“I have gon to seek My fortune”
Even before the massive bombing of Manchester by German planes at Christmas 1941, my parents had decided to move twenty miles away to West Yorkshire, to a farm in the Pennine hills. Here, my mother’s ageing grandfather, Wilhelm Dehner, lived in the 350 year-old building, deep in a valley beside a rushing stream, Crimsworth Beck. This ran south from Brontē country, the bleak moors of Wuthering Heights, to join the rivers Hebden and Calder and so on towards the North Sea.
I do not remember the move itself, being only three; the following is a reconstruction based on later trips. At Victoria, Manchester (then claiming to have, at 670 metres, the longest railway station platform in the world) we boarded a steam train, with its individual carriages smelling of dank upholstery, coal smoke and hot oil. On entering a tunnel, the engine would whistle, and we quickly pulled windows up, each on its leather strap, to stop the carriage from filling with smoke. (If you were unlucky, the strap would be missing, where a passenger had stolen it to make himself a strop on which to sharpen his cut-throat razor.) Forty minutes later, we reached Hebden Bridge, a mill town deep in the Calder Valley. Street upon street of sooty black houses rose up the slopes and tall mill chimneys poured out more grime.
A corner of Hebden Bridge
From the station, smelling strongly of gas from its lamps, a green double-decker bus took us through the town and up through two steep miles of woods to the stone-built village of Pecket Well (named after Thomas à Becket). Suddenly, one could see for miles, past the distant monument of Stoodley Pike (neatly commemorating both the defeat of Napoleon and the end of the Crimean War) almost back to Lancashire. Below us, the valleys were filled with dense woods while above the tree line rose green fields, bounded by dry-stone walls.
From Pecket (locals dropped the ‘Well’) one had to walk up the Keighley road towards the open moors, with curlews calling and skylarks singing above. Half a mile on, crouched two short rows of grim houses named Duck Hill and (ironically?) New Delight. A second half-mile and we left the main road, passed between two farmhouses and headed down a grassy lane bordered by stone walls, with cows grazing the fields on either side. Five hundred yards more and the lane turned right abruptly to reveal ‘our’ valley, Crimsworth Dene, darkly wooded on both sides. Far, far below, surrounded by six fields, stood Weet Ing farmhouse – a lone building with two tall chimneys.
Though many spell it, “Wheat”, Weet Ing has nothing to do with the growing of cereals. Its Nordic roots are weet (wet) and ing (meadow) and the land is as wet today as it was when the Vikings first cultivated and named it.
Another four hundred yards, and the lane turned sharply again, now to the left, slaloming down the hillside (a bend that the occasional lorry always had trouble with) but then we were on the home straight: half a mile and we turned into a farm yard paved with heavy flagstones. To the right of the yard stood the house, where five white cats might well be sitting along a long low stone wall; to the left, a long triangular garden with an elder tree at the near end.
The home straight, Weet Ing seen from the zig-zag bend
All household goods brought from Caister Avenue would have come from Hebden Bridge by cart. This was still a common form of transport and the rough lane down to Weet Ing was better suited to equines than to motors. Quite possibly, the cart was already there, drawn by a white pony, with men unloading our furniture, bedding, books, cooking utensils and bags of clothing.
In my imagination, my mother gives the pony a stroke of thanks. ‘She’s called Polly,’ says one of the men, ‘but be careful’. Polly, though she looked friendly, with a fat belly, a fine forelock and a ragged mane, was wild and bad tempered and would bite anyone on the arm with her yellow teeth. A few years later, with a new foal to guard, she savaged a lady visitor in a rather embarrassing place.
Polly with her foal
Weet Ing farmhouse looked south down the valley, long and solid, its back to the north winds. A front door at each end of the house and six sets of (mullioned) windows completed the southern aspect. Weet Ing had once been a row of three houses, with a barn attached. By 1941, Grandfather lived in the far end, and the other two houses had been combined to make a single dwelling. By the yard gate, under a young sycamore tree, was the well, a stone trough constantly filled with water streaming from a hole in the wall and then overflowing at the other side.
Four generations at Weet Ing, 1937: William, Albert, Ruth & Glyn
We had no electricity, but lit paraffin lamps, hung from the ceiling, which gave a warm light, though never very bright. If the wick was not properly trimmed, the flame would suddenly flare up, red and smoky, even out of the top of the lamp glass. At night we climbed the stairs, each carrying a flickering candle in his own personal candlestick. Since I went to bed much earlier than my parents, and read, I developed a cunning technique of holding the lit candle under the bedclothes, without scorching them or leaving a smoky mark on the upper sheet, when I heard them coming up.
At Weet Ing, we always had the sound of running water. Crimsworth Beck passed by, a hundred yards away, gurgling, bubbling and splashing over the rocks day and night. After heavy rain, this sonorous babble grew thunderous as the headstrong waters scooped stones and boulders off the river bed and swept them crashing downstream. In spring, smaller streams and rivulets poured or spurted into the river from either bank, adding higher, lighter notes. In winter, these rivulets fell mute, turned into multiple icicles or frozen sheets, which I could not resist breaking up.
Weet Ing bathing pool: with Crimsworth Beck in spate
The bridge at Weet Ing
At the bottom of our garden, was a fine stone bridge, surprisingly well built, given that it carried a mere footpath. For a year, this was my way to school and it led in springtime through the most beautiful bluebell woods. Further upstream, grown-ups and children had built a dam of loose stones. It leaked, but it held back enough river to form a bathing pool. The water was always cold, yet it was a popular spot in summer for scores of people to come from Hebden Bridge and further afield to picnic and bathe
Part of my walk to Lady Royd school
I quickly got to know the whole property, with its six big fields and the ruined, slightly spooky Helliwell Wood farm half-way up the lane, used for keeping pigs and storing hay. Besides being wet, Weet Ing soil was thin and poor, with rocks of dark millstone grit sticking out in many places. One was shaped like a ship, a second like a tent and I could almost cross one field, jumping from rock to rock without touching the ground. Besides pigs and Polly the pony, we kept three cows, geese and hens; and when grandfather’s five white cats were no more, we had our own black and white tom, Toby.
