Tag Archives: East Coker

Remembering my Return to East Coker

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village, in the electric heat
Hypnotised. In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence.
Wait for the early owl.

T.S.Eliot, East Coker (1940)

This month I’ve been spending time at home in Switzerland with my mother, who miraculously was still able to come out for her annual summer visit – albeit via rerouted flights and increased bureaucracy. Having not seen each other for a year, it has been a very enjoyable visit, with one of our main activities being to prepare for the new Scottish family history blog which I intend to launch in the autumn. While talking to my mother about her childhood, I have been impressed at the breadth and depth of her reminiscences, which go back eighty years to when she was a toddler being carried out to the air raid shelter at the bottom of her garden in west Edinburgh.

Despite having some memories of the war, the ten year age gap between my parents meant that my mother’s experiences differ from those of my London-born father. Yet I was interested to learn that she did indeed spend some time as an evacuee in the countryside outside Edinburgh with her mother at the beginning of the conflict. There they stayed in the mining village of Roslin (made famous by the medieval Rosslyn Chapel which featured in Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code) with one of my grandmother’s older sisters, her miner husband, and their two young boys. I remember visiting this elderly couple in the 1970s in their terraced cottage on the Main Street and playing in a back lane with some local children, thinking how much fun it would be to live in such a close knit community.

Maybe it’s because my mother was so much younger than my father and was always happy to talk about her childhood that there was a sense of her memories being somehow less valuable than those of the more unknown London branch of the family. There was no mystery surrounding her upbringing, and with regular contact with our Edinburgh-based grandparents (and others in their extended families) there were always plenty people to ask about the past. Unlike my English grandparents, my Scottish grandparents had remained in the same house since the 1930s and we were surrounded with the objects they had accumulated over their lifetimes. Opening drawers and cupboards always revealed strange objects (such as sealing wax and hat pins) and once even a cache of old-fashioned toys underneath the floorboards (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers).

In addition to these items were the boxes of family photographs that my grandparents inherited from my great-grandmother when she came to live with them after she was widowed. It is those images which will form the basis of my new blog A Scottish Family Album, and with my mother’s help I intend to investigate how photographs of relatives – many who are long gone – can trigger more memories and family stories. Another pair of eyes can also illuminate some overlooked aspect of a photograph, and looking at such images together will hopefully shed new light on the stories behind the photographs.

This was certainly the case when I took some copies of family photographs to my elderly aunt, who I visited with my English cousin in August 2019. Both of us fully intended to return the following year and make it an annual pilgrimage for as long as we possibly could. However, as this has obviously not been possible, I would like to revisit that afternoon by publishing an updated version of the post I wrote two summers ago. Even on that muggy Saturday I was aware that time was slipping away from us as we talked, and it is perhaps just as well that we had not known then of what was about to happen.

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CROSSROADS.JPGSignpost to Naish Priory in the woods at Burton, East Coker

In the summer of 2019, just before the world ground to a halt, I was lucky enough to have the chance to return to Somerset – where my story began – to visit my aunt. I travelled with my cousin Sandra (the daughter of my father’s younger brother) and we stopped at the village of East Coker on the way. This allowed my cousin to see the places I hoped my aunt would still be able to describe to us from her memories of the family wartime evacuation, making the visit more meaningful for all of us.

Unfortunately, it was a cool, wet and blustery Friday afternoon, in contrast to my first visit in July 2005 (see East Coker), which had certainly been influenced by the good weather. However, fortified with tea and cakes from the National Trust café after our trip to nearby Montecute House, and sporting the matching bucket hats we’d purchased in Sherborne the day previously, we decided there was nothing to stop us exploring the village in the wind and rain. Maybe it would even clear up later, we told ourselves rather optimistically. (It didn’t).

A lucky coincidence saw us approaching East Coker by way of the sunken lanes I’d already described to my cousin. I’m not quite sure how much Sandra appreciated having to squeeze her car by a number of large vehicles exiting the village, but she certainly agreed with me that it was an ‘exciting’ way to arrive. However, those pesky narrow lanes effectively prevented the other part of East Coker – where our fathers had lived during WW2 – from further development, and thankfully could not now be widened due to planning regulations.

HOLLOW LANE.JPGA sunken lane on the approach to East Coker

We soon passed the old hamlet of Burton and the end of Burton Lane (which led to the farmhouse cottage where the Skeltons had lived for the duration of the war). We had, however, already decided to head straight for the heart of the village (which had once been called Up Coker), and park by the alms houses next to the church. Not only did this mean we could start our walk by viewing the impressive church of St Michael’s, with its T. S. Eliot memorial, but it also gave me the opportunity to show my cousin the first cottage in which our grandmother was billeted (West Wells), and where I was told she’d only stayed for a short time as she’d been unhappy about being made to ‘feel like a skivvy’ by the woman of the house.

ALMSHOUSESThe 17th century alms houses by the church

A wedding rehearsal in the church meant we only had time for a cursory look around, and I was glad I’d had the chance to attend a Sunday service with my mother on our first visit back in 2005. It was on that July morning that I felt the sense of the community that pervades the place, as well as delighting in the Englishness of the service, which was so different from my childhood memories of attending the Church of Scotland.

Conscious of the worsening weather, we did not stop for a drink in the Helyar Arms as planned (actually called The New Inn until 1948), but headed past the pub and along the road leading to Sutton Bingham – once a scattered village and now a reservoir, whose medieval church with pre-reformation wall paintings had been preserved. My mother and I had visited the church on that first trip, and had wondered at the homes which had disappeared to make way for the water. My father would have known the village (where there had been a railway station, closed in the early 60s, but not as part of the reservoir development), and it must have been an uncanny experience for him to return to the area and see that great expanse of water where once there were farmhouses and fields.

COKER MARSH ROAD.JPGCottages at Coker Marsh

In the end we only got halfway up the road before heavy rain halted us in our tracks. However, it was enough to give Sandra a feel for this part of the village – called Coker Marsh – and where our uncle’s extended family (the Bouchers) had lived in one of the stone cottages which lined the road. Walking back the same way towards the church, I noticed a small stream running along the left-hand side of the road which, judging from the stone channel in which it ran, looked like it might have once had a purpose beyond just taking away runoff water. The remains of a cress bed? I could not remember it from my earlier visits, but wondered whether this was because it had been dried up previously. This made me think about other aspects of the village I might have missed, or forgotten, and I realised that although I generally prefer to explore places on my own, by showing Sandra around East Coker I was strengthening my own mental map of the area.

Our next plan – to walk via Back Lane to Burton – was stymied by more heavy rains so we missed out going there on foot, much to my disappointment. While it was certainly useful to have a car, particularly in such horrible weather, I have always relished my own rambles around the area, climbing the many wooden stiles and taking the lanes that lead to the neighbouring villages. Being a non-driver admittedly closes off some opportunities, but also means that walking long distances becomes commonplace (just as it once was). For years I was slightly ashamed of this proclivity for visiting new places under my own steam, often in combination with public transport, as I always felt it made me seem like a second-class citizen. But now that eschewing car ownership has suddenly become more mainstream, I feel less defensive about my lack of driving skills.

BACK LANE.JPGWild Flowers in Back Lane

Although we missed out on the very charming footpath up Back Lane – which my aunt later told us was one where she would go with our uncle before they were married and wanted some privacy – I did convince Sandra to park up at North Coker and walk along the road to Burton Cross. This meant that we were able to admire the stone cottages, many with thatched roofs, and their bright and blowsy, albeit rain-soaked, gardens. We passed by what had once been the shop and post office, a sad reminder of how little of these services remain in rural locations. On my first visit in 2005 it had still been trading and my mother and I had been grateful to be able to purchase snacks and a newspaper. No doubt my father would have spent any hard-earned pocket money there – as had most of the village children throughout the years – as well as in the small shop next to the pub, which had long since closed. I pictured him scampering along the road, after having helped out with the harvest or haymaking, wondering whether to spend his precious farthings and ha’pennies on liquorice or boiled sweets.

As we walked up Burton Lane to the cottage where my grandmother and the three children lived during the war, I tried to picture it as it had been in the 1940s, devoid of the new bungalows which were squeezed in between the row of original cottages and the fields. I had once come across a photograph of the lane, taken shortly before the war, which showed a herd of short-horned cows being driven along a narrow dirt track bounded by hedges, trees and fields. In the distance all that could be seen was the roof of the wooden gospel hall – the building my grandmother cleaned in return for reduced rent on the rather spartan Burton Farm cottage opposite.

BURTON LANE (2).JPGLooking down Burton Lane from the road end today

Even today the lane is very much a rural road and it was possible to imagine how it once was – and how different from the busy streets of South London it must have been for the Skeltons. Yet on this visit, I was more conscious of the post-war houses which flanked the lane, looking shabbier now than previously. And I could swear that a couple of newbuilds had popped up between them in the once generous gardens, giving the lane a more hemmed-in feel. In contrast, the original cottages nearer the road-end appeared even more attractive next to their characterless suburban-looking neighbours; although I was aware that to have lived there once would have meant putting up with cold and damp and darkness for a good part of the year.

