I was born on the 5th of February 1925 at the family home of Sawyers’ Lands, Silchester, near Reading, Berkshire, and delivered by Dr Daly, a Cambridge friend of my maternal grandfather’s.
I was born for free in the days before National Health because Dr Daly had been involved in some sort of trouble at university and been helped out of it by my grandfather. So we were never charged for medical services.
When I was born my father had come out of the First World War after a nasty bullet wound inflicted by the Turks in Mesopotamia (Iraq).
For an athlete who had been a scratch golfer, a fine tennis player and one who played cricket for his county, it was hardship indeed. He was on crutches when he married my mother in St George’s, Hanover Square, London.
Even in ’14 - ’18 wartime it was a normal society wedding, my mother ’s father being a knighted anaesthetist to King Edward VII. I still have somewhere a tissue paper souvenir handout as given to spectators outside the church who wanted to know who was getting married.
Together they built a house and started a chicken farm. My father had, before the war, been to Marlborough and Wye Agricultural College. Farming matters and nature were in his blood. Because of this, my father planned the setting for the house. From the road, the driveway led to a pear-shaped back drive. Around this grassy lawn were the ex-army hut barns, one for chicken food and ground-up oyster shell, and the other as accommodation for the farm help. This was on one side of the pear and the back door to the house on the other. A shorter driveway led to the front door of the house. Then there was a barn for the car and stables.
Tradesmen, like the baker, fish monger and wine merchant delivered to the back door around the pear. Wine and beer bottles were all recycled. And it was from the dregs of wine bottles that I drank must surely have given me a taste in the future for wine in a more generous quantity.
The kitchen garden and orchard were enclosed by a cupressus hedge as was a grass tennis court. The latter was of great importance to my father and was almost weed-free. In fact, there were times when we children were rewarded if we were able to find a weed. There was a summer house next to the court that housed an ACTO mower. And the wooden building could be turned to face any direction on a circular rail system. The drink for tennis parties was wonderful homemade lemonade.
My parents were poor. But being poor in those days was tolerable if one was well, or reasonably well connected. So, with my grandfather a knight, my uncle a knight and MP, my other grandfather a vicar to the Duke of Wellington and President of The National Rose Society, and my great uncle a Dean of Salisbury, we counted, I suppose, as being reasonably well connected. So we fitted into local society. Even when my parents played bridge, someone would volunteer to cover their losses. Yet I recall my mother in tears when the local brass band appeared in our drive at Christmastime to play carols and we had no money to give them.
My sister June, was firstborn, later to become quite an athlete. My brother, Nigel, was so small at birth that his early days were spent in a hatbox on cotton wool soaked in olive oil. And then, unwanted, came me, my mother trying all the then ploys to be rid of me - like having boiling hot baths, swilling down lots of gin, and taking concoctions from quacks in London’s Soho. Obviously none were effective.
In the 1920s, like more recently, war surplus was available. So our barns were previously army huts, as were the chicken sheds on iron wheels. The wheels with bulbous tyres for our carts were from unwanted RFC wartime bomber aeroplanes.
Sport was of the greatest importance for my father. Despite his foot being held up with a spring attached to a collar around his leg, he still played golf and took great interest in other sport, so much so that he was not particularly interested in his children’s academic education but very keen on their prowess at sport. At a sports day where my brother was at school and told to work on his lessons instead of being on the sports field, my father packed up Nigel’s possessions and immediately took him away from that school.
We had a PYE radio that held an array of glowing valves that looked like light bulbs, and needed a wet battery, like a car battery, and a dry battery that was a heavy lump with several places in which to plug apparatus. This radio was able to tune into Australia via an aerial strung from it to the top of a nearby tree so that my father could listen to the cricket Test Match score from the other side of the world. When the wet battery needed recharging, it was sometimes my turn to cart it over an adjoining field to the Firth’s house. There they had an electricity-generating machine where the floor was covered in batteries to which ours was connected for recharging. The machine had a single cilinder and a flywheel. The room smelled of acid.
