Vol 1 Chapter 13
Thanks to the war, most of us were living from day to day, with no thought for the future. Children especially have this approach to life even under normal circumstances, but during wartime adults think and act the same way. My mother was a classic example of a person who approached life by ignoring it, by taking the least line of resistance. She had very little adjustment to make when adapting to this wartime mentality. She rarely ventured far from home, except for trips to Rhyl to stay with her sister Nin. Mind you I do remember a day out to Rudyard Lake, one day in spring; it would have been about 1943/44. I was ill with Mumps, and was still having great difficulty swallowing, when my mother decided that I was well enough for a day out. We caught the bus to Leek a small market town about 12 miles north of the Potteries, and then changed to a local bus which would take us another two miles or so to the lake which was a very popular beauty spot.
I was not in a good condition to enjoy myself, but I do recall being distracted by a brawl in the market square at Leek. We were sitting in the local bus waiting to depart for Rudyard, around us were numerous American Servicemen looking for a pub or some other form of amusement on a Saturday afternoon. Much to our alarm a fight began between a group of white Americans and another group who were black. Within a few minutes a jeep full of American Military Police arrived, and they wasted no time restoring order. Their methods appeared both violent and uncivilized, wading into the fighting soldiers with long thick batons, similar in size to a baseball club. It was quite a shock to the local people to witness this sort of behaviour. Those of us on the bus were especially shocked as the mob of fighting men milled around us. I had a window seat, which put me up close and personal with the scene around the bus. I shall never forget how close some of these combatants were to me, and how frightening it was to see real live violence first hand. There was no attempt by the MPs to calm the situation, they just hit out indiscriminately with all their strength, and the damage they did was extreme. The blood and the injuries were not a pretty sight, but it has to be said, that they stopped the fight very quickly indeed.
With the excitement over and the market square cleared, the bus departed, chugging its way to Rudyard through a peaceful landscape, with nothing around us more dangerous than the odd bumble bee, or maybe a black and white bull I saw in a field outside the town. When we arrived at the lake we found that the most popular entertainment was to take a row boat out for an hour, but I was not well enough for that. To pass the time we went to a tea shop instead, where somehow my mother managed to coax a soft boiled egg out of the staff for her unhappy son with the swollen glands. Normally this would have been a treat indeed, but I could not enjoy it with swallowing such a painful task. At the time I thought the experience of being so hungry and not being able to eat the most unbearable torture I could imagine.
I may not have enjoyed my visit to Rudyard Lake very much, but it did provide me with another destination that I would visit again. There were many attractive places in and around the Potteries, and I enjoyed most of them thanks to my trusty bicycle. I can recall sightseeing at Wetly Rocks, picnicking in the woods at Weston Coyney, and picking bilberries on Barlaston Downs. I discovered chestnuts at Stone, in the woods along the road to Stafford, and historical sites were also included in my adventures, like the stocks at Caverswall. Most of these places were only a few miles away and well within my range, and most of these journeys I made alone.
In May 1945 Germany surrendered and the whole world went wild with joy. I suppose we imagined that overnight our lives would change, and happy times would return; well I can remember having that sort of feeling at the time. Even for the adults it must have been a disappointment that Japan did not give up the fight immediately, but showed what fanatics they were by continuing the war against overwhelming odds. Rationing continued, and did so for some years after the war ended, but finally there was a reason to celebrate, rationing or not. Out came the flags, and bunting was strung from house to house, and street parties were held all over the country. All semblance of control disappeared, and there were demonstrations of euphoria; the celebrations we much more subdued the following August when the war really ended with the defeat of Japan.
The residents of Broad Street agreed that the person best qualified to take charge of our street party was my Aunty Jin. She was well known and respected, the daughter of the councillor who had been responsible for building the houses in which we lived. What was even more important, she was known to be the best cook in town. For a number of days the neighbours came knocking on her door at number 99, with whatever they could afford to contribute towards the feast, which my Aunt now began to prepare. I found the scene at my Aunt’s house impossible to resist, I had never seen so much food in my life. There were mountains of sandwiches, and not just dripping or margarine, but ham and salmon and all those wonderful things we had not seen for years. There were savouries and pastries, jellies and trifles, a feast fit for a king, enough to feed the five thousand, or so it appeared to me. My aunt excelled herself, but could not have done so without the vital ingredients. Where had all this food come from, much of it not even available legitimately or legally since the war had begun in 1939? At the time, no one asked this question, and who cared any way, the important thing was that everyone had given their secret reserves in a spirit of community love. When you think of the years of deprivation they had just experienced this was truly a wonderful thing.
