GROWING UP IN WARTIME by N. E. Hansford 

My parents owned ‘Hillside Cottage’, Cilcain. They had married in Liverpool in June  1915. Mother was a tailoress and my father, who had been invalided out of the Army, was a Local Government clerk. After the wedding, they caught a train to Star Crossing. Tommy Williams, the farmer’s young son, took them in the pony and trap to Crown Farm for their honeymoon. Everyone, of course, was worried about the War, and the men being killed at the Front.

One day as they strolled up the lane from the Pentre, Mother saw a little 18th century cottage for sale. She fell in love with it, even though the thatch was tatty and the door hanging off its hinges. Father resolved to buy it for his bride, but could not afford the asking price of £25.

However the family continued to visit the village, sometimes staying with Mr and Mrs  Morris at ‘Plas Teg’. Apparently, on one of these visits in 1931 when I was a three-year- old, I exclaimed as we alighted from the bus at the end of the lane, “What a big park!” The only green areas I knew were Calderstones and Greenbank public parks at home. I have
since wondered if I was the first person to describe an area of countryside as a Park.

A few years later we were able to purchase ‘Hillside’. By this time it had come into English ownership, and to the original living-room and bedroom had been added a kitchen at one end and a small bedroom at the other. This latter could only be reached by going out of the back door, down the path, and entering by another door. Even in the pouring rain!

One unexpected outgoing now emerged: we had to pay Esgob Llanelwy (the Bishop of  St Asaph) an annual tithe of 4d. Seventy years later I was to be baptised and confirmed by the Bishop of St Asaph.

Those pre-war years were pleasant. We would spend weekends at the cottage, carrying everything we needed to Penny Lane to catch the tramcar to the Pier Head, then on the ferryboat to Birkenhead, there to catch a Crosville bus to either Pantymwyn or Loggerheads.

Then there was the walk to Cilcain, all to be reversed on the return journey. The garden was a source of many delights and surprises. We found a wooden peck measure (capacity two gallons, wet or dry) and old long-forgotten rusty tools. I discovered,

in a tangled hedge, a sweet-briar {Rosa Rubiginosa-Shakespeare Eglantine). We planted lilac and mock-orange bushes and sweet peas and sweet-william. Numerous artists came to paint the cottage, and I still have some of their work. There was a little bench on which I would sit, very still, while they worked, but – to my knowledge – I never featured in any of them!

In 1939 I passed the Scholarship and on September 3rd my school was evacuated to Holywell. I shall gloss over the treatment meted out by my Hostess, but I do remember being taught (we shared some of our lessons with Holywell High) by Miss Sarah Cooke, who had earlier so inspired Ernlyn Williams. This was the ‘phoney war’, so we all returned home for Christmas, but I never went back to Holywell in the New Year, like my friends.

Bombs started falling that summer, in fact the air-raid siren sounded during my parents’ Silver Wedding tea-party that June. The few guests departed quickly and I hid under the stairs. Later, after one of the worst raids up to that time, on 28th November, my father booked a taxi and sent my mother and me to the cottage to stay. That he packed my bicycle and the treadle sewing machine showed he meant business. I also packed my teddy-bear and my precious collection of bits of shrapnel and green silk from landmine parachutes, scavenged from the streets after the raids.

So, there we were, hoping it was only a short stay. The weather soon turned cold. Having been used to city amenities, such as gas, electricity and hot water at the turn of a tap, we were totally unprepared. It was a total culture shock, but somehow we slowly adapted to the conditions. We learned to trim the oil lamps, after first going to collect the oil. We kept the fire going with logs from the very small woodpile. The decorative copper warming-pans were taken down from the wall and filled with hot cinders to warm the beds.

Who will ever forget the winter of 1940-41? On New Year’s Eve we asked old Tommy Matthews if we would get much snow. He was an expert at weather forecasting (and also at hedge-layering and privy-emptying). He raised his arm to indicate the height the snow would reach next day. Sure enough, when we opened the back door, we were met by a solid wall of snow which had drifted right up to the eaves. And the shovel was
somewhere out there! Fortunately I had slept on the sofa that night, otherwise I would have been trapped.

