“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.

Two Short Letters

There is a windmill on the hill, but very tiny in this photo!

Albert’s letters this week are a little short on substance, yet they contain some amusing and puzzling details. I was amused by the egg and puzzled by Portsmouth’s contribution. I shall say no more about either, Dear Reader, and let you discover for yourself.

My photographs to accompany this post are from the very welcome trip I took to see my dear friend Clare, and her little girl. It was the first time I had been out of the city this year. Clare said to me, ‘let’s go and see Albert’s windmill‘ and so we met and climbed Butser Hill but the windmill couldn’t be seen from that vantage point. We clambered to the top of the hill and the three of us had a picnic under a bare-branched tree, looking out across the water of the Solent to The Island. We made a game with sticks and chalk stones and talked about our plans for when the world opens up again.

I left them later to walk on my own through the beech woods, seeking a view of the windmill. And as I walked deeper into the wood and the roar of traffic from the A3 subsided, I sighed and settled into a slower pace. Soft earth underfoot, not hard tarmac. Sounds only of birdsong and the gentle breezes of fresh air. I saw wild violets. I saw yellow gorse and yellow flowers I do not know the name of, perhaps coltsfoot that Albert also saw.

Then, as I came to the chalk path of the South Downs Way, I saw his windmill on the brow of a far off hill. With the beech trees and the violets behind and no planes in the sky, I felt I was experiencing life in that moment just as Albert would have. I sensed his presence, pointing a way. A way that sits outside of time, intangible but close at hand.

March 22 1942

Dear All,

This will be another short letter I am afraid, as the weather today is really too cold and miserable for me to venture out. There is quite a strong and unpleasantly cold east wind, and the top of the hills are over-hung with cold mist, and even in the hut there is a definite wind blowing across the back of my neck. So I am stopping in the camp for the whole of today, writing and reading and generally messing about.

Yesterday was very nice until the evening, when it became cloudy. I cycled to Calne early in the evening and did a little shopping. Then I took a look around the town which I had not previously seen in daylight. It is about the size of Botley but rather better, and with some good old stone houses. I took a little road which led me westwards out of the town, and soon became a footpath, which led to an old mill. From there I turned back along the riverside to Calne again. The walk was no distance but the birds were singing rather nicely & it was very quiet and peaceful looking across the river meadows in the twilight. Coming back in the dark I noticed that there was a new moon, which should be quite bright by next week, if I have to travel in the dark.

I had some supper last night in a W.V.S. canteen in Calne, as a very clean place. For sweet that had some sort of pudding with homemade plum jam on top, it was really lovely. I have put the bicycle in between the huts, and this afternoon I shall try to find some old sacks or blankets which would keep off some rain (which we shall get before long no doubt).

I have also bought some Vaseline which I can smear over the handlebars and 3 speed wire. I had better move the machine round to the east wall whilst the wind remains in this quarter, though I suppose this wind will not bring so much rain as the south.

I shall probably eat the egg today, for supper probably, not for a meal somewhere away towards Aldbourne as I had hoped. It seems almost a waste to eat it in camp, but will be doubtless very nice. The eggshell got rather cracked, but I think that was due to the spanner and things, which also broke up some of the biscuits. The chocolate biscuits were very nice, so is the cake which I have not yet finished. I really cannot think of anything further to say, so goodbye & love from Albert.

P.S. I have put on my pullover, after leaving it off for over a week.

Is this perhaps the same flower that Albert mentions in his travels?

Tuesday March 24

Dear All, I have just sent off a parcel, containing a jam jar, a pullover and some handkerchiefs. As parcels posted on Thursday do not seem to arrive until Monday, I must take to posting them off on Tuesdays.

