Memories of war years in Lelant
By MJH Tonking, January 2005
© Michael Tonking 2005
Our family had a number of relations in and around Lelant and in his youth my father spent his summer holidays in the village. Thus in 1939 at the commencement of the war my mother together with myself and my younger sister fled from the dangers posed by the war to the safe haven of Lelant. At about the same time my aunt and her two daughters also moved to Lelant renting Badger Cottage [Praeds Cottage], long since making way for a car park at the Badger Hotel. We rented Chygwidden Cottage now named Church Cottage which was opposite the green bank near to the church at the end of church road.
My memories of the early war years have been dimmed by time although I do remember the mounting block outside the cottage upon which we were photographed in our Sunday best. This is where we were to stay for the duration of the war.
Summers were good times for in those days the weather seemed to be much better than in recent years. My mother engaged a nanny who generally helped in the cottage and would take us down to the ferry where we would play on the beach. It was easy to get to compared with the main beach which was further away and had obstacles in the form of barbed wire and land mines laid against the threat of invasion. All across Porthkidney sands were planted row upon row of timber poles to prevent landing craft coming ashore. Bofors anti aircraft guns were hidden in the marram grass to provide protection against enemy aircraft. There were a number of Nissan huts to house the defending troops and roads were cut across the pristine golf fairways for access.
One summer's day early in the war my mother took us with some friends for a long walk on Porthkidney sands. We soon grew tired and at a point just where the Nut Grove begins she decided we would take a short cut up over the dunes to join the path which ran alongside the railway line. This was not a good idea. Halfway up the dunes a soldier told us to stay where we were and not to move an inch. We had walked into a minefield! Army guides were hurriedly sent down to escort us to the safety of the footpath and after being given a thorough dressing down we were allowed to proceed home. We children did not appreciate the danger into which we had stumbled.
At the end of the war monitors were used to spray high pressure water onto the sand to expose the mines which exploded with a massive bang. I well remember watching these operations on the Hayle side of the river from the safety of Lelant beach. At the same time the thousands of poles planted on the beach were removed as was the barbed wire in the dunes although in some cases strands were left in the sand which were a danger to bare feet. Eventually all the Nissan huts were removed and today all that is left are the concrete foundations and a few pill box emplacements.
The river was a source of fascination for us children and we were constantly warned of the dangers of swimming or playing in the water for fear of being swept out to sea when the sluices were opened. This operation took place on the ebb tide and cleared the river of sand to allow ships to enter Hayle harbour. As far as my mother was concerned the other danger was Jack Couch the ferryman. His 'colourful language' was something we were not supposed to hear and we were told to keep away from him and the ferry boats. Of course these boats were a constant source of interest and we loved to play in and around the with the result that we were at times subjected to the 'colourful language' much to our mother's distress.
On the rare occasions that my father had leave he would sometimes hire a rowing boat and take me for a ride which used to be the highlight of my holiday. Very rarely the ferryman would give us a ride if he had to collect one or so passengers from the Hayle side He had two dogs named rusty and skipper and at times they would swim across the river at full tide. They were true 'sea dogs' just like their master.
One morning our nanny took us down to the ferry to play on the beach and whilst there the air raid warning sounded and all at once, there above us, a British fighter was chasing a German plane right above our heads. After above five minutes or so mother came running down the path to the ferry holding a tin tea tray above her head! We were all rushed back to the safety of the cottage to hide under the stairs till the all clear sounded.
During the war no lights were allowed to be shown at night and we had special boards made up which we placed over the inside of the windows every evening before it became dark. As youngsters we were always frightened when the air raid sirens sounded as it was usually at night and we had to leave our beds and go down to shelter under the stairs. There we lay cramped up on blankets to await the 'all clear' then it was back up to bed again.
For a time during the war we allowed soldiers who were on duty guarding the beach to come and have a hot bath since they had no facilities for bathing. They all seemed to appreciate the chance to have a hot bath every week or so.
There was a great deal of military activity on the road passing the cottage. Trucks, bren gun carriers, jeeps and guns would pass as well as convoys of troops. I can remember seeing a black soldier for the first time when a convoy of American troops drove by. If we were lucky they threw sweets or packets of biscuits to us standing by the roadside. One year the local commandos organised a children's Christmas party in a St.lves hotel. For the first time we experienced the delight of fresh imported fruit, tinned fruit salad and real ice cream. What joy for young mouths which had never tasted such delicacies. The American troops were unfailingly kind and generous to the children and made contributions of food for the party.
Food rationing was very severe and although we were lucky to always have something to eat times must have been very hard for our mother who always managed to have something on the table. We children craved sweets and the two ounces or whatever per week did not go very far. We would take our ration books and walk up to Mrs Evans sweet shop on the corner opposite the hotel and take an age to decide what we would buy from her meagre stock. Boiled sweets figured high in our choice as they lasted longer than anything else that she had in stock.
