by Connie Hudson
I think my strongest recollection of childhood in the village was the wealth of trees, edges and wild flowers along the lanes and in the fields. There were no areas, as local people acknowledged the rights of the farmers who owned the land, and appreciated the need to walk along the pathways and close gates firmly. The dogs, too, accompanying us, were never on a lead, but were free to scamper where they would, with none of today‘s restrictions.
A favourite walk was up Hill Lane where we would go with our dog Paddy. In the past Paddy had had an altercation with “Coram’s dog” who lived further along the road, and Paddy was firmly of the opinion that he who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day, and nothing would induce him to go beyond the turning, He would plant his feet firmly on the ground and bark nonstop. For the sake of passers-by and ourselves we had to give way, so up Hill Lane we went.
At the top of the lane the pasture fields led down on one side to a gully, and as machines were unable to manoeuvre the sloping bank, flowers and grasses were able to grow in abundance. Flowers which are rarely seen now - scabious, coltsfoot, lady’s smock, celandine and bird’s-foot trefoil - interspersed with quaking grass and other meadow grasses.
In Spring, cowslips, primroses, bluebells and campion covered the ground and it was an exciting day when an oxslip was discovered. (This presumably was a cross between a cowslip and primrose.) The best cowslips were to be found in the hedges and we would pick them with their long stems, to send to our relations living in London. We would pack them carefully and put them in the post on our return. By next morning they would have arrived, bringing a touch of the country to city dwellers.
At the bottom of the gully, where trees grew either side of the stream, garlic flowers blossomed and spread in profusion, scenting the air should you brush past them. Thankfully we are beginning to emerge from the ‘Dark Ages’ of chemical additives to the soil, which has devastated the wildlife of our countryside for so long. It is a sad reflection of these days, that children can no longer enjoy the pleasure of picking wild flowers, and revel in the fragrance of freshly gathered plants. They are, I am sure, all the poorer for this lack of contact with growing things - the “don’t touch” attitude, - and maybe are less sensitive to the natural world.
Another bonus from the fields around came in the Autumn, when blackberries and sloes were ripe. Certain places were known to the regular pickers who would pick almost non-stop to sell locally. They were usually paid 1d a pound, but if in rather short supply, 2d might be the going rate. These blackberries were sold to factories for making into jam or dyes, and a considerable amount of pocket money could be earned by enthusiasts undaunted by the hazards of torn hands and Clothes.
The top of the lane was rather like a spiders web with walks radiating in all directions. If you continued straight ahead, you would reach Brent
Knoll village and could make a circular tour home again. It was quite easy to climb to the top of Brent Knoll from here by crossing the fields. Scrabbling over styles or through hedges, by climbing another style, it was a quick way down to the Church with Crooks’ Peak and the Mendips forming a backdrop in the distance.
The National Trust now owns part of Brent Knoll, which happily means many people are still able to enjoy the peace of an unspoilt part of the countryside.
The ditches and rhines which surrounded the village were an essential part of the drainage system, and very useful in times of drought. I remember as a child, when learning to Cycle, being unable to get off once l was on and in desperation careered into the ditch opposite our home. A kind neighbour pulled me out, bike and all, covered in duck weed and very much the worse for wear.
But I was by no means the only one to suffer from total immersion. Occasionally, an over-zealous partaker of the delights of the Knoll Inn and boasting an unsteady gait, with no lights to guide his path, would find himself in one of these ditches, emerging a sadder and wiser man.
I remember too, one Christmas, the postman, having been given a Christmas Box in the form of very potent Somerset Cider at various ports of call, arrived at the Post Office very wet and very forlorn, having been unable to distinguish between the road and the ditch. His post-bag, full of Christmas mail, had to be "dried out" too, before he could continue.
As well as the scents and smells of the Countryside, the sounds too, evoke memories the Church bells ringing each Sunday for worship, the muffled peal as the old year died, the tolling bell for the passing of a villager and the joyous Christmas bells.
Being a farming district, animals too, added their calls to the everyday life of the village, and birds and insects rioted in the free air around them. There were birds in plenty in those days, some which are seldom seen today.
We would hear the larks singing above the meadows and would watch them as they disappeared into the distance. Bats would come out at dusk from the Church belfry, and at night the owls would be hunting.
Once, after we had gone to bed, our father woke us up and told us to put on our coats and shoes. He had been taking our dog for a brief walk and wanted us to share his delight at what he had seen. It was a brilliant moonlit night, and at the end of Church Street, was an owl sitting high up in the branches of a large tree. We watched him for a long time, and he watched us. He looked so proud and somewhat disdainful of mere mortals rightly so, I fancy!
Church Street was probably the most beautiful part of the village, with St. Mary’s Church at the end, and the Knoll in the background.
