It was in the autumn of 2015 that we arrived in Cáceres, in western Spain. We had set out walking from Sevilla in the south, following the pilgrimage path to Santiago de Compostela, but the weather had turned quite cold and we were not adequately equipped for the conditions. We decided to take a break and return another day; the path would still be there.
But little did I know at the time, that if we had continued walking for another four days we would have reached Plasencia, the birth place of one of my heroines, Inés de Suárez.
‘Who on earth was she’, I can hear you thinking. So let me enlighten you.
Apart from being born in Plasencia in about 1507, as far as I know nothing more is known of her early life, until she married an adventurer, a Juan de Malaga, in about 1526. Not long after, he left her to go with the Pizarro brothers on a speculative venture to South America.
I have no idea how she supported herself in the interim, but after some ten years of not receiving any contact from her husband, she decided to go to South America to find him, or at least to find out what had happened to him. In that era, it was not acceptable for a Spanish woman to travel on her own, but she eventually received permission to go, providing she took a niece with her. I don’t know who her niece was or what happened to her afterwards.
She never did find her husband. It appeared that he was dead, but I am not sure how. One report was that he had died at sea, another that he was killed in the battle of Las Salinas near Cuzco, between the Pizarro brothers and a rival fighting for control of the city. In any case, he was presumed dead and she applied for a grant as the widow of a Spanish soldier and was given a small plot of land in Cuzco. And it was there that shortly after she became the mistress of Pedro de Valdivia.
Valdivia was a lieutenant of Francisco Pizarro and he was authorized to lead a small contingent of Spanish soldiers to establish a colony far to the south of present-day Lima. Somehow, he managed to get permission to attach Inés to his expedition, as his domestic servant. In 1539, he started with only eleven soldiers, but as they preceded south others joined. At one time there were about 150 of them.
They travelled south for almost a year, until they reached the valley of the Mapocho River, the site of present-day Santiago de Chile, originally named Santiago de la Nueva Extremadura. They suffered incredible hardships in travelling through some 1600 km of the Atacama Desert. In the chronicles that have survived the journey, Inés had a significant part in boosting the morale of the soldiers through caring for the sick and wounded.
The site that they eventually chose was already populated and and initially the natives were accepting of the newcomers, or at least they pretended to be. But when Valdivia was absent on another expedition to the south, the local population revolted.
The Spanish were severely outnumbered, and it seemed inevitable that they would be wiped out. From a previous negotiation for food supplies, they held seven of the Indian chiefs as hostages. Inés advised the soldiers to execute them. When the commander hesitated, Inés herself took a sword and decapitated the chiefs one by one, and had their bodies thrown over the wall. Or at least that is how the legend recounts it. In any case it appears that the Indians were so shocked and confused by the action that they withdrew.’
Perhaps it did not happen quite as I have described it, but there is no doubt that she was a heroine in the defense of the settlement. At that time, she would have been the only woman.
When Valdivia finally returned, they continued to live together openly. The hierarchy in Lima did not approve of this ‘illegitimate’ union and Valdivia was summoned to attend a hearing in Lima. The issue was resolved by Valdivia agreeing to summon his wife from Spain and having Inés married off to his lieutenant, Rodrigo de Quiroga in 1549.
But all did not happily ever after. Valdivia died before his wife reached Santiago. He was captured by Indians in a battle in the south and eventually executed.
Inés settled down to a quiet life as wife of Rodrigo de Quiroga, who eventually became Governor of Chile, not once, but twice. They died within a short time of each other in 1580 and were both buried in the Basicila de la Merced.
Inés survived all the original conquisadores.
It was not until 2015 that I finally visited Santiago de Chile. Of course the city today bears no resemblance to the original settlement that Inés would have known.
In the Plaza de Armas, there is a statue of Pedro de Valdivia, her old lover, and the church, La Basilica de la Merced, where she was buried, is but a short walk away.
For me, Inés was a remarkable woman. Not only was she tenacious in seeking out her husband in what must have been frontier conditions, but for months on end she survived the crossing of the inhospitable Atacama desert. And shortly after she showed tremendous courage in the face of death. Her example is one for all women.
I don’t know when we will continue our pilgrimage north from Cáceres, but when we do, we will pass through Plasencia and walk in the footsteps of Inés.
There was nothing about that day four weeks ago that would have foreseen what was going to happen that night. It had just been another frustrating Cape Town total lockdown day.
I went to bed at my normal time and fell asleep almost immediately, as is normal with me. I woke in the middle of the night, lay for a time thinking, then got up for a sip of water and a visit to the bathroom. Again, nothing strange about that; for as long as I can remember, even as a child that has been my routine almost every night. But that night, four weeks ago, was different; instead of returning to bed, I found myself on the bathroom floor, half-propped up against the cupboard, with Lotta shouting at me to raise my arms and to tell her my name.
