A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about world war two

A Breath of Fresh Air

Grinton

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Swaledale

The Yorkshire Dales are one of the loveliest parts of England, and Swaledale one of the loveliest dales, though less well known than its neighbour to the south, Wensleydale. Near the head of Swaledale is the quiet village of Grinton. It isn’t particularly on the tourist trail, though connoisseurs of the English countryside may find their way here, as may fans of the James Herriot books which were set near this part of Yorkshire.

We know it however as the village where my father-in-law, John, spent several happy years as a boy, having been evacuated here to escape the war-time bombing of Tyneside. Although a city boy by birth, he fell in love with the beautiful countryside and the rural way of life, and continued to visit here regularly for the rest of his life, bringing us with him on many occasions. When he died in 2009 we followed his wishes and scattered his ashes on the moor above Grinton. Thus the place that had meant so much to him became his final resting place.

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Grinton Moor

The house where John lived as a boy was home to a gamekeeper, Billy Holland, and his wife. Nowadays it has become part of the pub next door to form the Bridge Inn, and we visit annually to meet up with the Hollands’ two daughters and their husbands, bringing John’s two sisters, May (who was also evacuated here) and Gloria (just a baby during the war and considered too young to leave her mother). It’s a chance for that generation to reminisce about the old days and for us to enjoy their stories.

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The Bridge Inn

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May, Chris and Gloria outside the Bridge Inn

Some years ago my mother-in-law Teresa captured John’s stories as part of the BBC’s ‘People’s War’ project in a piece they called ‘A Breath of Fresh Air’, and I’ve included some extracts here. I hope you enjoy them as much as we have done and will come to understand just why this place meant so much to John, and why his memory will live on here for all of us.

St. Andrew's Church

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St. Andrew's Church

I have seen this church referred to as “the Cathedral of the Dale”, which sounds very grand for what is simply a rather peaceful old parish church. The oldest part of the Church is Norman, showing that there has been a church here for over 900 years, and it is thought that there may even have been a Saxon Church here prior to that.

Most of the present-day building though dates from the fourteen to sixteenth centuries. Although I have been there several times, it is only now, researching for this page, that I have found out much about it.

The original Norman church was only the nave to the Chancel steps of the current church with the aisles being added in the 16th Century. The font, a small window in the west wall and the chancel arch are all that now remain of the original Norman church.

The wood screen in the chancel was carved in the 14th century. The Lepers’ squint, a small window in the screen, was designed to allow those who suffered from leprosy and were not allowed in to the church to see what was happening and take part in the service.

The church floor is 3 to 4 feet lower than the churchyard level. It is the original level of the church. The height difference is apparently due to all the burials over the last 900 years which have raised the churchyard by this amount.

The 1718 inscription over the pulpit is the date when the pews were installed. Until then there were no seats, the parishioners sat or knelt on the floor. It was only during the Reformation period that pews were installed in churches. The tower was also a 16th century addition.

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John in St Andrews Church

My father-in-law had many happy memories of this church. In ‘A Breath of Fresh Air’ he said:
‘Mrs. Holland played the organ in the local church so we found ourselves at services three times on a Sunday. Sometimes I was allowed to pump up the organ for her. I was also in the choir and sang solo until my voice broke. I never thought then that one day I would return to Grinton with my family, visit the church, see the organ and sit in a pew reminiscing.’

Grinton Moor

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Swaledale

Swaledale’s scenery is characterised by its green valley dotted with trees; fields above dotted with white sheep and separated by the traditional drystone walls; and windswept heather moorland beyond these. This landscape may look in places like nature at its wildest but in truth was created by a combination of traditional farming practices and lead mining.

While sheep farmers gradually enclosed the lower slopes to create this characteristic mosaic of dry-stone walled compartments and stone field barns, the spoil heaps and scars of the lead mining industry are responsible for much of the barren and bleaker parts of the dale especially on the moorland. You will also see occasional ruined stone mine buildings up on these moors.

Swaledale is part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and the moors are therefore protected. There are many footpaths crisscrossing the moors, and a walk up here will certainly blow the city cobwebs away!

My photo below shows the special spot above Grinton where Chris scattered his father’s ashes. The purple heather makes a fitting resting place for a man who loved this landscape and who came to feel so at home here as a young boy.

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Grinton Moor

Here are some more extracts from ‘A Breath of Fresh Air’

‘We arrived in Grinton, Swaledale, ten miles west of Richmond, Yorkshire, into the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen. I knew nothing about the countryside at that time. George and I were billeted with a young, newly married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Holland....

The house where I lived is now part of the Bridge Hotel. The first memory of the village was the silence and the lack of noise from trams, trains, ships’ hooters and the like. Also the sound of unfamiliar birds each morning. We had no timepiece in the bedroom and consequently always being hungry I found I was first up each morning! The house was a big, two-storied building adjoining the Bridge Hotel at the side and the back so there was no back entrance. … It fronted the main road to Reeth, a village about a mile away. It had three steps down leading to a sunken patio. The door led to a cosy living room with a coal fire. Here we took our meals and relaxed in the evenings listening to the battery-operated wireless, or, in the case of Mr. Holland, dozing by the fire. Sometimes he would be nursing George and the two of them would be fast asleep in the wooden slatted rocking chair!