For a short spell there was no official postman to deliver the local letters, and our father volunteered to do the job on a temporary basis. (The extra pay no doubt was very welcome!) It meant a very early start each morning whatever the weather, but he loved and in the Autumn when the trees were in their full colour, he enjoyed especially walking along the drive leading to the Vicarage (now Rossholme School), where the trees made an avenue of light and shade. “Heaven cannot possibly be more beautiful than this,” he would say.
Sundays weren’t exactly days of rest. We attended Chapel at 11 a.m., Sunday School after dinner, and evening service to round off the day.
We almost invariably had to invite the local preacher home for dinner, and possibly tea, if he were taking the evening service. Mother never seemed to grumble at the extra work involved, and as she was an excellent cook, he would have been well fortified for the evening service. At times, by the length of his sermons, we felt he had been over-fortified!
There were special characters too, in the village. One in particular was Vic Creese who had lived there all his life, a rather tragic figure, living alone with no one to care for him, but filling a most useful role among the population. There was no official rubbish collection in those days, but he would collect it and take it away in his handcart and pile it up in his own garden. He would turn his hand to such menial tasks, being paid a mere pittance, but was content to lead a humble but independent life. When he died, there was no one to take his place, and the village was the poorer for his passing.
Hunts were part of the rural life and the meet would congregate at the Knoll Inn. The ethics of hunting had not been given any real thought, and although as a family we had a great regard for animals and their welfare, we too would join the spectators and watch the hunt set off.
One day I saw a hare which had been hunted and chased into the field opposite our house. The fear and terror in its eyes was something I have never forgotten. I never knew if it escaped. No doubt, if it had avoided the hounds, it would have died from exhaustion and fear.
Haymaking time was an anxiety for the farmers who were so dependent on the vagaries of the weather, but to children it was a source of great excitement.
The smell of the fields of newly out grass was quite intoxicating and later the hay cocks made wonderful playing areas.
Once we were invited to a friends' farm at Tarnock and were allowed to ride on the sides of the wagon as it went to the hay fields. Halfway through the afternoon we had lemonade to drink and freshly baked white bread covered with lashings of cream! Later the wagons, piled high with hay, were taken by the horses back to the farm.
When one sees the Wide variety and choice of sport and games enjoyed by children now that we are nearly at the end of the century, it is interesting to compare the way children spent their time in the early days of the century. The games they played had their seasons, and children seemed to know instinctively when one game should give way to another.
Ball games could be played alone or in groups, involving a great number of Techniques where bouncing, catching, throwing in the air or against the wait could be interspersed with variations of footwork and handclapping. This added to interest and dexterity and competition added to further incentive.
Skipping ropes were a must, and could be made very cheaply from a sturdy rope. Bought ones were available and sported wooden painted handles. Here again a skipping rope was a useful asset should you be on your own, spending time to improve your own skill, but with others, more possibilities were open. Two “pursers” would keep the rope turning (a long one this time), while individuals could skip until exhausted, or had tripped on the rope. A small group could skip together, diving in and out at will. It needed Considerable skill to run under a turning rope, for if you missed, a sharp cut with the rope would be the unintentional punishment. There were great possibilities for invention and chanted rhymes were added to give greater rhythmic impetus -
(1) “All in together this fine weather 1, 2, 3, out goes she.”
(2) Salt, mustard, vinegar, pepper. (strongly accented)
Spinning tops were usually bought very cheaply, made from wood with a metal tip for spinning. The circular grooves were decorated with crayons for easier recognition and added colour as they spun. A piece of string was attached to a wooden stick, and this was wound tightly around the top itself, and then released with a strong thrust, which hopefully would set it spinning. When it showed signs of flagging, the whip would be used to keep it going. A flat surface obviously was desirable, and as the road was virtually traffic free, these made for a practice run. Another popular game was hop scotch.
At the village school, singing games were part of the playground life. Music was in short supply, apart from some families who made their own. Men and boys whistled while they worked and children, in their traditional games, made up in part for their lack of music.
Being a rural community, many of the themes were of farms and farm life and boy/girl relationships were usually included. Here is one of them:
The farmer’s in his den
The farmer’s in his den
E I N G O
The farmer‘s in his den.
The farmer takes a wife
The farmer takes a wife
E I N G O
The farmer takes a wife.
The wife takes a child
The Wife takes a child
E I N G O
The wife takes a child
The child takes a dog
The Child takes a dog
E I N G O
The child takes a dog.
This could go on ad infinitum
Other popular ones were and out the windows,” “I sent a letter to my love and on the way I dropped it,” “Here we go round the mulberry bush,” “Poor Mary is a-weeping,” “Oranges and lemons” - and many others.
These games were played in circles, or in two teams facing each other giving question and answer as the game progressed. Although mainly popular with girls, boys would occasionally join us if nothing better materialised.