It appears that I had aroused her when I got up and a few minutes later she heard a thump and some moaning. She went to the bathroom and found me lying on the floor, jammed between the toilet and the wall, with a lot of blood on the toilet bowl, sprayed across the wall and a pool of it under my head.
She dragged me out and propped me up against the cupboard. She said that my eyes were white and rolled up in my head and she immediately thought that I was dead. But I regained consciousness and eventually responded positively to her stroke tests.
With some difficulty, she managed to pull me to my feet and half-carried me to the bed. There she took my blood pressure, which surprisingly was not any immediate cause for alarm. I had a nasty gash on my forehead, which she patched up with some surgical tape, and cleaned up my face, which was apparently quite bloody.
By this time, I felt somewhat recovered, so she decided not to call an ambulance, and instead, to contact our doctor first thing in the morning. At that date, Cape Town was under curfew and with the virus circulating, she wanted to avoid the hospital if at all possible. But she was concerned that I might be concussed, so for the remainder of the night she would not let me sleep; if I started to doze off, she would ask me questions to test my awareness.
Our doctor was able to see me at 09:00, so leaving ample time to descend the 600 meters down the hill, we arrived rather early at the surgery and were seen immediately.
Lotta explained what had happened. The doctor took my blood pressure and spent what seemed like a long time listening to my heart. He wired me up to an electrocardiograph and then called the pharmacy to get details of my prescription.
He said that my heart was very irregular and he decided to replace one of my four pills with a beta-blocker. He said that the pain in my ribs would take four weeks to clear up and as to my concern about my leg being numb, he said that it was not connected to my fall; it would be connected to my lower back.
He then cleaned up my head wound, stapled it and sent us off with instructions for me to have complete rest for two days and return in ten days to have the staple removed. He also complemented Lotta on her nursing skills!
And four weeks later, with no scar on my forehead, on the 29th night since my fall, I finally managed to lie on my injured side for the first time and with no discomfort.
We think that our Dr Waynik is magic. We have had nothing but excellent experiences with him and if we were to leave Cape Town, he would be a very hard act to follow.
Now perhaps I should have him to take a look at my numb leg.
If you have ever been to Paris and passed by Notre Dame or the Louvre, you may have seen the Tour Saint Jacques. It stands alone in a small park, near the right bank, a block from the river.
The first time that I saw the Tour Saint Jacques was in 1978, when I was looking after the apartment of friends on rue Tiquetonne. On my daily training run to and along the river, I used to pass the Tour. At that time I was not aware of its history.
Many years later, I was based in Paris, with a small apartment on rue de Lille, one short block from the river on the left bank and opposite the Louvre. It was during that era that I read many of the books of Alexander Dumas, several of which were based in the area in which I was living. Many nights I wandered the streets of the old city, imagining what it may have been like in the era of Dumas’s novels and searching for landmarks that may have still existed.
The Tower of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie was built in 1509-1523 on an existing church, during the reign of Francois I, and funded by rich butchers of the nearby market of Les Halles. It became the departure point for pilgrims setting off on their potentially difficult journey to Santiago de Compostela, some 1,500 km away in Galicia, in north western Spain. According to legend, Charmagne founded the original church to shelter a relic of James the Great.
During the French Revolution, the church was destroyed. Eventually the remains were sold as building materials, on the condition that the 54m high tower was preserved.
In 2003, restoration of the Tour was started and finally completed in 2013. I have never seen the completed work, as I left Paris in 2007 and have not since been back.
This morning, locked down for the 63rd day of the Covid-19 virus in Cape Town, walking my umpteen lap of our basement garage, longing to be on another Camino to Santiago de Compostela, I suddenly remembered Paris and the Tour Saint Jacques.
Until the completion of the harbour in 1835 and the arrival of the railway in 1855, Portrush was but a tiny insignificant fishing village, with but a few families huddled under the headland, separated from the mainland by a range of sand dunes.
With the harbour and the railway came investment, development, and the creation of a popular holiday resort. But in the late 1800s, Glenmanus remained a rural village, separated from Portrush by a belt of agricultural land.
In the centre of the following photograph can be seen a large white farmhouse, with an attached dwelling. That was Seaview Farm, the ancestral home of my mother’s ancestors, the Douglas. They lived and farmed in Glenmanus from the late 1600’s. It was there that my mother saw first light and where I spent my earliest years.
