Aldbourne Heritage Centre

I’ve lived in Aldbourne all my life. I was born in Cooks Yard at the bottom of Castle Street. However, when I was a few months old we moved up to Stock Lane, returning to the village in about 1949, so my earliest memories are more of Stock Lane than the village as a whole. My father’s family had lived in Aldbourne for many generations. When she was a young girl my paternal grandmother lived at Hillwood which at that time was sufficiently large and self contained to qualify as a hamlet. Mother came from Theale near Reading, so as far as parentage is concerned I’m only half Wiltshire yokel! Nevertheless I feel I owe allegiance and loyalty to the community into which I was born and which has supported me for the last 65 years. I now find it difficult to place my earliest memories into precise chronological order. They include my wartime recollections which I shall mention later.
Two events which are still fairly clear are watching convoys of steam lorries thundering round the corner at Stock Lane hauling the stone which was used to upgrade Laines road from a cart track to a metalled road. Then shortly afterwards I remember seeing an astonishing assortment of fire appliances roaring and clanging round the same corner when Mr. Bomford’s stubble fire threatened an emergency petrol dump, which consisted of hundreds of Gerry cans secreted in the hedgerow!
In those days treats were few and far between. In a cottage with no mains services, life, which was at best basic, was rendered very frugal by rationing and other wartime shortages. The annual respite from this embattled existence was of course Christmas, which was always remarkable for quality if not quantity, and was without question the one big treat of the year. Other comparatively insignificant memories, which, because of the privations of those times, stand out as relative treats were picnic teas of tomato sandwiches, fruit cake and cold tea, which Mother and I took out to Father in the harvest field, and homemade lemonade, produced by diluting a concentrate which was concocted by dissolving freeze dried lemon juice crystals in a little hot water. This commodity came in airtight tins, the origin of which, I think, had something to do with the Americans who were helping to operate the area field telephone system. They also supplied me with chocolate and what they called ‘candies’.
Then there were long delightful walks usually on Sundays exploring the many footpaths and byways in search of nature’s bounty. There was always something either edible or useful to be found according to the season.
During the war travel generally was restricted. Once a year we would journey by bus, changing at Hungerford and Newbury to visit Mother’s relations in Theale and Reading. Mother would also take the bus to Swindon once or twice a year for the very few things which could not be obtained in the village.
As far as worship was concerned, we, together with extended family, were mainly Anglican. Several of my relations had been or still were members of the choir, and Father was a bell ringer. Evensong was our most accessible service which we attended occasionally in the summer and very occasionally in the winter. We also made a special effort for Harvest Festival and the Sunday before Christmas.
When we lived there what is now Stock Lane House was a pair of one and a half up, one and a half down, semi detached farm cottages constructed largely of chalk, flint and sarsen stones with brick corners and floors and slate roof, and they were somewhat prone to condensation. The lean-to outhouse contained a cold storage area and an old brick built solid fuel copper. The loo was down in the garden. There were no mains services at all. Rainwater from the roof was stored in a tank buried in the front garden, and had to be filtered and boiled before it could be used. This supply was somewhat haphazard and limited, and we frequently had to fetch water from Stock Close Farm a quarter of a mile away.
A large multi function range which filled most of one wall of the main room provided cooking facilities and the only source of heat. Mother also had a couple of primus stoves. Lighting was by paraffin lamps and candles. Father constructed a surprisingly efficient evaporation refrigerator in the clay bank behind the cottage. The neighboring cottage was unoccupied so we had the use of both gardens. The radio was a big old Cosser powered by two batteries and an accumulator. Baths were taken in a galvanized iron tub in front of the fire,
Few modern innovations were available or would have been relevant to our lifestyle. One or two vehicles passed the cottage each day, Freddy Palmer’s van delivered bread, the mail van called regularly. Less frequent were visits by Tommy Barnes’ coal lorry. When I started school I was transported each way by Joe Wilkins, together with children from Woodsend, Laines and Cowcroft. The first big impact that modern life made upon us was when we moved down from Stock Lane to temporary accommodation in Farm Lane. There we had the luxury of electricity and running water, but still no flush loo!
Apart from the radio, and the weekly visits to the Memorial Hall or Marlborough Cinema the community made its’ own entertainment. Feast, Carnival and bonfire night all became major events again when hostilities ceased. A good example of home spun entertainment was the duets performed by two of my uncles, one a tenor, the other a baritone. They would always sing at family get togethers, particularly the party which Mother organised each Boxing Day.
