UPDATED on 29th April 2021
1 Kennet Road.
It would be better to put a little perspective on life in this part of England at the commencement of these reminiscences, 1947. Food and clothing were rationed to everyone,cars were not a common property among families, those that were around tended to be of pre-war (WW11) vintage. Children were allowed and expected to be independent and unsupervised with no money for bicycles,bats,etc. Adults were to be respected and trusted. There was no television and probably only one radio in the house. The population was sparse although there were many long British and American convoys passing weekly towards Newbury, en route to Southampton docks, I imagine.
At the age of about 3 years I travelled from Taunton to the Chilton prefab estate at A.E.R.E. (Atomic Energy Research Establishment) Harwell, Berkshire, (now in Oxfordshire) in the cab of a lorry carrying the family furniture, with my mother, maternal grandmother and the lorry driver. It seemed to be a long journey and probably was when the absence of dual carriageways, bypasses or even long straight runs is taken into account. The lorry of course would have been incapable of travelling over 50 miles per hour. My father had gone on ahead and was waiting for us at 1 Kennet Road.
Coming from a first floor flat in a row of terraced houses near to Taunton Railway station, the brilliant white prefab was amazing, no houses joined on and no stairs. The ladies were astounded at the fitted kitchen, including a built in fridge, an electric cooker; and the built-in bedroom furniture. A coal fire in the lounge and hot water on tap. There were aluminium window frames, which subsequently caused problems in the winter as the sills became reservoirs of water from the condensation. Tea towels had to be left in them and changed regularly. Two largish bedrooms and a fitted bathroom. Outside was a garden shed based on the Anderson shelter behind which was the coal bunker. All provided prior to arrival.
The estate was still in the process of being completed, prefabs were being finished off and the gardens marked out and fenced. The workers, I was told, included several Italian prisoners of war waiting to be repatriated. Small brown tipper lorries did most of the ferrying of earth and other materials, they were all marked with the name “CHIVERS” in large white letters on the sides. The gardens were equally divided between Kennet Road and Frome Road, large enough for a family sized vegetable plot and a good lawn. To the front there was a grassed area to a wide path and the road. New trees had been planted randomly in the front areas to all the prefab roads. We had a flowering cherry. There was also a phone junction box outside although, I don’t remember the phones being there on our arrival. There was no public call box. The peri track or more properly Perimeter Road passed the end of Kennet road, this led back to the works site via the Newbury road just before the Main gate.
UPDATE 12 10 2019
This phone junction box was about four feet high including a concrete plinth at the base. It was topped off with a flat pyramid, with a door in the side having a very shallow metal lip on the outside. When I arrived,I along with all the other ‘little ones’ from nearby,attempted to climb up the sides to sit on the top. This I was unable to do as I was too short to grab hold of the top even when I put the edge of my foot on the lip.
It became a ‘rite of passage’ to first get hold of the top and eventually clamber onto the top and sit astride of it. This was the centre of attraction for the ‘little ones’ I do not remember a parent being around and if you fell off, you just got up, wiped the blood and muck off and tried again.
Finally I succeeded.
The prefabs were allocated according to trade and were all mixed in together, we had a police prefab next door to us. Opposite us at 1 Wayland Crescent was the Bowles family. In Avon Road was a lady, Mrs. Darling?, who “did” hair once a week and after I came back from school in Didcot I would go to find my mother in her front room, along with several other ladies. I can still smell the revolting odour of perm setting but this lady did make very good rock cakes which was probably why I went to find my mother.
Opposite her was a house just before Avon Road opened up into a grassed area where we played french cricket. In this house was a young couple whose husband was mad keen on motorcycles. He had many motor cycles and managed to find a small collapsible parachutist motorcycle. This he allowed all the children to ride, even the very little ones.
He later got a side-car, consisting of a small sided box on a frame with a wheel. No mudguards, I remember going with a friend down on the main road into Steventon and Didcot in this box, no helmets or seat belts and having to be wary of the spinning wheel! When his wife became pregnant and had the baby, he resorted to a respectable side-car with a top.