Today has been really lovely, just the sort of day I would like for a Sunday. Had it not been the Music Circle today, I should have gone for a ride in the twilight. Tomorrow we are working all day as the sports afternoon is (as once a month) on Saturday, which will be very annoying in view of last week’s unkind weather. Another source of annoyance is that for this week we are having our tea later at 6 to 6.30 instead of 5.30 to 6. However, unless the weather is bad I shall go to Marlborough to find out where I can park my bicycle over the weekends, and also how long it takes me to get there.

I have got your letter written Sunday night, and am glad to see that we reached our War Weapons total; it really is a lot of money, I think that Portsmouth’s objective is only £2,250,000. I’m glad that the school did so well. [I transcribed the amount just as Albert wrote it. However that seems an extraordinary amount; was it perhaps £22,500?].

I suppose that Peter will be home when I go to the Island this weekend. I hope though that he will be alright when I see him on Saturday. I don’t know when I shall be home, by 9pm I trust. I don’t think there is time (it is 10.30pm) or necessity to say anymore except goodnight for a very little while from Albert.

School Friends

“a sort of guarantee that things are much as they were, underneath, just as you know that a tree is fundamentally the same in Winter as when it is able to be in leaf.”

Phil Hart 1938′ – this photo was probably taken by Albert.

I don’t know when Albert would have received this short letter, surely some weeks after the date his school friend Phil Hart wrote, on 16 December 1941. However, in The Christmas Party Albert mentions receiving a letter from his school friend. If this ‘Air Graph’ took only five days to fly from ‘The Middle East’ to Southampton and thence to Blackpool, that would have been some kind of miracle. At the time of writing, these young men were only 20. Although the letter is short I loved the insight it gave me into another important relationship in Albert’s life. I was moved by the wisdom of Phil’s words, so apt not only for their radically altered lives, but the strange and uncertain world we live in now:

Dear Albert, This is just a “filling in” missive, not my much-overdue letter to you; that will arrive later. I hope you’ve seen everything that has arrived home from me. I am aware that you’ve been in the RAF for several weeks now. Unfortunately, I am not in possession of your new address yet, so this will go via No 38. I received a letter from you a short while ago, written in Devon. I enjoyed your holiday. It’s strange how you do enjoy such things by proxy, when you’re separated from them. It seems to be a sort of guarantee that things are much as they were, underneath, just as you know that a tree is fundamentally the same in Winter as when it is able to be in leaf. My sister, for instance, writes, “Albert wrote to me last week – don’t think he’s very happy, fed up with drilling etc. So write and cheer him up. Muriel, Sheila and I, walked from Compton, via Oliver’s Battery and Tegdown to Dene and Sparsholt and back to Winton for tea last Sunday. There was a tremendous wind and the Downs looked all silvery and lovely. I do wish you could have been there.” So, of course, do I, and you with me, but meanwhile isn’t it cheering to hear of these familiar places thus? I can’t supply this fare, as you did for me before you entered the RAF but you should receive a better letter from me about a fortnight after this arrives – cheerio for now – Bill.

I know that Phil survived the war, I don’t know why he signed himself ‘Bill’ though. Any readers familiar with the area around Winchester will be impressed by the distance Phil’s sister (Joyce) and friends walked in an afternoon, I’m sure it would take me a whole day. And, in a time of limited freedoms, it is cheering for me to hear of the silvery Downs and imagine a walk with family or friends in that familiar and essentially unchanged landscape .

Wishing you all a Happy New Year, with better times ahead.

Reading Aloud

“Incidentally, I believe that the large number of civil servants here are responsible for the good shows and concerts that come here.”

Gallops at the foot of Stephen’s Castle Down
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Peter Faceygeograph.org.uk/p/56367

I have not found it so easy to post a letter every week, far less easy than Albert found writing to his parents – this letter was sent two days after the last. It has troubled me, my lack of consistency. Partly I battle against the commonplace demands of work and fatigue, the need to cook meals, and generally look after oneself. Yet there is another specific reason, which is that I find typing out Albert’s long letters rather laborious and as I am an impatient soul my slowness frustrates me. I can type quite quickly if the words spring from my own head, but copying another’s is achingly dull.