Soon we ran out of firewood and were reduced to scratching around in the snow for sticks to help light the dwindling supply of anthracite. That winter the snow piled higher until it reached the tops of the hedges, along which we walked. There was no school bus for eight weeks, so my friends and I spent all day long sliding down the slopes on bits of old
carpet. At its worst, the village was cut off from the outside world for four days. Then word went round (an achievement, seeing hardly anyone owned a telephone) that the baker from Nannerch, who supplied the village shop, was going to try to reach us by horse-drawn sleigh. We all assembled in the square, and the first we knew of his approach was seeing the lantern swinging on the sleigh in the distance, because by this time dusk had fallen. The supplies were shared out according to family size; we two were grateful for half a by-this- time stale loaf and a pint of paraffin. In different circumstances that snow scene would have been magical.

Our perishable food rations were kept outside in a safe, but it proved not to be safe from foxes. When this happened, we subsisted on porridge and potatoes until the following week.

Our wireless was our only source of news and entertainment, and the heavy accumulator had to be taken to a neighbour to be charged. Frequently the music of Victor Sylvester would be interrupted by Lord Haw-Haw’s nasal drawl as he spread his nasty propaganda. Then, how cheered we felt at hearing Mr Churchill’s stirring speeches.

Everywhere was so very quiet, blanketed in deep snow. Once, when the grandfather clock stopped ticking, and the wireless broke down, it was quite eerie. I doubt a modern child has ever experienced such utter, total silence.

Spring came at last, then summer, but the war hung heavily over everything. When the New Chester Road was bombed, as it frequently was, my father was unable to join us. My elder brother, with heart disease, had to remain a civilian, and was injured in the Blitz. John,
a career airman in Communications, could rarely visit. It was not until after he died in 1990 that we found that he had worked at Bletchley Park – a small cog in a big wheel which broke the Enigma Code, such was the secrecy surrounding the operation.

Petrol was strictly rationed for non-agricultural users, so those few people with cars eked out their ration by switching off the engine and coasting downhill. I was one day given a lift to visit a friend in Chester City Hospital; I feared I would end up a patient myself!

We picked bilberries, blackberries and mushrooms – anything that was edible. Rosehips were a valuable source of Vitamin C, a replacement for the oranges missing for the ‘duration’. Using a bit of our sugar ration we made them into syrup.

Our city garden comprised a patch little more than the size of a dining-table, but now we scraped away at the stony ground and, with the addition of some farm manure, grew vegetables. (I still grow many of my own crops, and soft fruit, but nowadays I need help with the digging.)

One priority was to build up a supply of wood. All year round, every time we went out, we brought home as much wood as we could carry. After church on Sunday morning (of course, no bells pealed during this period) we would spend the afternoon adding to the supply. One Sabbath, as we were dragging some fallen branches behind us, we met a
visiting clergyman of our acquaintance. Mother, at first nonplussed, soon recovered and called out, “Good afternoon, Canon, Hel Priciau!” “I beg your pardon?” he spluttered, as he hurried away. He obviously did not know the Welsh for ‘gathering kindling’.

Another facility we missed was a modern bathroom. The only bath we now had was a galvanised iron tub. This was fun in the summer holidays, but in the winter, by the time it had been dragged in from outside and the contents of the kettle and a pan had been poured in, the water was cold. So we did what others suggested: “Stand naked at the sink, wash
down as far as possible, then up as far as possible, not forgetting to wash Possible.” This had to be carried out in the draught from the nearby back door.

There was no room for me at the Alun Grammar School at first, so I spent a year at Cilcain Village School, where I was awarded a First Class Certificate for Religious Knowledge by the St Asaph Board of Education. So, including the time at Holywell and in the Blitz, I had missed nearly two years’ secondary education, so had to work hard to make up for lost time.

There was a short walk (at least for me) to the village in the mornings to await the school bus. In the winter we warmed our hands over the smithy fire. This bus was for pupils only; the villagers – hardly anyone had a car – could only get to Mold on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

In the winter evenings, when my homework was done, I knitted balaclava helmets and mittens and scarves for the Forces, just like everyone else. Clothes rationing allowed few new garments, so what we had was mended and trimmed with a bit of braid or ribbon to give
it a new lease of life.

