In St John’s Wood

Albert’s drawing of 6 Hall Road
As it is today; no white chestnut trees and an additional storey added.

Those of you who know London, or who are interested in cricket (count me out), will know that St John’s Wood is, in my Uncle’s words ‘a quite good area of London’. I might update his description with the words ‘exclusive’ and ‘unaffordable’, yet in 79 years NW8 has not changed that much at all, at least as far as buildings are concerned. Albert draws a rather good representation of his new accomodation, as you can see from the photos above. However, before he tells us about his arrival at 6 Hall Road, he has two short notes to share – one after his arrival back at camp (from leave I presume, given the gap between this and his last letter) and one from a mystery Y.M.C.A.

Friday May 22

Dear All, I forget whether I said I would write as soon as I got here or would leave it until reaching London, but here is a short note in advance.

I had an awful journey here and did not arrive until 6.45, very cross about everything. I will write at length later on. Tomorrow morning we go to London and should arrive about 11.30. I will write or send a card from there with my address. I have discovered my leggings here – I thought I had sent them long ago.

The pump is safe – my good friends here took care of it for me, and I shall take it with me to London.

I hope you are having a good time: I felt rather miserable on my return here, but feel more happy at the prospect of going to London.

Love to all, from Albert.

Saturday May 23. 4.30 pm                              Address unknown

Dear All,

Well, here I am in London, but as we are only in our present flat until Monday, I can give no address. At the moment I am in a Y.M.C.A. at Hornsey. I have been to Joyce’s house but no one was in. They may have gone away for the weekend, though since she was on holiday last week I rather doubt that. I am going back later to see, and may phone Shell Mex House to see if she is working. I may stop the night as since we are not really ‘there’ until Monday, nobody at St John’s Wood knows or cares if we are in. I will write as soon as I get an address, so until then cheerio, and love to you all at Branstone, from Albert.

P.S. It is just 12 hours since I was called this morning. (And 11 and a half since I got up).

P.P.S. If this were not Whitsun I could have gone home! (Won’t have a chance next week).

The following letter, twenty pages long, describes Albert taking advantage of what London has to offer; what a contrast to the wooden huts and windy, open countryside of Wiltshire! At last Albert’s basic training is over and he has been assigned a ‘flight’ for the next stage in his RAF career. He doesn’t sound too thrilled with the courses he has to take whilst in London, devoting much more pen and ink to his forays into the West End’s theatre land.

I was interested to read about his visit to Joyce’s house, who he knew from his work at Shell Mex. My mother told me that this Joyce (not his friend Joyce Hart) became his girlfriend, which is interesting because in this letter Albert mentions her ‘young man’ who was stationed in Andover. Well, I hope that future letters will give us more peeks into Albert’s affairs of the heart!

In researching background on why Albert was sent to London, I came across this interesting post that has lots of detail about the RAF base at the famous Lord’s cricket ground.

Monday May 25

Dear All,

Well, I have at last got an address, as a matter of fact in the same building as we spent the weekend in, but in another flat. The building is a block of service flats, in quite a good area of London. They must have been some quite good flats in usual times, the layout of ours looks like this:

It is not a very good diagram as there are numerous bends and bumps that I have not included; and I haven’t shown the windows as it is too much bother to go round counting them. The thick wall is an outside one.

This place is considerably stricter than Yatesbury, and we have to be up earlier, but since there are only four of us here who were already in the RAF before coming here, we will probably get off a bit lighter than the new recruits: I hope so.

The flat is quite a nice place with H&C water, two bathroom- lavatory –wash basin places, and the kitchenette with a sink and some cupboards.

There is not much facility for putting stuff away, I have a drawer in the kitchenette and a hook, but there is little room for one’s personal belongings.

The ‘course’ here appears to be negligible, though as yet we have done nothing. There is some morse which we have naturally done, some mathematics, which is probably very elementary, and various lectures, inoculations and some foot drill, but once again, we should not have a lot of that ahead of us. There also appears to be a chance of us getting another tunic and hat. By the way, you could perhaps send my spare trousers to be cleaned – I know they are not very dirty, but they are a bit wrinkled, and the creases, which I did under the bed, are in the wrong place.

