To the West Country

The Long Bridge, Bideford, North Devon

After arriving “home” in the Spring of 1962, for a brief time, the family was reunited. My parents remained in England for a few months before my father took up a new posting in Laos. They rented a small flat in Richmond, a rather pleasant borough of London that had a nice park. My brother was out of school and it was the last time we ever lived together as a family.

My mother was delighted to suddenly have available all the things she had missed in Asia and she was busy every day in her tiny kitchen. There was a glut of apricots that year and they were served to us in every way she could think of. We had tarts and pies and puddings until I never wanted to see another apricot!

We also had fresh milk and cream. It was heaven. In Cambodia, our milk came powdered in a can. It was called KLIM and was a rather sickly yellow. You could re-constitute it to whatever consistency you liked, but it never tasted like milk.

Sweets, or “candy”, as it’s called here, was not something we had a lot of, as kids, but it was nice to get a Cadbury’s bar again. However, I never really had a sweet tooth. I was much happier about being able to get fish and chips or “bangers” which is what we used to call sausages. This was before I became vegetarian, of course.

My parents had by now accepted that my brother Peter smoked, so for some three months I lived in a two-bedroom flat with 3 heavy smokers. My father always felt cold and would not allow the windows to be opened, so it was quite a smoke-house. Peter and I shared the spare bedroom by alternating nights on the living-room sofa.

It wasn’t awfully comfortable, but we could go for walks in the nearby park, where we threw around a boomerang that Mum brought back from Australia. It never did come back for us, and we gave it up, afraid that we might hit someone with it. Richmond Park would have been a wonderful place to have a dog but the only pet on the horizon then lived down in the country. She was a neurotic Jack Russel whose adoption by a cleric had failed. We came later to learn why!

Summer passed quickly and then we climbed into the new Ford Consul that my dad was taking to Laos. We were off to Devon to locate my new boarding school. I think the whole idea was to get the car “run in”, which you had to do in those days. I can’t remember the exact details, but you were supposed to drive gently, not above 50mph, for a certain number of miles in order for it to eventually function up to standard.

The expedition, if you could call it that, was not for the purpose of fun, given how my dad hated driving, especially in a new car. With no GPS, we were reliant on RAC road maps. I imagine navigation must have been delegated to Peter.

Having misplaced, or lost the few photographs I have from that time, I have no aide-memoirs to help me reconstruct that journey. I remember a variety of moments, but gazing at a map of southern England has made a confusion out of them, so I won’t attempt to put them in order.

Dunster Castle

The weather, I know, was fresh. Peter and I were photographed together in Dunster, Somerset, standing outside the Yarn Market which dates to 1647. Dunster Castle has stood since the 13th century.

Before Porlock Hill, which, at 25% has the steepest gradient in Britain, Dad took a picture of the three of us huddled together as we were battered by a strong wind. We then got back in the car for the grind up the hill, a route which took us along the fringes of Exmoor toward Lynton and Lynmouth.

Lynmouth, on the left, was the town that had been partly washed away in the thunderstorm that I recalled waiting out at my grandmother’s house, in August, 1952. Years before that, an aunt of my father’s owned and ran a tea-shop in Lynton, the town which is linked by cliff railway. The picture on the right depicts the wonderful cliff walk. The sea was a different colour on that day.

Near the end of the journey, as far as Peter and I were concerned, he caught a train that would get him back to school in Ipswich, on the opposite side of England. This left us short of a navigator.

My parents never seemed to plan ahead, and there being no abundance of hotels, what with holiday makers, town festivals, farming conventions and so on, once again we found ourselves without a bed for the night.

My good-natured mother presumably prevailed on a willing hotel clerk to make some phone calls and we set off to find a remote farm that offered bed and breakfast. All country lanes with high hedgerows look exactly alike, and you couldn’t see over the top for potential landmarks. Without our expert map-reader, we became hopelessly lost.

An extended period of exploring this bucolic maze brought us, finally, to the appointed farm, just as the cows were coming in for milking. I was terrified of cows, but in any event we were obliged to wait in the car until the herd had passed. Then, picking our way carefully through the yard to avoid cow pats, we arrived at the farm door.

We were warmly greeted, but my father was in no mood for chatty farmer’s wives, and he huffed upstairs, hitting his head on a low overhang and embarrassing my mother with a loud expletive and muttered comments about English farmhouses. He regarded our night-stop with some disdain.

In different circumstances, I would have wanted to meet some of the other farm animals, but I was also embarrassed by my association with the ungrateful, bad-tempered guest, so I went to hide in my room.

Dad was grumpy, Mum was sad, and I was apprehensive about the new school I was to enter on the morrow, so I doubt any of us slept well, but we were soon roused by the crowing of cockerels, which didn’t improve my father’s mood.

Full English breakfast was on offer, but Dad only ever wanted Shredded Wheat with hot milk and this was not available, so it was toast all round and then we were back, not on the road, but trying to pick our way back through the twisting lanes toward Bideford.

The ancient town of Bideford was the location of my new school, Stella Maris, but the “boarders” had to commute there every day from the nearby village of Northam, where our residence, Lakenham House, was to be found.

This is the back of the converted manor house that long ago belonged to a Lord and Lady Crossthwaite. It was very grand, but had become cold and draughty. Most of the house was occupied by the order of Catholic nuns who ran the school.

The property was terraced, and at the bottom, what would have been the far end, in the photograph, there was a separate building where we went after tea to do our homework.

It was there that I heard on 22nd November 1963, of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. We were all extremely shocked and were shepherded to the chapel, which was at the centre of the main building, in the bay window next to the columns.

The old magnolia

There used to be a gate through the high wall in front of the house, which is now bricked in. I passed through it to gain entry to the house by the main door. In the courtyard I remember there was a large magnolia tree that took my mother’s attention. I am happy to see that it still stands, apparently, after almost 60 years.

The busy B3236 now runs past the house.

As far as I have been able to find out, Lakenham House is now run as a residential home for the elderly, with an evaluation as “Good”. I am glad to know that it is still active although I am not sure why. I didn’t much like living there myself!

One thought on “To the West Country

  1. I like reading of your childhood memories, some of which I think must not be pleasant to write about. We have all had some of those and they compose a tapestry of who we turned out to be. My upbringing seems very bland compared to yours, having attended a total of only 6 schools through my high school graduation. Have you ever counted a total of yours, Carolyn?

    I remember those days of what we called “breaking in” a new car. I had not thought of that in many years. I’m glad we don’t do that now, not that I see a new car in my immediate future anyway.

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