The years spent at “Tor View” up to the start of World War II sit in my memory as some of the happiest times of my life. Obviously memory mellows as the years pass by and this probably explains why the summers seemed sunnier, warmer and longer than any summers since. During these summers there were plenty of visits from relatives and we quite often visited mum’s relatives in London and dad’s relatives in Crawley. The London relatives always arrived by train and it was always exciting to meet them off the train as it steamed slowly into the station at Exmouth. By placing a penny into a dispensing machine by the platforms one could purchase a ‘platform ticket’. This enabled the owner to actually stand on the platform to meet their guests off the train. I used to pester my parents to purchase these tickets to satisfy my impatience to meet up with my aunts and uncles at the earliest possible moment – after all, they always brought me a present! I confess that I really enjoyed receiving presents as a child, something that I seem to have successfully repressed nowadays, to the point I find it almost embarrassing to be given a present.
Because we had so many visits from our ‘townie relatives’ during the summer months, a great deal of my school summer holidays and weekends were spent on the beach. If dad was able to join us we would pile into the Austin 12 and head off to either Sandy Bay (my favourite) or Ladram Bay. If dad wasn’t with us we would use the bus and spend the day on Exmouth Beach. As Exmouth was a very popular seaside resort, finding a space on Exmouth Beach was not always very easy. Finding enough space to erect three or four deck chairs was almost impossible. However, Exmouth had a long beach (the distance from the Pier to Orcambe Point must have been more than a mile), so you could usually find somewhere to ‘set up’ for the day. In those days there were ice-cream vendors plying their trade up and down the beach all day. Like newspaper boys they used to have loud (almost unintelligible) slogans that they called out to attract custom. I can still hear and visualise the Walls Ice Cream seller, in his white coat and white and blue peaked cap, yelling out,
“Walls ices!! Walls ices!! Keeps your blood in order!! Stop me and buy one!”
Unless he had very recently replenished his stock, when you bought an ice cream it had melted almost to the point of being liquid. All of his stock was kept in an insulated cube-shaped container with a small lid on top; he carried this ‘ice-box’ on a strap around his neck. Needless to say the inside of the container warmed up every time he opened the lid to make a sale. Walls actually also had a mechanised version. It was a larger insulated cube mounted over the front wheel of a bicycle – the slogan was the same though. From memory there was only one other proprietary brand of ice cream, and that was Lyons, but I don’t ever remember them selling their ice creams from anywhere other than shops. The ice creams were either ‘wafers’ or ‘cornets’. The wafers came in the form of a slab of ice cream wrapped in paper and two waffle biscuits, you carefully unwrapped the ice cream (trying not to drop it or get covered with it) and putting the waffle biscuits, or wafers, on each side. As a kid I used to enjoy squeezing the wafers and licking the ice cream from around the edges – the only disadvantage with this method was that the crisp wafers were a soggy mess by the time you had finished the contents and not particularly pleasant to eat. The cornets were formed by removing the outer wrapping from a flat cylinder of ice cream and pushing it into the mouth of a waffle cone. We could make a lovely mess with those by biting the bottom off the cone and trying to suck the ice cream through! This possibly explains why I was never allowed to eat ice cream in the car. Like most young children I was a great fan of ice creams, but the ones that I really used to like were purchased in Fortes Cafe (at the end of The Parade and facing The Strand Gardens). On the occasions that my Aunts or Uncles took me in there for a treat I used to get a ‘Knickerbocker Glory’. It was a very tall glass filled with ice cream and nuts and various ice cream syrups. To eat this mountainous quantity of ice cream required a very long handled spoon (and an inordinate love of ice cream). Perhaps it was just as well that these ‘treats’ were few and far between as I tended to be on the chubby side anyway. It was much healthier for me to get my treats on the beach where I could run, dig or swim of the excess calories!