The war was never far away from our thoughts and prayers. Night after night we could hear the enemy bombers making their way to Merseyside with their deadly loads, and on moonlit nights we could see them, wave after wave in formation, high up in the sky. Seven minutes later we would hear the heavy ack-ack responding. Later, from the top of the hill,
we saw the docks ablaze. Next morning there would be a queue to use the one public telephone, hoping to contact loved ones – that is, if the lines had not been wrecked. More than once there was a dogfight overhead. On such occasions we would hurriedly put on some clothes, run outside and grab pails of water to protect the thatch from the red-hot tracers showering down. Mother always felt more in control of the situation if she wore her corsets.

By this time I had been given a kitten, as yet unnamed. One night, as we sat by the fire, I remarked I could hear the bombers overhead with their familiar drone. Mother laughed and said, “No, it’s that cat purring,” so we called him ‘Junker’.

We kept a pitchfork behind the bedroom door, as there was a real danger of invasion, but I doubt we would have been brave enough to have tackled a parachutist or a baled-out enemy airman. Notwithstanding, when, one dark evening, there was a loud thumping on the door, we were so terrified we grabbed our weapon. It turned out to be a very irate air-raid warden. ‘Junker’ had, unnoticed by us, been playing with the blackout curtain, sending beams of light across the valley, as if signalling to the enemy.

After school each day I used to take the milk-can through the orchard, over the stile, and across the field to ‘Ty Mawr’ for our milk ration. This trip was rather scary when the two enormous Shires, free of the traces, were letting off steam and methane as they raced round, kicking up their back legs. I also used a couple of spare milk-cans to draw water from St Michael’s Well when too much chlorine had been added to the mains supply,

making it virtually undrinkable. By the time I had dashed back across the field and over the stile, there was barely enough to make a decent cup of tea! When speaking to various people in recent years, I find I seem to be the only person who used the waters. Pardon the pun, but I did appear to be ‘well-known’ for this.

My friends and I used to play Cowboys and Indians. One day I fell out of a tree onto a blackthorn hedge. As twelve-year-olds do, I rubbed my shin and continued the game. Days later my leg was hot and swollen and I was unable to walk. We were given a lift to the Cottage Hospital. There were no antibiotics for the civilian population, so we made do with
hot poultices. Anon, a long thorn emerged from where it had pierced the tibia.

I had two special pals with whom I went collecting birds’ eggs but, I must add, only one from each nest. Another time we would make our way up the stream – a tiny tributary of the River Alyn – and catch small trout, which made a welcome addition to the diet. One day we found an injured heron, which we carefully carried home. I took charge, because I
had already decided to be a nurse. We splinted its broken leg, and I put it in my doll’s cot and fed it spoonfuls of water. Next day I found it had died, so we gave it a nice funeral.

Another day, the other two set off up the mountain without me. I felt so aggrieved I stalked them. When I caught up with them, I found one of the boys had something in his eye, and his pal didn’t know what to do. I, using the corner of a clean hanky, deftly removed the grit. I was never left behind again!

I worked hard at the ‘Alun’. I suppose I instinctively realised my parents were prepared to sacrifice their ‘togetherness’ so I could benefit from not having my education interrupted any more. I was top of the class in mental arithmetic, most likely inherited from my father whose work involved figures and numbers. However, I felt I was weak at English
grammar (perhaps I still am!). To help improve it, I stayed behind, voluntarily, after school, with other pupils, for extra tuition. This meant I would miss the bus back to the village, so I joined the others going on the train to Rhydymwyn. Alighting there, we would pass where
apples hung over the vicarage wall. It was always me who, given a hitch-up by the others, did the scrumping. Then I was on my way alone, walking through Coed Cu woods, then over the Cefn back home, with a heavy satchel of school textbooks (my share of the apples having been eaten en route).

A few of the Welsh pupils looked askance at we ‘intruders’, and we suffered some bad times. This attitude was once shown when, having to write an essay on ‘Our Class’, one lad from Treuddyn wrote, ‘in our class we have a teacher, boys, girls and evacuees’. Meeting up with an old classmate recently, I was reminded of the day when I was tormented so much I hit back – and clouted a couple of these lads, while the Art Teacher’s back was turned. They never tried it again. In the third year we had a new pupil in our class, who was more than a year older than us. Apparently he had been very ill with Scarlet Fever. When he recovered he was 14. He got a job at the factory at Rhydymwyn. When the Education
people found out he was ordered back to school. He was a reluctant student because he was no longer a wage-earner!

