Friday, January 29, 2010

Memories of the Test at Whitchurch by June Gracey

'[Your photograph] was a happy reminder of days fishing at the Mill when Gavin was about 10 years old. Piper came with us each day armed him some breadcrumbs (grandfather's suggestion) to drop in the water and provoke a 'rise' so the boy would not be disappointed and turn into a keen fisherman - which he did. Grandfather left him the Mill and its bit of fishing in his will. Unfortunately living so far away it became impossible to keep after a few years. Gavin could tie a number of excellent flies and was so keen'

Extract of a letter from June Gracey, Sir Alfred's granddaughter, to Herry Lawford 25th July 2010

Click the heading for more photos of this stretch of the Test and of the Mill

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Early Memories of Home Life

Two views of  Stocks Farm in 1938
It would seem very strange to my children, but life in the fifties and sixties was very different in a thousand ways to today and much more similar to that lived by previous generations.

There is a marvellous book called 'Scenes from A Hampshire Childhood' by Gerald Ponting in which he describes growing up in a Hampshire village in the 40s and 50s, and which is similar to my own early experiences. Life then hadn't changed that much in the preceeding 100 years. It was only since the late 60s (ie when I was in my early 20s) that the huge changes that are still with us today began to be felt.

Stocks, which we moved to 1950 from Danegate, lay almost two miles outside Meonstoke and had no mains water, electricity or drainage, though there was always a telephone (Droxford 135) which connected to the 'exchange' in Droxford. You could dial 'local' calls, but 'trunk' calls had to be placed through the operator until all exchanges were given numbers (STD or 'Subscriber Trunk Dialling') and one could dial direct. Rather as with postcodes today, something was lost when we no longed had to use names for places when ringing them (eg Flaxman 309).

Water came from a deep well on the downs half a mile above the house and next to 'the cottages', and was raised by a pump which had to run at least once a day (the job of whoever lived in the cottages at the time). On a still day, one could hear the pump start up and chug away and know that if the tanks in the roof of the house had run low there would soon be enough water. The holding tank on the downs was inspected once and the water declared unfit to drink because of animal droppings in it, but despite this, none of us suffered from any illnesses. Mains water arrived in the lane in the 70s and we were connected, but in fact we continued to use the sweet downs water for many years thereafter, an electric pump eventually replacing the old chugger.

Hot water came from a tank in the main bathroom, heated by the AGA in the kitchen. It was a coke-burning type and had to be filled regularly from a heap in the stables, carried in 'scuttles' and poured through a hole in the main hotplate which was normally secured by a heavy plug. The fire needed 'riddling' in the morning and again in the evening and the ash was carried away to be put on paths or the flower beds. It could be set low to burn quietly all night and gave a comfortable warm heat throughout the kitchen and to the rooms above and was ideal for drying clothes.  The AGA was converted to burn oil sometime in the 70's, and the job of looking after it disappeared.

There was no mains electricity until the 60s, and we made our own with a huge generator which ran in the stables outside the kitchen. It had an exhaust which discharged black smoke through the wall onto the roadside. It was a bit of a brute to start by hand and one had to be careful - as with the tractors - not to be caught by the suddenly flying handle. It chugged rythymically for hours at a time, providing light and a bit of power (for things like an iron or the wireless and later the television), but there were so few electrical appliances in those days. The house must have been considerably darker, though I don't remember us particularly using candles, except at dinner.

Drainage was to a septic tank in the garden which sometime backed up, necessitating a thorough 'rodding' with a huge set of bamboo and brass rods. A handsome stone lion, now in the garden at Piers's house in Coventry, stood on the main drain cover next to the drive. Sometime in the 60s a larger tank coupled to a deep soakaway was built under the cherry tree in the garden, and our drainage problems diminished as long as we remembered to order the slurry lorry in time. The house still has no mains drainage to this day.

The farmyards and buildings drained into an ancient pond, and as there were chicken, pigs and sometimes cattle in the yards, the water in it was certainly not drinkable, but that didn't stop us playing in it and on it a great deal. We had boats to play with but they weren't as much fun as an upturned umbrella.

The wireless and a wind-up gramophone was until the mid 50's the only entertainment apart from books and comics. I used to 'Listen With Mother' after lunch and play with my toys - a 'Muffin the Mule' string puppet was a favourite - and read picture books such as 'Snorri the Seal' and a magical one about an Indian boy's journey through the Great Lakes. Later, I loved comics and the 'Beano' and 'Dandy' were delivered weekly. Fuff had the 'Eagle', but I never really liked that, even when I got to his age. Perhaps I was scared of 'the Mekon'. The radio sci-fi programme ‘Journey Into Space’ was also so frightening that I had to listen to it with Fuff. I can still hear one of the characters calling ‘Mclain, Mclain......’ into the void.....