Sandy Bay was not like Exmouth beach. It was more difficult to get to, unless you owned a car. Because of its relative isolation the expanse of sand was nothing like as crowded. To get to the beach you had to climb down some steps and a fairly steep path. This access came out at one end of the beach and as you moved further down the beach the impression of ‘isolation’ grew greater. It appeared as though the beach was between the sea and an unscalable cliff. This cliff behind the beach acted as a shelter belt, or wind break, so it tended always to seem like a warm and calm day when you were there. There were other advantages to this stretch of beach. It was very shallow, with no rips or currents, and therefore fairly safe for young kids. I actually learned to swim at Sandy Bay (after first having learned how to do ‘a dead man’s float’, which I used to practice at home on bath nights). For a very modest fee you could hire a ‘float’. These were made up of two long, hollow canoe-shaped floats, joined by two flat boards. Each of the hollow floats had a wooden bung at the top so that any water which had seeped in could be drained (but not at sea!). I used to enjoy going out with dad on one of these floats – the water was always so clear that you could see the sandy bottom although being in quite deep water. I used to enjoy looking at fish, seaweed, the occasional rock and some times at the turn of the tide you could see prawns slowly moving towards the shallow rocks inshore. Needless to say I had a ‘shrimp net’ and on rare occasions caught enough prawns to make an extra treat for tea (the bread and butter meal most people had about five at night).
Ladram Bay was not in the same class as Sandy Bay and I was never all that keen on going there. It had a similar access to Sandy Bay and it had floats for hire, but there the similarities ended. Ladram Bay was a pebble beach and a quite steep one at that. The beach was quite narrow especially at high tide during them spring tides. If you were an accomplished swimmer then I guess Ladram Bay was the spot. The beach shelved so steeply that the average person would be ‘out of their depth’ a mere ten yards or so from the beach. I know that dad enjoyed Ladram Bay as he did quite a lot of swimming and mum quite liked it ‘because you didn’t get sand in the sandwiches’.
Apart from the beaches, our summertime guests used to go for walks on Woodbury common (usually making the exercise worthwhile by picking blackberries if it was the right time of year). Sometimes they would hire a rowing boat at the village of Lympstone (about a mile from where we lived) and either go rowing or fishing on the River Exe. (There were also plenty of launches plying ‘Trips Around The Bay’ from the Exmouth seafront, but they tended to be crowded, noisy and expensive). Early on Sunday mornings during the season our coalman, Tom Phillips, used to run a fishing trip for a ‘chosen few’. We obviously must have paid our coal bills, as we seemed to spend a high percentage of Sunday mornings fishing. Our London relatives used to really look forward to these early morning outings and I was allowed to come along as ‘the boat’s mascot’! Funnily enough I always seemed to catch more than my fair share of mackerel. I really moved up in the ‘mascot stakes’ on one Sunday trip. We had been fishing, without any luck, for about two hours and it was becoming obvious that the concensus was for packing up and going home. At that moment I hooked and landed a mackerel! Tom Phillips carved a “J” on the tail and announced that ‘our mascot has found a shoal’. From then on mackerel were queuing up to commit suicide and the fishing again became boring, for a very different reason! Sunday tea after these fishing trips was always soused mackerel (and I have always felt the need to have vinegar with my fish ever since). As rabbit pie and rabbit stew were two of my favourite dinners, soused mackerel (and prawns) were my favourite teas. Perhaps it was the ‘hunter’ in me that made ‘self caught’ food taste better – or was it because it was so fresh and you knew where it had come from. My grandmother, on mum’s side (Emma Constable), would never buy a rabbit in a butcher’s shop unless it still had the fur on. She was convinced that in London butcheries skinned rabbit was more often than not skinned cat. She actually questioned our local butcher, Lloyd Maunder, as to whether his rabbits were cats!! It took all of mum’s tact and diplomacy to calm that situation down. We were never top favourites with Lloyd Maunder’s after that and that didn’t do us much good during the savage rationing days that were ‘just around the corner’.
Being a seaside resort there was always plenty of entertainment for the ‘townie visitors’. There were entertainments on the Exmouth Pier from a Helter-Skelter, Dodgems, Shooting galleries and an amusement arcade full of pin-ball machines. Uncle Tim was an absolute sucker for pin-ball machines, but the machine which put the greatest strain on his pocket was a ‘mechanical grab’. This was a grab crane that the player controlled with a couple of handles. The idea was to attempt to ‘line the grab up’ over a prize and hope that the jaws will lock sufficiently around the prize to enable the player to manoeuvre the object over a chute which delivered your hard earned winnings to the outside of the machine. The base of the grab was covered with cheap little sweets and if nothing else you could usually win two or three of these tasteless little jubes. The only item of any value that I remember Uncle Tim winning was a little travelling clock, the surround of which chipped quite badly as the grab dropped it from a great height into the chute!!
