I found myself with the task of driving alone to Dorset to join the rest of my family for a holiday. I would much rather go by train (5.5 hours) but we were staying outside town and unfortunately a car was pretty much essential. So I took the opportunity to break the journey overnight in the town where I had lived from age 1 to 14.
Malvern was the place where I became conscious of the world, but what consciousness I have today seems at first to owe little to this rather strange place, although perhaps I’ll show that there are some threads of continuity. It was the years 1953 to 1966 that I was there, the period of emergence from post war austerity to the affluence of the mid 60s, an England that was beginning to cast off the straight-jacket of convention and respect for authority, a period that included were the Suez debacle, the invasion of Hungary, the Profumo scandal, the Aldermaston marches and the Cuban missile crisis, the independence of most of the UK’s imperial colonies, the rise of the Beatles and the elections of the Wilson Labour governments of 1964 and 1966 following “13 years of Tory misrule” when we’d “never had it so good”. In many ways the latter part of this period really was the time when we never would again have it so good (perceptions of life satisfaction ceased to rise annually around 1964).
What a strange town it is, a spa town with its winter gardens and a locally economy based then on advanced electronic engineering (the “Royal Radar Establishment” was a major employer), education – a lot of it private, and tourism much of it day trips but also some longer stays – there were plenty of hotels and a Youth Hostel, run by parents of a classmate. The town combined a conservative tradition with its large houses and wealth, with more radical currents – there were some serious radical intellectuals among the skilled workforce and a significant number of peace activists including a man who had sailed a yacht into the nuclear test area of Christmas island, foreshadowing Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior by decades.
I decided to enter from Leigh Sinton on the Worcester-Hereford Road. Our second house was on Leigh Sinton Road. This area was mostly orchards (mainly apples) and hop yards (called hop gardens in Kent). Stopping to take a photo of North Hill, the northern end of the Malverns, I was pleased to see a large orchard in good condition – so many have been ‘grubbed out’ – destroyed. I didn’t spot any hopyards – I think most hops are now imported. My first surprise was that the distances have shrunk! What seemed like a mile was now a mere hundred yards or so. Of course I was in a car rather than on bike or on foot now.
I went to see the old house. My dad was a great gardener and bought this house because it had another adjoining plot with it in addition to the large garden. Sadly, after we left, the land was sold separately so his (and my) labour in bringing that rough plot under cultivation was built on (at age eleven I double dug my own little plot from the field). The road had also been widened (this was planned while we were there, with purchase, so the big old hedge at the front is gone and our driveway is itself widened to form the service road for the new houses. What once stood alone is now a house in a row. A conservatory stands where the greengage tree was but the pine trees from which the house took its name are still there. The place still has its dreadful post war metal window frames – we had these in both our Malvern houses, but they have been replaced at the first house, Meadowside, which I’ll come to. Their only virtue was as an earth for crystal sets (my own innovation: always find a short cut!) – otherwise they were great spots for condensation, conducting heat out on freezing winter days.
I must admit, I’m not altogether sure why we moved here – the house was somewhat higher spec and on higher ground – there was some suggestion my childhood asthma was related to the low lying damp environment at Hall Green. We had a lodger at first in the ‘study’ on the ground floor. He was a younger colleague of my father’s (Alec Robson) and he gave me a pair of old headphones that I prized for years. He went to Kirkby I think to teach drama. He was of course a great source of amusement to my sister and I – we hid in cupboards that connected kitchen to lounge/dining room and ‘spied’ on him as he helped wash up. His mum had, I think, been Harry Pollit’s (General Secretary of the Communist party) secretary and like my parents he was in the Labour Party and CND. I had a quick look around the vicinity including the stream that in my first great independent adventure I had followed from the road for a couple of miles before finding my way home via footpaths.
From there to the school where my dad taught rural studies, for which he took a one year course at Worcester College of Education, now part of the “University of Worcester”. He’d been trained as a teacher after the war under an accelerated and intense emergency scheme. While he always had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about this (he never took a University degree) he was also disparaging about those grammar school teachers in gowns with degrees but no training in educational theory and practice – and I think he was right. So his school, Dyson-Perrins Church of England school (Mrs Dyson-Perrins from the Worcester Sauce people had made an endowment – they had established the wonderful gardens at Davenham on Graham Road, now sadly no longer open to the public) was a secondary modern. I was made very aware of the importance and also the injustice of the 11-plus selection system and my parents were relieved when I got a place at grammar school, despite my weakness (largely through bored disinterest) in arithmetic.