The wind-up gramophone had a curious curved hole at the back which acted as the speaker, and one had frequently to change the steel needle which was lowered more of less carefully onto the old shellac recording to play our mainly classical repertoire at 78rpm. Records played with a needle made a characteristic scratching sound which can be heard very clearly in this damaged but beautiful recording of Kathleen Ferrier singing Land of Hope and Glory on the last night of the Proms in 1951. We must have acquired an electric gramophone sometime in the late 50s as I remember Fuff buying the first vinyl LP for it - I think it was 'Oaklahoma' - and later 'High Society'. These were played at 33rpm and were the main source of music until the 7" 'singles' records played at 45rpm arrived. My first 'single' was Cliff Richard's 'Living Doll'.

The toys we played with most were ‘Dinky’ Toys – scale models of cars and in particular racing cars. My brother and I collected them - and he still has nearly 80 models (including mine as he ‘inherited’ them when I grew out of playing with them). We particularly loved playing with them in the ‘Dromes’ at St Ronan’s. But my particular favourite was an battery-operated fork-lift truck, which one could steer and which had forward and reverse gears as well as a lifting platform.

Sweets were a great treat, then as now, but St Ronan’s had the excellent rule that one could only have 16 pieces of sweets a week. The rationing process is also described here. I used to buy mine at the village shop - Cooke’s in Meonstoke - and pack them carefully into a biscuit tin to take to school knowing that unless one’s parents brought you more, they would have to last the whole term.

All of this sounds perhaps mean or frugal, but of course it wasn’t. It depends entirely on your expectations. And perhaps we are now returning to an age when excessive and unnecessary choice and availability disappear – but please don’t take away the internet or my iPhone!

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Cars of Our Youth

My Mini Cooper S outside Stocks, with Annette and a Fiat 2300

Cars played an enormous part in our youth; wanting them, getting them, driving them and looking after them. They probably occupy the same part of boys' minds as ponies do in girls'....

I was incredibly lucky in that I could drive on the farm at Stocks at an early age. I expect I drove cars before tractors, but tractors were an early source of fun and as they were far heavier and more difficult to control, one leaned a lot from them. But when I was about ten, Patrick got an old Willis Jeep which was used to run all over the farm. Naturally, we drove it too and loved it. It was started - as in sporting cars today - by pushing a button on the dashboard. I don't think it even had a key. It had four-wheel drive and heavy-duty tyres which mean it could go anywhere - even straight up Old Winchester Hill or along the muddiest tracks. It was open and had no doors and the windscreen could be laid flat on the bonnet, which made it pretty exhilarating to drive. At night, we used to shoot rabbits from it, driving round the fields and seeing their eyes in the headlights.

Then there were tbe farm cars - mostly Morris or Austin vans or shooting brakes with animal or pheasant feed and bales of hay in the back. I remember that at one time we had seven cars at Stocks, and they were usually full of dogs. I drove them on the fields of course, but even sometimes on the road as the Stocks Lane was pretty quiet and one soon reached the road up to the 'cottages' on the Down which was private and therefore legal for us to drive on.

My first car, on the lane leading up to the cottages - which can be seen in the background

On my 17th birthday my parents were kind enough to surprise me with a car of my own, which they hid on a lawn at the back of the house. It was a Mini van, new, costing in those day £515 (about £8000 today). There were seats in the back, but no windows (as that was cheaper to tax and insure). I loved it of course and quickly passed my test - and later my Advanced Motorists' Test. It gave me great freedom as my parents no longer had to drive me to and pick me up from friends' houses and parties and naturally I lavished much time and not a little money on it.

Fortunately petrol wasn't a problem, as we used the cheap petrol from the farm pump (it attracted lower duty as it was for farm use) and I didn't drink, so there was really no restriction on my driving. I was soon taking the car with Charlie Skipwith and Tony Ashforth to Torquay (where Charlie was working in an hotel), on summer holidays to stay with the Courtaulds in Polzeath and also to Wales, where my brother Fuff and his wife Belinda had bought a farm.

