Wilburton Station – Neighbours
A series of short tales from the book ‘BOYon a BRANCH’
(boyhood memories from the 1940s)
The wartime situation inevitably affected us; there was an air of worried expectancy. After the retreat fromDunkirk, the British Army was desperately trying to reorganise in order to resist an expected German invasion. At the same time a volunteer defence force, the ‘Home Guard’ was beginning to be organised. Mum was having to cope with eking out the food rations and was also looking after two little evacuees, a brother and sister, who were now living with us. But In spite of the war we continued to enjoy the new life at our country station and to live as normally as possible.
One evening Geoff and I accompanied Mum, who had had an invitation to visit Mrs Wade, a neighbour at Hawks Nest Farm, across the field to the west of the station. This lady had a ‘walk-in’ pantry, and I remember her showing us two sacks of sugar on the pantry floor. She told Mum that she made a lot of jam so, as the sugar ration was so meagre, she was pleased she had been able to stock up so well - hopefully it would last the duration of the war. At the time we had no idea just how long that ‘duration’ would prove to be and I have wondered since as to how long her sugar did last.
During the evening we also met Mrs Wade’s sons, two young men who were members of the Home Guard. Geoff and I were keen to learn more about their role in this, so they showed us the rifles and bayonets with which they had been issued. I don’t think that they had received any ammunition at this stage but they showed us how the bayonets fitted on the ends of the rifles. One of the two, taking up an appropriate stance went through the motion of an imaginary stabbing with his bayonet and said: “If I could get near Mr Hitler that is what I would do to him – and twist it like this before pulling it out again”. I have since reflected that had he had the opportunity to convert his bloodthirsty threat into action, he would possibly have saved millions of people from misery and death in the terrible years then still ahead.
Other neighbours who sometimes invited us round were Mr and Mrs Gillett who lived in one of the station cottages, Mr Gillett being a railway plate-layer employed on the Branch. Mr Gillett had an evening routine of preparing his kindling wood for lighting their living room fire next morning. At the time we were all exhorted to help the ‘war effort’ by avoiding waste of any kind and Mr Gillett showed us one method of doing so. Getting out his box of previously chopped kindling, and using his ‘shut knife’ he whittled down the sides of each stick to produce lots of curly slivers. The mass of slivers on the kindling ignited so easily when starting the fire, thus avoiding the need for using any paper, which I thought was quite ingenious.
Mr and Mrs Hammett, together with their three daughters, also lived in one of the station cottages. Mr Hamett used to cycle to Haddenham each day, where he was employed as a railway clerk at the station. For some reason, Dad and Mr Hammett never got on very well, Dad regarding the other man as interfering. The eldest daughter, Angela, tallish and slim, used to attend theGirlsHigh Schoolin Ely. Bunty, the middle daughter was more buxom. The youngest girl of about twelve years, the same age as me, was named Coralie; Mum, I recall, regarded her as being rather precocious. It eventually occurred to me that the initial letters of the girls’ names were in alphabetical order: A, B and C, and I wondered what names would have been given to any further daughters, if any had arrived.
Mr Hammett had a flock of poultry as a spare-time occupation, which he kept on a strip of land just beyond the boundary hedge of our orchard. The strip was divided into three separate pens, with a poultry house in each pen. Every morning and evening Mr Hammett walked from his nearby cottage, with a metal bucket on each arm, to feed his hens and to collect the eggs. At week-ends, one or more of his daughters would usually do the job for him and we would often see them over the orchard hedge. As I watched them pass from one pen to another, scattering the corn - with the hens gathering expectantly at each gate – and then collecting the eggs as they went back again, I used to quite envy the girls. It would have been nice to own a flock of hens like Mr Hammett’s, I thought.
Once when I was unwell, Mum took me to Doctor Fairweather, whose surgery was held in his house in Haddenham. “Take off your shirt boy and come over here” he said. I obeyed, and he examined me with his stethoscope. “Right, sit down boy” he said – and I sat down. Then, going to a cupboard the doctor removed what, to me, looked to be some rather fearsome equipment: a large syringe, some piping and a glass jar. With hardly a pause, he punctured my arm with the horrible looking syringe and transferred blood from me to the jar. Bemused, I sat watching my blood rising in the jar – and started to feel very faint. Instantly a heavy hand fell on the back of my head and propelled my torso downward, with the stern command: “Put your head between your legs, boy.”
I left the surgery with the distinct impression of Doctor Fairweather as a very intimidating man. Later, I learned that he had once been a naval surgeon, which probably explained his brusque and ‘no-nonsense’ manner. Anyway, I did not see him again until sometime later when Dad was unwell, and the doctor called to see him at the station. On that occasion I was to change my opinion somewhat.