I could roam around on the farm wherever I liked, and further afield for that matter, so long as I was back in time for tea. Early one morning, when I was about six years old, my parents came downstairs to find the front door open and a pencilled note on the kitchen table. It read, “I have gon to seek My fortune. GLYN”. They didn’t worry, didn’t ring the police – we had no telephone – and that afternoon I was back, safe, sound and hungry. Sixty-six years later, when Ruth died, Daniel and I found in her purse this folded slip of paper:
Some months after we moved in, we led a long pipe from a hillside spring into the kitchen. The fall was too little to generate any real water pressure and air locks sometimes stopped the flow entirely, but it still seemed miraculous at first to turn a tap and have water pour out: no more carrying buckets from the well. For washing, we continued to boil water in kettles and thence into tea pots, bowls or tin baths. Inside toilets were still a thing of the future, when we would have better water pressure and a septic tank. For several years, visiting the toilet meant a forty-yard walk down the yard to a small stone outhouse, the earth closet – basically a wooden seat with two holes. Every dwelling had such a toilet with one or two seats, though there was talk of a large farm across the moors that boasted a mighty six-holer to accommodate the many farm labourers employed at harvest time. For several of the war years, loo rolls were very scarce but sheets of newspaper served perfectly well – though it could be annoying to sit there, well into an article, only to find that the last paragraph had been torn off by an earlier occupant.
Weet Ing’s modest two-holer
On laundry day, my mother would light a fire under a big copper barrel in the wash house, a small room at the back of the house. She filled it with cold water, tipped in soap powder, then fed sheets and clothing in. Once all was boiling, filling the wash house with steamy, fragrant vapour, she would take a large metal funnel with round holes in it and when she pushed and pulled on its long handle, suction forced the boiling water through the clothes, bringing out the dirt. After five minutes of this, my mother’s face and arms would turn bright red. Then the clothing had to be mangled, by hand-turning two wooden rollers on a cast iron machine, and rinsed in cold water. Then mangled and rinsed again. During the final rinse, she usually coloured the water with a bag of dye called Dolly Blue which claimed to make her whites even whiter. Then a final rinse and pegging out on the clothes line, weather permitting.
No washing machine for the clothes then, nor did we have dish-washer, a fridge, car, TV, computer, or telephone. Washing up – often for twelve or more people – meant a sink of hot soapy water, a washer-up, a drier with a couple of dry cloths, preferably cotton, not linen, and a putter-away. We kept food cool in a meat safe, a cupboard in the dark, stone-floored passage at the back of the house. It had fine mesh in the door to let air in and keep out any mice or flies. In summer, flies were common, as they followed the cows.
For transport, beside our legs, we had our pony and cart, but my father and other men who joined us from the city never learned to handle Polly properly. She grew spoiled. Naturally strong willed, and with a vicious streak, she could go for weeks without being put between shafts, and once harnessed, it was largely she who decided whether or not to move. Though useful from time to time, she spent most of her days free to roam in the fields, grazing and growing fat. I kept well clear of her. The geese, too, scared me and they knew it. When they saw me around, they would rush at me, necks out, hissing like cobras.
A valuable link with the outside world – especially with war raging – was our wireless set: a heavy brown wooden unit with its speaker cut out into a round pattern of sun rays shining up through wavy, horizontal clouds. When turned on, its valves took a minute or so to warm up, generating a sweet, dusty smell as the first sounds emerged. Power came from batteries: the first, ‘dry’ – a cardboard box almost the size of a flat brick with electric cells in it; the second, ‘wet’, known as an accumulator – a square jar made of thick glass and filled with acid. These heavy accumulators had to be carried down to Hebden Bridge every two-to-three weeks, for recharging. We always listened in to the BBC Home Service news, morning and evening. Tommy Handley in “It’s that Man Again”, “Workers’ Playtime”, “Children’s Hour” and – when I grow older, “Dick Barton – Special Agent”, the theme tune of which still sets my heart racing when I hear it today.
On rainy days (and it rained a lot up in the hills), I liked to go along to Great grandfather – William Dehner. When I pushed open his front door during the winter months there would be a rattle and a spade might fall over. He kept it behind the door for when he had to dig his way out of the house through a snow drift, which could sometimes be five feet deep. The door opened straight into his living room, which had the feel of a musty museum. Every flat surface supported strange things: small stuffed animals such as stoats and weasels, or birds of prey in glass cases, a clock shaped like a tortoise that wagged its tail when the alarm went off, old clay pipes, a hat stand boasting a fez, an army helmet, a vase of dusty peacock feathers (yes, he also kept a peacock), ancient books in miniscule print… In the hearth, on either side of the fire place, amid pokers, tongs and a toasting fork, stood two large pot dogs.
William wrote verses and was a proud member of the Calder Valley Poets’ Society. From time to time, these amateur bards would make their way down to Weet Ing and seek out a special rock that looked onto the river. Each in turn then stood on the rock to proclaim his poems, often praising the wonders of Nature. One of William’s, though, was quite jocular, touching on Human Frailty, as illustrated by his own difficulty at getting out of bed on a winter’s morning. I came across this deathless verse amongst my papers in the last five years, but to my regret it has disappeared. Of an evening, although he had a paraffin lamp above the table and a home-made book rest, he would sometimes sit by the fire with a book on his knees, glasses on the end of his nose and a candle fixed in a special holder on his head. Two leather straps went through this peculiar candlestick, buckled up under his chin and held light on his head, just where he needed it.
Great grandfather William Dehner
He was also a great story-teller, and if children visited, he would arrange them before him in a half circle and read as they sat there enchanted. He also enjoyed dressing up in improvised costumes and having his “likeness took” outside his house or by Alice Longstaff, a photographer in Hebden Bridge.
William as arctic explorer and soldier
SIZZLE, FLASH AND – BANG
Some months after we had settled at Weet Ing, we were joined by two more conscientious objectors who had been ordered by their Tribunal to do farm work instead of military service. My favourite was ginger haired Guy Davies, who was something of a gymnast – stocky, broad-chested, fit and strong. But what I most admired was his inventive frame of mind. He could devise and build anything from a ten-foot water wheel to a fully functioning Moon Rocket. His sidekick, Morris Rosner, was small, skinny, dark and bookish, with thick round glasses. His fingers were stained yellow from constant cigarette-smoking. Like us, they came from Salford, they spoke Esperanto and, like us, they didn’t know the first thing about farming. Soon after they arrived, a man in suit and hat picked his way down our steep lane, announced that he was from the local Board of Agriculture and wanted to know what Weet Ing was doing towards the war effort.