On the day trestle tables were erected down the middle of the street, and out of the houses came tablecloths, cutlery, everything required for the feast. The benches were soon full of people, I don’t know how many, but it looked a considerable number. Everyone was determined to enjoy themselves which they certainly did, every face looked happy, and the children could not contain themselves in their excitement. The food was the main attraction of course, but there was entertainment as well. Aunty Jin, who was a thin wiry lady of elderly years, appeared in a large raincoat in which she had stuffed a cushion to enhance her feminine charms. Prancing up and down around the tables, she clowned about causing all sorts of hilarity. I for one had never seen anything like it before, this dignified aunt of mine acting like the class buffoon, but we loved it. I had my part to play also, it fell to me to provide music on my accordion, and this also was a great success. I had played in public before and being in the presence of friends I soon began to relax and enjoy myself. Soon we had a full-scale concert going, with many of the audience joining in and singing all the old favourites, which I made sure to play.
I was still taking music lessons at this time, and my teacher being asked, occasionally, to provide music for various entertainments, selecting me for this honour a couple of times. On one occasion I attended a performance of the ‘Messiah’ at a local church, and during the intermission stood before the alter, with my music stand in front of me, and played ‘Barcarolle’ from the Tales of Hoffman. That was the only time I ever used music when I played, usually I played from memory, and eventually I abandoned the music all together. Usually I was very popular when I performed, and fondly imagined it was my skill that made me so. I have to confess I never asked for, or received payment for my services, and that might have had something to do with it. Another performance about this time that helped to deflate my ego was one that I gave at a meeting of ‘The Grand Order of Buffalos.’ After I had played a little girl who was about 7/8 years old, was called on to sing by her father, who was the president or some such important functionary. She had a squeaky thin voice, and I couldn’t believe it when she fetched the house down, and encores were called for, from her, not from me.
It never occurred to me at the time, but when Germany surrendered in May 1945, I should have expected my father to return home from Italy soon afterwards. Being an officer and part of the supply system of the army, he probably had a lot of loose ends to tie up before he could leave his post. He did tell me, at a later date, that he was offered a promotion to Major Quartermaster in the newly formed Mercia Brigade. This was to be the new military area covering the North Midlands, and his position would have had considerable benefits attached. He would have had his own private house away from the usual military establishments, and there would have been a place for me at the prestigious public school in or near to Lichfield, called the King Edward School for boys. My father never had to explain his actions to anyone, particularly to his son, so I never discovered why he decided to refuse this impressive offer. Whatever his reasons, before the end of the year arrived he had been demobilised and returned home.
Shortly after the Japanese surrender in August, my father’s brother Albert arrived home, and looking back it is strange that he should have travelled all the way from the Far East, arrived home before my father did. When the war began Albert had become a band sergeant, and transferred to the South Staffordshire Regiment, serving under General Slim who was the much respected leader of the Fourteenth Army in Burma. I never knew anything about Albert’s experiences during the war, but I do recall that he came home via the USA, arriving with goodies and luxuries I had never seen before. He had tins of pipe tobacco, which he had bought for his brother, and the biggest box of chocolates I had ever seen in my life. It was called a ‘Candy Cupboard’ and must have had two or three lbs of confectionary in it.
Albert did not stay with us long; he had his own home and wife awaiting him, at Gailey just South of Penkridge. One further memory I have to recount before I continue with my narrative was the unconventional method he used to dissuade me from smoking. Coming into the parlour he found me examining the tins of tobacco meant for my father. Realising what a temptation they must have been for a boy of 12, he asked me if I wanted to try a pipe. There was a rack of pipes on the mantel piece over the fire place, and inviting me to select the pipe of my choice, he commenced to fill it with the excellent St Bruno flake from the tins. Needing little encouragement I was soon puffing away with great enthusiasm and before much time had elapsed I began to feel the effects of the tobacco. The lesson Albert taught me may have been unconventional but it was certainly effective. I had never felt so sick in my life, and never touched tobacco again until I joined the army myself in 1950.
