Ernest Reginald (Reg) Carter
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The following is the text of ‘Appledore Boyhood Memories’, written and published by Reg Carter in 1989.
Provided and placed online by David Carter 2018
Copyright: David Carter.
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APPLEDORE BOYHOOD MEMORIES - by Reg Carter
I may be prejudiced, but I think many would agree that the next best thing to spending boyhood in paradise is to grow up in a Devon seaside village, especially in the 1920s, when noise, disturbance and pollution by street traffic, screaming jets or clattering helicopters were virtually unknown. In a Biblical vision the prophet sees the new Jerusalem and tells us that the city was full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof; so perhaps I was nearer paradise than I thought.
For me there was a bonus plus in that not one, but two major rivers join the sea at Appledore where I lived, and there's no need to tell readers what endless pleasure, what terrific possibilities boys can extract from rivers. Like most boys I was quite fearless and venturesome, and I soon found there was nothing more exciting than getting nearly drowned - regularly. I think it was Dylan Thomas, writing of his boyhood, who said something about whether they survived the day or no, he was sure it was always touch and go.
I consider there was yet another bonus, because my river feeds the Bristol Channel, and this seaway provides the second highest rise and fall of tides in the world. So unlike many rivers flowing at a mediocre level with little variation, the Torridge ran the whole gamut of being filled to overflowing, right down to almost total exodus of its water. To accomplish this in its six allocated hours it added to our lives the spice of strong currents and eddies to taunt and challenge us when boating or swimming. High tide gave us a half-mile width of deep water, but at low tide it provided sandy pools filled with shrimps, crabs and small fish, lengths of beaches furnished with sand, rocks or stones, or most fascinating to boys, nice sticky, sloppy mud. One large area of mud called Skern was a prolific bed of cockles. You could feel them, tickling the soles of your feet and it didn’t take long to dig a bucket full. I believe they are more scarce now, probably due to the vast increase of oystercatchers in the estuary. In any case pollution has made them less appetising. Half of the village streets were cobbled, and as many boys ran around with bare feel, stony beaches were no problem.
‘Source of life and energy my river flowed unfettered and free.
So many hours I treasure of your captivating company.
Still and silent; rough and stormy; surging to and fro the sea;
Fascinating friend or tyrant, you were always home from, home to me.’
High spring tides were especially exciting, as they usually flooded the Quay, carrying small boats up the 'Opes’ (as the small side streets were called). The bottom halves of doors and lower windows were boarded up and the edges sealed with clay.
The chemist's shop was on the Quay, and one dark evening a lady called there for aspirins, was served, and never seen again. Muggings, kidnappings and disappearances were unknown then, and it was presumed that as she waded along the flooded quay she walked too near the edge, stepped off into deep water, and was carried out to sea with the ebb tide.
One September evening when it was the highest tide of the year I decided impulsively to paddle up river in my home-made canvas canoe. Going with the tide it was easy, but I found it well nigh impossible to get back against the strength of the current. I should mention here that the previous day the dentist had abstracted a troublesome back tooth, and I had bled rather profusely. The dentist Mr Stewart, lived in a terraced house on the Quay, patients went into the front room (or parlour), sat in one chair of a three-piece suite, while Mr Stewart, usually wearing a tweed jacket and golfing plus-fours, removed an instrument from a small glass-fronted cabinet and without any injection nonsense set to work pulling. In the canoe up river darkness had descended, and at home my non-appearance had mother going crazy with anxiety, as she thought I was weak from the previous day's ordeal and the river had claimed another victim. Relations, boatmen and police were alerted, but fortunately she stopped short of launching the lifeboat!
Appledore has housed a lifeboat since 1825, just one year after the founding of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, so it must have been one of the earliest in the country and definitely the first in the Bristol Channel. I never saw it launched, as the station was at the other end of the village from where I lived, and by the time I reached it, after hearing the maroon summoning the crew, it had always taken to the water. One day I was playing in the street with my cousin when we heard the lifeboat rocket, and he suggested we try a short cut up the hill and down Lovers Lane. After a wet period this lane was very muddy and very rough with odd stones and exposed tree roots. Of course I tripped over one of the hazards and by the time I had extricated myself from the mud, the lifeboat was down the slip-way and heading for the Bar. There is a sting in the tail of this tale, as it happened to be Sunday and I was wearing my best 'go-to-Chapel’ clothes. Mother was always rather house-proud and certainly child-proud when it came to dressing me smartly on a Sunday, so you can imagine the reception my mud-plastered outfit received. Eventually a larger lifeboat was provided which was permanently moored in the river, as it would not fit in the lifeboat house; so no further dashes through streets or lanes were required. About ten years ago the local paper reported that on several nights a peculiar apparition which looked like a white object had been seen floating down Lovers Lane. I did not have the courage to write to the editor suggesting it was the ghost of my white shirt, before it had kissed the mud.
I remember another episode of mud-plastered wearing apparel when I was lost on the Burrows. Now the Burrows is about 1000 acres of grassland by the river's mouth, bounded by a salt marsh, intersected with reed-fringed dykes and large areas of sea rushes up to five feet tall. It is protected from the ocean breakers by rolling sand-hills and a ridge of pebbles two miles long and about 15 to 20 feet high. It is common land over which the villagers have the right to graze cattle. Part of the area is occupied by the famous Westward Ho! golf course where J. H. Taylor, a local lad, learned his trade, winning the Open Championship five times and becoming one of the greatest golfers of all time. The sand-hills were a favourite area for rambling and exploring. One evening I was playing there with a cousin. We mislaid an old golf club we had borrowed, and while looking for it, forgot the time, and did not realise it was getting dark. Without warning a thick pea-soup sea-fog joined the darkness, and we were totally dis-orientated trying to find our way through the bulrushes, ditches and other hazards. We became separated, and I fell into the very muddy burn, as the large drainage stream was called. At least by following it closely we eventually found the bridge which led to the exit gate where we were met by my super-anxious, distraught mother, accompanied by neighbours and friends armed with torches. One had a megaphone, and I wouldn't have been surprised to see a St. Bernard dog!
I've often wondered why the Burrows is so called. Locals say it’s because the area used to be heavily populated with rabbits. I have noticed over the years that similar areas of rolling sand-hills forming a natural rampart restraining the sea are also called Burrows. Could the name derive from the old English ward 'beorgan', meaning ‘to protect’? Many years ago, there was a custom instituted called ‘Potwalloping’, when the householders of Appledore, Northam and Westward Ho! met annually, usually on Whit Monday, to throw back the pebbles that winter storms had displaced. I think the ceremony was held in connection with Northam Revels, and an ox was roasted with everyone receiving a generous share. This custom of inviting the potwallopers (meaning ‘those who boil their own pot’), was revived in the 1920s and continued into the 1930s.
Certainly the work was very necessary, as in 1932 it was reported that over the previous 30 years the ridge had shifted 20 yards inland. In this particular year there was a big turn-out of horse-drawn carts, boy scouts, girl guides and unemployed workers. Children filled their model trains and tenders with the scattered pebbles, and tugged them back to the ridge. A selection of refreshments included ham, beef, bread, cheese. cider, beer, tea and biscuits.
There is a much larger area of sand-hills on the other side of the river, known as Braunton burrows. This vast desert of rolling giant dunes clothed in marram grass, an ideal habitat for wildlife, was a popular picnic area. Access was only practical by boat, landing near the lighthouse which was built in 1820 on the edge of the hills not far above high water mark. Standing over 70 feet high with a 12ft. diameter lantern, it was reputed to be the last timber-built lighthouse in the British Isles. Illumination was supplied by an acetylene mantle burner giving a five second light and a five second eclipse.
Near the lighthouse was another unusual timber object - a large ball (about 10 ft. diameter) made of wooden slats painted red. It was raised and lowered regularly on a pole about 30 feet tall by means of a winch manned by the lighthouse keeper. The object of this exercise was to indicate the state of the tides to ships in the bay; being raised to the top when the river was at half flood; then lowered when it was half ebb. After dark a white light indicated the former state and a red light the latter.
It is not surprising that after a number of my escapades were reported to mother she once said: 'If you come home to me drowned, I'll pull your hair out'. As I got too big for strong arm tactics she found that hair pulling was the most effective punishment for misdemeanours; such as on the day I tried to be Tarzan, and this was before I ever realised he had been invented. There were always some old sailing ships laid up along the banks of the river, and it seems I climbed up some rotten rigging on one of them, and then along a horizontal rope linking the mainmast and foremast about 50 feet above the deck. Needless to say (even in times of slower communication) mother heard about it before I reached home to the inevitable retribution. With such full adventurous play hours, I frequently forgot time and was outrageously late for meals (for some reason, a real bane for mothers). My grandfather had told me that time and tide waited for no man, but I sometimes felt that mother's cooked meals should be added to that list. I had a witty excuse when I said there was no clock on the water, but mother reminded me how audible the dock hooter was, especially across water. Actually there were two hooters - one worked on compressed air in the lower Dock (Richmond), sited by the power/compressor house; and a mechanical one in the Upper Dock, sited by the gate, near to what we called 'Dripping Corner'. The field below Chanters Folly drained over a high retaining wall on this particular corner and it was rarely dry, as believe it or not, it used to rain through summer months as well as winter ones - just like today. The hooters sounded six times daily - early morning when work commenced; the start and finish of mid-morning break; the beginning and end of lunch hour, and finally for knocking off at the end of the day.
At least my first misdemeanour when I was about three brought only a gentle rebuke. Just down the street was a small sweet shop which also sold tobacco and groceries (a sort of mini village store). Mother used to take me there shopping and I noticed some children came in and bought some items without money by saying that their mothers would pay. A few months later a most embarrassed shopkeeper, Kate Tuplin, had to very diplomatically tell mother she owed five shillings - a small fortune for those days. Mother was always very careful about never getting into debt and questioned this inference. The explanation was that I had been coming into the shop regularly asking for sweets and saving ‘Mammy'll pay’.
The next shopkeeper I embarrassed was the barber. At that time he was called Edward Braunton and his shop was at the back of the Seagate Hotel. I think I was about four when mother took me for my first haircut. The barber got about half-way through the job, but by then I had experienced more than enough of this terrible ordeal of having my head pushed backwards and forwards, of hair getting in my eyes, up my nose and down my neck, and with my ears glowing like two beetroots I registered a very noisy protest and refused to be tortured any further. No coaxing on the part of the barber or mother was of any avail and with the other customers getting fed up with waiting as well as the noisy performance, I was taken home in disgrace half done. I believe in the end my grandfather was allowed to finish me off with a pudding basin. Ever afterwards I regarded the barber as a fate worse than the dentist. (If I'd been older I probably would have thought it worse than death!), and it was always a dreaded moment when it was decided my hair needed cutting again. I always hoped that the barber's shop would be too full so that mother would relent and we could put off the evil day, but she never did. Mother hated bearing people swear; so while she cringed at four or six letter words I cringed at a four word sentence - 'short, back and sides'.
It was mother who had to discipline me, as Dad was a ship's carpenter with the Blue Funnel line of merchant ships. He was away on average at least eleven months of every year, trading from Liverpool mainly to the Far East. I suppose this deprivation improved my geography, as I knew where Port Said, Aden, Rangoon, Bangkok, Penang, Singapore, Java, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Nagasaki and Vladivostock were located about twenty years before the second World War taught everyone else.
A few years ago, looking at some old photographs, I found one taken at Penang showing Dad in the middle of a group of young Malaysian ladies, with his arms around two or three of them. Now Dad was a very shy, retiring person, who would run a mile from any female, designing or otherwise. If there had been a league of sailors having wives in other ports, Dad would have definitely qualified for relegation from the bottom position of the lowest Division. I am sure mother must have made the running when courting, and she often donned the trousers subsequently. This was probably a common situation in Appledore, as many husbands spent a large portion of their working lives at sea, and the wives had to learn to cope mainly unaided. They often had to face up to the anxiety of waiting for news when members of their families were exposed to storms and shipwreck, and the greater tragedy of loved ones being drowned. I have seen my family spending numbed anxious hours, fearing the worst, and then the women weeping with relief when good news came through.
Looking at Dad's Penang photo I wondered how he had plucked up the courage to be so posed. Then quite recently I read a newspaper article where Alan Whicker was asked to nominate twelve ideal places. Over a period of forty years Alan Whicker claims to have logged enough miles to take him to Mars and back several times, so he must be the most travelled person on earth. One of the places Alan named was Penang, which he described as 'an island treasure-house where four races with utterly different life-styles live in considerable harmony. The inhabitants are charmingly tolerant and sensible. They fish and farm as they have for centuries; happy-go-lucky, smiling and kindly'. Then I knew why even super-shy Dad could appear completely at ease with them.
You can imagine how I treasured his short holidays between voyages, although they only lasted two or three weeks. He used to travel by train from Liverpool and get off at the little station in Instow on the other side of the river. I always went down on the Quay to meet him, standing on the slip-way opposite Beara's shop or on the big rack at the water's edge when the tide was low. The ferry was an open 18 foot clinker-built boat with a tan lug sail, and I always wondered why it zig-zagged across the river, taking so long to reach the Quay on my side, but seemed to skim over the water when taking him back at the end of the holiday to the small pier near the station. In later years I realised the river ran from south to north and as the station was on the east side, the prevailing westerly wind invariably meant the ferry had to tack laboriously when Dad arrived, but ran before the breeze when he departed. Usually the ferryman was Bob Bailey in his boat called 'Mona'. I was always intrigued that he had long bobbed hair like a lady, but I understood years later that he had a permanent ear deformity. His younger brother, Jack, also helped as ferryman in his boat 'The Defender'.
For many years the post was taken across the river by Bob Smallridge, whatever the weather or state of the tides, in a similar open boat as the ferry, to connect with the mail train. If Dad arrived at an awkward time I believe he often cadged a lift with Bob, but his boat seemed even slower. Perhaps he had to make sure he never capsized, so the lug sail was probably smaller; just ten or twelve square yards of canvas at the most was enough to get the mail through! As well as missing out of my growing-up years, Dad usually missed out on birthday presents. He was born on a Christmas Eve, and invariably presents sent or given to him (if he was fortunate to be home for the festive season) would include the remark - 'this is to remember your birthday also.' He was fortunate to celebrate any birthday, because he weighed exactly two lbs when he came into the world, and the doctor gave him no chance of surviving. Holding him on the palm of his hand his father remarked that he was hardly big enough to stuff the chicken' When I was six months old, like Dad I refused to succumb after a serious infection or virus made the doctor regret I was unlikely to live through the night. A 'ghost' writer is not composing this book, so I am very grateful that, like the weather man on T.V., the doctor ‘got it wrong' both times.