My father shrugged: we had three cows, he explained, but the fields were steep, with thin stony soil, good for nothing but grass. ‘That’s as may be,’ said the man in the hat, ‘You can still grow other stuff. Vegetables. Any fool can do that.’ My father watched him off up the lane and went back to reading his book. With unconditional exemption from his Tribunal, he didn’t have to produce anything towards the war effort, but Guy and Morris had no excuse. They needed to show some kind of result or be moved elsewhere in Britain – where serious work might be required of them. But fields of vegetables, on those slopes, in poor, wet, stony ground? It seemed a non-starter.
Then Guy suggested cold frames: long, low walls laid out in rectangles, each the area of a greenhouse. With earth shovelled in from the surrounding field, the cold frames’ deeper, better-drained soil might indeed produce a sizeable harvest. They submitted ambitious plans to the man in the hat, who approved them and funded building materials and seeds for carrots, cabbages, leeks and whatever else he reckoned might grow at 600 feet in the Pennines.
Grandfather shook his head. ‘You’ll grow now’t there,’ he prophesied, but Guy and Morris obtained bricks, sand and cement, a lorry cleverly managing the sharp bend in our lane. In a change to the original plan of six medium size cold frames, they decided on one big rectangle. The trench for this, in which to base the wall, meant excavating ten feet forward, then bricking up a length of wall, then digging and building another stretch. Progress was slow and their bricklaying ugly, but both improved, and by the time they turned the first corner thirty feet on, the low wall looked almost professional. ‘Learning by doing’, smirked Morris, cigarette in mouth. All went well, until – four sides of the wall almost joined up – they hit a snag: a huge flat boulder just under the soil. Committed to completing a perfect rectangle, and, I suspect, fascinated by the ever-inventive Guy, we decided to shatter the boulder with gunpowder.
I do not know how they came by it, but the explosive arrived in the form of eight large sticks of peppermint rock, grey and gritty, each wrapped in grease-proof paper. If Guy and Morris knew little of farming, they surely knew nothing about explosives and more time passed as they punched six holes into the millstone grit rock using hammers and long chisels. By now, the growing season was well past, but one afternoon they slid a gunpowder stick into each hole and Maurice laid out the fuses. Next, he spread sacks and strips of old carpet over everything, ‘to drive the explosive impact downwards’, he explained knowingly.
The moment had come. All except Grandfather left the house to crouch behind a stone wall where we would be safe yet still get a good view. I remember Guy, a hundred yards away, bending to light the fuses and then dashing to join us behind the wall. We waited…. Suddenly, a great explosion. Earth, stones, sacks and old carpet flew into the air and a boom echoed away down the valley. We rushed from our hide, sure of finding a crater of loose rock fragments. But no: the drama had been superb, the bang ear-splitting (four miles away in Hebden Bridge, folk reported that Jerry had dropped a bomb) but our boulder – apart from some scattered stones – remained unscathed. ‘Well, then?’ enquired Grandfather with an innocent smile as we trooped into the house. A year later the cold frame remained unfinished.
Briefly subdued by this set-back, Guy and Morris then came up with another idea: Electrification. Stalin had done it, and so could we. One day Guy suggested, ‘Why don’t we build a water wheel by the river and generate our own power?’ Morris enthused, ‘We’ll take wires up from the river to the house, and you’ll have proper light in every room’. When Grandfather heard them, he shook his head, ‘Yer wastin’ yer time. It’ll never come to ‘owt’’, he warned. But they had already found an ideal spot where the river poured thirty feet down a sheet of bare rock. Soon, they had built a dam at the top. Then they constructed a leet – a concrete tunnel to funnel the water to the lowest point where the wheel would be. Next, they fashioned a fine wheel out of wood, nearly ten feet in diameter. Once up and turning smoothly, it was linked via a gear box to a generator salvaged from an old lorry, and wired to the house. The job took several months – with minimal farm work done – but the day did come when we had electric light bulbs and switches in all our main rooms. Then, an inspired touch from Guy and Morris, we decided to teach Grandfather a lesson. ‘It’ll never come to ‘owt’’, he had predicted? Well, then, let him eat his words.
The leet and water wheel
Every Sunday evening my ancestor climbed the path to chapel in Pecket Well, returning regularly at half past eight. While he was away, and with the main light switch in the house turned OFF, Guy and Morris turned the switches in every room to ON. So, by the river the generator was spinning away sending power up the line, but the house stood dark and silent. Then, when they judged that Grandfather was crossing the last field, in full view of the darkened building, they flipped the main switch and Weet Ing blazed like a hundred suns – for a second. Then, with a flash, a sizzle and the smell of burnt-out wiring, blackness engulfed our home. Five minutes later, he came stomping in. ‘I told thee it would never bloody work!’ he chortled.
In fairness, they did get the water wheel working and we enjoyed electric lights for a few months, but then the winter rains turned the river from a bubbling stream into a wild torrent, which soon demolished both dam and wheel. Yet even today you can see the concrete leet that Guy and Morris built – to the fascination of a small boy.
The bathing pool in summer
Since so many casual visitors made their way to our bathing pool, we set up tables and benches in Weet Ing garden and sold pots of tea and sandwiches to passers-by. At Easter and on summer week-ends we did quite a good trade – though it was always a gamble with the weather. Bring up plenty of bread, lettuce, sandwich spread and other food from Hebden Bridge, and be rained out – then we had it all to eat ourselves or see it go mouldy. Buy in a minimum, expecting rain – only to have sunshine – and we could offer little but pots of tea.
One hot summer afternoon, when the garden was full of people enjoying their teas, I did something fairly naughty. What it was I’ve long forgotten, but it was bad enough for me to be sent straight up to my bedroom. ‘You stay there till your father gets back,’ my mother scolded, ‘He will deal with you then.’ I sat on my bed and grew more and more scared, knowing that my father would sometimes use his belt on my behind. The sun shone in, flies buzzed on the window pane and outside there was chatting and laughter, the clink of plates and spoons. Suddenly, the folk in the garden saw a bedroom window open and a small boy with curly hair and arms outstretched crying, “Help, help! Save me, SAVE ME!”