This morning and afternoon we went down to Lord’s to be put into “flights” (that is what the 10/48 on the address indicates).

Most of the time there we were in the NAAFI or another canteen, or watching the cricket, which is Army versus Sir Pelham Warner’s XI. Quite a lot of wickets went down in a short while at the end of the morning’s play. Perhaps you heard the commentary on the wireless. A good number of civilians came in too, and some of them are now in our flats (‘Hall Place”). I expect Mr Abbess is somewhere around this way too, if he has not yet gone away.

As regards leave there is none, and they appear to be very strict on coming in at nights – 10.30pm, midnight on Saturdays.

After posting your letter on Saturday, I went to a barber’s and then phoned Shell Mex House for Joyce, and was told that she had gone to Andover for the weekend; I phoned her again for confirmation and found that they were out, so I went down to the West End.

Two members of the ATS count their change after buying tickets at the No. 1 Box Office at the New Theatre on St Martin’s Lane in London. © IWM D 17176

I had some tea & joined on a queue for the ballet at the New Theatre. Coming in the train to Leicester Square, I asked for the best station for the New of a man who turned out to be a Swiss, who had lived in the country for 20-odd years. He was quite an interesting fellow, talked to me about music, and was a great Bach fan, and finally showed me to the theatre. When I had nearly reached the door the gallery was full, so I had to search for further entertainment. It was not much use trying the theatres at 7.15 and not much fun walking around as it was raining a bit, so I joined another queue, for the New Gallery cinema.

The film was “How Green Was My Valley” together with a Donald Duck film and about 3 other shorts. I was in the front stalls (but the screen was quite a way back from the front seats) and paid 2/6 for the privilege. The next price was 4/-, then 5/6 and 8/- . If you want a really good “human” film I can recommend it to you. It is about the life of a mining family in a S. Wales village of about 40 years ago. It has happy & sad moments; some singing, few Welsh accents, but no strongly American ones, and is altogether very good entertainment. The Donald Duck (“Chef Donald”) was immensely funny, and one of the shorts was a good natural history one.

The show finished about 10, and I made my way by tube to camp, arriving without any rush at about 10.30. I went to bed about 11 and we lay in bed and talked until about 12.00. We still have no sheets, but the beds are quite comfortable, and don’t worry us much.

Interior of St Bartholomew the Great
Diliff, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday I missed breakfast, as it was too early for me. I rose at 8.30 and after messing around and nearly starting this letter, I went with another fellow to church. I went to St Bartholomew’s by Smithfield Market, and he to a nearby Catholic one. St Bart’s is an old Norman church (AD 1123) with small arches, a good roof, a sort of arched apse with Lady chapel behind, & triforium and clerestory. In spite of the ruinous condtion of most of the neighbourhood, the church (and market) are ok. The service was not greatly attended; there cannot possibly be many people still living there, so bad is the damage, but it was good with an interesting sermon, even if rather too long. I stayed for the Communion, which caused me to miss dinner.

In the afternoon I went to the Cambridge Theatre to hear a concert by The London Symphony Orchestra, but by the time I got to the box office, only 6/6 and 8/- seats remained – so I went away, rather disheartened. It was too late to go to The Albert Hall, as it was then 2.25, but I thought I might as well go along, as there are concerts in some evenings this week, and it seems necessary to book for things here. So I went by train to Kensington West, intending to walk to The Albert Hall by way of Kensington Gardens. I had not gone a great distance (I did not know if it was in the right direction) when I came across a phone box, and it occurred to me that it would do no harm if I were to phone Joyce’s house again. This I did and to my surprise, she was in, and had been stopping in all day, as in my note I said that I would call that day (that was written before I was told that she was at Andover). She asked me to come over, and I went to Kens. High Street, which was not far, and caught a 27A bus to Highgate and thence a 41 to Crouch End, where I found her in.