On the right of the photo, is the corner of a field, opposite a small group of farm buildings. It was there that my parents lived for a few years in a tiny wooden hut, while my father worked on his fledgling poultry farm across the road during the day and on his dance band at night.
Today, Glenmanus and all the fields have disappeared under an ugly carpet of council housing, caravan parks and private dwellings, and there is not a green field to be seen.
I was not born in Glenmanus, but I saw my first light in the Mary Rankin Maternity Hospital, in nearby Coleraine, as did my brother and sister. The Mary Rankin was on the Castlerock Road, opposite the Court House. I passed it every day that I went to school at C. A. I.
Like Glenmanus, the Mary Rankin has long since been demolished and replaced by yet another ugly two-story apartment building. Gone are the lawns, the ivy and the trees, replaced by bricks and asphalt.
Perhaps it is pure nostalgia on my part, but I prefer to remember Glenmanus and the Mary Rankin as they once were.
La Peste, a novel written by Albert Camus, was published in 1947. Camus was born in Algeria of French parents and in 1957 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. I read La Peste when I was based in Switzerland in 1997. I found it to be one of those books impossible to forget.
The novel is set in the Algerian city of Oran and tells the story of an imaginary plague that hit the city and follows its effect on a wide range of characters. It documents the apathy of a local government in denial, followed by the panic when the reality of their situation hit and the city was blockaded with nobody allowed to leave. Then followed the numbness and resignation.
The story of La Peste very much reminds me of what is probably happening today in Whuhan and many other cities in China. In La Peste, blockading the relatively small city was not a challenge. But how do you blockade a city of some eleven million, a population the size of London and several similar other Chinese cities? By the time the government realised the seriousness of the situation, the virus had already spread to other parts of the country, and in some isolated cases to other countries. And what effect will freedom of movement have on the Chinese and world economy?
No doubt the western media will fasten onto this situation and keep us current with their constant ‘Breaking News’, with their breathless reports and speculations from the bedside of the hospitals of the infected.
But we have to remember that epidemics and pandemics have always been with us, some extremely serious, as the Spanish Flu of 1918-19: by the end of 1919 at least 50 million people had died, about 3% of the world population at that time.
With the increasing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics, it seems to me to be quite probable that we will one day experience another pandemic. Let’s hope that it is not that which is bubbling in China.
‘I’m not dreaming, they are gone and your phone too’.
‘But my new laptop is still there on the desk. Are you sure?’
‘I’m sure and your backpack is also gone’.
I quickly dressed, while Lotta sought help from our downstairs neighbours. While they phoned the police (we had no phones left) and put an urgent message on the in-house Whatsapp group, we found that the small amount of cash and my local bankcard was also gone from beside my notebook, together with Lotta’s good camera from her bedside table and her expensive sunglasses were also missing. Fortunately, the thief had not taken Lotta’s handbag or its contents. Our passports were safely stowed in a cupboard.
Two policemen soon arrived and they concurred with my suspicion; that the reason that the thief had not taken my notebook nor the contents of Lotta’s handbag was that one of us had probably started to stir and the thief had fled, not knowing whether or not I had a gun under my pillow, as is not unusual in South Africa. If one of us had woken up and unarmed, tried to confront the thief, the outcome could have been very different. My first and lasting reaction to the discovery was relief that nobody got hurt.
But how had the thief entered a second floor apartment in the first place, when there was an electric fence to overcome? Electric fences protecting property in South Africa don’t give a mild shock like cattle fences in Europe; in South Africa they deliver a massive punch. It turned out that the fence was either not turned on or had somehow been remotely turned off. Perhaps we shall never know how it happened.
Two days later, two forensic police spent a couple of hours interviewing me and taking fingerprints from any part of the apartment that the thief may have touched. I found it very interesting to witness how they operate. Unfortunately there was a heavy rain storm not long after the robbery and any external fingerprints would have been smudged. And if the thief had worn gloves, no fingerprints would have been left in any case.
So most of the week was spent in buying a new notebook and two new phones and making them all operational, never a simple process. Affidavits had to be obtained from the local police station and the old telephone numbers ported to our new phones.
As we can no longer have faith in the infallibility of the electric fence, we have fully shuttered our balcony. Now our apartment is as secure as a South African Fort Knox. And we have welcome shade from the fierce summer afternoon sun.
And there has been an important outcome from this whole experience; our experience with the local police has been a very positive one. The four officers who handled our case were, without exception, professional, compassionate and extremely helpful and supportive. The local police have the reputation of being lazy, corrupt and unresponsive. I saw none of that. I just saw good people doing a great job. They may be poorly paid, understaffed, and over worked, but on the whole, they are doing the best they can.
