HebWeb Feature: Memory of 1940

by Stan Pierce who now lives in Brisbane, Australia

My getting to a magical country paradise just a few miles from Hebdon Bridge was the result of Luftwaffe pilot missing his target. It was 1940 and this pilot was making for my dad. He had gone to work that day at the Catherine Docks in the East End so my mum took me for a walk round to grandma's. This is what happened.

It's eerie to contemplate that a neurotic German corporal just happened to be around when things were chaotic, seized the moment and changed the world. He certainly changed my little view of it across the top of my fire-engine red peddle car. I was the envy of every kid in the street in Jersey Road, Custom House in 1939. My dad had to haul me screaming out of the seat just so some of the other kids could have a go. I'd get a real paddy on. But the corporal was planning bigger things to change my parents place of residence.

One day after the balloons had gone up mum took me and my baby brother round to gran's a few streets away. We had to leave gran's house before the blackout because it was dangerous to cross the roads in the dark. The trolly-buses would get you. Five minutes out from gran's the air-raid warning went. Mum grabbed my hand and we ran. My little feet skimmed the pavement until the ARP man yelled at mum to get off the street. " We only have to get to Jersey Road" she said, still running. " You won't make it " he said. " Go over to the shelter in the park". So we changed direction and ran into the communal shelter. Someone picked me up and plonked me on a top bunk and I fell asleep. I didn't hear the raid.

Next morning mum took my hand and led me across the park. I loved it after air-raids because you could pick up lovely bits of shrapnel all shiny and jagged. I was dragged half dopey up the street, round the top and into our street. It was all different. Soldiers, policemen, ropes strung on stands. Our side of the street was a long pile of rubble interspersed with the chimney area still upright with the orange coloured chimney-pots all still intact. Mum cried. I cried. I wanted my peddle car. I could see it up there. It had somehow got up where the bedroom area was. No-one took any notice of me and I got another paddy on but I was never to see my pride and joy again.

Someone said " Eva, your old man's looking for you". Dad had been sent home from working on the docks because he was told we had got hit. He'd been there for hours looking in the rubble with the police. There was no-one in the shelter at the bottom of the garden so he thought we were under the rubble. He picked me up as we approached him. It's the only time in my life I ever saw my dad cry . I was told years later that it was quite an interesting day. The neurotic corporal had changed our life.

Dad put us on a train the next day. He had to stay of course. This was the first of our three 'evictions' from London. I've loved trains ever since. It was full of soldiers who fussed and gave me chocolate. We went north. We got to Crew. "All change...all change", I heard. The tanoy said there was a sing song starting in the hall and Two Ton Tessie O'Shea was there and they needed a pianist to accompany her. Mum played the piano like Charlie Kunz so she picked me up and put me in the arms of a soldier and went up on the stage amid all the shouting. So I had the best seat in the house on this man's shoulders.

We ended up the next day in this pretty little spot outside Hebdon Bridge. It was a row of stone cottages next to a weir. A Mr. Bushel had a shop in the end cottage next to the weir. Trees overhung a rocky stream running a few yards from the house with stepping stones across. This was boys heaven . It was all backdropped with craggy rocks and flowers and ferns everywhere and further up the hills there were sheep grazing. It was the first time in my life I had seen wildlife and smelled fresh air. I helped mum gather sticks to light the fire and the smell of that wood smoke with the damp moss on the sticks is still with me. The cottage had a little pedal driven organ and mum played it often. We were there in that heaven on earth for a year before we went back to the big smoke. Mum was lonely I guess.

Forty six years later a brother of mine was passing through Hebdon Bridge and picked up a 1986 April/May edition of the Yorkshire magazine and posted it to me in Australia with no comment. Right inside on page 91 was the very stream, the weir and the stepping stones I had played on. You can think you are tough but some things can get at you.

Sunday, October 17, 1999