Monday, 17 February 2014

SNAPSHOTS IN AN ALBUM: MEMORIES OF AN EVACUEE IN FAIRY CROSS

I was recently sent this delightful childhood account by Linda Le Merle about her stay in Fairy Cross as an evacuee in 1944, during the Second World War. These are the recollections of  her time in Bideford and in particular, the countryside Parish of Alwington and the hamlet of Ford and Fairy Cross. These are a little girl's "Snapshots in an Album" and we would love to hear from anyone who might be able to fill in the gaps or who recognises the people and places mentioned. If you do then please leave a comment here and a message for Linda.

MEMORIES OF AN EVACUEE IN FAIRY CROSS By Linda Le Merle, née Wolfinden
Strange to say, as I was starting to write a few notes on my experience as an evacuee in Fairy Cross, Devon, I came across another evacuation account written by someone who had been evacuated in 1944 as I was, and who had lived close to me and gone to my Surbiton primary school. Our evacuation began in June, around the time of my eighth birthday when the buzz bombs were droning and dropping over England, and lasted three or four months until it was thought safe to return home. My family had previously been evacuated to Dorset during the “phoney war” in late 1939, and that, too was for a short time only, before we all came back to London while the Blitz was going on – curious! In June 1944 the other evacuee and I must have set off together since all the local schoolchildren were gathered together at an army depot and given their lapel labels before being taken to the railway station, but she went to Cardiff, because, she says, “Later I heard that two trains had somehow got mixed up and in fact we should have gone to Devon.” Mine was the train which did go to Devon and so I came to spend three or four months in the beautiful countryside near Bideford. My father stayed at home in the Home Guard and I set off with my brother Philip and my mother, who was going to be a billeting officer in Bideford.  When young children ask today if we were frightened to be living through the war, I have to say that unless we had actually been bombed out or lost a member of the family, fear was not always a big problem for children – wartime was all we had known.  While our parents were often made ill by fear and stress brought on by the bombing and restrictions, it was change and uncertainty which were the real threats to children’s states of mind as they are in peacetime.  So – the journey started with some excitement, and although my mother was nearby, it was only when I was separated from her and my brother when we arrived in Bideford that I really started to understand that I would be on my own. From that point on my memories of being an evacuee are like snapshots in an album, and I’m sorry not to have any real photos to go with them. The first memory is of walking in a crocodile through the streets of Bideford. Someone – maybe an older worldly-wise child – said cynically that this was so that the good citizens of Bideford could pick out a child they liked. Whatever the truth, most of us spent the night sleeping on the floor of a community hall before being allocated our billets the next day. This was a moment of anxiety – the world would end if I couldn’t be placed with my friend Shirley Bosson.  Somehow it was managed, and somehow all the children were taken to their temporary new homes. At this point the snapshot memory changes from black and white into colour. We found ourselves arriving at the Fairy Cross cottage of Mrs Hockin – or her name might have been Mrs Hocking. There are perfumes and tastes which can transport you straight back to the place where you first experienced them, and to this day the smell of geraniums awakens the memory of when I first came across rows of pots of the scarlet flowers in Mrs Hockin’s cottage living room. From the first moment she seemed to be a kind lady, but she was already 72 years old, which must have accounted for her forgetting that children don’t usually like hot milk with the skin on top – rather a difficult welcome for two homesick girls. I remember the cottage as being cosy, with no running water or bathroom, but I have no recollection of daily routines, food or the layout of the house, apart from the fact that the WC was a privy in the back garden with squares of newspaper hanging on a butcher’s hook behind the door, and that we washed in a pretty china basin in the bedroom, pouring water out of the big matching jug.
School for those few months was in the little church hall which we reached after a short walk through country lanes. We picked sloes from the hedgerows and were free to walk on our own at all times, but this idyllic time was not without one black day. We were all deeply shocked to hear that one girl much younger than ourselves, who sometimes walked with us, had been killed in the lane, crushed between the posts of a fence round the fields and some heavy farm machinery which trundled relentlessly down the lane without seeing her.  At the school there were only two classes for all the children whose ages ranged from five to fourteen. Again, I have no recollection of the routines, except for one vivid memory of how I spent a lot of time there. I was taught to knit, and given a ball of grey string-like thread with which I was to knit a dishcloth. It took most of the time I was at the school, as I remember, because it had constantly to be undone and begun again. Whatever else I learned there, I was left with a skill which proved to be useful for a long time afterwards.
When we were not in school we were free to play in and around the village, but paths to the beach were out of bounds because the beaches themselves were defended against enemy attack. I seem to remember that from somewhere near Portledge House we must have been able to climb on high ground from where we could see the beaches and the sweep of the coast round to Hartland Point, with Lundy Island out to sea. There was a wood behind the cottage where we enjoyed playing, but one day when three of us were running through the trees we managed to kick up a bees’ nest. The first of us escaped lightly, the second – I think it was me – received a few stings, but the third was stung so badly that she had to spend a whole day in bed afterwards.  A happier way of spending our free days was scrumping from trees down the road near the main part of the village. Are there still Stripey Jacks in Fairy Cross – those little apples with red and gold stripes which we ate there in great quantities seventy years ago? Shirley Bosson’s mother came for a visit a few times and I saw my own mother occasionally, but she was kept busy going round the billets checking that the evacuees and their hosts were getting along together as well as could be expected. She herself was comfortably billeted with Mr and Mrs Cock who lived at “Glaisdale”, Abbotsham Road in Bideford, and one day she came to take me by bus to spend a night with her. I remember a genteel elderly couple, and most of all I remember the delicious creamy oatmeal we had for breakfast – very unlike the porridge I was familiar with. Mrs Edith Cock and my mother kept up a correspondence for many years, and on my bookshelves is a little book she sent me “with much love and many kind thoughts” for my 21st birthday. It is called “Character and Conduct”, and the theme for today, February 9th, is knowing how to be ready, a lesson in avoiding procrastination. Perhaps I should have looked at it more often from time to time as Mrs Cock suggested.  At this point my memories, black and white or technicolour, run out. Although we had spent happy times in Devon, I think my mother was quite relieved to take us home when the worst of the buzz-bombs period was over. My own brother, who was billeted in Barnstaple, had got into trouble one day with his friend Derek when they took their catapults out to play. We needed to get home before being accused of being London hooligans! I only once saw Mrs Hockin’s house again when we were driving by after a family holiday in the West Country. I hope it’s still there, and even if it isn’t, it’s still here among my happy memories.  
MEMORIES OF AN EVACUEE IN FAIRY CROSS - By Linda Le Merle, née Wolfinden (All rights reserved)
Explore Alwington and Fairy Cross with the North Devon Focus Picture Tour
Explore Bideford with the North Devon Focus Picture Tour
North Devon History Bytes
Alwington a Millennium Experience published by Alwington Parish Council - Visit Alwington Parish Web Site

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