Despite having served for more than six years during WW2, my father almost never spoke of his war experiences, at least not in my presence. He never seemed to look back, nor did he ever seem to worry about what the future might hold. He took each day as it came, did his very best, and at the end of the day he turned the page. I remember him as being a very contented man. His has been a hard act to follow.
It was not until my early attempts to write my family history that I realised how little I knew of my father’s wartime experiences. He had long passed on and it was through his best friend, Roy Bishop, that some of the blank pages were partially filled. It was in 20o7, in response to my many questions, that Roy, through emails, documented his memories. Where appropriate, I will quote Roy’s exact words.
Royston Bishop was born in Barnet, North London, on 29 November 1918. He had an older brother, Thomas and two younger sisters, Gladys and Gwendoline. His parents, Thomas Bishop and Lilian Lawson, were both from large families; his father was one of eight siblings and his mother one of sixteen.
In late 1939, after the breakout of WW2, Roy was called up for military service. At that time, he was a trainee manager with Hector Powe, the chain of luxury menswear shops, with headquarters in Regent Street, London. At the same time, at Potter’s Bar in North London, my father had a trainee manager position with Sainsburys, which was a rather up-market family grocer in that era. Their paths were destined to cross. They were not yet turned twenty-one, with my father’s birthday on November 11 and Roy’s on November 29.
We met on the first day of being called up in September 1939 at Chelmsford, Essex and we were transported together to the Recruit Training Centre at Northolt and we shared the same hut and even had beds (on the floor) next to each other. After the 4 weeks training we were posted to the same Company, HQ;2nd/8th. battalion The Middlesex Regiment, Harry to the Band and I was posted to the Regimental Police. We remained friends througout our 6 plus years together and even finished up in the same platon in D Company Heavy Mortars; Harry as MPOack and I was the Platoon Sergeant.
In the early days of the war, they were assigned to guard duty at various installations in and around London, eventually being transferred to Portrush, in Northern Ireland, where they spend much of the next three years in training for the eventual invasion of mainland Europe..
My father always described Roy as ‘a bit of a character’ and more that once described how Roy had decided to ignore military rules and swam outside the harbour, not realizing how strong were the prevailing North Sea currents. Despite being a strong swimmer, Roy was not able to swim back to the harbour and had to be rescued.
When I was researching for my family history, I came across an account of the Middlesex regiment by a Leslie Dyer and I asked Roy if he ever had come across him:
Les Dyer, known as "Deadly" was in the transport section as a driver and was quite a wild character. I remember escorting him to Carrickfergus Detention barracks as he had overstayed his leave. We had a laugh over this episode recently and he told me that his wife told him to get an education and having no family he took an education course and finished up overseas teaching.
And who was Harry Ellison, for I recalled him being mentioned more than once by my parents?
Harry Ellison I knew very well as he was in the same (HQ) Company as Harry and myself. He was a magnificent drummer; professional standard. He was engaged to a Portrush girl but sadly he was killed in action in Normandy, having been posted to a machine gun company.
It was in Portrush that my father met Ernie Mann, who was then the leader of the dance band that played in Barry’s Ballroom. My father often used to play piano with the band and it was a relationship from which he was able to profit, when he eventually returned from the war in 1946.
It was also in Portrush where my father met my mother. They were married in October 1942.
In response to my question, Roy explained how my parents, once married, could have been able to be together, given wartime restrictions.
In Portrush, sleeping out passes were required but in those days it was an easy going attitude as long as one was on parade in time in the morning.
But shortly after my parents were married, the Middlesex regiment was moved to England.
Harry and I were in Northern Ireland together for about 2.5 years and then went to Yorkshire, Southend and then Amersham. I was away on a number of Army Courses; Gas Warfare Recognition at Winterbourne Gunner, Dorset, Small Arms Cadre at Dorking, Surrey, Regimental Provost Duties at Carrickfergus,Co.Antrim, Light A/Ack at Clacton on Sea, Essex and Heavy Mortor Instructor's Course at Netheravon with Bob Richardson and Frank Godfrey. It was on this course that I met my future wife as Gwyn was in the WAAF stationed nearby at Amesbury, Wiltshire and we were married the following May on a short leave from Germany.
My mother gave birth to a little girl, June Mary, in May 1943, but sadly she died a few months later, in January 1944. I don’t know if my father ever saw his daughter.
It was tragic for Harry at the time to lose a daughter of 8 months.The battalion were in transit at that period from Amersham to East Sussex and I was on a Small Arms course at Dorking and I think Harry had compassionate leave and we met up again at Kemp Town, Brighton on his return.
