Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The changing world (2) Skipton on Swale 1952-63

So we arrived at Skipton in 1952. I was to be there until I left for university twelve years later. Terrace House will always remain home though my parents later sold it and moved to Thirsk. The first time they saw the house was during the war, before I was born. local gossip told them of the spectacular crash of a Canadian Halifax bomber in the middle of the village. They cycled over from Topcliffe and saw the incredible sight of a crashed plane in front of what, a decade later became their home. An old lady from the village, now in Glory, told me that one morning relatives were staying and she invited the to go with her up on the hill behind her house and watch the planes coming back from bombing Germany. As they got to the top of the hill there was a tremendous noise of a plane coming straight at them. They lay flat on the ground in fear and if crashed about 30 yards beyond them on the village green. In those days it was a triangle of about 50 yards a side, houses on all sides and an elm tree in the middle. Nothing was demolished except a garden wall where a boy was killed as were three of the crew. The place is now marked with the RCAF war memorial and a maple tree, given by Canada to replace the elm which died of Dutch Elm disease.

Our village had a population of less than one hundred, one church, one chapel a shop and a post office. The place was transformed by the arrival of the Canadians at the new airfield. The Vale of York is flat and well suited to airfields. Apart from our village their were bomber fields at Dalton, Topcliffe and Dishforth, all within a six mile radius of our field. Less than 10 miles away was Leeming, fighter command to protect the bombers. My father was sent to Thirsk in the Royal Artillery in 1940 to service searchlights protecting the airfields. By the time we arrived Skipton and Dalton were abandoned to decay and reversion to agriculture. Topcliffe was coastal command with Neptunes, Dishforth had transports. Both are no longer in RAF use. but Leeming is to this day fighters. Th sound of a Tornado is absolutely frightening close up. I remain full of admiration for the young men who bombed Germany. A tour was 25 flights. They knew that losses were such you were unlikely to survive one tour. Some survived two. That the government never issued a campaign medal to them remains a national disgrace. Presumably the reason is that ethical questions were raised over our bombing. But if Bomber Harris got a statue, why have these men no special medal? It was the Germans who started indiscriminate bombing back in the previous war. I have no problems with Bomber Command. But all that remained of them when we moved to Skipton in 1952 were ruined buildings and some children whose Canadian fathers never got around to marrying their local mothers. My best friend was one such boy. Innocent little me never heard any stigma attached to him.

My father left Bamletts to work for Yorkshire Agricultural Driers who had big machines to dry mown grass for animal feed. The firm had some Ukranian workers, soldiers I believe who we must have liberated from the Germans and mercifully not returned to the USSR. Mum never worked outside the home. Their life revolved around the local chapel where Dad became Sunday School superintendent. He was also a Methodist local preacher as were two of his brothers in law. Methodism then was evangelical. later as liberalism infected it, evangelicals in the main left going one of two ways, reformed or charismatic, the latter with true Yorkshire enthusiasm, ofter wildly so. It had a lot in common with the old Primitive Methodism before to 1920s union with the more staid Wesleyans. As at Topcliffe I went to Sunday School morning and chapel at night, their one weekly service. Later I went to Methodist Guild on Monday night but in 1952 I was too young to stay up that late, especially after walking to school nearly a mile away then back again each day. In fact at one time we did that return journey twice a day when schoolmeals were served in Skipton.

The journey to school in winter meant lots of ice on the road. I do not subscribe to the global warming theory but winters in Yokshire in the fifties were much colder than in London half a century later. But the abiding memory of those walks is dead and dying rabbits. rabbits were a plague. farmers shot them. then myxymatosis was introduced from Australia. It almost exterminate all the rabbits. they became rare. As i walked to school I would see dead maggot ridden bunnies, lots of them. The maggots seemed to stary even before the rabbits died. it was a cruel disease but one welcomed by the farmers whose only concern was, as we say in Yorkshire, brass.

There were three large farms in the village. Two changed hands while we were there and were owned then by brothers. One later gave me permission to fisk in the River Swale. Farmers let the rights to angling clubs but always with the proviso that they could grant permission to family and friends gratis. Later I spent many happy hours fishing. I think a seven pound barbel was my best catch. Mr.Frank Neesam was the local expert. He fished for pike using live-bait. I expect that is now banned. The river changed considerable when the Topcliffe weir was reduced in height after the mill ceased to operate around 1963 (?). Once upon a time one could catch more than coarse fish for my uncle's farm downstream was Salmon Hall. So before the muck from West Riding industry polluted the Humber there must have been a salmon run in the Swale, but I think it was in the 18th century. Ours was coarse fishing. We were worm drowners as one who had graduated to fly fishing for trout would call us. I did though one eat one of Frank's pike and even tried one of my perch but the later was too bony. We regularly saw water rats on the bank. In 1963 we had the big freeze, the only time you could walk across the water except by the bridge. To this day there remains a carving on the bridge with my initials and those of my first really serious girlfriend. Even the dates of the romance are there with an end date replacing the infinity sign as originally cut by a lovelorn teenager. But I am jumping ahead of my schooldays at Catton School.

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