As Sandra is particularly interested in old buildings (but stressed she still wants to live in new one), I had little difficulty in persuading her to take the sandy track which ran by the chapel towards Gulliver’s Grave (the name of a field), and turns off at a crossroads in the woods towards Naish Priory. This 14th century Grade 1 listed building is now a private home, and although it was never a true priory, it did once have religious connections. It is, however, a remarkable survivor from the period with a price tag only the super-wealthy can afford. Currently it’s owned by the local conservative MP and arch-brexiteer, investment banker Marcus Fysh,  which may have explained the number of EU flags draped over the front gates of several of the more modest houses in the village!

NAISHSide view of Naish Priory

The following afternoon, when I told my aunt of our trip to the priory through the woods, she explained that was the same way she’d walked from the farm cottage to pick up the school bus to Yeovil (a 1920s charabanc brought out of retirement for the evacuees). Although it did not seem like much of a short cut, I’m sure there was a good reason for my aunt to use this trail, rather than take the road. Perhaps she’d simply wanted to avoid someone (such as the local farmer who was rather touchy-feely) or had enjoyed the lonely track, which she told us she’d undertaken in all weathers.

Asking someone at an advanced age about their reminiscences obviously needs to be handled sensitively, and I was conscious that it was just as important for us to talk to our aunt about the present as the past. Luckily Sandra – who knew our older English cousins much better than I did – was able to supply that side of the conversation. While she browsed through photographs of a recent family wedding, I showed my aunt some of the old family photographs I’d accumulated over the years. Most of these she could remember, as I’d either sent her copies in the post or she’d furnished me with the originals. However, viewing them together was a completely different experience. Each image released a most astounding array of sharp memories, as if the photograph had been taken yesterday. For example, a great-uncle I’d never known (my grandmother’s beloved older brother) was described by my aunt for the first time as being ‘pompous’. Even as a boy you can see it in the way he looks!

Sometimes I just had to catch my breath and listen carefully as my aunt described such momentous events as The Crystal Palace burning down in a relatively matter-of-fact way: Mother called us to the window and said there must be a huge fire going on somewhere over South London. We did not know then that it was the great Crystal Palace where we went to listen to bands on a Sunday. My aunt then told us about the car races in the grounds of the Crystal Palace that my grandparents took them to watch. The car racing at Sydenham was something I had not known about, and seemed a strange thing for a young family to do. But then when reading more about it afterwards, I discovered that these were popular events, which in the 1930s would have perhaps fascinated a wider variety of people.

Crystal_Palace_fire_1936Crystal Palace burning down, November 30th, 1936

And so it was that the afternoon continued in a most delightful fashion, my aunt moving lightly from the present to the past, depending on the topic of conversation, her face a range of flickering emotions. Shafts of late summer light from the garden fell through the open stable door of my aunt’s tiny 18th century cottage, lighting up her features, which, as Sandra remarked later, made her look like Nana and Grandad rolled into one person. Behind my aunt on the wall, a clock ticked ominously, making me aware of the limited hours we had – and not just on that afternoon. It was one of those rare moments (or rather a collection of moments, strung together like delicate fairy lights illuminating the dark) where it seems that time has ceased to exist in normal terms. I felt as if we had almost slid into another world: one in which we could glide between 1939 and 2019 with ease, summoning up ghosts along the way.

My aunt’s stories – delivered in that funny old-fashioned clipped London accent that the whole family once had – triggered a range of emotions in me that Sandra later told me flitted across my face in the same way as my aunt’s (and, if truth be told, just like Sandra herself). With my aunt’s uncanny ability to describe past events in exquisite detail, frozen moments in photographs were suddenly set free to take on their own momentum. A picture of the back yard at Denmark Road reminded her of how she and my father used to dare each other to climb over the fence into the next door neighbour’s garden at night and run around without getting caught. She explained that this was because the neighbour’s back yard was actually planted out with shrubs and flowers and had a lawn – as opposed to the more functional space to the rear of their own house.

Another photograph, this time of my aunt and father in fancy dress, brought back a memory of a party at school. My aunt explained that my grandmother had been so delighted with the sight of her two children all dressed up in their costumes (Sandra’s father was yet to be born) that they went straight from their junior school in nearby Crawford Street to a local photographer’s studio in their outfits. And that slightly superior-looking smile on my aunt’s face? Well her Pierrot suit had been specially made for her, whereas my father had just had to contend with what he could find in the dressing up box.

P1070488 (3).JPGMy aunt and father in fancy dress c1933

That afternoon I also learnt that the dog my grandfather brought home to Denmark Road one day, surprising his children, had actually never been meant as a family pet but as a guard dog to protect the house from a ‘light-fingered’ family two doors down. My aunt laughed to recall that one night when they all returned home from a day out (perhaps at the Crystal Palace), the house had been ransacked and the dog was found quivering under the table.

Such tales, although not dramatic in themselves, are important to family historians. Not only do they bring the very human side of genealogy to the fore, but also illustrate the concerns of previous generations – which may have been very different from our own. They also help us to understand the behaviour of our ancestors. As a child I always thought it strange that my father obsessively checked all the locks on the doors and windows of our bungalow every night and admonished us if we left our bicycles outside. I wonder, too, if he perhaps felt guilty that his childhood dog was just left out in the back yard most of the time. In contrast, our own family dog went everywhere with us and was (according to the vet) literally walked to death by my father and myself.

JET.JPG

Our Cocker Spaniel, Jet, 1974-1982

My aunt, however, does not suffer fools gladly (just like my grandfather and father) and certainly could not simply be described as some sweet old lady sitting in a rocking chair, waiting for her relatives to visit. One of the reasons I had not seen so much of her over the years is that she and my father did not always have the easiest of relationships. He found her bossy; she found him difficult. But their younger brother was the adored baby of the family who kept the infrequent family reunions going throughout the years.

My last memory of my aunt on that Saturday afternoon is of her standing in her front garden as we prepared to take our leave (with promises to return in a few months), jabbing at the twisted trunk of an old wisteria tree with her walking stick. She was annoyed with the fact that while she wanted the tree cut down to let in more light, her neighbours wanted it to remain. This was because the old wisteria’s spreading branches also decorated the facades of their own cottages, adding value to the homes.

So like Aunty! Sandra whispered as the garden gate clicked behind us.

So like Grandad! I thought.

Later that evening, ensconced in a quiet country pub, Sandra and I browsed through my copy of East Coker: A Village Album by Abigail Shepherd, a book very much rooted in the tradition of oral history. My cousin was able to easily recognise the old photographs of the places we’d visited, so little had changed in East Coker over the last century and a half, and we both expressed our amazement that our aunt (who also had a copy) had been able to recognise so many people in the book. Not only had she been able to locate Sandra’s father as a child from a sea of other schoolchildren who were all in fancy dress to commemorate the end of the war, but she was able to put names to the blurry faces of some of the adults standing sheepishly at the back. I found it equally impressive that she’d known who everyone was in my father’s boyhood photograph of the 1944 Whit Monday trip to Coker Woods, the discovery of which had reawakened my interest in my Skelton family history (see In my Beginning is my End). 

Coker Woods.pngThe photograph of my father (right) with friends, East Coker 1944

Since returning from my visit to Somerset, I’ve been rereading Abigail Shepherd’s informative and entertaining book about East Coker, discovering facts I’d previously missed or forgotten about, and tying in some of the stories my aunt told us about (such as Queen Mary’s visit to Mrs Dorothy Walker-Heneage at Coker Court in 1941) with the reminiscences  outlined in the book mentioned above. As it was first published in 1997, many of those interviewed are no longer alive today to tell their tales, including my father’s friend, Alan Cornelius, who as a teenager had taken the group photograph in the local woods with his father’s Box Brownie.

I’m glad that I was finally able to meet Alan Cornelius, and learn about his wartime boyhood experiences, and am grateful for the copy of his (unpublished) notes on the subject of the ‘vacuees.  By chance, my aunt told me that one wartime Christmas the only electric bulb they possessed in their small farm cottage gave up the ghost, prompting her mother to ask her to go to the Cornelius household to see if they had a spare. Of course, my aunt being my aunt simply put her foot down and refused to go out begging for a lightbulb on Christmas Day, and so the family had to celebrate in candlelight. Which sounds as if it might have been wonderful for everyone but my poor grandmother!

A VILLAGE ALBUM

Of course, it is now more than 80 years ago when my aunt and father were evacuated with their respective schools: my aunt to East Coker with Charles Edward Brook School for Girls in Camberwell, and my father to Leatherhead in Surrey with his school. However, only a few months later my grandmother was able to move to East Coker with her younger son and bring the three children together under one roof, while my grandfather continued to work in London. For a fourteen year old like my aunt, the evacuation seemed more like an adventure away from the restrictions of her parents, in particular my grandfather, who could be a rather strict father.

As Alan Cornelius pointed out to me, there was great excitement in the village when the evacuees arrived and a lively social scene grew up, with boys’ and girls’ clubs held at Coker Court, as well as local dances, sports events and cultural activities. It is not surprising then to learn that many of these wartime friendships blossomed into relationships and then into the inevitable (in those days) marriages. It seems strange to think that my aunt’s lifelong connections to the area – cemented by her marriage to a popular local East Coker boy – all hinged on the lottery of the evacuation on the 1st of September 1939.

The Incidental Genealogist, August 2021

The Lost Family – Part 3

I do not know when he first visited East Coker in search of his ancestors, or how often he came here, but I do know that his last visit was in the late summer of 1939, when he took some photographs of the village and the church, and it must have been then that he gathered  the impressions that he later set down in the poem “East Coker”.