Water for our house came from a nearby well, cut deep through gravel. It was pumped to a tank in the roof space by a Swift car engine set in concrete. When we couldn’t get this car engine to work, we all took turns at a hand-operated pump in the kitchen.
My father was a dab-hand at water divining with a forked ash stick. He would often be asked for advice on where new house builders should sink a well. We had another well for the farm, located in the centre of a field, its supply being located originally and tracked by my father’s divining.
The house, downstairs, was lit by a lovely system of petrol, and, I suppose, air. This was made by a shiny, green drum with cog teeth and was powered by a weight at the end of a cable strung between the machine and the top of a tree. We had to wind up the weight when it was seen to be too low.
The farm was the working centre of our life, even though my mother, whose upbringing had been in royal circles, found being a farmer’s wife not to her liking, though she virtually ran the farm, my father not having a head for business.
Beside tennis, there were plenty of other entertainments available. There were lots of dances and, when at our house, our sprung floor was much appreciated. My father was the drummer and saxophonist in a jazz band. I recall a “Nine to Ninety” dance where a comely lady wearing a backless dress of the day’s fashion, bent over to expose her well-formed breasts. As a boy I thought that was disgusting. There were whist drives and plays put on by the villagers in the village hall. Bridge was popular, to which I was sometimes taken. On these dull occasions at a particular house I was usually given marrons glacés, when I would have much preferred a Mars bar.
Weekend cricket was much enjoyed by all classes. And at our village field we children kept ourselves busy by harvesting wild strawberries that were plentiful outside the boundary. We all had bicycles, and as our village was completely hemmed in by fords, we would much enjoy riding through the water. Summer picnics were a regular treat. We were never bored, summer or winter.
Aeroplanes and flying took a major part in our lives. Not only were aeroplanes still in their infancy and naturally interesting, but we boys were devoted to making small models of them from Sybird kits. These were bought in a box holding pine and balsa wood, a lead pilot, some mica and a sheet of plans, with the purchaser left to carve and construct models of British and German aircraft. When Alan Cobham rented a farmer’s field in the district, we would visit to watch his aeroplanes. I flew as passenger in an Avro Tutor biplane for 7/6 that included a loop-the-loop. We would drive to the Solent to watch seaplanes race for the Schneider Trophy, and admire private aeroplanes, like Mew Gulls and Flying Fleas, when they flew low near our house in the handicapped King’s Cup Air Race.
In a Fokker Trimotor plane, and in 7 days, my Uncle Wyndham Hewitt flew as flight engineer with Kingsford Smith in a record breaking Christmas mail flight in 1931 from Australia to Croydon Aerodrome in London. From Croydon Nigel and I were flown around London in a Klem Bat - a modern, cantilever wing monoplane, built by Germans to train pilots for yet another war. Kingsford Smith was due to come to see us in an aeroplane. We set out a landing T with sheets to show him the wind direction so that he could land upwind, but he never arrived, being very unreliable and rather keen on spending his non-flying time on women and booze.
Food at home was very much country food consisting of steamed puddings, hearty stews, many vegetables and, especially cakes as we had a chicken farm. We children would beg Connie, the maid, to lick out her cake-mixing bowls. Fruit, both fresh and home-bottled, featured prominently, and my father, being a bit of a health freak, liked to boil cabbage in a pressure cooker placed on top of our kitchen range - a range that not only heated the kitchen in winter but supplied the hot water for the house from its back boiler. Game featured in winter but was hung for such a long time that the final taste would be unrecognisable today. Stilton cheese, again, was treated with port and was considered to be perfect when almost alive. We children were given the choice of menu on our birthdays. And despite living on a chicken farm, we would always choose roast chicken. It was, of course, free range and wonderful.
