David Whitaker

A free-range childhood memoir of a wartime evacuee

I was an unusual kind of evacuee : my grandmother, mother and young sister Sally came with me, to la Penally Terrace which had been lent to us by my great-aunt Ella Whitaker. Most evacuees had left their parents at city railway stations, where the children joined others like them, all carefully labelled, each with a gas mask hung round the neck, and clutching a small suitcase. They said goodbye and joined friends, or strangers, on special trains which took them off into the unknown, to country places thought to be safe from German air raids. Some never saw their homes again.
In my fortunate state as a kind of privatised evacuee I came to Boscastle. Ella Whitaker had spent her summer holidays here since her own childhood in the 1880s, with her sister Marjorie and brother Hawker Dinham. They were the nieces and nephew of William Sloggatt Hawker of Penally House, which is where they had their holidays. Their uncle Will went bankrupt in, I think, 1904, and shot himself. As one did. His family emigrated to Tasmania. All very traditional.

The railway had come to Camelford in 1894 and that was the end of the harbour as a thriving, and prosperous little port. And the end of a comfortable life for Sloggatt Hawker, merchant.

When my great-aunt and uncle had children of their own, they rented 1, la and 2a Penally Terrace for their family holidays. Later they owned them. I believe it was Marjorie’s husband, a successful lawyer, who bought all three, kept number one for himself – a very reasonable thing to do as it was, and is, the largest, and by far the most comfortable – and gave the others to his brother and sister-in-law.

I must have been about eight years old when we first came down here. We came by train to Camelford and Mark Olde brought us from there to Boscastle. Mark owned the only taxi. Those days were long before the railway network was so ruthlessly pruned and Camelford station was closed.

Boss Old (no relation), lived at Clifton House and farmed at Home Farm. I remember him as a big man who wore polished leather gaiters. It is small details which stick in a child’s mind. Marie, Boss Old’s daughter, had the green shop up on New Road, where Cory’s Cott is now. She sold wool and knitting patterns, and had a small circulating library. The shop had an entrance on New Road, and another, up steep steps, from Dunn Street, opposite where the Spar shop was. In the war Luxon Pickard ran it as a fish and chip shop. He let me use the chip slicer. It had a lever like a beer pump handle and sliced one potato at a time. On Sundays he sold newspapers. Luxon told the most marvellous stories about wrecks, and the Coastguard. It was years before I worked out that some of his stories went back to the 19th century and must have been fold to him when he Was a boy.

Miss Symond’s shop was further on in Dunn Street. She sold cottons, buttons, ribbon and no doubt a hundred other things of no interest to a small boy. Cowlings, the butcher shop, was in Fore Street where Molly Webber lives now. Mr Cowling had a Staffordshire bull terrier with pink eyes. It stood in the shop doorway and glowered. I was always surprised that the women of the village were brave enough to go past it.

The grocery shop for Top Town was Sharrocks. It had an ancient Morris delivery van, painted in a long since faded brown. It also delivered paraffin. Many villagers cooked on paraffin stoves. We did. Some cottages were still lit by oil lamps.

My great-aunt, and her sister and brother and their families used Sharrocks until it closed down. The Sharrock family had extended credit to their Uncle Will far longer than had been sensible. He died owing them money. The debt was paid off in the end, and that part of the family used Sharrocks from loyalty. My mother was put off by the rats which leapt about the shop and could be seen through the shop window in the evening.

In those days the village was still very much divided into Top Town and Bridge. Earlier still Bridge had been known as Quay Town. Top Town had been agricultural. Regular cattle markets had been held on the market square, where the surgery is now. Quay Town was around the Harbour. Quay Town had not been as respectable as Top Town. There were sailors.

In my childhood the shop for Quay Town was Ferretts opposite the Riverside Hotel. It was much bigger than Sharrocks, more of a general store. One went up wide steps to the entrance. It was built up so that the Occasional floods swirled around it rather than through it. Inside long wooden counters ran down each side. Groceries were sold in the main body of the shop, haberdashery was at the end counter, and clothing was in the back room. remember Ruby, one of the assistants, as young and pretty. She was always cheerful.

To the left of Ferrets was Webber’s garage, where Rocky Road and the Picture Gallery are now. Petrol was rationed and not many cars called in the war. What I remember is the tractor. Was there more than one? Malcolm Biddick’s grandfather drove it. I remember him as a huge man bigger even than his boys Arthur, Stewart and Gil, although not as tall. Not all farmers had tractors then and must have hired it by the day. Some farmers still used horses for ploughing. I think then they were essential for hillsides.

