An Old Wimpole Childhood
An Old Wimpole Childhood
by Irene Bruce (née
In September 1949, my parents, myself and two sisters, Barbara and Olga, moved from Derbyshire to a smallholding. It was called "Ethelbert" down Mill Lane, Arrington. At that time it was an asbestos 3-bedroomed shack with no water or electricity. Paraffin lamps were used and drinking water was carried from a standpipe in the farmyard across the road. There was only one fireplace with an oven at the side and nobody used the big room in the winter. We only passed through to go to bed.
Why on earth my father got the idea of running a smallholding from, I'll never know. He was not a businessman, he had three young daughters, a townie wife and only one leg. If the stump got sore or chafed by his sumpsock becoming hot and sweaty, he couldn't wear his leg again until it had healed up.
After a week we enrolled at Wimpole Park School. My youngest sister Olga should have gone to the Infant School in the village with Mrs Whitmore but they allowed us all to be together. I remember being disgusted at being in the same class as my two sisters. Miss Barbara Jones was the teacher in that class. I have to say it was a backward step as regards education because it was very elementary as far as I was concerned but they would not place me in the second class. I was not old enough!
In due course I joined Mr Alan Jordan's class. That was boring too. There were several diversions with various student teachers practising on us. One of them, a Mr Ouseman (I think) was giving us a lecture on the bible and started talking about Jordan - the dirty old River Jordan... I think he lost control of us for a while that day!
It must be mentioned that we had a black and white Welsh Border Collie called Bob and when it was almost time for us to come home from school he used to leave home and walk down to Arrington village. His first call was Huddlestones Stores to see if we were there and then back up to the school to meet us. Later on when we had moved to Ross Farm Cottage, Old Wimpole, he used to follow us to school. We would stop and send him home. When we were out of sight Bob used to sneak down the field at the other side of the hedge. This happened a number of times and he would eventually end up outside the school and lie outside the french window of my class room until playtime. Mr Jordan got fed up of sending me home with him and eventually allowed him in the classroom where he would lie at the side of my desk. Occasionally he would get up and have a walk around us and then come back to his place by me. He also used to come to Church with me, and lie there. He was my constant companion and I was heartbroken when Bob just disappeared one night. We think he was shot. He hated guns and went frantic until the gun was put down.
Before the Americans returned to Wimpole Park we were able to use the spinney opposite the school as part of our playing area. Once they came it was all fenced off and we had a very restricted area. However I think the windows of the NCO club were protected from our ball games.
After Mr Jordan's class we eventually moved to Mr John Mitchell;s Class. I think he tried to train us as under some military principles. Certainly he did with P.T. [physical training]. Of course by then the older girls went by bus to Comberton once a week for cookery lessons. What an escape that was! I wonder if we learned anything.
Mr Mitchell's class photographed
10 July 1953 outside
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After John Mitchell we had Mrs Dorothy Mansfield, an ex-Naval Officer in the Wrens. Mrs Mansfield started up an evening youth club for us once a week and also used to take us to the Green Plunge swimming pool in Royston in the summer. Miss Ellam who replaced Miss Jones used to take the girls for needlework lessons and I believe a Mr Street (?) used to come in to teach the older boys woodwork. The school put on the usual Nativity play with carols at Christmas and we had a Christmas party.
There were school sports days which were usually held on the cricket field/cow meadow at Arrington. Wimpole Park School used to take part in area and county sports. There were also the rounders teams which used to play against other schools.
Sometimes a trip was arranged to the London Museums or other similar places. This was a rare event as saving up the money for such a trip was very difficult. We used to take a packed lunch and of course the coach trip was a rare occasion for us. I think the only other coach trip we went on was the Sunday School Outing.
After we moved to Ross Farm Cottage, we were given Council school bikes, always bone-shakers, and if they needed to be repaired we took them down to Mr Horsefield's garage at Wimpole. Many's the time freewheeling down Hoddy Doddy Hill [local name for the narrow road from the corner by New Farm, down past the folly to Wimpole Home Farm. A 'hoddy doddy' is slang for 'snail'.] we and the bikes came to grief. Either because the brakes didn't work or a tractor and trailer or combine were in the way.
Mostly we went to school through Wimpole Park but we weren't supposed to unless we were on foot. If we saw Mrs Bambridge we used to get off and walk. It was not unknown for her to put her shooting stick through the spokes of a wheel. Mr mother did write to her requesting permission to cycle through the park rather than use the main road. It was refused. Of course, if one of our bikes was out of action then we would ride two up with one another.
About once a year, a dentist would visit the school with a caravan. His name was Mr Toller ("Mr Toller makes you holler!"). Another thing was the periodical inspection by the "NIT" nurse. Usually Nurse Wentweed or Nurse Jarman who were District Nurses and midwives. There was also the daily issue of malt and cod liver oil for certain children.
School dinners were cooked in a building away from the school and monitors were detailed to collect the dinners in big containers and the empty containers were taken back again on a big trolley. It's a wonder any of the crockery ever survived. It was not unknown for a trolley to tip over due to going too fast and riding on it.
In those days the elder children were allowed time off school for the potato harvest. Wonderful to earn some money. I went in 1953 but I think it was stopped after that.
Needless to say I failed my 11+ much to the surprise of my teachers and although I re-sat at 13 and passed the exam, I failed the interview. On being asked if my father could afford my books I said "no". I have to say my parents were very upset but it was the truth. My father was off work for about 2 years after an appendix operation - he had a large wound because the appendix had curled round and stuck to his liver. Horrendous - so many times he put his artificial leg on and it pulled the wound open again.
