Lest we forget

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..

Ron Warner and Roy Bishop were in the Regimental Police

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.

My parents marriage photo, with Harry Wells and E. Gillespie

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.
My father is the soldier with his back to the mortar, adjusting the sights.

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. 
Where they were blown up by a mine. It looks rather peaceful today.

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.
The Army photograph of the WO’s and Sgts. Mess at LUBECK directly after the war was taken by a local German photographer.  My father is on the extreme left of tne photograph and Roy sixth from the left
A page of Roy’s wartime notebook, with my father and Roy’s records
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.

Ard Rua

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.

One of only two photographs that I have of my English grandmother . My father is the one with the ‘dodgy’ haircut. The background is not familiar to me, so perhaps the photo was taken in Harpley

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 grandfather’s car parked across from our farm

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.

Ard Rua, renamed and repainted as The Pink House, as it is today, extended, and marketed as a B&B

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.

And Ard Rua still stands in all its pink glory

A Difficult Decade

My mother only rarely ever spoke to me of the war years and I never formed the relevant questions that would have aided me in writing this rather superficial account of her life during that era. I am relying on supplementing my sparse knowledge with some photos that have come into my possession and records that are in the public domain.

She went to Mark’s Street school in Portrush and left when she was 15, to assist her parents on the farm at Glenmanus.

My mother in 1940 when she was 15, possibly when she finished school
A local bathing beauty, but I suspect that not more than her feet ever entered the cold North Atlantic waters

In the early years of World War II, Portrush and much of the north Ulster coast experienced an influx of soldiers and airmen. With its extensive beaches and hinterland, the area was ideal for training for the possible invasion of mainland Europe. And with a large number of military personnel, the local single girls were very much in demand. My mother had a close relationship with an airman called Harvey. Sadly he was killed in action shortly after their photo was taken. His death was the start of several difficult years for my mother.

With Harvey

Later that year, on 26 November, her mother died at home of a heart attack, caused by mitral valve disease. She was only 41 and my mother 17. According to my mother, my grandfather would not let her in to see her, as her skin had started to turn blue.

A photo probably taken in 1942

In 1942, she met my father, who was stationed in Portrush with the Middlesex Regiment. They were married in October in Ballywillan Church

My parents marriage on 17 October 1942

On 26 May 1943, my older sister, June Mary, was born. Less than three months later, my mother’s grandmother died, on 9 August. And in January of the following year, my sister died of meningitis and bronchial pneumonia.

The death certificate of June Mary Blackwood, aged eight months

Shortly after, the Middlesex started their transition, stage by stage, to the English Channel coast, preparing for the imminent invasion. My mother did not see my father again until early 1946. Their only communication was by heavily censored letters.

In July 1944, my grandfather remarried to Florence Stocks (née McDonnell), a widow. The marriage took place in the Catholic Church of St. Malachy in Coleraine. I cannot imagine that the Douglas and McCloskey families were enthusiastic about this new marriage. To get married in a Catholic Church, my grandfather must have had to go some form of initiation. And after the marriage, Florence would have moved into the Douglas farm at Seaview. Indeed, this sequence of events might explain why my mother never spoke fondly of her step-mother.

In late January 1946, after a long separation from my mother, my father was finally released from military duties and arrived back in Portrush from Lübeck, in northern Germany, where he ended up after hostilities ended . I was born nine months later.

I was never a photogenic child

I almost did not survive my first year. My mother left me sleeping in the pram in the shade, to later find me in full sun and unconscious with heat stroke. I don’t know what happened next, but I obviously recovered and to this day, I have had a high tolerance to heat.

In July 1948, when trans-Atlantic transportation had become more or less back to normal, my grandfather and Florence left Ireland from Cobh on the Marine Tiger, bound for New York and eventually Brampton in Canada. When I knew them in the late 1960’s, my grandfather was nearing retirement, driving a truck delivering lumber, and Florence was a nurse at the local hospital. My grandfather died in 1977 and Florence in 1984.