We (my sister and I) would walk to his school from our primary school for a lift home. I forgot to collect her one day and ran back panic stricken to the school. Sometimes we had to wait for him to finish a meeting or other duty and we would wait in his classroom which adjoined a large greenhouse. There he and the children would grew a variety of exotic and decorative plants including important crops like coffee and cotton. In the grounds further cultivation took place. He even grew “Indian Hemp”, cannabis sativa one year as part of a project on textile crops – before the hippy era it was possible to obtain the seed legally – I don’t think alternative uses were explored! The classroom is still there but it looks like it is now just a storehouse, and the greenhouse has been demolished. Gone too is the enormous pear tree that stood between the caretaker’s house and my dad’s unit. It supplied pink-fleshed cooking pears in profusion.
Tanhouse Lane, Grit Lane, Yates Hay Road, Somers Park Avenue, Beauchamp Road – the last two named after aristocratic landowners. My primary school is still on Somers Park Avenue. Established in 1909 as Malvern Link Council School, in my day it was MLCPS, Malvern Link County Primary School. For some reason it is now Somers Park School. The original 1909 buildings as still in use as is the new block from the early 1950s with the glass sided hall that was in 1957 the reception classroom with Mrs Hind. I only did a term there since I started in the summer term after my fifth birthday. But I remember only too well the revolting sun-warmed milk we had to drink. The school was then flanked by two industrial plants – one was a small factory of some sort and the other was a laundry with a tall chimney. I suppose it went out of business when everyone got washing machines from the late 1950s onwards. But a very early memory is of bed sheets arriving from the laundry wrapped in brown paper, while my mum’s home equipment included gas boiler, and wringing machine (but not the ‘dolly tub’ of my grandmother).
Our head-teacher (of the primary school) was Mr Ward, a good leader I think with a real interest in the children. I remember his impressive eyebrows, deep ‘woody’ voice (at first I thought he was Mr Wood) and his stories of growing up in Africa. Assembly was introduced by recordings of classical music with the name of the piece put up on a sign. This was the music that was played at home too. Our ‘houses’, teams we belonged to for sports day and the like, were Elgar, Masefield, Shaw and Langland, all of whom had connections with Malvern. Langland was, a Chaucer contemporary, the author of Piers Ploughman, a searing indictment of the English social system and its Church. His ‘field full of folk’ could have been ‘seen’ from the Malvern hills. Teachers were uneven – some excellent and others plodding while some I suspect on looking back were rather unstable.
A shock: in 1959, my top year of the infants’ school, and we celebrated 50 years of the school’s existence. We had a special song to the tune of “Hearts of Oak”. What a long time ago that seemed. And now that celebration was 54 years ago: when singing that song, the pre-first world war construction of the school was nearer than this point of recollection. There must be a kink in the space-time continuum!
From the school I went to Malvern Link, down the hill, the slope from the railway bridge, where I and another boy got stopped by a policeman (age about 12) for riding our bikes with no hands – I discreetly turned my cycling proficiency shield downwards as he harangued us. At the bottom there had been Bowman and Acock’s garage, a Rootes Group dealership where our Hillman Husky got serviced (and had a heater fitted – such luxury): there is not a trace of the garage now. At this corner I would catch the bus that took us eight miles to the village of Hanley Castle where my secondary school was sited (Malvern had no grammar school). I would cycle to the bus, initially chaining my Raleigh Space Explorer (or similar name, single speed, rod brakes, green frame) at the public toilet, until someone stole a pedal and after that I had an arrangement at Wilesmith’s wood yard, now also gone.
Malvern Link Common, my first sight of the various stretches of common land that still dot the landscape of the Malverns. These are remnants of the Royal forest, Malvern Chase (my Dad’s first Malvern School was another secondary modern, The Chase), not enclosed perhaps because unsuited for cultivation. They have different characters – this one was where we went tobogganing in the cold winter of 1963-4 when snow lay for several weeks. Travelling fairs would also set up there.