The children from the families mixed in together, in the early days it was case of find whatever you can to do or play with, nothing was provided. Much later a play area was created at the top left side of Avon Road, this consisted of a row of swings, a roundabout and a lethal but exciting swinging plank. This was a large metal frame surrounding a suspended plank, on which were inverted U-shaped metal uprights for holding on. The plank when swung vigorously by a person at each end would hit the stops with a thump and all the children sitting on it would rise momentarily in the air. The epitome of excellence was to be able to stand on the plank and jump off and grab the one of the supporting crossbars of the framework while in motion.The ritual Guy Fawkes bonfire was built here and many was the year I have “cooked” potatoes with friends inside the bonfire as it was slowly built. Any construction site was fair game for us and we climbed on the scaffolding when the garages were built in Avon Road and had great fun clambering all over the new school construction when it was later being built in Downside.
Harvest time was cause for much entertainment, first of all the local farmer would drive along Severn Road on a tractor towing a large flat bed trailer, he never stopped but slowed right down so that the bigger children could get on and any smaller ones left behind got pulled on unceremoniously The farmer took us all to a place where a thresher-bailer was set up driven by a large belt from the tractor. The men would then feed in the Corn stalks from another tractor and trailer, various children would assist in the fork up of the corn onto the thresher. Some of us worked alongside the bailer which used wire instead of string. I know this to my cost as a bail hook sprung back off the wire and the curved bit hit my brand new front teeth, chipping the left one. I never mentioned this to my parents and they never asked. The thresher-bailer was replaced by a hired in combine harvester quite soon with a tractor pulled sweeper bailer in attendance. I used to work on the wooden sledge pulled behind, sticking a metal spike in the ground to force off the eight bails piled up.
My father went to and fro to work on a tubular framed bicycle with a yellow cross bar provided by the authority, this was also used for transporting me on the cross bar on the rare occasions we went any where.He played rugby on a pitch beside Frome Road. Father also wore a badge on his left lapel, this was of blue plastic with two horizontal holes in it with a paper backing. This was his radiation gauge. Opposite our house across the peri track was a lamppost and a fire call out stand. This consisted of a glass panel which you broke and the pulled down a handle. This was checked religiously every Sunday by the fire brigade. One a day a week, I think also Sunday, the siren used to sound, the old wartime siren,at midday. This was done as a precaution for the time, if and when, there was a radio active leak from the main Harwell site.
The coal man used to come with an old flat bed lorry and would unload a sack on his back and carry it into the coal bunker behind the Anderson shelter, the dustmen would come once a week and walk into the gardens to pick up the galvanised dustbins and return them. Their lorry was a smallish truck with an open back covered with a four part half moon sliding top. The papers were delivered during the late morning, I had the ‘Eagle’ and the ‘Lion’ comics on a Tuesday and a Thursday.
The milk was delivered at about 05.30, two pints on the front door step, six days a week from JOBS Dairy. The bread was delivered once a week, three large square uncut crusty loaves. I remember this very well, for one day I was sitting on the Anderson shelter, aged about five and I discovered the crusty flakes around the top of one loaf, soon it progressed and after about an hour, the outer crust of the loaf was all that remained. I made myself scarce before my parents came home. We, a family of four, had to survive on two loaves.
Every Friday evening Mr. Hiles would arrive from Drayton with his ex-removal van. This was decked out as a grocery store, customers stood on the tail gate. For an exchange of coupons the basics were available, tea, sugar, margarine as was one small bar of chocolate. Eggs came in a gallon tin, dried egg powder, as did Tate and Lyle syrup. A special treat was a piece of Canadian slab cake, just a fruit cake imported as and when. Manna from heaven for me.
