Memories of Chalfont St Giles in the 1920s by J.V.F.Pye
This is the first part of the interesting and readable memories of Val Pye, who was born in 1919 and is still alive. It covers the period from when he first came to Chalfont St Giles at a very early age to before he went to school and they lived at Hobb's Hole Cottage down Bottom House Farm Lane. His mother set up the Chalfonts Laundry at the Misbourne Farm. It is hoped there will be further pages covering later years.
I don't remember the house where I was born, but I do remember very clearly the sighting of my teddy bear hanging high in a holly-bush, with the wood-wool packing bursting from elbows and shoulders. My sister Dorothy would later confirm this early memory, but it was not in the lane I had in mind but in another area which I do not remember. It must have been a traumatic sight at the time because I could only have been the tender age of two years. It has occurred to me in later life that, through various challenges, we are all like teddy bears stuck in holly-bushes at some time in our lives. Our mother was a slight but hardy person who hailed from Walsall, near Birmingham. Leaving school at eight years old had not impaired her ability to spell or read and write. Mother was skilled at laundry work and had started a laundry business in a former First World War factory on the London Road near Chalfont St Giles. The factory had been manufacturing cap badges and other military insignia, but by the end of the war all the huts had been left empty, with a few odd pieces lying around which my second eldest brother Archie collected as trophies. My early memories of this time include a locked cupboard, clearly marked 'Danger', which was a store for petrol, the medium my mother used for laundering.
Our home was on the London Road, with the River Misbourne just below. It was in one of the huts made suitable for habitation in front of the laundry, and our landlord lived in an adjacent house. I remember him as stern, stiff-collared man who had a house-keeper. She was also of stern appearance and the pair could have been straight from a Dickens novel. They certainly frightened me. The success of my mother's laundry made the landlord envious and he wanted to take it over. Mother duly moved us out, having threatened to immerse him in the River Misbourne. The field opposite the laundry was part of the Vache estate. There was a perimeter farm road that entered the top of the field; later in life, I used to motor-cycle there and had my first accident on the road. I also became great friends with the youngest son of the Vache's head gardener, Mr Weatherly, who had been an army sergeant in the First World War.
My father (originally from Southern Ireland) was ill at this time, and because of this, Mother had taken control of our destiny and we moved to Hobbs Hole, an isolated farm cottage buried in a cleft of the Chiltern foothills. The name of the cottage was presumably coined from Farmer Hobbs, who was the landlord at that time of Lower Bottom Farm, near Chalfont St Giles. Apparently, the 'Hole' was the cleft in the hills and not a description of Farmer Hobbs' rented accommodation, although many assumed it was. Mother, sensitive to those who might turn up their nose, would pronounce it as 'Hall' on appropriate occasions. Despite the name, Hobbs Hole was a well-built cottage or cottages. It was semi-detached with a surrounding garden and its water supply came from a deep well on the north side. The north side of the cottage was occupied by an ex-soldier, his wife and young daughter. Shell-shocked from the First World War and addicted to booze, the ex-soldier was in a sorry state and was, I believe, sent to prison for violence. The wife and daughter went to the Amersham Workhouse, that grim, Victorian, Bucks-flint edifice, now converted into luxury flats.
I am not sure from memory whether a postman's family were the next occupants, or the previous tenants. The postman was also an ex-soldier and he had a false leg; I was unaware of this until one day when he climbed a cherry tree to collect the fruit. The false leg got stuck in the branches, so the postman detached it. Having observed him climbing up with two legs, I was somewhat mystified when he descended with one. I ran to Mother for an explanation.
When the north side of the cottage became vacant, we took it over. At some time prior to my birth (in 1919, in Walton-on-Thames), our family had become friendly with a master bricklayer and his family, who visited us from time to time. On one such visit, the bricklayer set to and opened up the wall between the two homes to give direct access. The 'brickie's' daughter was quite young at this time and elected to make the tea, which was served in the garden. I remember raised cups, splutters, anguished looks, then laughter. The water from the tea had come from a large wooden container which Father had arranged for the disposal of waste-water and slops for garden use. Herself from the urban environs of London, the young daughter was not familiar with the absence of a tap and the practice of using a well. She had filled the kettle with the only water visible, from the container. The laughter did not reassure her and she hid herself indoors and burst into tears, taking some time to recover from an innocent mistake. Perhaps this was her first time of feeling that she was symbolically 'in the holly-bush'.
