I was not quite seven years old, when we moved, my mum, dad and baby brother Grant from Hayes – then on the edges of London, now swallowed up by Greater London itself – down to a little seaside town in Sussex, on the South Coast of England.
Littlehampton, the town, was a great change from the busyness of the place where we had been living and I soon grew to love it – especially the sea and the ships….
It was just at the end of World War 2 and my father, a town clerk in his mid-forties was in danger of being fired – replaced by the younger men returning from the Front. Our new home was rather grandly named Winchester House; a title that far exceeded the more modest nature of its architecture! It was just one of a long, long terrace of similar homes, reaching from the town centre down to the sea.
Formerly occupied by an elderly sea captain and his wife, the inside was painted entirely (in the sea-faring tradition I suppose) in a dark battle ship grey. In the dimly lit kitchen (the windows had probably not been washed for the entire 50 years) there stood two stoves – one electric, the other run by gas. Inside the gas oven was a pie plate containing the remains of a long-gone pie, plus a very DEAD mouse….
The electric light system was practically non-existent, with looped wiring draped across the ceiling in loops and coils – all of them dangling from just one outlet. My mother sat on the top of the two steps leading into the kitchen and, holding the hungry, crying baby in her arms, she wept…..
My father wasn’t much help. His hands clasped over his mouth he was mumbling “Oh my God! Oh my dear God…” over and over again. I can only presume, from the distance now of seventy years, that neither of them had actually SEEN the place, but merely had had it described to them.
My own seven year old spirit however was undaunted and leaving the others to deal with the matter, I set about exploring my new home…
There were four levels to be reached by the steep, narrow staircase and each floor contained two bedrooms plus, at the very top, just under the steeply sloping roof, a tiny attic overlooking the river Arun – which ran behind us down to the sea. This could be viewed only by climbing on a chair and, with some difficulty, propping open the window set into the ceiling.
I was to be constantly enchanted by the sight of the tall-masted merchant ships sailing up the river to the port-side and then, after unloading their cargo sailing back and on out into the open sea; a most romantic sight that I have never tired of recalling.
I wouldn’t have blamed my mother if she had turned tail and run; but, being the doughty Scotswoman that she was, she soon rolled up her sleeves and set too – rapidly turning herself into quite the handy-woman, on a level that my father was never able to reach (I take after him in that respect).
It took months but, by dint of sheer determination, she tore up and replaced faulty floorboards, stripped ALL the walls of the house of not only the thickly layered grey paint but underneath that, the even more thickly layered Victorian wallpaper – large red roses in full bloom.
My father, in the meantime, had found himself a job – again as a clerk at the local Air Base. This was a journey of four miles there and four miles back by bicycle, come wind, snow, sun or rain… His salary was just three pounds per week and he considered himself lucky to get it…
In the meantime, someone had to look after the baby and of course, that task fell to me.
Until school began, I would strap him into the antiquated push-chair (the wheels held together with hair pins) and off we would go, down to the sea…
There really wasn’t much space for play on the beach at first. The bomb removal squads were still busily finding and dismantling the massive amounts of land-mines that had been planted in order to deter (not to mention blow to pieces) the arriving enemy – who, of course, never actually arrived.
Once de-fused, these mines were promptly claimed by enthusiastic local gardeners and it was a not uncommon sight to see these awful instruments of death completely transformed as, filled with flowers, they sat blooming with life in the middle of people’s front gardens.
There was some sandy space in which to play though, in between the barrier at the river’s edge and the first line of wooden breakwaters. This had already been cleared of mines, the forbidding barbed wire fencing now removed and so, armed with toy bucket and spade, we could begin to build our castles in the sand….
Still, we would often look longingly at the vast stretches of beach still unavailable to us. Through the remaining swathes of barbed wire keeping us from the land mines, we could see not only sand, but swathes upon swathes of small daffodils. Somehow, these had managed to take root and now, their yellow petals fluttering in the breezes, they stood as mute testaments to the beauty of peace.
Soon, our house was ready for the summer visitors to arrive. My mother had stained the wooden floorboards black, had whitewashed the halls and rooms of the entire house and, using cheaply bought khaki coloured army surplus blankets which she covered in cheerful coloured embroidery, had managed to make some coverings for the floors.
We were also now much brighter, as my mother, buying up old pictures from the local house sales, had carefully knocked some extra holes in our walls – inserting the frame and glass of the now discarded paintings into the spaces. Voila! New windows…..
NOW, we were set to go. My mother had advertised our services as a holiday destination in the London Gazette and, much to the relief of both parents, the bookings had started pouring in.
Now began the real scramble that would set the pattern of our summer living for the next twenty years. Only then were my parents able to ease up a bit, exchanging the summer visitors for caring for invalid patients as respite for their families. Even so, my mother had to work the night shift at a local nursing home in order to keep our finances above sea level…
Until then however, there began the perpetual round of what my dad called “The Saturday scramble.” Every Saturday, new holiday makers would arrive, while the previous weeks “crop” would depart – many nursing their sunburns…
My mother would be on her knees on the bathroom floor. Up to her armpits in sudsy hot water and using an old-fashioned scrubbing board, she would be cleaning often up to twenty five sets of sheets, pillow cases and towels (as well as the family clothes wash). She would then rinse them out and together, we would carry them down the stairs in buckets – through the kitchen and out into the back yard.
Here, we would squeeze out the excess water as best we could – she, holding a twist of sheeting and winding it one way, I, on the other end, winding it in the opposite direction. Then, it was time to hang them out on the lines that my mother had stretched across the yard. Every week, we would pray that it would not rain and, amazingly – despite the vagaries of the English summer, we were mostly lucky….
In the meantime, my Dad, with the aid of our hired helper, would be moving furniture around the house in order to accommodate the needs of the new influx of holidaying Londoners.
Needless to say, my brother and I never had bedrooms of our own during the course of the summer season. We shifted to the tiny attic, while my parents slept on a couch in the kitchen.
Once or twice indeed, I remember us having to sleep on and under newspapers, set on the hard concrete floor of the scullery that attached to the kitchen – NOT much fun!
Come the autumn, it was time for me to start school, so Mum was left literally “holding the baby” while she tended to the house, the garden and her several garrulous and demanding patients that would be staying with us for the off-season.
Soon enough, spring returned. Both land mines and daffodils by now were gone and in their place we could enjoy miles of sandy beach. We ate ice-creams while watching the Duke of Norfolk’s race horses being exercised along the sand and enjoyed the sight of sailing boats from the local Club tacking and billowing in the breeze. We joined with the crowds of children enjoying the weekly Punch and Judy show – joining enthusiastically with the delighted responses and smiling at the patient donkeys and their keepers as they plied their trade up and down the shoreline – small children clinging to their manes, some in fright, most wearing grins of delight as they swayed in the rhythm of their donkey’s gait.
In short, all the glorious activities of peace entered into our lives – for the very first time since we had been born…..
– Mary Druce