David Gibbs’ Anecdotes (continued)
There came a time when the simple pleasures of the countryside were no longer enough for the boys of the village. As we grew older we needed to be organised. Fortunately, two men in particular came to our rescue.
The first one was Bill Andrews, a Welshman, who came to work in the village at Merriott Mouldings Ltd. He organised the 1st Merriott Troop of boy scouts, with a supporting wolf cub pack. I believe this must have been about 1944 or 1945 and the troop continued for a number of years thereafter.
Most village boys were members of the scouts or cubs, according to their age. I believe the uniform had much to do with it. We were so excited as the various items – shirt, shoulder flashes, scarves and woggles – individually became available, presumably as the funds allowed them to be purchased.
I was originally a wolf cub where I proudly rose to the rank of senior sixer. As a cub, I remember taking part in an Armistice Sunday church parade. Leading the parade was the Crewkerne Grammar School Air Training Corps bugle band. Behind them, led by their white-gloved standard bearers, were the ranks of the members of the Merriott branch of the British Legion, medals proudly on display. Then came the scouts, followed by the cubs. Finally, came two or three special constables keeping us in check. We marched from Knapp, via Lower Street, to All Saint’s Church. Then, after the service, we marched back down to Knapp via Broadway. (For the record, I do not recall an Armistice parade that included the local Home Guard, Air Raid Protection Wardens (ARP), or the members of the Red Cross. I know these organisations existed in the village during the war years but perhaps they had been disbanded by the time I was a wolf cub.)
At the age of eleven, I transferred from the cubs to the scouts and it is the scouting activities that I can best remember.
We met once a week, the venue being a wartime Nissan hut in the orchard next to the tithe barn, opposite the church. This hut had originally been a cookhouse for the American soldiers who were stationed in the village prior to D-Day. Part of this structure remained standing until 1999.
We partook in all the usual scouting activities such as first aid and tying knots. On summer evenings we went tracking across the fields, or learnt to cook flower-and-water twists, on sticks, over campfires. We later ate these twists, washed down with smoky cocoa poured from sooty billycans into enamel mugs. All this was supposedly in training for our big objective, to ‘go away’ camping.
Initially we were somewhat limited with regard to camping as the only tent available was a WWI ex-army bell tent that some village worthy had donated for our use, but it did provide the nucleus for our first major camping expedition. This was at the foot of Castle Hill, a prominent landmark some two miles from the village. The bell tent, a couple of very small ridge tents, and a miscellany of other gear, including food and our blankets, were excitedly transported to the site on a very ancient, overloaded vicarage handcart. (It fell to pieces on the return journey a few days later.)
Skip slept in one of the small ridge tents; the other was used as a food store. The rest of us slept in a circle, shoulder to shoulder, feet to the central tent pole of the bell tent. There was great excitement; most of us had never slept away from home before.
We were told to bring just two blankets each. A friend of mine from a very poor family had only one, and even that was rather thin. We pooled our resources and made a double bed from our three blankets. In terms of being warm in the middle of the night, this was very much at my expense.
With the exception of a bulk purchase of loaves from the village bakery, we all brought food from home, including fresh vegetables from our gardens – practically every household grew their own vegetables in those days and various tinned stuff. A typical hot meal would consist of boiled potatoes plus a mixture of the contents of many tins – various soups, beans, processed peas, stewed steak and goodness knows what else – all poured into a large billycan and heated over the camp fire. It tasted wonderful. There was never enough.
The occasion the photograph above records is the official handing over to the troop of four large ridge tents. These had been purchased by money donated by the shipmates of Mr and Mrs Webb’s only son, Harry Trevor Webb. He was a leading airman in the Fleet Air Arm and was killed at sea in I944 when he was just 21 years of age. His name is included on the village war memorial in All Saints churchyard.
Apparently Trevor, as he was known, had been a scout in his earlier years. On the red pole of each tent there was a brass plaque inscribed: To The Memory Of Scout Trevor Webb’ followed by the years in which he was born and later died in the service of his country.
These four tents and a miscellany of other equipment purchased with the donated money meant our camping activities were greatly enhanced. For instance, one cold and wet Easter weekend we took part in a district competition camp on the Windwhistle estate, near Chard. We didn’t win, but we had a wonderful time competing.
The second man to whom a good number of village lads had reason to be thankful was another outsider, Mr Manning. He was for a time the secretary of the local football club but in particular he organised a youth team in which l played. We played in the Perry Street and District Youth league and were quite successful. We were runners up in the league in the 1950/51 season and went on to win the league in 1951/52.
Football was essentially a winter game in those days, the season being much shorter than it is now. Thus in the summer there was very little sporting activity in the village – no cricket, no tennis, no swimming. But there was bowls.
The village had a new bowling green. It was laid down in the late 1940s as a memorial to the men who lost their lives in the WW2. My father was working for Scott’s Nurseries at the time and helped to construct it. So eventually l tried my hand at bowls, with some success. l reached the final of the Novices’ Cup. In the final l had to play a man called Clifford Foot. He was older than me, in his early thirties perhaps. At the time l thought he was much older and as the game progressed l felt sorry that l, the young upstart, was winning. l eased back, he won. In the photograph above, Clifford is being presented with the cup whilst behind him l look on. Also in the picture is my mother who is holding my nephew, Christopher Durant and my sister Florrie. At the far right is a neighbour, Sam Burgess. At that time, he maintained the bowling green in pristine condition, purely on a voluntary basis, and it was he who encouraged me to take up bowling. On my wedding day, just as I was about to leave home, he gave me this advice: ‘Remember David, both get hold of the same end of the rope and pull in the same direction’. We did Sam, we did.
For some years after I was married, whenever I visited my parents which was quite regularly, I often popped next door to have a quick chat with Sam and his wife Alice who were now elderly and not in the best of health. I’d knock the back door, call out ‘Anybody home?’ and then walk right in, just as I had always done. It was always a pleasure to see them and sit by their fire and have a chat.
They both spoke with strong Somerset accents and Alice in particular used snatches of local dialect and a manner of speaking that was unique to older Merriott people at that time. ‘What be you doing now then, Dave?’ she enquired one day when I was in my early thirties. ‘I’m lecturing Alice’ I said, ‘in a college in Berkshire’. There was a brief silence. Then looking me straight in the eye as though in total disbelief she said ‘You baint Dave?’ Another short silence as she held my gaze and then she said ‘Dave, you be a credit to the village, you be true!’ It was a response I have never forgotten. That the community in which you grew up might possibly be proud of such a modest achievement was indeed flattering. I doubt if it was actually the case for even by that time the type of close-knit rural village community that Alice had known all her life, and which she still cherished in her heart, was rapidly disappearing. It has since vanished completely.
© David Gibbs 2003