To Barnard’s Green to where, incredibly it seems, I would catch the bus aged 5, from school, and where my mum would be waiting with baby sister and pushchair, before the walk home. This was before my Dad changed school and subject – he was still teaching history at the Chase. I struggled a bit to reconcile this treatment of a 5 year old, left to make his way across town, with my parent’s concern and commitment to us. Perhaps this was why I often ignored my mum or was rude to her (“why have you come?”) as she met me. I was only at that school instead of a nearer one because of its superior reputation (and my Dad had some insider knowledge), and there were other people’s mums who came on the bus and, I suppose, looked out for me, like when I lost my bus fare, or rather it got stuck to sweets in my pocket. But I did get the wrong bus once, and was redirected to Barnard’s Green without further incident. I remember one day getting off and realising that my fare hadn’t been collected, and bursting into tears, fearing I might go to prison for theft. So maybe it was a combination of educational concern and knowledge that the risk was low, but I think it was still a lot to ask of one so young. Maybe traits of independence of outlook and self sufficiency have some roots in that experience. But that latter trait also has its limits – I don’t think I would enjoy living alone for example, although I do enjoy periods without others company like this two day trip.
In Barnard’s Green the modernist bus shelter still stands.
I could identify where the ironmonger’s was with its distinctive ironmonger’s smell, rarely encountered today: it’s split into a charity shop and Subway franchise.
I wasn’t sure which had been Rainford Sharp’s grocers, who delivered to the house in a weekly cardboard box, had one of those fascinating ham-slicing machines in red with the big circular knife that made a swishing noise, and a woman serving (Nora I think her name was) with a sing-song “thaank-you-veeery-muuch”. Rainford Sharp opened the first self-service store in town, up on Church Street in Great Malvern, which the mums all thought very brave of him (whether for the expansion or the self-service model I’m not sure). Both have gone now but maybe the Barnard’s Green delicatessen-type shop is in the same place. I was more surprised to be unsure where the post office had stood – there has been some new building and the post office is now on the other side of the road.
I found what I think was Mr Fereday’s barbers. There in what was basically his front room he’d cut our hair, a shilling for boys, 2/3 for men, I think. There were other exotic services on offer, none of which I ever witnessed – beard trim, and singeing. I sat to wait on a chaise longue with the horse hair coming out where the cover was holed. My dad both liked him and was also amused by his manner of expression and heterodox views. He took the News Chronicle, the liberal newspaper with a very independent editorial line (it opposed the invasion of Egypt and support of Israel in 1956) that closed down in 1960 despite having a million readers. My dad switched to the Daily Herald and then the Guardian. The News Chronicle included a column by Big Chief I-Spy, who also produced the I-Spy books (that outlived the Chronicle). I won a pen in one of the competitions, a nice retractable ball point (a ‘biro’ as they were all called) and promptly broke it by fiddling with the mechanism.
I then found my way to my Bed and Breakfast on Graham Road, down from the imposing Malvern Library. There is a rather nice winged statue holding a torch in the front. I remembered this as a symbol of learning, enlightenment as it were, but it is actually the 1914-18 war memorial. There was a good children’s library from which I borrowed and read avidly (including a lot of pretty dire stuff imagine) and a dusty museum with its fossils and finds that I actually found very interesting, particularly the big display on the ‘great western fault’, the geology of the Malvern Hills.
After checking in I walked up to ‘town’. A friend and I had the idea, never realised, of running down Church Street naked – probably not such an incredible sight as the man who always wore shorts and sandals and carried his shopping basket on his head – Malvern had more than its quota of eccentrics, like the woman who went everywhere by horse and trap, keeping the horse in the kitchen.
In its essentials it is unchanged, although Woolworth’s is now Iceland and there was a ‘continental market’ by the Abbey Gateway. Letchmere’s bookshop (he was from one of the minor aristocratic families, also locally plentiful), frequented by my dad, is still there but with another name. What has changed is the explosion of eating places. The Red Lion even has a Thai restaurant. I remember the arrival of the first exotic eatery, a Chinese restaurant (we never went – you didn’t eat out in your own town in those days).
