As part of National Novel Writing Month, (#NaNoWriMo) I've set myself the goal of writing a 50,000 word novel (1700 words a day), consisting of short stories about my memories of primary school. Today I'm writing the opening chapters of my book and my memories of a town in Oxfordshire, called Wallingford. Just so that you know, all names of people have been changed. Each story is based on my own memory, so may not be an exact representation of events, especially since I am writing this over 40 years after things happened! But I hope you will enjoy each story all the same, and that perhaps it will spark your own memories of life at primary school.
Wallingford, Oxon (1975-1984)
My mum and dad were about 22 years old when they first met. It was March 1975, mum had graduated from Berkshire Agricultural College, and they first met at a Young Farmers Club party through mutual friends. Mum worked on a local vineyard growing grapes and making wine and Dad was an apprentice labourer in his home town of Wallingford on the border of Oxfordshire and Berkshire. Mum’s family had moved to the town of Henley-On-Thames as teachers when mum was a child, and Dad’s family had lived in the ancient market town of Wallingford for hundreds and hundreds of years, long before the time of Oliver Cromwell in the 1600s. I knew that it was a very long time, because sometimes his mum (my nan) would take me to the cemetery and we would put yellow chrysanthemum flowers on all the gravestones of her ancestors.
‘That grave there is my dad, and that one is my brother who died in the war, and that one is one of your very far back relatives’.
There were graves for her mother’s side of the family and for her dad’s side. Nan knew everything there was to know about Wallingford. She knew everyone we met in the street and on our walk home through the park, and everyone would stop to say hello or to comment on how tall I had grown. Nan knew the history of the ruined castle, the old church, and every single house and shop in every street.
‘That is the house that I was born in. That is the social club which my mum and dad ran. That is where I went to school. That is where me and your aunty Penny danced at special do’s called ‘balls’ with the visiting sailors. There was a live band and they played big band and jazz music which was new and exciting. That was a lot of fun and the sailors were very dashing in their uniforms and some came all the way from America!’.
I loved to play on and around the walls of the castle ruins, and I had a thousand questions to ask my nan about who had built it and who had lived there. Nan was very patient and she answered every question I had. Were there any battles and were there any bodies or treasure buried beneath us?
Nan told me how the castle was built in the Medieval times some time around 1067, by a man called Robert who was given the land as a present for marrying Eladgyth. Her dad was very rich. Back then the castle was built from wood and Robert started a college for monks inside the castle. Then in the 1100s, an Empress called Matilda owned the castle and Stephen of England attacked it, but he lost the battle, and then there was a Civil War between Matilda and Stephen.
Later on, Robert’s son-in-law Brien built a prison inside the castle called ‘Cloere Brien’ or ‘Brien’s Close’. Nan told me how people were brought to the prison if they didn’t give Brien money.
‘People say that the torture was so terrible, you could hear the screams in the Wallingford streets’.
I really hoped that there was such as thing as ghosts because then I could ask them if they knew any of my relatives and if any of my relatives ever worked at the castle or worse still, were taken prisoner, and what did they do to get themselves locked up? Maybe one of my ancestors was a Princess or a knight?
But I especially liked the sound of presents back then. Imagine that today, getting a birthday or a Christmas present and it was a castle. That would be the best present ever! You could have crocodiles in the moat and a drawbridge that you lifted up when someone you didn’t like came to knock on the door.
Nan said that Brien had so many knights he eventually ran out of room at the castle so he had to build new places for them to live. But even though he had all those knights, he still lost the castle because Stephen kept attacking and eventually succeeded because he got his army to surround the castle walls so no one could enter or leave. Eventually the people in the castle ran out of food and were so hungry they had no choice but to leave in search of food. It was a good plan because Stephen tricked Brien into leaving the castle to get food and whilst he was gone, Stephen took the castle for himself.
Nan told me how another lady called Isabella of France received the castle as a present, and it became a royal prison. Later on it belonged to King Henry VIII but in the 16th century a Queen called Mary took all the lead from the castle and other materials like bricks and stones, and used them to build Windsor Castle.
After that the castle was under siege in the English Civil War and then used as a prison in the 1800s. Nan told me about a house built inside the castle ruins in the 1700s and a gothic style mansion built in the 1800s but the council had demolished them in 1972 just a couple of years before I was born.
Wow. Nan was so lucky to know all about her origins and where she lived. I didn’t feel like I was from anywhere, and I wished that I knew where I came from as much as my nan did. Imagine being an old lady and living just a few doors down from the house you were born in!
Dad probably felt a little bit like me because even nan who knew lots and lots, she didn’t know much about her husband’s family or where they came from.
‘I only met them once or twice and they were very stern and serious, especially his mum. I think they were Irish, and lived in the North of England, in a city called Sheffield. I don't think they were a very close family, not like mine’.
Nan married my granddad at a place by the sea called Chatham, famous for its Naval base and for making ropes for ships. I went there once, when I was a grown up in the Royal Navy, but I'll tell you more about that in another book one day. But back to my nan, well she met my dad’s dad (my grandad) after meeting him at a local dance in Wallingford when he was a visiting sailor. They had two sons together, dad was the eldest, and Terry who was a couple of years younger.
Because he was a sailor in the Royal Navy or maybe the Merchant Navy (I don't actually know which one he was in), he was often away at sea.
Then all of a sudden when he was about 30 years old, he suddenly dropped down dead from a heart attack.
‘He is buried in Fife in Scotland. It was all organised by the Navy. That was the nearest place to where they were, so it was the closest place to bury him’.
Nan had single handedly raised her boys and the local council gave her a council house to live in and she got a widow’s pension. Her husband died when she was still in her late twenties, dad was just a boy, and she lived on her own for all of her life after that. Just like me, she preferred her own company and not having anyone tell her what she could or couldn’t do! So I never got to meet my grandad and I never really asked many questions about him, or if I did I don't remember much of nan told me about him.
It was nice to visit my nan in the same house where my dad had had lived as a child. Nan still had a lot of his old Corgi and Matchbox toy cars and I loved to play with them whenever I visited. Nan kept them in a big metal tin. You could tell that dad and Uncle Terry had played with them a lot because they were scratched and had loads of dents in them.
In some ways dad was luckier than me, because he had never had to move house or get to know new people and places and he had a lot of great adventures as he played outdoors around Wallingford with his friends. I loved hearing dad's stories of when he was a boy.
‘Once when it was a really hot day I fell into a patch of stinging nettles up by the castle. I was only wearing my shorts and a short sleeve shirt so all my skin was stung badly and it hurt so much that I ran home to my mum crying because I was in so much pain’. Dad said that once there was even snow and it was so deep that it covered the doors of the house and came over your waist! I loved snow and I thought about all the games I would play if it snowed like that. Dad said that even school was cancelled!
I wish I lived in one place all of my life, and that like dad I had all of my relatives living close by. They always seemed so close, not just in where they lived, but how much they loved each other and were always checking in on each other. As a boy, dad could visit them anytime he wanted to, which was probably good given that not everyone had a telephone back in his day, and mobile phones hadn't been invented yet so it wasn't like you could just email or text or whatever. Instead dad and Terry would be sent on errands, running between the houses. Not like my family who lived apart and were all over the world. I thought it would be wonderful to have aunties and uncles and cousins that you could call on if you wanted to go out and play, but probably not so good if you got in trouble because there would always be someone to catch you and to tell your mum on you! Or even worse, you would get a hiding not just once, but from every relative!