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U3A Writing: Memories Of An Undy Urchin

...Services were non existent, the nearest mains water supply was a tap at the bottom of the hill. One of my jobs was to hang two buckets from a yoke across my shoulders, walk down to the tap and plod back up under the weight of five gallons of water...

Phil Wood remembers the village life of seventy years ago.

I was born on Vinegar Hill, Undy, in 1923, one of a family of two girls and two boys. The hill was a different place in those days, instead of housing estates there were a few cottages with large gardens and open green spaces called fields.

Services were non existent, the nearest mains water supply was a tap at the bottom of the hill. One of my jobs was to hang two buckets from a yoke across my shoulders, walk down to the tap and plod back up under the weight of five gallons of water. All other household water came from two large rectangular steel tanks bought from Cashmores, the Newport ship-breaker, which stored water collected from the roof gutters.

Light was supplied by Aladdin lamps while in the bedrooms were feeble Kelly lamps, all of which had to be filled with paraffin every morning. Cooking was done on a black kitchen range, which was black-leaded weekly, while the microwave option was represented by a Primus stove which ran on paraffin but had to be started on methylated spirits. Coal was cheap, 12 shillings a ton as my father was a railway man, storekeeper at Sevem Tunnel locomotive sheds.

Sanitary services were equally primitive. The weekly bath entailed heating the water in the wash house copper and filling the galvanised bath by hand. The copper was also used for the weekly clothes wash and for the Christmas puddings. These utensils shared the wash house with the hand operated washing machine, the pig killing bench, the chicken incubator and the large earthenware pan used for making wines from elderberries, cowslips, parsnips and other fruits of field and garden.

There was no rubbish collection. waste was fed to the pig or was burned in the kitchen range, while bottles and cans were dumped in a disused quarry, now covered with houses.

In the early Thirties the electric poles came up the hill and the oil lamps were pensioned off. About the same time mains water arrived. but our only connection was a tap in the wash house. Main drainage did not come until after the war by which time I had long gone. We made do with an earth closet.

My parents were hard working people. My father's three pounds a week from the G.W.R was augmented by vegetables, fruit and flowers grown in the garden, in which he worked every spare hour of daylight. Each Saturday morning my mother took the train to Newport taking market baskets of produce to the indoor market stall where she stood all morning alongside three of her sisters in the place where their mother had stood before them.

There was also the chicken farm in the field across the lane, and each Friday my mother would kill, pluck and draw a dozen broilers for market, as well as dozens of eggs. There was always a pig Battening in the sty and flitches of bacon hanging on the kitchen wall, ready to be sliced for breakfast.

As a railwayman my father had four free passes a year for the whole family, to anywhere in the country, so every summer we had a fortnight's seaside holiday, a different resort each year, from Penzance to Margate, by way of Tenby, Paignton, Teignmouth, etc, etc.

I was expected to work with the garden, the chickens, the yearly whitewash of the house, and anything else that turned up. I took over my elder brother's job when he went to sea at fifteen. My Aunt Mary, famous for her cheeses. farmed at Pill Cottage, down on the levels, but as was common had fields all over the parish. So before and after school, night and morning, I herded the cows, on my bike, a mile or more along the public roads. For this labour I received the munificent wage of a tanner a week. However all was not work and we boys roamed the countryside, played the usual games and got up to the usual mischief which I suppose was mild by today's standard.

While a pupil at Larkfield I went by train from Undy Halt, long defunct, and my friend Reg Reese would pick me up to ride his cycle crossbar down Vinegar Hill. One morning his brakes failed and we hit the rear of Jim Sheppard's cow Jinny. We bounced off Jinny, hit the stone wall at Holleybush Farm and ended up in the garden. With the resilience of youth we picked ourselves up, straightened the wheel and proceeded on our way, followed by Jim's uncomplimentary remarks. He told all and sundry, "That young Wood and that young Reese came down the hill between eighty and a hundred miles an hour, they hit my poor Jinny in the arse, and I didn't see her for an hour.

Life on Vinegar Hill was very different seventy years ago, without any of the services now taken for granted. Today the hill is covered with houses, each with electricity, television, telephones, gas, hot and cold water, mains drainage, and rubbish collection.

Still, I look back with affection on my boyhood in a way of life that has vanished, never to return.


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