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Chris and May at the Bridge Inn

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In the Bridge Inn
- I believe this is the
former Sunday Parlour

Paraffin lamps provided the lighting (there being no gas or electricity) and the cooking was done on two primus stoves or on the grill above the coal fire. There was a highly polished fender surrounding the fire.

A door to the left led to the Sunday Parlour. It was rarely used at any other time. On a rack in the corner were Mr. Holland’s two 12 bore shot guns, (he was employed as shepherd/acting gamekeeper) and later a 303 calibre Enfield rifle, which was supplied when he joined the LDV (later to become the Home Guard). Also in the rack was a selection of walking sticks and umbrellas.

To the right leading off the living room was the kitchen. This had a sink (cold water only). The two primus stoves stood on a bench. Off the kitchen was a walk-in pantry. The shelves held a number of the previous year’s storage jars of home-made jams and chutneys. It also had a stone slab for “perishables”. The milk was delivered in a churn from where the milkman used a dipper to measure the required amount into Mrs. Holland’s large enamel milk jug. The milk float had rubber tyres and was pulled by a horse.

A staircase led to the three bedrooms upstairs. At one time the third bedroom was occupied by an elderly lady from London. She was kind to me but didn’t see eye-to-eye with Mr. and Mrs. Holland and returned to London soon afterwards. We all went to bed by the light of a candle. My household chores commenced early each morning when I primed the two stoves and lit the fire, which I set with cowlings (a form of dried heather) and coal…

The nearest school, Fremington, was located about one mile to the north but only catered for children up to the age of eleven, so they had no facilities for a couple of us. One of the Government slogans at that time was ‘Dig for Victory’ so the schoolteacher put us to work growing vegetables in the school garden. Mr. Holland and I dug up the Vicar’s tennis court and we planted more vegetables. The fresh air gave us quite an appetite and we were very well fed. We developed muscles and in the summer sported healthy suntans….

At first George was homesick and set off to walk to Gateshead regularly but his legs didn’t carry him very far and I was able to bring him back. I remember Mr. Holland sitting some evenings with George, teaching him to read and write. George was a great favourite in the village. When not at school he would sit with his legs dangling over the bridge which spanned the river singing some of the bawdy songs the cattle drovers had taught him in Gateshead. This greatly amused the villagers although I suspect they couldn’t understand his Geordie accent.…

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On Grinton Moor

There were no buses at all but our entertainments included an occasional silent film show given by the Vicar — usually featuring Charlie Chaplin — a great favourite. We listened avidly to the battery radio as we had no gas or electricity. Once Gateshead Council arranged for us to be taken to the Zetland Cinema in Richmond — another treat! The film was ‘Pinnochio’.

They also arranged for my mother, two younger members of the family and my cousin to visit us twice. Each week we wrote letters home and each week we received a postal order for 6d [2.5p in today’s decimal currency]. Of this, I got 2d, George and May also 2d. Mr. Holland cut a slot in an empty Fynnon Salts tin and this was for my savings. Other outings included trips with Mrs. Holland to the Women’s Institute. They had a small library on the premises so I spent the time reading. I remember on one occasion Mrs. Holland discovered me reading a book she considered unsuitable so she removed it.

She bottled all sorts of jams and preserves, some of which were donated to the local Fayres. The recipes were taken from Mr. Woolton’s radio programme. He was the Minister of Food. Sometimes I was allowed to go on her bike for the shopping in Reeth. Another treat was to ride pillion when Mr. Holland and I mended the fencing. Other times I was allowed to visit his four gun dogs which were kennelled away from the house….

The Vicar had an orchard from where we were allowed to pick up and eat the windfall fruit. What we couldn’t eat my pal and I squirreled away in the hollow of an old tree. We also tickled trout in the beck. The Vicar was the only person in the village (apart from the Post Office) who owned a telephone. He was also the A.R.P. warden and one occasion he went around the village with a hand-bell to announce that a land-mine had been dropped on Grinton Moor leaving a huge crater but not doing any damage. The following day I went up and picked up a piece of shrapnel and a length of multi-coloured parachute cord. I was fascinated.

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On Grinton Moor

Life in 1941 carried on as usual but the outstanding memory of it was the winter. This was particularly severe. Mr. Holland’s sheep were kept up on the moors and during the winter they would take shelter in the lee of the dry-stone walls and fences. Unfortunately this was where the snow drifted and a considerable time was spent digging them out. Mr. Holland and the dogs knew exactly where to look for them and consequently we managed to save the majority. But as the winter dragged on we were digging out dead sheep. These we attached to the spade with rope and dragged by the horns to a nearby bog where they immediately sank. This I found very upsetting and exhausting but Mrs. Holland had a meal ready for us with home-made stout to wash it down with! Sheer heaven.