One of the most skilled ploughmen with a horse team I ever saw was Funny Phelps. In those days he was a nut brown, good looking gypsy like boy, and as friendly and simple, as he was to the end of his days. I remember Watching him plough the steep field behind Penally House. He chatted away to his team as they went up and down the hillside, furrows as straight as a ruler, ploughman and team one as patient as the other. If it rained he put a sack round his shoulders.

His team would have been shod by the blacksmith in the Forge which was between the Lime Kiln, and Sunnyside in Valency Row. It is a picture gallery now.

I drink to Fun’s memory whenever I go to the Napoleon Inn. He would have been surprised to know that one day a bar would be named in his honour, and fond memory.

Down in Quay Town there was, and still is, the Wellington Hotel. It would be years before the Cobweb opened. In those days the building was Mr Bowering’s store. Sacks of flour were kept where the cobwebbed bar of the Cobweb Inn was to become famous. The spiders’ webs were thick between the beams, ghostly white with their fine coating of flour dust.

Where Roger Little’s pottery is now, next door to Mr Bowering’s, was the bakery. The oven was coal-fired. You can still see its big iron door at the back of Roger’s potting area. The coal was kept to the right of the oven, many hundred weight of it tipped into a narrow space, about 15 feet long. Crickets sang there night and day, happy in the warmth.

There was another agricultural store; I think it belonged to a Mr Rush. But at this distance in time, over 70 years, I would be a fool to pretend to be sure. What is certain is that it was on the car park side of the road, except that there was no car park.

Bread, like almost everything else, was rationed, but we seemed to get enough as we did meat, most of it lamb. Our meat came in a van from Tintagel. Our potatoes and vegetables came from allotments on the hillside above the Private Road. The outlines of several of them are still just visible. Very few people from Quay Town walked up the hill to Cowlings for meat, just as very few people from Top Town ever came down to Quay Town, except sometimes the children, in summer, to swim in the harbour. It was as clear as crystal then. Small crabs scuttled over the sand beside the old pier. We dived down to pick them up.

One of the few who did come down from Top Town was the doct.or who Wed, where else? at Doctor’s Corner. Once he came down to deliver my younger sister Mary, as he had all of the villagers of that time.

None of us came to any harm swimming in the harbour. There were no. boats there in wartime. There was a boom to keep out German boats if there had been an invasion. It ran from the end of the old pier, a triangle of steel bars. The Boscastle boats were kept for the duration in what is now Graham King’s Museum of Witchcraft, and the National Trust shop. The end of that building, where the Visitor Centre is, was then a village hall for Quay Town. There were dances. These continued after the war. The late June Metcalfe told me she remembered Phil and Jennifer Smith as the handsomest couple on the dance floor. And there were film shows.

The Ginner Moore dance school used the hall for training. The school had moved here for the war years. The young women shocked the ladies of Quay Town by walking around in their leotards. There were hardly any young men to admire them. They had been called up for the war. A few airmen from Davidstow did come over.

The war hardly touched the lives of most of us children. We were too young to understand what it was, or what death meant. The day war was declared Roy Pickard and I were standing on the lower bridge, the one which stopped the cars from going to sea in the 2004 floods. Roy’s grandparents had a wireless set and had heard Mr Chamberlain say we were at war with Germany. Roy told me. We stood and looked at the harbour. We knew war was something important, but had no idea why.

The nearest war was to come to us was when a German bomber overflew Cornwall, found itself over the Atlantic, turned round and dropped its bombs on the first land it saw which was the cliff tops up by the “flagpole” (it is a weather vane and has never had a flag on it). We collected shrapnel for days afterwards.

Another time three downed German airmen – had they overshot both Plymouth and Cornwall and run out of fuel? – paddled their rubber dinghy into Pentargon, or so Luxon Pickard told me. The Home Guard in his little sentry box on top arrested them. They must have been delighted to see him. He marched them up Old Hill, past the telephone exchange, along Dunn Street and up Fore Street to the policeman who lived in a house above St Christopher’s. The policeman suggested the airmen hand over their pistols and, that done, the Home Guard was able to put down his old Lee Enfield rifle, with its empty magazine. At that early period of the war ammunition was too precious to hand out to Home Guards.

The telephone exchange was manual and housed where Sue Scotts’ hairdressing salon is now. The telephone box I remember was nearly at the top of the hilt. One picked up the telephone and Mrs Ferrett or another asked for the number, or the name of the person you wanted. I expect there were other call boxes, and some people had their own telephone.

It was odd that the harbour was so clean for us to swim in because there was no sewage pipe. Beside the harbour it was known as “bucket and chuck it”. Although not in Penally Terrace. The curious can still see the little runnels which ran from there and were cut into the slate of the cliff down to the tide level.

