Harpenden – Early Memories

From 1937 to 1941

My early memories of Harpenden are idyllic. It was a tranquil Hertfordshire village, undisturbed by the bustle of London just to the south. Our family lived there from 1937 to 1941. I was aged 3 1/4 to 7. My sister Gillian was three years younger. Dad worked at the Vauxhall factory in Luton four miles north.

We lived at 1 (or maybe 4), Hollybush Lane. It was a large corner house, divided into flats. We rented the ground-floor flat and garden.

We walked a lot. We walked to the village forge and peeped in to see big carthorses being shod, nails hammered into red-hot horseshoes, the smoke of singeing hoofs.

We walked along the Church Green to the village toyshop, where I looked wistfully through the window at toy sheep and cows made of lead. Might I use my pocket-money, 3d per week?

The winter occasionally brought snow. Our Dad made a wooden sledge. Our parents built us a snowman. The next day, the snow turned wet and didn’t last. The sledge refused to slide. The snowman disintegrated before our eyes.

We walked to Harpenden Common for the Easter fair and circus. Brightly covered vans arrived, and up went the Big Tent. We queued up for the circus: clowns pouring out of a taxi; ladies riding horses bareback; high-wire trapeze artists.

Outside, we stared spellbound at fairground attractions: coconut shies; hit-the-bell; horse rides; fortune-tellers; bumper cars.

We walked to the Rothamsted Estate, two miles from our home. Rothamsted is the world’s oldest continuous agricultural research station, dating from 1843. The walking trails still exist, well shown on its website.

We visited the River Lea nearby to see the watercress beds. En route we crossed the ancient ford at Westfield Road. I read there’s now a bridge instead, and the area has been made a Nature Reserve with a riverside trail.

We walked to Harpenden Station to watch the trains, steam-powered in those days. I recall standing on the platform, waving to the engine-driver and his waving back. Here’s a photo in evidence. Was this the start of my wanderlust to see distant places?

Here’s a similar photo two years later – gazing at a passenger tank locomotive. Steam had magic. I wanted to be an engine-driver. I became an economist instead.

On occasion, we took the train to St Pancras, thence the Underground to Ealing, to visit our grandparents. Once or twice, we took the Nickey Line train just for fun. The locomotive pushed and pulled just one coach along the single-track from Harpenden to Hemel Hempstead. On Sundays we used to walk along the track (no trains that day). The line closed in 1979 and is now a fine-looking footpath. Its history is preserved by Friends of the Nickey Line.

One day, aged 4 3/4, I walked down Hollybush Lane with Mum for my first day at school: new black shoes, socks, grey shorts, blazer. I’ve still got the straw hat, though it no longer fits. Hardenwick School flourished in Harpenden from 1898 to 1966 before moving elsewhere.

I remember at school playing triangle in the percussion lesson; learning to form letters; learning to read and write. My hand-writing has never been so good as then. We had a lovely young lady-teacher!

Then came the War. I recall George VI’s historic broadcast on the 3rd of September 1939. The family gathered around the wireless. I was told to keep quiet and listen. Britain was at war! A few days later we were all issued gas-masks. That was the last time we used them, as there were fortunately no gas attacks. For months, life was peaceful. It was the so-called Phoney War.

Our mother started growing our own vegetables. potatoes, tomatoes, marrows, peas, runner beans. We ‘helped’ in the garden in our own fashion; the spade was so heavy! We received evacuees George and Tony, children from Enfield, who stayed several months before returning home. The Vauxhall factory switched from cars to tanks.

In August 1940, the war began in earnest with an air-raid on the Vauxhall plant, the first of several. My Dad worked there as a design engineer. He had been visiting another wing of the factory when the bombs fell. More than 30 employees died, including his boss’s secretary; many more were injured. He only told us of the raid when he was in his 90s. Our mother was taken aback; apparently, she hadn’t known.We got used to the sound of the air-raid siren. Our parents were always very calm and matter-of-fact. Dad designed and excavated a concrete air-raid shelter beneath the garden. I remember the excitement when we all descended its steps and explored it for the first time. I recall too the smell of new cement.

The shelter had two bunks. My younger sister and I shared the top one. Dad made a wooden separator to stop us kicking each other. Initially the family trooped out of the house every night to sleep there. After a time, we no longer did so.Dad’s cousin Harry visited more than once from his RAF airfield. Harry allowed me to wear his hat and flying jacket. Alas his plane went missing over Germany in 1943.

Harpenden Common was a favourite walk. One day we saw a Messerschmitt fighter plane that had evidently crash-landed. We went to have a look. It had a bent propeller. I hoped the pilot was all right. I’m puzzled to find no reference online.

In the summer of 1941, we moved to Kingston-on-Thames. Dad had a new job. Later we moved to Ealing.

Living now in Canada, I’ve not seen Harpenden since. I hope to visit at last this summer with my wife Millie for a nostalgic walk down memory lane, aided by the Harpenden Local History Society’s magnificent website.

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