Not long after Albert departed, my father arrived home, and life began to change radically for all of us. I have mentioned previously that my mother had her third son Douglas in July 1946 so it is clear that the first thing my father did when he arrived home was make his wife pregnant. I suppose the next thing in order of importance was to get a job, and this he did by becoming an accounts clerk at the offices of the MEB (Midlands Electricity Board.) After 27 years in the army my father was finally a civilian again. I have already mentioned that after Douglas was born, we moved from Broad Street, Fenton, to a new Council house at Blurton. A few months later we had moved back to Fenton to another council house at 101 Stanier Street, which had a back gate immediately opposite the back gate of my Aunty Jin’s house in Broad Street.
Another memory I have of the end of the war, was a huge picnic that was organised for all the schoolchildren of the city. This took place after Japan had surrendered, and the large and very popular Trentham Gardens was the venue. The whole of this area was originally part of the estate of the Duke of Cumberland, and Trentham Park, which was adjacent to the Gardens, was another popular destination for summer picnics and other outings by city dwellers from all over the Midlands. The main attraction was the Gardens which had been developed to attract visitors, and it was not often during the summer months that you would find it quiet. Entry was through some very large and ornate gates where turn styles had been installed. For a small fee you could enter and enjoy all the pleasures that were provided.
The first thing the visitor found was some very impressive formal gardens, and a large artificial lake which was over a mile long, and several hundred yards wide. The original stables were still accessible, and over a mile away, on a ridge covered in woods was a statue of the Duke, which looked out over the countryside all of which had once been his. Developers had bought the estate and added many more attractions. There were beautifully made rowing boats which one could hire for trips on the lake, plus a motor launch which took sightseers for a trip down the lake, without the physical effort of rowing. The lake was stocked with fish and good fishing was available, from a boat or from the bank, not to mention two islands part way down the lake. A real novelty was a miniature railway, which had several engines, exact replicas of famous engines still in use on the rail systems of Britain. The rail track ran the length of the lake, and near its terminus there was a station where passengers could alight for a visit to the modern and attractive open air swimming pool, which was set in the woods just above the lake. In the summer this magical spot was always crowded with visitors, who often spent the whole day swimming and sunbathing. This location transported the working class people, who were the main customers, from their usual grimy homes, in both mind and body, to a place that to them was akin to a visit to Hollywood, or the South of France.
Perhaps the most impressive attraction of all at Trentham Gardens was the enormous ballroom, which held regular dances and entertainments, drawing people from all over the country. It was also a popular venue for private functions because it could accommodate such a large number of people. In addition to dancing, there were large kitchens, which provided a range of food, from snacks and buffets, to full dinners of the highest quality. During the day the guests could play tennis or bowls, and there was even a very attractive archery range, for those that enjoyed that sort of thing. I describe this place in some detail because it features in my story again at a later stage.
In the meantime let me return to the school picnic during which time most of the schoolchildren from Stoke-on-Trent enjoyed a warm summers day in this beautiful setting. On entering the main gates we were given a bag of sandwiches, and a bottle of fizzy drink each. It must have taken considerable time and planning to transport all these children and to provide refreshments for them, but as is often the case on such occasions, small but important things can be forgotten. Our bottles of pop had metal caps, and no one had thought to provide some means of opening them. So here you had literally thousands of children of all ages, wandering around on a hot summer day, frustrated because they had a fizzy drink and could not enjoy it. Some of the older children found a way of getting these frustrating caps of the bottles, but many still had their unopened bottles at the end of the day, when it was time to go home.
This occasion of the inaccessible drink bottles remains in my memory because I can recall what fun I had with two or three other boys, as a result of our predicament. We were sitting on a park bench nursing our rapidly warming, and much shaken bottles, when I noticed that the arms of the bench had a row of small spikes on them. Thinking I might be able to make a hole in the cap, through which I could drink my mineral water, I upended the bottle and drove it down onto one of the spikes. The result was a very small hole, which produced a fine jet of liquid, which squirted for some distance under the pressure from within the bottle. My pals followed my lead, and for the next half an hour or so we sat and sprayed passersby with our drinks of various flavours. I can still remember that my drink was Vimpto which was a very popular drink at the time; it was dark red and tasted of ripe cherries. Having shared my popular beverage with numerous passing children, I then wandered off to find a water fountain where I had a long refreshing drink of Adams Ale, as my father used to call it; or sometimes Corporation Pop.