As a young boy I thought Appledore's name was something to do with apples. Not surprising, as there seemed to be 'lots of apple trees in the village. After all, the nearest town's name was obvious - Bideford, with its famous old bridge, derived from 'by the ford’. My grandparent's house where I was born had a large garden full of trees. A terrace of new houses was built in an orchard further up the hill and we moved to one, and again there was a fine apple tree in the Garden. I found out later the name appears to be Celtic, meaning ‘settlement by the water pool’. There is little doubt that the settlement has existed from the 11th century when it was called Tawmouth. The change of name to 'Appledore' first appears about 1335. Whatever the origin, it is a lovely sounding name, isn't it?
I consider I was blest with yet another priceless bonus in having my maternal grandparents living next door. Being an only child and with Dad being away so much, my relationship with them was very close, especially with my grandfather. In fact I called him 'Daddy Slade’ from the time I could talk and later changed this to ‘Father' until he died when I reached manhood. He had never attended school and had spent his entire life mainly in the small wooden sailing vessels which traded out of Appledore right up to the outbreak of the second World War. He retired when I was born, and having had little opportunity to enjoy his growing family of ten children, he now had time to lavish his affection on me. According to mother he worshipped the ground I walked on, spoiling me completely, and I absolutely idolised him. Not long ago I heard George Schulz, the American Secretary of State, talking on the radio about meeting Mikhail Gorbachev. He said that they had their differences of opinion, of course, but they both agreed it was often easier to love your grandchildren than your children. Ah, what a blessing it is to have grandparents!
Nowadays noisy kids in church are often the rule, but in those days we were generally seen and not heard. One Sunday morning I was sitting with mother in the gallery of the Baptist Chapel which was packed for the Anniversary service. The preacher launched into a long, complicated extempore prayer, but I was looking down at the mass of heads below, and I suddenly noticed the bald one of my grandfather. In the silence, as the preacher struggled for an appropriate word, I shouted out at the top of my voice, which was always high pitched and penetrating, 'Father!’. The congregation woke up absolutely startled, and the preacher, completely thrown, floundered to a full stop!
I remember asking him why he had little hair, and he told me the waves of the sea swamped him so often it had been washed away. I believed it, as so many old sailors around seemed to be bald (including my paternal grandfather). Education, of course, corrected this later, until Duncan Goodhew came to be a swimming hero. Seeing how all his numerous immersions in water had affected his upper crust, I quietly grinned, and thought that perhaps Daddy Slade was right after all.
Mother had a theory about baldness - she said that wearing head-gear prevented the air, therefore oxygen, getting to the roots. In my young days men generally wore hats and even at sea sailors would wear sou-westers, so she was not surprised at the number of bald beads. Her theory rewarded me with the only detention punishment I received while at grammar school. One rule was that caps must always be worn with school uniforms. Thinking of what mother said I used to take my cap off once I was well away from school buildings, but one day I turned a corner straight into the path of the headmaster. Our caps were black with a number of scarlet rings and no hair-style could disguise the fact mine was missing.
My outstanding memories of my grandfather were the regular, numerous occasions when, as in the painting of the ‘Boyhood of Raleigh', I literally sat at his feet to drink in his tales of danger, excitement and adventure at sea. His most memorable experience occurred in the great blizzard of March 1891, which almost overwhelmed his small ketch 'Francis Beddoe' when he was bound to Bideford from Gloucester carrying a cargo of salt. With a force 10 easterly wind driving blinding snow for four days the wind chill factor was tremendous, and round the south west coasts 50 lives were lost at sea, some frozen to death in the rigging of their ships. My grandfather's crew, frozen and frightened out of their lives, gave up the struggle, but he managed to control the ship while it was driven out to the Scilly Isles. Fortunately, the ship, although only 60 feet long, was by Appledore standards nearly a new vessel and she was tight as a drum (or should it be a bottle?). She made no water during the ordeal, though the seas broke over her continuously. My grandfather brought his shipmates back to life by rubbing them and himself with paraffin. Eventually they all recovered enough to set sufficient sail to bring them back to Appledore where they had been given up for lost. Because she had been bought only one month before the gale, no one recognised her when she came over the bar. But what a great relief when it was found that the strange ship was the new ketch with an Appledore crew, back from a watery grave.
The salt she was carrying was a very popular cargo with small vessels. It was brought down from Droitwich to Gloucester by water in special barges crewed by 'wich' men, as they were known, who wore short jackets and trousers of a hard-wearing white leather.
On one occasion grandfather was washed overboard at night in a tremendous storm. He realised as he fell back in the sea he had no chance of survival, but as he struck the water something flicked his face. He raised his arm instinctively and his hand grasped a rope which had broken loose and was swinging from the mast. His grip tightened and as the ship railed violently away from him, he was lifted by the rope and thrown back safely on deck.
His nick-name among fellow sailors was 'Old Heave-to'. While other ships caught out in bad weather made for shelter he would ride out the storm, and when it abated would be first to secure a cargo to transport.
He was tremendously strong - capable of lifting a five hundredweight anchor. One evening while moored in Courtmacsherry, three Irishmen crept aboard his ship to see what they could steal. He caught and tossed two of them overboard while the third scrambled back up the ladder screaming: 'It's the Divil himself!’.
I never forgot some of the things he taught me. As a young boy I could recite the 32 points of the compass without a pause. I believe I still can! Here is the first quadrant - North; north by east, nor' nor' east; north east by north; north east; north east by east; east nor' east; east by north; east.
I still remember the rule of the road at sea:-
'When red and green you see ahead
Port your helm and show your red;
But green to green, or red to red
Means perfect safety: go ahead.
If to your starboard red appear
It is your duty to keep clear.
Act as judgement says is proper;
Port or starboard, back or stop her.
But when upon your port is seen
A steamer's starboard light of green,
There's not so much for you to do,
For green to port keeps clear of you.
Both in safety and in doubt
Always keep a good look-.out.
In danger, with no row to turn,
Ease her, stop her, go astern!'
Father Slade could judge whether it was going to be fine for a day or two by all sorts of phenomena, such as the action of sea birds, the look of the sky, the actions of animals. Three frosty mornings in succession foretold a southerly wind. He wouldn't even be bothered by a glass falling as long as the stars were steady. I believe he could also tell which direction the wind was likely to blow by any cobwebs hanging about on his ship. He often quoted a short rhyme regarding a coming storm, or any change of weather - 'long foretold, long last. Short notice, soon past.'
I'm sure he was the first to introduce ie to the one everybody knows - 'Red sky at night, sailors' delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors' warning.'
I have often been caught out on this one, as it took some years to discover that it depends on what shade of red illuminates the sky. Everybody, of course, knew the local weather aid just by looking liver the bay, and if the island of Lundy (about 20 miles away) was plain, that was a sign of rain.
Grandfather's mother was called Kingdon before her marriage. She was a born leader, never took poverty lying down, and ruled her 15 offspring like a queen. Her word was always law, and no one dared to contradict or answer her back when she gave an order, but she was deeply loved and respected by all. In her family tree was the famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The Kingdons were scattered all over North Devon and North Somerset, and their chief characteristic was extra strong determination, and a refusal to be beaten by anything. Knowing my grandfather and judging by what I've learnt about my great grandmother, and Brunel himself, I can well believe it.
One day I remember him saying to me that he thought the word 'sea' was the most wonderful word in the English language. What would be your choice? Possibly love, joy, peace, mother, father, faith, hope; but to my grandfather, although it had given him a hard life - often cold, hungry, weary, shipwrecked; sometimes frightening; always demanding, the sea with its moods, its awesome power and beauty, its tremendous challenge, had been everything to him. Obviously just what a real Kingdom needed to bring out the best in him.
On the day I left home to work in Swindon he said to mother: 'Now the boy has gone away life will never be the same again. He died a week later and when I heard the news I pictured how the sun sets out in Bideford Bay, and ships sailing across the bar follow a shining path over the water towards Lundy, and some words came into my mind:- ‘He went out on the tide at sunset, floating down the rays of the setting sun, seabound, destined to be heaven - harboured at the end of that last journey.'
Years later I could still picture him clearly in my mind when I wrote a poem called: 'The Old Sailor'.
His face was rugged and furrowed,
Like the waves of a short choppy sea;
Strong and stubborn in outline,
As the tall cliffs beyond Hartland Quay.
Its strength suggested the power
Of a surging spring flooding tide:
His mouth firmly be-whiskered,
Where smiles would cunningly hide.
His hands were work-worn and hardened,
With palms callused and brown;
Tough as the cobbler's leather,
After he hammers it down.
No rudder would ever waver
Under the wheel his fingers gripped;
No knot he tied would betray him,
And bring any harm to his ship.
His voice penetrating and resonant
Would defy the roar of the wind,
Or lead in an old sea shanty
As the anchor chain clattered in.
He knew scares of sailors' ditties;
Any Sankey and Moody bright tune;
The ballads of Victoriana
He would often quietly croon.
In his eyes I could see reflected
An ocean in marvellous might;
The stormy Cape Horn seaway;
Proud clippers, so splendid a sight.
The peaceful blue of still water
White horses dancing with glee;
But most of all, undying devotion
From my grandfather, lavished on me.
Gran was another remarkable character. With three brothers she came from a poor family. The two eldest brothers left home and became deep sea sailors in square rigged ships, leaving Gran's dad (who suffered from bronchitis) with a young son only fit to do small jobs and help generally. So Gran, knowing her father's difficulties, determined to go to sea with him to help keep home fires burning, and soon became a sailor in her own right. She was taught the compass, how to steer by it, and how to trim the sails. She knew the sets of the tides according to the times they ebbed or flowed; became a good judge of weather conditions and soon was sufficiently competent to be left in charge of the watch while her father slept. In those days many of the old ships were only kept afloat by continued pumping. Gran told how, for many hours, she stood at the pumps in her high laced-up boots with hardly any time to rest or make a cup of tea until she eventually arrived at the port of discharge. Then all her spare time was taken up cooking and feeding the crew, including herself.
Gran married grandfather when he was master of a schooner, taught him to read, sailed with him with their babies when he became master of a ketch, and apart from keeping all her husband's books, acted as a proficient mate and navigator. On one voyage, without any other 'hands' (as crew members were called), she and her husband brought the ship through a stormy passage the length of the Bristol Channel.
About twenty years ago the Director of Greenwich Maritime Museum wrote a book called ‘Women under sail'. It is an anthology of women who went to sea either as passengers, as help-mates to their captain-husbands, or as members of the crew. Reviewing the book, 'The Western Morning News' said: 'Apart from the girl who sailed to Australia in the 'Passat' in 1949 as a mess girl, the real sailor-woman whose story appears is Rosina Annie Abigail Harding Slade of Appledore'. I can proudly add to that tribute - my grandmother.
I suppose many families have some peculiar sayings which carry on through the years. Gran was responsible for most of them in our family. She had a knack of inventing unusual words not found in the dictionary. Whereas most people would refer to a mystery object as a 'thingymyjig' or a ‘what-do-you-call-it’, she would also use words such as ‘fakement'. If anyone started putting on weight she would say: 'You'll get fat as Hammett's cat'. It was only about 10 years ago that my uncle spilled the beans on this joke of Gran's. Apparently a neighbour called Hammett had a cat which was not fat, but always skinny as they could come. One day a young cousin came into her house crying, and he told Gran that some boy called Day had punched him. Now Day was a common name in the village and Gran said 'What Day is it?’ Between the sobs my cousin, Bill, said 'Tuesday'. Ever since, whenever anyone enquires as to the day of the week, I am often tempted to say 'Tuesday', whether it is or not.
Gran often used the word 'foxy' (meaning sly or deceitful). Some bright, sunny mornings I would suggest that it was going to be a lovely day, but she would contradict, saying, 'No, it looks like a foxy day to me; you'll get rain later on,' and she was invariably right. She taught me to recognise a 'mackerel' sky (small broken clouds) as a sign of unsettled weather. A cold wind was ‘thin', finding its way through the smallest crack. If it was blowing strong as well, it was ‘lazy’ - going right through you without taking any detour.
Gran was extremely psychic all her life, and this may account for an event which happened when she was 12 and to which she testified strongly and sincerely, until her death at the age of 99. As her story went, she had spent the day with her parents visiting friends at a nearby village. Walking home with them on a clear moonlit evening, she felt a bit weary and sulky and lagged behind. Glancing back she saw a man riding a horse towards her. The strange thing was the horse made no noise. She cowered back in the hedge to let it pass, but the horse stopped, the man locked down at her, then the horse and rider backed across the road and disappeared through the opposite hedge. Gran ran screaming up to her parents who did not believe her story; but when they got home they found that earlier that day someone had been killed while jumping the hedge at that particular spot.
She also loved to tell the story of the sailor who scared the living daylights out of a shipmate. One dark evening they were both visiting a mutual friend, but one had to leave early. Knowing that his friend had to pass the churchyard, he collected a sheet and quietly crept through the gate and waited behind the churchyard wall. Although this wall was about seven feet high, the ground had built up on the inside to be about three feet from the top. Covering himself with the sheet, as his friend passed by, the practical joker stretched out and quietly removed his hat. The friend never stopped to look for it – he covered a considerable distance in world record-breaking time!
Perhaps it was a good thing headgear was common in those days, as during the First World War my grandfather's sailing ship was sunk without warning by a U-boat. The lifeboat was launched in such a hurry it was severely damaged, but the crew eventually reached the coast of Ireland by baling with a hard hat. Hats were not particularly special to the village, but one garment was - the celebrated 'Appledore Jersey'. Referred to as a 'frock', it was known all over the world, and if seen being worn by a sailor when signing on it was a passport to a berth in any ship. The garment was knitted, not only by Gran, but many Appledore women, on numerous needles with a piece of leather on a belt around the waist. One needle was hitched into the belt and the right hand then worked at the speed of a modern electric sewing machine. Made of worsted, it fitted tightly around the body and neck with no seams anywhere and was extremely warm.
I'm not sure whether the story of the ghost in the churchyard gave mother the idea, but on her first day at work in a large draper’s shop, she put a sheet over her head in a dark corridor at the back of the storeroom, jumped out, gave the supervisor a semi-heart attack, and gained instant dismissal.
