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Why do I have to go back? Why is that every so often the urge comes upon me to return to Witheridge, the ugly, North Devon village where I was born and brought up? Something in me changes as I near the village. There is an excitement, but also a feeling of inner peace. I have the feeling of 'shedding a load'. I don't know if it is just 'escapism', the safety I feel of returning to my childhood.

So much I remember. It all comes flooding back as I tread familiar paths. The village has changed in many ways but I can still, almost instinctively, arrive at the places I see so often in my mind's eye. The trees, the stones, marks on the wall, they are still there. When I walk in the woods, I know exactly where the muddy paths will be, though goodness knows the path these days is ankle deep in mud where it used to be a firm, dirt path. I understand this is a cause for concern, the children ride their ponies through at a mad pace and churn it up. I rode through on my pony often enough, I don't remember doing any damage. Except, perhaps for the day I went galloping around what I thought to be a lovely field of grass, which later turned out to be a field of young corn! I well remember hiding when the farmer visited my father, on another matter, and complained bitterly to him about 'kids on their ponies'! I suppose as a country child, I should have known better but I suppose seeing things so often we didn't really observe them properly.

I was not a farmer's child. My father, whom I adored, was the local Blacksmith. His father had come from Torrington and gone to work as a Blacksmith in London. There he met my Grandmother. We were not a local family, in fact, I think we were always looked upon as being 'a bit different'. Grandpa and Grandma Baker came to Witheridge when my Uncle was about two years old and my father was six months old. Grandpa became the local Blacksmith and later took over The Angel Hotel.

There were seven children, Uncle Willie, the eldest, then my father, (Leslie) then five sisters, Hetty, Olive, Ruby, Stella and Cora. Cora died at the age of eighteen, but the rest grew up and married and all stayed near Witheridge. Father was the restless one, the 'mad cap' of the family. He went off to America in the early 1920's and worked in the Ford factory in Detroit, which qualified him for ever after as, 'someone who knew something about cars'! After a bout of pneumonia, he was sent home to England by the Doctor, the sea voyage being a form of convalescence. Whilst at home, he began to work with Grandpa, but he married my mother, she never returned to America.

We lived in 'May Cottage'. It belonged to Miss Whitfield who, with her family, ran the Bakery next door. My sister was born at The Butcher's Arms at Alswear. My Mother's parents lived there and Grandma Hill died, I believe, soon after Jose's birth. I was born at May Cottage some eleven years later. I was 'meant' to be a boy! Dad wanted a boy but had two girls and doted on us both. This 'baby who was a great disappointment to Mother', he spoiled completely. I was a disappointment because she had so hoped to give him a son after first having a girl. The District Nurse put me into a drawer whilst Mum wept. I never suffered for it. I grew up with so much love and happiness. My mother worked hard for all of us (and still does). Nothing was too much trouble and she was so unselfish. Dad could go anywhere and do anything and take me with him, which he most often did, and Mother would stay at home.

At May Cottage, I remember playing in the garden, as with most childhood memories it always seemed to be sunny. We had a canopy, that's what I always called it. A sort of canvas shelter. We played houses in it for hours. One of my earliest memories was of having a doll's pram. It was only very small, made of tin, but I loved it. At the time my mother had the local Schoolmaster lodging temporarily. One day, his wife and small daughter came to visit him and that was the day I had my pram. Mary was about my age so, of course, when it was decided to take a photograph of us both in the garden she wanted to hold the pram. Being a good hostess and trying to show me how to behave to visitors, I suppose Mother said "Let Mary hold the pram". I wasn't having any and the photograph we have today shows my face, I bitterly resented it! I believe it was about the same time, playing with Mary, whom I hated ever after, that a further disagreement arose. Mother was brushing the stairs at the time with a hard brush. I shall never forget racing up over the stairs on all fours, desperately trying to escape as my backside was beaten with the brush, all the way up! Children are notorious for letting down their parents when there are visitors around, and I was no exception. Mum had had enough!

May Cottage was thatched with a pretty garden, but it had none of the conveniences of modern houses. However, we were very happy and comfortable there, except when it rained too hard and the drain in the garden blocked then all the water would come in the front door. I must have been an awful nuisance to my parents. I used to just yell when this happened, whilst everyone else set to work as fast as they could to lift furniture and carpets. I know they all got pretty mad with me. I don't know what I thought was going to happen apart from everything getting wet!