My grandfather and step-grandmother in their Brampton house in the mid-1960s

Before the Glenmanus farm was sold, my parents moved into a little wooden hut on the Glenmanus Road and my father rented a field opposite for his fledgling poultry farm. It was then around 1950, that my mother fell seriously ill with tuberculosis and was transferred to a sanatorium in Derry. She remained there for several months before being finally released. In the meantime, I was looked after by the Wilson family next door.

To say that my mother had a tough decade would be an understatement; she lost her fiancé, she witnessed the death of her mother, grandmother and daughter, she suffered the long absence of my father at war, she nearly lost me, she lived through the inter-denomination tension of her father’s remarriage and subsequent migration, and had her own serious illness.

My mother did not have an easy life.

My mother’s early years

On my mother´s side, I am descended from the Douglas family of Glenmanus, a small farming village about one mile south of Portrush, on the north Irish coast.  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.  In contrast Glenmanus was a thriving rural community.

But the new harbour and the railway brought new business opportunities to Portrush, especially in the field of tourism.  Over the next 150 years, the town expanded relentlessly, and Glenmanus was swallowed up.  Today little remains of the original village, save for a few renovated houses and the name on a street sign.

According to my ‘family legend’, the first Douglas arrived with General Munro’s Scottish army during the 1641-49 conflict, after which he remained, settling in Glenmanus, possibly with a small grant of land.  I have no evidence of this claim, but certainly a John Douglas (c1734-1771) and Eliza (c1731-1800) lived and died there.  I have succeeded in tracing my own ancestral line back as far as my third great grandfather, John Douglas (1811-1876).  My maternal grandfather was Adam Douglas (1900-1977)

Glenmanus
Obituary of Adam Douglas, my 2nd great grandfather, who died on Thursday, 3 May 1917

My maternal grandmother was Mary Elizabeth Wilson McCloskey.  Her father, James McCloskey (1853-1933), and his father before him, James McCloskey (1808-1890), had a farm at Bannbrook, between Coleraine and Castlerock.  Mary was the fifth of seven sisters and one brother.  She married my grandfather on 14 February 1924.  My mother, Beatrice Elizabeth Stewart Douglas, was born four months later on 15 June

Kilcranny House
Kilcranny House, the McCloskey farmhouse at Bannbrook, near Coleraine

I know nothing of my grandparents lives during that era, but I suspect that life was not easy for the young family.  I cannot imagine that their parents were thrilled with the premature arrival of a granddaughter; their strict Protestant religion has never been renowned for its tolerance of human weakness.  And how the self-righteous neighbours must have talked about the young couple!  Despite my grandfather being the eldest son and the logical inheritor of the Glenmanus farm, in 1927, when my mother was two, he took his family and migrated to Canada. They left Belfast during late March on the Aurania and arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia on 3 April 1927.

Enlarge the passenger list to see my grandparents at the bottom of the left hand page
01aura3-cun

They then travelled across Canada to Saskatchewan, most likely by train, and settled in Simpson, a small town situated about 150 k northwest of Regina and 140 k southeast of Saskatoon.  The nearest rail station was at Watrous, some 25 k to the north of Simpson.

Simpson

Why did they decide to leave Ireland?  Perhaps there was an unbearable relationship with his parents or with his siblings or perhaps with other villagers.  Or maybe the family farmhouse became intolerably crowded with an eight adults and a baby.  Or like me, he just wanted to see something of the world and have a better life.  It is most unlikely that we shall ever know the real reason. In those days life in Ireland was not easy.  The standard of living was poor and mainly based on the farming of small holdings, like that of my ancestors.  It was not unusual for young people to migrate to the industrial towns of the UK, or further afield to Canada, Australia or New Zealand, the latter countries willing to pay the cost of transportation.

The little I know about my grandparents in Simpson was provided to me by Mrs. Beatrice Crew (née Allen) of New Westminster, Canada.  She was a childhood friend of my mother and despite their having been separated at a young age, they corresponded until my mother’s death in 1985.