Address given by Sir Rupert Hart-Davis in tribute to T. S. Eliot at the memorial service and unveiling of a memorial plaque at St Michael’s church, East Coker, 26th September 1965

St Michael's East CokerSt Michael’s Church, East Coker, burial site of T.S. Eliot’s ashes

This last post of the year will focus on the final part of the introduction to my family story, edited for a memoir writing competition. In October’s blog post (see The Lost Family – Part 1),  I began by outlining the background to my quest, detailing my experience of working as a probate genealogist or so-called heir hunter in London in the 1980s. Last month (see The Lost Family – Part 2) I turned to the more recent past, when an unknown photograph of my father as a boy reignited my interest in researching my paternal family history, sending me to East Coker in Somerset, where my father had lived as a wartime evacuee. This month I will complete the trilogy by describing the serendipitous meeting with my father’s schoolfriend, Alan Cornelius, the man who took the photograph of his boyhood friends in Coker Woods one spring day in 1944.

As previously, I’ll also be updating the story with current recollections of the events I recount, as well as the additional knowledge gained in the last few years during my struggle to create a coherent narrative from my genealogical quest. This will hopefully inspire some readers to chronicle their own family research, perhaps including their personal responses to the stories they uncover along the way.

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The Lost Family: Part 3

East Coker is a place that has mostly won the battle to preserve its rural charms, mainly due to the Eliot connection, and has few modern buildings or street lights. Visitors come to see the deep lanes, the open fields, the houses of grey stone and the hollyhocks that aim too high. It is even said that Eliot based part of his poem on the 1876 Friedrich Gerstäcker tale of the mysterious community of Germelshausen, where the population had been cursed by the pope and were only allowed to come out of the earth for one day of revelry every hundred years. There is a strange a feeling of liminality when entering the village through the ancient sunken lanes that resemble tunnels into another world. And it is not difficult to imagine that the place is haunted by the spectre of an earlier time, which can only be faintly glimpsed at certain moments.

And the deep lane insists on the direction into the village*: I have arrived in East Coker several times over the years – once on foot over the fields and woods from Yeovil Junction Station, another time arriving ‘the back way’ through Burton Cross, where my father lived during the war on Burton Farm. But whatever road or path I take, it always seems a surprise to come across the village: East Coker gives the impression of being hidden away – both in time and place. This is almost like a metaphor for my own genealogical research, an endeavour which sometimes feels akin to glimpsing through a door which has opened slightly onto another world, only for it to close again when you try to push through to the other side.

After a reader contacted me about my East Coker post, I learned that the deep lane shuttered with branches* was also called a holloway – or hollow way (derived from the Old English ‘hola weg’). Having very little experience of travelling along such sunken lanes it came as a surprise to enter the village along such a route. Perhaps it also reminded me of the road to Dunure in Ayrshire, the seaside village close to our home where our family spent many days in summer. Although not technically a holloway (which are characteristic of Southern England due to the geology of the landscape), it gave the same feeling of entering another world, which was made even more exciting to me by the sound of branches whipping against our Austin 1100 (see Looking Back).

* From East Coker, by T.S. Eliot

The morning I met Alan Cornelius – the old man who’d taken the photograph in Coker Woods on that Whit Monday over sixty years ago – the village was looking its time-warped best. The jaunty union-jack bunting strung up between the thatched houses in the main street hung still in the mid-summer air, and the sounds of hay stooking cut across the yellow fields. The Helyar Arms was preparing for its first customers, and the church was alive with the bustle of middle-aged women setting the final touches to the arrangements for the flower festival.

Flower Festival in St Michael's Church

By noon the cow parsley in the hedgerows was wilting in the heat, and the exhibition in the village hall was coming to a close. ‘We called those long wooden sticks ‘staves’ back then,’ Alan Cornelius said, as he packed away his own copy of ‘my’ photograph amongst his other WW2 memorabilia. ‘And we were off to fight the enemy in the woods.’ He shook his head and smiled.

Among all the other bits and pieces on his stall that the younger visitors to the exhibition found so fascinating, was a copy of his childhood diary. The short, scribbled entries illustrated just how exciting the war could seem to a thirteen-year-old boy. There were numerous descriptions of long bike rides spent searching for incendiaries in the surrounding fields, building model aeroplanes bought from a shop in Yeovil, watching out for enemy aircraft, visiting the local Westland Aircraft Factory (where Lysanders or ‘Lizzies’ were built).

One diary entry triggered a particular memory for Alan Cornelius: ‘Early on in the war, a bomb fell on a nearby farm, killing a bull. Your dad said this was abominable. It was typical of him. He always was a sharp one.’ I thought back to how my father always used to make up limericks and nonsense rhymes, and imagined him honing this skill amongst his peers. He’d come to the village with his mother and baby brother, not as part of a school group, so a sense of humour and aptitude for word play might have eased the path to acceptance by his new classmates.

My aunt was the first in the family to arrive in East Coker when war broke out, ending up there with part of her all-girls grammar school in Camberwell. Yet, while my aunt was sent to Somerset, my father was initially evacuated with his local primary school to Leatherhead in Surrey where he was billeted alongside other children with a Mormon family. Years later, he remembered them chiefly for the fact that they watered down the milk and gave their charges the cast-off bicycles of the junior members of the Kennedy clan. (Joseph Kennedy – then American ambassador to Great Britain – had stayed in a house in nearby Headley during the first year of the war, before being forced to resign in November 1940). I like to imagine my father cycling to school on J.F.K’s old bicycle, and sometimes wonder if that was the source of my parents’ on-going joke that our family and the Kennedys shared a series of (near) parallel death dates. In an uncanny twist of fate, my father was to eventually die in January 1995, several hours before Rose Kennedy did.

True as I’m riding this bicycle: My father used to say this a great deal, something which delighted and annoyed the rest of the family in equal measure. For several years I thought it was ‘Trew’s riding this bicycle’, or words to that effect (another of my father’s favourite expressions). However, it was a while before I finally learnt what he was actually saying – and more importantly, what it meant. He used the  phrase whenever he was pressed about the veracity of the stories he told, so that in the end we could never know what had really happened and what was made up (a trait he shared with his brother). Possibly this was a way for my father to avoid having to go deeper into certain topics or give away too many personal details, something he hated doing. So for most of his life, none of us – including my mother- knew much about his background. However, as I mentioned last month, ‘fact is often stranger than fiction’, and I think my father secretly enjoyed the absurdity of recounting the kind of story which sounds as if it could be made up but was in fact actually true.

Of course, once the 1939 register was available for consultation (and even then I had to wait a couple of years until the redacted names of those who might still be alive were released) I saw that so much of what he’d remembered had actually happened. My father had stayed with a large Russian-American Mormon family not far from the Kennedy’s home. I came to the conclusion that if these facts were true, then why not the bicycle story. There are many people I know (myself included) who might have dined out on such an anecdote for years, but although a good raconteur, my father shied away from the limelight. My mother now admits she wished she’d questioned him more about his past, and I often wonder if that is the main reason why my London family genealogy was so compelling. From an early age I always associated the Skelton family with an unknown – but possibly romantic – backstory. In contrast, I felt (erroneously, I realise now) that I knew a great deal about the Scottish side of my family, removing their mystery for me.

Within a year, my father was back in London  – like many families the ‘phoney war’ had lulled them into a false sense of security – with my grandparents omitting to tell my aunt, lest she also wanted to return home. My father remembered the constant trips to the air raid shelter (always when he was setting out his lead soldiers), so this would have been in the autumn of 1940, when the bombing  started in earnest. Having only recently moved the family from a dilapidated Victorian terrace in Brixton to a modern, cottage-style semi on the Bloomfield Hall Estate in West Norwood, my poor grandmother must have despaired at ever being able to create the comfortable family home she craved.

One inauspicious afternoon, my father arrived back from school to find my grandfather standing at the end of their road, suitcases at his feet, saying that their house had taken a hit and they would be ‘going away’. It is one of the very few things I remember my father telling us about that period in his life – apart from the spectacle of watching the Crystal Palace burn down from his upstairs bedroom window in the old family house in Denmark Road, so I realise it must have been an important memory.

Crystal_Palace_fire_1936Crystal Palace Fire, November, 1936

A Blazing Arch of Lucid Glass: The voiceover accompanying this Pathé newsreel clip above illuminates (no pun intended!) both the iconic status of this building and the horrific drama of the fire which destroyed it. In 1936 the Crystal Palace was already 85 years old, and yet next year (2021) marks a further 85 years since it burned to the ground in such a dramatic way. So just as there are still people alive today who remember the terrible conflagration which lit up the sky over South London and could be seen for miles around, there must have been old people then who could recall the wonder of the new glass building in Hyde Park, perhaps even having seen the exotic exhibits on display during The Great Exhibition in 1861.

However, by the time my father saw the smoke and flames rising above Sydenham Hill the Crystal Palace was certainly not the exalted place it had once been, with the surrounding gardens popular places for working class families to gather on Sundays. My aunt recalls the whole family going there to watch the motor racing which took place in the grounds from 1927, a fact that surprised me at the time but proved to be correct. The actual building had several uses over the years – there were the popular Saturday music concerts, and it even housed the Imperial War Museum for a few years in the 1920s. However, historians agree that by the end of the 19th century, the Crystal Palace’s best days were over.

