Tales from the Vale

Stalbridge back in the 60s and 70s … | Tales from the Vale

Stalbridge back in the 60s and 70s was a bustling village. Roughly half the size it is now, the main street was full of shops and we had some great characters. Probably top of the list was Reverend Frederick Saunders (shortened to ‘Derek’) – an eccentric, likeable, scatter-brain of a vicar resembling Alistair Sim, who’s enduring legacy of forgetfulness and haplessness still keeps village elders entertained.

Typically, once a month he trooped us primary school kids, delighted with the diversion from lessons, up to the church, only to find he’d again forgotten the enormous brass key – so we kids would again amuse ourselves among the gravestones while he dashed down to the enormous Rectory just behind the wall by the Stalbridge market cross (officially ‘the finest market cross in Dorset,’ says Hilary Townsend, author and broadcaster), now The Old Rectory Care Home.

Rev Frederick Saunders – Image courtesy of Stalbridge Archive Society

And come the time for his sermon, he’d start to look a bit panicky and search his pockets, a benign smile in place, until it dawned on him that his notes were, again, back at the Rectory, so he’d extemporise in an entertaining way, pretending to refresh his memory by looking at non-existent notes on the lecturn. We all knew he’d forgotten them. He always did.

The Rectory is where I first tasted ginger wine. I was nine and it was at Christmas carols, held in a cavernous room that was definitely a few degrees centigrade below the freezing outside air.  The ‘heating’ came from a minute paraffin stove that absolutely stank.

Rev Saunders drove around in a battered old slide-door dormobile the colour of butterscotch Angel Delight. It was battered and scraped because he was forever driving or reversing into buildings, telegraph posts, walls and the few parked cars there were in a Britain barely out of post-war austerity – rationing didn’t end when we finally clobbered Johnny Hun – it continued for another nine years, ending at midnight 1954.  Some youngsters moan about ‘austerity Britain’ after the financial crisis of 2008 – should have been around for the real austerity and what followed.  

London’s Imperial War Museum, at the very top floor, has a wonderful, nostalgic replica of a 1940s home – stark, barely furnished.  I was overwhelmed by it. That was the house I grew up in.

The Rev Saunders caused much mirth when, on a typical occasion, he drove into the petrol station (still there, and brilliantly run by very friendly staff), went and paid for five quids worth of petrol, then drove away without putting any gas in the tank, then phoned the garage for assistance ten minutes later when his car spluttered to a halt for want of fuel.

On a later occasion, which thrilled the village, he survived accidentally driving off the road up at Thornhill but he was impressed at how his car was efficiently towed out of the field, through a hedge and showed the greatest cooperation with the local policeman, PC Spencer Meacham, who’s son, also Spencer, was a mate of mine.  Yes, we had a village constable who lived opposite The Green in an official ‘police house’ with official police light and notice board. How very Dixon of Dock Green.

Another character was the head of St Mary’s school Geoff Mallet, who lived in Snowdon House in Gold Street, probably one of the loveliest and architecturally distinguished streets in all Dorset.  Worth a slow, appreciative walk up and down.

We school kids liked our headmaster. I had the added advantage of seeing Geoff in a social context as my mother, Audrey Palmer, was an infant teacher at the school and she and my father were friends with Geoff and his rather brisk PE teacher wife, Molly.

I had a particular reason in being friendly with Mr Mallett. I found his daughters Catherine and Celia very agreeable. I’m not sure this was reciprocated.  But then I was 12 years old and girls were a mystery to me.

My father, Jack, worked at what then was Plessey in Templecombe. He and his team designed the world’s first Sonarbuoy – a device for detecting Soviet submarines while they were lurking underwater off Britain’s shores ready for Armageddon.  These were dangerous times and the Cold War was far from cold – the world was at the brink of nuclear war in 1962 when the US detected Soviet missiles being assembled just off the southern US coast in Cuba.  Everyday, while the superpowers had their stand-off, and Khrushchev probably banged his shoe at the UN high table, again, a nuclear strike was widely expected and the phrase on everyone’s lips was ‘the four-minute warning’ – all the notice we’d have before extinction. I do wonder if this is scheduled in when people look dreamily back to the ‘good old days’.

During this time, in the States, a public information campaign told citizens what to do when the strike came. Its slogan was ‘Duck and Cover’ and this came with a catchy little jingle showing seemingly delighted and wholesome Americans easily avoiding nuclear annihilation by …sitting under the dining table. Yep, that would probably do it!

Dad’s job sounded fun. Technically challenging, he’d often go up to Scotland’s west coast, where an RAF Nimrod would drop the sonarbuoys to see if they would detect a Royal Navy submarine that’s ‘gone deep’. He and the other boffins would freeze to death on a bucketing Naval corvette wondering how long it would be before he could go back to the hotel for a hot bath and glass of something strong and peaty.  

There was a lot of interest from senior US military and we often had American naval and army air force officers coming over for dinner at our house at 1 Barrow Hill in Stalbridge – which is now two residences. Looking back, I can see how shocked they were at how frugally the British lived. Their houses stateside were crammed with possessions, colour TVs (unthinkable luxury), stereo hi-fi (I didn’t even know what those were), wonderful furniture, central heating (‘what’s wrong with a coal fire’, I thought) and swimming pools (‘you’re having a laugh, now’)– a level of consumerism decades ahead of us. We didn’t even have a phone at the time or central heating. Dad would spend some time in the US and returned with shopping catalogues and goods that would have us wide-eyed with amazement. He was offered a job in the States, ‘take it, dad,’ I’d cry, hoping I’d eventually find out what a ‘stereo hi-fi’ was,’ and was looking forward to the ‘swimming pool’, but mum liked Stalbridge, so we stayed.