We then moved to Worthing and we were billeted in the Clear View Hotel, opposite the pier, with all equipment and weapons at hand. We slept on the bare floor boards and awaited orders to proceed into action and were awaiting suitable transit for our Universal Carriers and heavy mortars. All the hotels on the Worthing front were empty and taken over by most of the battalion.
The Middlesex regiment were attached to the 15th Scottish Division for the duration of the war, and the following map, with dates, documents their path through France, Belgium, Netherlands and finally Germany.
For Roy, the earlier days after the invasion were particularly poignant:
Tormaville was without question a terrible battle area, firing most of the night. I buried Corp. Symonds in the early hours and whilst I was digging, a Pte. Peter Benson-Cooper came over from the next field where 15 Platoon were firing. He helped me dig the trench but we dug it too deeply, and the body was never recovered. However, Corp. Symonds is mentioned on the memorial stele in Normandy.
Many times, Roy has spoken to me of passing through battlefields in Northern France in the early days after the invasion. He said that he could never forget the stench of rotting animals and the remains of German soldiers and the mass destruction of the villages and countryside.
Roy and my father were not to be without mishap:
In France we had many shared experiences and we shared a German Personnel Mine when Harry's Universal Carrier with Lt.Bob.Richardson and Private Amelan and Harry on board and with me driving my motor bike alongside were blown up by the mine. I flew up in the air and come down in black smoke, with the engine still running, thinking that was the end! Private Amelan had perforated ear drums and was evacuated along with Bob Richardson who had shock and minute metal pieces in his chest. Harry and I both suffered hearing loss and we were deaf for three days but fortunately we recovered but not back to our normal hearing.
I can vouch for my father’s loss of hearing. It was impossible to have a conversation with him without repeating everything at least twice. In his twilight years, Roy purchased a hearing aid, but I recall that his experience with it was less than satisfactory.
Old soldiers have a language of their own and I once asked Roy to write about his role and my father’s wartime role as an MPOack:
The MPOack was an assistant to the platoon 2i/c and sat next to him in a lloyd tracked infantry carrier. Driving the carrier was Amelan and they operated a No18 radio set and messages vis the OP (observation post) were relayed to the mortar line giving bearing and bombs to be fired. I was on the mortar line and it was my job to liaise with the information of number of bombs fired daily and this information was sent to Coy. HQ, so that replacement bombs were supplied. I usually went to a rendezvous on a cross roads map reference on my motor bike with a Universal carrier to bring back the replacement bombs to the platoon position.
Many years after a battle in Belgium, Roy had a remarkable experience:
Mol in Belgium was the area where we were heavily shelled and Corp. Crowhurst DCM was killed and Pte. Baker was also killed. Pte. Owen Collins was seriously injured and I managed to get him onto a medical truck and he was evacuated to England. Very many years later by a terrific coincidence I was visiting the war graves of these soldiers when a lady and gentleman approached at the sametime. It turned out to be Pte. Owen Collins and his wife, who had travelled from Bovey Tracey in Devon. In fact I paid a visit to them the following year. He told me that he had never fully recovered from nerves and had to leave the police force after a year. He settled for an agricultural job without tension.
He told his wife that I was the man who saved his life because of the quick action of getting him evacuated medically.
One of the few memories of my father speaking of the war was his description of driving for hours through the night from Tilburg to the Ardennes in Belgium. They had no lights and had to follow at tiny light under the vehicle ahead.
Yes, Harry remembered the incident well as it was a horrible all-night drive to support the Americans due to a breakthrough in the Ardennes, due to the German breakthrough in the American sector.The 15th.Scottish Infantry Division had only just liberated TILBURG, North Brabant and Harry and some of the platoon were having a celebrating drink in the Burgomaster's house when an immediate recall came through to the Platoon to start-up, for an all night drive in readiness for a crash-action. You could imagine our tiredness having just entered Tilburg as the liberators. I was riding my motorbike half asleep, every now and again being bought back to alertness by my front wheel hitting the Lloyd Carrier in front and after hours of driving in poor weather we eventually went in to a crash action in support. It was a period of battle that always stays in the mind as it was a test of endurance. I will always remember the large number of young American soldiers who were killed in action lying dead on the road on our route.
What happened after Tilburg?
In answer to your query re the target after Tilburg was to MEIJEL when we supported 44 Brigade and which all platoons took part. Bad weather, boggy ground and a very strong resistance ensured heavy fighting for 4 to 5 days until the 6th November when a lull ensued. All were engaged by the 15th Nov when casualities increased. I lost a friend from Finchley, Lt.Cross, who was killed in 12 platoon and also Sgt Wood from the same platoon.