Life in a tiny primitive farm cottage in early 1940s Wiltshire was remarkably similar to Flora Thompson’s description of country life some 50 years earlier in ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’. As I said we had no mains services which together with wartime shortages meant that life was hard and very basic, but nonetheless enjoyable for all that. Father was a gifted gardener and a good poacher, so we always had fresh vegetables, and rabbit or pheasant frequently augmented our meager meat ration. Pigeon’s eggs made a tasty breakfast and a very rich cake when we could obtain enough of them. The farm supplied extras from time to time, such as swedes, swede greens, turnip tops and lamb’s tails. Although nearly all the old cottages and farm buildings of Stock Lane, Hillwood and Patty Paines had long since disappeared the orchards still flourished providing us with fruit in abundance, apples, pears, plums, damsons and greengages. Mother’s housekeeping and culinary skills were legend. Some of the meals she prepared were little short of miraculous. She also made many of our clothes. Father knocked up toys for me out of odd bits of wood. Monday was washday, whatever the weather, when Mother kindled the fire in the copper in the outhouse, and seemed to be up to her elbows in soapy water nearly all day. Tim, our tabby cat was allowed indoors. Jock, the enormous curly coated Labrador lived in a large kennel in the garden.
During my childhood Aldbourne was still a largely self sufficient community, rendering it unnecessary to shop elsewhere for basic requisites. In any case one was tied to the shops with whom one was registered for all the rationed items. As far as I can remember there were five bakeries, six grocers, 2 butchers, a draper, 2 dairies, Muriel Liddiard’s corn shop which was also a haberdashery and toy shop, Clifford Brown, who ran the greengrocers, wet fish shop and fish and chip shop, the newsagent which was also the tobacconist and confectioner, cobbler, coal merchant who carried on a carrier’s business and also ran a tea shop. There were 2 hardware, come kitchen, come cycle shops with petrol pumps plus another petrol pump at Mrs. Barrett’s shop in The Square, where home made ice cream could be purchased. There was the engineering works known as The Foundry, 2 blacksmiths, 4 building firms, a timber yard, 9 or 10 farms, 5 pubs and 3 churches. Lloyds Bank operated twice a week in Pond House.
During and immediately after the war farming was an interesting mixture of ancient and modern, and was still quite labour intensive. All but one of the farms in Aldbourne had at least one tractor, several still employed horses for light work, and one, Arthur Smiths, used only horses. Agriculture in the area was not merely mixed, but was remarkable for its astonishing diversity. On the whole cereals were still cut by a binder, stored in ricks, and thrashed in winter when the grain had hardened. The few combine harvesters tended to be cumbersome and unreliable. Father drove the large crawler tractor for the combined farms of Stock Close and Burney, and was responsible for the day to day maintenance of all the farm machinery. Most tractors and implements were pre war and many were downright antiquated so great ingenuity was required to keep much of it going. Milk was either bottled for local deliveries or taken away in churns. The milk lorry could be identified by the sound of the churns clanging together long before it hove into view. Bertie Liddiard’s cows would walk down from the fields behind the church, past the green, down Hightown Road and literally through the pond churning it all up, before crossing the main road to the farmyard.
For cottagers like ourselves there was a somewhat blurred line between leisure activities and survival. Anytime off work was needed for gardening, gathering, cutting and storing firewood for the winter, picking, preparing and preserving fruit and vegetables according to the seasons, and maintaining the house. Father was a fireman which meant that until the end of the war he spent one night a week on firewatch duty, almost falling asleep on his tractor the next day. After the war his bell ringing activities recommenced involving him in weekly practice and Sunday service ringing, after which he would return with Mother’s Sunday treat, a bottle of stout!
The lost building with which I had most contact was of course the Junior or ‘big’ school, as it was called. It stood where the Church car park is now. The site of the present school contained a barn, a timber yard, and 2 cottages. Barns, farmyards and associated buildings also made way for St Michael’s Close, Glebe Close, Kandahar, The Garlings, the lower Butts extension and the Nursing Home. The old racing stables disappeared when the whole area was redeveloped. West Street Methodist Church has been replaced by 2 houses. Two cottages in the old Square were demolished when the road was widened.
As a child I knew nothing of industry, rural or otherwise. I was vaguely aware that many men worked on the farms, for the various builders, and at the foundry, which was an agricultural and general engineers. There were one or two single handed enterprises. I remember Mr. Gray and Jack Hale who both ran smallholdings, and Johnnie Claridge who had a small market garden. I imagine that the blacksmiths also fall into the category of industry. I can’t remember if the egg depot and Evers & Wall were up and running pre 1953, and there were probably other undertakings of which I was unaware.
To a small child with limited knowledge and narrow horizons ones’ immediate surroundings represent almost entirely ones’ whole world. The village down the road was almost extra terrestrial in size and complexity. A clearer picture of the village began to emerge when I started school, but it was not until we moved down to Farm Lane that I could appreciate its structure and layout, which at that time included many open spaces long since sacrificed for housing. The village had its’ own surgery in those days at Neals in South Street. Then, as now, Aldbourne was in the care of the Ramsbury practice, led at that time by Dr. Mills. One of the doctors, Dr Varvill, lived in Aldbourne, in Castle Street. I think there was some connection with the practice at Lambourn. Father could recollect a doctor coming from Lambourn on a very old motorbike. Nurse Oliver was our district nurse, and my grandmother, the layer out. We regarded Savernake as our hospital. The Victoria Hospital in Swindon provided specialist treatment and later surgery, and was usually only visited in dire emergencies.