A few years later I came home to find a large Metal ‘H’ on the end of a pole vertically attached to the coal bunker, this was the television aerial! The TV was a small box in the corner with a six inch screen. This was on trial from a TV and Radio shop, we trialled several over a period of months until my father was forced to make his own, with the hugely increased screen size of nine inches. This resided in the corner of the lounge. Unfortunately my mother had a friend who came round to talk several evenings a week. This friend would sit and talk over the TV, so much so that my father made a remote control panel on a long thick lead that stretched across the room, he would turn the sound up slowly to combat the talking woman. Ultimately the woman talked so loudly that she drowned out the maximum volume.
The prevailing wind was so strong that in the summer there was no shelter from it in the garden, so my father dug a deepish pit and threw the earth up around the edges. In the summer he and my mother could sit in this pit away from the wind and it was quite hot.
Another thing he did was get an eight by four board which he put on the kitchen table and commenced to make a 00 guage model railway. This consisted of an oval and a spur off the inside, he had to make and lay all the track by hand. The loco was a Rovex ‘Princess Elizabeth’ with two blood and custard Great Western coaches. I don’t know where he got them, he certainly didn’t buy them. I was allowed to watch but never to control them. Sixty-Five years later I am fulfilling my dream and building my own layout.
In the early 1950’s he acquired an Armstrong Siddeley motor car of pre-war vintage. This was of the old ‘sit up and beg’ type complete with running boards, he was very proud of this car and we even towed a small borrowed caravan to Devon and Cornwall. Driving up Countisbury hill at Lynmouth was a nightmare, my mother had to get out with a brick to shove under the back wheel as smoke belched out from the dashboard. Needless to say as soon as my mother got out, we shot up the hill and waited for her at the top.
One day I came home to find that a jet fighter of the american airforce had landed on the runway that led down to Froome road, when I cycled up to it there was nobody with it nor was there any security with it either. Later it disappeared over to the main site.
At the end of the dispersal pan that ran down from Avon Road was a large bunker covered with earth and grass. This was empty but proved hugely exciting on our way down to the pond. The pond itself was just across the Newbury Road and was ringed of by high wire fence. This was of no problem to us children, we found a way in somehow. Once inside, the summer levels of the pond were such that you could walk around the edge and discover what had been thrown into the depths of the water. In the deepest winter it froze over and many were the days we spent sliding across the surface. It was also the source of a plentiful supply of frog and toad spawn. About a quarter of mile along the road in the direction of Newbury was the Horse and Jockey Pub, all I remember about that was it dark and uninviting Off Sales section.
Here the road was crossed by the road from Blewbury Hill towards Upper Farm and The Ridgeway. if you carried straight on for about 50 yards there was a small path leading off left, past some allotments, eventually coming out by the village church. Going on a short way down the hill into Chilton village, there was a stand of oak trees surrounding the village pump complete with a large wheel to turn to turn up the water. This pump still worked in the early fifties. A little further on into the village was the shop on the right hand side. Turning right at the aforesaid junction immediately on the left was a small wood where I remember we made whistles out of woodbine.Further along on the right was a high hedge obscuring the fence around the bomb dump, access to which was by the gate just inside the airfield opposite Upper Farm. Although kept locked when unattended, we did sneak in and look round at the bombs when we could if the workers were occupied at the far end.
Roger lived in an old caravan opposite this junction on the grass surrounding Upper Farm. This caravan was of the type that was towed behind a traction engine or a road roller, of solid construction it rode on large inflatable tyres. With a curved roof there was a short flight of steps to get into the rear wall, it was painted dark green. Inside the stable door was a just a room, with a cupboard each side, a bunk and table and chairs. At the far end was a stove with the chimney going out through the roof with more storage behind it. Roger lived alone with his Jack Russel Terrier and two ferrets. I don’t know what he did, maybe he was a part time labourer on the farm.
He was a fund of information to my enquiring mind. When we walked along the hedgerows to check his rabbit traps he would tell me the names of the trees and bushes, would spot birds nests and be able to indicate the species just from the shape and in the season would carefully remove an egg from the nest to show me the differences in shape, size and colour. In pre-myxomatosis times (Rabbits disease introduced by humans to decimate the population.)he took me out one late afternoon to a rabbit warren in the side of the hill leading up to The Ridgeway. Here he spent some time securing small nets over the openings and then set his ferrets down into the warren. Several rabbits came out and were despatched forthwith.