I recall my mother telling me that her father had once been fired from his job. The farmer for whom he was working at the time was being cruel to a horse and my grandfather hit him. I have always felt proud of him for having done that.  I don’t know who the farmer was. I like to think that I would have reacted in the same way.

Mrs. Crew told me that initially my grandfather worked on ‘little’ Fred Wilson’s farm outside Simpson, then for a summer for Frank Witley, before moving to a cottage in Simpson.  Adam worked for farmers and my grandmother did house cleaning.  She also provided full board to Bill Libby, who ran the Simpson Trading Company.

In August 1932, my grandfather’s father died, but it was not until the end of 1933 that the family returned to Ireland.  They arrived in Liverpool on 17 December on the Duchess of Atholl, from St. John, New Brunswick, giving Kilcranny House as their proposed address.  They may have initially stayed there, but must have eventually moved into Seaview Farm, where Adam’s mother was still living, as my mother never mentioned them as having lived elsewhere.

My maternal grandparents outside Seaview farm in Glenmanus

Why did they decide to return to Ireland?  Until recently I had assumed that there was something outstanding or in dispute, resulting from his father’s death. It was one of my mother’s cousins who recently shed new light on the question. He said that my grandfather’s mother wanted my grandfather to inherit the farm after she died and had come to an agreement with the other siblings to accept her wishes and not make a claim.

So my grandparents and my mother moved back to Seaview Farm in Glenmanus and worked the land. My mother went to Mark’s Street primary school and left at the earliest opportunity to help her parents at home and on the farm. As she never mentioned that era of her life to me, I assume that it was uneventful.

My mother with the farm horsepower, in the late 1930s

It was when World War Two broke out, that my mother´s life changed dramatically. But that is a story for another day.

The Bicycle

I was seven years old when I had my first bicycle. It was a sturdy, very old-fashioned heavy tricycle that had been my father’s. My paternal grandparents brought it with them when they moved from Harpley in Norfolk, to live opposite us in a large house, then known as Ard Rua. I used to ride up and down the lane that led to their house, past the farm of Old Joe Collins and do skidding turns on the gravel slope outside their my grandparent’s front door.

When I was twelve, my father bought me a second-hand bicycle. It has no gears, but then I never ever knew anybody who had any. My great uncle Bill Douglas used to visit our farm almost every week day. He used to push his bicycle up the hill and freewheel the one mile back down to Glenmanus. If you have ever ridden a bicycle with no gears, you will know that going uphill is no picnic.

I used to sit on my bicycle on the road outside our house at Islandflackey, and without making any effort, see how far I could go into Portrush. I used to sail down the first hill past Carnalridge school, slow down to a crawl before the crossroads at Magherabuoy, and fly down the hill past Glenmanus, past Glenvale Avenue, until slowly grinding to a stop shortly after. No matter what I did to lower air resistance and in spite of the weather, I always ended up within spittle distance of the house of Reverend Perrin, just before the Metropole.

Shortly after the limits of Portrush, was the house of David Hunter. We had both gone to Carnalridge Primary School and then on to CAI. In our summer holidays I used to glide down on my bicycle and we played cricket against his parent’s garage door, using a tennis ball. We were usually joined by a combination of Dennis Green, Derek Aiken, Martyn Lewis, Michael Moore and Nicholas Stevens-Hoare, all of then living within a short distance.

One summer, Derek Aiken’s father bought a rowing boat, and berthed it in the harbour. What fun it was to row around the harbour. Once, on a sea-calm day, we decided to row to Portstewart, a rather long way across the bay. After we exited the harbour mouth, we had not gone far before sight of land disappeared with the swell in the trough of a wave, to reappear on the peak of the next. We did not go very far until we decided that it might not be such a good idea and returned.

Portrush with its harbour and the West Strand, circa 1960

On other occasions we use to ride our bicycles to the parking area beside the East Strand. There we would race around the marked course that was used for occasional Go-Kart races. Or we played football on the packed sand of the beach. Afterwards, I had the gear-less struggle back up the hill to our farm. But the memories of that era are fond.

