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U3A Writing: Happy Days

...I can always remember a wireless in our house - all be it operated by batteries. A large dry battery and a wet accumulator which had to be charged on a regular basis. They were very selective when it was switched on to conserve the batteries. News and weather bulletins were always listened to and I can well remember getting up in the early hours of the morning to listen to the commentary of the Tommy Farr and Joe Louis fight, a crackling and fading transmission from America...

Bill Davies recalls an idyllic Welsh childhood.

Since retiring, I invariably accompany my wife every Friday morning to the local supermarket to do the weekly shop. When I see the trolleys loaded with all the purchases I often reflect on how life has changed since I was a small boy and how self- sufficient families were then.

I was born in 1928 on a large estate in West Breconshire. My father worked for the two local squires and we lived in a tied house with a little bit of land. I was the youngest but one of a family of six children, four boys and two girls. My sisters were the eldest and had left home to work away and I cannot remember them living at home. They did however return occasionally to visit.

We lived on the outskirts of Trecastle - a small village on the highest point of the A40. Although the A40 was considered a major road I well remember playing whip and top on the road - an indication of how infrequent the traffic was then. In the winter, when freezing, we would throw buckets of water on the road to create a frozen slide where we would spend a long time enjoying ourselves. My father could whistle very loudly with is fingers and although we could be anything up to a quarter of a mile away from our home, we would always hear his distinctive whistle which was our signal to go home.

My parents, every year, raised two pigs. They bought two piglets and fed them barley meal and scraps and killed them at a prearranged date - when they were around 15 stone - always in the winter. There were at least 6 families in the immediate area who, like us, kept pigs. In those days there were no freezers or fridges and every part of the pig could be eaten. Apart from the flitches which were salted for bacon, ham and gammon, everything had to be eaten and it was too much for one family. Arrangement would be made in advance when each family would kill their pig and fresh meat would be exchanged between families and recorded meticulously in a book to the nearest ounce. This was a barter system which my parents kept up to the mid fifties. On the day we killed the pig my mother would be very fearful as it was she who fed the pigs every day and she always had a name for them. On killing day the bladder would be blown up and this would be our football for a few days.

There were always 50 or 60 hens and either a few ducks or geese. She would breed her own chickens by putting a broody hen to sit on a clutch of eggs (usually 13) and when hatched, if very cold, the weakest would be put by the fire in the house and hand fed until they were able to join their mother. Apart from keeping the odd couple, all cockerels were bred and killed for the table. When feathering, all down feathers were kept in a big sack for making feather beds. I can still, today when I think of it, feel the warmth and snugness of the feather bed during a cold winter's night. When the geese were killed, the goose grease from cooking was kept for medical purposes.

A field of potatoes would be planted every year and all the workmen on the estate would have sufficient potatoes for their family for the year. To prevent them from being affected by frost a hole was dug in the garden and a good layer of dried fern was put into it. The potatoes would then be put on this fern and another thick layer of dried fern would be put on top. This was known as a "clamp". The clamp would be opened periodically and a supply be taken out for usage.

My father's people farmed in a hill farm about four miles away at the foothills of the Carmarthen Van and our cheese and butter came from there. When there was abundant grazing for the cows in the summer salted butter would be made for the winter. This would be put in large earthenware pans and covered first with greaseproof paper and then a cloth. This would last us most of the winter.

Friday was baking day in our house. We used to have a hundred - weight of flour delivered every so often and stored in a wooden cask with a lid. My mother would bake all the bread for the week, loaf cakes, tarts and a pile of welsh cakes. The home-made bread was so wholesome. She used to make most of the jam we ate, blackcurrant, gooseberry and crab apple jelly. In season we would pick mushrooms in large quantities and we knew a spring where watercress grew.