As a family historian, I am interested in the fact that the Crystal Palace and gardens links the two unknown sides of my family: both the ‘struggling’ and the wealthy. The former branch of the family (from which I descend) may or may not have visited the Great Exhibition (an event which cut through the classes as long as one could afford the one shilling entrance fee) but they certainly took advantage of the building’s relocation to South London to enjoy their Sunday downtime. Some of the wealthier side of the family – the ‘undiscovered’ branch – were actually involved in The Great Exhibition itself, with James William Skelton’s in-laws (the Sleath family) winning an award for their glass eyes (see Artificial Limbs on Curious Plans).

When the newly dubbed Sleath-Skelton family took up residence in The Avenue in Dulwich, they were only a stone’s throw from the Crystal Palace, which had moved there from Hyde Park only a few years previously. Then the glass building and its surrounding grounds was seen as a neighbourhood attraction which brought the railway to this rural outpost. But as the century moved to its end, the area filled up with the new railway commuters and rows of terraced housing began to march over the fields, gobbling up the market gardens and dairy fields, and in the process attracting more of those who were seeking cheaper housing. This was how my great-grandparents ended up in the area (in nearby Romanny Road) for a few years in the late 19th century, and again in 1938 when my grandparents moved to a new house on the Bloomfield Estate, a place they all loved. The concept of the interwar cottage estate particularly interests me, and there is some fascinating information about the ones in Lambeth at the excellent Municipal Dreams blog here.

P1030886 (2)My grandparents’ house on the Bloomfield Estate, today

In the end, my grandmother took her two boys to Somerset to join their older sister in a bid to keep them all together, while my grandfather stayed in London working as a tram conductor at the Camberwell depot, a reserved occupation, although as a veteran of the Great War, he was too old to serve again. My aunt later told me that this was not an easy time for my grandmother: in her first billet she stayed with a woman who treated her like her own personal skivvy. This must have been galling to a mature mother of three, but she eventually found a more convivial place for the family in a cottage at Burton Farm, where the Dunning family lived. And this was the place where my father retained strong memories of helping out on the farm with the other children – and which gave him his lifelong love of the British countryside.

BUR_COTBurton Farm Cottage, East Coker, today

The more I heard from Alan Cornelius about life in East Coker during the war, the more I realised that evacuation to the village would not necessarily have been a hardship. Most of the villagers appeared to have made a great effort to integrate the evacuees, and many of the youngsters were pleased to welcome the newcomers to their clubs and dances. As my father’s old schoolfriend pointed out to me himself: What adolescent hasn’t rejoiced at the injection of new ‘talent’ into their midst?

It is never too soon to start asking questions: Like many evacuees, including several in East Coker, my aunt actually married her childhood village sweetheart. Jack Boucher, was an older and ‘cooler’ local lad who also featured in the 1944 Whitsun Monday photograph. Even as an old man, Alan Cornelius remembered him well, writing in his unpublished memoirs: Our 1940s equivalent of ‘The Fonz’ was a young man several years our senior. He was a natural leader in everything that the youth of the day rated as important. He then listed my uncle’s achievements on the sporting field as well as describing his prowess at organising youth entertainments, going on to say: I rarely saw him idle his time away, and he undoubtedly set a high standard for all the other lads around him.

I was lucky enough to meet up with my uncle again (after many years) in 2005 on my first visit to East Coker, and wish I’d asked him more about his upbringing in the village. Sadly it would be the last time I’d see him, and just like the passing of Alan Cornelius it underscored for me how important it was to talk to those who held the memories of the past. And yet there is still this part of me which is reticent to ask too much – perhaps after having a father who did not like to talk about his childhood I’m afraid to upset or offend elderly friends and relatives. I sometimes wonder now if I’ll ever see my aunt again, and wish I had not been so cavalier about my ageing relatives in my youth, particularly when I was first carrying out family research in the mid-80s and early 90s. 

The photograph below shows the East Coker Boys Club, taken in 1944 at Coker Court. My father is in the front row, far left (kneeling) and Alan Cornelius and Jack Boucher are also in the front row, 3rd and 2nd from the right, respectively. In his memoirs, Alan wrote: Over the last few years of the war, there were some twenty of us, but the core group were no more than eight, with others moving in and out for a variety of reasons. 

East Coker Boys ClubEast Coker Boys’ Club, 1944

Despite the charms of East Coker, for the rest of his life my father was to wonder what direction his life’s trajectory might have taken had he been able to attend the prestigious James Alleyne’s School in Dulwich. He remembered the smart uniform which had already been bought, and the sense of life about to begin; but the war sent him off spinning in another direction, away from his scholarship studies. East Coker, however, kept him rooted during a time of great upheaval. And he was, I believe, always grateful for that.

The Incidental Genealogist, December, 2020

The Lost Family – Part 2

The amateur ‘snapshots’ surviving in today’s collections most often date from the 1910s onwards, when more families took up photography. Visual clues such as dress details and any vehicles in the scene can often aid close dating.

Jayne Shrimpton, Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs (2014)

P1070475 (2)My Skelton Grandparents, Hayling Island, 1950s

This month I will be continuing with my family story as I edit the first 5,000 words of A London Family for a memoir writing competition. In October’s blog post (see The Lost Family – Part 1),  I began by outlining the background to my quest, focusing on my experience of working as a probate genealogist or so-called heir hunter in London in the 1980s. Now I turn to the more recent past, when an unknown photograph of my father as a boy reignited my interest in researching my paternal family history.

Just as I did last month, I will also be commenting on both the editing process and my own response to my earliest chapters, given that I can now look back on the beginnings of the project with the hindsight from over a decade of carrying out my second wave of genealogical research.  Writing the monthly blog chapters has forced me to distil facts, choose an angle, and try to make each post a standalone narrative, which enabled me to make some sort of sense of my quest from the very beginning. This was definitely preferable to simply conducting the bulk of the research first, even if it did mean I sometimes had to revisit old ground as the project progressed. However, while I feel this gave the narrative a pleasing circular structure which meant new readers could come on board at any time, it remains to be seen how successfull I will be at turning the story into a more traditional book-length narrative. It will certainly be an interesting process, and one which I hope will improve my writing and editing skills.

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The Lost Family: Part 2

I’m not being entirely truthful when I say I did not have any photographs of my paternal family. Some years after my father died, my mother came across a handful of old snapshots in a battered leather wallet at the back of a drawer, one of which was recognisably a small black-and-white image of my English grandparents flanking their first car (a retirement treat) on a day trip to Hayling Island in the late 1950s. All the other photos were disappointingly of unknown friends and work colleagues, but one of the pictures fascinated me in particular. It was the only hand-coloured one in the collection, and showed five boys under a tree, relaxed and grinning at an unknown photographer, long pointed sticks in their hands. On the reverse, in faded blue ink, was written: Expedition to East Coker Woods, Whit Monday 1944. It was not difficult to locate my father (to the far right) and my future uncle (through marriage) behind him.

Coker Woods

The Uncanny Art: I’ve included this iconic photograph of my father and his friends in many of the posts over the years because I find it a very powerful image, particularly as it is responsible for all my recent genealogical research and writing to date. Not only do I feel it has a slightly otherwordly quality to it (the hand colouring is possibly the reason for this), but it was this image that encouraged my interest in the cultural theory of photography. This led me to read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida and On Photography by Susan Sonntag (amongst other texts), illustrating that family history is a wide-ranging subject that if tackled with an open mind can bring its own intellectual rewards. Exploring these side-shoots has been one of the most fascinating aspects of the project and something which I certainly would not have done to the same extent had I not also been constructing a narrative around the topics that might interest other researchers (see Those Ghostly Traces). 

From the date (my father was born in 1928) I knew the boys were all teenagers, but their old-fashioned clothes and obvious pleasure in their bank holiday outing made them seem much younger. In fact, such was the incongruity of the image that I was instantly reminded of Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hillsset in 1943, where a group of children, played by adults, set off to play in the Forest of Dean, with tragic consequences. I’d even watched that film with my father, who was normally averse to anything by Dennis Potter.

That picture must have been taken when Dad was an evacuee my mother explained. He was sent to Somerset during the war. I think his mother’s family originally came from there.

But wasn’t the town called Yeovil – not East Coker? I remembered the name because my father had occasionally mentioned his wartime years there. When I was young he told me about collecting newts in jam jars, about raiding birds’ nests for eggs (of which he was later ashamed), about hunting for shrapnel in the lanes. Later he added other tales to his repertoire: the dances in the village hall, drinking scrumpy straight from the farmer’s barrel, shooting rabbits. But when I asked my father where exactly this place was, all he said was that it was called Yeovil. To my Scottish ears, the strange name sounded like the kind of mythical English village of perpetual idyllic summers, where hollyhocks and sunflowers towered high above the inhabitants, and children were free to run through woods and fields and lanes.

cottageThatched Cottages in East Coker

A Lost Eden: As I’ve mentioned before, growing up in Scotland with an English father meant that, although I felt very much Scottish, part of me was fascinated with the idea of London and the south of England, where my Skelton relatives all lived. As a child I loved the glamour of the capital, so it is not surprising that I headed there to live and work after graduating in 1984. But I was also entranced with the idea of the mythical West Country, especially as on family trips ‘down south’ to see our English cousins I always delighted in the very exotic looking thatched cottages with their colourful gardens. A visit to the White Horse in Berkshire – while not technically in the West Country – only added to the sense that there was something mysterious about the landscape. In contrast I felt that Scotland was too harsh, cold and wet for my liking (I have since revised my opinion) and that I really should have grown up in a village like East Coker. It is no surprise that as a teenager I devoured the novels of Thomas Hardy and loved to visit the nearby countryside when I lived in London, even if only to walk in the green belt near to my first flat in North London (see A Rose in Holly Park).