By this time, we were a family of mother and father, one daughter (Dorothy) and four sons (Harold, Archie, Bob and myself). We had also acquired chickens, geese, ducks, rabbits, a cat, two dogs (which became three when we housed a shepherd for a short time), and a goat. For me, this was a happy time - animals to watch and play with, fields to ramble in, trees to climb and a large oak that had a rope slung from a branch. The lower end of the rope was tied into a large knot which served as a seat. The field to the west of the cottage was typical Bucks-flint farmland, rising gently away from the cottage and a haven for 'pee-wits', as I knew them then because of the cry they made. The birds laid their eggs among the stones and detection was difficult. This was the first time I witnessed the broken wing act that pee-wits adopt, when you go close to their nest. With one wing extended, they hop in front of humans and animals to divert attention away from the eggs, which can easily be stepped on.
The hedge to this field was hazel, which yielded some nicely straight and slender sticks. Having acquired a penknife from somewhere, I enjoyed cutting them. On one of these expeditions, with the goat tethered nearby, I left the hedge with a prized stick and the goat decided to advance on me. The goat grabbed the stick and I watched in horror as it entered its mouth. I was convinced that I had killed it and taking to my heels I fled indoors, shouting 'I've killed the goat!' Mother took me by the hand back to the goat, who was happily chewing the remains of the stick, and explained that the creature wanted it to eat and had thought it was being offered for that purpose. I had to learn by experience that goats can eat almost anything, but from then on kept a wary eye on 'Mister Goat'. I maintained a safe distance, having also learnt that giving passing humans a butt in the backside was another feature of a goat's enjoyment of life. There were two geese that were named Darby and Joan; one was destined for the Christmas table and one was to be sold to a butcher from Amersham Old Town. From memory, the butcher was Gurney. The butcher had explained to Father how to kill the birds. When the fatal day came, Father could not carry out the dastardly deed on his pets. Tears flowed down his cheeks and the job was delayed until the butcher arrived. I was not witness to it and presume that I was kept out of the way to avoid another tearful incident.
Father built a small pond for the ducks on the south side of the garden. The lane angled to the south and rose sharply creating a triangular section, the point of which contained the pond. I remember ducks' eggs being collected but was not aware of any ducks sharing the fate of the geese, although I have no doubt economics ruled the day in such matters. This would also have applied to chickens kept on the north side when they ceased to lay eggs and became boiler fowl. Treated properly by Mother's cooking, they outclassed in flavour any chicken offered today.
We also kept rabbits in hutches, one of which housed a game bird for a short time. Most probably, this was one of the local Lord's pheasants which had strayed into the garden, and then been captured by our dog 'Nellie', a retriever. Nellie would have presented the bird alive and unharmed to Father, as she was a gun dog with a soft, dry mouth. Father would demonstrate this by popping an egg into Nellie's mouth, and then, on the word 'give', the egg would be delivered into his hand, whole and dry. At various times, Nellie would take a rabbit alive from the fields; if Father was not in view, she would kill and bury it. Noting dry soil on Nellie's nose, Father would know she had buried something and would scold her into unearthing it and, with what can only be described as a hang-dog expression, she would oblige. Father would clean and cook it for her so her efforts were not wasted.
Other early memories of rural Chalfont include harvest time and one particular incident when a loaded cart of hay overturned. There was great alarm: the farm hands believed that the driver of the cart (my oldest brother Harold) was buried underneath. The scene was frantic, with eager hands tearing at the hay, until Harold's voice was heard from behind, saying 'What's up?' Apparently, the horse, impatient to move, had wandered forwards, perhaps to sample a grassy bank, and had dragged a wheel partly up the bank, causing cart and load to topple. Meanwhile, Harold had been behind the hedge, attending to a call of nature.
Harvesting and threshing the corn were great events and everyone would help out. I remember mostly the traction engine snorting steam and that large fly-wheel with a leather belt that jerked and flapped as it drove the thresher. This seemed hungry to be fed with freshly gathered corn stalks, which had been cut and stacked to dry in the fields. Those standing close to the mouth of the thresher pitchforked the corn into it with continuous haste, as did those who held the sacks against the exit shute, which also spewed bits of stalk that covered the bagmen. To get too close meant dodging stinging straw.
The carts would finally stop coming, and the traction engine would sigh and stop. The powerful shire horses would be unharnessed and sent off to the stables. I remember how one day the horses all went off except for one and eager hands lifted me onto him or her, my legs split out across that broad flat back. 'Hold the mane', they said. I gripped tight. The horse was slapped, and trotted away with me lodged precariously aboard. Through the other orchard at the back, there were cherry trees, chewed to a neat level by the cows, and these caused the horse to duck low, and me to lie flat, holding ever tighter to his mane. As we got out of the orchard to the gate, which had an iron hoop above it, the horse stooped again, clearing it by inches. Down the yard into the stables, the horse immediately started to feed. I had no way down and had to wait some time for a friendly farm-hand to lift me off. 'Enjoyed that, dint yer', he said. I said nothing, thinking only that I had survived. My first and only horse ride - perhaps not the best model to start on, but I still admire those great work-horses.