I had tea: they gave me egg (boiled), lettuce and beetroot, bread & butter and jam, and cake. I was quite hungry and enjoyed it.

In the evening we took a short walk, and talked indoors. I also had supper and after a most enjoyable evening, which turned what looked like being a miserable day into a jolly good one, I left at about 9.25.

I took longer over the journey than I need have done, as at Camden Town, where the 74 for St John’s Wood goes, I waited in the wrong place (the bus goes from a back street). Consequently I took an hour on the journey.

Joyce will be on late work this week, but her mother is alone there & would be glad of the company, so I shall go over some times in the week. Also I must see about these concerts at the Albert, Aeolian & Wigmore Halls. One fellow went to the Albert Hall on Sunday and said there was plenty of room, so I shall probably get in without booking, which is better since my spare time is a very unknown quantity.

I think that covers most of my activities up till now. I am writing this in a Church Army Canteen just opposite tot the flats. It is raining and I have plenty to write, and so shall go no further.

I believe I did not tell you about the journey to Yatesbury. Stale news, so if you are not interested, read past. I saw a Corporation bus go just as I passed the clock at the bottom, and had to wait a good 15 minutes before a Hants & Dorset turned up. I passed the Civic Centre at 1.52 & saw the smoke of a train leaving as I was at the top of the new road. That was probably it. As the ticket collector told me next train 3 something. I made for the top of 4 post hill (Hobbs) and caught the 2.0 bus to Salisbury: I might as well have gone by train. When we passed the exit of the Sarum bus station, the Devizes to Marlborough bus was in, when we had gone round the block and got in, it had gone out – missed it by the skin of my teeth again! The next transport was a Bath bus to Devizes at 4.40, which I caught. That got me to Devizes at 6.05, and after walking about a mile in sultry weather and greatcoat & kit and getting even hotter and crosser, I was picked up by about the 100th car that passed me. Glory be it was going to Yatesbury, passing by the camp, and I eventually rolled in about 6.45, very annoyed with things.

I got my £1 pay today, and have about £2, 10s left, which will probably see me through the next ten days – that should be about all we are here.

I don’t think there is much else to say. I will write again in Wednesday or Thursday. I expect letters should reach you quite quickly from here. I trust that you had a good Whitsun weekend, with not too much rain. So love to all from Albert.

P.S’s. Excuse the writing. I have a lot to write & am in a terrific hurry. It is 7.45 and I hope to get 2 or 3 letters done before bed.

Joyce had not gone to Andover (her ‘young man’ is there in the Tank Corps) and there was no accommodation available.

This canteen is in a very large and what was once posh house. It is a jolly nice place and they have good fresh cake, though no hot meals.

We also filled in reams of forms today. My RAF records must contain the same stuff in about octuplicate.

Is it just me or does Albert grow in confidence? It must have felt good at least to no longer be a new recruit, as some of his flatmates were. I sense the feeling of accomplishment he has in navigating his way east and north across London, to Smithfield and to Crouch End. Albert is becoming a cultured man, seeking out the ballet, conversing with a Swiss gentleman about music and Bach. His reason for attending church a way across town must have been to see the architectural beauty of a renouned Norman church and to express his knowledgeable appreciation to his parents, using triforium and clerestory as examples of his learning. I looked up these words for you – ‘triforum’ is space in a church above the nave arcade and below the clerestory extending over the vaults, or ceilings, of the side aisles. ‘Clerestory’ is the high space above the nave that contains a series windows. He’s a man that appreciates fine architecture and Donald Duck, I love him for that.

I enjoyed reading of the discoveries Albert made; I felt like I was going along with him. It’s a lovely gift to have all these years later. For whether your interests are in learning about wartime London or discovering what comprised tea in 1942, there is something for everyone here, wouldn’t you say?

Lost and Found

Albert’s map showing Combe and Linkenholt.