Next to our cottage was the Bakery. Old Herbert Whitfield was the Baker. I used to go round into the bake-house and watch the bread being put into huge ovens whilst the fires were stoked with faggots of wood. I cannot describe the thrill I used to feel looking inside at the great fire. I watched them knead the dough, then I'd have a bun. Herbert always said, "Ave you got an 'appeny?" On Sunday, Mum carried the roast in the tin into the bake-house and the oven was filled with the Sunday dinners of half the village. We'd fetch it at 1.o'clock and it tasted good. A man who is related to the Whitfields runs the Bakery now. I believe he is a nephew. Of course, there are now modern ovens, mixers and everything run by electricity.

Across the road from the Bakery was Mr Buckingham's shop. Mr and Mrs Buckingham sold everything but most of all I remember buying Bull's Eye's, striped peppermint lumps from the big jar. It was fascinating to watch them cutting and weighing everything and putting it into bags. I don't think our health suffered at all, but it certainly wouldn't be allowed today. I think people must have been a lot cleaner a few years ago or, maybe we were more used to the dirt and germs!

Witheridge has one long main road right through the village. There are a few pretty houses but it is not full of Olde Worlde thatched cottages and pretty gardens, in fact, that is probably what it is, there are no gardens on the roadside, May Cottage had one of the few gardens and that was not on the main road. I had never realised quite what it was until now that made the village so bare and bleak. How strange in the middle of the country, but maybe that was the reason, most people were too busy with the farms or their back vegetable gardens to be bothered with flowers.

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One enters the village at the top of a hill then running down into the village comes a division of roads at Trafalgar Square. The main road continues on and another runs down to the left and they meet again at the Main Square on a short distance down the road. Between them they leave an Island shaped like a triangle. In the Trafalgar Square at an angle is the Baker's shop. Right through is one house width so that May Cottage had it's own back door on Fore Street and the front door and garden onto South Street. At the base of the triangle it becomes suddenly wider and fronting onto the large square is The Angel Hotel, plus one or two other houses. Around the corner, South Street was the Chemist's, a shop made from a room at the front of the house. Old Tom, as he was always called, never changed as far as I remember. He wore metal framed glasses on the end of his nose and, I swear was as blind as a bat. How he ever made up prescriptions without poisoning anyone, I'll never know!

In splendid isolation, in the middle of the Square is a cottage, which was the house of Millie Joe, as we called her. She was one of the teachers at the village school. Her husband, Joe, was a shoe mender I think, did bits of all sorts. I'm not sure of his actual occupation. He much enjoyed the bar of The Angel, which did not please his wife who was so prim and proper.

I started school as early as I possibly could. Miss Alford was the Infants Teacher, completely dedicated, no training or qualification. I can see here now riding her old bike in all weathers. She taught us though, and taught us well. I loved school but, unfortunately, as soon as I started I caught everything that was going, so spent more time at home than at school.

After Miss Alford, we moved up to Millie Joe. She made us work and I suffered agonies over the beastly sewing she made us do but to this day I remember the tips she gave us, something stuck!

Millie's classroom and the Headmaster's room were separated by a wooden partition, which could be removed. To go out to play, the girls could go through the Headmaster's room. One day I had a particularly annoying time with Millie and left through the partition door, and having closed it poked my tongue out as far as I could back through the window. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to look behind me and the headmaster was watching. Imagine my embarrassment when I had to go back and apologise and also explain what I was apologising for! I had to be pretty careful, too, my parents were particularly friendly with the Headmaster and his family. I think that was why he was always hard on me.

I loved it when I went up into his class. He used to sit on his desk and read us marvellous stories, mostly I remember 'The Jungle Book' and 'Just So Stories'. Listening intently one day and fiddling with my handkerchief, I tied my ankles together. I cannot remember whether someone spoke to me or passed a note, but I know he jumped on me and told me to stand out in the aisle. This was practically impossible, as I was unable to untie the handkerchief. He became madder than ever when I hesitated. I was ordered to come out to the front. I hobbled out making the knot tighter and tighter whilst everyone began to giggle. I forgot exactly what happened after, but I know he boxed my ears and being unable to balance, I almost went through the glass cupboard in which he kept the books. I don't know who was the most worried. Looking back, I expect he had a few qualms but all was well. I daren't tell my parents! I often wonder if he did! It was a source of amazement to me that some children dared to tell their parents when they got into trouble at school.