One afternoon my friend and I decided to sag school. We went to the ‘Savoy’ to see ‘Coney Island’. Of course we were caught, and chastised by the Headmaster.

When ‘Junker’ developed an infected paw I had to take him on the school bus then dash off to leave him at the Vet’s before school at 9 am. As the bus was always waiting at the school gates at 4 o’clock, I had to collect him in the dinner-hour and hide his cat-basket behind the bike-shed. Then, when lessons were over, another dash to retrieve him in time to get on the bus. I shall never forget that journey, because he wee-ed with fright and I was nearly thrown off by the driver.

One of the lads in our class used to bring, on a Monday morning, a sack of rabbits he had caught at the weekend. He kept them under his desk until the dinner-hour, then sold them to a butcher in the High Street. We crammed a lot into the school day!

We helped the war effort as much as we could. After the corn was brought in from the fields it was stored in the barns (there were no combine harvesters in those days). We children helped gather the sheaves as they were tossed down to be taken to the thresher.
One day, as I bent over, an escaping mouse landed on my neck. Everyone screamed except me. This happened at John Jones’s place. As well as farming, he was the village coffin- maker.

I recall helping to churn butter at Rushforth’s farm, to be rewarded with a tiny pat of the precious stuff. It was hard work, and I don’t think my right shoulder every recovered fully.

Routine was interrupted when, in the summer of 1942, my mother was hospitalised. I was despatched to stay with friends in Wrexham for a few weeks. Their two daughters and I cycled to Erddig Hall each day to help with the harvest, many of the estate workers having been called-up for the Services. We stocked corn sheaves all day long until the light faded.
One field was, I believe, thirty acres, with about a dozen volunteers hard at work on it. We took sandwiches, and Philip, the last member of the Yorke family, let us make tea in the vast kitchens, and invited us to help ourselves to the delicious peaches ripening on the kitchen- garden walls. I can still remember the taste of those peaches.

Exactly sixty years later I revisited Erddig and was delighted to see that the National Trust, who had taken over the estate, had restored it to its former glory, including the white peaches.

Our little orchard holds happy memories. The trees were old but produced good crops. Between a Victoria plum and a Cox’s Orange, we slung a hammock, where I lay swinging and swotting for the school exams. It was usually a place of tranquility, but two incidents
proved otherwise. The first occurred when, one summer, my friend Lucy came to stay. We were aged about twelve at the time and decided to camp out under the trees. Suddenly, the air was rent with loud, gruff shouts (and not a few expletives) and the sound of heavy boots
thundering past, within a few yards of where two little girls lay cowering. It was the Home Guard, on one of their exercises and, for the first time ever, they came down the farm field, tumbled over the stile, and, passing through the orchard, continued round the cottage, and out through the gate and down the lane. Mother, woken by the commotion, jumped out of bed and ran to see what was happening – and this time she did not stop to lace up her Spirella!

The other occasion was when my mother had the trees pruned, a job long overdue. When he had finished, the man made a pass at Mother. She slapped his face, and he and his pony and trap fled back to Hendre in a cloud of dust – without his payment.

One night during this time we were alarmed to see a big fire on the mountain. It seemed to come from a big pile of tyres, which we thought had been fly-tipped. We thought the cause was vandalism, such was our ignorance.

 

The seasons came and went. It was safe to wander alone in those days, and I knew where to see a tawny owl, a green woodpecker, and, if I was lucky, a family of badgers. On the ‘Fron’ the sundew flourished – the plant that traps and ingests insects. Flowers grew in profusion in their seasons: ragged robin, sweet violets, primroses and cowslips, cuckoo-pint and marsh-marigolds.

As we grew older our hormones clicked in, and we began to look at the boys in a different light, just as the boys regarded us sometimes with a gleam in their eyes. The word ‘cariad’ entered the vocabulary, and we developed ‘pasties’ and ‘crushes’ and were ‘sweet’ on each other. But what heartbreak when these feelings were not reciprocated! In those
days one could gauge the depth of a boy’s affection by how much of his chocolate ration he was prepared to share with you. Another lad enlisted me to help him catch rabbits by hand, as they fled the cornfields during harvesting. I used to cycle home with my share, their bodies still warm. Mother always rose to the occasion and made them into tasty stews.
Once, I decided to make some fur gloves, so I nailed the pelts on a board and left them in the shed for a few weeks. Alas, the result was a foul-smelling, slimy mess. I once went shooting pheasants with the same friend, but I wouldn’t stop chatting, so was never asked again. He found it easier to hunt them on his own, and deliver them to the cottage next day.