By 1942 I was well and truly a Yorkshireman and delighted in it. I even spoke their dialect. ... Unfortunately Gateshead Council decided I was now old enough to be bombed so they instructed me to return home. I was nearing school-leaving age (14) and was required to collect my School-leaving Certificate and find a job. My brother and sister were too young to remain on their own so they returned home with me. I don’t remember much of the parting except that it happened very quickly and my elder brother came to collect us, but I did not feel I had said a proper “goodbye” to Mr. and Mrs. Holland and my friends....’

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On Grinton Moor

I hope some of you will have enjoyed reading these first-hand reminiscences about the war years and what it was like for a city boy to find himself living in such a very different environment. Although of course things have changed since then in Grinton, life still moves at a slower pace in this corner of England and the village that John knew is still very recognisable – and well worth a visit.

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Grinton Lodge with sheep

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Swaledale sheep and dry walls

And if you do come, have a meal or a drink in the Bridge Inn and raise a glass to John and the family which welcomed him and George into their home, just as so many other families welcomed the children of strangers during those years.

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Sunday dinner at the Bridge Inn
- when my in-laws were still with us

Posted by ToonSarah 11:07 Archived in England Tagged landscapes churches history views village family war_and_peace world_war_two Comments (20)

In Metro-Land

Ruislip

Ruislip is a pleasant suburb in north west London, with an ancient village at its heart which was mentioned in the Doomsday Book. It is also the town where I grew up, and where my parents continued to live until old age and ill health necessitated a move away for the last few years of their lives.

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Domesday Book info in the library

When the Doomsday Book was written, in 1086, Ruislip was known as Rislepe, ‘leaping place on the river where rushes grow’, and (as I was always told as a child) had more pigs than human inhabitants. These pigs roamed the extensive woodlands, and Ruislip Woods remain to this day, although smaller than they once were.

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With my sister by Ruislip Duck Pond
- I am on the right

The village grew up around the 13th century parish church dedicated to St Martin. The barns belonging to the former Manor Farm, just to the north of the church, still stand. Nearby is the village duck-pond, where as a child I loved to throw bread to the ducks.

Ruislip remained quite small, and rural, until the coming of the Metropolitan railway at the start of the 20th century. At first the new line and station were used mainly by Londoners wanting to escape to the country for a day, but soon the charms of living here lured many to move out to the suburbs, and development in Ruislip mushroomed. The population rose from 6,217 in 1911, to 72,791 in 1961, and growth was especially fast in the 1930s, as the many houses from this era testify.

This was the period of Metro-Land, a vision of a suburban idyll developed as part of a Metropolitan Railway advertising campaign designed to lure workers away from their cramped homes in Central London and out to a supposed ‘paradise’ that was rural in appearance and lifestyle and yet was in easy reach of their jobs in the capital.

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Metroland poster
- (from wikicommons)

The notion was simple: the railway would buy the farmers' fields that lay either side of the newly expanding railway line and build on them. But while the posters that formed the bulk of the campaign showed a sylvan landscape where ladies in hats picked flowers and drifted through sun-speckled meadows, and families picnicked in perpetual sunshine, of course the building programme destroyed the very landscape that these posters seemed to sell. Meanwhile, the occasional attractive mock-Tudor house shown in those same posters was the exception rather than the norm – most of the construction being of functional brick and pebble-dash terraces.

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Typical 1930s terraced housing

I lived for ten years of my childhood in such a house – a comfortable if uninspiring family home in a street of many more such. But we were happy there, and it was a vast improvement on the tiny flat in Regents Park where my parents had started their married life together. The Metro-Land lifestyle was later immortalised by the poet John Betjeman:

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Ruislip Gardens station today

‘Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta's and Pardon's
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt's edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep alive our lost Elysium - rural Middlesex again.’

Ruislip Gardens was my home from the age of four to fourteen, and I would often watch those red trains (or the 1960s maroon equivalents) from my bedroom window, as I waited for my father (not Elaine!) to alight and come home from work.

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Our (2nd) Ruislip home

Later my parents were able to buy a house in Ruislip proper that more closely fitted the mock Tudor poster image, an attractive early 1930s house. Living here as a teenager, and starting to take an interest in the history of Ruislip (now that we lived nearer to its historic heart), I was fascinated by the anecdotes of a neighbour, a woman then in her seventies, who had lived here since the street was first developed. She remembered having to wear rubber boots to walk across the fields that separated her house from the station, changing there into smart ‘town shoes’ and leaving the boots and a lantern with the station-master, to be collected on her return for the night-time walk home. Those fields have long since been covered by other streets and other houses, and even today development is on-going, with some of the larger houses built in the 1930s being pulled down to make way for modern apartments or smaller family homes.