After a meal at the Red Lion (not Thai – I ordered fish and chips before remembering that Malvern is about as far from the sea as you can get in England – poor choice). I headed off to the south end off the Malverns chain of hills. I wanted to walk up ‘The Gullet’: I don’t know why really – I think somewhere else I was walking (near Abergavenny) brought back some memories of this path through the woods up between two hills that we’d done so many times as a family, or often just me and dad. I drove through Great and Little Malvern and Welland and across Castlemorton common, I think the largest of the Malvern Chase commons, resplendent in the evening sunshine with its cattle grazing, and parked near the entry to the Gullet.
I passed a small lake in a former quarry. It looks like quarrying has finally stopped in the hills – the quarries were big scars on some of the hills but they have been rehabilitated and although they can be seen still they are no longer bare rock, but quite green. Lads who were fishing hailed me with the universal “alright mate?”, and I joined the Gullet path having missed its start. It was narrower, less defined than I remember but the woods were as diverse, or more, than I remember. It was cool and damp and I went stonking up the track as if on a mission, wanting to finish the walk before sunset – I needn’t have worried.
At the top there is a coll and straight on leads to Eastnor park, a country estate with faux castle just 200 years old and what we thought an enigmatic obelisk. But I turned left to climb Midsummer Hill. These smaller hills at the South end of the range are covered in woodland save for their bare summits so it was and is an exhilarating experience to emerge into the light, the more so on this perfect summer evening.
The views are extraordinary on an evening like this from the Brecon Beacons to the West to Bredon Hill and the Cotswolds to the East. May Hill to the south, which I’ve never visited has always held a fascination with its clump of tall trees, like the Frankley Beeches in the Lickeys near Birmingham, at the crown.
More prosaically the towns of Evesham, Gloucester, with Winchcombe climbing the Cotswold scarp, and Cheltenham were clearly visible, the latter with the giant GCHQ spy plant shining in the golden sun, a reminder of the wicked world beyond this backwater.
I took the more direct route back which was a very steep path through the woods to the road, with several fallen trees to duck under. I planned to go for another pint after returning to my Bed and Breakfast but a wave of tiredness came over me so I went to bed.
The next morning, breakfast was from 8.30 so I made a later start than I’d planned. I drove down the Guarlford Road, arriving in Guarlford before backtracking to the Hall Green turn that I’d missed, the trick of the distances again, having forgotten the drinking trough (not to be confused with the Green Dragon) by the now gone ‘old elm‘ at the turn.
Hall Green, probably from a medieval hall, is an old country road that leads off towards the still rather feudal village of Madresfield, but our Hall Green was a new, in 1953, development of detached houses on a service road off the lane. Separating the two Hall Greens is a drainage ditch, ‘the ditch’, then flanked by elm trees. My earlier memoir of childhood, written for my parents’ golden wedding in 1996 was called “Under the Elms”. The elms went with Dutch elm disease but there are some other large trees now, not so grand as the elms but still giving the secluded character to the street. The ditch was where the cucumber (curved – were they all so in those days?) was hidden after I tried it as a boomerang and it broke on landing. Mum was very puzzled as she was sure she’d put a cucumber in the larder.
I stopped at Meadowside, number 52, and a man in the garden asked if I was all right. I explained my mission and he kindly invited me in to look around. I left at age 10, in 1962, and it was of course an uncanny experience visiting the home where I gained consciousness of the world. As a toddler I apparently rushed around, when we took up occupation, shouting “what a big house!” and perhaps my earliest memory is of coming upon men with a machine laying tiles on the floor of the sitting room. It is bigger now, with an extension to the back where our crazy paving was with the grape vine that produced a profusion of sour grapes that made very bad wine (at least in my dad’s hands – he was better at the English country wines like dandelion and bramble tip: how do I know? they let me try a sip with my pudding). That crazy paving was where a wigwam was erected, my consolation at age four for the arrival of a supposed rival, my sister. I remember being disappointed she wasn’t a brother and I was later told that I had made cuts in the carpet in protest, although I actually remember carving the top of a short wardrobe with my Dad’s penknife.
