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U3A Writing: Battle - And The Battle Of Britain

"We were told that if the siren went before we left for school we were to stay at home until 'all clear' and it is awful to think that we quite looked forward to the siren going!''

Daphne Bashford recalls her war-time schooldays.

In 1938, when I was 7, my parents and I moved from Herstmonceux to Battle, East Sussex. I had about a mile to walk to school. The route took me past Battle Abbey, which was built on the site of the Battle of Hastings by William the Conqueror who insisted that the high altar should be on the spot where King Harold was killed.

Although much of the original Abbey is in ruins, the imposing gateway remains. A stone "the Norman Stone" was erected by the "Souvenir Normand" and dedicated in 1903 to commemorate the Battle of Hastings and still stands on the spot where King Harold fell. In 1922 the Abbey was taken over by a very exclusive girls' boarding school and it has remained so to this day, apart from during the War when it was occupied by troops. Our bungalow overlooked the parklands of the Abbey.

The monks built a chapel for the townspeople outside the Abbey Wall, the first small church being built around 1110. The existing Church was built about 1230, enlarged around 1450 and restored in the 19th century. In the churchyard there is a tombstone to Isaac Ingall, who is reputed to have lived to 120, having been a servant in the Abbey for upwards of 90 years! It was a game for us children to run round the tombstone three times but I cannot remember what was supposed to happen then!

I sang in the Church choir for many years and was married there in 1958. My husband was born and grew up in Battle, hence the name "Martlets" for our House.

It was not until we moved to Wales and visited Brecon Cathedral, that I realised there was a connection between Brecon and Battle. There is a chapel in Brecon Cathedral called Battle Chapel. This was built by the monks of Battle Abbey during their pilgrimage through Wales, which also included Tintern Abbey.

I was eight and a half when the war broke out and can remember exactly where I was when war was announced on Sunday 3rd September 1939. My mother and I were staying with an Aunt in Bexhill and I remember thinking that bombs would start dropping any minute!

We were told that if the siren went before we left for school we were to stay at home until 'all clear' and it is awful to think that we quite looked forward to the siren going! We watched the 'Battle of Britain' being fought over our heads and many planes were shot down in the area.

In 1942 I passed the examination to go to the Grammar School at Bexhill. The school at that time was evacuated to Letchworth because an invasion was expected. We had to be prepared to be evacuated if we were to take up the 'scholarship'. My parents thought I should not miss the opportunity so I went to Letchworth to start school in the September. I had a cousin already there who had good lodgings and a kind 'hostess', so I was not too unhappy at going although I had never been away from home before.

We were put on the train with our gas masks and other belongings - I cannot remember much about the journey. I and another girl were placed with a family and we soon discovered we were not to be as fortunate as my cousin! Our hostess had a daughter in the 6th form and she loved to make as much trouble for us as she could. I especially remember that our rations were labelled to make sure we did not eat anyone else's. On Saturday afternoon we were not allowed to stay in so had to walk around the town and W H Smith's was about the only shop where one could browse in those days so we spent a lot of time there to keep warm and dry.

Fortunately, in one respect, at the end of that first term it was decided it was safe for the school to return to Bexhill, as the invasion scare was over, so I did not have long away from home.

Unfortunately, on the other hand, we were back home when a lot of the bombing took place and I remember one particular day when one of the girls who lived in Battle was called, by the Headmistress and told that a bomb had dropped on her parents 'newsagents' shop and they had been killed. Another bomb fell in front of Battle Abbey and bounced through the gateway without exploding. The abbey, as I have already said, had been taken over by the Army and the guard on duty fainted but was otherwise unhurt! A third bomb landed on the cricket pitch, bounced off and eventually exploded at the bottom of the field adjacent to our bungalow. I was at school so did not see it.

On another occasion, an Aunt who lived in Pevensey Bay, had gone to the railway halt to meet my cousin from school during an air raid and while they were walking home, they saw some bombs drop. When they arrived, their house was devastated from a direct hit but the cat was still alive under the stairs! My uncle's greengrocer's shop next door was also destroyed but fortunately there was no one in there at the time either.

At school, we had brick-built air raid shelters, with very small high windows, without glass, in the school playground. When the siren went, which was quite often, we had to grab our gas masks and books and go to the shelter where we continued our lessons! Another vivid memory at that time was hearing the flying bombs (or doodlebugs' as they were known) or rather, waiting for the engine to stop, as then we knew it could land anywhere and then explode. Our part of Sussex was known as "doodlebug alley".

These are some of my most vivid memories of the war but there are too many to recount here. I must say that although I was frightened at times, I realise that we were very lucky compared with people who lived in the cities.

I realise now that Battle was a good place in which to grow up. It had history, lovely countryside, being near the South Downs, and the seaside all within a few miles and it was not until we moved away that we appreciated it. However, now the area is very crowded and the old rural area that we knew has gone, like so many other places.

Although I gained my School certificate with exemption from London Matriculation, my parents could not afford for me to stay on at school and eventually go to University. Very few children from working class families did so. That is one disappointment to me now, although it did not occur to me at the time, and I envy the later generations the opportunities open to them. Perhaps that is why the University of the Third Age appeals to me, and the motto "You are never too old to learn".


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