Digging in the vegetable garden and bordering the road, we would often find Roman coins. These were so commonplace that we just threw them into a hamper - where they eventually were destroyed when our cottage around the pear was burnt to the ground during the war.
My father once grew some impressively large gooseberries in the kitchen garden. He was about to show some at the village fete and bottle the rest, when at dead of night, gypsies from Tadley broke in through the hedge that separated our garden from the road, and stole them - every single one, and in the dark, too.
We preserved fruit and vegetables in sealed glass jars for winter consumption. Making jam was important as it was used in puddings and on bread for tea. Wild food featured prominently. Bilberries (blueberries) were harvested in the woods, mushrooms dried and blackberries gathered from brambles for pies and being cooked with apples for pudding fillings.
Bread was very special as most villages had access to a baker nearby and bread from each tasted better than loaves from our own bakery.
Cheese was made in many a farm. We would bike to Sherfield-on-Loddon’s Lilly Mill for a variety of Cheddar, and near to Silchester Pound for a type of Camembert.
At Yates, the local grocery shop, bacon was cut from the smoked side of a pig. Salt was cut from a large block and sold by weight in a sugar-paper bag, as were currants. Butter was cut from a large block and shaped with two wooden paddles. And at Ellinghams, the sweets and tobacco shop, we children bought lemonade crystals to lick from the bag, chocolate drops, and sherbet fountains where sherbet was sucked up from a paper tube via a hollow licorice stick.
We children did not live stagnant lives at Silchester. Strathfield Saye Rectory, just a five mile bike ride away, was the home of my grandfather and then the Rev John Barker who was married to my aunt Nancy, one of my father’s sisters. There we would stay and have the run of my grandfather’s Glebe Lands and the river Loddon in which to swim, fish and catch crayfish. And it was there that another aunt (Dorothy) ran the Brownies, of which I was made one, being the right age but not the right sex.
And we would often stay at Shelleys, in Knockholt, Kent, the home of yet another of my father’s sisters (Margery) who was married to uncle Waller (Sir Waldon Smithers MP). There I got on well with the gardener who, when I was there recuperating from TB plied me with the best vegetables to take back to London.
At home in Silchester we had governesses. One of them was Jenevieve Chapuis who came from Vevey, in Switserland. We remained friends with her, and I was staying in Vevey, supposedly to learn French, 14 years old, when the Second World War was about to begin. I was put on a train and made my way back to England. All I recall about my brief stay with the Chapuis’s family was the wooden, slatted slide down which we slid into the water of Lac Léman. But first one had to slosh water down the slide to give it an element of slipperiness, which I failed to do - causing meaty burn stripes on my backside.
Connie, our maid at Silchester, did about everything, cooking cleaning, bathing us and much else. Her lover was the local steamroller man, who would leave his bike in bushes at the bottom of the drive and climb through a very small window into her downstairs room, when it would have been far easier to turn around a corner of the house and use a much larger window.
Connie’s family came from Tadley, where the gypsies came from. I went to her house once to see, just inside the front door, a huge black pig hanging from a hook. I suppose it was to be de-bristled and butchered. But for a small boy it was a rather sudden and yet impressive sight.
An occasional visitor to our house at Silchester was my formidable grandmother (Lady Hewitt). She always wore black clothes and was rather grand and ladylike.
I was a bit of a dab-hand at snaring rabbits for the pot. One day, when she was staying, I had caught a rabbit and was returning to the house to deal with it, when grandmother said that she would like to paunch and skin it. So she rolled up her sleeves, cut and cleared out its innards, skinned it, and then cut it into pieces suitable for the pot.
From then on, never having known of her Irish origins, we concluded that she might have been a farmer’s or a butcher’s daughter.
So I suppose, those early days of childhood at Silchester did influence my later life of becoming an RAF pilot, artist and a writer of books, articles and blogs.
So I suppose, those early days of childhood at Silchester did influence my later life of becoming a RAF pilot, artist and a writer of books, articles and blogs.