A tramway on Dartmoor

My final year at secondary school was spent in a leisurely manner. Having passed the examinations required to go on to sixth form college a year early, 1976-77 was passed doing things that were interesting – the three examinable subjects were English literature, world affairs in the 20th Century and environmental studies. Each had its own attractions, but at a remote school in rural Devon in the mid-70s access to literature and the stuff of world affairs was not easy, so environmental studies became a passion.

There was no landscape or village that did not hide secrets that might be unearthed by someone who looked hard. To visitors, the Dartmoor National Park that surrounded our school was a place of unspoilt natural beauty, yet within a few steps of the roads that carried the coach parties there were granite hut circles that had formed the walls of houses in bronze age times and there was a wealth of industrial archaeology telling the story of human industry over the centuries.

It did not do to say it aloud, but human artefacts seemed far more interesting than natural history; flora and fauna had not the capacity to capture the imagination in the way that the ruins of a village, or the last traces of a tin mine, might. The most interesting features were always those that were unexpected, or quirky – like the Haytor granite tramway.

The granite tramway was encountered on a hike across the moor; it seemed extraordinary that anyone would consider building a tramway in granite, and even more extraordinary that anyone would build a tramway from the heights of Dartmoor down to the Stover Canal, a drop of 1,300 feet.

Bradshaw’s Canals and Navigable Rivers of England and Wales gives the details of the Stover Canal list the locks required to navigate its 1.7 mile length. If one wished to transport stone from Haytor quarries, how long might have taken for a consignment to reach its destination? The tramway down to the canal, the barges down the canal and then the River Teign to the quay at Teignmouth, the unloading of the stone before it was loaded onto sailing ships to be transported around the country – how long did it all take? How many people were involved in such a process?

Perhaps somewhere there is research detailing how long it took a block of Haytor granite to reach the capital for the building of London Bridge in 1831. Asking the sort of question that might have surrounded the topics covered by environmental studies might have allowed the subject to fill the entire year.

Posted in Out and about | Leave a comment

Tricycling to school

The equinox brought a sharp change in the weather. Warm days worthy of high summer disappeared to be replaced by cool autumn temperatures, chill winds and sharp bursts of rain.

The change in the seasons came in a matter of hours and a north-westerly wind prompted my mother to recall the closing days of September 1942.

Five years old in May of that year, she had started at Long Sutton Primary School. In 1942, she was the second of four children born to my grandparents (three more would be born between 1944 and 1948).

The possibilities of there being time to spend with children were very restricted, the war effort consumed almost every waking moment. My grandfather worked on the farm and did road work for Langport Rural District Council in the day time; at night, he was out on Home Guard duty. My grandmother looked after the children, kept the house, and spent whatever time that was spare tending hens and helping with farm work. My grandparents had no time to spare to take their children to school.

Long Sutton Primary School was two miles from the family farm at Pibsbury. Brenda, my mother’s older sister, had been born in 1935 and had completed two years at the school. Brenda had a bicycle to make the journey. My mother was given a tricycle. “It had big wheels, but it was still hard work for a five year old to cycle to school.”

In 1944, the two elder sisters were joined on the journey by the third of the children who had been born in 1939. My mother was given a bicycle to ride and Shirley, the five year old new pupil, was given the tricycle. “We would get to Tengore and Shirley would refuse to go any further. We would stop and call her to come with us and she simply refused. She would go back to the farm and hide in the hay.”

Tengore was barely half a mile from the farm and there was virtually no traffic on the road. It is difficult to imagine that my grandparents were not immediately aware of the return of their daughter. They lived in the farm cottage on one side of the farm gate, my great grandparents and Stanley, my grand uncle, lived in the farm house. One of the five adults would quickly have spotted a five year old girl on a Tricycle.

The solution was that my grandmother cycled to school with the three girls, encouraging Shirley on the way.

More than seventy-five years after Shirley started school, it seems a different world in which a five year old rode a tricycle for two miles along a main road.

Posted in Unreliable memories | Leave a comment

Missing the fair

In better times, Bridgwater Fair always took place at St Matthew’s Field in late-September. It was a time that, in childhood memory, was always wet and windy. Was there always mud? I certainly remember going in Wellington boots.

The crowds meant that the walk up the street approaching the field was no more than a shuffle. It was a street lined with “cheapjacks” intent on parting people from their money, persuading onlookers to part with money for goods of dubious quality. The offers were too good to be true, but everyone knew they were, that was part of the entertainment, watching to see who might be taken in.

As the field was approached there was a gateway through which the countless thousands of feet passed. The ground would have been well churned up by the Saturday evening, the closing night of the fair. Were there to have been an emergency, it is hard to know what might have happened; marked exits and escape routes were things of the distant future.