I started school in September 1946 in what is now the craft room under the watchful eye of Mrs. Moulding. We received a weekly dose of malt, molasses and cod liver oil, a mixture which I think was the forerunner of Virol. We all slurped from the one huge communal spoon. We eventually graduated to the big school, a barn like building with tall windows and divided across the middle by a green curtain, with two classes in each half. Mrs. Wood taught the juniors, Mr. Wood the seniors. Each day commenced with the Lord’s Prayer and a hymn. We had, ‘As with Gladness’, ‘There is a Green Hill’, and the ‘Old Hundredth’ at least once a week irrespective of the season. Text books and other teaching aids were stored in cupboards and cabinets around the walls. There was one ancillary room, the tiny library, which contained the extra curricular reading material, a small table and two chairs. The large two level porch doubled up as cloakroom. The toilets were in a rusty, corrugated iron shed in the small yard at the side of the main building, the girls and boys separated by a rickety tin fence. During the Autumn a whole lorry load of coke would be delivered, sufficient to last through the winter. The fuel store was large enough only for a few sackfuls so most of it was shoveled straight through to almost fill the boys half of the yard, barring access to all but one of the loos, so most of us peed on the coke! In the depths of winter the big school was bitterly cold, the combined effort of two coke stoves and one open fire did little to raise the temperature. School trips and treats were few and far between. We traipsed into the church on Ascension Day, and trailed up to the Memorial Hall for a Christmas Party during the first week of the winter term.
Christmas was always the one big annual celebration, all the more so during the war for being simple, basic, and almost entirely achieved by our own efforts. Carnival also falls into this category. One offs included the Festival of Britain and the Coronation.
Our personal transport was by bicycle until I outgrew the baby seat on Father’s bike, after which if all three of us went anywhere together, it was shanks pony! The big green Bristol bus transported us to Swindon. It would also take one to Hungerford, arriving there just in time to miss the train! We walked to the village and back for shopping, to catch the bus, go to church, and visit grandparents. By the time I could understand and recognise traditions many had probably died out. Of those which survived I remember Feast weekend, which I think coincided with the Methodist Church Fete and Camp Meeting, and the Carnival which was rarely wet and almost always hugely successful. The centre of the village would be bedecked with fairy lights made from colourfully painted honeypots, each containing a candle. Remembering traditions brings Christmas once more to the fore. In the cottage the practices established during the preceding half century or so still obtained, making the puddings, making paper chains from flat packs of different coloured paper, flat strips glued together with some foul smelling stuff from a large pot, listening to Christmas programmes on the radio, Father bringing in the holly and Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. After moving down to the village I experienced for the first time the band playing, as they do now, Carols all around the village on Christmas Eve, and then again in the morning, and then from the top of the church tower! The bells would peel forth at 6 am. In those days there was no midnight service, instead there were two Holy Communion services on Christmas morning, one at 7 am and one at 8 am. Another Christmas tradition was the Christmas morning postal delivery, Wilfred’s knock at the door would be eagerly awaited whereupon he would be warmly welcomed and plied with suitable refreshment, as we opened our last few cards and sometimes a surprise package. He often said it was a good job his bike knew its way home!
Having been born in 1941 my earliest memories all involve wartime events and restrictions which made less impact upon me than they would have done if I’d had previous experiences with which to compare them. I remember the field telephone station across the bottom of Laines road from the cottage, Father taking me to hide with him behind a hedgerow to watch a small aeroplane landing on one of the hilltop fields to drop and pick up several troops before taking off very quickly, then returning to repeat the exercise, a large orange parachute from which was suspended a wooden box descended into the trees just below Stock Lane and which was retrieved by two chaps with a trailer towed by a jeep, the aircraft which sadly crashed into the hillside just below Lewisham Castle. The ploughing up of the heath across the road and the harvesting of the first crop there which was flax; listening intently to the news reports on the wireless; emotional scenes when two of my uncles returned safely from the conflict.
As with all country dwellers weather was a critical aspect of our lives. Stock Lane cottage was well sheltered from the north and east winds and the garden was a good suntrap. On the farm the work depended entirely on seasonal weather for its success. The blizzard in 1947 cut us off completely. The snow was level with the high hedge tops and had to be dug out. I was off school for six weeks. Father walked across the fields to the village for the few supplies that were available. Mr. Humphries delivered bread and milk on horseback and I remember Laines Farm using a caterpillar tractor towing a large sledge to find and feed stranded livestock. It may be a trick of the memory fuelled by a fertile imagination but the seasons seemed to be more clearly defined back then enabling us to till, sow, reap and store in accordance with them and to convert mere existence into a reasonable way of life.