Every Friday mother would go to St Ives on the bus to buy the weekly groceries. We eagerly awaited her return as she always brought us back each a comic paper. We depended on he radio for news and entertainment and it was always my wish to have my own radio which was answered towards the end of the war. Children's hour was always a favorite and as we grew older we listened to more grown up programmes. On special we stayed up to listen to "Monday Night at Eight'. Mother never missed 'Itma' with Tommy Handley although this was beyond our ken.
My grandfather was a widower and lived in Carbis Bay. Every so often he would walk down to the cottage for Sunday lunch and I remember it was ritual to listen to the news before lunch. Prior to the news the national anthem would be played and being patriotic we all had to stand to attention as soon as the first strains were heard. To the never ending embarrassment of my mother us children were always fascinated by the clicking of grandfather's false teeth and always enquired as to why they clicked so much!
At other times we would walk up to Carbis Bay to have tea or whatever with grandfather. We hated the walk as it was mostly up hill and a very long way for toddlers; on arrival we had to be on our best behaviour and sit very still and not fiddle with anything. If we were lucky we were allowed to look at the Saturday Evening Post magazine which was full of pictures of America and the luxury food we missed so much. In the garden the lawn was immaculate and smooth as the finest bowling green and was grandfather's pride and joy. We had to be very careful not to make any dents or marks and were discouraged from playing rough games on it. All in all these visits must have been quite a strain on mother.
Early in the war the evacuees started to arrive in the village to be boarded out in various homes for the duration of the war. The assimilation seemed to take some time as they were completely unfamiliar with a rural environment. They attended the village school and before long made friends with the local children although their cockney accents, most coming from London, presented some communication problems.
Before D-Day the estuary below the Old Quay House was full of hundreds of barges moored ready for the D-Day landings. They were built in the Harvey yards and I used to watch them being launched at high tide and then being towed up into their estuary moorings by small American tug boats. Every so often a string of them would be towed down the river at high tide and handed over to ocean going tug boats. At high tide the river was always of interest with ships coming and going almost every day. The ferryman used to operate a semaphore signal to ships in the bay when it was safe to enter the river. Navigation over the bar was difficult and ships always took on a pilot from St Ives for the trip unto Hayle harbour.
Since coal for the power station was the most common cargo we were lucky when errors of navigation caused a collier to run aground on the Lelant side of the river. In some cases tons of good steam coal to be dumped over the side in order to refloat the ship which we used to go and collect and use to supplement our rationed coal. The sea washed the coal so that it was dust free and clean when we picked it up.
Beachcombing was another activity which we enjoyed and from the flotsam and jetsam washed up on the beach we would gather wood which again was used as fuel. Once in a while we would mount and expedition to Hawkes Point where we gathered the best mussels which were then cooked and eaten at once or bottled and stored for later use.
There were many walks which we enjoyed covering Lelant and the surrounding countryside. A favourite was through the Nut Grove which was on the coast footpath to Carbis Bay; the nut trees completely covered the path and it seemed as though we were walking through a green tunnel. In springtime masses of blue bells, primroses and orchids grew below the trees surrounded by ferns and moss. More often than not it was very damp and muddy, especially the path down to the wishing well. Surrounded by moss the water flowed into a small pool into which we dropped our bent pins and wished. In the autumn we collected bags of hazel nuts which, being very good to eat, did not last very long.
The walk to Trencrom was always a popular walk although very far for small legs which meant many rest stops on the way. Once at the bottom of Trencrom Hill we were faced with the steep final climb to the top. It always seemed to be a mountain to us and it was a struggle to get to the top but once there the view on a good day was worth the effort. To the north lay St Ives Bay and to the south St Michael's Mount sitting in the sea of Mounts Bay. It was as though one could see forever. We played hide and seek in the ferns and gorse which covered the sides of the hill and I will never forget the sweet smell of the gorse with its pretty yellow flowers After a picnic tea it was time to return home which was mostly down hill except for the Abbey Hill at the entrance to the village. That night we slept like logs.
We spent many hours at the Mackerel Boats situated on the estuary not far from the cottage. It was here that during the winter months the St Ives fishing boats would be laid up in the shelter of the estuary away from the winter storms.We liked to go down and look around the boats and play on the stony beach. It was an exciting place as we visualised the adventures that some of the craft must have experienced. Along the old disused broad gauge railway embankment which ran from the railways station to Wards Yard were to be found the very best blackberries which we picked for making into jam or better still blackberry and apple pie. We ate till we were full and our fingers stained blackish red from the juice.