When we got back to his caravan he always made a cup of tea for us and we would chat about the day. My best memory was an afternoon when we went up on The Ridgeway and walked along in the direction of Wantage. We were thirsty and he showed me how to look inside a cattle trough and find the stop cock to get fresh water. Then we came across a disused very small reservoir, it was in this that he showed me the newts, two varieties, never to be seen again.
Not far from here, on the grass of the of the airfield, I saw an old fashioned ‘stook’ hayrick self-combust, very early on in my time. As kids we used to play in the bales in the barn at the rear of Upper Farm, never giving a thought to being trapped in the bowels of the barn. We just worked between us until the bales were off and the person was released. As a group of kids we used to go up on The Ridgeway with our bikes and think nothing of going to The Vale of the White Horse to play in the large markings of the horse. We even dropped down to the Blowing Stone occasionally.
Because I went to a different school than the other children, more of that later, I had a few days each holiday on my own. So with my trusty Cairn Terrier, Skipper, I would set off up and sometimes over The Ridgeway, it was here I discovered the new fangled Start Gates for the horse racing, only in its infancy at the time. There was a copse lower down on the other side which had all the normal trees but was especially well endowed with elderberries, blackberries were in abundance everywhere. I used to visit farms and houses along the way and in the evening my father would give me the route I had taken; the owners of the farms had telephoned the Main Gate at the Airfield site and reported me in and the duty policeman reported on my day to my father as he left to come home.
At its junction of Avon road with Downside there was a third road that went down to the rear entrance of the bomb dump and a Nissen Hut. In this triangle of roads caused by the cut through to Downside there was a small copse planted up with a multitude of bushes growing underneath, this was especially good for butterflies of all varieties. I think we found at least five or six different varieties when we stopped to look
Obviously there was a great deal of grass to be mowed and there was a tractor driver dedicated to this mowing. Whenever he came to mow with his three-ganged mower he would stop and I would clamber up and sit on the mudguard for hours. But even better than that was after he had been and the clover was in flower I would go out on the grass with my dog and a jamjar. We would spend ages catching and releasing bees from the clover, after about the first year of this I noticed a skylark rise up singing, it would drop down to earth and immediately rise up again. What a glorious sound that has remained with me to this day…Sixty odd years later I was in a car park, a thousand miles way from Chilton and I heard a skylark singing for the first time since childhood. I stood and wept.
As you went along the perimeter road parallel with the main road, just before the high chain-link fence guarding the main site was a turn off to the left that housed the bus garages. Here the workers buses were stored during the day. Each afternoon the drivers swept out the buses and we kids would go up to site on a Saturday morning and trawl down the sides of the depot looking for old cigarette packets. These contained cigarette cards, the aim being to collect complete sets. Turf was very popular, I am sure there were others. Tipped cigarettes were in a minority, Untipped were Senior Service, Woodbines and Capstan Full Strength spring to mind among many more.
Going on further along the main road were apple orchards on the right and the Main Gate on the left, this was set back from the road and was always open during the day with at least one officer constantly checking the traffic. Next along here on the left was the sports field. Once a year there was a sports cum fete day. This consisted of various not too serious sporting events, three legged races, sack races for all ages and sexes. A slow bicycle race just for the men and many more ‘normal’ events. At one end of the area was a space set aside for ‘Aunt Sally’ a hotly contested competition consisting of throwing a stick at wooden sticks on posts. Rolling pennies down a horizontally adjustable slot to try and get one to land exactly in a square with nothing touching the sides. This then won you a some of pennies equivalent to the number under the winning penny. There were many other such side shows.