After I dropped out of grammar school in 1963, I lost touch with my summer friends. David Hunter went on to Oxford to study law and ended up as a QC in Belfast and Dennis Green studied dentistry. I was once told that his practice was in Derry. After university, Derek Aiken joined his father’s timber business in Coleraine, but sadly died in 1991, at the much too early age of 44. I always visit his grave on my infrequent visits to the area. Martyn Lewis became a household celebrity, reading the BBC evening news for many years and later hosting his own television programs. Michael Moore qualified from Queens University with a PhD in Marine Biology and later became Professor Moore. I don’t know what ever happened to Nicholas Stevens-Hoare. I seem to remember that his father was in the military, so perhaps he relocated.

Derek’s grave in the Ballywillan cemetery

And I don’t know what happened to my old bicycle. In the unlikely event that I should ever have another, I will insist on its having adequate gears, sufficient to enable a relatively easy ascent from Portrush up the hill to Islandflackey or the equivalent.

Or perhaps I will just stick to my lifetime habit of walking.

The Dreamer

The boy dreamed of having two polish cans and racing them down the burn, but he had only one, until one day his father surprised him with a second empty can.

Holding one in each hand, he ran down the hill from the house, skirting the pig sties, and sprinting the length of the pig run, dodging from side to side to avoid imaginary enemy fire, leaping over pig wallows that resembled bomb craters, until, like a commando, vaulting over a barbed wire fence to the relative safety of the flax dams.

He loved that corner of the farm. Nobody ever went there. It was secluded and out of view of the house. There he had only the constant croaking of the frogs and the chirping of unseen birds for company. The dams had not been used for very many years and were silted and choked with reeds. Willow trees dangled the tips of their branches over the stagnant water. But on that day, he was on a mission.

He clambered over the bank and jumped into Taylor’s field. He was not allowed to leave their farm, but nobody could have seen him. There had been a lot of summer rain in the previous week and the burn was still quite full. He carefully placed the two cans in the water, side by side, holding them back with a long stick, before releasing them into the strong current. The race was on.

He ran across the field to where the burn entered the tunnel under the school. If he missed them there, they would be on their way to the sea. He waited patiently, but the cans did not come. He walked up the banks of the burn and found one can trapped in reeds and a little further, the other stuck in still water, sheltered behind a rock. He retrieved them and started the race again. He repeated the race several times. Sometimes one of them reached the tunnel, usually they both got stuck and he had to retrieve them.

It was a warm day and he grew tired of his game. He returned to the flax dams and sat on the bank in the afternoon sun, looking out across the fields, past the church to the slopes of Islandmore. He wondered where the source of the stream was. When he grew a little older, he would set off on an expedition to find it. At school he had learned of Livingstone and later, Stanley, searching for the source of the River Nile in Africa. He knew that there were two big rivers near his home – the rivers Bann and Bush. He would find their sources too. He wanted to be an explorer when he grew up.

He also wanted to be a mountaineer, like Edmund Hillary, and climb Islandmore and find out what was on the other side. And his teacher had recently told them of how the Vikings had struggled to herd their stolen cattle through the marshy land above Portrush, past where their schoolhouse now stood, and how they had been defeated at the nearby battle of The War Hollow. He wanted to search for swords and coins and other Viking evidence in the area around their farm. There was so much to think about.

But he was not always an all-action boy. His grandmother had showed him how to find, press and exhibit flowers and leaves. He was constantly on the look-out for a new addition to his collection.

Even though the boy had no friends to play with – his younger brother was still a baby, and there was no television, he had his imagination for company. And it accompanied him day and night.

He was a most contented child.

Of course the boy grew older, eventually went away, and when he returned, he realized that the burn beside the farm was just a shallow drain beside a field, that Islandmore was only a slight undulation on the North Antrim coast, and that the story of the Vikings and the War Hollow was likely just a legend. But his childhood dreams had been replaced by those of an adult and his imagination continued to be his constant companion.