I pulled out the old AA drivers’ map circa 1988 that had little use in a family of non-drivers in the 21st century. Once I located Yeovil it wasn’t that difficult to find the Cokers (East, West and North – where was South?) standing to the south-west of Yeovil like sentries. But there was something about the name that seemed vaguely familiar. It niggled at me for days before I later came across the T.S. Eliot poem of the same name – part of the Four Quartets. I thought it strange that my father, who loved poetry, had never bothered to tell me about the village and its link to Eliot, particularly when I had studied the writer so intensively in my final years of school.

As we were growing up, my father had given us an eclectic mix of poetry books, from Seamus Heaney’s North to Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, and he must have been aware of the connection Eliot had to East Coker. Although the poem had first been issued in pamphlet form by Faber and Faber in 1940  (then reprinted several times, such was its popularity), the Four Quartets was not published until several years later, so my father would certainly have heard about the poem at some point. It was almost as if he’d never wanted us to know the exact location of the place which had taken away so much with one hand (his home in London; his coveted scholarship to the posh school in Dulwich), but had bestowed gifts with the other (love and respect for nature; an appreciation and understanding of the British countryside).

P1050432

Four Quartets: I first came across T.S. Eliot when I studied The Journey of the Magi while preparing for my English exams. Despite being entranced by the poem, I do remember that this was also the catalyst for my decision not to study English literature. Class time was short, and it was not possible to question the images and language of the poem ourselves, given that we had less than a year to prepare for our final exams. Cramming was the order of the day. However, I could not stop wondering whether Eliot would have even agreed with Brodie’s Notes explanations of the symbolism he used in the poem.

Reading Eliot as a mature adult is an altogether different experience, and each time I pick up the Four Quartets I see something else in the work. East Coker, in particular, is a fascinating journey into Eliot’s state of mind at midlife at the outbreak of war. He first visited the village in 1936 when on a pilgrimage to his ancestral home – Andrew Eliot had left East Coker for America around 1650 – and later requested his ashes be buried in St Michael’s church in the village. As Peter Ackroyd points out in his celebrated biography of Eliot: It was the final dramatic, but telling, gesture.

Eliot’s long interest in Buddhism is clearly evident in the poem, yet it was not until a few years ago that I realised to how great an extent. While travelling in Japan one summer I came across a little-visited hillside temple in Kyoto on the banks of the Hozu-Gawa river. A flight of steep stone stairs led up to the building and at the top was a small viewing hall which afforded good views of the city and surrounding countryside. As well as containing binoculars for this purpose the room also had some strategically placed reading material in both Japanese and English. There were the usual crudely published pamphlets, concerned with the history of the temple and information about its founder, but also some photocopied sheets of Buddhist poetry. 

Temple View

I picked up a couple and began reading – before I realised with a sudden shock of recognition how close they were to the Four Quartets in rhythm, language and meaning. Poems such as The Song of Zazen and The Heart Sutra had clearly been very influential on Eliot, who had always incorporated ideas from other sources into his work.  Eliot himself once said that Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal, bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. But whatever you may think about Eliot’s ‘appropriation’, these Buddhist poems certainly gave me a deeper understanding of the Four Quartets and the eternal message of redemption contained within.

A few weeks later I came across the on-line version of the East Coker Newsletter while searching for more information about the village. An announcement proclaimed that a weekend of special events to commemorate the 60th anniversary of VE and VJ Day had been organised for the second weekend in July. This seemed to resonate with my own plans to visit, and I knew then that I had to make the trip.

East Coker Commemorations

What I couldn’t have foreseen is that the date of my first visit to East Coker would forever become linked in my mind with the London bombings. That weekend was due to be hot, and as my mother and I boarded our flight from Edinburgh on the morning of July 7th we were oblivious to the horrific events unfolding in the capital. But the news soon filtered through, and in the end we were unable to leave our luggage to look around Bristol as planned, so took the next west-bound train and ate our limp picnic in the stuffy compartment while the ticket collector nervously prowled the corridors, checking and re-checking for any stray bags. As we watched the lush West Country scenery slip past it was hard to imagine the scenes of carnage in the capital – just as it must have been difficult for those who moved from London to the countryside for the duration of the war to envisage the destruction of the Blitz.

An auspicious date: When I first wrote about visiting East Coker on the 7th of July 2005, I omitted to mention the London bombings as it had not really impacted on our visit, as terrible as the terrorist attacks were. I also found it difficult to weave the two events together but felt instinctively that by not mentioning the attacks it was somehow disrespectful to those who had been affected by them. I thought long and hard about this, then remembered the situation in the train with luggage, and saw that as a way of connecting the bombings with the story of the evacuees.

This is probably one of the most challenging aspects about writing non-fiction – trying to create a coherent narrative from disparate events. It also emphasises how important it is to be aware of the external environment at key moments in a family’s history and how this can impact on individuals. It could be something as simple as checking the weather on an ancestor’s wedding day (I was able to do this for my great-great grandfather’s wedding in 1823), to understanding the contemporary political and legal system, and how this affected the citizens of a country or a region.

Yet after everything I’d expected from the ancient-sounding name, Yeovil seemed an unprepossessing place. Disaffected youths roamed the bland post-war shopping centre beside the bus station, and there was a feeling the market town had seen better days. I was beginning to wonder if we were in for a similar disappointment with East Coker. After all, it had been my father who’d always said we should never go back anywhere. He himself had returned in the 1980s and was saddened by the changes to the village, and reluctant to talk about the experience. But I consoled myself with the thought that, as we had no memories of the place, whatever we might see or experience would be a revelation to us.

From Yeovil we caught a local bus to East Coker, travelling the way some of the evacuees might have come on September 1st, 1939. Before long, a cast iron signpost, of the kind seldom seen nowadays, pointed us in the direction of East Coker. The bus suddenly veered off down a narrow lane which sank deeper into the surrounding land the farther we travelled along it. Snake-like roots of ancient hedgerows protruded from the sandy soil, while above us the tree canopy shut out most of the late afternoon sun. Then we rounded an unexpected corner and came into the village: a place that looked as if it should not – could not – belong in the twenty-first century.

East Coker Holloway‘Holloway’ on the approach to East Coker

From those first impressions (the patriotic red, white and blue bunting strung up across the main road between the thatched cottages; the alms houses by the church; the hayricks in the fields), to later, more personal information (so this is the farm where Dad once lived; this is the hall where he first went dancing; this is the church where he carved his name in the vestry), we gradually learnt about the modern-day village and its shadowy wartime predecessor. Walking across the damp fields at dusk towards the warm light of the pub on that first evening, it was almost possible to imagine that the past might still exist in some ghostly form alongside the present.

In the heat of the following day on a sunken footpath which led through the woods to the old priory, I lay down, head to the red soil, and heard the drum of distant hooves and the click of mid-summer insects. For those few seconds it felt as if the earth was struggling to gather up the momentum to move backwards, to reveal something to me – until the shouts of children in the playing fields broke through the thick afternoon air.

East Coker FootpathFootpath to Naish Priory

That weekend I finally met the boy who’d taken the photograph in the woods on Whitsun Monday over sixty years previously. He was manning one of the stalls in the village hall war exhibition, and his table was a jumble of WW2 paraphernalia: old ration books, bits of home guard uniform, various pieces of ammunition. Part of his collection was dedicated to the story of the relationship between the local children and the evacuees.

It was there I saw it. Amongst the letters and diaries and various bits and bobs of printed memorabilia, was my own photograph, but in black-and-white, and mounted in a crude wooden frame. Not trusting myself to speak, I reached into my bag, pulled out my hand-coloured version and passed it across the table, watching the old man’s face twitch as he struggled to work out the connection.

Stranger Than Fiction: There’s a hackneyed saying that life is stranger than fiction, which must be dispiriting for fiction writers who are trying to curb their enthusiasm for coincidence and serendipity. But on that that day when I met Alan Cornelius, I felt that I’d slipped between the pages of a novel and that anything could happen. I suppose in some kind of novel I might have ended up falling in love with his youngest son; although this being real life, I never met his sons who, like myself, are all relatively happily married. However, I did meet one of his granddaughters the following year when I went to visit him at his home. She arrived with some courgettes for him from her parents’ garden, although this might have just been a reason to look in on him. For he was already ill with the cancer that would soon take his life, and sadly this was the first and last time I ever got to talk to him at length. That was the day he gave me a copy of part of his unfinished manuscript about his childhood, and I felt very honoured to be entrusted with his memories. 

In the blog I have quoted at length from his reminiscences about the ‘vacuees (as he called them) but removed this from the manuscript. One of the joys of blogging is that you are not restricted by traditional publishing conventions, and I felt very much that his story should be told in his own words. As an ex local councillor, Alan Cornelius was also very interested in discussing politics and we had a very lively couple of hours together talking about all and sundry (including his military badge collection). It sometimes feels disrespectful to focus on the past when ‘interviewing’ those who can shed light on family history as they are often just as involved with the present as we are. I was aware of this, too, when I went to visit my aunt last summer. Although she could bring my father’s childhood to life just by looking at an old photograph, she was also very much living in the moment.