It was after this that my father worked for the Americans at Wimpole Park on the Emergency Standby Unit for the Hospital. Other people worked on the unit as well but one night when the power went off there was no one who knew how to operate the changeover and they had to send for my father. It was a wild and windy night and we lived in a cottage up a track rutted by tractors. They used a jeep with a driver and a Mr Cox who knew where we lived and there was such a commotion! The woods and fields lit up from the jeep's headlights and Mr Cox getting out and falling in the mud and shouting "Shit, bloody shit" and quite a lot more but we didn't hear all of it. Of course, my father had to put his leg on before he got dressed by torch light, while Mum scuttled around lighting the lamps. Eventually off they went and Dad started the generator to return the power. Unfortunately, because of that lapse of time a young woman died. Of course, there was an enquiry and appropriate action was taken. I don't recall hearing the ladies name and no enquiry was going to bring her back.
My father was asked to go with the Americans when they left to some other base but my mother didn't want to go.
Roberts Transport Cafe used to be on the Old North Road [A1198] where Jack's Hill was. Another transport cafe was run by Dolly Folbigg at Arrington Bridge. We used to bike down there and buy crisps, sweets or a drink and then go and sit on the bridge wall. Just before Roberts Cafe was another Tea Room. We used to go to the back door to take our shoes to be mended by Mr Reed who was deaf and dumb.
A doctor's surgery used to be held in a house in Arrington village, or in the Park. About once a week there was a film show in Arrington Village Hall where we all sat on hard wooden chairs. Often the film used to break down. There also used to be dances in the Hall. Hard seats around the walls, a little band, some french chalk on the floor and the youngsters from the local villages in their finery. Most of us had to walk or cycle home. If we went to Royston or Cambridge, we used to leave our bikes in Bernard Newell's blacksmith shed next to the Post Office run by Miss Newell. I think she was a sister or aunt. Bernard Newell lived at the top of Arrington Hill and kept greyhounds.
At the bottom of the hill next to Arrington Hill there is a drainage channel under the road. We used to be able to stand up and run through there shouting naughty rhymes at the top of our voices. It echoed too.
One incident that happened at "our" entrance to the woods was a car set on fire. We were coming home with our dog and saw an American go into the woods at the top of the hill. Nothing new, but on reaching our corner saw the car alight. We looked in and under it and then moved away as it really got going and a tyre burnt. We went to the farm to phone for the fire engine then home to say what was happening and then back down to the road to wait for the fire engine and the fun! Gamlingay fire engine came out and the American crew. Talk about panic "stand back, stand back!" - checking it over - "everything under control". Repeatedly. Not listening to what we were telling them. My mother made tea in the milk churn for the fireman which we took down the woods in relays and collected more water to make more tea. Someone told us to be careful going through the woods because of the loose American but, as a fireman said, no one would touch us with Bob around (True! Even Mum couldn't smack us because he'd go between her and us, although he never bit anyone.) My father was told to make sure we did not talk about the incident with the car. Never found out the reason why.
Then there was the episode of Eileen Wright from Ashton-under-Lyne in Lancashire, my mother's home town. My mother met her on Hoddy Doddy hill. She had walked from Old North Road Railway Station and was looking for Wimpole Park USAF Hospital. She was pregnant and looking for her boyfriend. My mother bought her home and next day they, Mum and Dad, took her down to the Park. She did find her boyfriend and she stayed with us for several weeks and he also came up to our home to see her. Eventually he was court-martialled and she had to go back home. The morning she was going she hung about until Mum went to the farm to work and when we came home we found she had stolen our best clothes. We hadn't much anyway and then stealing from people who had provided her with a bed and shared our food with her was very upsetting. She never carried a bucket of drinking water from the farm or did any work and we had resented that. I didn't like her. Mum was too soft.
I recall the vicar coming visiting up the woods and he sat on the settee. Unfortunately he sat on a broken spring that stuck through sometimes and he kept fidgeting. It was hard not to laugh and even more so when several kittens came up out of a hole in the box arm of the settee.
One of my cousins saw a cow being milked for the first time and said "don't you pull the tail?" Denis nearly choked trying to bury his head in the cow while we heathens just roared. Another townie cousin asked where were the Indians in the woods!
My father once saw a gamekeeper standing in the hedge opposite our bedroom window. Never drew the curtains did we three girls getting undressed by lamplight. Dad was furious with us for not closing the curtains and said he'd scare him. He then went and emptied the lavatory bucket where the man had been standing.
Sometimes the water from the pond came as far as the gate to the back door. The pond is still there but the house isn't - it can be seen on the old ordnance survey maps.
Drinking water and milk was carried from the farm and there were tanks around the house to catch rainwater for washing and cleaning. Sometimes pond water was used. There was no electricity. Bread, coal, groceries and similar things were left in a box at the end of the wood. Money was left too. The post we used to collect from New Farm. 'Spare time' up Wimpole Woods was spent getting wood for the fire and sawing and chopping it. It kept us warm though and kept the woods clear of all the rotting trees that are there now.
My mother had a very hard life but she was loving and kind to everybody. I will never ever match up to her. As children we had a wonderful carefree life with lots of freedom and a loving home. No mod cons, only hand-me-down clothes, very few toys. A pack of cards and a few games and, if we were lucky, a cake once a week. But we were happy, fit and healthy.
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This page last updated on: Saturday 13 March, 2004