Halfway up Church Road lived aunt Gertrude who had the most wonderful old apple tree which covered the rear of her garden [Hawthorn Cottage]. Whenever we visited we were allowed to gather the small sweet apples to take home and I still remember in the hot days of summer how refreshing those apples were to a parched tongue. There were in her small garden some daphne shrubs with glossy dark green leaves and small china pink flowers, a few sprays of which would fill the cottage with their perfume.
Visits to the various relations and friends of my mother were often accompanied by us children who more often than not were bored still by the grown ups' talk. The boredom was relieved by the tea and cake which formed the highlight of the visit. We had two aunts who lived at Hampton Court at the bottom of Abbey Hill where we always drank up our tea as we knew it was a steep and thirsty climb back up the hill. A real treat was a trip to Trembethow Farm which could only be undertaken if a lift could be arranged. There we always had a cream tea with fresh scones with jam and cream, the latter being illegal to make during the war. Few cars were on the road as there was very little rationed petrol so we either had to walk or catch a Western National bus or a train if we had to go to St Ives. The rare trip to St Ives was another real treat, especially if we could sit on the top deck of the bus. It was very quiet in the town as many of the shops were not open and of course there were very few visitors in the war years summers. The harbour was an attraction for us and we always went down to look at the fishing boats recognising many that had been laid up at the Makerel Boats during the winter.
My mother had a very good friend who rented a flat on the harbour front above the Milkbar. Since it looked out over the harbour it made a very good lookout and we would spend hours at the windows. Next door was the Copper Kettle tea room where the owner "POD" Short would do his best to fill the young visitors with scones and jam. Early in the war we took over a dog named George from the friend who lived in the flat as it was difficult for her to keep him there. He was a large, short haired, brown dog with something of everything in him. He settled down well with us and had the habit of taking very long walks on his own if there was nobody to take him. He became very well known and would frequently walk to St Ives always returning to the cottage very late in the day. He was a great companion and we were all very sad when he had to return to his own family at the end of the war.
During the course of the war there were many 'drives' on various things. War savings bond stamps were purchased and carefully stuck into our savings books, not that we ever had much money with which to buy them. Aluminium pots and pans were needed for aircraft production and we had to turn out our old ones whenever a 'drive' took place. At another stage scrap iron was needed and this meant many wonderful old railings were cut down and carted off. This included the railings surrounding the war memorial in the village being cut down which always seemed a great pity. Most of the railings and gates were crafted with loving care out of wrought iron and of course would never be replaced
Food and clothes were rationed and this meant we each had to have a ration book full of coupons which had to be cut out whenever a purchase was made. So far as clothes were concerned it was a question of hand-me-downs and made do and mend in an effort to stretch the coupons as far as possible. Regarding food the children had the advantage of certain extras, in particular orange juice and milk. We used to have to take cod liver oil pills which were supposed to keep us healthy. Eggs were a luxury and more often than not we just had to use dried egg powder which could be made into a lovely omelette that we often had for breakfast. We were, I suppose, more fortunate than many as we could and did grow vegetables in the garden and never went hungry.
There was a thriving 'black market' through which almost anything from petrol to nylons could be purchased even though everyone complained that it was wrong and should not be allowed.
Just across the road was the Lelant parish church which was well known to us children for every Sunday afternoon we had to attend Sunday school as well as in many cases sitting through the morning service with our mother. This was all considered to be very boring compared with playing on the beach and in consequence church was not our favourite place to be. The only consolation was that at Christmas time the Sunday school went on an outing to see the pantomime in Penzance. This was a great occasion as we travelled in a specially hired bus and a good time was had by all. In later years my mother was responsible for locking up the church at night, a task often left to us. The yew and holly trees along the path to the church door appeared very sinister and frightening on dark windy nights and we would run back to the cottage as though the devil himself was at our heels! In later years I was enlisted into the choir which meant even more time was spent away from the beach. To miss a service was not to be taken lightly as one would then incur the wrath of the Revered Davis-Freem who was not a man to be trifled with. At times we used to climb to the top of the church tower as we knew where the key was kept. We would peep over the parapet and take in the wonderful view.
Christmas time was always exciting even in the dark days of war. Apart from a lack of money there were no Christmas decorations for sale so we had to improvise and make our own using berries and foliage gathered from the hedgerows. This we did and made expeditions to the road leading to Trencrom to gather strings of berries and holly. The Christmas tree was invariably a piece of pine which looked very pretty with the few prewar decorations that my mother managed to find. The lights consisted of small candle holders which clipped onto the branches and when lit made it look very pretty however it was a dangerous time as the tree could have caught fire. Needless to say the candles did not remain lit for very long!