When the war ended in 1945 I was 12 years old, and within a few months some goods were available once again, including new bicycles. Needless to say, a new bike was one of those things that a boy just had to have, and before my father arrived home from the war I got what I wanted. Another thing that appeared on the market was pianos, and my mother decided she would get one of those as well. Apparently some enterprising manufacturer discovered a supply of piano frames somewhere in Europe; they were of German manufacture I believe. By making the cases himself he was able to market new pianos under the name ‘Brinsmead’ and for the grand sum of £115 one could be ours. My mother had an emergency fund provided by my father, and so I had a pianoforte to play, with music lessons included. I had been having music lessons on the piano accordion, so it was an easy matter to change over to this new instrument. When my father arrived home a short time afterwards he hit the roof when he found most of the reserve fund had been spent. I can hear him now angrily demanding an explanation, to which my mother calmly replied: “God will provide.” My father’s response was something like: “I am the one that is providing, not God.”
I think it was on my birthday that I became the proud owner of a new sports bike. You can imagine it, blue with drop handlebars, a narrow racing saddle, a Sturmi-Archer five speed gear change, and all the bells and whistles. My old bike was a standard black sit up and beg machine, with a spring loaded Terry saddle and no gears. A good bicycle mind you, but not a patch on my new one. How my confidence soared when I speeded along so effortlessly on my new steed. No destination was beyond my reach, or so I thought. It was not long before I persuaded a couple of my friends that it would be a great adventure if we were to cycle to Rudyard Lake. This we did, though to achieve my goal I had to provide two of the three bicycles we used.
For a boy with no bike my old ‘Phillips’ must have looked like a real treat, and one of my friends named Raymond Biggs was more than happy to have the use of it. Our outward trip went very well, and we made good time along the quiet country roads. We enjoyed our visit to the lake, and then set off to return home via a different route. Being leader of the expedition I had worked out an alternative which would take us up out of the valley in which the lake was situated. The plan was to head around in a circular direction to the West, across Biddulph Moor and back home again. The first mile or two was a steep climb up a twisting lane through the woods along the Rudyard valley. After this hard start we were ready for the thrill of the downwards run out onto the open moor, with its rocky outcrops of sandstone, and its solid stone walls round every field. Such walls are a feature of this part of the country, and are to be found everywhere from the Midlands all the way to Scotland.
Like all young lads we had little awareness of possible danger, so it will come as no surprise that we let our devil may care state of mind run away with our common sense. We charged off down the hillside racing each other with reckless abandon, this was more exciting than pedalling sedately along like old ladies going to a picnic. With the much better bicycle I was soon in the lead, not realising that my companions were obliged to take ever increasing risks trying to keep up with me. The country lane we were following was still very winding at this point, and when we came to an unexpected hairpin bend in the road, disaster struck. Raymond on the older clumsier machine found himself unable to brake or manoeuvre quickly enough to get around the bend, so the accident that was inevitable happened. Hearing a crash I turned to discover that poor old Ray had gone headlong into the stone wall. The bike could go no further, but its rider sailed on through the air, taking a headlong dive into the field. Luckily my companion was not badly hurt, suffering only a couple of bruises and a somewhat dented pride. The bicycle was not so lucky; it had a slightly buckled front wheel, and bent handlebars. After some repairs it was possible to get the damaged bike moving again, though riding it was not going to be an easy task. Feeling sorry for himself and somewhat shaken Raymond declared that he could not make it home on the damaged bicycle, so once again I found myself obliged to shoulder the responsibilities of leadership. Being leader I had to ride the damaged machine home and my happy outing turned into a difficult endurance test. It was quite some time before long distance rides were considered again, though a year or so later I began to venture forth training for my next big venture, a ride of 73 miles all the way to Rhyl to spend a few days with my Aunt Nin and Uncle Bill.
When I formed the plan for this more adventurous venture, I had in mind a similar trip to the one we had made to Rudyard Lake, which ended so disastrously. Researching the route we would use, I persuaded the same two friends to travel in the direction we would take in readiness for the big adventure. We went on several explorations, each one a little further until we almost reached Nantwhich. You might think this was showing an excess of caution, but I would remind the reader that the war had only just ended, and there were still no signposts to direct the unfamiliar traveller on his way. From the very beginning my colleagues showed signs of reluctance to face the risks of such a long journey. I tried various incentives to gain their co-operation, including the attractions of a free holiday at Rhyl, but eventually there was no holding them, and they pulled out.
