Moving to the Country

Margaret Lawrence as she was just before moving from the busy city of Newcastle to the rural quaintness of a Somerset village.

Margaret Lawrence as she was just before moving from the busy city of Newcastle to the rural quaintness of a Somerset village.

I was born in 1944, and until I was six I lived with my mother and grandmother in Fenham, on the outskirts of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. At the bottom of the next street was a cluster of shops, and although my memory of what was there is imperfect, they must have sold everything for our day-to-day needs.

Every so often we’d catch the trolleybus from the bottom of our road into Newcastle, an exciting ride past the barracks, still full of soldiers, and the football ground, usually empty unless it was a Saturday. Once in the city centre my favourite store was Fenwick’s, where they had escalators – a rarity then. Also in Fenwick’s was Walter the rocking horse from the Fenwick children’s nursery, or so the notice said. It was a great treat to be allowed a ride. With Walter was a mechanical bird in a cage, and I’d listen enthralled as, for the price of a penny, he’d flutter his wings and sing his little heart out.

Since then I have often thought how brave my mother was, for in 1950 she left all that, a world of mod cons not to be sniffed at even by today’s standards, to live with my father on the outskirts of a tiny village in Somerset. There was a rare bus service, no running water, no electricity and no proper toilet. She also left behind all of her family, no big deal in today’s world of fast transport and instant communication, but then it was a two-day rail journey via London from the South-West to the North-East.

As with all cottages in the village we had our own well, and the toilet was in a shed down a dank tree-covered pathway. It was years before water and electricity reached us. I can remember my father digging by hand the trench across the front lawn and under the 2ft-thick walls of the cottage ready for the water pipe – cold water only, and just a standpipe attached to a wall in the passage.

Cooking was still done on Primus stoves, lighting was by Tilley lamps and candles, and later we had gas lamps and then electricity by way of a generator. I can’t actually remember the proper electricity reaching us, but I can remember the builders coming in and turning one of the bedrooms into a bathroom, making a proper kitchen (well, it had a sink and cooker, but no fitted cupboards) and connecting the water supply to sink, indoor toilet, bath and wash basin.

There were no shops in our village, only a Post Office nearly half a mile away. Our only links to the outside world were a bus service which ran once a week to Langport, two miles away, and (after a mile-long walk to the railway station) the train to Taunton, a journey of about 20 miles. There was no transport back from the station, either: we had to walk that mile home laden down with parcels after walking around Taunton all day. Eventually a little shop was opened in the front room of a cottage, but that wasn’t until some years later.

We had delivery men. Mr. Small, the paper man, would deliver a daily paper and Woman magazine on a Tuesday for my mother, and the postman would cycle out from Langport with our mail.

In those days my grandmother, who still lived in Newcastle, would write her weekly letter after her Sunday lunch, post it from the box just up the road, and it would arrive in Pitney on the Monday morning. On the rare occasion when it didn’t arrive there would be an anxious wait until the Tuesday, for there were no telephones readily to hand to give instant re-assurance that all was well.

Mr. Matthews, the milkman, would deliver each morning from Brown’s Dairy in Somerton, and Mr. Wilcox from Walton would bring his mobile grocery store around once a week in the evenings.

The most amazing delivery vehicle was that of Mr. Bryant, the oil man. He sold everything imaginable in the hardware line, and that van was wonderful. The outside was hung all over with pots, pans and the like, and it made a lovely noise as it clattered around the country lanes, as well as hardware he carried paraffin, methylated spirit and other highly-inflammable goods which were drawn off from a tap underneath the side. His van must have been a fire-fighter’s nightmare, but I don’t remember any accidents.

The village school was very strange for me. I’d spent a year at a big city school housed in two huge buildings, one for infants and juniors and the other for seniors. The buses ran from the top of our street and stopped just outside the school. They ran frequently, so there was no excuse for missing the bus or being late. In those days I could safely walk to the bus stop and travel to school with Christine, the girl who lived next door.

The village school was reached by a mile-long walk along tiny lanes surrounded by hedges and fields. There were no houses, just a little cottage every so often – very odd to my city eyes which had been used to mile after mile of houses. At first I thought the school itself was a private house, it was so small. There were only 25 or so pupils in the whole school, about the same number that must have been in my old class alone!

The church was next door to the school. Sometimes we had to go to school just to attend a church service, then went home for the rest of the day. If there was a funeral, all the curtains were drawn and playtime was cancelled. We were allowed to walk quietly down to the toilets (outside once again) only in twos and threes.

A more exciting time was when the hunt used to meet near the school, and we were allowed into the boys’ playground to watch the horses and hounds.

In the summer we’d be taken on nature walks to the woods. I think it was just an excuse to get us out of the classroom, as I can’t remember learning anything apart from the place where a solitary bee orchid grew. We checked on that every year.

When I reached the age of 11 or thereabouts I went to the local secondary modem school, which was nearly three miles away. I was expected to cycle – and did it in all weathers.

It was a much harder life than would be acceptable today. My mother never complained about anything in my hearing, but she must have compared her life in Fenham with the rural quietness and inconvenience of Pitney often. She must also have missed seeing her mother and her only brother and his family,

Margaret E. Lawrence