger give a demonstration on how to hypnotise a hen. He tucked its head under its wing and stroked it gently for a few minutes until it appeared to be fast asleep.

I once begged him to give me a rabbit's tail which I proudly took home and put into my doll's wardrobe to keep safe. Some days later, when I opened the door, I was shocked and startled to find a large bluebottle sitting on it.

E.A.M.S, Belfield, c.1948. Click to enlarge.
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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

BELFIELD 1945-56. (2)

In October 1946 my father spent £5.0.11 on large trumpet daffodils, tulips and winter aconites for the garden. My mother, a keen and knowledgeable gardener, took great delight in restoring the neglected garden. She grew many plants from seed in the Conservatory, where the wooden shelving running along the length of its wooded side, made for her seedling trays, was still there when the house was for sale in 2002. My father used to tackle the heavy work - clearing brambles, pruning etc.

Near the conservatory was a stoned paved path and some shallow steps leading into a thicket of overgrown bushes and dense undergrowth. Upon clearing a way through, my parents were excited to discover a paved area within - the remains of an arbour which they reinstated.

Mr & Mrs W-----

To cope with grass cutting and the vegetable garden they employed a gardener, a retired quarryman from Portland called Mr W-----, who lived with his wife in the main street in Fortuneswell. Mrs W-----, who was extremely deaf, was a big strong woman, twice the size of her husband. She was employed to clean Belfield, but only came when we were back in London, and we would return to find everything spotlessly clean and shining.

Unfortunately she did not know her own strength, and occasionally things got damaged or broken. Dusters would be reduced to cobweb-like thinness after only a few washes, and rugs were liable to skid on her highly polished floors the moment one stepped on them. When we were there for the long summer holiday, she and Mr W----- would be invited to tea one afternoon and she would gloomily look around and remark on how dirty the house was!

Lionel W-----

The W-----s had a son called Lionel who was in the Fleet Air Arm and was the apple of his mother's eye. She presented us with a framed photograph of him in his uniform, which we would have to remember to put out in a prominent place when we knew she was coming or on our return to London.

Mrs W----- was an ardent royalist, until the day when the newly crowned Queen was driven past our house on a visit to Portland. Mrs W----- was there with her Union Flag, hanging out of her window and waving enthusiastically as the motorcade drove past. But, alas, the Queen failed to return Mrs W-----'s wave. At the critical moment, she was busy waving to the other side of the street. Mrs W----- took it as a personal insult and never forgave her.

With Mrs W----- at Belfield

Before the discovery of Mrs W-----, for a very short time, my mother had tried employing a cleaner who had recently been a patient at Herrison, then a psychiatric hospital near Dorchester. I do not remember her name, only that she seemed to be rather distrait and vague. After she left, I was told that she had "been let out of Herrison" but had to return there for further treatment. It sounded ominous and a bit sinister, and for a long time I thought that "Herrison" was some sort of limbo place, akin to Purgatory.

Odd too was a plumber who came to the house to do some work, went home at the end of the day promising to return the following morning to complete the job, but never came back. Several years later he suddenly re-appeared one day to finish the work he had long abandoned, and was surprised and taken aback to be told that in the meantime another plumber had been employed to finish it. His excuse was that when he woke up the next day, he had felt unable to get out of bed to go to work, so his wife had encouraged him to stay where he was until he felt better and he had done just that.

Work on the external renovation of the house began in September 1946 when my parents received a quote from Rendell and Son of Weymouth. For repairs and outside painting of wood and iron work to the house, conservatory and verandah, the price quoted was £135.12s and for the re-painting of stone and stucco work: £117.2s plus a further £10 for sundry repairs. Three years later, the exterior had to painted again; perhaps the quality of post-war paint was not very good. This time the contractor was F. Selby and Sons, whose quote was only £67.17.6.

Mr W-----, my mother, father and me.

After Grandpa Squibb died on June 10th 1946, a lot of his furniture and possessions came to Belfield. My parents had already started buying furniture for the house, mainly from two Dorchester antique dealers. Some from Mr Pitman, but mostly from Mr Legg who owned a shop at the bottom of High Street East which is still there, run now by his son Michael.