We had one very large boy with a very large mother and I remember how we all sat with baited breath as she came to the door, which was in Millie Joe's room. The door was in two halves and normally only one half was used. She attempted to squeeze through this, but was unable to get in, so the headmaster was fetched and there was a terrible row and threats before us all as to what she would do if he touched her boy again. We all talked about it for days wondering what would happen, nothing did.

My Father worked in the Blacksmith's shop right next to the school. He was always whistling in fact he was always happy. I think I can only remember once that he was angry with me and it really frightened me. He was extremely popular and rode up and down the village on his bicycle, always whistling. Everyone loved to hear him and they often said they could tell what the time was when they heard Leslie. He worked hard and we always had enough money to be comfortable and to have and do things we wanted, but Dad would never have made a fortune. He spent his money and helped all the 'lame dogs' that came his way. His customers, of course were mainly farmers. Very few of them bothered much about paying their bills and he would never hurry them. Often jobs were done as a favour but Mum could never get anything done!

In the village lived an old man who could barely see. He sold 'Old Moore's Almanac's on the streets of Exeter. I know I was amazed to see him there, I suppose he travelled by bus. He never seemed to have shaved, his head nodded to one side and he was tall and very thin. I always thought of him as the 'Noddy Man'. After my Father's death, we discovered that the old Noddy Man went to the local diary every day for a half a pint of milk, Father paid for it.

There was one young boy who spent a lot of time with my Father. He adored my Father, I suppose he talked to him and treated him kindly. My Mother kept turkeys and chickens behind the Blacksmith's shop. One day there were screams of "Les, Les! Help! Get back you buggers!" The boy was discovered surrounded by turkeys who all had their wattles and feathers raised and were gobbling furiously. I think they were harmless but he had been teasing them and was convinced his end had come!

There was one very memorable occasion in my early years, when The Cossacks came to our village. I was mesmerised, with the other children and adults, I watched the dancers whirling and dancing in their elaborate costumes and high boots, to the strains of music, which was very strange to my ears. The Cossacks were the talk of the village for a long time to come and made a lasting impression on me.

Auntie Ruby and Uncle Bill Buchanan ran the Angel Hotel. 'The Big Room' was used for skittles, dinners, concerts, and whist drives. Auntie Olive and Uncle Bill Vernon ran the Newsagents Business in the Square. Uncle Bill also managed the local branch of Lloyds Bank in a room in the house they owned, which was rented by the Bank. Mrs Culhene, helped by Betty Wray ran the Post Office and Village Store. The Hill family had a Fish and Chip shop where we spent many happy hours, though when we were younger we often nipped around the corner o knock on Bess Crook's door, then run away and hide!

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When I was really young, I can remember taking the Accumulator for the wireless to be charged. Buying milk straight from the Diary, even helping to deliver the milk, measuring it into jugs. Bert Westcott used to travel around to the farms in a pony and trap to collect the eggs. He was a very bad tempered old man but for some reason, he would allow me to go with him.

My earliest friend was Thelma Selley. I spent half my earliest years across the road from May Cottage in the Selley house. They had a farm and The Diary. I watched cream being scalded and separated so I know what 'real' cream is! Thelma left Witheridge and has lived in Australia for many years, but we still keep in touch and I have also retained my friendship with Freda (her sister) and Peter Tout whom I visit when I am in Witheridge, usually to check on the family graves! Thelma and I spent a great deal of time in the Churchyard, and were particularly fascinated by a child's grace upon which was a posy of china flowers under a glass dome. I'm sure that I remember correctly, they were blue and white. I wonder if it is till there and if it would last long today!

Next to the Church was the Vicarage. I have a picture in my mind of a lovely large green lawn and huge trees. We would go across from the school during the War years to feed the rabbits kept in runs on the lawn. On one occasion, I had been lying on the grass and must have been on an ant's nest. When I stood up I was bitten all over my back and spent many uncomfortable hours, scratching! Sadly, the Vicarage is no longer. I don't know who occupies it or what it is used for.

Below the Church School was the School Garden. We all tended our plots and surprisingly I think I learned quite a bit about gardening from that experience, despite the worms stuffed down my back by the boys when Mr Dryer, (the Headmaster) wasn't looking. He also kept bees and we all helped. I must have been stung many times, as my Father also kept bees, so I was amazed to have a severe allergic reaction to a bee sting somewhere around the end of the 1970's, when I went into anaphylactic shock, and almost didn't survive to tell the tale!

Note: Since these jottings were penned my Mother Annie Baker as died.

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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