A Personal Recollection
The V1 flying bomb that destroyed our village school of St. John’s in July 1944 came just four months after the first of these ‘secret weapons’ of Hitler first flew over our shores. Following the end of the horrendous period of the Blitz, from 1941, people had become more relaxed as the bombing raids had eased and life was able to return to some sort of normality, hence some local criticism of the expenditure on reinforcing our school shelter. There is no doubt, however, that it was the reinforcement which saved our lives. The Croydon area in particular continued to suffer greatly as a result of the V1s, or ‘doodlebugs’, lying as it did under their path from the launching site at Pas de Calais to Central London, with many casualties and vast destruction of homes. Once again life became that of living between air raids and governed by listening for the air raid siren, but it still had to go on, not the least the continuance of our schooling.
Although we would have had a short break anyway for the summer holiday, my recollection is that it wasn’t long before the few of us remaining pupils and teachers of St. John’s were installed in part of Benson School. Very soon after this a V1 fell nearby, blowing in the windows of the school hall where we were about to have lunch. As frightening as these incidents were at the time they happened most of us children seemed able to accept them, carrying on with our normal activities as we had always done, even playing out in our streets but with strict instructions not to go far. At this point, however, my mother decided she needed to get me away to a safer part of the country and it was through her close friend that very shortly we were on our way to South Devon.
Memories of our departure are a bit scant except that I remember we packed just the bare necessities into an old tin trunk for a stay we knew not how long, but mainly it was my sadness at leaving our cat behind to be looked after by an, albeit trusted, neighbour. The journey was long and tiring on tightly packed trains, carrying a mixture of military troops and others evacuating like us. Proper seats were impossible and we had to perch uncomfortably on our trunk in the train’s corridor from London to Devon. For a moment though our spirits were uplifted as the train passed through the beautiful seaside area of Dawlish where the railway track lay along the edge of the sea wall. The tide being in, I could hardly believe my eyes at the closeness of the sea as the train ran alongside.
Finally we reached our journey’s end at ‘Yellands’, the home of my mother’s friend’s sister and husband, the Crossmans. Surrounded by nothing other than trees and open spaces their house seemed to me enormous in an equally enormous garden, such a contrast from our end of terrace in Barmouth Road. Also to be our home over the coming months it became part of one of the most memorable phases of my childhood for it was here that I was introduced to having, for a while, a wonderful close relationship with horses.
Though upset about leaving my much loved cat behind I was, nevertheless, excited at having been told by my mother that, although they had no cats, at least Mrs. Crossman kept chickens. The big secret which had been kept from me was that she also had a riding school in the grounds of the house, only revealed as a surprise for me the day we arrived, when we accompanied her through the garden into the stable yard. To see the horses all looking out from their stalls was like a storybook turning into real life and I, this very little girl, was lucky enough to be part of it.
A daily routine was quickly established, with me attending the nearest primary school. Many hundreds of children had been already been evacuated to Devon but I believe I was the only one in my class and I remember standing around on my own feeling very lonely when I first went out into the playground. Eventually settling in, a few friendships were made, particularly with a girl of my own age, Isabel, who lived very close to ‘Yellands’. Away from school, with my mother helping in the house, much of my time was spent out- doors. I loved wandering around the wooded areas and the garden which looked out to the sea at Maidencombe. Mostly though, it was spent with the horses in one way or another. Taken for granted that I should learn to ride Bella, a gentle white pony, became mine for all the time we were there, seeing me through all the various stages until I could canter. Helping to muck out the stables and cleaning and polishing the tack never became a chore as I loved every moment. Quite often Isabel would join me and help too but the best of all ‘job’ was rising really early in the morning and accompanying Mrs. Crossman to a nearby field where the horses had been grazing from the previous day and bringing them in to be made ready for the day’s pupils.
My mother and I had been really welcomed as part of the household but, I think, especially me. The Crossmans had no children and maybe it was because of this that they showed particular kindness towards me in so many ways. A timber merchant, Mr. Crossman made me a beautiful seesaw which was situated near the stables and a swing which hung from a tree. He also cut wonderful wooden puzzles which kept me occupied for hours. I remember the treasure hunt around the garden and the tea afterwards, organised for me and my friends at Christmas. These memories and, amongst others, the many walks my mother and I made down to Maidencombe’s picturesque beach, are never to be forgotten. I know that I was extremely fortunate, as I’m fully aware that there were very many children who were evacuated on their own and ended up in situations where they were uncared for and very unhappy.
We returned home to Shirley just before VE Day but stayed in touch with the Crossmans for many years, with a couple of subsequent visits, the last when I was about 19. Bella was there, even though she was by then a rather aged lady.
I have frequently wondered if Yellands was still there as, in the present day, it would be regarded as occupying prime development land but because of the location it’s not possible to pick up on Google street view. I was thrilled when, by sheer chance, I recently picked it up on an estate agent’s website. There it was, slightly extended, but still called ‘Yellands’, even after all these years.
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