This was a good time to be buying antiques, as post-war prices were rock bottom, and my mother was particularly interested in Regency furniture which was not yet fashionable, so there were some good bargains to be had. She learnt a lot from Mr Legg, and I too was taught by him how to detect genuine old from reproduction furniture by running my fingers along the edges underneath tables and chairs. If they felt sharp, it was likely to be new.

To reveal the true colours of a dirty oil painting, he would lick his finger and rub it over the surface, but this landed me in trouble one day when I tried it out in an art gallery I was visiting with my parents.

I had gone on ahead a little way, and was looking at a large and very dark landscape which featured some cows by a river. Being curious to see how it might look if cleaned, I went up to it and did just what I thought Mr Legg would have done.

There was a squawk of outrage from a nearby attendant, who rushed over and frantically and indignantly wiped the place I had violated with his handkerchief. My parents, although secretly amused by the incident, were full of apologies, and after insisting that I meant no harm, we hurriedly left the gallery in deep disgrace!

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

BELFIELD 1945-56. (1)

I cannot remember much about my first summer at Belfield in any detail other than exploring the house and garden, happy in my own world of make-believe. My companion was still, for a while, Molly: my imaginary "friend", who had come with me from Cerne. I found her a home under a beech tree, and soon after celebrated her "wedding" with lots of rose-petals from the climbing rose on the verandah, which I used for confetti. She then left my life.

My bedroom was the first room on the right at the top of the elegant curving staircase. My parents had the first on the left, but my room was the sunnier with one window facing east, to the front of the house, and the other south with a view of Portland harbour. It felt safe and cosy to lie in bed on wild stormy nights, listening to the wind and rain pounding against the windows and more wind whistling in the chimney.

One winter, when I had been kept in bed with a bad cold, a fire was lit in my fireplace which was protected by my old nursery fire-guard with its polished brass rim. I remember feeling very secure as I watched the glowing embers as I drifted off to sleep. On foggy nights, I could hear the mournful sound of the foghorn on the Shambles lightship out at sea, and on clear nights I could see the flash of its beacon light.

After five years of occupation by the Army, both the house and garden were looking the worse for wear. The tapestry panels in the dining-room were in excellent condition, having been well protected by horsehair pads attached to battens - but elsewhere all the decorations were in a poor state, with chipped paintwork on doors and skirting boards.

The War Department was obliged to pay out compensation, but it was not until October 1946 that, following a thorough survey, a Schedule of Dilapidations was agreed upon of £902.8.8 plus £50.17.0 for a rehabilitation allowance, plus interest. This included a revised claim for electrical work of £102.19.9.

One cold dark winter's evening I had lost my temper over something forgotten when, in my anger, I gave the drawing-room skirting board a hefty kick, whereupon there was a blue flash as all the lights in the house went out and apart from the firelight, we were left in darkness. Thus complete re-wiring had to be added to the bill.

Outside in the neglected garden where statues had been used for target practice, the Army had left behind two Nissen huts which my father, fearing squatters, insisted on being dismantled as soon as possible. I was rather sorry as I enjoyed playing in them, unlike the remains of an air-raid shelter in another part of the garden which I found a bit scary. The Nissen hut bases stayed though, one of them forming the base of an Italian garden which my parents designed, and the other used for a dumping place for grass-cuttings.

Nearby stood an ancient yew tree, the largest I have ever seen, in which I spent many happy hours climbing. A swing was fixed for me from one of its branches, using the For Sale board for the seat.

Today the garden consists of just over an acre, but when we lived there, there was, in addition, about another acre of woodland to the north of the house, up the hill and bordered by Belfield Park Avenue. To the east, opposite the house and across the road, was another acre. This was all that remained of the Park which had once surrounded the house and had stretched from Wyke Road, where the main entrance and lodge had been, to Buxton Road and the Stables to the south, and as far east as Cross Lane.

Before the War, Belfield had been owned by a Mrs Patterson who, although she claimed to have spent a lot of money restoring the house, had unfortunately sold most of the Park for building land. The old Drive down to the house from Wyke Road had been abandoned and an entirely new road, named Belfield Park Avenue, had been made and lots of small houses built along it. Until the 1960's this remained an "unadopted" road, very rough and stoney, especially where it wound up the hill to join Wyke Road. During heavy rain it would become a river, dislodging yet more of its surface into deep ruts.