After the end of the fighting, when we had arrived in Lubeck, our platoon were employed in looking after German prisoners of war in the Hamburg area. They were housed in "Nissan type huts", around a dozen to each building. The looking after the Belsen prisoners was dealt mainly by the Royal Army Medical Corps with assistance in transport by the Royal Army Service Corps. We soon reverted to Regimental duties at the end of 1945 with guard duties as we were very close to the Russian Infantry who had their guard room a few hundred yards to the east of Lubeck.
Rensburg was the next town where the Battalion was stationed in 1946, after Lubeck, so it was peace time soldiering. Harry and I were on demobilisation number 26 and left at Lubeck as our age was then 27 years and two months and had served throughout the war years and nearly 6.5 years war service.
You enquired re Normandy landing date and route and amongst my memorablia I found a note of the platoon travels. It is in pencil and written on my motor bike travels, so it is not in my usual script, so some villages and towns may be misspelt. Gosport 7.7.44. St Crois sur mer, Tourville, Evrecy, Caumont, Sutain, ESTRY, Bernay, Theelt, Londerzeel, Gheel, Eindhoven, BEST, Helmond, Venlo, Mol, TILBURG, Bletrick, Neer, Sevenum, Helden, Riel, Nijemen, CLEVE, Goch, Moglands (Schloss), Boxtel, BourgLeopold, Zanten, RIVER RHINE CROSSING, Mehrbou, Leven, Brennhorst, Hazenburg, CELLE, Uelzen, Neetze, Bleclede, RIVER VELBE CROSSING, Hammour, Bolhsdorf,Trenemunde, Wilsted, Carlow, LUBECK, (Late 45,early 46).
Harry and I were then demobbed. Both rather tired after that lot!.
Roy often spoke to me of a young German boy, who was ‘adopted’ by the Middlesex regiment. His name was Heinz Johannsen, but the soldiers called him Jimmy. In later life, Heinz collected Middlesex memorabilia. Heinz maintained contact with many of the Middlesex soldiers, including Roy. A few years ago I was also in contact with him.
With the war over, Roy and my father were released from military service, Roy to restart to his managerial career with Hector Powe, and my father to start a poultry farm in Portrush, subsidized by his musical talent. They remained firm friends ever after.
And nine months after my father returned to Portrush, I came on the scene.
Roy, my father and most, if not all, of their friends have passed on, but we must never ever forget their sacrifice of their time, and in many cases their lives, to keep Europe free and at peace.
It was twenty-four years ago, on 24 June 1995, that the little private primary school of Lyndhurst, in Camberley, celebrated its centenary. The school is close to the centre of the town, about 40 kilometers south-west of London. On that day, I already had two sons enrolled in the school, a third son about to start in September and a fourth son who would have to wait to join his brothers; he was only twenty days old.
The school was managed by the headmaster, Robert Cunliffe, and his wife, Jenny. Until very recently, I never knew the their actual first names; I had always assumed that they were Mister and Missus!
The couple´s ambition for the school was to create a family atmosphere for the children and impart a grounding in a wide range of subjects and skills. In my opinion, they far exceeded their goal.
For the centenary celebrations, they had organized marquees, booths, demonstrations of skills by the children, competitions etc. But when the headmaster had selected the date for the celebration, he was possibly not aware that on that very afternoon was scheduled the World Rugby Cup final between New Zealand and South Africa, the latter being the host country and their first participation in the World Cup since the abolition of apartheid. For a rugby fan, such as I, it was a not-to-be missed event.
But having told my sons that I would be at their school celebrations, with heavy heart I made my way to Lyndhurst. But when I got there, I found two South African members of the staff, adamant that they were going to see the game, and setting up a little television in one of the classrooms. So for the next two hours I perched on a child’s chair and watched an incredible game, won 15-12 in extra time by South Africa, with a drop goal. And who could ever forget the scene of a jubilant Nelson Mandela in a South African shirt, presenting the trophy to Francois Pinaar and dancing for the cameras. It is a magic memory.
Twelve years later, on 20 October 2007, the final was between South Africa and England. I was in Sweden, where rugby has little or no interest for the vast majority of Swedes. It was not covered on public television but I managed to see the Irish pool games by subscribing $9.99 per game. I failed to get access to the final which South Africa won 15-6.
At that time I did not realize that a further twelve years later I would be living in South Africa and witness the South Africans once again winning the World Cup, beating England 32-12, confounding the ‘experts’, who had England as the odds-on favourites. Having thoroughly beaten New Zealand, the tournament favorites , in the semi-final, it seemed as if the English thought that South Africa would be a ‘walk in the park’. They must have forgotten that unlike English parks, South African parks are populated with dangerous animals…
When the final whistle ended the game, South Africa erupted and has been celebrating ever since.