Our neighbours in the terrace were as different as it was possible for them to be. Nellie Mitchell and her elderly mother lived at number 2. I never knew what work Miss Mitchell did, but at weekends, weddings and funerals she played the organ in church. She was very proper. She always wore gloves, and a hat. She said I was born to be hung.

At the far end was Miss Mole. Or was it her mother then? Anyway, seventy years ago whichever one it was ran a B&B. At the back there were la and I b. The first was my great-aunt’s cottage where we were staying, in the next was Mrs Dinham, Hawker Dinham’s wife – he spent the war years at the Geological Museum in London (now part of the Natural History Museum) -and their children Ann, John and Mary. And then, in what are now 3a and 4a but were then one long cottage, were Miss Power and her companion Miss Moorhouse. Miss Power was elderly, Miss Moorhouse less so, but not by much, or not to my young eyes.

Miss Power died after her nightdress caught fire on their primitive, unguarded, single bar electric fire. She had left her cottage to her companion. Elderly people in Boscastle will remember Miss Moorhouse who lived on for many years, increasingly scatty, and kept company by her brood of increasingly feral cats.

There were rabbits on the hillside then, and the cats kept themselves well fed. 1 cannot remember when myxamatosis came, or whether Miss Moorhouse and her cats were still alive. If they were the cats at least would have had a thin time of it.

I was not at the village school for very long, perhaps no more than a year, but it made a lasting impression on me. The headmaster was a devil with a ruler across the knuckles. We all paid rapt attention. His assistant was Miss Lobb who was kinder but still strict. It is surprising how well how many of my classmates did in later life. They were an energetic and hard working lot and got a good grounding from Mr Elford and Miss Lobb.

As I had to get into a boarding school I was sent off for cramming in maths and to start to learn Latin. My teacher was Miss Dale who lived in Paradise and had been, I believe, head teacher at a grammar school somewhere in the County. She was a kind woman. She had a bedridden sister who ha d a bird table attached to her bedroom windowsill. There were many s Ingle middle aged women then. They had lost their future husbands in the wicked slaughter of the first war. Many became teachers. There were far more deaths in the first war than in the second, as can be seen by reading the names of the dead on the village war memorial.

When I was not swimming in the harbour, exploring the cliffs, or off at schooI. I fished in the valley. I bought my license from Mr Gooch in the Manor Office, where Clovelly Clothing is now. My grandfather had sent me a split-cane rod he had used on the big trout streams of New Zealand. It was far too long for the Valency but I had nothing else, was lucky to have it and learned to use it. Mr Pearce taught me. He was a retired insurance agent who lived in Penally Cottages up on the Bude Road, opposite Penally House. Mr Pearce lived on for many years after his wife died, and, I believe, became a regular at the snooker table of the Working Men’s Club. When I knew him he was adding to his and his wife’s diet with brown trout, and occasional eels which stew very well but are very hard to kill. I fished every day for a month before I caught my first fish. I doubt I would have persevered without his encouragement, and tips.

The Valency valley is a magical place now, even more so then. I would leave home in the morning, with my rod, a small haversack with a sandwich and go home sometimes when it was dusk and bats were streaming out of the mine adits up above the cattle barrier that was across the river then, at the top of the third field. The first field – swallowed up by the car park now -would be alive with rabbits. Most days I would have seen no-one until New Mills, where I might have spoken to Mrs Biscombe, or waved as I fished from the footbridge there which takes the path across the river and on up to Treworld.

Mrs Biscombe threw kitchen scraps over the wall at the end of her vegetable garden and into the river. There was a deep pool under the bridge where trout fattened on the scraps.

As well as the bats and rabbits there was something a lot more alarming to me in the first field, the old sow from the Wellington Farm, all 20 stone of her grunting her way across the field, head down and capable of knocking over a strong man with a swing of her massive hips. She was harmless really, just a bit careless.

The farmyard was where Valency B&B is now. There was a dung heap which was a treasure trove of little red worms, which the trout loved. Sadly I forget the name of the man who looked after the few cows, the old sow and, each year her large litter of plump piglets, and the hens. One year he made me a toboggan. It had wide wooden. runners which would slide over grass if the slope was steep enough. Opposite the farm it was as steep as it is now. But there were no trees. The woodland there has group up since my childhood. In those days fields slipped steeply down to the bank of the mill leet. If the toboggan ran too fast there was a risk of going right over the top.

So many memories, all of them good ones. Which is why, like so many others, I have kept on coming back.