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Friday, November 13, 2009

A Country Childhood


I think it's quite easy to take for granted my childhood, growing up on a farm in Bedfordshire. Compared with what children have now, we were really lucky. There was plenty of space to run around, wide open meadows to roam in and the farmyard itself, although by today's standards of Health and Safety, I suppose a farm would be considered a dangerous place for children to play. I suppose it was then, but we seem to have created a generation which is really over-protected . We built hideouts in amongst the bales of straw and treehouses in many of the trees in the garden and around the farmyard. There was always something or other to explore and to generally get into some sort of trouble. Life was an adventure and we really knew how to enjoy it.


Malting Farm is still there, in Cardington, Bedfordshire, about four miles to the east of Bedford town, but I know that things have changed drastically since I left in the mid 1970's. For a start no Murdoch lives in the house, which is sad when I think that some three generations of Murdochs had lived there, although I know my eldest brother James still farms the land there. My grandfather Ferriman managed Mill Farm, which was a few miles from Cardington village, and his son, my uncle Michael took over from him and ran that farm up until only a few years ago. That farm is no more. It was completely bulldozed to make way for a business park. Beford Southern By-Pass crosses what was Malting Farm land and borders the Priory Business Park, which was Mill Farm. My grandmother created a really beautiful garden at Mill Farm, and the house itself was really homely. It seems a real waste that such a lovely house had to be sacrificed to a business park. They would say that it's progress, but I really don't see it that way.


Malting Farm house is a Georgian building dating from 1764. It was built of red brick and was immediately opposite St Mary's church in Cardington village. It has a curved bay at one end which over-looks the garden lawn, and the windows of the house are of a highly distinctive diamond design. The lawn at one time had a double-trunked sycamore tree growing in the centre of it, which you could walk between the trunks, but it had to be cut down because it had become dangerous. In the attic there were a couple of rooms which we used to play in. One room had held a really large model trainset, and we slept there sometimes, particularly if our bedroom was being re-decorated. You had to get into these rooms up a narrow, steep staircase. It was great to have somewhere that was away from adults, a place where you could 'do your own thing' without being spied on. The rest of the house was the ideal place to play such games as 'Hide and Seek' as there were no end of places to hide, lots of corridors, cupboards and odd secret haunts. A game such as that could last most of the day, particularly if you were to hide somewhere and kept quiet for long enough!


In the winter the house could be incredibly cold, as it didn't have the benefit of central heating. I remember waking up in the morning in my bedroom and finding ice on the inside of the windows and you could see your breath when you breathed out. You'd have to run along the passageway to the bathroom to keep warm and get dressed in there as there was an electric heater. In the kitchen was an Aga which was used by my mother to do most of the cooking and was fuelled with coke which was store in an outhouse. The dining room was heated by a wood-burning stove and had to be kept alight most of the time.

I have four brothers, James, Robert, Sandy (Alexander) and Andrew. I am the third, born between Robert and Sandy. James and Robert took over the farm when my father retired in the mid 1970's, and the rest of us went off to 'do our own things' in other areas of work. I believe, if my memory serves, that Sandy did spend some time on the farm after he left school, but didn't remain long.

Miss Fuller was someone who featured quite a lot in our lives. She had originally come to us from working at the Porter's, the next door family, where she mended and sewed. She then came to us on a Wednesday afternoon to do a similar job. Then, when Andrew was born, my mum needed someone to look after him, as it would have been quite difficult to bring up four boys together with a baby, on her own. We went on holiday each year to Frinton-On-Sea in Essex, where we stayed in a rented house. Jean Freemantle, the daughter of the ploughman on Malting Farm, and who lived in the cottage at the back of the farmhouse, came with us for several years, and was employed to look after Andrew. I believe she came with us for a couple of years.Then it came out that Miss Fuller (I don't know, even to this day, what her Christian name was.)had been a nanny in the past, and she began to take Andrew out for walks in the village in his large pram. After a while she became more and more involved in his care, and she eventually came with us on holiday to Frinton.

I remember one particular incident which happened when we were at Frinton. My grandmother came to stay, and there was some sort of animosity between her and Miss Fuller, particularly over who should look after Andrew. My grandmother said that, as his grandmother she had a natural right to his care and also taking him for walks. There was a stand-up argument in front of our beach-hut, with them going hammer-and-tongues. I don't actually remember how it ended, but it was somewhat embarrassing for us children to have your grandmother shouting and arguing in front of them and in such a public place.


