Batten down the hatches

At the end of each summer, my mother would say, “it’s time to batten down the hatches.” Battening down the hatches meant putting away everything that was not needed over the winter months and firmly securing everything that might be shifted by a gale.

None of us was ever sure why we talked as though we were at sea, the nearest port was at least forty miles away, but we understood the need for a very firm battening down. Everything needed to be packed away; doors needed to be securely locked; windows closed against draughts; nothing should be left exposed. The arrival of the season against which we guarded was announced by a mournful whining of the wind through the electricity cables that passed by on the other side of the road.

Once, while my father had been working at the air station at Lossiemouth in northern Scotland, it had been our community in Somerset, six hundred miles south, that had been hit by a severe storm.

Our garage was an asbestos structure set on a concrete foundation, secure on summer days but uncertain in winter. As the storm arrived and the wind built up, the entire garage began to lift from the ground. If it took off, or even turned over, the asbestos walls would be broken and everything inside would be exposed to the elements. I was sent to fetch Mr Croot, a mountain of a man of prodigious streng, who would know what to do. He drove quickly up from his house, bringing with him lengths of webbing and long steel spikes. The spikes were driven into the ground either side of the garage and the webbing was passed backward and forward over the roof. Mr Croot’s rescue equipment remained in place until the following spring, when the garage was much more securely concreted down.

Had we shown any reluctance to participate in the activity of battening down, my mother would say, “do you remember the time the garage took off?” Of course we did, how could we have forgotten it?

Perhaps, if we searched through the meteorological records, we could locate the date of the storm, perhaps it was not as severe as we remembered, but gusted along our road at speed because we lived on an open hillside. Whatever the historical facts regarding the storm, it left a fear of the coming of autumn for years afterwards, a sense of vulnerability.

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Story times

Asked to sit and read quietly, most Year 7 students will take out the same reading book they have had for weeks, or simply sit and stare into nothingness: reading does not seem to capture the imagination. Perhaps there is a need to read to them

The best times at primary school were those when the teacher would tell us to put away our books and to sit quietly and listen. In infant days at Long Sutton Primary School, there would be a rest time after the daily school dinner. Individual jute mats were handed out and the class was expected to lie quietly and listen to the radio. Perhaps it was the BBC Home Service’s “Listen with Mother” programme that provided the daily fare for the silent five and six year olds, perhaps it was one of the BBC schools programmes. Storytelling became associated with quiet attentiveness.

Throughout the primary school years, listening to stories was part of the educational experience. The final term at High Ham Primary School was spent with a new teacher, Mr Britten, the long-serving Miss Rabbage having retired at Easter. Perhaps it was the novelty of a new teacher with his new car and new ways that made the moments memorable, but forty-seven years later it is still possible to remember the book he would read to the class at the end of each school day, a tale of a sheepdog on Dartmoor, “Bran of the Moor.” The final days of hearing a story read came in the first year at Elmhurst Grammar School in Street, Miss Stanley would read pages from “Dr Syn,” Russell Thorndike’s tale of smuggling on Romney Marsh.

In the years that followed, BBC Radio 4 was the only place to which one might turn if one enjoyed stories being read. At least twice a day, there would be a chance to hear someone reading from a book. The BBC managers responsible for programme schedules knew that the spoken story still had a power to hold a listener in the way that no other programme might.

What is it about stories that makes them compelling, even stories with neither introduction nor conclusion? Perhaps the person telling the story is important, but perhaps more important is the story itself. Perhaps stories hold us because we can stand inside them, we can identify with the experience being described; perhaps stories hold us because something of them is inside of us, the feelings felt by the characters are the feelings we would feel ourselves. Perhaps discovering the power of stories would make the students into readers.

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By boat to Ilchester

“Bradshaw’s Canals and Navigable Rivers of England and Wales” handbook was an attempt at reviving the fortunes of canals at a time when they had long been superseded by the railways, even the ownership of many of the canals lay in the hands of railway companies.

Sinking into its pages on an autumn evening , the local and the personal are the things that capture the imagination. Bradshaw’s canal handbook probably describes one or more waterways with which most of its readers would be familiar. The handbook gives substance to family stories of my great grandfather, or perhaps it was a great, great grandfather, transporting goods from Bridgwater to our home town of Langport by barge. What was startling was the discovery that landscapes and villages that were familiar places in childhood days once saw the coming and going of barges.

The River Parrett  was a commercial thoroughfare, albeit one that was in decline. Bradshaw’s notes,

The river commences to be navigable at the bridge which carries the main road between Langport and South Petherton over the river at Thorney Mills, near Langport, and proceeds by Langport, Borough Bridge, Bridgwater, Dunball, Combwich, Stert Point, and Burnham to Bridgwater Bar, where it enters Bridgwater Bay at low water, all in the county of Somersetshire.