Men and women dashed into our house, believing something terrible had happened and rushed upstairs with my mother in the lead – to find me standing sheepishly at the window. Then she got really cross, but when my father got home he said simply that it had been a daft thing to do, and as he turned away, I think I saw a bit of a smile on his face.
More trouble with Polly, the pony. One afternoon a woman hurried up from the bathing pool and banged on the door. ‘Your horse has bitten me,’ she announced, ‘I shall claim compensation.’ My mother apologised, but pointed out that the bathing pool was on private land and people crossed it at their own risk. The woman marched off, calling out over her shoulder that she would take us to court. We were naturally worried, and my mother visited a solicitor in Hebden Bridge who promised to make enquiries. When we had not heard anything from him after several weeks, she got even more nervous and went again to see him. ‘You needn’t worry, Mrs Roberts,’ he told her, ‘She will never take you to court.’ ‘Well, that’s a relief. But why not?’ ‘Because,’ said the solicitor, ‘if she does, I shall ask her to show the court exactly where she was bitten, with medical evidence of the bite marks. And I happen to know that Polly bit her derrière!’
About this time, more people came to help on the farm, including two young Icelandic brothers, Björn and Doughty Axelsson, whose wealthy father lived in Reykjavik and owned a sizeable fishing fleet. Their father, Axel, asked Bob to improve his sons’ spoken and written English during the year they lived with us. The Icelanders were tall, with blue eyes and fair hair, ever-cheerful, and good workers too, and with Guy and Morris they began to make the farm productive. Soon, we had several cows, which they milked each morning and evening, by hand into metal buckets (it made a tinny sound a first, until the milk was a few inches deep) several geese and 100 hens. Most of these lived in a long hen house, erected where the old cold frame had been, but five or six preferred to perch at night in a lean-to, built onto the Weet Ing farmhouse. Some years later, when we started to receive paying guests each summer and my mother needed my bedroom for visitors, I had to move into the lean-to and sleep with the hens. I didn’t object: they stayed on their perches, I slept in my bed, and enjoyed hearing them cluck and rustle in the dark.
Each June we made hay. When the grass was as tall as me and the weather was fine, the men went into the hay fields and cut the grass with scythes. This was hard work and they had constantly to sharpen their scythe blades using stones roughly the size and shape of a rolling pin. They left the cut grass to lie where it fell, drying for several days. Then, if it had not rained, we helped to turn over the yellowing grass with broad wooden rakes and left it in long lines across the field to dry even more. Eventually, Björn would harness Polly and the men would use long forks to toss the hay up onto the cart for transport back to the barns. We had two barns, and each had a ‘shippon’ where the cows stood for milking and where they spent the winter, and a bigger part above for storing hay. The hay, piled ten feet deep, felt always warm and smelled of summer, and children made tunnels and secret dens in it. If it were slightly damp, though, it fermented and grew so hot that it could scald your skin.
From the cows we had milk, eggs and meat from the hens (none of the men would wring their necks – so my mother had to do it) and we had a vegetable plot between the farmhouse and the river, so – even though England was at war and food was short – we had enough to eat. But we also used to sell the eggs and milk, though my mother would never deal with the Black Market spivs (including an off-duty policeman) who came out from Manchester of a week end. It was often hard to find some things in the shops. Even bread was rationed, as was sugar, jam, sweets and clothing. Each person was allowed just one pot of jam a month. I spread mine very thinly on the bread, but finished my jam long before the end of each month. My mother always seemed to have a bit left, which she shared with me. One item difficult to find for years was toilet paper, but Ruth did once come home triumphant with six rolls of Isal (Now Please Wash Your Hands was printed on every sheet) that she had bought ‘very cheap indeed’. Surprised, my father asked how she had managed it. At first evasive, she then admitted that a shop window had shattered during the night, showering the toilet rolls with broken glass – so they had been on sale ‘at a cut price’. ‘That’s not all that’ll be cut,’ winced my father, rolling his eyes. But Ruth Roberts was a no-nonsense lady. ‘All you have to do is be a bit careful,’ she retorted.
THE WAY TO SCHOOL
At six, I started school in Pecket Well. For the first week my mother came with me, and then I was on my own. To this day, I remember the walk in great detail.
Wearing a pair of wooden clogs with leather tops, and with a school bag over my shoulder, I left our farmyard at quarter past eight. First, I had to cross a very wet field, following a line of flag stones to step on. Then, through a narrow stile, in the first of many stone walls to be crossed. Then over another field and into a gloomy wood where there was a boggy patch of ground to cross and again I had to balance from stone to stone, which could be tricky in dark or icy weather.
Now the path up the wood twisted its way upwards between ferns, trees and bigger rocks, and in winter one always caught the smell of wild garlic. Over a little stream, through a springy gate and out of the wood; then up a very steep field path – I mean really steep – till I came to another stile.
A steep part of the climb
Next came a long, long field, where the path cut diagonally from the bottom right-hand corner to the top left and ended with another stone wall and stile. Next, up a very steep bit – again, slippery in snow and ice – which brought me to the farmhouse of our nearest neighbour. I always hurried past that bleak property because an older boy lived there who seemed strange. He never went to school and today I realise that he needed special care. He would grunt and make other odd sounds. He never approached me, but I was always glad to nip across their farmyard and into the next field, which was open and flat. Through another stile and across another field and I came to one more farm. Here, my path turned right along a stone wall and passed a row of five cottages, crossing a very long field on yet another line of flagstones. Broad and even, these were a pleasure to walk on. Squeezing through one last stile and I finally reached the main road, smooth asphalt, with cars and perhaps one or two school friends hurrying along. From there it was a mere 500 yards down into the village and Pecket Well School.
On a warm summer morning it was beautiful to climb up above the tree line and look back into our valley full of sunshine and bird song, but coming home on dark winter afternoons was another story. Stumbling through the snowdrifts that blocked each stile, slithering down the frozen field slopes, seeking a foothold on rocks still free of snow to slow my skidding descent, and then feeling my way from tree to tree in the dark wood – this was quite a challenge for a small boy.