Having said I would make this trip, there was nothing would make me change my mind. Apart from anything else, I could not lose face; I had a reputation to uphold. On a Saturday morning in the summer of maybe 1947, I set off at the crack of dawn, which was about 5 am. It was cold and on the downhill run from Fenton to Stoke I had no work to do, so for this early part of my journey my knees knocked against the crossbar of my bike. This was more than enough incentive to get me working hard, and I found myself flying along empty roads at a very good speed. Out through Newcastle I sped, and it was not until I reached the long slow hill called Keel Bank by the locals that I began to slow down. Looking ahead the road appeared flat, which made me stop and examine my machine, thinking that something was catching and slowing me down. No, all was well then looking back the way I had come, I could see that I was actually climbing quite a steep gradient.
Later I learned that this hill was notorious in the winter for trapping vehicles unable to make it to the top because of ice and snow. I read in the local paper that a farmer living adjacent to this piece of road, made a handsome profit every winter by towing stranded cars to the top of Keel hill with his tractor. The story went that he never asked for payment for this service, but the people he helped were always so grateful for his kindness, that they never failed to give him a large reward. In 1949 a new university was established at this location, and gradually the road system was changed. Maybe the farmer lost his lucrative winter earner when these changes took place?
On I went at a smart pace, and it no time at all I found myself approaching Nantwhich, where I had to take a road skirting the town, setting me on my way to Chester. In later years I was to make this journey many times, and should mention that at this location there was a large public house called the ‘The Red Lion’ and it became one of the places we would use as a refreshment stop, when travelling this route. Not on this occasion of course, and I pressed on feeling good, with no interest in my packet of sandwiches or bottle of cold Ovaltine, which I imagined would sustain me on my long journey. Every place was strange to me as I moved along; though I noticed landmarks that would become familiar to me when I repeated this trip many times in later years, though not on a bicycle.
The road I was following appeared to be through open country, I did not know that I was passing close to a number of villages. Most of my previous visits to Rhyl had been made by train, which I was to use many more times, until I became the owner of my first motor vehicle. For as long as I can remember the train we used was the daily service from Derby to Llandudno, which ran in both directions as a passenger and postal delivery service. To begin with it did its work stopping at all the small stations, but later it became an express which called at the main station only. I can hear the announcers’ voice even now, as the train stood in the various stations. Informing us that this train from Derby, called at Sudbury, Tutbury, Longton, Fenton, Stoke, Alsager, Kidsgrove, Crewe, Tarpoley, Tarvin, Beeston Castle, Chester, Queensferry, Flint, Hollywell, Prestatyn, Rhyl, Abergele, Colwyn Bay, and finally Llandudno. My cycle ride did not follow the railway line, but I did pass close to Tarpoley, and Tarvin, on the road to Chester. I also passed a large stately country inn called the ‘Beeston Arms’ and it was at about this point that I decided to drink by flask of cold Ovaltine. I was not thirsty you understand, it was my plan to do so at this stage of my journey, so that is what I did.
The weather was fine and there was no wind to speak of, and I continued to make good speed. There was no way I was going to stop to eat sandwiches, but the cold drink I gulped down while still on the move. This proved to be a mistake, because when the cold liquid arrived in my hot stomach, I began to get stomach cramp. Already bent low over the racing handlebars of my bike, I stayed in that position as I pushed onwards towards Chester. This was the half way mark on my journey, and by the time I got there my cramps had ceased, and I went barrelling on down the main street, under the Roman wall with its large clock, which said it was 7am or there about. After a sharp turn to the left I passed the racecourse and set off out of the city towards North Wales. The main road used by most of the traffic was the inland road, which was new and reasonably straight, but went up and down like a switchback. The old coast road was flat, following the railway line through villages that were long established and that was the way to go for a boy on bike. It was also the preferred route for a large tanker, which overtook me on the straight which ran past the aircraft factory at Broughton, a couple of miles outside Chester. This tanker was big, heavy and slow, with a large round sign on the back which warned other traffic that its maximum speed was thirty miles per hour. It was a dirty looking machine covered in a black residue, from which I concluded that it was carrying tar, or pitch, or something of that nature. Putting on my best speed I closed up behind, finding the vacuum it created a great help. It was a risky thing to do, but I was a boy of 14 with all the reckless ignorance that this class possesses. With my front wheel only inches away from the back fender, I was delighted when I realised that I was being sucked along the road with very little effort on my part. I was travelling at something like 25 miles an hour at least, and yet I was almost freewheeling most of the time.