Harnesses were made from an empty cotton reel with four nails hammered into one end leaving a space at the top of each nail. With a steel knitting needle, oddments of wool were looped over the nails, (called French Knitting), until a long plaited Cord was achieved. On a cold winters’ day, these long ropes were ideal as reins to drive your partner at breakneck speed along the road to school.
Along the bottom of the school wall, on the outside of the building, was a stone ledge and the older Children would see how far they could progress, catching on to bits of stone which jutted out. Should you fall off, you had to go back to the beginning and start all over again. It needed Considerable dexterity to cling on and balance as you progressed. It was hard on the fingers and even more disastrous on one’s shoes, but most enjoyable and rewarding.
Once a year there was a Punch and Judy Show performed during the lunch break. I can’t remember any scenes from the show -the thought of taking egg sandwiches and having lunch at school was the highlight of that day.
A game we invented at home was a see-saw. In the middle we put a large square biscuit tin and across it a long, sturdy piece of wood. It made an excellent and when the biscuit tin became somewhat battered, it was replaced by another. I don’t remember falling off or having any accident, but no doubt the grass underneath afforded a soft landing ground.
At one time we acquired a bead making machine. It was a very simple piece of equipment. Strips of coloured paper were torn to a given length and threaded through a slot, while the handle turned making a long fat bead. The end was then pasted down, and the bead removed for the next one -time consuming but satisfying. The intention ultimately was to make a bead Curtain, but enthusiasm wore thin before such a mammoth task was completed.
Another prized possession was a magic lantern - a rather unsophisticated piece of apparatus which needed a small Candle to give light to the projected picture. The slides which were provided were quite abysmal in Content, but we loved their lurid Content, and would give lantern shows to various victims, using the same slides over and over again, throwing the pictures onto a White sheet slung across the window.
In the winter, card games came into their own. An ordinary pack of playing cards was used in many ways demanding a fair amount of skill and a retentive memory, while the more traditional games of Ludo, Snakes and Ladders, and Happy Families were often in demand, and dominoes were a good stand by.
We could never have enough books to read. There were many on our bookshelves but they were somewhat dated and made heavy weather, although a set of Cassell’s Encyclopaedia were always a source of information.
There were a few which we read with great enjoyment, Little Women, Good Wives, Jane Eyre, The Girl of the Limberlost and others. These were read over and over again, and we never tired of them. Once our father brought home from a sale, a set of Walter Scott’s novels and this was wonderful, giving hours of pleasure. We were lucky enough to be allowed Arthur Mee’s Childrens’ Newspaper each week and later, the Schoolgirl’s own, which made the day on which they were delivered a real red-letter day. An annual at Christmas was the highlight of our gifts.
Dolls and maybe an ancient pram always had their followers. At an early age my elder sister had broken her china doll, and when she saw the grim contents of its head with the eyes attached to bits of wire, was so horrified that she never wanted to play with dolls again - so ‘teddies’ took their place.
I suspect that “Force” Wheatflakes was one of the first firms to profit by offering toys to the consumer. Their packet showed a grotesque elongated figure called “Sunny Jim” but he looked very benign obviously having partaken of Wheatflakes on a regular basis for his breakfast. At one stage they were offering a 3D version of this character to their customers in exchange for coupons and a certain amount of money. I really longed for him, but money was in short supply and we would never think of asking for any. One penny a week was our allotted amount and it would have taken years at that rate to save enough. So I never had my “Sunny Jim”. Later I was full of envy when I saw another child in the village proudly hugging one.
A penny a week, which was for a long time the usual amount of spending money, did actually buy quite a number of things - especially sweets. A few favourites stand out in my mind. We loved the ‘sherbet dabs’ - a stick of liquorice stuck into a cardboard tube filled with a fizzy substance. You sucked the sherbet through the liquorice tube. So difficult was it that it lasted quite a long time.
Gob stoppers also lasted a tong time. These were a rare treat, as our father refused to sell them, believing them to be dangerous. They changed colour as you sucked them, and it was imperative to take it out at intervals to see how much was left, and its new colour. Talking was impossible - hence its name.
Aniseed balls were another favourites. They were light in weight so one had quite a bagful for the money, but the flavour was so strong, one tended to be somewhat satisfied before the end of the bag.
I must confess, after all these years, that proximity to the sweet Counter tended to give my weekly stipend elastic qualities!
Times have changed dramatically during our lifetime - for the better? We can only hope so.
When the firm of A C Finken & Co., who have marketed "Force” Wholewheat Flakes since 1910, heard the story of the child who, some 70 years ago, longed for a “Sunny Jim” rag doll, they promptly made sure her dream came true - if a little late. “Sunny Jim” was received with much hilarity and has become quite a conversation piece.
“Force" was introduced into this country from America in 1902, and “Sunny Jim” became a trade mark a year later. The rag doll was introduced in the early 1920's and continues to be available. "Force” is still made to the original recipe and may be obtained in some major supermarkets and many local Health Food Stores.