Langport enjoyed the services of two railway stations in 1904 and water borne traffic had become rare. According to Bradshaw’s,

Above Bridgwater there is good trade at all times to the various brick works situated within the first two miles of the river beyond the town, but beyond this trade is extremely small. Barges can only navigate to Langport on Spring tides, and between Langport and Thorney Mills when there is a fair amount of land water coming down the river.

The distance table for the Parrett revealed things not even told in family stories. Six furlongs from Thorney Mills was the junction with the Westport Canal, the waters of which we must have crossed many times, though it had closed in the 1870s. Two miles and two furlongs later there was the junction with the River Yeo, a river crossed countless times without there ever being a thought that once it had been navigable. Bradshaw’s describes it,

The navigation of the river may be said to commence at Ilchester, whence it proceeds by Little Load and Pidsbury to a junction with the River Parrett, about three-quarters-of-a-mile above Langport, all in the county of Somersetshire.

There is scarcely any trade done on the river: a barge occasionally navigates from the River Parrett as far as Pidsbury or Little Load, but nothing has been beyond for some years.

Passing through Ilchester last Friday, the road narrows where it crosses the Yeo, but there is nothing that might cause one to imagine that goods had once travelled from there to the sea. A whole realm of industrial archaeology and economic history was on our doorsteps, and we never knew.

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No need for a map

There wasn’t really a need to put the name of the Italian restaurant into Google Maps. It is in Ilchester and it would be possible to drive to Ilchester from here on a dark, foggy night with the headlights turned off: Field Road, Culver Hill, Fir Pits, Tengore, Long Sutton, Catsgore, Red Post, Ilchester. The journey is one that was made many times.

Oddly, before the advent of digital technology, Ilchester might have been reached in a variety of ways. Different routes may have been taken to Long Sutton, or Long Sutton may have been avoided in favour of travelling via Somerton. Routes were learned and remembered and journeys were a matter of inclination.

There was a road atlas in the house, it was some years old, but that presented no problems, towns and villages did not change position; only the arrival of the M5 motorway prompted a the purchase of new maps for Somerset and Devon. There was the annual AA members’ handbook, but its maps lacked the detail required for our rural road network.

It is hard to remember occasions when there was a need to use a road map. The atlas would be taken on family holidays to Devon and Cornwall, not to find the way to the destination, I could still drive to Westward Ho! or to Saint Ives without needing directions, but to be able to visit places on wet days (never a good idea, the entire visitor population of Devon and Cornwall would have had a similar idea).

Looking back forty or fifty years, it is hard to remember a time when routes were learned, they seemed always to be known, as if topographical knowledge was something that could be passed on in the blood.

Perhaps the ways to places were learned by sheer familiarity. A child of seven or eight years of age watching through the window of a slow moving car would have noted every feature of the route because watching out of the window was all there was to do on such journeys. Perhaps the speed of the car made a difference as well, the estimated time of a journey would always be calculated using a speed of thirty miles per hour, and even that was faster than was possible on roads used by agricultural traffic. Moving slowly meant time to take in everything along the way.

Google Maps has the potential to undermine a whole world of experience.


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What was the alley, alley O?

It was a game played in the front playground at High Ham Primary School. Two children stood facing each other, their arms raised and outstretched and their hands clasped together to form an arch through which the rest of us passed.

It must have been before Easter of 1069, for once I was in the junior class, playtimes were spent in the back playground. Children being particular about the exact timing of activities, it was probably September-time, so it would have been the autumn of 1968, or even 1967.

Where the words came from, and what they meant, would have been questions that did not occur to the class of twenty or so children. The object of the song seemed to be that the children forming the arch would bring their arms down on the person passing through on the last day of September, whereupon the person trapped would become a member of the arch.

The big ship sails through the Alley Alley O,
Alley Alley O, Alley Alley O,
The big ship sails through the Alley Alley O,
On the last day of September.

The Captain said, ‘It will never, never do,
It will never, never do,
It will never, never do’,
The Captain said, ‘It will never, never do,
On the last day of September.

The big ship sank to the bottom of the sea,
The bottom of the sea, the bottom of the sea,
The big ship sank to the bottom of the sea,
On the last day of September.

We all dip our heads in the deep blue sea,
The deep blue sea, the deep blue sea,
We all dip our heads in the deep blue sea,
On the last day of September.

Looking back more than half a century later, the question that occurs is why the Alley-O was a source of fascination for small children in a tiny country school.

Did we become engaged simply to be engaged? Was the concern with taking part in an activity which involves everyone else? Whether it was the Alley-O, or some other concept that equally lacked any meaning for us, was there a desire to join together in the singing and the activity?

Perhaps the greater knowledge of the world and much greater cultural sophistication of younger children now have brought with them the loss of something simpler and unsophisticated. It is a long time since I saw the Alley-O being played, what now takes place to create participation and community?

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