The dining room which had connected to the kitchen was now separated and looked tiny, while the former sitting room that had extended from front to back on the right of the front door, still seemed a similar size. The larder, possibly one of the last built since refrigerators were soon to become affordable and commonplace (I remember our Servis arriving) is now a downstairs toilet. My little bedroom over the front door is even smaller now due to a built in cupboard, and it no longer has a bed. Here I suffered the childhood illnesses and also read about ancient Greece, the Norse sagas, and tried some of the classics, including an abridged David Copperfield, a largely incomprehensible Ivanhoe (Scott) The Last of the Mohicans and Bevis (about a boy who spent a summer living pretty much wild) as well as the more predictable Through the Looking Glass and Wind in the Willows. I noticed central heating radiators and remembered the arrival of an electric tubular convection heater for the little room, and the paraffin heater used in the dining room (and the Tilley lamp at my Liverpool grandmother’s). The sitting room had a coal fire, which I once lit, playing with matches, successfully, if implausibly blaming my little sister. An Ideal boiler in the kitchen was later replaced with a more powerful Rayburn on which you could sit and warm your bum. It heated water and also a radiator in the bedroom above (bedroom 2) that became my sister’s, and at some point, I’m hazy about the period, mine. I saw the bathroom window where the jackdaw stole my mum’s earrings and threw around dad’s razor blades, and the bedroom window where the surprised, out of bounds, cat James leapt to certain demise as flat-cat, only to walk away nonchalantly. That poor Jackdaw was captured and driven in a sack to be released several miles away, only to return later!
The back garden was both familiar and unfamiliar. It was smaller, really, since at some point the foot of the L, ‘the orchard’, behind numbers 54 and 56 had been sold. My little garden was under a shed and the green corrugated iron garden shed was gone, or rather had, some of it, though I can’t be sure about size, found a new life right at the end of the plot. Where my dad grew vegetables there was decorative planting , plus a small greenhouse with tomatoes.
After leaving I walked along the street and a neighbour friendlily asked me what I was doing, suspecting me of an interest in wildlife. I explained, and like the steward at 52, she was also interested to hear about life there in the 1950s. I mentioned the bonfires built by the children from the street for November 5th and she asked if there were many children. There were several, a result of the street being occupied by several families of similar age. In fact Sara, my sister was the youngest by far, and then the two Davids and I, with the others being from 4 to 7 years older than me. We were largely looked after by them all, although at times this meant an excess of being ‘on’ for the roving hide-and-seek tag games that we played nearly every summer evening (when it wasn’t rounders) on the common land and surrounding fields.
Every Sunday afternoon, most of us would walk the mile or so to Guarlford for Sunday School in the church with Mrs Newson the vicar’s wife. If nothing else this gave me a grounding in the principal bible stories, also reinforced at school. We got a stamp, like an illuminated church window to put in an album each week. The church services gave me a point of reference to laugh at Alan Bennett and others who would later poke fun at the Church of England and its peculiar reserved form of Englishness, in those days very much the “the Tory Party at Prayer”. At eleven years I declined to join my family for a church service (they were occasional attenders) saying I didn’t believe in God, a position I’ve held since.
The uninteresting 19th Century church was notable for one thing. It had a bell but no bell tower, the bell being hung in a tree (a hornbeam). It was put there temporarily in 1906 and there it stayed for nearly a century before being stolen for the metal. We took it in turns to ring it, by pulling a wire attached to the clapper, before Sunday school. The walk seemed so long on short legs, especially on hot days, the monotony broken by various sorts of mischief. I remember flicking cow pats with a stick at David’s older sister. My older friend, Peter and I also got into a little trouble for disturbing the quiet of the quasi-service that was Sunday school when the conkers we’d placed in our school caps decided to roll around the pews and wooden floor when we were praying. Those iconoclastic horse chestnut trees (atheists every one) are still there.
From Gualford I went on, passing the former Rhydd Court School, which was a place for boys with special educational needs (‘the educationally subnormal’ in those days). I visited one weekend as my Dad’s former colleague had taken a job there. I remember a number of boys, not unlike me, all in odd looking brown corduroy trousers. My destination was the little village of Hanley Castle where to whose grammar school I was allocated following the 11 plus. It comprised the second rung of the selective system. the four cleverest boys from our year at MLCPS went to Worcester Royal Grammar. My dad’s reaction was “shame he didn’t get into Worcester”. Hanley Castle really was an extremely odd little establishment in those days. It was single form entry, so actually smaller than my primary school. Like pretty much everywhere else it was single sex.