It took a few days to get the complete team and staff back to Johannesburg and then they set off on a four day tour of the major cities, arriving yesterday in Cape town. I will leave the photos to speak for themselves…
In each city, it was not just to the well-off parts they went, but they also toured many of the poor and deprived townships, from which many of the team originated, including the captain, Siya Kolesi.
In Siya’s own words ‘ Look at how we are all different. Different races, different backgrounds, and we can prove that South Africa can be united. We came together for South Africa and made it happen.’
There is hope and Nelson Mandela would very much approve. His spirit lives on…
I had not long turned six, when my mother bought a rather large chair. It had an arm around three sides and my mother said it was for my grandmother, when she arrived from Harpley in England. She had had a stroke and was an invalid; she needed to have support when sitting down or getting up. Of course I understood nothing of her medical condition.
Nor did I understand what was happening soon after, when my mother was taken away. I could remember the previous time when she was taken away for many months. I was distressed and hid for a long time behind a bedroom door. I don’t remember what happened after.
Of course my mother was not ill; she was about to give birth to my little brother, but nobody explained that to me. In that era children were well hidden from ‘the facts of life’, at least I certainly was.
My grandparents were Norfolk, through and through. As far as I have been able to trace their ancestors, to at least the 1600s, they all were born, married and died in Norfolk.
My grandfather was a classical musician and my grandmother was a primary school teacher, one of the first in her area. They were not long retired, when my father settled in Ireland after WW2 and started his poultry farm. When my brother eventually came along in 1953, my grandparents decided to relocate to Portrush, to be closer to their son; my father was an only child, as was also my mother.
At that time, across the road from our farm, there was a large house available for rent. It was owned by Joe Collins and the house was at the end of the lane past the Collins farm. It was to that house my grandparents moved.
The house was known as Ard Rua. In the Irish language, Ard meaning high and Rua meaning red. The house is timber-framed, based on a Swedish design, and was at one time owned by a member of the Stormont parliament. It was perhaps he who originally built it.
Behind the house, on the northern side, there was a Nissen hut. I suspect that the house was sequestered by the military during WW2. My grandfather used to raise chickens in that hut.
To the right of the entrance to the house was a long veranda in which my grandfather grew geraniums and similar flowers. It was south-facing and perfect for raising house plants.
On entering the house there was a reception area with comfortable chairs and a fireplace. To the left was a large dining room, to the right a drawing room, straight ahead were the stairs and in the rear left, the kitchen, that led to the scullery and the toilet.
Under the stairs was my paradise. It was there that my grandparents kept the games that had survived my father’s youth.
From the landing on the staircase, one could see far north across Portrush and the Skerries, the small islands off the coast. It was my grandfather who introduced me to ‘the white horses‘. On a stormy day, the North Atlantic was a stampede.
On the upper floor there were five bedrooms. In one of the bedrooms I discovered a violin, with a few strings still intact and a bow. I never did know that my grandfather used to play the violin.
But my grandmother never slept upstairs. Her recurrent strokes left her an invalid and she was bed-ridden downstairs in the drawing room. My grandfather’s piano was in her room. I would like to believe that he used to play for her. In the dining room was his organ. He played several hours every day.
There was a garage to the right of the house and there my grandfather kept his car, a Sunbeam Talbot, with licence plate of DYZ 638. I can’t remember my telephone number from yesterday, but I can remember my grandfather’s car registration from 1953! It was Tommy Tinkler who drove the car over from Norfolk and serviced it until both my grandfather and the car passed on.
My grandmother died of one stroke too many in 1958. My father built an extension to our house and soon after my grandfather moved in. Ard Rua was again available to rent.
Recently, I received a mail from a lady, who lived for a time in Ard Rua in 1962, as a child. She had stumbled upon the name in one of my articles. Sometimes it’s a very small world.
Of course, in my time, the telecoms tower did not exist, nor the houses in the background. There were only the gorse bushes in which I used to hide and act out the adventure stories that I used to read.
I don’t know what ever happened to the chair; my grandparents and my parents have long passed on, but my vivid memories are still with me.
Gertrude Mary Blackwood was born in Hapton, south-western Norfolk, the third of seven children of William Blackwood and Lucy Ann English and was one of the elder sisters of my paternal grandfather, Leonard Clive Blackwood. By 1876, when her sister Rosa Lillian was born, the family had already moved from Hapton to Jay’s Green, Redenhall, on the Sussex border. Her father worked as a miller and he eventually acquired his own windmill.