For the next 20/25 miles I enjoyed the advantage I had, but I never dropped my guard, being well aware that any sudden change of speed would endanger me. Passing through Queensferry, Flint, and Hollywell, I knew I was near to Prestatyn, which was only four miles short of my destination. It was time I decided, not to tempt fate any longer, dropping back, I allowed the tanker to slowly pull away and disappear into the distance. I did not own a watch so time was not something I was able to record on my epic journey, but I am sure it was not yet 9am, when I wheeled my cycle into the back yard of Plas-Collen, at Bath Street, Rhyl.
Being the summer, it must have been the school holidays, when I made the big ride to Rhyl. For at least a couple of weeks I enjoyed all the pleasures of the seaside, doing all the things that a boy liked to do. Now the war was over the holiday makers had returned with a vengeance. The town was packed with a happy throng, determined to have a good time. The beach was one of the towns’ attractions being the best on the coast of North Wales, and more than two miles in length. The beach was crowded with visitors and there was hardly an inch of sand to be seen all the way from Splash Point at the East end of town, where the promenade began, all the way to the mouth of the Clwyd River at the West end, where it ended. There were deck chairs everywhere, rented at 6d a day, and the whole town was doing a roaring trade. For half the year the town was empty with everything closed, apart from a little maintenance work and refurbishment. With the arrival of the Easter holidays, it all changed and until the end of the August holidays all the locals were flat out making enough money to last until the next season. The price of everything went up, another reason why locals made sure they were earning and not spending, but the holidaymakers did not know that of course.
For the working classes in Britain life had been grim for as long as everyone could remember, and I don’t think it has improved all that much to the present day. The one bright spot in most of their lives was that couple of weeks holiday each summer, and to make sure there was room for everyone, different areas took their turn. For two weeks the accents of the visitors confirmed that they were all from Birmingham, and the South Midlands. Then it would be the turn of Manchester and the industrial towns of South Lancashire, and so it went right through the summer. For me it was exciting to be at the seaside where everyone had a good time, and even my aunts’ two dogs enjoyed it.
To be precise only one of the dogs derived pleasure from the summer visitors, the other hated the whole world, and did so all his life. The pair were what I would describe as a canine version of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ one being the complete antithesis of the other. Their names were ‘Butch’ and ‘Kitch’; both were mongrels, or should I say crossbred dogs. They were only puppies when they arrived, but where they came from I never discovered. ‘Kitch’ was at one end of the spectrum, being disproportionate, ungainly, with a scruffy coat and an ugly appearance. He looked like a bad assembly of a number of breeds, from whom he had inherited all the worst features. To match his appearance, he had a seriously disturbed personality, being bad tempered, unpredictable, and suspicious to the point of neurosis. ‘Kitch’ rarely went outside, when he did he usually started a fight with some other dog, and when he did he was likely to lose it. The only people he ever made friends with were his owners and me.
The other dog was everything that his partner was not, having all the attractive features of the breeds from which he had originated. Butch was not a big dog, but was neat and well proportioned, with a short glossy coat of black and white. He was mostly of the mastiff breed, with a handsome square head, and a wide deep chest. To match his appearance he had the bull terrier personality, being fearless and ready to fight all comers. At the same time he was always friendly and likeable, spending much of his time around town, enjoying the company and attention of the crowds. Butch had an air of confidence, and never once appeared to doubt him-self, this was another of his many attractive qualities. Another thing I admired about him was his good behaviour and his willingness to obey orders. With Butch around you knew that you had a brave and willing comrade who would never let you down. I have often thought of them as typical examples of the people one meets in life. It usually does not take long for qualities and characteristics to show, though unlike dogs, people can sometimes be very good at hiding their true colours.