Next along the main road was Carters Stores. This was a wooden hut of reasonable size with a door halfway along the front. When you went in, what first struck was the lack of staff, all the goods were displayed for you to pick them up and place them in a basket to take to the till at the exit, unheard of elsewhere in England at that time. The only other thing I remember were tins of fruit, especially Libby’s Peaches, an unheard of luxury imported from the United States. As you went further along the main road, just before leaving the site and dropping down to Rowstock Corner, on the right was the turn off known as the ‘Burma Road’ a track leading down to Harwell village. Next to it was the old gymnasium where all sorts of plays and other productions such a ‘The Gang Show’ took place. This was a show by boy scouts and very well supported. There was a national gang show hosted by a chap called Ralph Reader, televised when eventually TV was wider spread.
Each school day from the age of about four I was bused into Didcot to Northbourne Primary School along with all the older children who had to go to St Birinus School. The transport comprised of any old bus that was had free at the time. I do remember the occasional ride in a one and a half decker but predominately it was an old shooting brake with longitudinal seats and very uncomfortable. The school itself was a large victorian pile built in the grounds of Northbourne Parish Church. Bearing in mind that each class consisted of at least thirty-five to forty plus pupils the classrooms were very large and the infants room big enough to take two classes.
The whole edifice was heated by an enormous hot water boiler which stood in year three classroom which was stoked and refuelled daily by the school handyman. The teachers were predominantly women with a male Headmaster. There were five classes and to start with school meals were taken in the hall. The playgounds were split into girls and boys with outside toilets, the boys was to the front of the school, a tarmacced, sloping area going down to the cast iron fencing barricading us in from the street. The girls was a larger space backing on to the church grounds. I used to wait in the road until the children had been picked up from St. Birinus before I got collected from the school, sometimes all the staff and even the caretaker had left before the bus came.
Eventually they built two prefabricated buildings across the road from the school, very light and airy. One was a canteen and the other was a hall with a stage at one end. One year when I was in the forth form we put on a show for all parents in the hall. I had the part of a grand visier in a small play that our year put on. Part of my act was that I put on a pair of pince-nez glasses and unrolled a long scroll holding it up in both hands. We did it for two nights and the second night we were all made up again and got into the play. When it came to my turn the pince-nez would not stay on, as I unrolled the paper so they popped off my nose. The audience thought this was part of the act and found it hilarious. I tried about three times and turned to look for our teacher sitting in the wings for assistance, only to see her doubled up with laughter and tears rolling down her cheeks. I eventually left having passed my eleven plus and went on to Abingdon School. The reason I went to Northbourne school was because my father did not like the only alternative Harwell Village school and later when the school was built at the Chilton Estate he decreed that it was better to stay at the school to which I was accustomed. I was about seven.
The A.E.R.E. Motor Club was very big after a while of which my father played a large part. Once year was the annual driving skills test run against the clock. This was a group of painted roads and garages and other negotiable obstacles running up the hill to the wireless station on top. Part of the test was to stop, still against the clock, several yards from two posts and judge the smallest width that your car could get through without touching. He was also part of a trio that took part in and won national Night Navigation Rallies.
I can remember the no.12 bus going from Newbury to Oxford along the main road, with a bus stop outside the site, about 200 meters from our door. There was the driver sitting isolated in his cab and a ‘clippie’, a female bus conductress, complete with a clipboard of pre-printed tickets which she slid off as required, working inside the bus. To board this bus one had to get on a large running board at the rear, going strait on to go up upstairs. It was not long before it was replaced by a one man bus and renumbered no.112, with a ticket machine beside him to print off the individual tickets This bus you entered from the front and went upstairs behind the driver. What was good about the double decker bus was the ability to stand up at the front window upstairs holding onto the rail.
