EAMS: Early Memories

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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