When war broke out in September 1939, I was 6 years old and living in Birmingham with my parents and younger brother, aged 5. He remembers our parents running into the house from the garden, possibly to listen to an announcement by Neville Chamberlain. My only memory of that time was watching my mother bottling hard boiled eggs in large Kilner jars.
We lived very near the Cadbury factory (and, with a favourable wind, could smell the cocoa) but, more importantly, also near the Austin car factory at Longbridge. In 1939, car production ceased at Longbridge and the factory began producing armour-piercing ammunition, mines, depth charges and helmets. Nearby Erdington was the first part of England bombed by the Germans, presumably targeting Longbridge.
We were fortunate in that my maternal grandfather had a holiday cottage in Castleton, Derbyshire, so it was decided that my brother and I would go up there with my mother, while my father stayed in Birmingham. He was a brassfounder and, during the war, he manufactured brass handles for commando knives during the day and did a stint of fire-watching for the Auxiliary Fire Service in the evening.
The cottage was pretty basic, with no electricity, and situated on a steep hill above the road, with a door from the bathroom on the first floor leading directly into the back garden. My mother was amused by a comment of one of the removal men who said that he wouldn’t like to have to carry a coffin down those stairs! The lighting was by gas and my brother remembers having to light the gas mantle carefully as it easily broke. The wireless was operated by an accumulator which had to be recharged at the village garage.The winter of 1940 was particularly severe, with the road to Sheffield being blocked for 3 weeks, and snow reputedly 18 feet deep. The gas and water mains froze and the only place from which to get water was the Russet Well, situated in a private garden near the Peak Cavern.
The path up to the cottage was very steep and, the following spring, my father replaced it with concrete steps. I assume electricity was also installed around then but have no memories of it. When they did eventually get through, lorries arrived with flour and those who could cook went to houses with large ovens to bake bread for the village. My mother went to one of the villagers to see if she could help. The reply was something along the lines of: “Sorry, love, you could stick your arse in my oven all day and it wouldn’t raise a blister”.
Another memory of the village was seeing convoys passing through, with despatch riders front and rear, and the arrival of some survivors from Dunkirk. I also remember that we had pictures on Saturdays in the village hall, including the classic “Four Feathers”. We were aware of the bombing of Manchester but the only time it came close to us was when a couple of landmines landed on the hillside near the Treak Cliff Cavern, possibly jettisoned from a stricken aircraft.
We had an aunt living in Davenport and, during an early visit, my brother and I dug a small trench in her garden and disguised it with sticks, with the intention of capturing a German parachutist. Not long after, presumably during the blitz on Manchester, a German plane was shot down and the pilot landed in a nearby garden. Missed!
I also remember the annual Garland Day, which I believe is still held in May each year to commemorate the restoration of Charles II. The King, seated on a horse and wearing a large garland, was paraded around the village with a band, stopping at every pub on the way. Girls danced around a maypole and the garland was hoisted on to the church tower where I suppose it remained until all the flowers died off.
We had a lovely Labrador called Tiger who liked nothing better than attaching himself to walkers and wandering off for the day. He had a collar with our Birmingham address and, one day, the police rang my father in Birmingham to tell him that they had the dog. With no such thing as a telephone, my father sent my mother a telegram saying, “Tiger at Great Hucklow”, causing quite a stir in the village where everyone knew everything, including the contents of other people’s telegrams.
My brother and I went to a small private school in Grindleford and, to get there, we first took a bus from Castleton to Hope Station, then a train to Hathersage. There, we were met by the headmaster (and owner) of the school in a small car into which he piled about 10 young boys for the final leg of the journey to Grindleford. No worries about health and safety in those days! One episode we both remember was when we spent our bus money on sweets in Grindleford. Unable to pay the fare, we were turned off the bus and had to walk home from Hope.
We returned to Birmingham in 1943 and my only memory about that time was watching American soldiers, who were billeted in the school grounds, driving the newly invented Jeeps through a steep sided ditch filled with water.
Graham as a child (far right) wearing a traditional swimming costume
Cave Dale, Castleton. 2019.
Cave Dale, Castleton taken by Graham’s grandfather in 1930s