I can always remember a wireless in our house - all be it operated by batteries. A large dry battery and a wet accumulator which had to be charged on a regular basis. They were very selective when it was switched on to conserve the batteries. News and weather bulletins were always listened to and I can well remember getting up in the early hours of the morning to listen to the commentary of the Tommy Farr and Joe Louis fight, a crackling and fading transmission from America.

On the estate was a large flock of sheep tended by a shepherd and an attested pedigree Hereford cattle herd. My father's boss was a recognised quality judge of cattle - travelling as far as Australia and New Zealand to do so.

There was a 0.410 cartridge gun in our house - an American bolt action with a magazine to hold five cartridges. My father would not let us boys use this gun until we were at least eleven years of age and always taught us to exercise the utmost safety with it. Many rabbits were shot with this gun which were, of course, part of our diet. Rabbits had to be kept down and my father's boss was one of the best shots in Wales with a 12 bore gun. Many Saturdays in the winter we would go with him ferreting - 4 ferrets (muzzled) - 50 nets - leaving some uncovered with nets for him to have a pot shot at. At the end of the day - 60 - 70 or 80 rabbits would be bagged. Old age pensioners, people who were ill, and of course ourselves would take home rabbits. What were not wanted were taken to Brecon Hospital.

Turnips were grown in the fields for feeding sheep in the winter. This was also a vegetable we used to use a lot and cawl was on the menu at least once a week.

As a matter of interest if, in the winter, cabbages were not available for Sunday dinner, turnip top made a very good substitute.

There was no running water near the house - a butt collected the rain water off the roof and many mornings we would have to break the ice in order to wash ourselves in the outhouse first thing in the morning. All drinking water had to be carried 100 yards from the pump. Monday was washing day and bathfuls of water had to be carried from the pump. Clothes washing was, of course, done in the bath, placed on the bench and using a scrubbing board.

Only one coal fire was used which had an oven by the side of it for baking and roasting. Only on special occasions was the fire lit in the parlour but always at Christmas time. To eke out the coal my father would haul fallen trees on the estate by horse and cart and we would spend hours sawing logs by hand with two handed cross cut and splitting kindling wood which had to be dried for lighting the fire. My mother would have to cook our breakfasts over an open fire in the big frying pan. Ashes had to be moved from the grate daily, everything around the grate black leaded and fender cleaned with Brasso until it shone.

Bath night was Saturday. Water was carried from the pump and heated. The youngest was bathed first and sent to bed, then the next and so on. My father and mother would bath last. In the summer we boys wore cotton shirts but in winter, we had to wear Welsh flannel shirts which my mother made. Around the beginning of October, when the weather would be getting a bit colder, we would be bathed and the Welsh flannel shirts would be put on - next to the skin - NO VEST! For a week or so it would be very uncomfortable as it would prick and itch your skin. Once you got used to it there's no doubt, it kept you very warm in the winter.

There would have to be something seriously wrong with you to be taken to the doctor. My mother had her own cures. She used to make two casks of wine every year - one of elder flower and one of elderberry. If you had a cold you would be sent to bed with a glass of either heated up. If you had a sore throat you had to gargle with salt water. One of your home knitted woollen stockings that you were wearing would be pinned around your neck when going to bed. If you had toothache you were given a clove or two to chew. If you sounded a bit chesty your back and chest would be rubbed with goose grease when going to bed. If you had a bowel problem you were given a spoonful of syrup of figs. If that didn't work, she would resort to senna pod tea in the morning and that was a sure cure.

I was brought up in a Welsh speaking community and my father was Welsh speaking. My mother however hailed from Raglan and did not speak Welsh but, having married at 19 and having lived in the area until she was 80, she was able to take full part in Church services which were conducted in Welsh and English. But Welsh was not spoken in our house. I have always regretted not being fluent in Welsh although I took Welsh in school until I was 16 and married into a Welsh speaking family. I do understand a lot of Welsh however.

Welsh is recognised as the oldest European language and is often referred to by Welsh speaking people as "the language of heaven".