He had become a most contented man.

First Taste of Freedom

I never much enjoyed my grammar school days, and when the opportunity came to escape the drudgery, I grabbed it with both hands; I was like a thirsty man being offered a cold pint of Guinness on a hot summer day. My new-found freedom was delicious.

Before long, I started to study towards an initial Quantity Surveyor qualification, via a correspondence course with the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). I was enthusiastic about the subjects and I was free to proceed at my own pace. If I was not ready to take the exam the next year, then the year after or whenever. And in the meantime, I was supporting myself and contributing something to my parent’s household. I was quite content.

And my evenings and weekends were filled with sports, music and girls.

At work, my colleagues rented the gymnasium at the Intermediate School in Coleraine for one night a week, to play indoor football. And in the summer months, we participated in a team in the local works league. Through the winter months, I played rugby with the Coleraine II team, and in my last summer, with the Coleraine Cricket Club.

Soon after finishing school, I joined Bill McKeown’s group, playing drums. We were five – piano, saxophone, guitar, drums and singer. We played at hotels around the north Antrim coast and even had a six week summer season at the Lismara hotel in Portrush, playing six nights a week. I earned much more drumming than at Quantity Surveying, but unless one has real talent, music was not steady work.

When I could, I used to go to one of the local dance halls on a Saturday night: to the Arcadia in Portrush, the Strand in Portstewart, the Boat House in Coleraine and sometimes further afield. If a girl let me walk her back to her house, I almost always managed to miss the last bus, and had a long walk home, often in diabolic weather. It once happened to me in Ballymena, some thirty miles away. I walked several miles before I managed to thumb a lift home.

The last time I saw my mother, not long before she died, she told me that she had never fallen asleep until she knew that I was safely home. I was never aware of my having caused her sleepless nights.

It was Raymond de Zeeuw who had given me the idea of a career in Quantity Surveying. Knowing that he was the leader of the Ballywillan Lifeboys, I offered to help him in any way that I could. They met every Saturday morning. The Lifeboys were the junior branch of the Boy’s Brigade, as the Cub Scouts were the junior branch of the Boy Scouts.

So I taught the boys much of the military discipline that I had learned at Army Cadets. And at the end of the year, they demonstrated their coordinated marching capability in front of their parents and friends at the annual ‘demonstration’. They were brilliant.

I organized football games outside the Church Hall, before and after the formal Lifeboy agenda. We even had a ‘match’ with Portrush Primary School. We lost, but it was great fun.

Raymond once organized an early-summer cruise on Lough Neagh and many of the boys came along.

The Lifeboys, later to be known as the Junior Boys Brigade, on the outing to Lough Neagh in the summer of 1963. In the back row – Yours truly, Rev. Jim Frazer, Brigadier W. W. Boggs, Mrs. T. Stewart (pianist) and Josephine Dallas
And the boys. In the back row – Ian King, Stephen Wilson, Colin Stewart, Nigel Stewart, Victor Sinclair, Alan Cunningham, Ivan Adams. Trevor Martin, Milton Stewart. And in the front row- Archie McNeill, Raymond McNeill, Brian Caldwell, John McNeill, Norman Adams, Peter Stewart and Norman Brewster

The photographs were taken by Raymond de Zeeuw, the leader, and it was Josephine Dallas who recently sent them to me, along with the names of the boys.

By now, most, if not all of the boys will be collecting their pensions, some with families and some perhaps with grandchildren. Sadly, two of them have passed on: Alan Cunningham some years ago, and Archie McNeill, within the past two weeks. They have passed much too soon.

In a field beside Ballywillan Church, one beautiful mid-summer evening, I organized an extra-curricular football game. As usual, Raymond led one side and I led the other. Somehow, I managed to slice my knee open on a sharp stone or a piece of glass and ended up needing several stitches. I still have the scar.

That proved to be my last involvement with the Lifeboys, for soon after, I left for Canada on what has turned out to be the first stage of a journey without end.

I have never lost my taste of freedom.