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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