But something of that earlier sense of living a little apart from the hustle of the city remains, and the modern-day equivalents of Betjeman’s Elaine still alight from tube trains each evening and breathe, no doubt, a sigh of relief at being somewhere calmer and quieter. For me, a city-lover, Ruislip now seems too quiet and remote from the action to appeal as a possible home, but I still have that same sense of a slower pace of life whenever I visit and I can understand why Ruislip still lures people to move here with a desire to experience that Metro-Land lifestyle.

And the ancient heart of the former village is still there...

St Martin’s Church

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St Martin's Church

The church of St Martin’s was built in 1245 and probably stands on the site of earlier wooden and Norman stone churches. A stone from the latter was found in the grounds, and some Norman stones appear to have been incorporated in this structure, as well as Roman tiles indicating that prior to all the churches a pagan temple may have stood here.

The name St. Martin is believed to have been given to the church by the Benedictine monks of the Bec Abbey, after Martin of Tours, a saint in Normandy. Ruislip had been given to the Abbey of Le Bec-Hellouin in 1087 by a Norman lord, Ernulf de Hesdin, who himself had acquired this land after the Norman Conquest. The present structure is of flint and stone, and has a bell tower added in the 15th century. This houses eight bells which are still rung every Sunday, I believe.

Inside there are some medieval wall-paintings, a priest’s door and two ancient wooden chests. The pulpit is from the 17th century and the stained glass from the 19th and 20th. I always look too for the memorial to Lady Mary Bankes, which bears this inscription:
‘To the memory of LADY MARY BANKES, the only daughter of Ralph Hawtry, of Riselip, in the county of Middlesex, esq, the wife and widow of the Honourable Sir John Bankes, knight, late Lord Chief Justice of his Majesty's Court of Common Pleas, and of the Privy Council of his Majesty King Charles I, of blessed memory, who, having had the honour to have borne with a constancy and courage above her sex a noble proportion of the late calamities, and the restitution of the government, with great peace of mind laid down her most desired life the 11th day of April 1661. Sir Ralph Bankes her son and heir hath dedicated this. She had four sons: 1. Sir Ralph; 2. Jerome; 3. Charles; 4. William (since dead without issue), and six daughters.’

My first school in Ruislip, which I went to from the ages of five to eleven, was named for Lady Mary – Lady Bankes School. The school’s crest bears an image of a castle, intended to represent Corfe Castle in Dorset. Lady Mary Bankes grew up in Ruislip as a member of the local ‘big’ family, the Hawtreys, and married into the Bankes family who owned the castle in the small village of Corfe. Following the death of her husband during the Civil War, she bravely and successfully defended the castle during a siege in 1643. However, during a second siege in 1646 an act of betrayal by a member of her garrison led to the castle’s capture by the Parliamentarians. They allowed her to go free out of respect for her bravery, but deliberately demolished the castle resulting in the dramatic ruin which today dominates that village.

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St Martin's Church details

St Martin’s was substantially restored by George Gilbert Scott in 1870 and the lych-gates added at that point, which do set off the building rather nicely. It is today a protected building, having received Grade B listed status as an Anglican church in 1950. Located at the top of the busy High Street, both it and its churchyard are a peaceful haven from the bustle of shopping and well worth turning aside to visit. Unfortunately when I was last there a small weekday service was in progress (this is a very active parish church as well as a historic site) so I had to content myself with just one shot of the interior taken from the porch. I will have to go back!

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Inside the church, and detail of the lychgate

Almshouses

Backing on to the churchyard of St Martin’s Church is a row of 16th century almshouses. Originally this was a single dwelling, built in 1570 and serving as the parish house. It was converted in 1616 into ten small alms- or church houses (five at the front, five at the back, each with one room downstairs and one up) to provide accommodation for the poor and needy of the parish.

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The almshouses from the churchyard

The block was known as the Church House, and there are many old references in the parish accounts to its inhabitants, which give an idea of the need for such a facility:
'June 1665 – Widow Fearne of the Church House, several times in her sickness, 13s 0d
Mar 1666 – Paid to John Bates for carrying 50 bavins (bundles of kindling) to Widow Fearnes, 1s 9d
1726 – Moving three women to the Church House, my cart horse, 15s 0d
Paid the carpenter taking down the beds and setting them up, 3s 0d.'

In 1787 the vestry agreed to give poor families living in the Church House ‘a bed and bolster, a pair of blankets, a pair of sheets and a rug each’. In 1789 it was decided that more room was needed to accommodate the poor and destitute, so a purpose-build workhouse was constructed on a site near Copse Wood. But poor families continued to live here too, for some time at least.

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The almshouses from Eastcote Road

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Window detail

In 1938 four of the tiny cottages were knocked together to form a house for the verger, and in the 1950s the middle four were also knocked together, this time to accommodate the curate. These were used until the mid 1970s, but the buildings were by then in a bad state of repair and threatened with demolition. They were saved however, modernised, and now form four flats and a maisonette owned by a Housing Association.