This male environment was run like a minor public school with a Headmaster who could only be described as patrician in bearing and attitude. Our history book, that was never used in lessons, but read by some of us (like the biology text from which we worked out the essential process of sexual intercourse), described the medieval village with its division into Yardland (for the peasants), Glebeland (for the Church) and Bocland for the Lord. Well the playgrounds in our schools were universally called ‘the yard’ and we were clearly the subordinate class. The Glebe, a playing field where we were set loose to wander during the 90 minute lunchtime, in all weathers, had indeed been property of the Church. And so, with that logical schoolboy humour, Mr Nicholls the Head teacher was named “the Boc”.
Visiting again I am struck by the idyllic setting, a setting for an inseparable mix of brutalising and humanising tendencies, with the former dominating. As a friend once said, ‘the English ruling class is forged in pain’, so too the rest of us, at least those who went through such a grammar school education with its colonial mentality and practices of domination and submission, outsourced to prefects and replicated by freelance bullies of all ranks. An ancient church, a pub in the hands of the same family for 200 years, huge playing fields (not so idyllic for those of us not talented at sport), black and white cottages of cruck construction, and medieval almshouses, together with the Boc’s former residence, define the cul de sac, Church End, one of the ‘Ends’ in the former forest, probably the sites of charcoal burners’ homesteads.
The school has many more buildings now and is a High School specialising in languages, now (I think and certainly hope) on the comprehensive model, and co-educational. The Boc’s house is now the sixth form centre and since school holidays had started, I was able to wander into its once forbidden grounds. So here I am at last in Bocland, having been in my career a bit of a Boc myself.
The list of last year’s leavers, already engraved on a brass plate, now has 50 per cent girls, but hardly a name among them that is not of English origin. That’s the backwater this still is.
Many memories came back, significant and insignificant. Reading H G Wells’s The Invisible Man in first year with Mr Ryder, who left to do a psychology degree, the apopleptic Mr B who overheard a boy say ‘here comes Billy’ in the middle of the village, and ranted and raved at us, the poor Rev. ‘Mad Vic’ who could neither interest us in Religious Education nor keep order, as complete chaos reigned. Mr Gilchrist, the (rather good) novelist ‘Alan Cowen’ teaching us about language families and igniting a lifelong interest in the subject. Listening to the intellectual Hugh Ottoway’s sixth form discussions with a small group of boys, one severely disabled, on the occasions when our teacher was absent so he combined minding our 30 strong class with his sixth form seminar. He never taught me. He was also an authority on Shostakovitch, frequently broadcasting on Radio 3 (a lot more lucid than Hans Keller), and like Gilchrist was an associate of my father, involved in the Labour party and CND. The very Welsh Mr Evans (inevitably “Taffy) who taught us about the British constitution and the industrial revolution. The curious science teaching by Mr F that after a rigorous treatment of density and the Eureka story went on a three year diversion through industrial production, never to mention either a principle of physics nor the basic concepts of chemistry – luckily I was able to cover much of this myself independently out of sheer interest, or I’d have been sunk on moving to Ballymena Academy at 14. Yet his coverage of some aspects of biology was solid and memorable, with rural walks and experiments on the colonisation of bare soil for example.
And with that I went on my way, not really sure what to make of it all, but finding myself warmer to the place than I’d expected. I felt for years a kind of detachment from and rejection of Malvern, in large part because my parents idealised it so, and I ended up thinking why on earth did they give up this idyllic place to go to dreary oppressive Ballymena? I know the answer: my dad felt stuck as a secondary modern teacher of a marginal subject, hampered by his deprecated qualification, so the role of county advisor in a peripheral area that had no history of teaching this stuff, nor come to that of the new-fangled biology, was very appealing. And he was basically right about the “better if he’d got into Worcester”. The quality of teaching at Hanley was so uneven that he was very concerned, not something I was aware of at the time, but I could see at 16 when just over two years after leaving we took our GCE O Levels and boys who had been performing much better than me at Hanley Castle got 5 miserable passes while I got 9, 7 of them creditable. But was it worth wrenching us from there, worth the emotional consequences of transplantation to that alien, Calvinistic environment? I’ve never thought so, although that new chapter also helped make me who I am.