My parents were not impressed when a senior US officer stubbed his cigarette out on his dining plate, after mum, having spent a day teaching, fed her five kids and quickly drummed up a meal for a sudden guest.  When I lived in the South East of England, an acquaintance of mine – a banker – had a wife, who didn’t work – and two kids. And a nanny. And an au-pair. And a cleaner. She found the children ‘exhausting’. I am still amused by that.  

On American manners: years later when I worked in the States I was sitting in a family home and asked if I could go to the ‘refrigerator’ to get another beer. The family shared stares of disbelief at this level of politeness.

Geoff Mallett was a man of enthusiasms. He suddenly felt that the senior kids at the primary school should learn basic French. It was obvious that no teachers knew the language, so Geoff was horrified (I later found out) that he had to do it himself.  That wasn’t the PLAN. He’d stare incomprehensibly at a text book in his desk drawer, which he clearly believed was unseen by us pupils, as he hammed his inaccurate way barely one-step ahead of his charges.

He also had a sudden passion for teaching Algebra. One of my mates, clearly ahead of Billy Connolly, said, ‘why should we learn algebra, Sir,  I’m never going to go there.’ My mate was serious. He thought the French was enough.

There was one teacher I really liked, Mr Head.  He was considerate, enthusiastic and obsessed with fishing and hunting. He was brought up by his grandfather who worked on the Sherborne Castle estate and gave him a love of the outdoor life.

Years later, when I bought a cottage in Dorset I found that John Head, long-retired, had been head teacher at Bishops Caundle school, so I went to see the head teacher who put us in touch. We arranged to meet at the White Hart close to the school. I was so excited. So, 42 years after I last saw the teacher I really respected, in walked John Head and his lovely wife Sally. I’d have recognized him.  I couldn’t not call him ‘Sir’, despite him entreating me to call him John. I just had to call him ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr Head’. That’s how I thought of him for nearly half a century.

However, both John and Sally looked rather subdued.

A few months later Sally mailed me that John had died. Just before coming to meet us, and I mean their previous appointment, they had learnt that John had terminal cancer. What courage and kindness they had in still coming along and listening and smiling patiently to me reminiscing.

After the primary school, we older kids queued for the bus which took us to Sturminster Newton High School – a good, strict school with excellent academic standards. A few years later I went to Weymouth Grammar School which was astonishingly lax by comparison.

At Stur HS, we had to call female teachers ‘ma’am’ which felt grown-up and rather American, and I wasn’t the only one that I liked it. The maths teacher, a Scot, Mrs Warren, we knew as ‘Haggis’, was very strict and an excellent teacher, showing us how to do quadrilateral equations, which amazed my new teacher at the Grammar school. I was a year ahead of other 13 year-olds at the Grammar, I believe.

The French teacher Mrs Minnear was the mother of Kerry Minnear, then a relatively famous progressive rock musician in the band Gentle Giant. Knowing of some kids’ interest in the genre she generously invited a group to her home when Kerry was visiting.  He was very kind and awed kids with stories of how albums (as they were then called) were made.  He was pushed to open up about other aspects of a rock star’s life, but with his mum looking on pretended not to know what was being asked.

The geography teacher, Mr Newton, I believe he had had a particularly ghastly time as a prisoner of war, I’ve an inkling in Burma or Thailand, chain-smoked cigarettes during lessons.  Oh, that dreamy past.

Our form teacher had been a rear-gunner in a Lancaster – he was lucky to survive. Roughly 55,000 young men in Bomber Command died, and the rear gunners were usually the first to go.

All in all, both my first schools were happy places for kids.

One rainy November evening in the late 60s, two young scamps from the primary school, knowing that a meeting was being held in Stalbridge church, crept through the gloomy damp entrance, and in true French resistance style, threw fireworks in before scampering away in a state of great rebellious excitement. One of them was Brian Trevis, who’s dad farmed down Station Road – the farm’s now a housing estate. I can’t tell you who the other imp was, but I caught a dreadful cold that night. Bloody good fun, though.

Box this

Rationing in WWII

The first job I had after university (after a summer in the Pocono mountains, Pennsylvania, teaching teenage girls to windsurf) was to head the education department in a Sussex military museum, Fort Newhaven, similar to the Nothe Fort in Weymouth.

I knew that boys would enthuse over the guns and tanks etc, but wanted females to be interested too.  So, apart from getting a display of women’s fashions from 1914 to 1945, and female military uniforms (the girls particularly admired the WREN officers uniform, and do you know what, so did I) I got the art department to mock-up a typical adults’ weekly ration – which included a 57 gram blob of butter, four thin slices of ham and bacon, 227g of gristly minced beef, 57g of tea, 57g of cheese and, wait for it, one egg.  

Get out the kitchen scales and see how many feasts you’d get from 57g of cheese!

The school children I took round this fascinating display could not believe what their grandparents had to put up with.  And they’d return with parents and their parents, all paying the hefty entrance fee. What a marketing genius I could have been!

By the one and only Andrew Palmer BA (Hons) accredited windsurf instructor with the Royal Yachting Association (this is true) and the best guitar teacher in Mappowder (this probably is true) – who’s just done the Times cryptic in three minutes (definitely a big fat lie) and who yesterday made perfect Yorkshire puddings, although he did burn his poor wee arm getting them out of the oven. He also par-boiled thinly cut parsnips, drained them, coated them with honey, fresh thyme and a little salt and roasted them next to the beef (Rawlston’s farm) and whose wife said ‘they is the tops, blud. Respect’.

Andy Palmer

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