Gertrude died on 24 July 1942. An inquest was held the next day and the verdict of Donald Flackson, the coroner for the Kings Lynn District, was that ’The deceased threw herself into a bit of water and drowned herself – the balance of her mind being at the time disturbed’. The death certificate was issued by the coroner and there was no indication of who discovered the body or where she was buried. Her address was given as 451 Norwich Road, Ipswich, her marital status was that of spinster and her occupation was that of Housekeeper (Domestic).
What caught my attention about the apparent suicide was that it did not occur in or near Ipswich, where she lived, but in Harpley, where my grandparents lived. I have been several times to Harpley and I have never noticed a pond. There are a couple of large ponds in the centre of Massingham about two miles away, but Harpley has no village pond. On checking a map of Harpley, I found that there is a pond in a secluded area called Lake Wood, about 300m from the centre of Harpley and my grandparent’s house, and close to the Kings Lynn to Fakenham Road that bypasses Harpley. Could that have been where Gertrude drowned herself? Or was it in one of the small livestock ponds that farms tended to have. And where had she been staying at the time? With my grandparents or was she just visiting? Her home in Ipswich was not exactly around the corner – it was about 70 miles by the most direct route, and considerably more by public transportation.
Did my father know of the suicide? It was wartime and he would have been stationed in Northern Ireland during that pre-invasion era. I find it hard to believe that he was not informed of the death by his parents, either by mail or during a leave to visit them in Harpley. If he did know, he certainly never mentioned it to me, and he was quite aware of my interest and active involvement in researching my family history. If he had never been told, what was the reason?
My curiosity was very much aroused and I decided to see if any information regarding Gertrude resided in the public domain. I was not disappointed.
Gertrude was born in Hapton, Norfolk, in the third quarter of 1872. The family moved to Harlesdon and in the census of 1881, Gertrude was listed as eight years old.
In 1891 she was employed as a Draper’s assistant, living in the house of William Munford (a Draper) at 21 High Street, Haverhill Essex.
On 6 October 1897 she gave birth to Hubert Wilde Blackwood in Kirby Bedon, south-east of Norwich. No father’s name was given on the birth certificate. At the time her address was recorded as 13 Greyfriar’s Road, Norwich, which is close to the Norwich Castle.
In 1901 she was living at 51 Grove Road in Lakenham, SE Norwich, and was listed as a visitor and ‘living on her own means’. The head of the household was Algernon Wilde, a fire insurance clerk. Also in the same house were his three sons – Frederic (14), Ernest (13) and Hubert (3), the latter who must have been Gertrude’s son. Algernon Wilde was listed as being married, but there was no mention of his wife.
On 28 September 1901 at Falkland House, Grove Road, Lakenham, Hubert Wilde Blackwood died of membranous croup. He was only 3 years old. Present at the death was G. M. Blackwood, by occupation a housekeeper.
In the 1911 census she was listed as a maternity nurse and living as a ‘boarder’ in the house of Algernon Sidney Wilde, at Ellesmere, Cavendish Road, Felixstowe. Algernon Wilde was now recorded as a house agent and widower.
Algernon Wilde died on 10 January 1942 at 451 Norwich Road, Ipswich and the Ipswich probate dated 7 April 1942 stated that his estate of £908 10s 2d was left to Gertrude Blackwood.
When Gertrude died six months later, in 1942, her home address was also given as 451 Norwich Road, Ipswich.
On 29 September 1942 the probate granted £1724 14s to Leonard Clive Blackwood, organist and Ernest Norman Wilde, electricity show-room assistant.
In 1901 Algernon Wilde was married and most likely separated from his wife, possibly as a result of having had a son with Gertrude. In 1884 he had married Edna Anne Allard in Norwich, and they had two sons – Frederick and Ernest. In 1896 they had a third son, Leslie Arthur. In 1901 she and her young son were visitors staying with Richard Sharrod in Southreppes Road, Antingham. He was a widower with two teenage daughters aged 21 and 14.
In the 1911 census Algernon Wilde claimed that he was a widower, but that was not true. Edna Wilde was by then living in Acle to the east of Norwich. She was head of the household and in addition to her youngest son she also now had an eight year old daughter, Mary, and two boarders. She was still married and perhaps she refused to give Algernon a divorce, which could explain why he never married Gertrude. Edna died in Acle in the first quarter of 1942.
When I started this investigation I felt certain that Gertrude was left destitute after the death of Algernon, and that she had gone to my grandfather seeking financial help. I imagined that he had refused or was unable to help, and in desperation, she committed suicide. But given her inheritance from Algernon and her own resources, that seemed to have been unlikely.
It is not likely that I will ever discover the reason for Gertrude’s despair on that summer day in 1942 and it will remain with her in her grave.
Sometimes, all that separates life from death is a bit of water.