The two things I best remember about Pecket Well School were the meat & potato pie school dinner on Tuesdays, which I loved, and a song we had to learn by heart. The girls sang the first line: “Oh, soldier, soldier, will you marry me with your musket fife and drum?” – and the boys replied: “Oh, no, pretty maid, I cannot marry thee, for I have no coat to put on.” Next, we all sang: “Then off she went to her grandfather’s chest and brought him a coat of the very, very best – and the soldier put it on…”
There were more verses, where the girl goes off and brings the soldier a hat, boots and a sword – all from her grandfather’s chest – and he puts them on. But when she asks him if NOW he will marry her, he replies, “Oh, no, pretty maid, I cannot marry thee, for I have a wife of my own.” What treachery, but at the time we boys sang the last line with great glee!
[Addition from Adam: Glyn one summer, perhaps 2014, took the family to Wee Ting to retrace his walk to Pecket Well School . He recalled how once, on a winter day, he had found a great pile of cow manure in the yard of a nearby farm that had a frozen crust on it. For some reason he decided to climb on to it, only to fall into the smelly mush. He rushed home, skipping school that day, he said.]
For some reason, Björn and Doughty’s father, Axel – the Icelandic fishing fleet owner – wanted my father to set up and manage a company to retail his tinned fish in England. Such confidence was wildly misplaced, as Bob was no businessman. He even struggled persuading the BBC or the Manchester Guardian to take his stories and plays, though once they saw the consistent quality of his work it became easier. As for the typescripts of his books, if the first publisher returned a script, my father would shove it to the back of a drawer and put it out of his mind, he felt so rebuffed. Only thanks to my mother, who retrieved them and sent them off again, did they get into print. So had Axel ever succeeded in making Bob manager of a UK/Icelandic cod business, he would have been a disaster. Axel urged him on, nevertheless, by post, telegram and other more direct prompts. One day we had a letter from the bank to say that two thousand pounds had arrived from Iceland for Mr Roberts. Two thousand pounds was a lot of money in those days, perhaps worth £50,000 today, and I remember my father going down to Hebden Bridge with an old shopping bag. He put the wrapped bank notes at the bottom of his bag, with two cabbages on top to hold them down, took the bus back to Pecket Well, walked home, put the money in a drawer and left it there.
Some months later, a letter arrived from Manchester Docks stating that a consignment of goods had arrived and needed collection. Bob did nothing, being too busy on a short story, part of his ‘Crusoe Farm’ series for the BBC, based on our adventures at Weet Ing (“We Build a Waterwheel”, and such), in which I appeared as ‘young Glen’. A reminder came from Manchester Docks, and finally a telegraph boy with the message that we would be charged for storage if the goods were not collected within three days. Bob sighed and laid the telegram on the kitchen mantelpiece. My mother, better organised, took it, caught the train to Manchester and sorted out the problem. A day or two later, a brown van edged its way cautiously down Weet Ing lane, through our yard and stopped outside the barn next to Grandfather’s house. We unloaded the tins of fish – many hundreds of them – some labelled ‘Herring’, others containing roe, others marked ‘Cod’ and yet more ‘Fish Balls’. We stacked them in the barn, where they took up most of the space in an empty cow stall.
[Listen to grandpa/Glyn tell the story of the fish tins, fish balls and more, here].
For years we ate fish: fish stew, fish rissoles, fish pudding, roe on toast…. Fish balls were the worst: roughly the size and shape of hard boiled eggs they tasted of nothing, not even of fish. Sometimes, as we sat at the dinner table, Ruth would bring in a steaming bowl from the kitchen. ‘Now, this is something by way of an experiment,’ she would say with a bright smile, ‘’I call it ‘’Fish Surprise’’’.
My father never sold a tin of fish and when Axel Axelsson next looked in, we returned him his two thousand pounds. Axel didn’t seem too upset, and when his sons finally left, he gave us a ten year subscription to the New Yorker magazine as a way of thanks for having looked after his sons. We were probably the only hill farm in the West Riding of Yorkshire to have it delivered once a week. (Many years later, Adam and Anne also subscribed to the New Yorker, and kindly took out a subscription for me, too.)
This photo is from another Yorkshire farmhouse, not Weet Ing, but our fireplace was very like it. Note the oven to the right.
A happy memory of my father is of us making toasted bacon butties together over our front room fire. When the coals were glowing hot (no flames), he would fix a slice of bacon onto a special long toasting fork and hold it a few inches above the embers. Soon the bacon would curl up, drips of fat would fall onto the coals and flames would leap up with a satisfying splutter. And the smell, as the edges turned brown! A wonderful smell, salty, crunchy-crispy-but-not-quite-burned. Then, quickly onto a thin slice of soft bread, fold it over, and set your teeth into it. I loved my dad doing that when there were just the two of us.
For my eighth birthday, I had been given a white mouse. From the start tame and friendly, Freddy never tried to run away. He settled quite happily in my jacket pocket nibbling seeds and bits of bread, and when I lifted him out he would wriggle up my sleeve and come out by my neck. I had to empty out his dry little mouse droppings from time to time, but don’t recall the jacket being particularly smelly.
One afternoon, I had Freddy on the flagstones outside our front door, letting him explore. One or two hens were also about, pecking at whatever they could find. Then, disaster! A hen spotted Freddy, stabbed at him with its sharp beak and tossed him aside. When I got to him, he was still alive but some of his innards were visible through a hole in his belly. I screamed and my father rushed out. But instead of getting bandages and other first aid to cure Freddy, he said, ‘I’m sorry, Glyn, but there’s only one thing we can do.’ He went into the coal shed, came out with a spade and brought it down with a whack on my mouse.
At that, I screamed, ‘Murderer, MURDERER! You could have SAVED him!’ but my father insisted he had done the only thing possible. In tears, I rushed off, first to my tree house, and then to the barn where I hid in the hay and fell asleep. I remember waking up at the sound of voices calling my name, but I kept quiet until it grew quiet, then fell asleep again. Much later, they were back, with lamps and calling loudly and I decided I’d punished my father enough. I climbed out of the hay expecting sympathy, but was roundly told off for causing so much worry. Next day, when I planned to bury Freddy, my father assured me that he already done so with full honours, but when I asked where, he grew vague and couldn’t quite remember, so he had probably just tossed him into the field.