Like Gran, mother was psychic and so was her eldest sister, Hilda. Their brother, Ted, caught Spanish 'flu following the Great War. On the first morning after recovery he went for a walk, but Aunt Hilda in tears came to see mother. She said she knew Ted was going to die because in a dream that night she clearly saw him on his death-bed with a number of the family around. Aunt Hilda joined them and Ted stretched out his hand, saying, 'Goodbye Hilda’. Aunt Hilda said, ‘but I've just arrived'. Ted repeated 'Goodbye Hilda', lay back and never recovered consciousness. Mother told her not to be so silly as Ted was better and gone out for the first time. A week later he had a relapse and died exactly as Aunt Hilda had related in her dream.
I was born just after he died and the names chosen to anoint me were Ernest (after Dad) and Edward (after mother's brother), but going through the church gate for my christening, Gran began to snivel and said that calling me after Ted would always remind her of the loss of her favourite son. So mother, very exasperated at this last minute sabotage of her arrangements said: 'Oh, alright, I call him Reg!’. I don't know why she chose Reg - there was no other of this name in the family. Perhaps it sort of rhymed with Ted, but by coincidence the curate was also called Reg.
Some of my earliest memories are musical. Mother had an outstanding soprano voice (inherited from her mother), as well as being an excellent elocutionist. Her younger sister, Elizabeth, with whom she shared a special bond all their lives, had a good contralto voice, but was specially gifted as a pianist and organist. Gran was sufficiently wise to find the money so that mother had singing lessons and her sister piano lessons. Mother actually obtained full marks for her singing in the London College of Music exam. I have been associated with chairs all my life and for the past few years have been a member of the Committee organising Swindon Music Festival, but I have never known anyone obtain full marks. I think 96 out of 100 is the most I remember at any Festival.
I was one of those children who always found it difficult to get off to sleep before about eleven o'clock. Given the opportunity, I could always manage to make it up in the morning, of course. Regularly during the evenings mother and her sister would sing in the parlour below and I was enthralled to listen to some of those old songs of the era Alan Keith in his radio series calls 'The Golden Years'. They included such gems as 'Holy City'; 'Star of Bethlehem’; ‘Arise, O Sun'; 'Lost Chord'..…
Sometimes they would be joined by male soloists of the district, like Tom Allin and Henry Littlejohns and I would revel in hearing 'Glorious Devon’; 'Tommy Lad’; 'Up from Somerset'; 'Shipmates O' Mine’; 'I hear you calling me'; Until’, Thora’; 'Nirvana'; 'Larboard Watch’, 'Watchman, what of the night?' and that prince of duets 'Excelsior' by the composer of ‘Come into the garden, Maud'. I don't think it was my favourite just because my grandfather first went to sea in a ship called 'Excelsior'. What a fine name for such a splendid creation as a fully-rigged sailing craft.
Listening to Alan Keith's programmes has made me realise I must have heard at least a hundred of those splendid songs of the Victorian, Edwardian and first World War periods.
Mother's elocution party piece was a typically Victorian sentimental monologue called 'The Doctor's Fee’. I can still remember and hear her reciting the first verse:-
'Talk of contented children,
My Harry will stand with the best.
As a baby he'd lie in his cradle
As snug as a bird in its nest:
And talk to himself by the hour,
And coo like a pigeon he would,
And play with his little fat fingers,
As sweet as a pink and as good.'
It goes on to tell how he was given a toy horse and cart which became his pride, joy and constant companion. Taken seriously ill with bronchitis, he asks for the toy to be put beside his bed where he could lie and see it and he asks (if he goes to heaven) for his horse and cart to come too. Mercifully he recovers, but overhears his parents discussing hem they could possibly pay the doctor's fee. Harry takes his horse and cart to the doctor, explaining mother cannot pay his bill, so he's brought his most precious possession instead. The doctor, in telling the story, relates how he has had many a golden guinea and handsome fees, but none as valuable or precious as the prized toy of a little child.
Mother's sister (Auntie Lizzie as I called her) also had the gift of producing spontaneous verse and I have often wondered whether some compositions I heard then and never since were not the result of my aunt's work. One of these which I remember mother singing to me had a chorus:-
Seagull, seagull, fly away over the sea;
Seagull, seagull, please take a message for me.
If you see a big ship sailing aver the foam,
Tell my daddy that his little boy
Is waiting for him at home.'
I believe the first verse started:
‘A little boy stood on the shore one day ....
Last Christmas my elder grand-daughter asked me what were the words of ‘Jingle Bells'. I was stumped for a while, as the words my Mother taught me were:
‘Christmas Eve is here and we go off to bed;
As we climb the stairs nodding sleepy head.
Take our stockings off, hang them in a row;
Then jump quickly into bed, off to sleep, heigh ho!
Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way;
Santa Claus will soon be here riding in a sleigh.
Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way.
Hurrah for dear old Santa Claus! Hurrah for Christmas Day!'
I have not beard those wards since, so are they an Appledore Auntie Lizzie's inspiration?
Some readers will remember the words of that old song ‘Absent', so full of old-fashioned sentiment and pathos:
'Sometimes between long shadows on the grass
The little truant waves of sunlight pass,
My eyes grow dim with tenderness the while;
Thinking I see thee, thinking I see thee smile.
And sometimes in the twilight gloom apart
The tall trees whisper, whisper heart to heart.
From my fold lips the eager answers fall:
Thinking I hear thee; thinking I hear thee call.'
Mother used to sing an extra verse, which I have never traced. Was it the work of any aunt? It went, I believe, like this:
God’s blessings rest on thee both night and day,
And guard thy footsteps lest they ever stray;
Until we meet on that bright heavenly shore;
There we shall meet, dear; there we shall part no more.’
As a boy I was unable to sing - I had a job to carry a tune and mother used to think it strange a son of hers had no musical talent; but when I was 14 my voice broke and, surprisingly, I found I possessed a vocal ability which I can modestly describe as above average quality. When I was about 16, mother was booked to sing one evening at the Congregational Chapel - I believe a sort of bazaar or autumn fayre was planned for the afternoon, and a grand concert was arranged to complete the day. In between mother practising her songs, I was singing something myself, when Winnie Green who was organising the concert called at the house. She was surprised to bear me singing and she said to mother: 'Bring him along with you this evening as a surprise extra item'. Now the problem arose of a choice of what to sing. I think there was a book (probably the 'News Chronicle Song Book') open at the piano at a page showing the 'Londonderry Air'. As my voice had settled to a pure tenor range, I chose to sing 'Danny Boy' because this song went up nice and high in the second half of each verse. I duly performed that evening and as I came down from the stage I noticed an old gentleman in the front row with tears streaming down his face. I knew he was called Mr Kearon, but I did not know that he had emigrated from Ireland many years before and settled in Appledore. The chairman was Rev. Alfred Green, and he got up as I finished and said: 'For many years Mr. Kearon has longed to go back to Ireland, but tonight Ireland has come back to him’. Confident after my debut, later that year, I sang the same song and won the tenor prize at Grammar School. For many years I have appreciated Alan Keith introducing his programme ‘100 Best Tunes' every week with 'my tune'.
Rev. Alfred Green was a well-known local character, a leading light in the social activities of the village. A block maker by trade, he was a natural public speaker, and he educated himself sufficiently to become part-time minister of Northam Congregational Church. He was also heavily involved in local affairs, becoming Chairman of the Council, President of the Regatta Committee and was always in great demand taking special services and acting as guest speaker throughout the district. He is well remembered too for his photography and magic lantern shows. I can certainly remember the time he took my photo. I was very reluctant to change from short to long trousers. Apart from thinking I would look stupid in them, I also believed they would restrict my movement running and jumping, and would be a nuisance messing about on the river - much more material to get dry or cling around uncomfortably if they got wet. I must have been nearly 15 when I grudgingly submitted to wear long ones. Mother wanted a photo taken right away to send to Dad, but I only agreed providing I could creep down to Alfie's studio after dark.
Until about 10 years ago I thought that 'Danny Boy' was a traditional Irish song going back at least 150 years; but then I discovered the words were written in 1910 by Fred Weatherley. In that year his father and son died within three months of each other. He turned for comfort to his song writing, and the personal grief he felt came through in the sad story of an Irish boy leaving his country, and saying farewell to the girl he loved. Fred Weatherley was born in Portishead, graduated as a lawyer, started to write undergraduate poems, then verses for Christmas cards, and during the rest of his long life wrote thousands of songs, of which 1500 were published. Mother used to sing many of them, and the favourite with both of us, and I expect with many more of her generation, and her mother's, was 'The Holy City'. In the 'Musical Times’ of 1899 it was reported that it was selling at the rate of 50,000 copies per year. The famous tenor, Edward Lloyd, was engaged to sing four times in one month at Montreal for a fee of 250 guineas each concert, only on condition he sang 'The Holy City' on each occasion.
The year following my debut the Congregational Chapel installed a new organ. Auntie Lizzie was the guest organist honoured to christen it. I was also invited as one of the soloists and on this occasion ‘The Holy City' was my choice.
The song I mentioned earlier about the seagull prompts another vivid memory. My Grandmother on Dad's side lived at the other end of the village, and as well as odd times in the week, I visited her every Sunday after morning service and stayed for dinner. Being an only grandchild she, just like Daddy Slade, completely spoiled me. They both thought I could do no wrong. One day she heard me coming in, and was so excited she threw into the fire a one pound note she was holding, and that was a small fortune then. On another occasion I came in while she was busy cooking the dinner. The meat looked strange and I kept asking: 'Gran, what sort of meat is that?'. Feeling harassed with the performance of the old kitchen stove, to keep me quiet, she said: 'Oh! Seagull’ I swallowed this (twice, if you count eating it later) and it tasted quite nice. When I got home mother asked me what Gran had cooked for dinner, and I told her I had eaten seagull. After I had retrieved her from the hole in 'the kitchen ceiling, she grabbed her coat and was on route to Gran's house almost without opening the door. Now the wall of the small courtyard at the back of Gran's house formed the bank of the river, and for years she regularly fed the seagulls, and they became quite tame. She gave some of them names - one with a limp was called ‘Hoppity'. So my horrified mother thought she must have caught one and cooked it. My grandmother next door was full of old wives' tales, and she always maintained rabbits were the cause of cancer. The result was I had never seen or tasted rabbit; so now you have solved the seagull story.
It seems that at this period I was willing to try anything edible, but as a young child, like many of that age, I was fussy and faddy over food. One week-end mother had to go away and Auntie Lizzie was in charge of my breakfast, which was a boiled egg. Now she was very soft-hearted and especially prone to spoil me, and as I found the egg not quite cooked to the consistency I preferred, I refused to eat it, and my aunt obediently cooked three more before I was satisfied. In my human dustbin, or eat-everything phase, I was left to get my own tea once, and I astounded mother when I told her I had made some sandwiches of bread, butter and squashed banana smarted with tomato sauce.
A popular local treat at parties, socials and special tea-times was cutrounds and cream. These are a sort of yeast bun cut into two and spread with Devonshire cream and jam. In Cornwall they are called splits, and believe one county spreads the cream first and adds a dollop of jam, whereas the other spreads the jam and adds a dollop of cream. Doan ee ax me which be which, 'cos it be gorn out o' me 'ade, me dears.'
Of course a very favourite food with kids as it is now (and no doubt will be - world without end) was chips and fish. I'm sure a pen'erth of chips eaten straight out of newspaper from Bennett's shop on the Quay tasted to hungry boys like ambrosia, the food of the gods, and just round the corner up Trinity (or 'Heddon's’) Ope was Meo Down's and at the bottom of Myrtle Street Yeo's shop, both offering similar satisfaction.
One gastronomic speciality Gran Carter regularly gave me was laver (pronounced lay-ver). This is a dark green seaweed found in the estuary, mainly on the South Tail of the Bar. It grows in clusters on the rocks forming strands an inch wide. To make it edible it has to be thoroughly washed, chopped and boiled. adding vinegar, and is eaten cold or fried. Usually it is in season when there is an 'R' in the month.
It is peculiar to the Bristol Channel (mainly on the Torridge and in South Wales on the opposite side where it is called lavah-bread). To my knowledge it is not found anywhere else in the British Isles. Mother did not object to this particular food, especially as our village family doctor, Dr. Valentine, said it contained iodine and was very good for you.
An even more delicious morsel was available in Gran's house between April and September - salmon. Granda Carter was also a sailor, serving on the private steam yacht belonging to the Coates family of cotton manufacturers at Glasgow. When he was home on leave he formed part of the crew of one of the local fishing boats, and sometimes he took me with him.
The Torridge was a fine salmon-stocked river, and I believe when I was a boy about 5,000 per year were caught in the estuary. According to historical sources salmon fishing is even older than Appledore itself, as in the year 857 the King of Wessex gave the Abbot of Glastonbury 10 hides of land in the estuary 'for the taking of salmon for his house.' By 1086 Taw-Torridge fishery was valued at 25s. a year, the most valuable fishery in Devon.
I can remember when my grandfather landed on Western sands one of the largest salmon caught in the river. Weighing in, if I remember correctly, at 49Ibs, it was a lovely specimen as tall as he was. 'Tall' is the overworked adjective applied to fishing stories, of course, but I have been genuinely informed that a 56 pounder was caught in the 1930s, and a 57 pounder in the early 1920s. Any salmon caught were sent by rail to London, but occasionally my grandfather would bring home a young one. We called it salmon peal, or pug; but I believe it was actually sea trout. Whatever the name (like Shakespeare's rose smelling as sweet) it certainly tasted as delicious as real salmon. That 57 pounder compares favourably with Britain's record salmon (64Ibs) caught on the river Tay in 1923.
There were about two dozen boats in season fishing from various parts of the estuary at low tide. The nets were specially made at Bridport (Dorset) and were about 75 fathoms long by 2 fathoms deep. The middle portion, known as the bunt, was about 2” mesh, and the rest about 4”. The boats were open, clinker built, 18 ft. length with a crew of four. With one end of the net held by one man on the shore, the rest of it piled up in the stern, the boat would be rowed out in a half circle by two of the crew, the piled net being paid out by a third member. When the boat touched shore again, an arc of floats (corks or hollow dark green glass balls) marked where the net lay. Then with two men on either end of the net, one on the head (or top) rope and one on the leaded foot (or bottom) rope, the net would be slowly and systematically drawn in. As the last corks reached the shore, the last portion of the net was quickly and carefully hauled in. Any fish entrapped in the bunt would be killed instantly by a sharp blow to the head with a short lead pipe or a thole-pin (one of the short wooden sticks which were used in pairs as rowlocks). Bridport still produces nets to all specifications for use throughout the United Kingdom. The type used at Appledore is fairly unique, only being used otherwise somewhere in Scotland.