The cheapjack stalls and other such stuff might have been interesting for adults, without whom my attendance at the fair would not have been possible, but it was the funfair that was the magnet for a small boy clutching a half-crown. Looking back now I’m sure it was gaudy and garish and completely unsophisticated, but to a child who lived in village of three hundred people and went to a two classroom primary school that had just forty pupils, this was the most amazing place.

The rides were often frightening, more for watching than trying; there were constant wonders to discover as we pushed through the throngs. I remember tents that were forbidden to small boys, but perhaps my imagination invented them. In my memory, there were at least a boxing ring and another involving the charms of some lady. Did they exist or are they the later interpolations of a mind fed on stories of travelling shows and circuses? Hoop-la stalls and coconut shys, and throwing pin-pong balls into jars to win goldfish, were more the thing for an eight year old; roundabouts and dodgem cars and pennies put in a one-armed bandit.

Is there the same magic now? Computer technology and theme parks have made the delights of the funfair seem pale and unsophisticated. Where do half-crown clutching children find a world of excitement and delight? Sadly there will be no opportunity to find out this year.

Posted in Unreliable memories | Leave a comment

Dead pets

The death of a pet was always a painful moment. Even in latter years there has been grief at the death of dogs who have been faithful friends. Recalling the pain I felt as I buried Bella, who had joined the house at a vet’s estimate of eighteen months old and who died fourteen years later, still brings tears to the eyes – and I was fifty-four at the time.

Reading an extract from Eiluned Lewis’ Dew on the Grass, there is a sense of how incomprehensible death was when I was a child and an appreciation of why children would go to so much trouble over the death of a pet:

While Dick went to dig a grave behind the nutbushes, they took Robert, the wooden horse with his cart to the rabbit hutch and laid poor Jack Baba tenderly in the cart, which he exactly fitted. Then they covered him with a black and white handkerchief and laid on top of that a white rose which Delia had picked from her own tree.

They pulled Jack Baba all the way from his hutch to the grave. Maurice walked in front, since the gorse and cart were his property, and Delia came behind, guiding the cart round the corners. Lucy and Miriam followed: Lucy played tunes on a comb – all the saddest tunes she knew – and Miriam held a bunch of mignonette  and some of Jack Baba’s favourite radishes.

When they came to the place where the path dips down hill, the procession was difficult to manage, for the cart, being the heavier, went faster than Robert and several times nearly upset. Dick had dug the grave under the hedge and, after Delia had lined it with moss, they buried Jack Baba with the rose, the radishes and the mignonette. But the black-and-white handkerchief was returned to their mother, to keep for another occasion.

When I buried Bella, I took a stone and scratched a Bible reference on the wall of the hidden corner of the garden in which I buried her. Lashing two sticks together to fashion a cross, I hung her collar on it and stood and bowed my head in silence.

Many children will have gone through similar experiences, burying pets in corners of the garden, acting out their own remembrances, their own liturgies. The children in Eiluned Lewis’ story were far more resourceful than I could ever have been.


Posted in The stuff of daily life | Leave a comment

No fat

Eleven stones thirteen pounds and four ounces according to the bathroom scales, the first time I have weighed below twelve stones in more than thirty years. Another four pounds and I shall reach the top of the range in which my weight should be. According to the Body Mass Index tables, I should weigh between eight stones and ten pounds and eleven stones and ten pounds. If lockdown had any plus points, it was the opportunity to spend the summer on long calorie-burning walks.

Being overweight came with the clerical life. Spending too much time in the car, taking too little exercise, drinking tea and eating biscuits or cake at every house, it was easy to add pounds to the weight and inches tonthe waistline.

By 2013, I weighed between thirteen and a half and fourteen stones. The arrival of angina that year brought instructions from the doctor that I was to lose at least half a stone. He would be pleased that seven years later I have managed to continue to keep my weight down.

Looking back to my childhood years, I can remember only one fat person. Glady (presumably a diminutive of Gladys, but possibly a nickname entirely unrelated to her proper name) and her husband used to call at my grandparents’ house on a Sunday evening. Glady had always to sit in a very upright chair.

In those more polite times, Glady would have probably been described as “stout.” Glady had the appearance of Ena Sharples, a character from the television series Coronation Street. Dressed in dark clothes and wearing a hairnet, Glady was someone who dominated the room.

It seems odd that there were not more fat people. By the 1960s, food was plentiful. Wartime austerity had lasted through to the 1950s, but by the end of that decade the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had told people that they had never had it so good, and he was right.

Perhaps it was the experience of the two World Wars and the depression of the 1930s that had shaped people both psychologically and bodily. Perhaps frugality had been so much part of their daily lives that even in the 1960s they remained abstemious in their ways.

Perhaps it was also the way in which life was lived. Manual work was common and hard, cars were less plentiful, bicycles were the norm for many people.

Not being fat was not a matter of losing weight, it was the way life was.


Posted in Unreliable memories | Leave a comment