Besides the Pier there was always at least one ‘Fair’ would come to town. They always set up the fair on the King George grounds near the Devon General bus terminal. Dad was the member of the family who enjoyed the fairground rides more than the rest of us. I always ended up getting horribly dizzy and on the verge of throwing up after a few revolutions. I think that my worst experience was when dad took me onto a ride called ‘The Giant Waltzer’ at a fairground in Exeter. The Giant Waltzer consisted of about ten circular ‘cars’ each of which revolved around its own centre – at the same time, the base on which the cars were mounted went up and down slopes as it, in turn revolved around the centre of the ‘ride’. I don’t know whether dad had made some smart comment to one of the attendants or not, but as soon as the mechanism started to rotate this attendant decided to keep giving our car a savage spin. What with the spinning motion of the car, coupled with the up and down circular motion of the total ‘ride’, I felt very, very ill. I kept pleading with dad to get them to stop, but dad was not going to let some pip-squeak of a fairground attendant get the better of him!!! I was carried off of the ride when it eventually came to rest and mum walked me to the car and I took no further interest in the evening’s amusements. I enjoyed the dodgems and quite liked the ‘Big Wheel’, as long as I was accompanied. Otherwise I used to stick very much to the innocuous amusements, like ‘rolling the penny’ (where you rolled a penny down a slotted chute onto a table marked off in a series of squares with values marked in them). The idea was to try to get the coin to come to rest in the centre of one of the squares – and preferably one with gave you a healthy return, such as a shilling rather than just your penny back!! Needless to say that in the unlikely event of your coin landing up in a worthwhile square, the stall-holders eyesight improved to the point that he could see that your coin was actually clipping one of the four lines in the square – even when you were considerably closer to the coin than he was. They were not averse to jolting the table if it looked as though a coin was going to settle as a winner!! In those days travelling fairs used to include visual freaks for the visiting public to gawk at. The world’s fattest lady, waddling around looking like a flabby version of the Michelin tyre advert. There were tattooed ladies, wild men from Borneo, the elastic man (who used to tie himself in knots), bearded ladies – the list was endless, and I seldom ever went into the ‘booths’ that housed a particular ‘freak’. The photographs outside the booths were enough to turn my stomach, there was no way I could have looked at the real person. Even at that age I was sure that this was wrong – but I guess that it was the only way they could make a living and perhaps it was a step removed from street begging, but it wasn’t for me!!
The other entertainment that used to come to town was the circus. The ‘Big Top’ was nearly always erected in the field at the bottom of the road (on the opposite side to our house). I wasn’t keen on circuses either (I was a very difficult child to amuse). I quite liked the clowns, I could tolerate the performing horses, but people climbing into the lion’s or the tiger’s cage were viewed by me through clenched fists and closed eyes. It was a waste of money taking me to the circus, but relatives always seemed to think that treating me to a trip to the circus was mandatory as soon as the circus parade appeared outside our house heading for town. Keen gardeners were ready with buckets and spades to scoop up the droppings from elephants, etc. Fortunately dad seemed to be a bit ‘slow off the mark’. As far as I can remember Exmouth was spared any ‘excitement’ brought about by any escaping animals – none that were dangerous, anyway.
Other summer pastimes could be quite boring to a young lad. Once a year we would all head out into the fields to pick dandelion heads (heads only, no stems or leaves). Between us we picked enormous quantities of these flower heads (my contribution was usually fairly minimal) and then mum, with some assistance from dad, would put the lot into a large crockpot, which lived on the back porch, add various ingredients such as water, sugar and yeast. This eventually used to produce many bottles of dandelion wine and from all accounts had a kick like a mule. Dad used to also make elderberry wine. Later on in his life he made wines from just about anything and I have been reliably informed that they ranged from barely palatable to extremely enjoyable (although I seldom got the opportunity to taste many of them).