As my grandfather's ship was based in Glasgow he made a number of Scottish friends, and some came to stay with him on holiday. When I found I could not understand one quarter of what they said I assumed they must be some sort of semi-foreigners. Someone once wrote:
'I'm glad I'm not a foreigner, to live in heathen lands,
And have to talk a language that no one understands.
If they were only English, it would save a lot of fuss,
And wouldn't it be nice for them, if they were all like us.’
Inserting a sharp digression, I would like to mention here that as far as school was concerned I was better at sports than academic subjects. Most games I could manage reasonably well, with one notable exception – golf. As boys we used to borrow old clubs and balls and try to play around the Burrows on the perimeter of the golf course. But do you think I could hit those balls? I could throw a club further, and I sometimes did in exasperation. My pride was hurt, so I tried to analyse my deficiency, and came to a logical conclusion. With most sports you have a fighting chance - a boot 12’ long and 3” wide to kick a football; a piece of wood twice as big to knock a cricket ball; about a square foot of gut to whack a tennis ball; but what normal person could be expected to hit something smaller than an egg, by swinging at it with a lump of wood or metal smaller than your fist from about five feet away? Winston Churchill put it more succinctly when he remarked that golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose. My grandfather informed me that the Scots had invented golf, and when I understood that in an atrocious climate the men wore skirts, with the strong possibility of nothing underneath, then I knew that there must be something odd about them. It all fitted in with their peculiar way of speaking English! Some people dispute the identity of the originator of golf, maintaining that no Scotsman could have invented a game where it was highly possible to lose the ball.
The Carter Family.
Granda Carter was one of 17 children. His mother, Jane, was a real gem, loved by all, always ready with assistance, advice and comfort to any who came to her in trouble or distress. Even little children would go to her to have their cuts and grazes treated, rather than to their own parents. She also helped bring up some of her family's children. I think Dad told me that at mealtimes there could be up to 24 hungry humans to feed. Two sittings were needed for each meal, some perched on the stairs with plates balanced on their knees. They all lived in a house known as Island Cottage, as there was a narrow alley (or drang) on each side of it. Originally built as two cottages, it had two sets of stairs, but no lavatory. Everyone had to cross a Path at the rear to use a neighbour's facilities. The door of her house was never locked, and any tramp or stranded person was welcome to take shelter by the fireplace for the night, and they frequently did.
With my grandfather being part of such a large family, the number of great uncles and cousins on the Carter side left me rather confused, and I had difficulty in sorting out how they all fitted together. One easily identified, Uncle Billy, was crippled as a baby with infantile paralysis and was always in a hand-propelled wheel chair. He would frequently be seen occupying a regular place on the Quay at the bottom of Bude Street 'Ope'. His handicap did not stop him learning a tailor's trade with Mr Beara; cutting hair also augmented his income. Another relative I frequently saw on the Quay was Uncle Stan who worked in the coal stores for the Mills brothers. I was intrigued as to how he could be Dad's uncle, because he appeared to be the same age and also looked like him; but being the youngest of the 17 he was actually only about six years older. Of course, I saw quite a lot of Dad's younger sister, Cordelia, who lived with Gran Carter. Some of her friends and family called her 'Dillie', but for some reason or other, from an early age, I always called her Aunt 'Doah'.
Unlike Daddy Slade I was educated from the age of five, - starting at the local council school just 50 yards up the hill. The names of some of the teachers come to mind - Olive Ford, Ida Bailey (sister of the ferryman), Winnie Parkhouse, and her sister who was headmistress. I achieved fame or notoriety in the first week I attended, as one night our house was burgled - a completely unknown phenomenon then. Just a few days before my mother occupied our new house she discovered that over-night the back window had been smashed, the back door unlocked, and the house thoroughly ransacked. Nothing had been taken, but every drawer and cupboard had been turned out. Presumably the thief had been looking for money which he never found, as mother had it all with her in her handbag which she kept at her parent's house. The burglar was never traced, but I was able to brag about a novel experience denied to all the other children, enlarging on the visit of a real detective, even though he did not smoke a pipe or wear a deer-stalker.
Lessons at Infants and Junior school are vague in memory - it must have been mainly reading, writing and arithmetic. I can remember the writing books where we had to copy (keeping accurately to the four ruled lines) copperplate phrases - world without end, it seemed. My first teacher at Junior Council School was Vera Hookway, and one day when writing an essay (I forget the actual subject) I went off at a tangent (as kids will), and included a detailed description of mother, emphasising that her birthday was a very special day, because it was Midsummer Day. On mother's next birthday a bouquet of flowers arrived from an anonymous donor. This gift continued annually, and it was many years before she discovered the identity of the sender. Even after Vera left Appledore her sister-in-law carried on (until she herself died) giving mother a bunch of flowers every birthday morning. Every term the village Congregational minister, Mr Brockett, came for Scripture examination. We were asked questions about the Bible and if our answers created a good impression we were given a special day's holiday. As a regular Sunday school scholar and possessing a good memory, I was able to make a worthy contribution to this ordeal and we were always awarded our day off, no doubt to the great satisfaction of our teacher, Joe Payne, and headmaster, Sid Ford, who was a brother of my very first teacher, Olive Ford.
It was only last year when I realised that the world was much smaller than I ever thought. An organisation to which I belong arranged a half-day coach tour around the Cotswolds, regarded by many as one of the loveliest parts of England. It is full of small charming villages, and on the way home we stopped in one of them (Filkins), so that those who wished could get refreshment at the local inn. With Roy Varcoe, another passenger, I walked up the village street, and we stopped to chat to two ladies standing at a garden gate. Ray asked them how they liked living in a tiny isolated village, and assuming I had always lived in Swindon, he said to me. ‘You wouldn't know, Reg, being a real townie.’ I told him I had been born and bred in a Devon village, at which one of the ladies looked at me with interest and asked me which one. When I said it was Appledore, she almost collapsed with surprise, because it turned out her great grandfather had been headmaster of Appledore school.
I apologise for seeming to branch off at this stage on to another subject, but patience will enlighten you. When Aunt Hilda's husband (Uncle Bill Lamey) bought his first car they took Gran to see the grave of her parents in the village of Tawstock, which is about three miles off the beaten track south of Barnstaple. My wife became very keen on genealogy, and in her expeditions to trace the branches of the family tree we visited Tawstock many times, searching in a very overgrown jungle of a churchyard for this gravestone. We found it a charming village and my son loved to sit in the car and sketch some of the buildings there, especially fascinated by the quaint thatched-roof school.
To get back to that particular evening in Filkins, when the lady and I had recovered from the shock of our discovery, she then asked whether I knew Tawstock, and went on to say that her great grandfather had been headmaster there before he took up the appointment at Appledore!
Bideford Grammar School.
When I was eleven years old I qualified for Bideford Grammar School (three miles away) and entered a completely different world which filled my developing years with many memories I shall always cherish with affection and nostalgia. I think I agree with the person who said that schooldays are among the best years of our lives. Was the writer of the song 'Gaudeamus igitur juvenes dum sumus' (Let us rejoice therefore while we are young) implying there is not much to rejoice over when youth is behind us? I suppose many look back with nostalgia on schooldays because they are linked with the freedom of childhood, long holidays, no worries, no responsibilities, no inhibiting weariness or pains of old age. Whatever the reasoning, I can heartily corroborate one line of my school song – ‘where joys were keen and sorrows few'.
I was one of those children who was not really outstanding in any particular subject. With most of them I could reach a mediocre standard, and then only by dint of hard work and concentration. Strange to tell, however, without any warning, at the age of 40 I suddenly developed a gift of writing verse (in which I have gained prize awards). I say ‘strange' as I was only fair at English also. Grammar always baffled me, and I never seemed to hit any jackpots writing essays. I distinctly recall when we were asked to write one about 'Mount Everest’. I suppose the master wanted us to portray the romance and challenge of mountaineering. especially as recent British expeditions had been organised to climb it, plus the unsolved mystery of Mallory and Irvine last seen in the mist going strong for the top. My mother always took the 'News Chronicle', but my grandparents took the 'Daily Express’. By cutting out a coupon from the latter paper every day for a year and sending with them, I think it was about five shillings, I obtained a set of nine books comprising the 'Daily Express Encyclopaedia’. I consulted this Encyclopaedia and wrote down some dull, uninteresting facts about Everest being 29,002 feet above sea level etc., and ended with a horrible pun: ‘I'm sure Everest will ever rest unconquered’. I can see the page now of my exercise book and the master's comment: 'Pathetic’. The master's writing was the most atrocious I'd ever come across, and it has since occurred to me (tongue-in-cheek) that perhaps he wrote: ‘Perfect'. As a matter of fact most of our masters' handwriting was poor, and being brought up practising that copperplate stuff in special backs ruled with lines to guide the tops and bottoms and loops of letters, I was mystified over the low standard of their scribble. I came to the conclusion that masters were so clever, their brains simply raced along, and their hands had never been able to keep up with them. Time taught me that teachers are just as human, and quite often just as inept or thick as the rest of us!
As I mentioned earlier, in those days I had no better success writing poetry. Once on the first day of the Michelmas term we were asked to write a poem called ‘Summer Holidays'. Probably to this day most children in September are asked to write something about their long break. Possibly my rhymes must have been corny and the contents hopeless or even pathetic (again!), because at the bottom of the page I can still see the wards ‘Drivel: 2 marks out of 10'.
My prowess with games exceeded scholastic achievement. I was naturally nippy on my pins and eventually found myself in the school first XV rugby team. Bideford Grammar School had always been a soccer school, but a new headmaster (an Oxford rugger blue) was appointed the term when I started and he decided to switch the school to a rugby playing one instead. My first inter-school game was against West Buckland (a rugger stronghold) and somebody's error (typist's perhaps?) produced a memorable occasion. As a young, inexperienced team we were supposed to play their third XV, but we took the field against their formidable first team, a number of whom became Devon County players, and we were thrashed 83 points to nil. As a wing three-quarter I seemed to spend most of the 90 minutes trying to impede the opposite wing, who looked like Superman and moved with the speed of Concorde. I realised afterwards what it must feel like to be knocked down and flattened by a tram.
Happily in my last year at school there was a different story to tell. The rugby team was the finest the school had ever produced and for the first time we beat Barnstaple Grammar School, a larger school, and me where rugby had been long established. It was a unique sight to see the headmaster jumping for joy on the touch line. The towns of Bideford and Barnstaple have been rivals for many years. Even the name of the bay into which their respective rivers converge could not be settled, and has always been printed an maps as Bideford or Barnstaple Bay. Inter-school games were always most fiercely contested, and it was an uplifting occasion to trounce their school by 23 points to 3. Bideford is closely associated with Rev. Charles Kingsley and it was here in 'the Little White Town’, as he named Bideford, he wrote his famous novel ‘Westward Ho!’.
This was the first book we studied in English literature (which I preferred to grammar and writing) and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I learned that from my home river in Elizabethan days English sea-dogs set forth, to champion freedom, to bring trade and glory to the homeland and to be among the earliest settlers in North America. The local hero was Sir Richard Grenville, cousin of Sir Walter Raleigh. His father was captain of the 'Mary Rose’ when it sank at Portsmouth in 1545. He took five ships from the Torridge to join Sir Francis Drake at Plymouth, to fight against the Spanish Armada. In 1591 sailing the 'Revenge his famous engagement at the Azores of a large Spanish fleet, including 20 warships, was a proud event in English history. He utterly refused to turn from the enemy, and ever a long day inflicted tremendous damage on them before he was mortality wounded. Tennyson's stirring poem brought the battle to life in the words ‘And the sun went down, and the stars came out far over the summer sea; but never a moment ceased the fight of the one and fifty three'. Probably the best lines in the poem were those when the stricken Sir Richard demands. ‘Sink me the ship, Master Gunner - sink her, split her in twain. Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain.' The school song also reminded us of this event:-
‘When Grenville sailed from Bideford
Four hundred Years ago,
And the little Revenue dropped down the tide
To meet her Spanish foe,
And Devon men the whole world through
Ruffled it to and fro.
By unknown hands a seed was sown
From which our School has slowly grown.
Into the world her sons go forth,
Yet ever home return:
From far and near to Bideford,
Once and again they turn,
For in their hearts undyingly
The fires of longing burn
To see once more the School they knew.
Where joys were keen and sorrows few.
While ever the Old Bridge spans the stream.
Or ever the Torridge flows.
And Bideford is Bideford,
And England England knows.
Our School shall stand, and still the same,
Add lustre to her glorious name.’
Grenville's reckless daring and considerable success inspired the men of North Devon to follow him in search of profit or adventure. He played a leading part in awakening the sailors of the Torridge to a new world beyond the bay.
Perhaps I could try to recall some humorous classroom events. I remember one 1st April morning when the most mischievous, troublesome member of the class tried to play an April fool's joke on a master. In those days we did it among ourselves, but never on the staff.
Unfortunately the joker chose a master, to use a modern expression, with a very short fuse. He placed a drawing pin on the master's chair, and when the master came into the classroom and was about to sit down the joker called out: ‘Please don't sit down, sir, there's a drawing pin on your chair'. The master could be very affable sometimes and I suppose he realised the date, ignored falling into the trap, and sat down. Three classrooms were housed in a converted army hut which was purchased in 1920, and erected in the school grounds at Northdown Road. Each classroom was equipped with a coke stove and ours was a bit smoky that morning, so fortunately the door was left open, because the furious master caught the boy by the scruff of his neck and seat of his pants and threw him through the doorway. It was fortunate also that there was long grass outside, with the ground still soft from the usually wet and mild winter, for him to land on.
The boy never did learn, because six months later he received the same treatment from another master when he was tossed down same stairs in Bideford Art school. We used to have our science lessons there, and that particular day the master was conducting a delicate experiment with a Bunsen burner while we all held our breath. Into the silence the Practical joker shouted out ‘Bang!’ causing the master to jump with a sudden start and spill the contents of his work over the laboratory desk.