Our home was a happy home with good, loving, hard working parents but they would not put with any nonsense. In a position within easy reach was a swish hazel cane known as the "ginney" which would be used if the occasion warranted it - more often than not the threat of it would be enough to stop transgression.

The Church played a big part in our lives. When we were young the social life of the village revolved around it. Sunday morning church regularly and afternoon Sunday School. Confirmation at around ten years of age and when you were around seven years of age you joined the church choir. Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide festivals were celebrated with a tea party in the Church Hall. You were encouraged to take part in concerts and plays from an early age. The highlight of the year was the summer Church outing to the sea side - Aberystwyth, Tenby or Porthcawl. I do not remember my father having a holiday but even he came on the Church outings and, within reason, we kids could have whatever we wanted, as on this day our parents would be quite free with their purse strings. The other thing I remember about Sundays, it was a day of rest, apart from cooking meals and feeding animals. Shops and pubs were closed - a selected few would always be admitted by the back door.

We children learnt to swim in pools in the river Usk. We were taught at an early age by having a rope attached to the body under the arms with the knot under your chin. The pool we used was called the "rock pool" which was well over our heads in depth with a big rock on one side. We would dive off the rock into this deep water while someone held the rope and at first gently pulled us through the deep water. Every time we dived in the rope would be pulled less so psychologically your confidence was boosted. It is a well known fact that swimming is a question of mind over matter and most of us kids were swimming by the time we 6 years old.

Lighting was by oil lamps down stairs and candle sticks upstairs. A hurricane lamp was used to tend animals and to see during the hours of darkness outside. Oil lamps had to have their wicks trimmed and filled with paraffin on a regular basis.

My father's boss lived in a very big house with many rooms. The house and most of the farm buildings were lit by electricity which had been installed in the twenties. A Blackstone oil engine drove a big dynamo by a belt from the fly wheel which charged a room full of accumulators which supplied the electricity. This engine, by means of a pulleys and belts, could also drive machinery for mechanical sheep shears, corn, wheat and barley crushing and wood sawing. My father had been instructed in operating and maintaining this engine, which had to be run at least three times a week in order to keep the accumulators charged.

There were always at least six hunters in the stables as fox hunting was very much an activity enjoyed by many during this period. My father was very skilled at breaking in those horses which took a great deal of time and patience in order to retain the spirit in the horse. Today there is a lot of what is termed "crash breaking" when horses are broken in by cruelty quickly whereby the horses lose their spirit and become very docile animals. This is specially dominant with children's riding ponies, obviously for monetary gain. My brother and I spent a lot of time, when not in school, helping my father with the horses, cleaning out and putting in fresh bedding, grooming, clipping, exercising them and cleaning tack, saddles and bridles. There was a saddle room where a lovely anthracite fire burnt night and day through the winter to prevent mildew forming on the tack. We spent many hours in the saddle room in the winter in the evenings because it was well lit with electricity and was warm with the fire. We would play skittles and quoits (throwing rubber rings at a board with hooks in it).

On the 12th August - the glorious 12th - my father would got with a party from the big house to the shooting box at the foot of the Carmarthen Van for a week of grouse shooting. They would be well equipped with provisions, beer and spirits - all men. Apparently my father would be the cook. The grouse have disappeared from this area now because of over grazing with sheep which caused the heather not to grow.

In the village there were two carpenters and a blacksmith. These carpenters, who were brothers, were also wheelwrights and could make wooden wheels for the farm carts - a very skilled job. The blacksmith would make a metal band to put on the outer rim of the wheel. He would fit this outer band by first of all heating it up to expand it, and then place it around the wooden wheel. He would immediately douse it with cold water to stop it burning the wood, at the same time the metal would contract and shrink onto the wheel. This action would tighten the outside wooden band and spokes in the wooden axle - a very skilled job and an experience to watch it being done. We sometimes were asked to take horses to the blacksmiths to have new shoes fitted. The carpenter was also the village undertaker and would make the coffins himself.