Albert’s letter of Wednesday 6th May 1942 relates the second half of his day out to Inkpen Beacon; another mammoth excursion by bicycle. He tells us of a couple of mishaps, one of which was the loss of his map in the area of Linkenholt. This little village is wholly owned by the Linkenholt estate (as it was in Albert’s time) and therefore little has changed since those times. You can’t buy one of the pretty houses, they are all rented out by the current owner, who bought the estate for £25 million in 2009.

Well, back in 1942 it was ‘E.Sharpe’ who kindly found my Uncle’s treasured map and returned it to him. His brief but charming letter is reproduced below. I have spent some time today trying to find something more about this gentleman, but without success. I was able to find a record for his dwelling in the 1939 Census, but all the names, except that of the cook, have been redacted. If you are interested to know why, take a look here (it’s too complicated to explain!).

Dear All, I think I will continue this letter where I left off the last one – at Inkpen Beacon (though of course I’m not there now) and go on recounting what happened in the ride.

I went down a pretty steep hill into Combe, or Coombe as I believe it is correctly called. (The map says Combe, but W.H.Hudson, the Parish notices & memorials in the church all spell it with the double ‘o’). The village is very tiny and consists of a church, a farm and a very few cottages, without, as far as I could see, even a shop. I went into the church and found that the parish is Coombe & Foccombe (Coombe in Berks., Foccombe in Hants). There was soon to be service and just before I left, the rector of the joint parish came in, an old, frail man. I had a few words with him – he knew Hudson’s book – and then proceeded down the road, past what must be a very isolated searchlight post, to a crossroads, from which the road climbs and turns to Linkenholt, in Hampshire: the border is about where the searchlight post was (or perhaps it should be vice versa).

At Linkenholt I stopped and went to the church door, but as there was a service in progress I did not go in. From there I went to Vernham’s Street, where I posted your letter, and about 100 yards on I stopped for a drink at a wayside tap. Looking round on the carrier, I saw that the map was not in its place. I had tied the map, the writing paper and my gas mask on but somehow the map must have dropped off. I was very worried and went all the way back to the crossroads, where I had last looked at it, without finding it. Of course there were plenty of people about when I went along the first time (and lost it) but on the other two journeys, not a soul. However, I thought whoever had picked it up must be a local, and would only need a little prompting to return it – perhaps not even that. Just to make as sure as possible I penned a note which I put on a Home Guard hut, the front of which was used as a notice board:-

Yesterday, by the second post, your letter & my map arrived, the enclosed letter with the map. I have replied to it this morning.

From Vernham’s Street to Vernham’s Dean by memory, and I found it a very nice little village, with a village pond and green, and neat little thatched cottages. I asked the way of a postman – Burbage I said, as it was the first place I could think of that I was going through. I followed the main road to Foxbury (just in Wilts) Oxenwood where I asked the way to Great Bedwyn, and again where the road crosses the A338.

I found Great Bedwyn alright, and went into the church there which is pretty large and very good. I followed the road by the railway and canal, as I could see from the map in “Highways and Byways” that they crossed the road near Burbage. Of course that map is hopelessly inadequate for cycling, as there are only a very few roads marked. However, I got along quite nicely, through Crofton, just past which I decided to stop and eat the remainder of the date cake. Just as I ran down off the road to the canal side my front tyre burst, much to my annoyance, so after eating the cake I had to mend that, which however did not take me long. I must think about getting a new tyre if that one is any more trouble.

My little road became quite rough and led away from the railway and by Wolf Hall into Burbage. From there I simply had to follow the main road (which was very quiet) through the western edge of Savernake Forest to Marlborough. In Marlborough I got something to eat and drink.

Alfred Brown’s dairy later merged to become ‘Brown & Harrisons’.

