Village People

What I love about living in a village is its history: the landscape, the buildings and the people who made them.

The twentieth century was a time of great change, as can be seen from the architecture of the houses in our parish, where more modern dwellings nestle between thatched cottages, and red clay brickwork and roof tiles sit alongside the black panelling of converted timber barns. Many houses are called ‘Farm’, even though the farms themselves have long since gone.

And what of the people who farmed, worked and lived here, all those years ago? Some are remembered in the churches and cemeteries, others on war memorials. But many more are remembered by their descendants, with family stories or photographs passed down through the generations. Those descendants may now live far away, perhaps unaware of how their ancestors shaped our villages, but some are still here, generations later. It is those people who can provide a rich insight into the more recent history of our community.

When it comes to learning about the history of the village I call home, where better to start than by talking to someone whose family’s roots stretch back to 1770s Long Marston?

Mike Tomlinson

Mike was born 80 years ago at 15 Astrope Lane. He married local girl Barbara – who was born in Lukes Lane, Gubblecote – at All Saints in 1965. In common with many of today’s young people, they had to leave the area due to lack of housing stock, crossing the border to Aston Clinton. However, 14 years later, they were back and have lived here ever since.

Mike’s early memories of living in Astrope Lane show just how much has changed in the last 80 years. There was electricity to the village, but the house only had one switch per room and no sockets. No sockets, of course means no refrigeration, but they did have a stone floored pantry which contained a cupboard with a wire mesh door in which to keep food.

As for water, there was a single tap in the kitchen. Prior to the introduction of mains water, it was collected in buckets from the village pumps in Long Marston. Barbara recalls her dad telling her that as a child his job was to collect water from the Gubblecote brook on wash day!

Bath night was a weekly event and took place on washing day. Firewood had to be gleaned to heat the “copper” in the corner of the kitchen, which provided the water for washing clothes and body. For the rest of the week the “copper” wasn’t used. There was no such thing as an indoor toilet: you either went down the garden to the outside “toilet” (which was basically a bucket in a shed) or, if it was at night, used the chamber pot kept under the bed! [For younger readers, a chamber pot is like the potty used by toddlers as they learn to stop wearing nappies.] The toilet waste was then applied to the garden, as there was no sewerage system in those days. On a Saturday morning Mike had the job of tearing up newspaper into squares for use as toilet paper.

Jerry Webb the milkman delivered milk by horse and cart in the mornings, but Mike’s job every evening was to cross Upper Brade field, opposite the house, to John Chapman’s Church Farm, with a jug, to collect milk after the evening milking. Mike recalls that, if it was hot, Mrs Chapman would pour the fresh milk through a chiller and he might be lucky enough to be given a free glass of it! The fields were also ploughed and the crops gathered in by horse. On weekdays Jerry would wear a smock, but on Sundays he wore his Sunday best: a bowler hat, shiny knee-length leather spats, corduroy trousers and collar and tie.

Food was grown at home, as well as on allotments. [Wartime rationing was in force as late as 1954.] Mike remembers three members of his family digging their allotment together at Marlins, where the cricket clubhouse now stands. The long gardens at the back of the family home in Astrope Lane were not fenced off from each other, as we do today, but were open so that neighbours would chat whilst hanging out the washing or tending the vegetables. A childhood treat was home-made boiled sweets from the market, which sounds much better to me than the weekly Epsom salts drunk from a teacup every Sunday morning!

The village school and Boot pub had been destroyed by a bomb in January 1941 so, once Mike started school, the headmistress, Miss Calder, was teaching the juniors in the room at the back of the Baptist Chapel in Cheddington Lane; the infants were in what was known as the “school canteen”. The infants were taught by Miss Saunders, who lived in Cheddington. Those going to school in Puttenham had to walk there from Long Marston. First thing on Monday morning, the school register was called and the weekly “dinner money” was paid. Until the 1950s Wilstone had its own school, where there are now flats, next to the war memorial. Mike remembers that the room at the back of the Baptist Chapel had its own organ, and he and a couple of friends pulled some bits off the organ and threw them in the field behind! Needless to say, they got caught and had to apologise. It would be ten years before the new school would be built, by which time Mike was at Hemel Hempstead grammar school.

Mike says that the “school canteen” used to send out meals to many other local schools. Food was local in those days; in fact, Barbara recalls giving home-grown apples to the school and the money that was saved by not having to purchase them was then used to provide a treat for the school’s Christmas dinner! The “canteen” was situated on the concrete slab that still exists behind the Victory Hall. It was also used for the youth club, PTA meetings and village fetes. Its use declined once the new school was built.