[Strange how these things come around. In the late 1970s, when, Bjorn, Dan and Adam were boys, each had a hen of his own: Henny-Penny, Eggy-Peggy and Pullan. Once, Dan was taking Henny-Penny for a walk near the park when a dog rushed over and savaged her. This time, it was I who had to put a pet out of its pain, and Dan who howled ‘Murderer!’.]
FRIENDS AND VISITORS
Joyce and Charlie Roberts, who lived at Outwood farm, half-way up the hillside across the river from us, became close friends –and we are still in touch today. We explored the river some miles upstream to a waterfall called Lumb Falls, and further down from that we found an island which we called Japonica Island, where we built a hut and had a fireplace and cooked food. We also played cricket on a field behind Weet Ing. It was fairly flat, but one had always to try not to hit the ball towards the river or it was soon in the current and heading off to Hebden Bridge. Then we had to rush down, jump from rock to rock or paddle quickly through the water, trying to snatch the ball before it was carried away for ever.
Another cricketing problem, if we played after sunset – and sunset came early, deep down in that valley – was midges. These tiny flies came out in swarms of millions and settled in your eyes, nostrils, hair… giving painful little bites or stings.
During the summer months I always went barefoot at Weet Ing. It made my feet tough, though some people found it strange. At this time, my father was writing a good number of short stories for the BBC and plays for local dramatic societies, but we also started to have lots of paying visitors who would stay at our farm for a week or fortnight at a time. We made the house more comfortable, with (bottled) gas lights in every room. We built a bathroom with hot and cold water and an inside toilet, and we even got a telephone after one of the visitors’ sons fell onto rocks in the river and hurt himself badly.
Batting in the back field – barefoot, of course
We had many, many visitors, and some came back year after year and they often brought children, so Joyce, Charlie and I had lots of people to play with. Of course we always won at hide and seek because we knew the best places to hide. One hide-out was a platform that we had built in a tree on the edge of Weet Ing lane. We could hide up there and the other children wandered around, never thinking of looking up into the leaves and branches. We even managed to sleep in it one night, though it was a bit cramped with three of us. Another place was a tunnel that went deep into the hillside and brought water into the well in the yard.
Later, I was delighted to find I had several girl cousins of my own age. Two of these, Dorothy and Lorna visited Weet Ing now and then and we had great times together housed up in a small shed in the front field. I remember us playing my one gramophone record ad nauseam (Bing Crosby’s “The folks who live on the hill”, with “Tip-toe through the tulips” on the reverse side of the record) on wind-up machine. Making dams in the river, trying to raise the level of water in the bathing pool, took hours of our afternoons – and we never seemed to feel the cold of the water on our bare feet. The girls were both frightened of our geese – but then, so was I – and Dorothy would swing ever-higher on our swing to keep them at bay as they hissed at her. To impress them, and other visitors, I would stir up an ants’ nest till the insects were furious, and then lay a bunch of hare bells in the seething pile. Within seconds, the pale blue flowers turned pink, then purple from the ants’ formic acid. And Lorna and Dorothy, being “family”, got to ride behind Polly in the cart, which was somewhat chancy and depended on our pony being in a good mood. Alas, their mother, Ada, died a few years later and we then lost touch for ages – before rediscovering each other, to our great pleasure, from the 1980s onwards.
Perhaps from reading Arthur Ransome or for whatever reason, I was fascinated by boats and sailing, exploring the seas and crossing the ocean. This was odd, since we lived in the hills far from the sea, and no one else in our family had any such interest. My father vomited whenever he set foot on a ship, even on a calm crossing. Nevertheless, I dreamed of a boat of my own, and half a mile down the valley below Weet Ing, almost hidden in the woods, was a dam, man-made, which once provided water for a textile factory. The factory had closed long ago, but the dam – though shallow – could still accommodate a small boat. True, notices fixed to the railings said KEEP OUT, but as half the railings had rusted away and we often picked blackberries there, I felt the signs did not apply to me.
My boat was the old tin bath that we had used in the days before Weet Ing boasted a proper bathroom. It was cramped, even for a boy of eight, but we made a rudder and tiller to clip on the stern. With no room for mast and sail (my ultimate dream), I would paddle hard, canoe-wise – and then with a bit of speed up, sit back and steer briefly with the tiller.
One winter’s day, I headed down to the dam to find the reeds frosted white and my boat trapped in thin ice. Delighted by the new scenario, I shook it loose and climbed aboard to play “ice-breakers”. Paddling ahead, rocking from side to side, leaving a good wake of ice shards, I suddenly capsized. Once upright, I found the water only reached my waist and it was not even too cold as I waded to the bank. But I was completely soaked and the half-mile jog back home over frosty fields left me frozen, with chattering teeth. Adventures on the dam were then strictly forbidden, but for years I could glimpse my ice breaker lodged in the mud twenty yards from the bank.
That summer, my mother took me to Morecambe Bay for a week’s holiday. We found a seven-foot oar on the beach and I was determined to take it home. She argued that a single long oar would be useless, but to me it symbolised the sea. It was a first step towards my vision of owning a proper boat and doing some proper voyages. Even as we stood at the bus stop for the return to Hebden Bridge, I held onto my dream, but when the bus appeared I yielded and slid the oar deep into a hedge, determined to go back and retrieve it one day.
When I was about ten, I discovered Science. In the kitchen cupboard we kept most of our food – the jam, the Marmite, flour for baking, margarine, boxes of matches and much else – and right at the back stood two rolls of brown greaseproof paper, rather like big sticks of Blackpool rock, but much heavier. They had been there for years and held a morbid fascination for me: two sticks of gunpowder from the war days when Guy and Morris planned to build the giant cold frame.
With my parents both out for the afternoon, I set about making bangers. I undid the brown paper from one stick and with a knife I scraped some of the gunpowder onto a piece of newspaper, producing a teaspoonful of dark gritty dust. I twisted the paper tight around the powder, leaving some longish strips to serve as a fuse. Finally, I returned the explosive to its greaseproof paper and stood it carefully in the cupboard, next to its twin. Then I scrambled off into the woods, lit my firework with a match and had just time to jump back before it exploded with a most satisfying BANG.