Annual school excursions were red-letter days in Summer terms. Visits were paid (among other venues) to the West Region Broadcasting Station at Watchet; Cheddar caves and Wells, Plymouth and Torbay, Southampton Docks and a tour of the 'Acquitania’; and to Swindon Great Western Railway Works. On one very eventful day we visited the Cardiff area. Most of the journey was by sea, departing from Ilfracombe in one of Campbell’s paddle steamers which regularly served the Bristol Channel. After a full programme we left the Welsh coast in the early evening just as a gale sprang up. Heavy storm clouds gathered, and a combination of pitching and tossing soon wrought havoc among the passengers. Maybe salt water in the blood or the genes helped, because the Appledore contingent to a man (sorry - to a boy!) kept smiling, and kept their tea down; but a large proportion of the school was affected, and it was strange to see most of the masters rendered helpless, causing slight satisfaction among some boys who had fallen foul of them recently. One group of boys huddled together and tried to stave off disaster by singing sea-shanties (a less drastic action than Jonah's), but when heavy rain added to the ordeal and discomfort, refuge was sought below where they paid the penalty wholesale. Eventually mopper-uppers became over-worked, and orders had to be given that no one was allowed in the lounge if they felt at all ill. Ilfracombe was reached an hour late, with excitement continuing up to the last as some terrific rolls were experienced when the ship turned broadside to enter the harbour.
Wet, weary, pale, much worse for wear, we crowded into buses, and to add insult to injury the one I was in over-heated pulling up Ilfracombe hill, and as flames came out of the engine, we sat in the hedge until another coach arrived. We did reach Bideford quay early next morning, where anxious parents were gathered in droves to welcome with relief the brave, battered company.
The school outing to Southampton Docks involved another exciting ordeal by water. It had been arranged for the Appledore contingent to cross by ferry to lnstow and board the train there. The tide had been checked as being suitably high to take us from slip-way to pier without walking on beach, mud or sand, but by the time we assembled in the morning on the Quay an almighty gale, accompanied by driving rain, was howling down the river, churning it into a mass of white horses (as breaking waves were called). The ferryman said that the trip would be foolhardy, and refused to take us across. There was no bus available, and no time to organise one and get to Bideford station in any case. Just then two sturdy apprentice lads, passing by on their way to work in the Docks, heard us and some of our parents beseeching and arguing with the ferryman. They stopped, offered their help, and in no time we had commandeered a fishing boat, and with some of us in relays assisting them to row, we struggled across, albeit wetter than the water itself. Even in those howling conditions we heard the cheers and saw the waving arms of parents and onlookers on the Quay as we reached the pier just in time to run for the train. By keeping close to the shore, pulling up river towards Westleigh, then coming across with the assistance of the wind and ebb tide, our two valiant St. Christophers returned safely.
Schooldays, of course, provided long holidays, and even without T.V., hi-fi, records, tapes, car rides and the million and one distractions of modern life, we managed to contentedly over-fill the days and we never realised the word 'boredom’ had been invented. One of my earliest memories concerns the oldest building in Appledore - Docton House - which was a 14th century monastery. I think it belonged or was rented to the Green family. Part of it was a workshop where Rev. Alfred Green carried on his block-making, canoe building, and photographic studio work.
I remember that the open courtyard at the top of the stairs had three boat swings erected which took two children at a time sitting facing each other, each one pulling a rope to keep them going. This type can still be seen today in some old-fashioned fairgrounds. The three Docton house swings had names painted on them - ‘Why Not'; 'Come Up' and 'Try Me', and I think we had to pay something like a half-penny for an hour's use. I never realised until quite recently what an historically interesting place Docton House is reputed to be. It was built by Cistercian monks who occupied it until the dissolution of the monasteries. The Docton family of Hartland then lived there and they organised the supply of goods to Hartland Abbey and also allowed the premises to be used as a rest house for pilgrims bound for the same destination.
During the Civil War Prince Charles is said to have landed at Appledore when fleeing to Cornwall, and to have stayed at Docton. I was talking recently to an expert on numismatics, and she maintained that coins were minted in that period at Appledore, and she believed Docton House to have been the likely site.
My years of growing up involved hardship for many, and money was in short supply, with little to be spared for toys. What you have never had, you never miss, so they say, and we filled countless carefree hours with the simplest of pastimes. Very popular was bowling iron hoops made by Jim Braund, the local blacksmith, at the bottom of Myrtle Street. They were 24” to 30” diameter made of three-eighths material and were guided by an iron driver handle which had an eye one end welded around the hoop, and a loop the other end to give a handhold. We used to have races with them - short sprints the length of the Quay and some real marathons to Bideford and back (six miles). Girls, of course, were more genteel, bowling wooden hoops along with sticks. (My wife, reading this, made the comment that girls thought it was cheating to have the stick attached to the hoops and she suggests wooden ones were, therefore, more difficult!).
It was slightly less energetic to whip wooden mushroom-shaped tops. When racing with those, enthusiasm would sometimes result in the top flying through the air to the detriment of low-placed window panes. Needing more skill was the sharp-pointed onion-shaped spinning tops, which could bore quite substantial holes before running out of energy.
Very common was cigarette card collecting. These were obtained by badgering smokers on the street, or by investigating discarded packets. They were not all that plentiful, as most of the old sailors preferred their pipes, and others (including Dad) rolled their own to save money. We used to swap them, or win them by seeing who could flick them the farthest. Flicking against a wall and being awarded those which fell face up was another method. Sometimes we won cards by blowing under them on window sills and trying to turn them over.
Conker games, of course, were prolific in the autumn. How many years, I wander, have these been bashed on the ends of string? Our main source was Cleave Houses, about two miles up the river bank towards Bideford. Another supply could be obtained from the driveway to Knapp House, as we cycled home from school. There were walnut trees there too which provided some sustenance about the same time. Even back in those days we used to bake conkers on the kitchen range, the oven or the hearth to harden and make them winners.
With the exception of messing about with boats and other afore-mentioned river pursuits, I suppose our most dangerous sport was racing on trolleys. We would find old pram wheels on the beach, and by joining two pairs together with a plank of wood washed up to high water mark, we had some sort of vehicle which could be guided - slightly - by lying along the plank and grasping the front axle with outstretched hands. Superior models had a wooden box fixed to the plank, and the axle was controlled with a looped piece of rope. The trouble was very few of them had brakes (a foot jammed against a wheel was the usual method), and I have seen and experienced frequent skinned arms and knees when a hill was too steep and a bend too sharp to negotiate.
We could be little terrors at times, and any particular adults who had bullied and chased us away for making a noise we subjected to the game of ‘kick the white horse’. This involved knocking on their doors or ringing their bells and running around the corner at full speed. This sometimes resulted in being chased off by the local policeman. One particular bad-tempered constable meted out the painful punishment of flicking our necks and ears with his gloves as we tried to dodge and escape. Fortunately police tyrants were rare, and we were specially spoiled while Mr. Squires was the local bobby, because he was most sympathetic and friendly, and made generous allowance for our noisy high spirits.
Toys had to be saved for over long periods, and birthdays and Christmases were eagerly anticipated. I shall never forget my Hornby '0' gauge clockwork train - strange how I never got tired of seeing it go round and road a small circle probably no more than 18 inches diameter. The biggest thrill was being given a Meccano set. You could start with the small simple basic set (was it number 0?). and then add to it up to about number 10. I still have most of my Meccano up to, I think, number three or four. I read recently that the name 'Meccano’ derived from ‘Mechanics Made Easy’, which was the name Frank Hornby gave the toy when he patented it in 1901, and subsequently made a fortune. His toy trains were produced from 1920 at the world-famous Binns Road factory in Liverpool. We relied heavily an Father Christmas for our quota of toys, and his reality was never questioned for a good number of years. When I was about 10 my cousin, Ted, came to sleep with me one Christmas Eve, and we decided to stay awake and get a look at this fabled gentleman. We had heard a rumour that he did not exist, so we intended to prove it one way or another. We managed to stay awake until about midnight and saw or heard nothing. I woke up about five o'clock, and creeping along the landing to the bathroom, tripped over a bulging stocking in the dark, and fell on top of a toy clockwork racing car which I had been hoping for months to receive from Santa Claus. The roof was badly dented and a sadder but wiser boy was told by my mother that Father Christmas probably heard us talking when we should be sleeping, and left the presents on the landing outside the bedroom door. So I learned the hard way Santa’s golden rule which still applies - he never comes to children until they are asleep.
Our stockings usually contained regular items each year such as an orange or a lump of coal in the toe, an apple, some nuts, sweets, a wrapped-up newly minted coin, a comic, a soft-back school story book, and less exciting things like a pair of socks or some handkerchiefs. If we were really in Santa's good books there would be super treasures like a pocket-knife or a puzzle. I believe some of these items had a traditional meaning - apple for good health, a coin for the hope of wealth and coal for warmth in the years to come. Stockings were mainly lisle (borrowed from our mothers) and sometimes a roll of newspaper would be included to help fill it up to the top.
Popular indoor names included many still in vogue today, such as Ludo, snakes and ladders, draughts, tiddly-winks, table tennis. The early wireless sets were a nine-day wonder in spite of waging a constant war with atmospherics. crackling and whistling, but you needed patience in waiting your turn to try the headphones, and more patience still if someone forgot to charge the accumulator
The wide choice of comics, journals, magazines, paperbacks we have today did not exist, but in my circle of cousins and friends it was the school stories of Greyfriars and St. Jim’s etc., found in 'The Gem’ and ‘Magnet' which were eagerly passed around every week, and for younger readers, Rupert was very popular. Although I didn't take the comic itself, ‘Chums Annual' was a very special treat, providing hours and hours of entertaining reading matter.
About a mile up the river bank on the edge of a high quarry-face there was a tall tower known as Chanter's Folly. It was a square, four storey building, strongly constructed about 1840 by Mr. Thomas Chanter, a merchant and ship-owner, in order to signal the sighting of incoming ships to Bideford, so that discharging preparations could be made.
After Thomas Chanter died a shipwright named Beer lived in it, and some of his family were born there, but when I was a boy the floors and stairs were very rotten and rickety. Below this tower lies the small hamlet of Hubbastone, so called because an invading ninth century Danish chieftain is reputed to have been buried there. The husband of mother's sister Hilda established a coal merchant's business at Hubbastone, and with a family of seven I was a frequent visitor, and in summer holidays a live-in member of the family, enjoying the company of two of my male cousins, Ted and Sid Lamey. Other members of our 'gang' included their cousin, Jackie Lamey, and friends such as John Thomas, Walter Tuplin, Dennis Cox, Frank Curtis, Donald Moyse, Desmond Leslie, Jack Evans and Owen Reveley. During those long summer holidays another cousin, Stanley Lamey, came from Newport, and Mark Ferguson (a nephew of Kate Tuplin) from Glasgow. Every year - I suppose just because it was there - some of us used to climb the steep quarry face to scratch our names on the crumbling plaster inside Chanters Folly. Of course we could have gone the long way round, up the lane, and across the fields, but that provided no challenge or excitement.
Although the tower was sufficiently strong to survive a lightning strike in 1927, the interior was eventually gutted on 'V.J.' night (1945) by some excited Naval Ratings. The damage done to the stonework made it unsafe, and it was demolished in 1952, so removing a well-known distinguished North Devon landmark. A mystery still remains, however, over its name. Some authorities claim it was known as a folly because as soon as it was finished it was discovered that, because of the intervening hill, it did not provide sufficient view seawards to accomplish the purpose for which it was built. This interpretation was supported by local tradition. John Beara, however, in his delightful little history of Appledore ('Handmaid of the Sea’) maintains that its name was undeserved. 'Jack' as he was affectionately known by Appledoreians, was a shipping broker, and would be well-versed in local maritime history. My theory is that the truth lies somewhere between. I suspect that looking from the tower towards the Bar in a north-westerly direction, Pitt Hill would block the view; but looking due west or south-west towards Westward Ho!, the tower was high enough to see over the top of Diddywell and out into the Bay.
My uncle's coal-yard (named Bidna) was quite extensive, making a fine adventure play area. Part of the wharf was the regular berth of the motor vessel 'Lerina’ which serviced the island of Lundy (about 20 miles off-share). A familiar sight was Capt. Dart and the engineer, Tom Hornabrook, walking through the yard. In later years Tom became the chief mechanic of Appledore lifeboat.
There was also a large work-shed at the far end of the yard which we could use to make our first model boats - just shaped pieces of flat timber propelled by a junk-type sail which consisted of a stiff piece of square cardboard skewered by a stick acting as a mast. We sailed them across the pond in the field below the yard (known as Bidna Marsh), where Appledore Shipbuilders' huge covered dock now stands. Our first venture at something which would support us was a three-ply rectangular box which we christened 'The Coffin'. It is a wonder it wasn't for one of us, as whenever we sat in it, it rolled over, tossing us out like a frisky bronco. We put our heads together and came up with the idea of stabilisers - two more pieces of three-ply on the bottom sticking out about 18 inches on both sides. They did keep it upright, but speed through the water with a makeshift canoe paddle was negligible. The obvious progression was to canoes made of battens and canvas; these proved quite successful and gave us years of enjoyment. Eventually Dad helped me make one completely of wood, carvel built and caulked, similar to some of the sailing boats. It was assumed that planks fitted smoothly edge to edge and not overlapped (as with clinker-built boats) were faster and smarter in appearance. In spite of being heavier it seemed to be faster than most canvas models, and one year I won a cup in the Regatta canoe race.
I remember the first occasion when I was out in the canoe after dark I was fascinated to see the sparkling display of phosphorescence thrown up from the bow wave, from the swirl of the paddle and from the wake behind me. I was intrigued to discover that some nights were better than others. Although it gave me a bit of a shock at first, it was also fascinating when I had a close encounter with a school of porpoises which surfaced and rolled over about 20 feet away. For one moment I thought it must be sharks or even small whales. Looking down the line of what appeared to be heaving and plunging humps I can see now why they could be mistaken for the Loch Ness monster.
There is an interesting story to tell about the only fish my cousin and I ever 'caught’. We could never be bothered to moor my uncle's boat and sit in it, dangling a line over the side - that would be too tame. We thought the easy way would be to use a towing line. killing two birds with one stone - as it were - enjoying an exhilarating sail and catching fish at the same time. One of these know-alls told us that we would only catch any fish by going very slowly, never in the process of a brisk sail. We were disappointed to find this seemed to be true, as we didn't get a bite. One day, however, sailing in The Pool, (the name of the deep water area where Taw and Torridge merged), the flood tide was bringing the local fishing vessels (smacks or skiffs as we called them) from the Bay up river to Bideford. One passed quite close to us and tossed us a fish which I caught in my hands before it fell into the boat. Proudly we displayed our trophy to the 'know-all ' when we got home and with sincere honesty I could say that I had caught it. But our knowledgeable friend maintained that the type of fish we had brought back (I believe it was a plaice or a flat-fish) would never be hooked on a towing line, so we didn’t get away with it after all.