We had horses and ponies although I wasn't really horse-minded. Three of my four brothers, Robert, Sandy and Andrew, rode horses and kept them at the farm. I rode occasionally, but certainly never to a particularly high standard. Robert used to go to showjumping events around the area and was involved in showjumping at Bedfordshire Agricultural show (which is no more, but merged with the East Of England Show some 35-40 years ago.) and Sandy and Andrew went to the occasional gymkhana around the county. I used to like to go for what you might call more leisurely rides on the horses, but not galloping around the countryside, jumping hedges and ditches. I was put off by all the tack-cleaning and mucking-out that was involved in keeping horses. Also, I was bitten by a horse we had, one day when I was minding my own business, sitting on a fence in the farmyard, near the stables. A cow in a nearby field had the nerve to moo, and this horse decided that it didn't like being mooed at so it attempted to take a chunk out of the fleshy part of my arm. On another occasion I was riding a black-and-white pony we had called Whisky. I remember galloping across a meadow and not being able to stop this particular pony, and very nearly landing up jumping over a five-bar gate which was rapidly approaching, or at least crashing through said five-bar gate! It was really quite frightening and was what must have put me off horses of any particular variety.


My father owned a boat which he sailed on the River Ouse and Grafham water. We had a place down by the river near Cardington Mill where we used to go every weekend during the summer. There was a hut there where all the equipemnt for the boat was stored, together with deckchairs, table and Calor gas ring so we could make tea. Mum would pack up a really substantial picnic and we'd decamp there for tea, particularly on a Sunday afternoon. It seemed to work like a magnet for all-and-sundry who would turn up to sail the boat and then take afternoon tea, sandwiches and delicious home-made cake. I think there were several boats. A large clinker-built yacht called "Amaranda," a small sailing boat which my mum sailed frequently called "Nimbus" and a motor boat which had an Evinrude out-board engine, and was called "Nimbus." This motor boat was used to ferry people from the centre of Bedford town to the riverside hut and he had devised some sort of ski board which was used to tow behind and people could sort of water ski. Looking back, this must have been incredibly dangerous, as it went quite fast along the river and there was always the danger or running into other boats, over-hanging branches of trees and one hundered and one other things, but he still did it, as he had a greeat sense of adventure. I remember that dad eventually sold "Amaranda" to a family friend and he eventually bought a fibre-glass yacht which he sailed at Grafham Water and it came with us when we used to go on holiday to Frinton-On-Sea in Essex. "Amaranda" was built in a boatyard at Brightlingsea, further down the coast and in the Colne estuary near Colchester. That seemed to be the best place for sailing. Dad eventually bought a very much larger boad called "Flashpoint" which had a cabin and galley on it so it was possible to sleep overnight on it and cook very basic meals. The small clinker-built boat became the 'tender' vessel, and was used to get to and from "Flashpoint" as she was moored out in the estuary. We had gone to Frinton for annual summer holidays for years and years through the late '50 and into the '60's, but then Mum and Dad went to Brightlingsea on their own and stayed at a rather nice pub near the seafront called the Old Swan and on some occasions some of us children would go with them, but later we used to actually live on board "Flashpoint"for the time we were there.


Every summer there was a village fete, held in order to raise funds for the church, St Mary's. This was always held in the gardens of Howard House, owned and occupied by Humphrey Whitbread. It was never opened to the public at any other time of the year, so it was a treat to be able to look around such a beautiful garden. No doubt it is now open, rather in the fashion of a property owned by either the National Trust or English Heritage. I imagine that the money raised went towards keeping the building maintained. Everyone in the village seemed to got involved in some capacity, either running a stall, making cakes for the cake stall, or putting on some money-making activity. My mother always ran the fruit and vegetable stall, but there were many stalls on offer, including a tombola, White Elephant (I still, to this day, have no idea why it is called a White Elephant stall . From my visits to Whipsnade, elephants are grey, or at least, a darkish colour, but certainly not white, and there was certainly no sign of any elephants on that particular stall, white or otherwise. It was always stuffed full of the old junk that nobody really wanted to own any more, such as really unattractive vases, pots and pans, candlesticks or ornaments, that was cluttering up their garage, attic or sideboard.)The other stalls usually consisted of a flower stall, cake stall, books, and hoop-la, bran tub and a tea tent. There seems to me to be something forever fixed in my mind that the smell of hot canvas brings that suggests a warm summer afternoon when we ate curly-crusted, slightly stale sandwiches, sticky cakes and tepid tea which comes from that period of my life. All in aid of keeping St Mary's standing.