Church was a big part of life, too. Reverend Anthony attended the school on a Monday morning to teach catechism, and Miss Calder would take the opportunity to ask pupils why they hadn’t been at church on the Sunday! Mike recalls wearing “Sunday clothes”, in his case his school uniform, to attend church. Girls had to wear hats and, if they turned up without, Rev. Anthony used to provide handkerchiefs to put on their heads so they weren’t bare!

At the age of five Mike was an altar boy, progressing to the choir and then, at the age of twelve, organist. Remarkably, he was the organist at All Saints for 25 years, until 1975 and, in fact, still plays there twice a month. He has also played the organs at Puttenham and Wilstone. St Mary’s in Puttenham is mentioned in the Domesday Book, and Mike has also rung the bells there with his sporting buddies Humphrey Johnson, Frankie Evans and Cecil Farmer. Originally the organs were hand-pumped, requiring an assistant to perform that task, but now they are electric – as are the lights which used to be oil lamps. Mike’s mother was an accomplished pianist and Mike had lessons from the age of five. He recalls being taught timed pieces of music to be played at the beginnings of funerals before the coffin was brought in – things are different now!

Rev. Anthony used to teach boys to swim, using the canal pound (the stretch between locks) near Puttenham lock house! The barges were still working the canals then. The Rev also used to take groups of boys out shooting pigeons, and Mike remembers eating pigeon pie.

Leisure time was very active. Mike used to swim at the waterworks swimming pool at Dancer’s End (which is now new housing and the reservoirs are covered over). He also used to cycle up there every Christmas to collect holly from the woods. There were few cars, and Barbara recalls that people used to cycle to Tring or Aston Clinton where they would then pick up buses to get to work in Aylesbury or Berkhamsted.

A summer holiday treat was to catch the afternoon Marston Gate Flyer steam train to Aylesbury, to go to the cinema to see either a Tarzan or Dick Barton film. There were also two cinemas in Tring: the Gaiety in Akeman Street and the Regal at the end of Christchurch Road. Although if cycling back from Tring you could expect to see PC Tudgay (who lived in Wilstone) standing on Dixons Gap bridge to see if he could catch anyone riding without lights.

School holidays were carefree: children roamed around all day. The older boys used to go “ditch jumping”. The ditches were kept clear for irrigation, and the soakaways were cleared by the local “road men”. “Arrow chasing” was another game: arrows were chalked onto trees, gates or the roads, and the boys followed them until the boy with the chalk was caught up with. Swimming in Wilstone Reservoir was also popular, if the weather was good. The village was well served for sport lovers, with football and cricket teams and a tennis club, all of which Mike has been involved with over the years; as a teenager he represented the county in the schools county level football team, later he ran the local boys team, he has also been captain of the cricket team and he was a founder member of the tennis club.

Winters were colder but gave opportunities for ice sliding. Mike used to slide on Tringford Reservoir, but shudders now at the thought of how dangerous that was! Barbara recalls that the ice that formed in the dips in the ridge and furrow fields of Home Close and Begot’s Close would be there for weeks, and she used to slide there whilst waiting for the bus to take her to school in Tring. Snow used to drift as high as the hedges.

Mike and Barbara’s favourite place in the village is Millhopper’s. There used to be a fast flowing stream through it, which the children used to dam at one end to make a paddling pool, and they played makeshift hockey. The school also used to have outings there. They used to pick white violets, blackberries and rosehips; the school sent the rosehips to the Red Cross to make rosehip syrup. The land was grazed by sheep and cattle, and so the vegetation was shorter than it is today. Pathways were important for travelling between the villages, and Rev. Anthony was known to walk the paths with wire cutters, in case anyone had seen fit to try to fence them off!

Mike’s knowledge of the people of the villages enabled him to explain to me why Lendon Court in Lukes Lane is so named: Leonard and Donald Dean’s father started up the egg packing plant on that site in the early 1900s; he used to take the eggs to London, where they were delivered by horse and cart. Hence: Len and Don.

I asked where Mike and Barbara would recommend a newcomer or visitor to the parish to visit. Their reply was: to find somewhere quiet to sit, to take in and absorb the area, perhaps in the local churches or near the war memorials. Mike finds it gives him feelings of contentment. Sounds like an excellent recommendation from a couple so steeped in a sense of place, for us ‘newbies’ to start to put down our own roots here.

Thanks to Mike and Barbara Tomlinson, for sharing with me their memories of life in Long Marston.

Photo credit: Will Adams

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