The upstream end of Bidna Yard gave access to a beach, which was virtually a private one, and we were able to use it for swimming, sunbathing, boating and all river activities. The river-bank further up towards Bideford provided a wonderful area to explore through woods and along beaches. The first small beach was called Boathyde and we were told it was so named because King Alfred hid there under a boat, presumably spying on the enemy. Although Hubba was buried at Hubbastone, the place where he died was about half a mile away. In the year 878 A.D. Hubba raided North Devon with a fleet of 33 ships and was engaged by the Saxon garrison which killed him and 800 of his Men. The site of the battle is named Bloody Corner, and a tablet erected there has this inscription 'Stop, stranger stop, near this sort lies buried King Hubba the Dane who was slain by King Alfred the Great in a bloody retreat.'
Maybe Alfred had another hiding place as well as Boathyde, because, not far away in a thickly wooded glade, cut into a cliff face, was what we knew as King Alfred's cave. The cliff was known as Snuffy Corner, but we called it Puffy Corner, as sailing boats often found the wind very fickle and temperamental in that area of the river. In fact a great uncle of mine drowned there. He was a champion swimmer and his lug-sail boat capsized suddenly with a shift of the wind. Presumably trying to rescue a lady passenger who was unable to swim caused the fatality.
‘Father' Slade had the same experience at that spot when he was 70 years old. Sailing with his brother-in-law of the same age, who was a non-swimmer, a sudden puff caused a capsize. My grandfather managed to rescue his relative, get him ashore, and then he jumped in again to retrieve his favourite pipe and hat which were floating away. Most people would agree that our ‘forgeteries’ (as Gran used to call them), are very efficient, but there appears to be two things we never forget. One is how to ride a bicycle, and the other is how to swim. 'Father' Slade told me he had not really done any swimming since he was a boy, and yet he said that he naturally struck out with his old-fashioned breast-stroke and there was no problem. As regards his previous swimming experience he did not count the occasion when the old Appledore pulling lifeboat which used to be launched from the back of the burrows, to avoid crossing the Bar, was thrown back again on the pebble ridge, and with the rest of the crew he managed to scramble ashore.
I almost came to grief there myself in my 'salad’ sailing days. My uncle, as well as being a coal merchant, owned a barge which regularly extracted gravel from the Crow Paint area and brought it back to his wharf to distribute for building purposes. The barge's boat, 16ft clinker built, was fitted with a small lug sail, and as boys we used to borrow it on odd occasions. One evening I decided to go out alone in it for a short sail. I found the boat had several inches of water in the bottom, and feeling too lazy to bale it out, thought it would be a good idea to leave it there as it would act as ballast. The wind was suite gentle and dying away, but when I got to Snuffy the boat suddenly started to heel over with gunwales awash, and then I discovered that water in a boat is quite the reverse of ballast - it is a first-class means of capsizing in one easy lesson. After some very hairy minutes I managed to bring the boat 'up to wind', and in the few seconds as she flapped 'in irons' (that is, with the boat pointing straight in the direction of the breeze). I managed to jump over the thwarts (or seats), grab the sail, wrap it round the mast, and secure it with a piece of rope. You never forget lessons learnt the hard way and in the future the baler was an over-worked implement.
In my memory there were few natural disasters - plenty of flooding from the tides, plenty of gales, shipwreck and loss of life at sea, but I still vividly recall a September Sunday morning in 1927 when the north-west part of Devon experienced the most severe and frightening thunderstorm imaginable which continued for about nine hours. I think I can truthfully say I cannot remember one since, which was so violent. The local paper, the 'Bideford Gazette’, reported that few inhabitants could recall any storm which surpassed it in duration and severity. For long periods the sky, out of which poured over one and a half inches of rain, was a mass of flame, owing to the continuous lightning. Mother woke me up at six o'clock, took me next door where Gran covered all the mirrors and reflective surfaces, and other frightened members of the family taking shelter cowered in the cupboard under the stairs. At her home in Hubbastone, Aunt Hilda, looking out of the window, heard a strange noise and saw what seemed like a flaming ball hurtle out of the sky, slit Chanters tower down one side and carry on to the river's edge where it cut cleanly in half, like a knife, the mainmast of my grandfather's schooner ‘Haldon’ moored at the wharf of the upper dock.
In Appledore itself Marine Parade was flooded. Manhole covers lifted off wholesale and many houses were damaged. On the Burrows a mare was killed and its foal was blinded and paralysed. At Ilfracombe a farmer was killed on his milk round, his hat being torn in shreds while his horse bolted with the trap, collided with a wall, and overturned. It was suggested that the milk cans attracted the lightning. At Bideford many houses were struck and a cow was killed. At one house in Instow the lightning ran down the chimney, hurled two portions of the stove across the room, knocked the teapot to the floor and opened the oven door.
Five years later another thunderstorm affected just the immediate district. It was not as prolonged or as severe as in 1927. Some houses were damaged in Park Lane, Bideford, and just a little of the thunder could be heard at Barnstaple, but lightning struck at one spot, with a tremendous impact. Across the river opposite Hubbastone an imposing mansion stands on the ridge of a parkland called Tapeley, near the village of Westleigh. A house was erected on the site soon after the Norman Conquest, passing in the reign of Henry VIII to the Giffard family who also owned Weare Giffard, the charming village on the Torridge five miles upstream of Bideford. In my boyhood it was a famous place for strawberry teas, and families from Appledore would make a day's outing sailing and rowing up the river and back to enjoy a feast of these delicious delicacies. The Tapeley mansion was rebuilt in the 17th century, then in 1702 a seafarer, Commander William Cleveland, sailing up river, saw the house and determined to acquire it, which he did. He came from an ancient Scottish family of naval interests. In the 19th century one of his ancestors married Margaret Chichester of Arlington, and their son Archibald joined the army and became a Cornet in the 17th Lancers. He was shipped to the Crimea, took part in the battle of Alma, and was one of three officers to survive the charge of The Light Brigade, despite being struck by a Cossack sabre which fortunately left him unscathed. His luck did not hold, because he was killed 10 days later by a stray bullet at the battle of Inkerman. An obelisk 30 foot high was erected at Tapeley in his memory. Cornet Cleveland's death resulted in an elder sister inheriting the estate, and she married William Christie of Glyndebourne, Sussex, and later this family founded the famous Opera House there.
On this particular Saturday evening in June 1932 when the thunder rolled over our river, Lady Rosamund Christie heard a strange sort of fizzing noise, followed almost simultaneously by the loud crack of the lightning and a tremendous crash. She told the Gazette reporter that she had only heard this strange fizzing noise once before, and that was during a violent storm in the Bavarian Alps. She assumed that part of the house must have been damaged, but a servant discovered that the monument had been completely shattered. Some of the huge blocks of granite with which it was constructed were hurled a distance of 100 feet and in falling became embedded in the ground, whilst the iron railings surrounding the memorial were bent and twisted into fantastic shapes. By an uncanny coincidence the monument was in an absolutely direct line with Chanters Folly and the wharf where the Haldon’s mast was struck five years before, and the strange noise which Aunt Hilda heard then was also unique and indescribable.
I suppose the outstanding red letter day of the year was Regatta day held in early August. The Quay, furnished with stalls and decorations, was lined with crowds four or five deep to watch the races, and all barges, vessels and steamers moored off or alongside were similarly decorated and beflagged to make a really gay and exciting scene. Very popular were the novel or comedy events, such as the Gig and Punt chase. One man in a small punt, usually with a shovel for propulsion, weaved in and out of the crowd of moored boats, pursued by a team in the gig, which was a large four-oared rowing boat. The gig crew, which also had a fifth member to steer by means of an oar over the stern, did their best to catch and capsize the single man, but as the punt was more manoeuvrable, he was often more than a match for the larger boat. The Miller and Sweep battle provided lots of laughs and entertainment as one boat with about four crew threw bans of soot at a boat similarly manned, but stacked with bags of flour as ammunition. Often nearby spectator boats accidentally received same of the barrage, and the end was usually resolved after all missiles had been despatched, with all eight begrimed and besooted matelots in the water trying to remove some of the clinging and uncomfortable evidence of an energetic engagement. More serious, although still a novel form of entertainment, was the Elopement race. The males lined up to row their boats the length of the course to where their spouses were waiting to join them and help row the boat back down the course, striving to be first across the finishing line. An extension of this was the 50-50 race. Boats, each with a crew of five, would sail at least half a mile down to the Pool. When they reached a set mark, sail and mast would have to be stowed before commencing to row back four-oared to the winning post.
A main part of the Regatta programme was occupied by West of England Clubs competing in four-oared and two-oared outrigged gigs, which at Appledore we used to call wherries. Bideford had two rowing clubs which had been established for over fifty years - Bideford Amateur Rowing Club (the Reds) and Bideford Amateur Athletic Club (the Blues). Appledore lads were regular members of the crews, mainly the former club, so most shouts of encouragement from spectators were 'Come on the Reds’. These local rowing clubs competed against others in Regattas throughout Devon and Cornwall, and the winners gaining most points at the end of the season would be awarded highly prized and coveted Nest of England Championship cups. At many regattas they would be joined by clubs from other parts of the country mainly Southampton, London and S.E. areas.
Sandwiched between the gig races at Appledore were further local attractions such as swimming races, sculling over stern, mixed crew races (2 ladies and 2 men per boat) four-oared inrigged races for schoolboys. I remember the first one in which I competed successfully rubbed a raw patch on one of my hands which was sore for weeks on end. I suppose top of the ‘pops' however, was the greasy pole. A pole about 25 foot long (usually a ship's mast) was fixed horizontally over the water from the deck of a large sand barge. This was heavily daubed with grease, and competitors in turn had to try to walk or run to the end, (a reminder of walking the pirate's plank) before falling off. The first one to reach the target was the winner, but various antics to keep, a balance, and many ignominious and ungainly falls into the water below kept the crowd in stitches for quite a while. I remember a frequent and popular winner was Jack Cox.
There was always a race for the Taw and Torridge and North Devon Sailing Club based at lnstow. Their boats were all one-design, constructed locally by Appledore firms, Blackmore, Waters or Hinks. They were 17 foot overall, clinker built with an iron centre board, short bowsprit, and almost 18 square yards of sail in Bermuda rig. The sails were made of cotton, and not easy to cope with in wet weather. Racing was very keen and provided exciting competition. Very secretly sometimes I think some of the sand ballast was jettisoned on the run home to lighten the boat. In the early days of the Club before the First World War I believe some of the crews were jettisoned also and left to swim ashore and walk home.
Sir Francis Chichester, who lived at Shirwell near Barnstaple, learnt some of his early sailing skill with the Club at Instow. In any case yacht racing was in his blood, as one of his ancestors was connected with the noted yachtsman and owner of the celebrated cutter ‘Arrow'. which won races for over 60 years, and was the only British yacht to beat the schooner ‘America' after which the America's Cup is named.
Appledore Sailing Club.
During the 1930s Appledore fishermen formed the Appledore Sailing Club, and upward of 20 boats would take part, not only in Regatta races, but during summer evenings when tides were suitable, and also an Saturdays. The boats were clinker hulls, built as working boats, 18 foot in length with 22 square yards of a single loose-footed standing lug. A smaller sail of 18 square yards could be used for heavy weather. A still smaller rig (about 12 yards) was used for taking picnic parties to the Burrows, Braunton lighthouse. Crow Point, and for fishing. In fresh winds there was a crew of four - the skipper who sailed, a man on the mainsheet, a man to dip the gaff as the boat tacked, and a man to shift the four half cwt. bags of sand ballast. In my late teens, with my cousins, I sometimes crewed in my uncle's boat. and it could be hard wet work. with two or three hours of solid excitement. Mr Joe Payne (my old council school teacher) was the chief organiser, and after many races the Quay was carpeted with sails waiting for him to deal with protests by measurement.
Bideford Regatta, always held in September, concentrated mainly on the official gig rowing races, but festivities including a Sports Day, a Carnival, a Fireworks display and a large Fun-fair, usually extended the celebrations to a week. The fair, with many side-shows and stalls, occupied the whole of the Pill area, the river bank, and part of the Quay opposite the Art School. The bumping cars we found most popular - a nice, legitimate way for boys to disperse some of their aggression. After dark with the lights produced by throbbing steam engines, the music, and the cheerful crowds, it was a magic fairyland, with the one snag that we soon ran out of pocket money to enjoy it to the full.
East – West Rivalry.
There was always keen rivalry between West and East Appledore. Over to Point, as the east side was sometimes called we thought ourselves far superior, and to show how inferior and uncivilised the other half was, we used to say that they ate the first missionary who landed there. Quite recently I asked why the beach out west where the lifeboat slip was built was called ‘Badstep'. Someone suggested it was a bad step for the missionary who stepped ashore to his tragic fate. For a few years before the outbreak of the Second World War, West Appledore introduced ‘apartheid' and decided to have a separate Regatta centred on the small 'quay' and slip-way between the Beaver Inn and the Royal George pub. Organised by Sammy Guard and John Dearing the programme was mainly filled with a greater emphasis on local rowing and sailing races, and West of England Rowing Clubs did not compete. Sammy Guard was one of three local entrepreneurs, as in the early 1930s in partnership with Jim Screech he organised a bus service for West Appledore only, travelling to Bideford from Western Hill via Irsha Street, Watertown, and the under road of Northam. The buses were blue, bearing a grand-sounding company name 'Pride of the West'. Many years previously, however, Frank Hamlyn and Dave Hocking formed separate companies of buses travelling to Bideford in competition with the National Omnibus Company. Mr Hamlyn's buses were brown, with the company name ‘Brown Bear', and Mr Hocking's were yellow and blue with the name 'Ensign'. In fact Dave Hocking started his service with a taxi in 1920, two years before progressing to buses. In 1936 Dave added to his business venture the sale of home-made ice cream which his family has continued ever since. It's not only yours truly who regards the product as being one of the most delicious in the West - just ask the many visitors to the area. Quite often on a hot sticky day in Swindon with a dry tongue my wife or I have said: ‘Oh for one of Hocking's ice creams!