Another event which came round annually was the Bedfordshire Agricultural Show, held in meadows on one of the main roads leading into the centre of Bedford. These meadows were actually within what is the Ouse River flood plain, and was sold by the local authority for building and where Tesco and the Oasis Beach Pool was built several years ago. This show ceased to be around thirty-five or forty years ago and merged with several other county shows and became the East of England Show at Peterborough.Local firms connected with the agricultural industry had elaborate stands which showed off their products, such as tractors, combine harvesters or other machinery, or the corn merchants, such as Banks and Jordans, had displays of corn, barley and so on. The best part was that my father, being a customers of these companys, would take us to these tents and he would discuss the latest agricultural business with the company representatives over tea, cake and (for the adults!) alcholic beverages. We knew these ‘reps’ really well, as they were constantly turning up at Malting Farm, and usually at teatime, so there was always an excuse for a cup of tea and to sample a slice of one of my mum's delicious cakes.

There were also displays of animals, pigs, cows, sheep and horses. It would take a great deal of time and effort to get show-animals prepared for the show, with a great deal of shampoo used to wash them, their coats brushed and groomed, their tails plaited.

Teatime was an important meal in our household. As I have said, my mum made a real spread, usually including some lavish cake, a sponge-cake usually, filled with jam and cream, as well as shortbread, scones, fruit buns and the usual bread-and-butter. ‘You can’t eat any cake until you’ve eaten your bread and jam’ we were told. This meal was eaten in the kitchen, which was the centre of operations of the house and, in some respects, the farm. We rarely ate in the dining room, but when we used that room it was for special occasions, such as Christmas lunch. As regards teatime, a lot of people would suddenly turn up when the kettle was put on, the tea made in the teapot and the table laid. I have said somewhere here that we had a lot of ‘reps’ who were connected with agricultural firms who always came to the house at coffee time in the morning and teatime. Also, my granddad Ferriman and Uncle Michael, and another honorary ‘Uncle’ Percy Brocklehurst, affectionately known as ‘Per’ by my mother and father. He was a friend of my father’s, and was a sort of odd-job man. He never married, but would turn up when we had our tea. For some unfathomable reason he had a boiled egg made specially made for him, and his excuse was that ‘he’d come a long way,’ but to this day I’m not sure whether it was one of his little jokes, or whether there was a tradition where he came from that you gave people a boiled egg when they’d travelled a long distance. Perhaps it was a sort of in joke he had with my mother, but I have no idea.

Percy was really good at odd jobs, he could wire a house, mend furniture, hang cupboards, repair leaks, fix lights and generally do any job that was required around the house. Percy drove an ancient grey Morris Minor car, and in it’s boot there was all manner of items which could be put to practical use, such as fuses, lengths of cable and wire, nuts and bolts, along with the usual toolbox, all of which he carried so that when a job required it he could use it to repair whatever item it was.

There are two particular stories concerning Percy which I want to record here, as they are worth mentioning. When my father retired in the 1970s, my parents moved to a house in a village just outside Huntingdon, around 25 miles north of Bedford. In the early 90’s, or thereabouts, this village, Great Stukeley, became the home of the then Prime Minister, John Major, as he was also the Member of Parliament for Huntingdon. Anyway, they didn’t stay living in Great Stukeley for that long, and in 1977 my mum persuaded my father to move back to a house she had found in Cople, the next village to Cardington. Percy was drafted in to do some work in the house, and one of the jobs was to move some kitchen cupboards which were on the wall of the kitchen in the house in Stukeley. They were to be used in the kitchen at the house in Cople. My dad had helped, or, more likely, supervised this bit of work, and when the cupboards where eventually fixed in place in Cople, my mum noticed that there was something odd about them. Percy and dad had only managed to put them upside down on the wall, and hadn’t obviously noticed! They were never moved the right way up, because, in all honesty, there wasn’t a lot of difference, as the handles worked just as well the wrong way round as the right way.

The other story was about sherry. My mum used to make the most amazing sherry trifles, and they were the talk of the county. They used lavish amounts of whipped cream, confectioner’s custard and a small amount of sherry. This ingredient was purchased from the village shop, specially for the purpose of being used in these famous trifles, and was stored in a Bristol Cream sherry bottle. It was just very ordinary, cheap, cooking sherry. One afternoon Percy came to visit and dad sat at the table chatting and my mum was in the other room, reading or something, and could hear them talking in the kitchen. My dad asked Percy if he’d like a glass of sherry, and Percy said, yes please, he would, so my father got the Bristol Cream bottle out of the drinks cupboard and poured them a glass each. They sat and chatted, taking occasional sips of the sherry, and my father was saying ‘Oh, it’s Bristol Cream. It’s the best sherry you can buy!’ and all sorts of stuff, and my mother, who was overhearing the conversation in the next room, laughed to her self that it WASN’T actually Bristol Cream (although the bottle was a Bristol Cream bottle) and they were really drinking cheap cooking sherry. I have an idea that my father couldn’t tell the difference between the more expensive Bristol Cream and the cheap cooking sherry, but the incident caused a good deal of hilarity in the family thereafter.
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