In a pub there (where I had some very nice cider) I met an old countryman who was actually a native of Charminster, though now living near Marlborough. He had also worked for some time as cowman for Alfred Brown’s of Southampton for a number of years, until 1920 I believe. He knew the town well and we had quite an interesting talk. I noticed that he called Great Bedwyn ‘Big’ Bedwyn. I recognised his Dorset accent as soon as he spoke to me, saying that is had been ‘waarm’ that day. It certainly had been a lovely day, and despite the two little mishaps I enjoyed it very much.

Today I fell for some work, though not of a very exacting nature. I was a “marker” for the cross country course, and actually all I had to do was sit out on one of the training gallops near Beckhampton. I wrote some of this letter whilst I was there. This evening I shall quite likely go for a little ride, perhaps through Compton Bassett

I hope then to see you this Sunday, May 10, at Salisbury in the Cathedral Close some time during the morning. I should advise you to bring some dinner, as the town is very crowded on Sundays. It certainly looks as though the weather is going to treat us kindly; I certainly hope so.

I cannot remember anything else to answer in your letters, so I suppose I shall have to waste the rest of the page. One more thing – it would be quite nice to have a cake.

All the usual love, from Albert.

It’s nice to think of Albert looking forward to seeing his mum and dad in Salisbury (and expecting cake too). The arrangement to meet ‘some time in the morning’ speaks of a different age, when all parties were reliant on slow and sometimes unpredictable public transport. Unfortunately we won’t get to hear anything about their excursion, as the next letter I have from Albert is dated 22 May. He has left Wiltshire and all its beauty behind, stationed in London, “address unknown.”

“A League-long Tableland”

A view from Warlbury Hill, also known as Inkpen Beacon

This week I publish just one of Albert’s letters, written on a Sunday afternoon atop the highest hill in Hampshire. Take away the date and this could have been written at any time in the twentieth century; there is no flavour of war here. Indeed should you be a reader hungry for history regarding the RAF in World War Two, then I’m afraid there is little for you here. If, like many of my regular readers, you seek the common threads of humanity in the words of those long passed, then I invite you to read on.

1pm, May 3 Sunday  1942                                                  Inkpen Beacon

Dear All, I am looking down towards Hampshire from the South side of Inkpen Beacon. The best view and what a marvellous view it is, is looking north to Berks. & Wiltshire, but it is too windy to write letters there. On this side there is just enough breeze to prevent the sun from being uncomfortably hot. Even from here it is very nice looking down the road to Combe which you will see is walled in on three sides by the downs. For a good description of the village and surrounding country see “Afoot in England”. As a matter of fact it was reading that book which made me visit the place today & it certainly is worthwhile.

“The top is a league-long tableland, with stretches of green elastic turf, thickets of furze and bramble, and clumps of ancient noble beeches—a beautiful lonely wilderness with rabbits and birds for only inhabitants. From the highest point where a famous gibbet stands for ever a thousand feet above the sea and where there is a dew-pond, the highest in England, which has never dried up although a large flock of sheep drink in it every summer day, one looks down into an immense hollow, a Devil’s Punch Bowl very many times magnified,—and spies, far away and far below, a few lonely houses half hidden by trees at the bottom. This is the romantic village of Coombe…. that small isolated village in its green basin—a human heart in a chalk hill, almost the highest in England.”

“Afoot in England” W.H. Hudson

I came to Hungerford on the main London road. Although it is such a busy road, there was not much traffic today after I had passed by ‘an army convoy’ before & just after Marlborough. I started from camp at 10am, and so avoided what few joyriding motorists remain. In Marlborough I saw a good example of how the British Army carries out manoeuvres; coming down on the London road I encountered one of the light trucks leading some heavy lorries up a side road. As they came to a turning the driver put his hand out to the right, and an officer standing up behind him promptly put out his hand to the left. Apparently they didn’t know which was the right road, though there were three sorts of police fellows about and about 2 one inch maps to each car.

Along the A4 between Marlborough and Froxfield I saw what seemed to be Berberis growing and blooming by the roadside. Froxfield is quite a nice little village by the Kennet. It has some rather nice looking alms houses, called Somerset Hospital. Just a minute & I will see what “Highways & Byways” has to say about them – apparently they were built in 1691 and enlarged in 1775 “by the right noble Sarah Duchess Dowager of Somerset deceased.”

