Forest of Dean
Leaving Ealing and going down to the village at the edge of Dean Forest was one of the biggest
and devastating breaks in my life ever that I have experienced. I was extremely happy at Ealing, and
had any number of little friends, there were lots of relations in the neighbourhood, and plenty of interests for a child of my age. My two brothers attended a little day school near by, so we were all at home together, also the house was modern and comfortable.
All the habitats of our branch of the family have been governed for generations by a huge Grandfather clock, which has been in the family for six or possibly seven generations. It is an enormous and most beautiful specimen of inlaid mahogany and rosewood, dating well back. into the eighteenth century, and unusually tall. The first consideration when moving into a new house is invariably “Will the clock get in?” Many houses, otherwise suitable, have had to be turned down, simply because the ceilings were not high enough to accommodate the clock. It has always come down to the eldest son, and the legend attached to it is that it must never be sold “except for bread”. Generations of the family have looked at its dignified face, and listened to its solemn tick and quarterly chimes. It is a perfect time keeper, and is now in Jack’s possession. As he is a clergyman he has never been troubled about accommodation for the clock, as the average rectory is eminently suitable to it, however unsuitable it may otherwise be in these servant-less days. The clock was a very real problem to Father, though he loved it as devotedly as if it had been a living thing. It was entirely due to the clock that Father and Mother decided upon that particular house. After Father gave up his practice he and Mother went about together for weeks viewing possible houses in various parts of England, and the first thing that Father did on entering any house was to ascertain the height of the ceilings, always with the clock in mind.
The house stands high above the Severn valley, and has the most wonderful view from the dining room windows that could be found anywhere. They look out over the great bend of the Severn between Gloucester and Bristol, and face squarely towards the area called Arlingham Warthe, which is enclosed on three sides by the vast loop of the river. North-eastwards, about twelve miles away, lies Gloucester, the Cathedral tower showing clearly as the sun strikes it. Beyond that lies the great bulk of Bredon Hill, and on a clear day the Malvern Hills can be seen in the far distance. Directly opposite, across the river, runs the great scarp of the Cotswolds which drop from their plateau like table and sheer down to the Severn valley. Swinging south-westwards comes the huge dark outline of Stinchcombe Hill, near Dursley, crowned at one extremity by the monument to Tyndale, which is clearly visible even at this distance. Stinchcombe Hill has the most extraordinary effect on the weather, and the cloud formations above its flat top are most remarkable. The Severn is tidal all up this stretch, and at low tide there are vast expanses of sand3 most of them adjoining the far side. The sands look most attractive, but are actually extremely dangerous, as there are shelving rocks below and when the tide begins to turn the current swirls up under these rocks causing quick sands which are quite unrecognisable as such on the surface. It is seldom that a year passes without a casualty on these sands, despite notices and warnings to bathers. We were so frequently and sternly warned against going on these tempting looking sands, that I have grown up with a most wholesome respect for the Severn, “old Treacherous” as we came to call it.
The cattle used to wander far out on the sands from the Arlingham fields, but they had some special sense which warned them when the the tide was beginning to turn, for we would see them all begin quietly to make their way back to the fields without any apparent signal being given. On one ghastly occasion one wretched animal left it too late and got caught in the quick sands. The owners either were not aware that it was trapped, or knew that it was impossible to reach it, for it remained there, slowly being sucked down, for several hours. It was over the far side of the river, a good three or more miles away, and a couple of hundred feet below us, but I have never forgotten the long drawn-out horror of that afternoon.
Apart from the situation and glorious view, and the fact that it would accommodate the old clock, the house had absolutely nothing whatever to recommend it. There was no gas, electricity, or water laid on, no bathroom or indoor sanitation, none of the doors or windows fitted, and in that exposed position it was a veritable palace of the winds. It had originally been a little four roomed cottage, dating from about 1700. The two front bedrooms, one of which was mine, were part of the old cottage, and had a connecting door, while from one of the lower rooms, used as the schoolroom, ran the winding staircase in the thickness of the wall, up to the other bedroom, and on up to the horrors of the big attics which stretched overhead. A much larger part of the house had been built on about fifty years later at the back, and another staircase made, which passed the door of my room. The room which connected with mine was used as the maid’s room, and a chest of drawers stood in each room on either side of the door. The maids used the old winding staircase, but as they were all local girls, accustomed to dark and lonely cottages, none of them ever seemed to mind that narrow circular staircase, which always filled me with such dread. That staircase, up which I never went unless obliged, the maid’s bedroom which for many years I never entered, and the ultimate terror of the attics, became so etched into my youthful mind that ever since those days I have suffered from a recurrent nightmare in which an unknown part of an otherwise familiar house, filled with nameless horrors, and occasionally partly glimpsed through a half open door, have invariably been the main features.
Baths had to be taken in our bedrooms in small hip-baths of Victorian vintage, and the maids never seemed to think
anything of carrying huge cans of water up two long flights of stairs from the kitchen, which was below ground level under the dining room. I say “below ground level”, but it was not actually entirely so, as the slope of the hillside was so steep that while the front door opened
into the hall at ground level, the garden door at the other end of the hail led out on to a flight of ten or twelve steps down into the back garden. The kitchen was under the later part of the house, and the ground outside was just below window level, but under the front of the house stretched a huge coal cellar, considerably larger even than the big kitchen, the front wall of which was
hewn out of the solid rock.
Water was always a problem as the well used regularly to go dry for at least three months every summer, and often longer. During these periods every drop of drinking water had to be brought to the house from a spring about a quarter of a mile away. The masonry round this spring was believed to be Roman, and it was the only spring in the district that had never been known to go dry. Each of the cottages and farms around us had its own well, and in emergencies we could always borrow a bucket of water, but over the usual summer period our water was carried for us by the miner who lived in the nearest cottage. He used a yoke and pair of buckets, and thought nothing of making half a dozen journeys to and fro to the Roman well after a long day’s work in the pits. The coal mines were about five or six miles away, beyond the crest of the nearer hills, so they did not spoil our district at all. Most of the local men worked in the pits, and would leave home between three and four in the morning, walk to the pit head, then walk another three or four miles underground before arriving at the coal face. They would cover the same distance after work, have a wash and a meal on arriving home, then spend the rest of their time working in their gardens, or in the case of our immediate neighbour, in carrying heavy buckets of water. They were certainly tough, those Dean Forest miners.
The greatest trial of all in that house, worse by far than lack of light and water supply, was the utter misery implied by the words “no indoor
sanitation”. The only “convenience”, if I can justly apply that word to the appallingly primitive building which backed on to our neighbour’s pigsties,
was at the far end of the long garden. There was no chance of slipping out quietly and unobserved, for the garden was wide open to the view of all our back windows and was also overlooked by our
water-carrying friend’s cottage. In wet or snowy weather obeying the calls of nature was a
nightmarish procedure, specially after dark. Wellington boots and an old cape were kept by the garden doors also a lantern of obsolete pattern, in which a piece of candle in a square tin holder was protected by four pieces of glass. I can hear the rattle of that lantern now, and how I hated it. At one time the house had been used as an overflow for the children from Westbury Workhouse, and the sanitary arrangements were made on a multiple pattern. There were three holes of varying sizes, in a long board, which always made me think of
Goldilocks and the Three Bears, one for Father Bear, one for Mother Bear and one for Baby Bear. The unspeakable misery of “going down the garden” has often made me marvel that we did not all grow up permanently constipated and suffering from piles.
“Down the garden” still exists though long disused, its terrors now no more than a memory to an erstwhile frightened and unhappy little girl.