I don't know when the Mini van disappeared, but in my first year at university, I drove a Humber Super Snipe, which was somehow surplus to requirements at Stocks. It was wonderful for transporting large numbers of friends around but it of course I wanted something a bit sportier, and my parents were kind enough to get me a Mini Coper S. It came from the famous race car garage of Jan Oder - Janspeed - at Downton near Salisbury. [Click here for the fascinating story of Downtown Engineering and Janspeed]. I had a 1100cc 'S' - an unusual engine size developed by the firm. I remember racing Nick Duke and Charlie Skipwith (in Nick's hot 1500cc Anglia) back from Downton in it. It was originally green with a white top, but I had it resprayed white with a black top. My mother kindly gave me a special racing seat to put in it, and much time was spent at Laddie Taylor's Garage in Droxford where Graham the mechanic was induced to coax the last drop of power out of it. It was this car that I up and down to and from London when I was at university and which took me to the White Horse during the holidays, with an early portable 45rpm record player on the back seat. I even did some light rally driving in it and entered a Brands Hatch open day when one could drive round the racetrack and frighten oneself on the corners.

Nick Duke had his hot 1500cc Anglia and, when he was lucky, he could also drive his father's Aston Martin DB5 Vantage. Amazingly, I used to drive it quite often as well, and once even drove it up to London and back. Charlie Skipwith had a 1500cc Wolsley; quite a quick car, but he stuck white racing decals on the side which tended to attract the attention of the local police. We called it the 'racing sheep'. Nick then graduated to a Triumph Stag and a Reliant Scimitar, while Charlie, after borrowing his mother's lovely yellow drophead Ford Consul (which he managed to get stuck on top of a silage heap at Belin Wallis's farm), had a Lotus Cortina (sadly stolen from outside Shouldham St one night) and a Marcos.

I had a couple of non-serious accidents in the Mini Cooper; one in Florence where it was hit by an even smaller Fiat, and one in Queen's Gate, and once I had to be towed out of a ditch beside the road at Baddersley when I went to sleep after playing Scalextric all night with Charlie Skipwith and Tony Ashforth. Fortunately I avoided the Itchen, flowing fast along the other side of the road....There was also a bicyclist who ran into it when I edged forward at a traffic lights in Windsor and cut his knee. That time I was accompanied by Frances Duke and we helped the man home, only to have the police become involved because I had 'left the scene of an accident'. However in the early years I was never stopped for speeding and had a clean record (apart from the Windsor accident) right up until my first speeding ticket from a camera in about 2002.

After the Mini Cooper, I had an Austin 1800 - known as the 'landcrab' because it was almost as wide as it was long. Actually a friendly and practical car, it had front-wheel drive and a 'bench' front seat and could carry a lot of people comfortably.

When I got engaged to Prue, it was time to get something a bit more sporting again and we bought Cilla Clemson's Alfa Romeo Spider, a lovely white drophead 'Graduate' model with a superb exhaust note and an eight track tape player. This lasted us very well until we were married and used to borrow Mel Watson's Rover 3500 V8 which he left in England. Thereafter we got first a BMW 2002tii and then a more family-sized 2500, which, when we sold it, ended up on Fuff's farm in Wales with one of his girlfriends.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Short History of Tractors in Hampshire

John Spreadbury ploughing in the early 1950s

For a boy, growing up on a farm in the 1950's and 60's was heaven, as it meant having access to all the farm machinery - and being allowed to drive the tractors.* Before the arrival of tractors, all large farm implements such as ploughs or binders were horse-drawn; the only machine capable of moving being the enormous and extremely heavy steam engine, which was generally used in a stationary location to power thrashing machines and mechanical loaders. Tractors only appeared on British farms in the 1930s, and Patrick recalled going up by train from Litchfield to collect one and drive it back to the estate, where the many men then employed to work the land with horses must have eyed it with some apprehension.

My earliest memories of tractors was of a dark-blue Fordson which arrived at Stocks when we did in 1950. It had to be started by hand, with a swing handle which could whip back viciously if left engaged after the engine had caught. There were two fuel tanks, one for petrol, which was used to start it, and one for TVO (tractor vaporising oil), which it ran on. These had to be switched over manually at the carburettor when the engine had warmed up. It need careful use of the choke and the throttle (a simple pull wire held open by teeth) to get it going at all. It was just possible to start it alone by running round from the handle at the front as soon as the engine caught and juggling with the choke and throttle, but it was usually a two-man job. There was of course no power steering and the clutch and brakes were very heavy. The brakes in particular were 'slewing brakes' which could be applied on one back wheel alone to help turn the tractor quickly at the end of a furrow. Although we also had the little grey Ferguson, a half-track caterpillar and later Internationals, the Fordsons for many years were the main workhorse. Later, diesel Fordsons appeared, which had electric self-starters and power-assisted steering. The early diesel engines were made by Perkins and while idling made a strange and satisfying 'meringue-meringue' sound which my brother Piers and I used to imitate incessantly.