In a farmyard at Froxfield I saw an old stage coach in a very dilapidated condition. Just out of the village is the Berkshire border and from there it is not very far to Hungerford, where I left the main road. I went through a lovely common just out of Hungerford, and took the quickest road to Inkpen, which is quite a small village, some distance away from its church, which I did not visit.

Though I took it to Calne on Thursday, my 3-speed was not yet ready yesterday, so I have been running with more or less fixed gears. Just before reaching Inkpen though, I fixed the gear in middle, by means of a piece of wire & the chain I usually lock it up with. I need a lower gear than top in this part of the journey.

I reached the hill here at about 12.30, and before writing this I ate half the date cake. I took that as I thought that of all the eatables, it would travel best. Incidentally it is a very nice one. If I can find a piece of string I will now measure my mileage up to date: if I am to believe my cyclometer it will be about 25. And not very far out either, it is actually about 23. I see from the map that I was wrong in saying that Froxfield was by the Kennet; that river does not run close to the main road again until Hungerford.

Kerria Japonica

I have seen quite a lot of Kerria today, as well as wild cherry blossom and all the usual spring flowers. I saw some wild bluebells on Thursday. At the moment I can also hear a cuckoo in the woods below.

On Thursday, after I had taken my 3-speed in to be repaired (by Friday he told me) I went out of the village north-westwards, on a little road between A4 and B3102. After about two miles I turned right and went along a road which overlooks the plain of the Avon. Though the road was never more than about 410 feet high, the view was pretty extensive and as the sun was coming through the fresh green foliage, from the west, it all looked very lovely. As I only decided in Calne to go for the ride, I had not my map with me, but by various little lanes I managed to find my way to Compton Bassett, crossing the B3102 just north of Hilmarton, and keeping south and west of Highway. Compton Bassett is a very long village, which straggles along the lane for a distance of about a mile. I suppose I should not say “straggles”, as it is one of the neatest & best kept villages I have come across. Most of the cottages are whitewashed or cream washed and have tiled or smartly thatched roofs and well tended gardens, many of which are terraced up the hillside. The church I did not visit, as it was too late in the evening, but it is a Perpendicular building which looks very good from the outside.

Between Compton B. and the main road is an RAF camp which takes its name from the village. Its situation at least is much better than ours as regards immediate surroundings, and it is doubtless neither so cold or so windy.

By the way, the parcel arrived quite safely on Saturday by the second post: they seem to be a bit slower in transit of late.

Excepting that I must try to see Mr Bryan one night, and that I must go to Calne tomorrow & get my 3-speed wire (I hope) and a card for aunt Daisy, I think there is little to say in reply to your letter, so as it is getting a bit uncomfortable here, and also it is 10 past 2 and time to push on, I will be closing now.

I will post this in Combe or perhaps somewhere in Hampshire. I suppose it will not be much use sending love to Auntie Edie as she will have gone before the letter arrives, so love to all at home, from Albert.

P.S. Remember me to Mrs Churchill. I see that I have forgotten to bring the right envelopes, so excuse the one I have used, and the way the paper is folded.

In the course of this endeavour of mine, which has mostly centred around Albert’s letters (as they far outnumber those of my other Mabey relatives) I have gained a great deal; not just insights into times gone by but also an exploration of hidden memories of my own. In this letter Albert invites me to remember the Kerria that grew in the front garden of my childhood home, rather too ‘straggling’ for my Mother’s liking. Albert casts my mind back to the tall bookcase in the living room filled with faded linen covers, “Highways and Byways”, “English Downland” that I ran my fingers across on drowsy afternoons. He calls to mind the singing grasslands and dusty chalk paths we tramped along, with Mum and Dad ahead of us, four girls lost in our daydreams. Albert, dear and gentle soul, invites me to memories that are distant and sweet.