Once, on a cycle ride to Ysceifiog with another friend, I admired the yellow irises in the lake. He removed his shoes and socks, rolled up his trousers – and promptly sank up to his knees in the mud. But he somehow got me the flowers.

Entertainment was virtually nil at this time.   Occasionally a huge Ministry of Information vehicle would draw up in front of the smithy. The rear doors would be flung open, revealing a small screen. We would gather round to watch short films, mainly ones exhorting us to help the war effort, such as Wings for Victory or Dig/or Victory.

There were occasional Saturday night ‘hops’ in neighbouring village halls. Mother would only allow me to go to these if I was escorted there, and accompanied home safely by my two village pals. I had to be back by midnight – or else! At the dances we split up and mixed with our own friends. The hall at Nannerch was always stuffy, especially in the winter, when all the windows were shut tight. What with the heat from the stove and the oil lamps, and the smell of sweat and cheap perfume, it was quite pongy. The boys wore their best suits and looked smart, despite the Brilliantine running down their foreheads. But what they didn’t realise was that the cow-muck on the soles of their shoes would start to show its presence! One evening the air was so awful, I was gagging. Then one swain suggested we step outside for a while. However, I wasn’t gagging enough for what he probably had in mind so remained inside. You see, I knew the Facts of Life, for were we not surrounded on
all sides by rams and ewes and the resultant lambs? Unfortunately, in my ignorance, I did not realise that the use of raddle was confined to four-legged creatures. This fact made me resolve to restrict such activity to theory, until my wedding day. It was, arguably, the wrong reason for abstinence, but it worked.

On the way home from the dances, we never switched on our dimmed bicycle lamps, finding it easier to get accustomed to the gloom. On more than one occasion, as we left Rhydymwyn hall, we were chased by the local policeman, an elderly person – or so he seemed to us. He would set off in hot pursuit, yelling to us to switch on our lamps. He never caught up with us – he was no match for our fifteen-year-old legs. He would abandon the chase at the Hendre bends. (We knew this, because we would suddenly swerve into a side lane and, hiding, watch him pedal past, not seeing us. Then of course we had to await his return journey, still cussing us, before we would break cover.)

Moel Famau has been a thread, albeit a slender one, running through my life. When I was tiny, my mother used to take me in my pushchair to Penny Lane railway bridge from where we had a good view of the Clwydian Range. I suppose I became a little possessive about it – after all, it played a big part in my life. One hot day, just before leaving school, I
ascended it on my own. This time, however, I could hear a commotion higher up. When I reached the summit, I found myself in the middle of an army exercise. So, this kid, in her cotton dress, walked right up to the CO and registered a complaint! He was very polite about my intervention, so I left them to it, with the promise of a safe-conduct down the mountain.

I had a good education at the ‘Alun’, achieving a very satisfactory CWB (Central Welsh Board) certificate. My teachers and the Headmaster, Mr Joseph Jones, urged me to do my ‘Highers’ and proceed to university to study medicine. 1 was still only fifteen so, reluctantly, stayed on for another year, then left to start my chosen career. This was 1944, when the tide of war at last turned in our favour.

I bade farewell to my schoolmates and, wearing the only coat I possessed – my almost-worn-out school gabardine — I set off to train at Alder Hey Hospital, a decision I have never regretted. Thus, I entered the adult world.

My parents were by now reunited in Liverpool. On reflection, it was ironic that we had moved from a prime target for the German bombers to a ‘safe haven’ two miles from, reputedly, the biggest poison-gas factory in Britain. My biggest regret is that I never told my parents how I appreciated their sacrifice for me. I left it too late.

Circumstances later took me to live in Essex, where I spent more than fifty years, but eventually, Hiraeth for the mountains proved too strong, and I came back in 1997.

Nancy Elizabeth Hansford                           December 2005

* some names omitted to preserve identity

Copyright of articles
published in Ystrad Alun lies with the Mold Civic Society and individual contributors.
Contents and opinions expressed therein
remains the responsibility of individual authors.