The trip to Newbury took about an hour and involved going in and around East Ilsley,, Chieveley et al, with the bus pausing for a smoke break for the driver in Chieveley. When in Newbury the only thing I can remember is the Empire Stores where my mother worked, This was a largish grocery shop with all the goods stacked floor to ceiling on shelves on the walls and large marble topped counters behind which ladies waited to serve you. The cold meats and cheese were displayed on these marble tops,all of the things that were sold came from the empire. On the road to Newbury near Chieveley, was a riding stables which I attended for some time with unexceptional results,
Qxford was gained by another meandering route via Harwell village, Steventon, Drayton, Abingdon, Radley and Kennington before entering the Abingdon Road in Oxford. By this road was set of twin swimming pools which turned green in the summer. Going on into Oxford one crossed the Folly Bridge where you could see over the Thames into the boat yard jammed with rowing skiffs for hire,looking further down river there were all the college house boats stretching a long way. Driving further to Carfax and then left and eventually into the bus stop. This was an uncovered affair with small platforms, some covered, with posts and rails down the centre to queue around.
My mother was taken into the Radcliffe Hospital when it was still in its old grounds in Woodstock Road. She had pneumonia quite badly and she remained in hospital for several weeks. I came into Oxford once a week on the bus with my grandmother to see her, later we went into the Cadena coffee shop in Cornmarket Street and upstairs to the restaurant. Here, in the afternoon waitresses wore a black skirt and white blouse covered with a pristine white apron. They would come around with a three tier cake stand, but best of all I could have a Toasted Tea Cake, served up on a silver platter covered with a silver lid.
My grandmother used to be Head Housekeeper in a large house off the Woodstock road behind which was the Radcliffe Conservatory. This was the hall of residence for the doctors working in the Radcliffe Hospital. What I can remember vividly was the large walled garden to the rear of the house which was immaculately kept with gravel paths and shady spaces for sitting in and superb flower beds.
As you went into Oxford the first road leading down from Carfax was Cornmarket street.
On the right hand side going from Carfax was a shoe shop which had an X-ray machine, this was where you put your feet into a hole about two steps up and the shop assistant switched the machine on, this was alright if you were over eight and could see into the hole on the top, while the shop assistant and your mother looked into the holes on either side. They still had them when I was about eight and a half as I remember looking in and seeing my foot bones encased in the shoes.
A little further down was a haberdashery which still had several vacuum tubes. This was great as the assistant put the bill into a small round cylinder along with your mother’s money and then it whooshed upstairs, to come clanging back down in due course with the change and receipt marked paid.
The next shop was Woolies, or to give it its proper name F.W. Woolworth. This was a grand affair with two entrances on to the Cornmarket with a large aisle running back on each side for the most part of the large shop. There was a counter running down the left side behind which were about six or eight staff selling everything; from razor blades, knives, pencils to cotton, needles, etc. Across the bottom was the bicycle display and then on the right hand side at the bottom were the childrens clothes and toys. Up the middle were several large islands of stuff each manned by at least two staff, this was generally sweets, cards and things like that. Just inside the right hand door was a huge staircase at least six people wide which led up to the general store with the kitchen, garden and household equipment. It was at the bottom of this flight of stairs that all the ‘lost’ children were deposited, at times there were up to eight or nine kids there, not all lost I might say, as there were some who were bored or got left there by their parents and collected later.
Further on down this street you turned right into Broad Street where there was a model shop selling kits and model trains these were mainly ‘Rovex’ make.
Then you turned right into Turl street where on the right hand side was a model shop with a complete ‘Golden Arrow’ Train Set. This had Pullman coaches which had interior lighting even down to the lights on the table in the restaurant car.
I wanted this.
Further down this road was a mens outfitters with a mannequin in the window. This had a fez on its head, a smoking jacket and best of all, Eastern type slippers with pointy curly up toes.
I wanted a pair of these.
Next out into the High and turned right towards Carfax, cross the road and there was another expensive gents outfitters. In the old fashioned windows was displayed a light blue waistcoat with blue filigree ‘fleur de lys’.
I wanted one of them.
Well, over the years I have had a smoking jacket, I got a blue waistcoat with ‘fleur de lys’, I am now in the throws of making a huge model railway upstairs. This wedding anniversary I got these.
All of this happened many years ago and much water has passed under the bridge since then. The prefabs have now gone and the roads and lamp posts, etc. have been dug up, only the school remains. All that exists is the rapidly declining pool of memories. I believe that all I have written is true but apologise for any errors.