Entertainment was limited to what you could create for yourselves, although we did have a rocking-horse and a three-wheel bike. In the garden at Hobbs Hole with the rocking-horse. My brother Bob is on the bike.
Today, of course, that rocking-horse would be a highly expensive antique. As for the bike, I can remember cycling through Chalfont Village on it, down Dean Way. The path to Dean Way was steep and biking down it on a three-wheeler was hazardous since the only brake was the fixed wheel. I hurtled down, lost the pedals and flashed across the road through the legs of a shire horse pulling a cart, and into the bank of the other side. With a startled look on his face, the driver commented 'You silly little b*****'- you could have hurt my horse'. He drove on, while I disentangled myself from the bike, the bank and bits of hedge.
Some activities were economic, like the collection of mushrooms from the fields and fruit from the hedgerows, which mother put to good use. The orchard was some 50 yards from the house and adjacent to Upper Bottom Farm or Watertons as we called it. We also had a seasonal interest in covert operations: our method when leaving the farm was to a take a long not short cut through the orchard, gathering fruit within reach as we ran. Mother would not have encouraged 'scrumping'. Her dictum was 'If it's not yours leave it alone' or 'You have a tongue in your head - ask if you may have it'.
I don't remember it snowing too often in winter, which perhaps was just as well, for drifting snow in the deep-banked hedged lanes made them almost impassable. The adjacent hills were highly suitable for sledging. Our sledge was an upturned wooden bench, which accommodated three of us and needed two to carry it back after the slope after each run.
One great and exciting event that I recall from this time, probably circa 1924 (when I was five) was an aeroplane crash. I heard an aeroplane's engine cough and splutter and then crash-land after hitting the top branches of trees in High Wood, on the brow of the hill above Lower Bottom Farm Cottage. I ran with my brother Bob down the lane, across the field to the plane which appeared to be intact. There was no damage, except for a broken window under the fuselage. This was probably the sight for bomb aiming. The crew had already gone, presumably to the Lower Bottom Farm and the tenant Mr Hobbs. My brother Harold who worked on the farm complained that he didn't get a share in some large tins of Bully Beef which were unloaded from the plane and handed over to Hobbs. The plane was eventually dismantled, the wings becoming part of Bow Wood, on the east side of the lane. I can clearly remember seeing the bare frames many years after, with tensioners and wires visible. The aeroplane was probably a Vickers Vimy bomber of the same type that Alcock and Brown piloted across the Atlantic in 1922, crashing in a bog in Ireland, but making history as the first non-stop flight.
My brothers and sister were working or at school at this period, so I had much time to ramble on my own. One favourite spot was the dew pond, situated at the top of the hill and the left of the lane, which ended in front of Hodgemore Wood, which was the only wood that I knew the name of in those days. The pond was always full of water, and still is presumably. It was the home of frogs, tadpoles, newts and many water-loving plants, which I could identify then, but unfortunately not now.
I can recall one occasion when I passed this spot with Mother on the way to Beaconsfield, walking of course. No buses and not many cars came this way. I sang as I walked: 'Vote, Vote for Mr Burgoyne' and I believe this was the purpose of Mother's journey. Who Mr Burgoyne was, I also do not know nor the origin of the ditty, or whether it helped the gentleman to become an MP. I had thought he was a Liberal candidate as Mother was voting for him. However, I have later discovered that an Alan Hughes Burgoyne had been the Conservative MP for Aylesbury in 1924.
Other shopping journeys involved walking with Mother to Old Amersham, taking a more direct route than the path below Upper Bottom Farm. Instead, we crossed the fields. The field below Hobbs Hole was usually under plough or corn, so we would follow the hedges, taking a right-hand turn after some quarter of a mile, leading us in front of Quarrendon Farm, and onto the pathway which goes through the corner of Rodger's Wood and then down to the old Amersham Waterworks buildings. Many believe the Waterworks bore-holes tapped the Misbourne and caused it to dry up. The route Mother and I took on our shopping trips is now cut through by the Amersham bypass, but despite all the changes is still visible today.
REFERENCES. Unless otherwise specified, all references given above refer to catalogue references at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies at Aylesbury. (County Record Office)
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