It was then I learnt about that day out in the woods. A moment of late childhood, hanging high and free above the dark shadow cast by the war, and caught on camera like a dragonfly in ether for the dissection of future generations.

To be continued . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2020

Looking Back

Out on the road today
I saw a deadhead sticker on a cadillac
A little voice inside my head said:
“Don’t look back, you can never look back”

Don Henley, The Boys of Summer (1984)

SUNSET AT DUNURESunset over Arran from Dunure, Ayrshire

Here we are again, back at the start of summer, with our nostalgic (false?) memories of long school holidays and their endless weeks of sunshine. Frustratingly, where I grew up in south-west Scotland it was often the pre-summer weeks which were the warmest and driest. Not this year, though. I spent most of a rather chilly and wet June in the seaside village of Dunure, staying in a converted fisherman’s cottage – one of several in a whitewashed terrace which face onto the shore. The eponymously named ‘Seaview’  was a simple row of houses I’d loved as a child: back then it had reminded me of the kind of places Enid Blyton’s very English characters stayed in for their summer ‘hols’ (possibly because it was how I imagined Cornwall to look like).

DEAVIEW AT SUNSET.JPGSunset on Seaview Cottages, Dunure, Ayrshire

The cottages overlook a sheltered bay, with a medieval ruined castle on one side and a small harbour on the other and it would be not too difficult to imagine some un-PC adventure involving smugglers and gipsies taking place there in classic Blyton fashion. So picturesque is the village and its surroundings that it was recently the site of filming for the television series Outlander (a time-travelling adventure set in 18th century Scotland based on the books of the same name by Diana Gabaldan).

DUNURE BEACH.JPGDunure beach and ruined castle, Ayrshire

Since the success of the TV series, Dunure is no longer a wee secret on Scotland’s lesser-known south-west coast. (There are even signs at both entrances to the village proclaiming it as an Outlander film site). But yet it still relatively quiet when compared with other coastal destinations in the UK. Maybe this is because it is a place you cannot pass through accidentally – the road down to the tiny harbour parts company from the main coastal route from Ayr a couple of miles back, winding its way through a dense canopy of vegetation. As a child, this was part of the excitement of getting there – it felt like travelling through a living tunnel into another doll-sized world. And after parking in Kennedy Park, near the ruined castle, we’d usually have the pick of Dunure’s many small secluded bays, tucked in beside the basalt cliffs, that make this part of the coastline so impressive.

WITH GRANDAD AT DUNURE.JPGWith Grandad Skelton at Kennedy Park, Dunure c1970

For the past five years I’ve been returning to this spot for my spring or summer holidays with my husband and some of our family in tow. Despite the village’s relatively hidden location, there is a regular bus service from the nearby town of Ayr, so we never bother to rent a car when we visit, preferring to explore the coastline on foot or by kayak. The area never fails to disappoint, whatever the weather. Even – or especially – when it rains, there can be something glorious about beachcombing when the shore is glistening with small shiny pebbles that look like they have come from a giant’s sweetie jar, upended in a fit of pique. It is then we like to search along the tideline for one of Dunure’s hidden gifts: agates.

COASTAL PATH DUNURE.JPGOn the Ayrshire Coastal path at Dunure

On any given day, there is always someone poking around on the numerous beaches, looking for these semi-precious stones, and the area has been well-known by collectors since the 19th century. For the uninitiated, it can at first be difficult to know exactly what to look for; but once the eye settles in, they pop up all over the place. Agates are basically layers of silica made up of microscopic crystals which have coated the inside of cavities in molten rock and are often striated, lending them their beauty. Although they are usually found as fragments due to their propensity to shatter, the ones I especially love collecting are the intact nodules, despite the fact that without specialist cutting equipment the internal patterns of the stone remain hidden from view. However, the surface of these round agates has a charm of its own: it is often pitted, and has a waxy lustre, and many are half-transparent when held up to the light. I have a bowl of these other-worldly looking gems at home that never fails to intrigue guests, particularly the paler ones, which look like miniature moons complete with craters.

AGATES FROM DUNURE.JPGAgates from Dunure

Collecting agates remind of researching the lives of ancestors: it is always difficult to stop because you never know from where the next nugget of information will come. And then there is the fact that even if you do find something, it is usually just a fragment of the whole story. Yet genealogical research adds another dimension to everyday life in the way that searching for agates changes a beach stroll into something more than just a walk along the shore. Some days you might want to spend a long time focused on one spot, shifting the pebbles around; another day you might simply want to glance down occasionally at your feet and see if anything catches your eye.

Like genealogical research, the intact agates hold their secrets internally with just a hint of what their story is on their outer crust. As modern-day social historians, we are also constantly struggling to get below the surface of things. We can peruse these wonderful maps of where our ancestors lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, and sometimes beyond, but know that unless documented in a sketch, or painting – or later in a photograph, the view of these streets and houses are lost to us. And that is only one sense: what of the smells and sounds and textures that our forbearers experienced? We may be lucky enough to have an image of the places where they lived and worked – or photographs of our ancestors themselves. Yet even these may prove to frustratingly hide more than they reveal. As Roland Barthes points out at the beginning of Camera Lucida (his book on the nature of photography): The first thing I found was this. What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially. (For more about Barthes and photography, see Those Ghostly Traces).

I believe that is what makes returning to our childhood homes after a long absence such an unsettling experience – it may look the same in many respects, but without the sounds, sights and smells of our formative experiences it is only a simulacrum of the place in which we grew up. I had this sensation when one day during our stay in Dunure my mother and I took the local bus in to the village of Alloway – the suburb of Ayr famous for being the birthplace of the poet Robert Burns – where we lived from 1964 to 1995. We both felt strangely out of place as we walked around the village, looking at the changes time had wrought. What I found particularly disturbing was the absence of the imposing red sandstone Victorian school which I’d attended from 1969 to 1976, and which had been demolished* in 2008.

*I discovered later that during the demolition a ‘time capsule’ from 1895, placed there when the school was being built, had been discovered in a wall by one of the workers (named Frank). The local paper stated that: Frank had the presence of mind to turn off the machinery and go and have a closer look. The jar turned out to be a time capsule buried 113 years ago in 1895. The pupils got the chance to have a close look at the contents of the capsule and learn a bit about life back in the time of Queen Victoria. Inside the blown-glass jar was an architect’s drawing of the school, minutes and accounts, coins from the time and copies of several newspapers of the day. (Although I realise that for present-day children, this time capsule probably still would have been considered very old if it had been found to have dated from my period at the school!)

When the new teaching buildings (termed ‘the huts’) were hastily built in the 1970s to cope with the demands of the village expanding into a suburb, the original school had remained as the infants’ department. But the 21st century obviously needed a new type of school, and a few years ago the whole lot was torn down and completely rebuilt. Passing the modern building on that afternoon in Alloway, all I could see that remained of the old school was the white tiled wall of the outdoor Victorian toilet block, now incorporated into the outer wall of the new schoolyard.

It was a strange feeling to see that that wall – of all things – had remained. The toilet block had not been a pleasant place to visit in those days, explaining why many children had ‘accidents’ during the lessons. This was because the school bullies used to lurk there, trying to inflict ‘Chinese burns’ on the infants (or worse). I was at least heartened to see that the old sandstone wall which once separated the schoolyard from Robertson’s Field (but now divides the school from an up-market housing estate and sports ground) was still there. Possibly this was due to memories of sitting beside the wall on warm afternoons before the summer holidays, having al fresco lessons. I remembered how we used to take our little wooden chairs outside and sit in a circle as the teacher read to us, or we listened to a story on the school radio. 

ROBERTSONS FIELDRobertson’s Field could not be saved (c) Ayrshire Post, 2018

That day in Alloway I began to get an inkling of what my father must have felt when he returned to East Coker in the late 1980s, almost fifty years after arriving as a London evacuee to join his mother, baby brother and older sister in the village (see East Coker). Like myself, he would have witnessed a new generation of people living there who all knew each other but whom were strangers to him. Perhaps just as I did, he wanted to stand in the local shop and tell them what it used to look like half a century ago, when sweets were bought from jars with old money, and farthings and ha’pennies would always fetch you something (if only a white mouse or a liquorice bootlace). Or that once there were fields and lanes where now there are ugly, modern, sprawling houses with ridiculous made-up names. No wonder he told us children that as adults we should ‘never go back’.

When my mother and I first visited East Coker we had nothing to compare it with, so viewed it simply as ‘Eliot’s Village’, modernised, but still with the ‘shuttered lanes’ and ‘hollyhocks which aim too high’ and a pleasing lack of streetlights which allowed us to view the night sky. But for my father, the post-war advances in farming, along with the new houses built to accommodate those who longed to live in such a desirable spot, would have added up to a considerable change. And of course there is the obvious psychological effect of revisiting an old haunt that is more difficult to pin down. A sense of shifting time and space that reinforces the ephemeral quality of life.

For that reason, keeping my father’s advice in mind, this time I did not visit our old family home in Alloway where we’d all once lived (in various combinations) for over thirty years. I’d done so several years before and felt awkward walking slowly past the house (now much changed and extended) a couple of times in a road devoid of pedestrians. It was difficult to believe that the four of us had all resided in the original little bungalow with the tiny bathroom for so long – no wonder there had been tensions during our teenage years!