But I won’t give up on Albert; I have (oh the wonders of technology) started dictating his letters, which is such a time saver! Reading aloud, if only to an iPad, shadows how these letters might first have been communicated to my Grandparents. I imagine my Grandfather reading to my Grandmother in the kitchen (reorganised to combat the winter cold), or maybe Grandmother read to my Grandfather as they sat together by the fire. Although I realise now how infrequently that would have occurred in the war years, for my Grandfather was evacuated with his entire school to Dorset, and Grandmother was mostly alone in Bullar Road. Still, these letters would have been passed around the family and read aloud at the kitchen table in Headley House, when Grandmother and Jean, reunited on the Island, went to visit.

Dear all,
here is a letter to accompany the parcel which I hope to send tomorrow (Thursday) dinner-time. I have not done much since I wrote last. I went to the concert, for which I have enclosed the programme. The orchestra was quite good and the pianists excellent. I liked the Bach best of all, it was similar in some respects to the concerto in A minor which I have. There were about 15 in the orchestra but the audience was most disappointing – there could not have been more than 350 there, which, since there are 75,000 Airmen in Blackpool represents about a quarter %. Some of the audience were civilians too.
On Monday I went to an educational test to see about being an observer. I took a short and easy test and when the real test comes off I am pretty sure I shall pass. When I pass that I am given a sort of certificate to show that I have passed. Later on in our fourth or fifth week of training we go before a selection board and are asked if we wish to go over to the pilot’s course (same for observers) and if we produce this certificate we have quite a good chance of getting through, so I have only to wait. I believe that our squad is all taking this test on Friday – but like many other things up here that may not come off as arranged.

I wished I had been cycling home from Hamble instead of drilling in one of Blackpool’s dingy backstreets. “


On Friday we have our second Morse test and with luck I should pass that and get onto the six words per minute class. To-day I must try to book a seat for the Warner Brothers film – I hope to go on Friday. There are generally so many people going to the cinemas that one has to queue up or book a seat, yet there was plenty of room at the Halle orchestra concert on Saturday. Incidentally, I believe that the large number of civil servants here are responsible for the good shows and concerts that come here. I am told that before the war, the entertainment was about what one might expect in a place like this.
Today is quite muggy and warm, yesterday was lovely, warm sun and not much wind and quite warm walking home in the evening. I wished I had been cycling home from Hamble instead of drilling in one of Blackpool’s dingy backstreets. We have just been issued with an extra shirt and two collars, making three shirts and six collars in all. Not that I need them, for I find that apart from socks, I do not dirty my clothes at all quickly, of course we do not do any dirty work.
6.40 Evening
I am now waiting to go down to the music Society meeting at 7:30. This afternoon we played football, or rather 11 of us did whilst the other 30 sat down and watched. Then we went home early, which is not a bad way of spending an afternoon. This morning I put some boric acid powder in my socks to stop my feet from blistering but I don’t know whether it has made any difference. Well, there seems very little to write about this time. I have not had any letters since yours, I do not seem to have had much mail lately though I have written quite a lot. I have not written to Raymond yet or to ‘Spray Bank’. I think I might as well break off now and add a bit more later on, if there is any more to add.
9.40
It is funny how I keep on suddenly thinking of little bits of country round home at all sorts of odd times and usually for no apparent reason; sometimes my memory brings up a picture of Stephen’s Castle Down, another time of Deacon Hill or again of the Lyndhurst Road. I don’t know what it shows, but there it is. Well that about finishes that piece of paper, so goodbye and love from Albert.

In the 1930s and 40s Southampton was a large, bustling commercial port and town, yet Albert’s 6 mile cycle ride to the Shell Mex BP oil refinery in Hamble would have taken him down green lanes with views of the river Itchen and the wider expanse of Southampton Water. No wonder he missed his daily dose of countryside, as his sore feet marched up and down the dingy drill ground for hours on end.