This, I had to show Joyce and Charlie, so at the next opportunity it was back into the cupboard, break off more gunpowder, carefully replace the roll of paper, and then up the river to Japonica Island – BANG! After that, I did it again, and again, and with one stick finished, I started on the other. Whether my mother and father ever heard the bangs, I don’t know, but if they did, they probably thought it was men in the fields hunting rabbits.
At last the day came when there was only an inch or two of explosive left in the second roll of paper and I suddenly began to worry what my parents would say when they found out. I had a choice – I could leave the paper rolls in the cupboard, maybe filled with sand or sticks of wood, but one day they would be opened, with serious questions to follow; or I could take the last chunk of gunpowder, paper rolls and all, enjoy one last whopping bang and hope that my parents wouldn’t notice. After the final explosion, I waited nervously for a week, two weeks, but when months had gone by and nobody had said a word I began to relax.
Many years later, I asked my mother – by then a very old lady – if they ever noticed that the gunpowder was missing. She reflected a while, then, ‘No, I don’t think we ever gave it a thought’. Such were my parents: they would have spotted a spelling mistake right away, or knives & forks laid on the table the wrong way round, but never missed their two rolls of explosive!
Time went by, Great grandfather William left Weet Ing to stay with one of his sons in town, close to the shops and the doctor. Guy and Morris had left some years before, to become teachers in the south of England. Weet Ing ceased to be a farm – if it ever had been one under our watch – and my mother and father ran it as a guest house during the summer months. My mother was the real organiser and worked hard, advertising for guests, preparing the rooms, cooking and handling the finances. My job was to bring milk from the nearest farm every day and helped to lay the tables and wash up each evening. Of course we had no dish-washer, and there was plenty of washing up to do for sixteen people (including the three of us) after breakfast, lunch and the evening meal. So I learned very early on how to wash dishes (not forgetting the pans), to dry them and put them away. And that’s why Sigyn and I taught Björn, Adam and Daniel to help in the kitchen too.
We had some interesting guests stay with us, including a tall, thin hypnotist with long hair. One evening he asked for volunteers and soon had them barking like dogs, speaking nonsense languages or laughing idiotically. One of these was a young woman from Manchester. The hypnotist said, ‘When you wake up and hear the words peek-a-boo you will laugh uncontrollably’ and – it’s true – whenever he said peek-a-boo, she fell about laughing. At the end of the session, he hypnotised her again. ‘From now on,’ he told her, ‘if you hear peek-a-boo, it will mean nothing to you and you will not laugh.’
Nevertheless, news came through a month later that she had been carrying a typewriter in her Manchester office when a friend, also with her at Weet Ing, called ‘Peek-a-boo!’ Exploding into giggles she had let the typewriter cartwheel down the full length of a flight of stairs. We worried a while that we might be sued, but nothing came of it. Nor did we allow any further hypnotist sessions with our paying guests.
On the other hand, we had two middle-aged teachers from Middlesbrough, Miss F and Miss R, who came to us summer after summer. They liked our house, our valley walks and long chats with my father. He greatly enjoyed entertaining guests with well-informed conversation and though largely self-educated, he was widely read, articulate, persuasive and often very witty. My mother admired his conversational skills but observed how often they came into play when he was most needed to help around the house. Particularly irritating, when she was half-way through a job, was to hear him say, ‘Oh, I was just thinking of doing that’, rather than, ‘I can finish that if you like’ or even, ‘What can I be getting on with?’ Overall, she felt that a good socialist should share in the household chores and though his plays and stories were excellent, they brought in but a fraction of our annual income.
Years later, though, when my mother and father had moved back to Manchester, they learnt that Miss F had died and left her house to Miss R on condition that Miss R should survive one month after her own death. However, if Miss R herself died within the month, then the house should go to “Mr Robert Roberts and Mrs Ruth Roberts, as thanks for the wonderful holidays we enjoyed at Weet Ing Farm, Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire”. Miss R died just 26 days after her friend – so the Roberts family suddenly owned a second house.
Actually, Bob and Ruth might have done well to live in separate houses, since their arguments and rows escalated through the 1940s and 1950s. They may well have originated in my mother’s admiration for many of Guy’s qualities – his physique, cheerful personality and practical skills – an admiration that my father resented. And possibly her feeling for Guy went beyond admiration. Of course my father had his own talents, intellectual and artistic, that she also respected, but he was not strong, very thin (he had tuberculosis, though we did not know it) and smoked heavily. Then there was the constant lack of money, which my father loftily ignored, to my mother’s fury.
I would hear them from my bedroom, shouting in the kitchen, and later my mother would come up and rock me in her arms. Then I would start crying and take her side, assuming without question that she was in the right. One particular morning, deeply angry with my father, but having no words to express my feelings, I waited till he had laid the fire in the front room grate – tight rolls of newspaper, covered with wood kindling and several small pieces of coal arranged on top. When he left the room, I picked off some of the coal, emptied a cup of water over the wood and paper and rearranged the dusty, black lumps as before.
I looked on, half triumphant, half terrified as he tried to light the fire. Of course, he soon discovered my sabotage, but then gave me such a sad look that all I could do was burst into tears again.
Perhaps the verbal violence (it was never physical) escalated because neither would let the other have the last word. There were times, back at Weet Ing when, emotionally exhausted, they would not speak to each other for several days. At best, they would exchange written notes; at worst, with Ruth in the kitchen and Bob in the front room, ten feet apart, I would call out messages between them.
Ruth: ‘Ask your father what he wants for tea.’
Glyn: ‘Mum says, what do you want for your tea.’
Bob: ‘I don’t know. What’s she got?’
Glyn: ‘Mum! Dad says, what have you got.’
Ruth: ‘Tell him it’s sardines on toast or two boiled eggs.’
Glyn: ‘She says it’s sardines on toast or two boiled eggs.’
Bob: ‘Tell her I’ve eaten enough tinned fish for one lifetime! I’ll have eggs.’
Sometime in 1944, my mother and father had another almighty row and before I knew it she and I were on a train south to Dorking in Surrey and from there to the pretty village of Peaslake. Up the hill from the village was Hurtwood School, where Ruth served as a Housemother and I joined the children. We didn’t stay long, so I have very few memories, my clearest being of the acid-sweet smell of pine needles and ants’ nests rising from the hot, sandy soil of the surrounding woods. (Sixty four years later, when Björn and family moved to Chilworth, just over the hills from Peaslake, we walked in those woods and the smell took me right back.)
