In 1953, the year of my earliest memory, Princess Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England and television arrived in Bridport, though sadly not to our house. The day of the coronation there were big celebrations in my home town of Bridport. Many people travelled up to London to line the streets and wave their flags, but those of us who stayed had a big party. I believe Princess Margaret even visited the town, though I don’t remember seeing her. There was a fancy-dress parade for the children. I was encased in a cardboard box that my mother had painted to look like a TV. I don’t think it was very comfortable, as I remember looking enviously at the little girl who later became my best friend. She was dressed very regally in a dark green velvet cape and a crown. That day she was the queen and won first prize.
Just before my fifth birthday we moved to ‘Delapre’. It was a solid-looking Georgian house, built around 1815, originally used as an officer’s Mess at the time of the Napoleonic War. Sometime before the Second World War, part of the house was destroyed, leaving a paved courtyard as evidence of its previous grandeur.
At the time my father bought the house, beautiful red Virginia Creeper climbed across Delapre’s uninviting greyness. However, those delicate little tendrils managed to force their way through the exterior coating of the house, causing cracks and flaking, so the creeper was eventually cut down.
In front of the house was a large fenced paddock. When we were young, a friend of my parents kept her horse there. Judy the horse, was a docile creature, but often managed to get out and we would see her grazing happily on the manicured lawns or foraging among the vegetables. We stroked her long nose that smelt of warm chestnuts and there was a salt block that we could hold on the flat of a hand for her to lick.
The gardens were my father’s pride and joy. From the front lawn you could sit inside the rough split log summer house and see the sea in the distance. A large bird table interrupted the smooth greenness, tempting robins to come and bicker over the soggy crusts my mother put out for them. The bird table was made from an old stone mill wheel once used for crushing grain. It would have been fun to climb on it, but had it toppled, the sheer weight of it would have crushed a child.
The lawn flowed into a herbaceous border, through which several small steps cut through an embankment to the ‘lane’, a gravel track leading from the tarred driveway around the top end of the paddock to the garage in the cobbled back courtyard. In a previous life, the garage had housed four-legged transport, substantiated by the stone mounting block and gargoyled trough built into the courtyard wall.
Where the cobbles ended, pink cottage roses grew, their fragrance so alluring I felt compelled to squish handfuls of petals into a pulp and mix them with water to make perfume. Unfortunately it went rancid before I had chance to market it to my six-year-old friends.
Behind the courtyard a metal arch led the way to the fruit cages and kitchen garden. Small box hedges framed the many beds containing neat rows of assorted vegetables and just next to the perimeter brick wall were two old greenhouses.
In one greenhouse Dad grew an exotic peach tree that he used to tickle with something obscene like a rabbit’s tail, presumably to pollinate it. Whatever it was, it must have worked, because we always had a good crop of peaches and nectarines, best eaten leaning over the kitchen sink with the juice dripping off your elbow.
The other greenhouse contained a yellow rose with the most beautiful perfume. Every Sunday during their flowering season, my mother cut one for the lapel of Grandad’s church suit.
In those days, any fruit other than apples and plums seemed slightly exotic, causing us to feel very fortunate at having juicy sweet white peaches, nectarines and grapes growing in our greenhouse. In the garden there was every sort of berry you could think of. We all had to do our turn of picking the fruit, some filling the colander much quicker than others. More raspberries went in the mouth than in the container. Black, red and white currants took ages because we weren’t allowed any twigs and stalks. Gooseberries were quick. They were fat and firm and easy to pick as long as you avoided the prickles. As they ripened, they turned slightly yellow and a bit hairy, by which stage they were sweet and good to eat raw. The hard bald green ones remained sour, and I was never too thrilled when Mum made a gooseberry pie, ungrateful child that I was.
In autumn we picked apples: russets, pippins, Cox’s, and my favourite, Bramleys. They cooked up into fluffy purees and spicy pies and crumbles, but I liked the crisp sourness of the raw Bramley. Years later, when I moved to South Africa, Bramleys were not available, so my parents would hide a few in their luggage to bring out for me every time they came over.
At Delapre, the apples were all laid in wooden trays, not touching, and stored in the old brick tool shed that was cooler than the house. We supplied family and friends for many months. The berries that had not been turned into jam, my mother froze and brought out over the winter months in the guise of wonderful puddings.