DOONHOLM ROAD.JPG1963 brochure for our house in Alloway (ours was a mirror image)

What had once seemed an expansive front garden now appeared small and suburban – although I noticed with delight that all the trees my father had planted at the back, to give us privacy, towered over the house. It was hard to imagine that the bungalow had been the epitome of modern chic in 1963, and the garden originally nothing but a fenced in square of mud which my father had transformed with the help of Grandad Skelton, no stranger to growing his own fruit and vegetables out of wartime necessity.

GRANDAD IN THE GARDEN.JPGGrandad Skelton after a spot of gardening in Alloway, c1967

My mother told me later that they had never intended to stay so long in the house, having a vague plan to move to London after a couple of years if my father (an air traffic controller) could get a posting to Heathrow Airport. But perhaps it was just as well that we accidentally stayed in Ayrshire for the first chunk of my life, as it means I still have a place to return to which can be called ‘home’. And maybe that is the difference between my own peacetime childhood and that of my father’s. After the war interrupted his life in South London, he was forced to integrate into a new community which was very different from the one in which he’d grown up. Thus years later, when he was ‘looking back’ at his youth from the perspective of middle age, he had two very different sets of memories to consider.

Regular readers may know that it is the story of my father’s wartime evacuation to East Coker in Somerset which sparked my current genealogical quest (see In My Beginning is My End), and it has been a recurring motive in my writing on the subject. So I am delighted to announce that in August I will be returning to East Coker with my cousin, where we have arranged to meet up with our aunt. I envisage our 3-day trip as a sort of middle-age genealogical version of Thelma and Louise with a National Trust card thrown in for good measure. And as well as perhaps solving a few mysteries which my research has thrown up, I hope that our visit will also spark some new stories about the London branch of my family which I can share with you later in the year, when – in the words of Don Henley – The summer’s out of reach.

NUMBER 33.JPG

Wishing everyone a warm and sunny July!

The Incidental Genealogist, July 2019

East Coker

What is the late November doing

With the disturbance of the spring

And creatures of the summer heat,

And snowdrops writhing under feet

And hollyhocks that aim too high

Red into grey and tumble down

Late roses filled with early snow?

T.S. Eliot, East Coker (1940)

East Coker is a place that has mostly won the battle to preserve its rural charms, mainly due to the Eliot connection, and still has few modern buildings or street lights. Visitors come to see the “deep lanes”, “the open fields”, the houses of “grey stone” and the “hollyhocks that aim too high”. It has even been said that Eliot based part of his poem on the 1876 Friedrich Gerstäcker tale of the mysterious community of Germelshausen, where the population had been cursed by the pope and were only allowed to come out of the earth for one day of revelry every hundred years. There is certainly a feeling of liminality when entering the village through the ancient lanes that resemble tunnels into another world. And it is not too difficult to imagine that the place is haunted by the spectre of an earlier time which can only be faintly glimpsed at certain moments.

The morning I met Alan Cornelius – the old man who had taken the photograph in Coker woods on that Whit Monday over sixty years ago (see In my Beginning is my End) – the village was looking its time-warped best. The jaunty, red, white and blue bunting strung up between the thatched houses in the main street hung still in the mid-summer air, and the sounds of hay stooking cut across the yellow fields. The Helyar Arms was preparing for its first customers, and the church was alive with the bustle of middle-aged women setting the final touches to the arrangements in St Michael’s Church flower festival.

Flower Festival at St Michael's Church, East Coker

St Michaels's East Coker

St Michael’s and All Saints, East Coker

By noon the cow parsley in the hedgerows was wilting in the heat, and the exhibition in the village hall was coming to a close. We called those long wooden sticks ‘staves’ back then Alan Cornelius said, as he packed away his black-and white copy of ‘my’ photograph amongst his other WW2 memorabilia. And we were off to fight the enemy in the woods. He shook his head. It seems like a lifetime ago now!

Among all the other bits and pieces on his stall that the younger visitors to the exhibition found so fascinating, was a copy of his childhood diary. The short, scribbled entries illustrated just how exciting the war could seem to a thirteen year old boy. There were numerous descriptions of long bike rides searching for incendiaries in the surrounding fields, building model aeroplanes bought from a shop in Yeovil, watching out for enemy aircraft, visiting the local Westland Aircraft Factory (where Lysanders or ‘Lizzies’ were built). 

One diary entry triggered a particular memory for Alan Cornelius which made me smile: Early on in the war a bomb fell on a nearby farm, killing a bull. Your dad said this was ‘abominable’. It was typical of him. He always was a sharp one. I thought back to how my father used to make up  limericks and nonsense rhymes when we were young, and could imagine him honing this skill amongst his peers. He had arrived in the village with his mother and baby brother as a ‘lone’ evacuee, not as part of a school group, so a sense of humour and an aptitude for word play might have eased the path to acceptance by his new classmates.

My aunt was actually the first in the family to be sent to East Coker when war broke out, being evacuated with part of her school, and was the reason my father finally ended up in the village. Alan Cornelius described this event in his unpublished memoirs as such: 

The pupils of the Charles Edward Brooke School for Girls in Camberwell had left their school at 8am on the morning of Friday September 1st, and after a train journey of over four hours from Waterloo to Yeovil Town Station via the Junction, arrived at the reception centre in the Yeovil Liberal Hall in the early afternoon. Here they were divided into ‘Village Groups’, and the East Coker contingent arrived at the village hall sometime around 4pm, resplendent in felt hats, uniforms and badges, and with school staff, house mothers and an air of genteel respectability which most foster parents found very acceptable and in stark contrast to the primary school children from Battersea who had preceded them by some hours. Even so, there was still the air of a cattle market over the business of placements in foster homes.

Children from the Charles Edward Brooke (girls) School boarding trams in Camberwell New Road. The children are to be taken to Waterloo station for evacuation, 1939. (1998/36461)

Children from the Charles Edward Brooke (girls) School boarding trams in Camberwell New Road. The children are to be taken to Waterloo station for evacuation, 1939. (1998/36461) (c) London Transport Museum

Click here to read a personal account of evacuation from the Charles Edward Brooke School, (which coincidentally was recorded on the day I first visited East Coker).

While my aunt was sent to Somerset, my father was initially evacuated with the local Gipsy Hill primary school to Leatherhead in Surrey. There he was billeted alongside other children with a Mormon family whom he remembered chiefly for the fact that they gave their charges the cast-off bicycles of the junior members of the Kennedy clan. (Joseph Kennedy – then American ambassador to Great Britain – had stayed in a house in nearby Headley during the first year of the war, before being forced to resign in November 1940). I like to imagine my father cycling to school on J.F.K’s old bicycle, and sometimes wonder if that was the catalyst to my parents’ on-going joke that our family and the Kennedys shared a series of (near) parallel death dates. In an uncanny twist of fate, my father was to eventually die in January 1995, several hours before Rose Kennedy did.

Within a year, my father was back home in West Norwood  – like many London families the ‘phoney war’ had lulled them into a false sense of security – with my grandparents omitting to tell my aunt, lest she want to return too. My father remembered the constant trips to the air raid shelter (seemingly always when he was in the middle of a setting out his lead soldiers), so this would have been in the autumn of 1940, around the time that the bombing  started in earnest. Having only recently moved the family from a dilapidated Victorian terrace in Brixton to a modern, cottage-style semi on the Bloomfield Hall Estate, my poor grandmother must have despaired at ever being able to create the comfortable home she craved!

One inauspicious afternoon, my father arrived back home from school to find my grandfather standing at the end of their road, a couple of battered suitcases at his feet, telling him that their house had taken a hit and they would be ‘going away’ (the London bomb maps shows the area was heavily shelled during this period). It is one of the very few things I ever remember my father telling us about that period in his life – apart from the spectacle of watching The Crystal Palace burn down from his upstairs bedroom window in the old house in Denmark Road.

In the end, my grandmother took my father and his brother to Somerset to join their older sister in a bid to keep her children together, while my grandfather stayed in London working as a tram conductor out of the Camberwell depot. From my aunt, I know that this was not an easy time for my grandmother: in her first billet she stayed with a woman who lived in a cottage opposite the church, and who treated her like her own personal skivvy. This must have been galling to a mature mother of three who was used to being mistress of her own home, but she eventually found a more convivial place for the family in a cottage at Burton Farm, where the Dunning family lived. And this was the place where my father retained strong memories of helping out on the farm with the other children – and which gave him his lifelong love of the British countryside.

Burton Farm

Burton Farm, East Coker (now a listed building) – Burton Cottage is on the far right.

Burton Cottage

The more I heard from Alan Cornelius about life in East Coker during the war, the more I realised that evacuation to the village would not necessarily have been a hardship – as long as the children were placed with a sympathetic household. The villagers appeared to have made a great effort to integrate the evacuees, and many of the youngsters were pleased to welcome the newcomers to their clubs and dances. What adolescent hasn’t rejoiced at the injection of new ‘talent’ into their midst? Alan Cornelius describes the impact of the arrival of the girls from the Charles Edward Brooke School thus:

The Primary school children (from Battersea) with the few parents that accompanied them, soon became bored with country life. With the ‘Phoney War’ extending into 1940 and seeing little reason to remain evacuated, they returned in ones and twos to their familiar life in the city. A few did come back when the Blitz started in earnest and their school in the Mission Church in Burton remained in operation until nearly the end of the war.