The War had interrupted the building process and an acre of land across the road from the front of the house was still undeveloped. This my father was quick to buy back. The part nearest the road was already well wooded with young elm trees which even then were prone to Dutch Elm Disease, but this was kept under control by pruning out diseased branches which also helped to keep up stocks of firewood for the house. My father extended this plantation in 1947 by planting a further ten trees, including Spanish poplar, maple, lime and pine as far as the southern boundary, along which was planted a screen of thirty-six macrocarpa to make a quick growing screen to hide the rather utilitarian house called "Trees" which was being built in a corner of land he had not been in time to re-purchase.

The remaining land, left to rough grass, was kept under control with a fearsome looking mechanical "Allen Scythe". There was also a mature walnut tree, and my father went on to plant a hazel "nuttery" and further mixed woodland trees along the eastern boundary to a neighbouring farmer's field.

A low stone wall was built in front of the house between the house and the road, with a Cupressus Fletcheri planted at either end, and a line of further trees continuing each side as far as the drive gates, of cherries, crab apples, almonds, thorn and prunus as well as poplar and maple.

Together with more tree planting added to the north of the house, Belfield became well screened from encroaching suburbia and one could almost imagine it still being part of a park - if rather more wooded than the original shown in early 19th century engravings when the house stood in its then idyllic setting on an "acclivity" and commanding "a fine prospect".

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Monday, November 21, 2005

CERNE ABBAS 1940-1945. (11)

All I can remember of V.E. Day in Cerne is of the bunting hung along the houses in Abbey Street, but I do remember arriving at Belfiled for the first time. We came by car - perhaps it was a taxi - and were driven down Radipole Park Drive alongside Radipole Lake. On reaching the house, we were greeted in the hall by Mrs Pearse, who offered to get me a glass of milk.

Mr & Mrs Pearse had lived in the basement flat at Belfield before the War, and had written to my father that July to ask if they could become tenants again. This suited my parents very well, as they could act as caretakers when we were in London. The letter is dated 20th July 1945 and they were anxious to move in as soon as possible - so they could not have been there long before we too arrived, which was probably around the end of the month at the start of the Long Vacation.

Mr Pearse was a retired school teacher and cabinet maker, and both he and his wife had been professional photographers at some time. They had two grown-up daughters, Lois and Margaret.

Margaret had been a landgirl and had been engaged to be married - but her fiancé, whose parents lived further up Belfield Park Avenue, had been killed in action. She continued to visit frequently and would spend time in a small room in the flat with her gramophone, playing the records they had listened to together. As far as I know, she never married - but her sister Lois was married not long after we went to Belfield, probably at Whitsun the following year. Some white camelias from a bush the size of a small tree, in the garden, were used to make her wedding bouquet.

I think it unlikely we went north, either to Grange or Chester, that summer, as my parents must have been busy settling in at Belfield. A letter from my mother, written while we were still at the Pitchmarket, states with much gless that her sister May was:
"...obviously looking forward to my next effort at taking the entire house on my hands again this summer. I relish the idea of telling her later that she is in for a much shorter "complete rest" this year! How her (?) mouth must be watering already when she thinks of weeks and weeks of never touching the washing-up, dusting, sweeping, gardening, baking, even cooking. What fun to put sand in it therefore (I mean the mouth). I'm not really in a vicious mood!"

There was little love lost between the two sisters, and much resentment. May was six years older than my mother, and was deeply jealous that her younger sibling had not only been up at Oxford and got a Degree, but also a husband and child. It was said that she threw a fit on the bathroom floor when she heard the news of my birth. She was forty by then, trapped into the position of housekeeper to her parents for the rest of their lives.

They had once refused to give their permission for her to marry a man much older than herself who lived in New Zealand. They did not approve of her moving to the other side of the world: "Who will look after us in our old age?" they demanded. So their dutiful daughter stayed at home doing just that until after my grandfather died in 1959, aged ninety.

May married six years later when she was sixty-seven, to John Gee whom she met whilst out exercising her dogs.

The Pitchmarket, Cerne Abbas

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