Manor Farm: the Great Barn

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West side of the Great Barn

There was a farm on this site (at the northern end of what is today Ruislip High Street) from the 9th century until relatively recently, and several buildings remain from various periods in that farm’s existence. Of these the Great Barn is the most impressive and the most noteworthy. It dates from the latter part of the 13th century, around 1280, and is the second largest barn in Middlesex (the largest is in Harmondsworth, near Heathrow Airport), being 120 ft (36.6 metres) long and 32 ft (9.75m) wide. It was built with oak, probably from nearby Ruislip Woods, in a design known as an aisled barn, with smaller out-shoots running alongside the main supports under a single roof.

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East side of the Great Barn

The barn has been very well-preserved over the centuries and, along with the rest of the Manor Farm site, was restored with Lottery funding in 2007/2008. It is regularly used for local events, including crafts and farmers’ markets. It makes an impressive setting and the bustle of human activity is dwarfed by, and therefore serves only to emphasise, its great size. But we are very lucky to have it. At the start of the 20th century there were plans to develop this site for housing and all of Ruislip’s historic buildings, with the exception of St Martin’s Church, would have been lost. Amazingly (even for those days I think), no one seemed to oppose these plans, and it was only the intervention of the First World War that halted building work before it had barely begun. When, in 1919, work was able to resume, it was significantly reduced in scale owing to the poor economic situation of those times, and before the historic buildings had been affected the Royal Society of the Arts had stepped in and designated a number of buildings in Ruislip that should be preserved, including not only this barn but other buildings on the Manor Farm site and beyond, such as the old post office.

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The great doors of the Great Barn

Manor Farm: the Little Barn

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The raised threshing floor

Very near the Great Barn is another, somewhat smaller but still impressive. This is the Little Barn or Tithe Barn, and since 1937 has been the unusual location for Ruislip Library – a library I once worked in (many years ago!)

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Old beams in the Little Barn roof

This barn is of more recent origin, having been built in the 16th century, and is a Grade II listed building. Despite its conversion into a library, and the further modernisation that took place in 2007, its original role is still very apparent in its high beamed roof (with many original timbers) and other features, such as the slightly raised floor at one end – the former threshing floor. The windows have heraldic shields, one of which is of Kings College Cambridge, the estate’s earlier owners.

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The library from the bowling green

Just south of the Little Barn is a bowling green, on the site of the farm’s former rick-yard. Looking across this towards the library it is not too difficult to imagine the rural scene that was the norm here until just eighty or so years ago.

Manor Farm: the house

The third of the larger buildings on the Manor Farm site is Manor Farm House itself. This is an early 16th century house that was built of the site of a motte-and-bailey castle. The latter is thought to have been a wooden structure dating from soon after the Norman Conquest, built for Ernulf de Hesdin who had been given control of the manor of Ruislip in recognition of his loyalty to William the Conqueror. This castle in turn was built within an earthwork, possibly from the 9th century, that has been traced in an almost complete circle round the old village of Ruislip.

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Manor Farm House and moat

The castle does not appear in the 1086 Domesday Book and so could have been demolished or changed significantly by that time. But it is known that at some point a priory was also built within the moated area, under the aegis of the Benedictine Bec Abbey of Normandy. The Abbey had been granted Ruislip by Ernulf de Hesdin around 1087 and held it for 300 years.

The site was appropriated by the Crown and granted to King’s College in 1451, and the priory abandoned, falling into ruins. Those ruins would still have been here, however, when the Manor House was built between 1506 and 1511 over a number of building seasons, from Easter to Michaelmas. The house was built in the latest style of the period and was designed to showcase the wealth of the owner, with a decorative frontage and moulded ceiling beams.

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Manor Farm house seen from the cow byre

The house served two purposes: courthouse and farmhouse. Courts were held here until 1925, and the farm remained until the 1930s. Court cases were heard twice a year in the main hall of the house. Two types of court were held:
Court Leet – cases involving land disputes, assaults and minor offences;
Court Baron – administrative matters, deeds, wills etc.

Of course the house has been somewhat altered over the years. In the 18th and 19th centuries the windows and doorways were replaced and an extended kitchen was installed, with the latter being replaced in 1958 when the house was modernised. Today it serves as a meeting place for various community groups, such as the Women’s Institute, and can be hired for conferences. The line of the old moat can still be traced around the garden.

The Duck Pond

At the southern end of the Manor Farm complex is the duck pond. I have many happy memories of coming here as child to feed the ducks – a valued treat.

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The Duck Pond

The pond though was not originally intended for ducks but for the farm’s horses, who would have been washed down here. Today the pond has given its name to the twice weekly Farmers’ and Food markets that take place in and around the Great Barn – the Duck Pond Markets.

The River Pinn

The River Pinn gives Ruislip its name, albeit indirectly. Ruislip derives from "Rush leap", a reference to the rushes that lined the river and the fact that here it was just narrow enough to be leapt over – although I have to say that I would not attempt such a feat! Maybe it has widened over the years?