The lack of fuel and tractors meant that shire horses were used for ploughing and they, complete with nosebags, used to pass the cottage on their way to the fields for a hard days work. Harvest time was always exciting for it meant the arrival of the steam traction engine which towed the threshing machine and binder. After the corn had been cut and dried it was brought to the farm just below the cottage and placed in two large ricks with enough space between them for the threshing machine. We were in awe of the traction engine which slowly drove past the cottage followed by ourselves on foot watching everything which went on. At the farm the gate to the field it was a very tight fit to be able to get the whole train in an likewise to fit it all between the ricks. Finally the traction engine was parked in the right position for the belt driving the threshing machine to be in line and tensioned. A number of temporary extra labourers were hired to handle the harvest work. The corn sheaves would be thrown from the top of the rick to the man feeding the threshing machine, a dangerous job due to the close proximity of the whirling knives which cut the corn stalks. We used to like feeling the corn pouring from the hatches feeding into the sacks in which it would be stored. There was dust everywhere and more especially at the binder which bailed the corn stalks to be stored for cattle feed and bedding.
The threshing used to go on for two or three days before the machines were packed up and went off to the next farm. The outfit was owned and operated by Phil Rogers who just after the war had an imported tractor which was not nearly as exciting as the steam traction engine. At that time the corn used to be taken on an old Chevrolet truck driven by Billy Toms and stored in the old mill which is now a restaurant [The Watermill] but at that time still had the old granite corn grinding stones in place.
At the bottom of the village [Griggs Forge] there was a blacksmith who used to shoe horses, mend wheels and in fact make many different things in iron. Sometimes we would go down and watch him work at the forge skillfully shaping the metal to his design. On the opposite side of the road flowed a crystal clear stream which always flowed even in times of drought. We often saw eels swimming around the stones and water plants. We even tried to catch them using an old bait filled stocking but they never seemed to like what was offered and we never caught a thing. The stream flowed into the estuary near the Old Quay House where we would visit on the odd occasion. We were always told that one of our relations had something to do with building the causeway across the estuary and that he had planted the pine trees in the garden at the Old Quay House which made us feel rather proud.
Just after the war ended the London-to-Landsend motor trials was restarted and we as well as many of the villagers used to go down and sit on the causeway wall to watch the cars and motor bikes go on their way. We never knew who was who but it did not matter as we cheered them all.
At the start of the war most of the village men were called up apart from those left on essential services. Many had worked as gardeners and to replace them prisoners of war were hired out for gardening work. I remember one Italian who worked next door and was very pleased to have a job which meant he had one good meal a day and also little extras which made his life much better than being on the battle front. When the war ended the village men returned and took up their previous jobs which in many cases were as gardeners for there were a number of large gardens near the cottage which needed constant attention. Many of the gardens were very grand and invariably had vegetable gardens, the fruits of which would compete at the annual village produce show held in the village hall. Apart from vegetables there were many other classes covering fruit, flowers, food and handicrafts. We even entered some of our school handicraft but alas never won a prize.
Towards the end of the war an annual fancy dress carnival was organised in which we used to participate. We would all gather in a field at the top of Tyringham Road where we were divided into different classes for the judging. This was followed by a procession through the village during which the villagers would encourage the children with cheers and clapping. Despite the fact that I cannot remember us being awarded a prize we always enjoyed the event.
At the end of the war in Europe there was a victory parade through the village which was led by a band and ended up at the church. The returning ex-service men and women marched together for the last time and then participated in a thanksgiving service in the church which could not accommodate the whole crowd some of which stood outside in the churchyard. Almost the whole village turned out to make it a really great event.
I was very familiar with the railway station for I used to travel by train to my school in Carbis Bay and later to Truro. Mr Glasson was the station master and he kept it and the gardens in immaculate order. Every year there was a magnificent show of belladonna lilies all along the front bed which must have given much joy to the passing passengers. Of course only steam engines were used on the line in those days and the service was much more frequent than it is today.
The post was delivered by Mr Edmonds who had a deformed foot and because of his disability used a pony and small cart which he kept in a shed where Little Tregilly is now situated. We always felt sorry for him as it took him an age to cover his round even though the village had fewer houses in those days.
Edgar and Palmer Harry ran the village garage where they sold petrol and had a workshop which we later frequented when we needed cycle repairs.
Opposite what was the village school Mr Harry Edmonds owned a carpenters workshop where Mr Gordon Hurrel worked. I remember the workshop was always busy and full of pine wood shavings the scent of which filled the air. No power tools in those days, just solid hand craftsmanship. In later years they also built houses which took ages to finish but were considered to be the best built in the village.
The village was well served by shops and apart from these there were house deliveries by a number of vendors including milk by Berkerlegs, vegetables by Mr Eustance with his pony and trap, Carters coal and from Hayle Clarke's bread.
After some fifty years or so memory grows dim; however these notes cover some of what I can recall from the days gone by.