Crossing the green

Driving through the village on 30th November, there was no need of a calendar to recall Saint Andrew.  The village green is laid out in the saltire pattern of the flag of Saint Andrew, the patron of our parish church. The green is crossed by the nearest thing we have to a main road, though even if does not manage the status of a ‘B’ designation. When I was young, the level of traffic was sufficiently light to allow racing my bicycle around the corner without fear of collision.

In the bicycling years, I might have named the families living in every house in High Ham; well, in the ordinary houses anyway, it was hard to know the people in the big houses, they had little interest in schoolboys on bicycles. Little seemed to change, though it, of course, did; it was just that when you are a child, time lasts very much longer.

There was nothing remarkable about our area of Somerset. With the exception of Glastonbury, now world famous for its pop festival, few people would have heard of most of the places. “Undulating lowland”, the geography teacher called it. Some of the undulations were steeper than the picture of gentle rises and falls might suggest, particularly when pushing a bike up them, but it was a fair description. Much of the countryside around had been under water until the reclaiming of the levels; the county’s name derives from the fact that it literally was “summer lands”, in the winter the pastures disappeared.

No-one famous had ever come from our village; no-one famous had lived in our village; being honest, it was hard to think of anything significant that had ever happened there. If somewhere could have been noteworthy for nothing ever having happened, then we would be well-known.

Travelling through the village, were it not for cars along the roadside, the time could have been any in the last thirty years. “Unchanging” hardly expresses the continuity of the place.

Perhaps it’s being unchanging, unremarkable, undulating, that gives somewhere an English quality. These are the people who go to work every day, paying the taxes that allow the Government its adventures; these are the custodians of the landscape that is passed from generation to generation. It is these small, anonymous, and unremarkable places that provided the soldiers for generations of wars.

The village, and its innumerable counterparts across the shires, provide Chesterton’s people of England (though even Chesterton would have been viewed with suspicion in our village). Unmoved in generations, it is their capacity to cope with every circumstance that allowed the most stable political regime in the world – a country not invaded in nine hundred years, a country without a revolution in more than three hundred.

Passing through the village, there is a sense that those who have retained intact so much of the past are a people not be underestimated.

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Bingo nights

Driving through the village of Aller this afternoon, a sign at the roadside announced that the Christmas bingo at Middlezoy would be on 7th December. I wondered if they still held the Christmas bingo in Burrowbridge.

I remember going to such a Christmas bingo. Our journey down to Burrowbridge was slow. The headlights lit up the steep banks on either side of Turn Hill  There were coloured lights on the dashboard of our old Austin Cambridge; the only light that was easy to understand was the blue light that told you whether your headlights were on full beam.  The hill has a hairpin bend, we probably drove down at no more than 20 mph.

It was 4.40 and we were going out for our tea before going to the Christmas bingo at Burrowbridge village hall. No memories of the tea remain, but the bingo night remains vivid. There were lines of wooden folding chairs with an aisle up the middle and on the stage one of those machines that blew ping pong balls around in a rectangular glass box. There was an opening in the top through which the caller would push his hand to take out the numbered balls.

The men running the bingo (they were all men) were big countrymen. Solemn as undertakers, they all dressed in suits and conducted the whole evening with a great deal of gravitas, as though levity might in some way call into account their integrity. A book to play the ten bingo games cost twelve and a half pence. Everyone would have bought tickets for the raffle as well. Each game came in two parts – there was a prize for the first person who completed whatever line they might call out – top middle or bottom – and then a bigger prize for the first person to complete the card.

The prizes were brilliant, there were turkeys and hampers and bottles of sherry and boxes of chocolates. It was no wonder that the hall was filled to capacity and the overflow sat in the kitchen where the serving hatch was open so that people could hear the numbers.

The air was electric as each game approached its conclusion. To be able to shout “house” seemed to generate as much delight for a winner as they would have felt if they were lifting the FA Cup. There would have been a huge wave of conversation as the winner’s card was taken to the front to be checked. Once a person had made a false call, a number had been misheard; beetroot would not have described her colour.

We were rustic and unsophisticated and easily pleased, but no night in the West End, no dinner at the Ritz, no dancing to an orchestra, could have matched the excitement of bingo in Burrowbridge village hall. Passing through Othery, on the chill November air, there seemed the voice of the caller, “Downing Street Number Ten.”

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Sports past

The nephews’ rugby club ties lay ready for the Sunday morning match. Now playing at junior level, they must change into collar and tie after the match and conduct themselves in a mannerly way.

Fifty years ago, there would have been no opportunity for most local boys to have played rugby, nor would there have been any accessible facilities at which to play. Instead, many hours were passed playing football with a heavy leather ball in a field along our road. Some of us had boots, but none of us had kit, no shirts or shorts, certainly nothing with the logo of an expensive sports equipment company. Games were played in old clothes, jeans and shirts. Jumpers were removed, for at least four were needed to provide goalposts.

Fine evenings were times for games that frequently generated disagreement and sometimes raised voices, but rarely a result. It was a simple matter for the losing side to plead that ninety minutes had not been played and the match would be abandoned rather than concluded.

Cricket was played less frequently, usually only in the summer holidays: only one family had the necessary equipment. It was not a full cricket set, that would have demanded two bats, six stumps and four bails, instead it was a set with a single bat and four stumps. There may have originally been bails, but these were easily enough fabricated with twigs from the hedge. There was one wicket at which to bowl and one bat with which to play. The fourth stump provided the point to which the batsman should run and the approximate point from which balls should be bowled. There were never enough players to have two teams, (unlike football where four players allowed for a match), instead turns were taken at batting, people trying for the highest individual score. Mercifully, no-one could have afforded a leather cricket ball, otherwise the lack of pads and gloves, combined with the uneven bounce from the surface of a field grazed by dairy cattle, might have led to painful injuries. The game was played with a tennis ball which possessed none of the qualities of a cricket ball and which allowed a good batsman to remain at the wicket all evening, swiping the ball in all directions.