The River Pinn rises on Harrow Weald Common and flows through Pinner and Eastcote before reaching Ruislip, and from here flows on to Ickenham and Uxbridge, where it passes through the grounds of RAF Uxbridge and Brunel University. It then continues on to Cowley where it joins the Frays River (a branch of the Colne) at Yiewsley. In total it is about 12 miles (19 kilometres) in length. In the past it has been prone to flooding (I remember one year in particular, probably around 1973 or 74, when several nearby streets were closed because of it), but some work has been carried out in recent years to reduce this.

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River Pinn, Kings College Fields

In the centre of Ruislip it flows through a fairly narrow strip of green space, with a pleasant walk alongside it, and to the east through the open spaces of King’s College Playing Fields (named for the former owners of the land in this part of Ruislip). This walk is part of the longer Celandine Walk, which follows the entire length of the river. But even if you don’t want to do the longer walk, a stroll by the river is a relaxing way to spend an hour or so in Ruislip.

Ruislip Woods

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Park Wood

Ruislip may be largely a built-up area today but a significant vestige of its rural roots remains in the large tract of woodland to its north. This is the largest block of ancient semi-natural woodland in Greater London and is important enough to have been designated a National Nature Reserve.

These woods are the remnant of ancient woodland after land was cleared for settlement and crops in medieval times. They consist of four separate woods: Park Wood, Copse Wood, Mad Bess Wood and Bayhurst Wood. The woods were mention in the Domesday Book of 1086, when they provided foraging for pigs and timber for building and firewood. Later, timber from these woods was used in the construction of the Tower of London in 1339, Windsor Castle in 1344, the Palace of Westminster in 1346 and the manor of the Black Prince in Kennington. They were coppiced on rotation throughout the years with the timber sold to local tanneries. By the time King's College took ownership of the manor, after it was confiscated from the Abbey, the woods were let for sport, with pheasants kept for shooting.

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Park Wood

Today the woods are crisscrossed with footpaths and bridleways, and many locals (and some from further afield) enjoy walking and riding here. There is a large variety of tree, plant and animal species. The most common trees are hornbeam, oak and beech – in particular, the mixture of hornbeam and beech in Bayhurst Wood is considered unusual. The information board below gives some idea of the extent of the woods still standing here.

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Sign in Park Wood

Modernist houses

In Park Avenue, near the woods, a row of three houses stands out from the rest. A whole estate of these Modernist style houses was planed for this part of Ruislip, but these three were the only ones to have been built. They were designed by the partnership of Connell, Ward & Lucas and completed between 1935 and 1938. They are now Grade II listed, meaning that they are considered of special architectural and historic interest.

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Modernist houses in Park Avenue

The Polish War Memorial

If a local is giving you driving directions to Ruislip it is quite likely that they will tell you to leave the main A40 road out of London ‘at the Polish War Memorial’. This impressive memorial has stood at this junction since 1948 when it was erected to commemorate the contribution of the Polish Air Force to the Allied victory in the Second World War, and to honour those who died. Many of those Polish airmen had been based at nearby Northolt Airport, and many chose to stay on in west London after the war, not wanting to return home to Soviet-occupied Poland.

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The Polish War Memorial

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The memorial was designed by Mieczysław Lubelski, who had been interned in a concentration camp during the war. It is made from Portland stone and Polish granite, with bronze lettering and a bronze eagle, the symbol of the Polish Air Force.

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I hope you have enjoyed this little wander through my one-time home - a typical and unremarkable London suburb at first glance, but with plenty of history for those who seek it out.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:03 Archived in England Tagged churches buildings trees architecture london history river houses woods family world_war_two Comments (18)

Cracking the code

Bletchley Park

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Sign at Bletchley Park

We have been meaning to visit Bletchley Park for some time, our desire to do so increased by seeing ‘The Imitation Game’ a few years ago, and finally we went – and immediately decided to return soon! There is so much to see here, and luckily entrance tickets are valid for a year, so a repeat visit makes even more sense.

Background history

In 1938 the mansion of Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire became the base for a small group of people from MI6 and the Government Code and Cypher School. Tensions in Europe were growing, and their job was to set up and run intelligence activity from the house, chosen for its location near to, but not in, London. When tensions seemed to ease the base was closed down, but reopened when war broke out. The work that was undertaken here became vital to the Allied war effort, with ground-breaking inventions which shaped the future of computing science – a perfect illustration of the old adage about necessity being the mother of invention!

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Signage at Bletchley Park

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Signage

Today this site is rightly regarded as a hugely significant part of the history of Britain’s role in World War Two, but it might not have been. In the early 1990s there were plans to demolish Bletchley Park and build housing here, as part of the ever-growing new town of Milton Keynes on whose southern fringes it now lies. After public outcry and campaigning Milton Keynes Council was persuaded to declare most of Bletchley Park a conservation area. The Bletchley Park Trust was formed and in 1994 opened the site to the public as a museum. With financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and from commercial and private sponsors, the museum has gradually grown to become a major attraction – and is continuing to expand and develop additional parts of the site.