I was allowed to drive tractors as soon as I was strong enough and loved doing so, so much that by the age of nine or ten, I was doing a share of the 'corn cart' at harvest time - driving the tractor alongside the combine (harvester) while the corn was unloaded by elevator into a trailer while on the move. One then sped back to 'the pit' beside the dryer, backing up the trailer and emptying it before racing back to pick up the next load - before the combine's tank was full again. There were no cabs, so one was at the mercy of the elements, but the feeling of being in the middle of a great field when ploughing or cultivating, with the sky overhead and only the gulls for company, was marvellous. For accuracy, I was never able to plough, an art which involves considerable skill and at which John Spreadbury and later his son Andrew excelled, winning ploughing matches thoughout Hampshire for years. Similarly, I never drove the combines (except to try them) as this too needed considerable experience and their cost made them too valuable to leave to a boy. An example of what could happen to a combine even in the hands of a very experienced driver, appears below!

Soon tractors became highly sophisticated, with air-conditioned cabs and all manner of comforts, such as heaters and radios. But something important was lost when one could no longer feel the elements as we worked on the fields. And of course the religion of safety now prevents anyone under the age of 13 even riding on a tractor.

Some early photos of our tractors can be seen here

*Tractors have arguably played one of the most significant roles in modern life, contributing to the move of millions from the land and creating the dustbowls of North America through indiscriminate and repeated ploughing (and the ignoring of traditional crop rotation). A most interesting history of the use of tractors and their sociological and environmental effects is included in the otherwise marvellous comic novel “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian”.

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Consumption in the 60s

There has been an incredible change in spending and consumption habits since the 1960s.

In our teens in the 60's we hardly ever ate out. Almost all meals were taken in our own or other peoples' houses. There were few restaurants and they were only used for special occasions. Pubs only rarely served cooked food. A 'ploughman's (a bread roll, cheese and pickle) or a scotch egg was about the only thing available to eat. So if one didn't meet at someone's house, you ate first and then met up at the local pub and had a couple of beers (pubs didn't then serve wine). I didn't like beer or any other alcoholic drinks, so I drank coke.....but as there were no drink-driving laws in those days, drinking in any event wasn't a problem.

In our late teens our main expense was petrol, but that was cheap and our cars were in any case small - almost always less then two litres (see The Cars of our Youth). My Mini and later Cooper S used relatively little petrol and I was anyway blessed by being able to fill it up from the farm petrol pump! Charlie Skipwith had sporty Riley with a white racing decal on the side. Nick Duke had a finely tuned Ford Anglia maintained by the Duke's firm's mechanics and of course 'free' petrol. So our outings to the White Horse in Droxford were pretty tame affairs and we always made it home in one piece (Charlie lived at Studwell House next door, so he had no problem).

Even at university, when I still didn't drink, an evening would be spent with friends in a pub, with a refectory meal or sometimes egg and chips from 'German Edie's' as a base and little spent on either. My main expense then was the drive up to London to see my girlfriend Penny, and buying food which would then be cooked in her flat.

We had jobs from the late 60s but lived at home or in our London flats where we cooked at home almost every night (pork chops and dried Surprise peas or a Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie in Piers's and my case - ...) . We rarely ate out in London, although we occasionally went to The Pot in Earl's Court or San Frediano in the Fulham Road. The great restaurant revolution was only just beginning. Robert Carrier's in Islington opened around then. Before that, if one wanted a very good meal, almost the only place to go was Wiltons in Jermyn St.

Later on, business life involved quite a bit of entertaining and being entertained, but at a fairly modest scale and cost. The priciest places were unofficially 'off-limits' or actually banned under the firm's guidelines. No one ordered ever ordered champagne or high-priced clarets. It would have ruined our reputations and our prospects to be thought over-indulgent or wasteful of the firm's money.

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June Gracey

Gladys Hollick (Sir Alfred's eldest daughter), Arthur Hollick, June Vapenik (nee Hollick), Gavin Vapenik, Ian Hollick, Lady Nina Herbert and Sir Alfred Herbert.
June Gracey, nee Hollick, formerly Vapenik, was born in Leamington in 1920, the eldest daughter of Arthur and Gladys Hollick. Gladys Hollick was Sir Alfred Herbert's eldest daughter by his first wife, Ellen Ryley. June had a younger brother, Ian, who died in 2004.

June married Capt Milo Vapenik in 1941 and had two children, Gavin (1943) and Jane (1950). Capt Vapenik died and June was married again to Dr Nigel Gracey. They lived at Swalcliffe Manor, Banbury before moving to Jersey.

June was very close to her grandfather and has kept many of his writings and effects, including a large bronze bust presented to him by the Institute of Engineers.

Sadly, despite being very fond of Coventry and Hampshire, she isn't well enough to travel.