Female company was rare on those distant evenings. Entirely absent from the games of football, they might occasionally have joined a game of cricket. Of course, the day came when they became a greater attraction and evenings were no longer spent in sporting effort.

Looking at the kit bags ready to be taken to the match, kicking a football in a dairy pasture seemed something from Victorian times.

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Remembering the Bellots

Remembering a young man from our road who died in the Great War recalled a mystery that we had solved ten years ago.

We moved to the village of High Ham in Somerset in February 1967.  Our house was the last in a line of council houses built in 1926.  Beyond our house, the road passed between open fields before reaching High Ham windmill, the only thatched windmill in England.  It had stood semi-derelict for years, before being restored by the National Trust in the early 1970s.

It was said in the village that the mill and its house and cottage had been left to the National Trust by a Professor Bellot in memory of his son.

It had been assumed that the son concerned had died during the First World War and a search of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website produced a quick result, Bellot not being the most common of names:

In Memory of


1st/1st, North Somerset Yeomanry

who died age 24

on 27 March 1918

Son of Hugh H. L. Bellot, D.C.L., and Beatrice V. Bellot,

of High Ham, Somerset.

Remembered with honour

On the Great War commemorative plaque in our village church, Bryson Bellot is the first name amongst the eighteen from our little village who died in the Great War.

Finding Professor Bellot’s Christian names on the CWGC website meant being able to search for him on the Internet and a Wikipedia page confirmed, “In 1969 Professor H. H. Bellot left the windmill, cottage and garden to the National Trust in his will”.

Professor Bellot must have been a great age when bequeathing the mill to the Trust; in his nineties, at least because his son had died in 1918 at the age of 24, so had been born some seventy-five years before Professor Bellot’s death. Who was this man who had lived to such a great age in our village?

Papers held by the Somerset Archives in Taunton suggest there was deep involvement in village life, but how did Professor H.H. Bellot remain around for so long?

The answer became clearer on the website of University College, London.  Professor Hugh Hale Bellot had been born in 1890, he could not have been father to Lieutenant Bryson Bellot.  The UCL website even has a photograph of the man who was once our neighbour.

The University of London has a catalogue of the papers left by Professor Bellot, they include: “Photograph of Bryson Bellot (Bellot’s brother) in a military uniform” and “Bryson Bellot: Documents and letters of Bellot’s brother who died in Abbeville on March 17, 1918.”  So Professor Hugh Bellot was brother, and not father, to Lieutenant Bryson Bellot.

Bryson Bellot’s father was, however, also Hugh Bellot.  An obituary for the Royal Historical society shows that Professor Hugh Hale Bellot (1890-1969) was son of Hugh Hale Leigh Bellot (1860-1928).  The DCL (Doctor of Civil Law) after H.L. Bellot’s name in the casualty records should have been a hint, Hugh Hale Bellot was a history lecturer, a search for Hugh Hale Leigh Bellot reveals him to have been a barrister and law lecturer.

Professor Bellot must have been a interesting figure in our little village: an obituary for a former pupil describes him as “Professor H. Hale Bellot, an old-fashioned gentleman and a rather anachronistic figure, even in 1953”.

Of course, the real mystery is how a prominent academic family from Surrey came to be living down our road.

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Firework night

The cartoon in The Times depicts John McDonnell, the Labour shadow chancellor, asking for a penny for the guy; the guy in the cartoon is his party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. It is a cartoon that would presumably have resonance among older readers for guys have become a rare sight.

Even when I was a child, fifty years ago, guys were not common. I can remember only one year when when assembled a figure from sticks, newspaper and old clothes, in order to set fire to it. The last time I saw anyone asking for a penny for the guy was at the entrance to Kew Gardens Underground station in 1982.

Firework Night now has become a movable occasion. Displays take place between 31st October and 5th November, according to local preference – and whether or not it is a weekend evening.

Firework Night was never a big deal when I was young; the fire was built from the dead cuttings from trimmed hedges and the pyrotechnics came one item at a time; one Roman candle, one Catherine wheel, one rocket, each of them was savoured.  However ordinary in retrospect, the occasion was special at the time.  Perhaps we were easily pleased.

Special moments in the year weren’t too frequent – Christmas; the annual village outing to Weymouth; going camping in Devon, the next county; but every one of them was remembered and pondered for long afterwards.

Perhaps the inflationary principles that apply to money, apply also to experiences.  The more the money supply is increased, the less worth each banknote has.  In a similar way, perhaps the more the supply of experiences is increased, the less memorable each of those experiences has become.

On the other hand, perhaps the passing of the years has magnified memories, perhaps they did not occupy then the place they now occupy in the landscape of reminiscence.  Maybe the memories remain clearly, but the moments themselves – with the exception of Christmas – were approached without a great sense of anticipation and were marked without a significant awareness they might be of the stuff that would be recalled decades later.

As there are moments in those distant decades that remain as vivid as a rocket bursting in the night sky, so there will be moments as significant and intense for children today as were the special moments of the past. Perhaps the landscapes of their memories are dotted with many more moments than enjoyed by schoolboys fifty years ago, but in fifty years’ time, there will be someone remembering vividly Firework Night this year (whichever night it falls on).

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