Introductory displays

As soon as we arrived, parked the car and started to walk towards the building housing the entrance and visitors centre we were left in doubt where we were, as the stylish signage echoes the coding theme.

We exchanged our pre-purchased online tickets for actual paper ones at the desk and were given a map of the site. The obvious place to start was with the exhibits in the visitor centre, where we watched a short introductory film tells the story of the part played during WW2 by those working at Bletchley Park. There was one of the famous German Enigma machines in a display case (we were to learn much more about these during the course of our visit) and an overview of the processes followed in deciphering enemy messages.

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Enigma machine

The Enigma machines used a system of rotors to scramble the 26 letters of the alphabet. Its settings were changed daily, based on secret key lists, while some other settings were changed for each message. The receiving station needed to know and use the exact settings employed by the transmitting station to successfully decrypt a message. Much of the work at Bletchley Park focused on identifying the encryption settings each day in order to decipher and translate the messages sent by the German army, air-force and navy.

After exploring these displays, we took a break over a coffee in the café here and studied the map we had been given. It was already clear that we couldn’t see everything on this first visit so we determined our priorities and set off to look around.

The lake

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View of the Mansion from the lakeside path

Walking around the small lake in the centre of Bletchley Park you can get a good overview of the layout and see how a family estate was transformed into a top-secret base. The mansion lies across the water, looking every bit the small-scale stately home it once was, but scattered on either side are the many huts, wooden and brick, that were built to house the various operations – first just a couple, then growing in number as the war progressed and the work carried out here became ever more critical to the war effort.

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Brick huts by the lakeside

Information boards at intervals describe daily life for the staff working here – the hardships (long shifts, spartan conditions (especially in the winter months) and the impossibility of telling anyone, even close family, what you were doing) – but also the small pleasures of games of tennis, skating on the lake in winter, forming friendships and romances.

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The lake with heron and bluebells

The Mansion

The ground floor of the Mansion, as the old house at the heart of the estate is known, is open to visitors and has a number of rooms of interest. We were welcomed on entering by a docent who told us that photography was allowed, if not for commercial purposes, and recommended that we look up at the ceilings as they are quite varied and attractive – he was right!

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The ceiling of one of the Mansion's rooms

The office of Commander Alastair Denniston, head of the British Government Code and Cypher School (known as GC&CS), has been recreated in great detail in the Mansion, and was our first taste of the way in which the atmosphere of those war years has been so effectively captured here. In-trays are full, piles of papers lie on the desks, pencils at the ready, typewriters with sheets inserted. On the notice board are announcements of a dance and a concert (social activities were seen as very important in keeping morale high), and a reminder to ‘carry your identity card always’.

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Commander Alastair Denniston's office in the Mansion

A sign describes a historic meeting which took place in this room in February 1941, which it credits as ‘the beginning of the United Kingdom / United States special relationship’. Four US military personnel came to Bletchley Park to discuss an exchange of information on Japanese and German codes and cyphers. This was some months before the US was to enter the war, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Even those working here were unaware of the visit, apart from Dennison, his senior team and his personal assistant, recruited to the meeting to ‘pour glasses of sherry’.

The library at the other end of the hallway is similarly recreated to show as it would have looked when in use as a Naval Intelligence office. There are cigarette stubs in the ashtrays and empty, coffee-stained cups beside them. Hats and coats hang on the coat-stand and a cardigan is draped over the back of a chair with a handbag carelessly left on its seat. As elsewhere, the re-creation is based on old photographs and accounts of those who once worked here.

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In the library

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Other rooms in the Mansion are used for exhibitions, one of which is devoted to the Roll of Honour which lists all those believed to have worked in signals intelligence during World War Two, both at Bletchley Park and at other locations. There are photos of a few of them, sound recordings of the memories of just a handful, and an online resource which relatives can use to search for information on ancestors who worked here.

There was also a special temporary exhibition on the work of one of the most significant of the codebreakers, Bill Tutte, whose research in the field of graph theory was of enormous importance in the development of the techniques used here. I have to say though that the explanations of his work and its application to codebreaking were well over my head! I therefore quote Wikipedia on the significance of his achievements:
‘During the Second World War, he made a brilliant and fundamental advance in cryptanalysis of the Lorenz cipher, a major Nazi German cipher system which was used for top-secret communications within the Wehrmacht High Command. The high-level, strategic nature of the intelligence obtained from Tutte's crucial breakthrough, in the bulk decrypting of Lorenz-enciphered messages specifically, contributed greatly, and perhaps even decisively, to the defeat of Nazi Germany.’

The garages

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Stable block, and Sunbeam Tourer detail

Behind the Mansion are the garages in what was once the stable block, which house several interesting vehicles. They include a Sunbeam Tourer used in the 2001 film ‘Enigma’ starring Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott, which we hadn’t seen but which sounds interesting – I plan to look out for it.