The Mission Church, Burton Lane, which my grandmother used to clean

The Mission Church, Burton Lane, which my grandmother used to clean when it was used as a school.

The CEBS girls, however, settled down quickly, adjusted to the quiet country life and were much more concerned to complete their education with good School Certificates. Each day, coach loads of girls were bused in from the villages, and in the early days the local company of Barlow and Phillips used their rather ancient (even then) char-a-banc, a wide-bodied vehicle with a folding canvas roof and celluloid windows, on the East Coker run. A relic from the 1920s outings to the seaside, it produced much merriment with us ‘lads’, particularly if girls of our acquaintance were traveling in it. It didn’t take long for some of those to blossom into more fulsome friendships, although the village foster mothers were probably even more protective than their natural ones in guarding their charges from the amatory advances of the local youth.

The East Coker Boys Club,1944 at Coker Court

The ‘local youth’: East Coker Boys Club, 1944, at Coker Court. My father is on the far left (kneeling). Alan Cornelius is 3rd from the right (seated).

Despite the charms of East Coker, for the rest of his life my father was to wonder at what might have happened had he been able to take up his scholarship to attend the prestigious James Alleyne’s School in Dulwich. He remembered the smart uniform which had already been bought, and the sense of life about to begin; but the war sent him off spinning in another direction. East Coker, however, kept him rooted during a time of great upheaval and chaos. And he was, I believe, always grateful for that.

Western Gazette, July 15th 2005 (some factal inaccuracies)

Western Gazette, July 15th 2005 (some factual inaccuracies in regard to our story). Click on the image to read.

To be continued next month in I Remember, I Remember . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2015

 

In my Beginning is my End

In my beginning is my end, in succession

Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass

T.S. Eliot, East Coker (1940)

Perhaps I wasn’t being entirely truthful when I said last month that I did not have any photographs of my paternal family (see Begin Again). Some years after my father died, my mother came across a handful of old snapshots in a battered leather wallet, one of which was recognisably a small black and white picture of my English grandparents flanking their first car (a retirement treat) on a day trip to Hayling Island.

The other photographs, however, were disappointingly of unknown friends and colleagues. But one of the pictures fascinated me in particular. It was the only hand-coloured image in the collection, and showed five boys under a tree, relaxed and grinning at an unknown photographer, long pointed sticks in their hands. On the reverse was written in faded blue ink: Expedition to East Coker Woods, Whit Monday 1944. It was not difficult to locate my father (to the far right) and my future uncle (through marriage) behind him.

Expedition to East Coker Woods, Whit-Monday 1944

From the date (my father was born in 1928) I knew the boys were all most likely teenagers, but their old-fashioned clothes and obvious pleasure in their bank holiday outing made them seem much younger. In fact, such was the incongruity of the image that I was instantly reminded of Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills, set in 1943, where a group of children, played by adults, set off to play in the Forest of Dean, with tragic consequences. I had even watched that film with my father, who was normally averse to anything by Dennis Potter.

That must have been taken when Dad was an evacuee my mother explained. He was sent to Somerset. I think his mother’s family originally came from somewhere near there.

But wasn’t the place called Yeovil – not East Coker? I remembered the name because as a child my father had occasionally told me stories about the time he’d spent there during the war. He told me about collecting newts in jam jars, about raiding birds’ nests for eggs (something of which he was later ashamed), about hunting for shrapnel in the lanes. When I grew older, he added other tales to his repertoire: the dances in the village hall, drinking scrumpy straight from the farmer’s barrel, shooting rabbits. When I finally asked my father where this village was, all he said was that it was called Yeovil. To my Scottish ears the place sounded exactly like the kind of mythical English village of perpetual idyllic summers, where hollyhocks and sunflowers towered high above the inhabitants, and children were free to run through woods and fields and lanes.

I pulled out the AA drivers’ map circa 1988 that now had little use in a family of non-drivers. Once I located Yeovil it wasn’t that difficult to find the Cokers (East, West and North – where was South?) standing to the south-west of  Yeovil like sentries. But there was something else about the name that seemed vaguely familiar. It niggled at me for days before I later came across the Eliot poem – part of the Four Quartets. I thought it strange that my father, who loved poetry, had never bothered to tell me about the village and its link to Eliot, particularly when I had studied the writer so intensively for my English ‘O Grade’ exam.

My 1941 5th edition - originally one shilling
My 1941, 1st edition, 5th impression – originally priced at one shilling.

As we were growing up, my father had given my sister and me an eclectic mix of poetry books, from Seamus Heaney’s North to Hillaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, and he must have been aware of the connection Eliot had to East Coker. Although the poem had been first issued in pamphlet form by Faber and Faber in 1940 (and reprinted several times, such was its popularity), the Four Quartets was not published until several years later. So my father would have certainly heard about the poem at some point. It was almost as if he had never wanted us to know the exact location of the place which had taken away so much with one hand (his home in London; his coveted scholarship to the posh school in Dulwich), but had bestowed gifts with the other (love and respect for nature; an appreciation and understanding of the British countryside).

A few weeks later I came across the on-line East Coker Newsletter while trying to find out more information about the village. An announcement proclaimed that there would be special events set up to commemorate the 60th anniversary of VE and VJ Day during the second weekend in July 2005. This seemed to resonate with my plans to visit, and I knew then that I had to make the trip.

East Coker Commemorations

What I couldn’t realise then is that the date of my first visit to East Coker would forever be linked in my mind with the London bombings. That weekend was due to be hot, and as my mother and I boarded our flight on the morning of July 7th   we were oblivious to the horrific events unfolding in the capital. But the news soon filtered through to us, and in the end we were unable to leave our luggage in the centre of Bristol to look round the city as we had planned, so we simply took the next west-bound train and ate our limp picnic in the stuffy compartment while the ticket collector nervously prowled the corridors, checking and re-checking for any stray luggage. As we watched the lush West Country scenery slip past, it was hard to imagine the scenes of carnage in the capital – just as it must have been difficult for those who moved from London to the countryside for the duration of the war to envisage the destruction of the Blitz.

After everything I’d expected from the ancient-sounding name, Yeovil seemed an unprepossessing place. Disaffected youths roamed the bland post-war shopping area around the bus station, and there was a feeling that the market town had seen better days. I was beginning to wonder if we were in for a similar disappointment with East Coker. After all, it had been my father who had always told us that we should never go back anywhere. He himself had returned in the 1980s and had been saddened with the changes to the village, and reluctant to talk about the experience. But I consoled myself with the thought that as we had no memories of the place ourselves, there was not the same degree of emotional involvement, and that whatever we might see or experience there would more than likely be a revelation to us.

From Yeovil we caught a local bus to East Coker, travelling the way some of the evacuees might have come on September 1st, 1939. Before long a cast iron signpost – of the kind seldom seen nowadays – pointed us in the direction of East Coker. The bus suddenly veered off down a narrow lane which sunk deeper into the surrounding land the further we travelled along it. Snake-like roots of ancient hedgerows protruded from the sandy soil, while above us the canopy shut out most of the late afternoon sun. Then we rounded an unexpected corner and came into the centre of the village: a village that looked as if it should not – could not – belong in the twenty-first century.

One of the many sunken lanes around East Coker

Sunken lanes and cast iron signposts around East Coker
Sunken lanes and cast iron signposts around East Coker.
Thatched Cottages in East Coker
Thatched Cottages in East Coker

From those first impressions (the patriotic red, white and blue bunting strung up across the main road between the thatched cottages; the alms houses by the church; the hayricks in the fields), to later, more personal information (so this is the farm where Dad once lived; this is the hall where he first went dancing; this is the church where he carved his name in the vestry), we gradually learnt about the modern-day village and its shadowy wartime predecessor. Walking across the damp fields at dusk towards the warm light of the pub on that first evening, it was almost possible to imagine that the past might still exist in some ghostly form alongside the present.

And in the heat of the following day, on a sunken footpath which led from the farm through the woods to the old priory, I lay down, head to the red soil, and heard the drum of distant hooves and the click of mid-summer insects. For those few seconds it felt as if the earth was struggling to gather up the momentum to move backwards, to reveal something to me – until the shouts of children in the playing fields broke through the thick afternoon air.

Public Footpath from Burton Lane to Nash Priory
Public Footpath from Burton Lane to Naish Priory.

The following day we finally met the boy who had taken the photograph in the woods on Whitsun Monday over sixty years previously. He was manning one of the stalls in the village hall war exhibition, and his table was a jumble of WW2 paraphernalia: old ration books, bits of home guard uniform, various pieces of ammunition. One part of his collection was dedicated to the story of the relationship between the local children and the evacuees.  

And there I saw it. Amongst the letters and diaries and various bits and bobs of printed memorabilia, was a copy of our own photograph in black and white, mounted in a crude wooden frame. Not trusting myself to speak, I reached into my bag and pulled out my hand-coloured version, and passed it across the table, watching the old man’s face twitch as he struggled to work out the connection.

It was then I learnt about that day out in the woods. A moment of late childhood, hanging high and free above the dark shadow cast by the war, and caught on camera like a dragonfly in ether for the dissection of future generations.

To be continued next month in East Coker.

The Incidental Genealogist, October 2015