Church & Sunday School.
Although Dad was a confirmed member of the Church of England, mother, her parents, and all their family were dedicated Baptists, so it was Appledore Baptist chapel in Meeting Street which I attended regularly from an infant, and it celebrated its centenary when I was 14 years old. 100 years previously all Non-conformists worshipped as one family in the Independent chapel further up the street. In fact at that time St Mary’s Church did not exist, and the Independent chapel was the only place of worship. Some members, however, considered that the Scriptures taught the immersion of believers, and they desired that provision should be made for this form of baptism. They requested that a minister for the Baptist denomination should be appointed alternatively with the minister of the Independent body. As this did not meet with approval, nine members withdrew to a separate place where they could preach and practise their own views. They met at West Appledore in the house of a Mrs Ann Bear. Within three years they built a small chapel in Irsha Street which they used for 23 years until the present building was erected in Meeting Street. I recently discovered that my great grandmother, Elizabeth Kingdon, born in June 1834, was the first name to be entered in the Baptist Birth Register, and the names of the midwives were given as Betty Harris, Mary Ford and Jane Bowden. When the fifty year jubilee was celebrated the original nine founder members had increased to 91 members and 190 Sunday school scholars. When mother was a girl the schoolroom was enlarged, the original pews were replaced, a rostrum built in place of a small box pulpit, and a large manse built on Pitt Hill. When I was a boy I remember electric light replacing the old gas lamps and the installation of a new organ costing £550, the result of very generous gifts from donors. Among these was Sir William Reardon Smith, an Appledore boy who founded the well-known shipping line. Another exiled benefactor of the village in many ways was the son of Thomas Tatem, who built and owed over 50 ships, and as Lord Glanely, received a peerage in 1918 for his services to shipping.
The organ brings back memories, as it had to be hand-blown, and a rota of boys performed this duty. A piece of string came through the side of the organ with a lead weight on the end. When the weight reached a lower mark the organ bellows were full, but if it moved to an upper mark it was empty. Quite often distracted or non-concentrating pumpers would suddenly hear the music begin to fade like an old clockwork gramophone winding down and they would have to frantically pump a handle about 2ft 6ins long. The amount of pumping required depended on the music - quiet, soft, gentle pieces gave you an easy stint, and I used to enjoy pumping and listening to Auntie Lizzie playing Ketelbey’s compositions such as 'In a monastery garden', 'Bells across the meadow' and ‘Sanctuary of the heart'. Others not needing a lot of elbow grease were Schumann's 'Dreaming’ and Rubinstein's ‘Melody in F’, but when she gave the instrument full power with all stops out in such organ settings as 'The Lost Chord’ and ‘The Holy City’ the pump had to be manned and manipulated as if the 'Queen Mary’ were sinking. Sometimes when a pumper fell asleep during the sermon, the organist would vainly press the keys for the final hymn, then get up quickly, nip down the pulpit steps and poke sleeping beauty awake.
One of the leading lights of the church during the whole of my boyhood was Mr J.H.G. Lang, and by a strange coincidence Mrs Bear whose home started the Appledore Baptist cause, was his great grandmother. John Lang, at some time or other, occupied every office going, such as Church Secretary, Sunday School Superintendent and teacher as well as being a very busy local preacher walking miles to appointments throughout North Devon. In his daily life he was Secretary of the Appledore Docks and Secretary of the local Rechabites. Very meticulous and methodical, his talks, messages and prayers were most profitable and always provoked thought and appreciation among his scholars and congregations. He was a first cousin to Rev. Alfred Green, so there was obviously a strong preaching talent in the family, but otherwise they were chalk and cheese.
When I was about eight a new minister was appointed, Rev. James Sidwick, who had a tremendous influence on my life. Born at Creech St. Michael in Somerset, he had been a science master at Taunton College before becoming a minister and serving overseas as a missionary in India. A wonderful teacher, tireless worker and pastor, he was the most sincere and dedicated Christian I have ever known, really living to the full the very high principles he preached. I have often met people who say that to some extent all Christians are hypocrites, but here was one against whom that accusation could never be made in any shape or form. Generous to a fault, he had no interest in money whatsoever, and I think sometimes his wife would be hard pressed to have sufficient house-keeping means. I have only known one other person who was also quite indifferent to 'the root of all evil', and that was Dad. Mother always handled it and if Dad had just a small amount as pocket money, mainly to buy some tobacco and cigarette paper to roll his own, he was quite content.
Mr Sidwick took a tremendously keen interest in the young people, fostering us through Sunday School, Christian Endeavour (with sterling help from Mrs Elizabeth Tuplin) and the League of Young Worshippers, not only in teaching, but in social and other activities. He arranged small outings for us, plus regular picnics and games on the Burrows.
Of course every year the Sunday School had a special Treat and we usually went to one of the local seaside resorts, such as Ilfracombe, Woolacombe or Bude, and in those days, when it was extremely rare for any family to own a car, that was a special day. Also there was an annual Treat for the combined scholars of the Free Church Sunday Schools. Proudly bearing our respective coloured banners about 8ft x 5ft fixed to two poles, we assembled about 300 strong in total on Western Hill. After a prayer and hymn we would start our march through Appledore usually accompanied by Bideford Salvation Army Band. We would halt at selected stopping places and sing another hymn before separating to our different schoolrooms for tea. Afterwards we all adjourned to a sports field for competitive races with potatoes, skipping ropes and obstacles. Also included were three-legged and relay as well as flat races, high jump and wheel barrow races. Each school had a distinguishing colour – Methodists, blue: Congregational, red and Baptists, green. Congregationalists always started with an 'unfair' advantage - they had the village champion runner in Alfie Fisher. I was a good sprinter myself and for a period my nick-name was ‘Legs' - not because they were long or short or hairy or knobbly, but because I could move them quickly. Alfie, however, made me look, if not an also-ran, just fairly ordinary. I did have the honour one year to represent Appledore Council School in the District Inter-school sports at Bideford Sports Ground in the 4 x 100 yards relay. 'I think the other two were ‘Nipper’ Cox and ‘Meo' Down. Running third I gave Alfie (our anchor man) ten yards to make up on the leading runner, and he just did it to win the race for us. Church of England scholars had a separate march and treat and I think they would be joined sometimes by the Seamen's Mission and were led by Bideford Town Band and the local church band under Mr Thomas Parsons.
Mr Sidwick was also very keen on music and he trained us for the special singing on Anniversary days. One of these practices resulted in me being sent out of school for the only time in my life. On this particular Sunday the practice was not going very well and enthusiasm seemed to be lacking or dwindling. Finally Mr Sidwick said that the next child he saw not trying to sing would be sent out. I mentioned previously that before my voice broke I was unable to sing - it was better if I kept quiet to avoid putting others off - so obeying this precept I kept my mouth buttoned up, was spotted and dismissed. In later years when it was a job to stop me singing I often reminded him of this incident, and it always raised a smile and a quiet chuckle.
The chapel choir went carol singing regularly just before Christmas and we would cover some of the surrounding villages - entirely on foot. At least we didn't have to carry any musical instrument. Auntie Lizzie who had what I understand now to be perfect pitch, started us off on the right note and we usually stayed there. One of our basses, Reg Gale, as well as being able to hit some high-powered low notes, could also hit a very long golf ball (I believe at one stage he was a scratch player). Playing for the Artisans against the Gentlemen he became acquainted with a retired professional singer who lived in the Abbotsham area. Reg suggested we visit him with our Christmas serenade, as he would no doubt appreciate good singing. It was fairly late by the time we reached there and we lustily sang right through four carols with no response. Footsteps approaching up the path proved to be a local passing by who informed us in broad Devon, ‘You'm gwain a be 'ere singin' a long time, p'raps 'till Easter, 'cos 'ees gorn away fur dree ore fore munths.' As we trudged the long road home I sympathised with Good King Wenceslas's page who felt the night getting darker and wondered whether he could go on any longer.
I was thoroughly and absolutely welcomed into the life of the church, as I was christened at St. Mary's, dedicated at the Baptist Chapel, and finally, at the age of 18, baptised there by Mr Sidwick into full membership of the Baptist cause at Appledore, and so into the world-wide family of God.
So far I have hardly mentioned the fair sex. In my early days there was almost semi-segregation, especially through the monastic years at Grammar School. The well-known Methodist Girls' school, Edgehill College, was sited further up Northdown Road, so at least we knew what school girls en masse looked like. On very rare occasions when it snowed we were able to bombard them with snowballs from the bank of our play area beyond Hut 3. When our new school was built in Abbotsham Road we had to pass the entrance to West Bank Girls' school, but in their two-tone green uniforms we thought they were a little more stand-offish than the Edgehill girls in two-tone blue. Scholars who travelled by bus came to know the girls better, but I cycled every day regardless of weather, even going home for dinner, as I did not really fancy school meals - they had no hope of competing with mother's cooking. I purchased my first bicycle from Reggie Down's shop on the Quay when I was 12, having saved for a long while for the deposit, and then paying so much a week to clear the outstanding balance. I never realised the 'never-never system has been going so long!
As far as girls were concerned personally, I took after Dad and was rather shy in their company. I was scared of getting involved with them because I thought they would spoil all the fun - adventurous deeds on the river, the Burrows and the woods would be out. In any case I had to apply myself consistently with homework and study to get on top of lessons, so I had no time for female distractions. Quite a lot of swatting was done in the quiet environment of my canoe drifting up and down river.
As boys the traditional, long-established rivalry between East and West Appledore was played out through sports on the Burrows and gang hostility or violence had just not been invented and never entered our minds. I remember one year we played a series of special football games (I think it was six-a-side) and with one game to the season left, we were level-pegging in the number of victories. After a poor start we had won the last three, and confident of final success, at the last moment two of our best players fell victim to Cupid's attacks, fixed dates with some girls and cried off from playing. The inevitable defeat confirmed my strong opinion that getting involved with the other sex spelt disaster. I can hear someone from my era saying to me: 'Hold it a moment! You always seemed to enjoy yourself at Sunday School or other socials playing the daring party game of the day – Postman’s Knock!' I plead guilty, but I always contrived to deliver ‘letters' to a certain girl who had the same name as my mother, and who was a second cousin in any case. Some games required forfeits, and a favourite penalty was the instruction to bow to the wittiest, kneel to the prettiest, and kiss the one you love best. I used to cheat and approach that same girl for the three conditions needed to redeem my forfeit. Looking back, I think she most closely fulfilled all three after all, so perhaps I was not really cheating. My first rejection of the female sex occurred when I was nine years old. The morning Auntie Lizzie was delivered of a daughter, mother came into my bedroom and jokingly told me I now had a baby sister. I protested vociferously, saying that I didn't want one, as she would break all my toys and lose all the nuts and bolts of my Meccano (getting my priorities right at an early age). I soon changed my tune and have cherished Joan ever since as the sister I never had. Feminine temptation to my generation of junior males came in the form (or should it be forms) of Marjorie Cooksley, Natalie Cox, Mary Slade, Dorothy Slade, Dorothy Isaacs, Pauline Webber, Margaret Cann, Betty Brennan, Eileen Lunn, Rose Lesslie, Rita Taylor, Peggy Hopkins and Beryl Ford. No doubt any contemporaries could name other ‘sirens’ whose names my geriatric memory may have unintentionally overlooked.
Top of the list must be Rev. Hugh Muller. It is very hard, well-nigh impossible to describe this fascinating, eccentric, unique character, who will always be a local, living legend. He was certainly unlike any other vicar you or I have ever encountered. He seemed to be a sort of reverse Scarlet Pimpernel. There was no need to seek him, because he was here, there and everywhere, involved in everything appertaining to the village and the district - visiting anyone who was sick at all hours of the day or night; attending every wedding (Church or Chapel), plus the receptions; in earlier days going with the lifeboat whenever she was called out; with his knowledge of languages assisting foreign sailors with any problems; even knocking on doors on wet nights asking owners to let their cats in. I remember a crowded Assembly Hall in the Grammar School all the Annual Prizegiving. I started to walk up to the rows of distinguished guests on the platform to receive my tenor singing award when I was startled to hear a very familiar voice call cut loudly: ‘Well done, Appledore’. Mother used to recount the occasion when she visited her Uncle Tommy who was convalescent at the time, and standing in the parlour doorway she entertained him with a story about the vicar, imitating his voice and his antics with great amusement. She could not understand why her uncle looked so bemused with a strange expression on his face. Unknown to her, Mr, Muller had come visiting, no one had heard him enter (he would usually only give a quick knock not bothering to wait about on the doorstep) and he was standing behind mother listening to the entire performance. Unfortunately floors never open up when you want them to collapse! We have been told that some famous people (such As Winston Churchill) had doubles which could be substituted for them. As a boy I wondered whether the vicar had at least one twin brother, because it was always a family saying that if anyone went anywhere - Barnstaple, Ilfracombe, Exeter, Plymouth or even London, you would be bound to bump into Mr Muller. He was connected with the Danish royal family and used to visit the palace travelling in his battered baby Austin Seven. He came to Appledore as a curate for two years in 1902, must have liked what he found, because when he returned in 1921, he remained to serve, assist, and endear himself to the whole community until his death in 1953.
Another person who made a tremendous contribution to the life of Appledore was Mr Thomas Parsons. Born near Bridgwater he came as a young teacher to Appledore in 1901 and taught in both schools, but mainly in the Church school. Musically gifted, he started the Church Lads Naval Brigade Band, and this progressed to being the Town Band. He also formed the Appledore Amateur Orchestra, which boasted up to 30 players, and on several occasions in the early days of West Region broadcasts he conducted ‘Colonel Bogey' (the signature tune). The orchestra continued to perform right up to the Second World War. Interested in sport as well as music he played rugby for Appledore, and cricket for North Devon prior to marrying Elizabeth, sister of Kate Tuplin (Kate, you may remember, supplied my regular sweet ration as a toddler). He was the founder secretary, later President of the local branch of the British Legion, obtaining numerous pensions etc., for Appledore ex-servicemen and merchant seamen. As Honorary County Employment Officer for Devon he was involved after World War II with resettling servicemen. Like Alfie Green he was a member of most of the organisations in Appledore, such as the Regatta Committee, and he also became a local Councillor, then Chairman of Northam Urban District Council. He was certainly known and respected by everyone in the village, even though the following snippet may suggest dis-respect. One day in school, trying to learn the Biblical story of Belshazzar's Feast, where the finger writes the prophecy on the wall - 'Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin’, one schoolboy was sitting behind me suggested 'Meeny, meeny, trickle Tommy Parsons' as an aid to remembering the fateful message.