There is also a 1938 Austin Ambulance, used for the same film and also for the TV series ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’, which I have seen. It tells the story of a young evacuee and stars John Thaw. Both vehicles were donated to Bletchley Park by the film company, owned by Mick Jagger, which made ‘Enigma’.

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1938 Austin Ambulance

The cottages

Next to the garages is a row of cottages around a stable-yard, presumably built to house staff when this was still a family estate. These were the location for some of the early codebreaking successes, before the various huts were built to accommodate the fast-growing operations here. It was in these cottages that Enigma was first cracked by an all-British team including Dilly Knox, Mavis Lever and Alan Turing. They aren't open to the public - I got the impression that they are in use as private residences.

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The Cottages

Hut 3

The highlights of our visit for me were the codebreaking huts, numbered 3 and 6. In these huts Enigma messages sent by the German Army and Air Force were decrypted, translated and analysed for vital intelligence. They have been brilliantly restored and presented in a fashion that recreates the war-time atmosphere, bringing to life the world of the codebreakers in a way that makes the huts seem almost haunted by them. The rooms are ‘dressed’ to resemble what they once were when the codebreakers worked there, and as you enter each you can hear the voices of actors engaged in realistic conversations about their work, and also their off-duty lives. In some rooms there are also projections of actors on the walls, but I think I found those where there was only audio the most effective of all.

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Corridor and desk in Hut 3

A sign as you enter Hut 3 explains:
‘You are now standing in one of the most secret areas of BP where deciphered messages were translated and analysed. Early on in the war the resulting intelligence was sent to MI6 and a limited number of senior army and RAF personnel. The evocative sights and sounds will help you to imagine what happened here. The scenes are set in 1940-41, and are based on the words and memories of BP veterans.’

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Teleprinter office, Hut 3

One of the larger rooms is that which housed the Watch, where a sign explains:
‘Work at BP went on round the clock. In this room there were four Watchkeepers on each shift, led by Watch 1. Most were civilian experts on German, able to fill any gaps in the deciphered messages before translating them. As they had no military experience, special Military Advisers helped compile the final reports.’

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The Watch

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In the Watch

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Hut 6

This was perhaps the beating heart of Bletchley Park. According to its sign,
‘Some of the most important codebreaking of the war took place in this hut. Little survives to tell us what it looked like inside, but the hut itself remains a witness to those tense times. Images, props, sounds and words are based on Veterans’ recollections and photographs taken later in WW2. They help to conjure up events here on just one date – 28 February 1941 – the day a crucial enemy cipher was broken.’

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A room in Hut 6

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The corner of an office, Hut 6

To capture the sound, as well the images, of this hut I shot some bits of video in a few of the rooms, which I later edited together:

We took a break at this point to eat a light lunch in Hut 4 which was formerly a WW2 naval intelligence codebreaking hut, but which now houses the café. Then we continued our explorations in another of the restored huts.

Hut 8

While the work in Huts 3 and 6 was focused on German army and air-force messages, Hut 8 was devoted to cracking the even tougher to decode naval messages. It was here that the famous Alan Turing did his most famous work, concentrating on this more complex Naval Enigma because ‘no one else was doing anything about it and I could have it to myself.’ Turing devised a number of techniques to speed up the breaking of German ciphers, including improvements to the pre-war Polish Bombe method, which used a machine (a forerunner of today’s computers) to work out the settings for the Enigma machine. This work ultimately enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in many crucial engagements, including the Battle of the Atlantic, and in so doing helped to win, and to shorten, the war. His office in Hut 8 has been recreated exactly as it would have looked in World War Two.

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Alan Turing's office

Other parts of this hut are devoted to hand-on ‘experiments’ illustrating ideas about probability and chance, and explaining how these are critical to an understanding of codebreaking. The codebreakers looked for what they called ‘cribs’ – predictable repeated phrases (e.g. weather reports) which could give a clue to the day’s encryption settings.

Huts 11 and 11A

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In the window of one of the huts

Our final stop for the day was in the huts which housed the Bombe machines, developed by Alan Turing from some earlier Polish ones which had been shared with the Allies at the outbreak of war. The machines featured multiple drums representing the rotors of an Enigma machine, which could whizz through all the different possible permutations for the settings each day. Hundreds of these machines were operated by Wrens, here and in outstations in other parts of the country. It was boring and oppressive work, with the women running the machines during long shifts in dark, stuffy rooms, as the displays here make clear.

By now though the museum was getting busier, including with several school groups, and it was harder both to study the displays and to take photos. We found it difficult to follow the detailed explanations of the technology behind the Bombes, so decided in the end to leave this section and the other remaining buildings until the future visit we had already determined to make.

But if you can’t wait till then to find out more about the Bombes, check out the museum’s website’s description of its Bombe Breakthrough exhibits.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:25 Archived in England Tagged lakes architecture history museum details world_war_two Comments (15)

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