Our own every day footwear were stout leather boots with metal heel and toe tips and the soles studded. However, we did have shoes for Sunday and wearing on special occasions. Being 4 boys and our parents living in a small 3 bedroom house, organisation was essential. Each of us had a very large compressed cardboard suit case in which we kept our best clothes and any other small individual possessions. Our clothes would have to be folded and stowed away in theses cases which were kept under the beds.

Hiring fairs were held in Brecon town twice a year, May and November. Farmers would hire their working hands for either 6 months or 12 months. The transaction would be sealed by spitting on their hands and then shaking hands. The streets would be filled with a fun fair. Agricultural shows in the summer were annual events eagerly looked forward to by a very large crowd. My father was presented with a long service medal at Brecon bi-centenary show of 1958 by the present Queen. He was on cloud nine for easily a month after this.

My father cut all the hay and corn on the farm with horses - getting up at day light and often working till dark. In 1938 a tractor was bought - the first in the district - and my father drove it. It was a "Allis Chambers" American tractor. It was very light on the front and, although a 56lb weight was suspended from the radiator, it proved unsuitable and dangerous because of the hill terrain of the area whereby they were afraid it might topple over backwards. It was kept for a year but, just before war broke out, they exchanged it for a Ferguson tractor with metal wheels and metal spikes on the rear wheels. This was a wonderful machine which had an hydraulic mechanism to lift and lower at the rear which was invaluable when ploughing. This tractor lasted the duration of the war.

One of my father's bosses sisters had married the local hunt master who farmed a 400 acre farm about two miles away and ran a pack of hounds. Just before the war, when I was ten, she asked my father for me to go to work in her 2 acre garden where she employed an old gentleman - who had been a coal miner - called Mr Evans. I worked Saturdays and holidays 8 to 5 for half a crown (12p) a day. Mr Evans, the old gardener, taught me how to cut the lawns with an Atco mower, weed the flower beds, prune roses and how to dig and set a big vegetable garden; how to build crazy paving garden paths and patios and how to cut yew hedges straight and level. I worked there until I was 16, when I left school, but as the war progressed I worked less and less in the garden and more and more on the farm as there was a dire shortage of labour.

My father's original boss had a business in Brecon town and travelled every day by train from Sennybridge station which was 3 miles away. My father had to drive to meet the train in a carriage and pair (2 horses). Because of this he was nicknamed John Coachy. Breconshire has a large number of its population with DAVIES surname. All us boys would be known as Alec Coachy, Herbert Coachy and Bill Coachy etc; everybody in the district would know exactly who they were referring to.
About 2 years before the out break of the 1914 - 1918 war the squire bought a car and my father was instructed in driving and maintaining it and so was the first man to drive a car from the village. He apparently had a chauffeur's peaked cap and livery. The job did not last many years however, because he taught the squire's 4 children to drive.

Brecon had been the barrack town for many years for the South Wales Borderers - the 24th of foot. Thousands of troops were trained there during the war. At the very outset of the war the Ministry of Defence wanted to compulsory purchase a 12 mile square tract of land north of the village known as the Egypt mountain.

A community of families farmed this area with their own school and chapel - about 350 men, women and children were given three months to quit. This area straight away became an artillery practise range. We also very quickly got used to the sound of distant shell fire of the 25 pounders, which featured so prominently in North Africa with the 8th Army. Sennybridge camp was soon built and we saw an influx of American, Indian, Free French and of course our own troops.

As the war progressed my eldest brother was called up to County Regiment - The South Wales Borderers. A couple of years later the next brother to me - Herbert - was called up to the same regiment. Both went to Normandy with the D Day invasion. It was a very trying time for my mother who had had a brother gassed in the 1914 - 1918 war. I left school during the last year of the war and left home to work in Lysaght's Steelworks.



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