On the subject of the devious nature of some members of the human race, it might be appropriate for me to mention a man who was living at Plas-Collen about this time. We knew him as Ernie or Ernest, though I for one was never sure what his surname was; we were to discover that he had a number of aliases, but at the time we accepted him without question. The personality of people is a complex subject, something we shall never understand fully, but it is clear that the mixture of traits of character can sometimes make a person unfathomable and even dangerous. Ernie was a short squat fellow with black hair and glasses with heavy black frames. He was an ugly man, though he undoubtedly had charm, or what might be described as a magnetic personality. Where my uncle met him I do not know, but probably it was in a bar, or some other such place. With his glib tongue Ernie had talked my uncle into giving him a job, as a salesman. It is my guess that he offered to work for commission only, but negotiated as part of the deal, free board and lodgings.
It is impossible for me to say how long this arrangement lasted, but eventually cracks began to appear in his facade, in his cover story if you like. The first thing that began to worry my Aunt and Uncle was the amazing attraction that Ernie seemed to have for the opposite sex. Young women were attracted to him like bees to a honey pot, or flies to a piece of rotten meat might be a better simile. Attractive females came knocking on the door in search of him, and one day when I went for a ride with my uncle and his sales man, a young waitress in a café addressed Ernie as an acquaintance, saying: “Hello doctor, how are you today.” The last straw was one evening quite late, when my Aunt on hearing a noise went to his room to investigate and finding a girl in his bed with him, she ordered him to pack his bags and leave.
Listening to my elders talking a few days later, I discovered that Ernie had talked his way into some free accommodation on a large launch. It was anchored in the harbour at the mouth of the river Clwyd, and on tracking him down for business reasons Uncle Bill again found Ernie tucked up in bed with one his numerous young lady friends. One footnote to this story was a meeting we had with friend Ernie some five years later, when I had returned to Rhyl once again to recuperate after leaving the army as an invalid. He was on holiday and staying at the best hotel in town, the Queens Hotel in the centre of the promenade. With the total cheek of the expert confidence trickster, Ernie had decided to renew old acquaintances, so had phone us to invite us to go and have drinks with him at the hotel.
Never one to mince words, the first thing my Aunt Nin did when we arrived, was to ask him whether he had been on the run from a wife and family when we first met him. Bold as brass he admitted it, saying that he had a family somewhere in Lancashire, but that his wife had been a terrible woman, and anyone would have run away from her. He then went on to tell us with great pride that after he had departed from Rhyl at the time that we had known him, he had applied for a job as transport manager, working for the government of an African country on the West Coast of central Africa. He boasted that he was earning an enormous salary, had a large house provided, and was presently on six months leave with everything paid by his employers. That was the last we saw of Ernie, though my Aunt did hear some years later, that he had died in Africa from a tropical fever. I have often wondered whether he did.
These memories are all very well, but I am not progressing, with my story being still on holiday at my aunts’ boarding house. Time passes so quickly when you are happy, and in no time at all I found, to my regret, that I had to say farewell to my second home and turn my face towards the realities of my life in the Industrial Midlands. Having had such a successful trip to the coast, the return held no fears for me, and at 8am in the morning, maybe three weeks after I had arrived, I pedalled out of the back yard of my Aunts house on the way back to Stoke. Again the weather was good, but this time I felt no need for food or drinks, I would be home in no time I thought. I made steady progress, reaching Chester in a couple of hours. Pressing on through the town, I made my way out the other side, confident that there was only one way to go. In just over another hour I expected to recognize the outskirts of
Nantwich, but in close to two hours later I realised that I had no idea where I was. A long time afterwards I concluded that I taken a left hand fork at a junction on the outskirts of Chester, and this had sent me North in the direction of Manchester. I had no map, there were no signposts, and I saw no one to ask the way, though not wishing to reveal my stupidity, I did not try very hard. What should I do? Keep the sun behind me, and head in an Westerly direction I thought, so that is what I did. On through the afternoon I went, pedalling on with dogged determination, and slowly feeling the onset of tiredness cramp in my legs, growing ever stronger it changed my pleasure trip into an endurance test.
How far I travelled that day I shall never know, but it would not be unreasonable to assume that it was well over 100 miles. It must have been about teatime when I eventually recognized my surroundings, I had come to a steep gradient and for the first time in my journey I climbed stiffly off my bike and walked slowly up the hill. Then, much to my relief, I realised that I was on Keel Bank, and not far from Newcastle. When I arrived home no one said anything about the lateness of my arrival, and I was not about to reveal the major error I had made. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, I had proved my worth and made a bold solo trip entirely unaided.