The village ‘squire’ was the Honourable Denys Scott, who originally came from a family of coal owners in the north of England and was a son of the Earl of Eldon. He lived in the Holt, a large mansion at the top of Appledore, where Conservative fetes were held. He was a sidesman at St. Mary's Church which he attended regularly, but otherwise was not particularly active in the life of the village. He was a keen member of the Royal North Devon Golf Club; not a particularly outstanding player, like his brother Michael who at one time became British Amateur Champion. Michael also won several Australian Championships, the French Open Championship and captained the British team competing against America at St. Andrews for the Walker Cup in May 1834. Two years before he made a record score of 70 on the Westward Ho! course.
Appledore boys acted as caddies, relying mainly on tips to boost their remuneration, and they preferred carrying Michael's clubs as he was reputed to be the more generous of the two. I did put my name down to be considered as caddy, but there was a very long waiting list. By the time my number came up I was heavily committed to swotting for School Certificate, as the G.C.E. or 'O' levels were called then, and I had to decline.
Swotting didn't prevent me getting out in the fresh air, however, as I used to take my books with me in the canoe, letting it drift up and down river with the tides and the eddies. Only on one occasion was I nearly run down by a fairly large steamer chugging up to Bideford. The Pilot spotted me in time to sound the hooter, making me drop Virgil (or whatever), grab the paddle and dig the water in evasive action. I wander why we usually painted our canoes a sort of dull green? Next time round as an Appledore boy, I shall suggest using that bright phosphorescent paint!
About 25 years ago the Civic Offices here in Swindon decided to form a NALGO Sailing Club on a large gravel pit in the Cotswold Water Park, and I was told that as I came from Appledore they were sure I would be keen to join. I found an 'Enterprise’ much more 'hairy' (or in layman's terms, more prone to capsize) in a breeze than the old lug boats; but in light breezes varying to calm other members could get quite chagrined when I sat at the helm reading a book (as in days of yore) and still left them wallowing in my wake.
Edgar Hocking was the local comical wit. He was inclined to be lazy and casual and get his wife, Jessie, very impatient with him. I'm quite sure this was the original quotation he made when his wife threw the clock at him one day to receive the reply, in his unmistakable drawl. ‘My Jessie, doesn't time fly’. When aeroplanes first started to appear, as one was flying over high in the sky, someone said: ‘Wouldn't you like to be up there in that one, Edgar?' Edgar replied. ‘I wouldn't like to be up there without 'en!’ One day Edgar was feeling under the weather and went to see Dr. Valentine. The doctor examined him and told him he was strong as a lion. ‘Yes', said Edgar, 'a dandelion.' How often old age makes us feel like that some days!
Jimmy Day was a very conspicuous character, not only because he was well above average height, but because he was the local 'town crier' and the official gas lamp lighter. Before the novelty wore off we used to follow him around, intrigued how he made the lights come on with his long pole. It's funny, but I can't remember anyone even climbing up the lampposts to switch them on and off.
The street noises of my early youth were the romantic sounds of the clip, clop of horses, the rumble of their wheels and the voices of the tradesmen bringing their regular wares - Mr Kivell, the baker; Mr Braund proclaiming the virtues of ‘Clovelly herrings! Lovely Clovelly Herrings!’ At the sound of 'Milko' from Mr Fred Steer you would take your jug out and he would turn the tap on the bottom of the churn to supply what you wanted. Appledore must have experienced noisy early mornings as three other milkmen (Ernie Cork, Albert Vaggers and Reg Griffey) also vied to provide our daily pints.
We lived on the main hill out of Appledore, Post Office Hill, as it was then called, right on the steep part just before Odun Road. Nowadays a lot of heavy traffic noisily changes gear there, producing nothing but a noisy grinding roar. Perhaps the horses got a bit puffed at the same spot, and changed some sort of gear, because they regularly contributed a very useful by-product which soon disappeared with the action of a shovel and a bucket, to blossom abundantly later in choice roses or vegetables in the gardens. The name Post Office Hill remains a slight mystery, as no one can remember a Post Office ever being there. The general agreement is that it was so called because of the Post-box fixed in the wall of the corner where New Street joins Myrtle Street. If you look, it is still marked 'V.R.', and I presume is the original one.
Soccer stars were very popular then, as they are now among boys. Whenever Dad had a short break of a few days between voyages he stayed in Bootle with a cousin, Tommy Gregory, who originated from Appledore and was a keen supporter of Everton. Dad used to tell me about the star of the 'toffee men' (as the team was called), the famous England centre forward, 'Dixie' Dean; and like millions of others, I thought he was a super player and a perfect example of a clean-cut British sportsman. From 1927-28 he set a league record for the Club of 60 goals in 39 First Division names, and he played a substantial part in Everton's championship successes of 1928 and 1932 and their F.A.Cup triumph over Manchester City in 1933. When ‘Dixie' hung up his boots in 1937 he had scored 349 league goals, a total no other Everton player has yet equalled.
Everton appear to have been especially favoured with centre forwards, because from 1936 Tommy Lawton played for them. I don't know how he compared with ‘Dixie’, but I saw him, play here in Swindon about forty years ago and especially in heading the ball he was brilliant and deadly. Another favourite team was Arsenal in the early thirties because they had a Devon lad playing for them, outside left Cliff Bastin. I was also fascinated by the little Scot with the rather long baggy shorts, Alex James, but his amazing skill more than compensated for his size.
Appledore seemed to have a consistently good football team nicknamed 'The Fishermen’, and some of the players became local heroes - Billy Eastman, 'Bobo' Hocking, Jack White, Archie Harboard, and my elder cousin Bill Lamey. Although skinny as a rake and looking as if a puff of wind would blow him over, playing at centre half he was a very skilful and untiring defender and distributor of the ball. The star was probably Ivor Gayette at inside forward whose powerful shooting produced many goals and many victories. He had the honour of being given a 'trial with Torquay United.
Do you remember my account of the Christmas morning when I fell over Santa's presents on the landing and dented my toy car? That car was a model of the 'Golden Arrow' in which Sir Henry Segrave, travelling at over 230 m.p.h. broke the land speed record in 1929. He became more of a national hero, in fact a martyr, when he was killed on Lake Windermere, overturning 'Miss England II' while breaking the water speed record at 100 m.p.h.
Another Sir was a hero - Sir Alan Cobham, the famous long-distance flyer, who won the Kings Cup Air Race in 1924 and led a flying boat expedition around Africa in 1928. He organised Cobham's Air Circus to demonstrate the value of civil flying, and it was a red letter day sometime in the thirties when be brought his aeroplanes to the Burrows. I believe the chance for a flight round the area was five shillings and many plucked up courage to enjoy a unique experience. As boys we were fascinated with what these tiny flimsy looking machines (seemingly tied and stuck together) could do. I remember they continued flying well into the late evening of a lovely summer day, but by then cricks in our necks were so much of a handicap we did not try to look up as they circled over Appledore. But one day in 1930 a strange, huge ‘sausage’ balloon passed over the school while we were out in the playground, and every scholar looked up in wonder at the R100 airship flying quite low. We must have been as awe-struck as modern kids would be seeing a flying saucer hovering overhead. Soon afterwards her ill-fated sister ship, R101, crossed the channel and was totally destroyed crashing in France.
It was a lady flyer, however, who won all the hearts of the nation in that same year. At the age of 26, Amy Johnson became the first woman to fly alone from England to Australia, establishing a record for a light aeroplane solo flight. A pop song celebrated her feat and everyone was singing –
‘Amy, wonderful Amy, we're proud of the way you flew.
Believe me Amy, you cannot blame me,
Amy, for falling in love with you.'
'Pop' singers, as such did not really exist to receive such adulation as in our modern era, but Bing Crosby came close. My cousins would try to sing his songs, emulating his unique style, and they learned to play the saxophone and clarinet in the jazz idiom. I was not over-impressed with this type of music, as my tastes were, and have remained ever since, more square in shape. I did have piano lessons for about six months, but I never bothered to go through the chores of regular practice - the boys, the beach and the Burrows called too loudly from outside. As a result my teacher, Mrs Emily Stone, suggested that mother would only be wasting her money if I continued, so lessons were terminated. Years later I regretted my lack of application and perseverance. I also tried to learn a cornet which mother borrowed from Mr Parsons. It was actually the one Dad had played as a member of the Church Lads Brigade band. I suppose it is a ‘penetrating' instrument, because after a week a lady who lived three-houses below knocked at the door and suggested that if I wanted to blow a trumpet I should practise at the back of the Burrows - the nearest house from there would be at least a mile away. She was always a very grumpy person (definitely top of the list of 'white horse kicks’), but to keep, the peace I suspended trying to emulate Gabriel and never succumbed to the temptation again. Incidentally my music teacher's husband served on the ‘Californian, the ship which passed within ten miles of the 'Titanic’ after it had struck the iceberg. Unfortunately her wireless operator had gone off duty, the officer on watch assumed the distress rockets were last-night-of-the-voyage celebration fireworks and the ‘Californian' steamed on. Another famous ship ‘R.M.S. Queen Mary’ carried three crew-members from Appledore in 1936 when she wrested the blue riband of the Atlantic from the liner 'Normandie'.
I can remember a few titles of some of the pleasant hits of the day such as ‘When it's springtime in the Rockies'; 'Alice blue gown'; ‘Red sails in the sunset'; 'The Isle of Capri'; 'When the moon comes over the mountain’; 'Did your mother come from Ireland'; 'Home Town’; ‘South of the Border’. I suppose the best-known 'classical' singer was Peter Dawson, and I can remember Gran saying that Clara Butt's father was connected with shipping at Bristol, and she came to Appledore with him before her career as a famous contralto blossomed.
I was not really into cinema going, so film stars never entered my list of heroes. There was a small cinema known as the 'Gaiety Cinema’ in West Appledore (opposite the 'Rising Sun' Inn). It was originally built as a Dance Hall in 1893, and was known as Appledore Public Hall. When used for projecting films in the early 1920s Mr Hawkins (who built the Dak bungalow in Pitt Hill) provided a generator for the electricity. This was housed under the cinema and was subject to sabotage by high tides. Albert (‘Dubby’) Powe remembers that if the scheduled film failed to arrive (perhaps stranded at Instow station because a stormy Torridge had prevented the ferry from sailing across) the reserve standby was ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, and he must have seen it about 20 times. Obviously it didn't scare the life out of him, because he is approaching the 80 mark quite fit and sprightly.
I can vaguely remember seeing some of the early silent movies with the Winifred Attwell honky-tonk type of piano being thumped and cajoled at the front by May Marshall. Very popular on Saturday mornings were the epic serials such as ‘Perils of Pauline’ where our heroine was usually left in dire straits such as being bound to the rails while the express thundered down on her. We were supposed to bite our finger nails for one whole week - the forerunners of Cecil B. de Mille were a hard-hearted lot!
Although not exactly classified as heroes, royalty was generally held in deep respect, almost with reverence and unquestioning loyalty, and at cinemas, theatres and public gatherings everyone would religiously stand in dignified posture for the National Anthem. I don't remember May Day being specially celebrated at school - perhaps the girls did some odd tripping round the maypole - but 24th May (Empire Day) was definitely emphasised with patriotic speeches, songs and plays. Turning out my aunt's house some years ago I came across part of an old programme which may have referred to an Empire Day event or the Silver Jubilee of King George V or perhaps the Coronation of George VI in 1937, but the theme I quote from it illustrates the sentiment of those days:
‘The great and universal affection in which the British Throne is held makes it the most important in the world today. More than anything else it is the binding link of our great Empire which never sees a setting sun. The Crown is the one constitutional link binding that Empire together, the only one in the history of the world which depends for its security and continuance and the spirit of loyalty, sentiment and comradeship, and the British Throne is a living symbol of that wonderful spirit.'
Last Day at School.
Like all good things my schooldays came to an end and the final traditional hymn ‘Lord, dismiss us with Thy Blessing' was being sung at the end of term assembly. Probably it was my first experience of a lump in the throat, because I was physically unable to sing a note.
We all have a number of outstanding happy days which have occurred in our lives and likewise a number of particularly sad days. Probably the latter are often more vivid because thankfully they are more rare. That last day at school was definitely one of those sad days. The first occurred when a special chum, Walter Tuplin, who had travelled with me through infancy, school days, Sunday school, high days and holidays was killed in a road accident at the age of 14. Like me, he was an only child, but supported by a strong faith, his parents bore up wonderfully well in their tragic bereavement. On the coffin they placed a wreath of red roses with the words: 'From the ground there blossoms red, life that shall endless be'. Whenever I hear or sing the hymn 'O love that wilt not let me go', from which those words were taken, I am immediately transported back to the Appledore chapel crammed with 200 other Grammar school scholars who came to pay their last respects.
So my last day ended and with a very sad heart I took the long way home via Abbotsham Road, down the High Street and along the edge of the Quay. Glancing at the inn where the Brotherhood of the Rose was founded and at the statue of Charles Kingsley, I remembered how I first started studying his classic story of the district, ‘Westward Ho!’ Like the hero, Amyas Leigh, sailing out of Appledore Pool to adventures on the Spanish Main, I felt I was also leaving my sheltered harbour and was setting sail for the big, unknown adult world of the future.
I recently read a novel where two friends are leaving school, and one of them referring to their childhood says, 'Once you pass its portals you can never go back through. It's a door right behind you and it is closing'. In the physical sense that of course is true, but I’m thankful that God gave us memories which, in my case, have re-opened those childhood doors. I am grateful that I have been able to share them with you. I'm sure that those who know Appledore will appreciate its character and its history even more, and I hope those who are strangers to the place which gave me life and shaped my formative years, will come to know and love as much as I do this precious jewel in Devon's crown.
The author wishes to acknowledge with sincere thanks all the help given by friends and relations who have stirred their memories to supply information and photographs or confirm my recollections of people and events of the past.
Special thanks are due to Jack Parsons and his family, to my cousin, Pat Slade, and the valuable wealth of research material in Bideford Community Archives, to which Pat has made a major contribution.
Also a big thank you to my wife, Barbara, for deciphering my scribble and producing the finished story on her word processor.
ISBN 0 9507586 8 X
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