In the winter we seldom, if ever, had visitors. Instead there used to be a lot of parties around the Christmas and New Year period. These were ‘grown up’ parties as opposed to kid’s parties. In those days a party was usually a light evening meal, followed by some drinks and some conversation and then there were ‘games’. They played games such as ‘Beetle’, ‘Post Office’ (nothing to do with Postman’s Knock), Monopoly, card games such as ‘Beat Your Neighbour Out of Doors’, ‘Happy Families’ and so on. Sometimes they would play records on our enormous radiogram (dad’s pride and joy) and endeavour to dance. The dancing was seldom a success due to the lack of space and the carpet on the floor. The carpet square in our dining room was so tatty by this stage that you could have done yourself a mischief by tripping over the frayed areas!! There were also some games which involved ‘forfeits’. Forfeits were penalties that were awarded for failing in a game, or some other misdemeanour. At my tender age (I was around five or six) I couldn’t understand why ‘grown ups’ found it so funny to embarrass each other by imposing silly things for them to do, when they were supposed to be having fun. But I guess that as a child I was a pretty timid. I was sometimes allowed to join in some of the games in the early part of the evening and I quite liked playing ‘Beetle’. I am sure that nowadays such a game would not appear on the agenda of an adult party. In ‘Beetle’, each player took it in turns to throw a dice. Each face of the dice was related to a part of the beetle’s anatomy. The body of the beetle required the player to throw a ‘six’ and until you threw a six you could not start. Once you had thrown a six and drawn in the body, a ‘five’ let you draw the head, the eyes were represented by the ‘four’, the legs were ‘two’ and so on. You, of course, could not draw in the beetles eyes or antennae until your beetle had a head – but you could add legs and a tail to your headless beetle if you threw the correct numbers. The first player to complete his or her beetle was awarded bonus points on top of the 33 points for the total beetle – the remaining players added up the total value of points for their incompleted insect and these became the scores for that round. The game then resumed until the next round’s winner was found and so on. The player with the most number of points at the end of the game (usually 12 rounds of ‘Beetle’) was declared the winner. I think most people got their enjoyment from the artistic effort they put into drawing their beetles and even as a kid I could see that some adults had distinctively humorous artistic talents! The incredible thing about this extremely simple game was the fact that church organisations and the like used to run ‘Beetle Drives’ (like a Whist drive but playing ‘Beetle instead of cards) in church halls and community centres. It was always adults that attended these ‘Beetle Drives’ and as they kept going back week after week I can only assume that they enjoyed themselves. Nowadays, I suppose, we have progressed to the much more exciting game of Bingo (but how artistic can you get just ticking numbers off a card?)!!
Not long after we arrived in Devon, dad met up with Arthur Thair (a builder who used to live at Halsdon Cross on the corner of the Exeter Road and Iona Avenue). Through Arthur Thair dad was introduced to The Loyal Order of Moose. He joined the organisation and became quite an active member. ‘Moose’ was a ‘service’ organisation on similar lines to The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, but ‘Moose’ was a Canadian import, whereas the others usually found their base in the United States. Since Arthur Thair had spent a lot of his life in Canada (he may actually have been Canadian), ‘Moose’ became the obvious choice. There appeared to be a Lodge meeting once a week, where I assume dad, and other ‘Mooses’, wined and dined whilst discussing their next fund-raising venture. Once a year ‘Moose’ put on a party for the children of members. This used to be a fairly low key affair. Also, on a once a year basis, there was ‘Ladies Night’. This was the one night of the year when guilt-ridden members of the Lodge (who had abandoned their wives and partners for one night a week for the past year) salved there consciences by putting on a spectacular Dinner and Dance. At my tender age the only thing I knew about Ladies Night was that mum got all dressed up in her evening dress and ‘finery’ (including her fox fur) and dad used to get dressed up as a penguin in his tails and fancy ruffled shirt and bow tie (which seemed to take at least twenty attempts before he finally got it tied to his satisfaction). I used to watch bemused as this metamorphic transformation took place. The ritual was quite lengthy. By the time dad had found his shirt studs, his suspenders, his socks (with the clocks), his patent leather dancing pumps, cummerbund, etc., etc. Mum seemed to sit for ever in front of her dressing table applying make-up, spraying scent and cologne and so on. It seemed to me that the preparation must take twice as long as the actual evening’s entertainment. The Dinner and Dance was usually held at one or other of Exmouth’s better class of hotels (although the only time I ever got invited, many years later, it was held in the Pavilion Ballroom – which was a bit of a come down!). Incidentally I have never discovered whether the members of the Loyal Order of Moose ever raised any money for charitable works, or even if they carried out any charitable works – but I’m sure that they enjoyed themselves.