In the autumn of 1945, we moved to Chiddingstone, another pretty village, near Edenbridge in Kent and a much more exciting school: Long Dene. Exciting because it was based in Chiddingstone Castle, which, if not Hogwarts, nevertheless had towers, turrets, crenellations, a minstrels’ gallery and a ha-ha in the grounds. My mother and I shared the top room of a corner tower
Our bedroom was in the tower to the left
Long Dene was exciting, too, because it was run on similar experimental principles to “Summerhill”, as conceived by A.S. Neil. (Look him up!) Essentially one big community, the children (aged 5-18) and staff called each other by their first names and the guiding spirit was one of democracy and equality. In the monthly school meetings – where all matters were discussed, from the slightest to the most serious – all, whether young or old, were encouraged to have an opinion and to speak out, whatever their age.
For the first few months at Long Dene, though, I was not a happy boy, probably disturbed by the conflict between my parents that I had known in Yorkshire. Now, at this wonderful school, I stood glumly on the side lines and wouldn’t join in. And then came the change. I had been invited to take part in a school production of the Mikado, but had refused, several times. One afternoon I sat in our tower and sulked while the others rehearsed in a room below. Strains of Sullivan’s music came floating up the stairs, and I felt miserable. Slowly, a quiet voice in my brain said, “You don’t have to say No to everything. If you wanted, you could go downstairs and ask to join in….” Somehow, the strength welled up in me to do just that – and my life changed. I don’t recall all the details, but my last 18 months at Long Dene were the happiest and the most formative of all my schooldays.
Suddenly everything was possible, because the teachers encouraged one to have ideas: if I wanted to carve a head, they helped with tools and a block of sandstone; if I talked of making a steam engine, it was OK to search out wheels, pipes, a metal drum and light a fire in it; if I wanted to write poems, play an instrument or draw, the equipment appeared and I had every encouragement, as did all the children. Quite quickly, my personality changed too; from being a frightened little boy, I grew in confidence and enjoyed being part of a group, speaking up for my ideas and making things happen. School reports from the time mention that I was lively and original – enjoying music, story-writing, geography, carpentry and modelling in plasticine, but also undisciplined and ambitious beyond my abilities.
Sixty years later, I came across a little book which details this period of my life. When my mother died in 2004, I sorted through her books and found A Group of Juniors, with a hand-written dedication, ‘To Ruth from Frances’. Frances Tustin had been at Long Dene just when we were there, a teacher, but also a psychologist researching child development. In that capacity, she made daily notes on what was said and done in just my age-group. Many of our conversations appear verbatim in her book along with a number of our drawings. Although each child received a pseudonym, it isn’t difficult to figure out who I was – the boy with a northern accent, who asks Frances to ‘Give us a kiss’ (‘us’, note, not ‘me’) and who draws a scruffy tramp walking by an unmistakable Weet Ing Farm and bridge. Even my steam engine gets a mention.
At ten, then, I could draw and carve stone, sing, debate and play an instrument. I had the confidence to stand on a stage, project my voice, handle sharp tools when gouging out a dugout canoe or cutting a face in stone – but my maths, spelling and hand-writing were woeful. By this time, my mother and father were again on better terms and decided that I needed to pass the dreaded ‘Eleven-Plus’ examination. This exam sorted all, except the wealthiest, British school children into two classes: those who passed and went to Grammar School and university, and those who failed, who then headed for blue collar occupations. Bob and Ruth themselves would have given anything go to university and they were determined that their son shouldn’t let his opportunity slip – and if that meant returning to a Yorkshire primary school, with its formal curriculum, so be it.
Lady Royd School (today used as a barn)
Suddenly, I was back once more at Weet Ing and enrolled at lonely Lady Royd School, three miles away, just below the open moorland and overlooking the deeply wooded valley of Hardcastle Crags. What a contrast to Long Dene! The school occupied no more than a single classroom housed in an old farm building. In the barn next door, cows chewed their cud and sheep bleated in the fields below. Once, it had served a wider moorland community, but now we were only six children, with one teacher – the smallest school in Yorkshire. And Miss Madge Greenwood, our teacher, was traditional: kind enough when things went well, but a disciplinarian at any hint of laxness. So, within a day or two I had the back of my legs smacked with a ruler for singing in class when I should have been learning a poem. This ruler punishment was quite standard: we got a smack the back of our legs for each wrong answer in arithmetic, and as she tested us with forty-five sums each Tuesday morning, my calves were soon black and blue.
We learned much off by heart. The Daffodils by Wordsworth, I shall never now forget, nor popular Victorian songs such as Cherry Ripe and Killarney, plus spelling, times tables, capital cities, highest mountains and longest rivers. After the creative freedom of Long Dene School, it felt hard to be trapped behind an inky desk, chanting lists by rote or singing Killarney, Miss Greenwood conducting at the front, a coal fire smouldering in the grate. But credit where credit’s due: within the year she saw me through my Eleven-Plus exam.
In 1950, I think, my father left to teach creative writing at a folkhögskola (Adult Education high school) in Norrköping, Sweden. My mother and I would be alone at Weet Ing for two years, but he could then send some of his pay back to us every month. With my father abroad, suddenly writing very loving letters home, parental relations improved – as did our finances. But within five months Bob was diagnosed with tuberculosis and admitted into a Swedish sanatorium. After several more months he was cured, and came home looking so well-fed and jovial that we scarcely recognised him. And he had stopped smoking – sucking minty Polos instead, which almost replaced smoking as an addiction. We were now in dire straits financially and at one critical point Ruth took a guitar, unwanted by a summer guest, went to Manchester, sold it and came home with ten shillings. Ten shillings, 50p in today’s money, was not much, even in the 1950s. (History was to repeat itself in 1961 when I, too, survived by selling an old guitar in the south of France.)
We carried on living at Weet Ing until I left school and went to study in London. Then Bob and Ruth found the farmhouse too big and isolated and in 1958 they sold up, to live in Prestwich, Manchester – only a few hundred yards from the home of my grandfather, Albert Dean and his wife, Agnes.