The past, it holds you back with one hand and pushes you forward with the other.
1948—- a dog bit me on the lip, Diana Cogger picked me up and dropped me, I got cat scratch fever. I missed a lot of school that year.
New Hythe Lane Infants school, sitting high above the road between the church on one side and Glebe House on the other. The vicar, Rev. Darling lived in a cottage just inside the surrounding wall.
The wall was there to prevent spillage, a tumble from that height would mean certain death for a small child, but the school had the look of a fortress about it. If there was such a thing as morning assembly I don`t remember it. We gathered on the rec. on the opposite side of the road until Miss Burton appeared on the battlements clanging a hand bell calling us to class.
Rec. short for recreation, at the time I thought it was wreck which confused me because it was rather nice in an unkempt gone to seed sort of way. The annual summer fete was held on the rec.
You could take part in a beauty pageant, buy a raffle ticket in the hope of winning a piglet, you could wear fancy dress, dance around the maypole and eat cake. What`s not to like? These events were recorded for The Kent Messenger by a neighbour, Mr. Gullivant who lived a few doors away from us in Syringa Terrace. The pictures were dark and grainy when they appeared in print, a close relative with a magnifying glass might recognize a familiar face, for the rest of us it was guess work, ” Is that Pat Ellis or Gladys Marshall ?” “Pat wears glasses ” ” So does Gladys ” “Well that`s Brenda Butler then “.
The hut, a black painted wooden structure at the side of the rec. was the closest thing we had to a village hall. School dinners were served in the hut, there was a small stage for amateur dramatics, the youth club met there and it was where we lined up for the nit nurse. A rutted farm track running past the front of the hut led to Lunsford and The Marshes.
My dad was a great walker, every Sunday, mum would stuff me into my best coat, put a clean hanky in dad`s top pocket and send us off on what can only be describe as a nature ramble. Very educational and it got us out from under her feet for a couple of hours. By the time I was seven I could name every plant, tree, butterfly, bird and toadstool on the marshes. There were snakes too. Black adders, I saw one once, whipping through the sedge like a streak of black lightning. Everything growing on the marshes was taller than me, kingcups, reeds, bulrushes, so I couldn’t see much beyond the vegetation, but my uncle Harry was the water bailiff so I knew there must be water and a lot of it.
Harry was also a chimneysweep, he rode an old sit up and beg bike which mum said made him look like a praying mantis. He carried his brushes on his back like arrows in a quiver and washed off the day’s soot in a cold water shower he had rigged up in his garden shed with a hosepipe and the nozzle from a watering can. It must have been horrible but aunt Ada wouldn`t have him in the house until he had been thoroughly hosed down. Harry was dads older brother, he and Ada lived opposite the pub in New Hythe lane. It was whispered that Ada came from gipsy stock, I don`t` know if that`s true, I only remember that she was very house proud and did a lot of complicated knitting, Fairisle patterned jumpers and cardigans which she sold for pin money. It was probably Ada who knitted that embarrassing bathing suit.
Larkfield in the 1940s wasn`t all cake and maypoles. It has been said that we only remember the good times , but now and then something black will jump out at you like the toad in the coal cellar. I went to school with a boy who lived with his mother in a shack on the marshes. They were destitute, some people despised them for it others gave what little they could to keep them in the land of the living. Another boy living alone with his mother and by all accounts in dire circumstances, didn`t speak a word of English, in fact I never heard him speak at all, his mother talked to herself, and as if that wasn`t enough to make him an oddity he came to school with the remains of an old fur tippet sewn around the legs of his shorts to keep his knees warm. We later learned that they were Jews who had escaped Nazi Germany.
Life had been very drab in the 1940s, all make do and mend, never throwing anything away, saving bits of string from parcels and ironing the wrapping paper in case it should be needed again, hand me down clothes, everything falling apart, oatmeal coloured wallpaper peeling away at the skirting boards and dad forever sticking it back with gloop made from water and self-raising flour which went mouldy and smelled disgusting. But the cat liked it and became quite the little expert at finding a loose corner to claw at.
My nephew Alastair once explained the effects of smoking cannabis, looking back at the transition from the 1940s into the 1950s reminds me of something he said, it was ” like seeing colour for the first time”. Rationing had come to an end, we had a national health service, we no longer needed clothing coupons and although there were still shortages if you had a bit of money you could actually shop for pleasure. Kemps and Mitchell`s remained pretty much the same, we shopped there for the basic essentials but went to Featherstone’s or Cheeseman’s in Maidstone for anything a bit different. Kemp`s were still using those brass things that whizzed overhead carrying dockets to the cashier. Mr. Mitchell was still storing foodstuffs in hessian sacks on the floor in front of the counter. I remember mum having very strong words [she went ballistic] with Mr. Mitchell about Stuart Ogg’s Airedale terrier sticking his nose in the sugar sack and being given half a pound of broken biscuits as recompense [Mum, not the dog!]
Sometime around 1953/1954 two new houses were built on the piece of waste ground next to uncle Harry’s house and low and behold they were for sale. Who’d have thought it! Fancy owning your own house! One was bought by a young couple known as the Newlyweds. Mrs. Newlywed wore full skirted dresses with lots of frothy underpinnings. This was ‘The New Look’. Paris had come to Larkfield. Anything new had novelty value, when Lilly Gilligan’s mother acquired a fridge half the village trooped through her kitchen to admire it. And we really were seeing colour for the first time. Royal blue, shocking pink, lime green, fluorescent socks with two tone shoes. By the late 1950’s there were Teddy boys in velvet collared coats and brothel creepers slouching around on the rec. or propping up a wall in the hut on youth club night, boys I’d been at school with, trying to look menacing, looking anxious, please don’t step on my blue suede shoes. The days of “don’t draw attention to yourself” were over, now it was all about being seen.
I remember being told that the research centre at East Malling was working to produce a black rose and a blue poppy, or maybe it was a blue rose and a black strawberry, whatever it was it was all about something new. The more it changes the more it stays the same and all that. The rag and bone man still did his rounds with a horse and cart, working horses from the surrounding farms strolled into the forge next to Sangers for shoeing, and while a shopping trip into Maidstone was fun the high spot had to be catching sight of Fremlin’s horses pulling a dray, from the brewery, there’d be a clatter and jingle of hooves and harness, the rumble of wheels, and there they were. Enormous Percherons, dappled grey like storm clouds. It was like waiting for royalty to pass by. One night a fire broke out in the stables, the horses kicked their way out and hotfooted it through the streets heading for the river, we read about it in The Kent Messenger and were left to imagine how terrified the animals must have been but at the same time how exhilarating, those huge horses, normally so sedate and hampered by a heavy wagon running free. There were always horses in and around Larkfield. The vet rode a spectacularly chunky little cob to visit the farms. Hop picking and fruit picking season brought gypsies in painted caravans with their horses tethered all along the grass verges from Wrotham to West Malling and beyond. Colin Hoare wrote of a barn on the Ditton side of Larkfield “used for the repair of caravans including those of showmen” and wondered what and who they were. It’s my guess these were the gypsies and fairground workers who travelled with them. And Colin, if you read this, the wheelwright operating out of premises at the back of Dunn’s was my grandfather. But that’s another story.
I don’t think there’s any more to say on the time I spent in Larkfield, it was only sixteen years after all but I hope it will be of interest.