I notice that there has really been no mention of my younger brother (other than to say when he arrived) in this narrative so far. I am not deliberately ignoring his presence (although before a certain age younger brothers don’t really exist!), but, as he was only twenty-three months old when war broke out, he wasn’t playing a major role in my life. One of the few incidents concerning Brian that I can recall during this period, occurred one winter’s day early in 1939. Brian and I were playing (separately) in the dining room in front of a cosy coal fire. In front of the fire was a tall free-standing fire guard. The guard stood about three feet high and surrounded the tiled area in front of the fireplace. I think that mum was upstairs at the time and dad was outside in his vest and trousers (the temperature was probably just below freezing point) talking to Joe Howes over the garden fence. I was obviously very engrossed in what I was doing – because I certainly didn’t notice what Brian was doing!! My first warning was when I felt that the room had suddenly got considerably warmer. Brian, who had been happily playing with a pile of his soft toys (Wilfrid Rabbit, Mickey Mouse, a large teddy bear and assorted smaller members of his fluffy menagerie), must have become bored. To add a bit of spice to his ‘current game’, my fifteen month old brother had decided to cremate his toys. As it dawned on me that the room temperature was increasing rapidly I discovered to my horror that he had been ( and still was) throwing his toys over the guard into the fireplace. One had actually gone into the fire and had fallen out to ignite the others. I did what any level-headed kid of six and a half would do – I panicked!! I yelled out in my loudest and most raucous ‘coke-hammer’ voice and mum and dad came running – arriving in the dining room simultaneously. Mum grabbed Brian and got him out of the room whilst dad started throwing the burning toys out onto the back lawn. I was quite ‘miffed’ that everybody decided to ignore me! I was not disappointed for long though. As soon as the panic was over and the last of the smouldering toys had been extinguished I got my reward! I received a severe tongue lashing for my failure to keep an eye on what my brother was doing. I silently and sulkily resolved that in future I would say nothing and let the house burn down!
I don’t recall any other potentially major catastrophes in those days, possibly because dad ran a fairly authoritarian regime and we kids had to stay strictly within the rules – and there were plenty of rules to remember. One of dad’s strictest rules was to do with firearms. We had quite an arsenal in the house in those days. There were three hand guns, a German Luger, a service .38 revolver, and an Italian hand gun (which I think was called a Cebra, or a name similar to that). There was also a powerful air pistol, which I hadn’t the strength to reset, and a .22 rifle (which later on was fitted with a telescopic sight). Ammunition for these weapons was hidden all around the house, but I think that I had discovered all of the ‘hiding’ places. The boxes of ammunition used to fascinate me, all neatly stacked in rows with the lead (or nickel) heads of the bullets uppermost. From a very early age dad used to give me instructions about handling weapons, although apart from the air pistol (which he loaded for me), I never actually fired any of the guns. The rules when shooting at a target with the air pistol were as rigid as if I was using one of the other firearms. Always point the pistol towards the ground until you were ready to take aim. Always ensure that everyone was behind you and that there were no objects beyond the target before raising the weapon. Slowly raise the weapon, using both hands, vertically towards the target. Breathe in and slowly release your breath whilst lining up the target. When you have the target clearly in your sights and your hands steady, slowly exert pressure on the trigger. And so on and so on!! Dad was so strict about weapons handling that I remember that on my fourth birthday mum and dad had bought me a ‘cowboy’ outfit. This consisted of a cowboy hat (although it looked much more like a Boy Scout’s hat), a red neckerchief, a small decorated ‘waistcoat’ with a sheriff’s badge on it, lightweight decorated ‘trousers’ with chaparrals, and a gun belt, with holster and imitation ammunition and, of course, an imitation ‘six-shooter’. Needless to say it was the favourite present from the instant I opened the packaging. I got dressed up in all of my regalia (with a bit of help from mum) and ‘moseyed on down to Dodge City’ to clean up the town. As I was moseying dad came round the corner of the house and ‘Dead-Eye Dick’ immediately drew his six gun, pointed it at this approaching bank robber and called out “Stick ’em up!” This challenge was greeted with a swift clip on the ear and the admonition “Never ever point a gun at anyone unless you are prepared to kill them!!” I don’t think that I ever wore that cowboy outfit again and instead went back to making bows and arrows – I reckoned that life as a cowboy was no fun and that it was easier to join the Indians. Later on in life I was encouraged by dad to join him on the rifle range and to use the .22, but, apart from one occasion much later in my life, I always treated guns with a very healthy respect and was doubly careful when handling either the gun or the ammunition.
When we first moved to Devon we were the proud possessors of a genuine ‘Magic Lantern’. Nowadays, as home entertainment, it wouldn’t even rate a mention. It was, as you would expect, a lantern which projected pictures onto a screen (in our case the screen was a table cloth!). It was nothing remotely like a transparency projector for displaying ‘holiday snaps’ – the light source was an acetylene lamp (the acetylene was produced by dripping water onto calcium carbide). The ‘pictures’ to be projected were hand-painted onto glass and from the point of view of a four or five year old boy were of no interest. Adults used to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over the home picture show the first time they were invited to a demonstration, but I don’t recall anyone really becoming addicted to it as a form of entertainment!
Occasionally dad would take mum and I (not always ‘I’) to the theatre in Exeter for one of the musical shows. The ones that I can remember being taken to, but which went right over my head were “No No Nanette”, “Floradora” and “The Belle of New York”. The Belle of New York must have been the last one that I was taken to as it is the only one which had any impact on my memory. We always used to go to the Theatre Royal in Exeter around Christmas time for the annual pantomime, and whilst I think I enjoyed going to them, there was no way that I would take part in any of the ‘communal silly songs’ that everyone else seemed to revel in (especially dad, mum was a little less enthusiastic). The chances of getting me to volunteer to go up on the stage were way below zero, however it was never a problem because the call for volunteers was nearly always followed by a full scale stampede!. I think that witnessing these stampedes would have put an end to any thoughts that I may have had of going on the stage. At the age of seven I had not given any thought at all as to what I would like to be ‘when I grew up’. This is somewhat surprising because it always came into any ‘conversation’ between adults and myself – for some reason they always seemed to be disappointed when I indicated that I had no idea. However, by a process of elimination I was narrowing the field – ‘the stage’ was out! This was reinforced by being taken by dad to see a marionette show at a small theatre in Exeter. I don’t know why dad thought that I would be interested because he knew that I hated Punch and Judy shows (you may think that I am joking, but it really was the ‘violence’ in Punch and Judy that I just couldn’t stand). You could easily pick me out at a ‘Punch and Judy Show’ on the beach (where I had been deposited so that the adults could get a bit of peace or go swimming or whatever) I was the kid who had his back to the kiosk and was watching the sea!
As a young lad, enjoying the summer school holidays and looking forward to his seventh birthday, there seemed to be no reason for this halcyon to be about to end. Aunt Lil was spending some time with us that summer, but Tim wasn’t with her, she had brought her mother (Emma Constable) with her. I didn’t get on too well with Grandma Constable (which was a bit disappointing because she was the only surviving grandparent on either side of the family). I found her to be quite ‘grumpy’ and I think she saw me as a brat! I don’t remember my seventh birthday for any special reason (for example, I didn’t get another cowboy suit!), however it came and went and the next ‘event’ on the calender was to remember what would have been Doris’s fifteenth birthday. On the 3rd of September Aunt Lil and I had gone for a walk along the cliffs at Orcombe Point. I picked up that Aunt Lil was not her usual jolly self, she had a really infectious laugh and it was always fun to be with her, but on this day there was something different, but it was nothing a new seven year old could relate to. All of a sudden Aunt Lil turned to me and said “We are at War!” I had no idea what she was talking about. We hadn’t met up with anyone, she hadn’t been listening to the radio (in those days there were no portable radios). It didn’t make sense to me. After a while we turned around and walked slowly back home. As we went indoors Lil just said to mum “Well?” and mum just nodded her head. Finally I plucked up enough courage to ask what they were talking about and mum told me that at eleven o’clock that morning we had declared war on Germany. It obviously meant a great deal to all of the adults, but to a seven year old it just didn’t register at all. That was all to change….