My Time in Stonnall
Edited by Julian Ward-Davies
Moving to Stonnall
I moved to North Manor House on 27th May, 1957, one day before my eighth birthday. My parents, grandparents and a selection of family pets, made the move from Four Oaks. I remember that the move was instigated by my grandmother, who would have moved on a yearly basis, given the option. She maintained that this was because of her nomadic temperament, but really it was because she was a malcontent, and very quick to identify any faults and failings which she complained could only be remedied by a complete change.
Fortunately for rest of the family, the Manor House and the garden afforded her a sufficiently big challenge to keep her busy for many years. She was an avid gardener, and did manage to create a super garden, with assistance of my grandfather, father and mother.
The really strange thing is that I have no recollection of the day that we arrived in Stonnall, except some very hazy memory of the pleasure and amazement I felt at the size of our breakfast room, which in later years I roller skated around, accompanied, on occasions by Pauline Blakemore, or Margaret Greaves, or the Gill Family. The room housed the Rayburn and, apart from my bedroom and the garden, this room was my sanctuary when I returned frozen to the bone from riding at the Boydells, or from Gorse Farm, Lazy Hill, where my ponies grazed, or in teenage years from the field owned by The Mountfords in Mill Lane.
I cannot remember if I started at Stonnall School, the next day, or on the 29th May. But I think that it was possibly the day after the move, I can recall announcing that it was my birthday, as I took up residence in Mr Ball’s class. I do remember that I had already made the acquaintance of the Gill children, Susan, Geoffrey and Lynda. They had been playing by the pond, which was directly opposite the Manor House, and I went over to them and joined them. We were to spend many happy hours together. The pond and Grove Hill were the centres of our universe, when we weren’t making dens in the wheat and being chased off by Sam Ikin, or trooping down the old Chester road, pretending to be... I don’t know what.
Photo: John Webb
The first day at Stonnall School was a little daunting, but I thought that Alan Ball was one of the kindest teachers that I had ever had - and indeed he was. Some of the braver and more rebellious elements tasked his temper to the limit, but for me, a sensitive and anxious child, he was wonderful. I met Roger Ward-Davies on my first day. He was older than I was and very interested in the sweets that I had in my possession! Sometime later he would join us for a bicycle ride to Footherley Woods, with my mother as supervisor. We were ghost spotting. Roger insisted that it was haunted!
Life in the Village
Life was very different then. Stonnall was very different: no Glenwood Rise, just a field full of ponies and riding lessons. I learnt to ride at the Boydells, and when my grandfather bought my first pony, a Welsh section C cob, he was at livery there. It was not just the sight of the Boydell's horses that fired my passion to ride at some point not long after we arrived, Joyce Burton came to see if I would like to see her pony Hester, and thus began a friendship that has lasted 57 years, despite her residency in the Hebrides, and mine in South Devon. She tells me that she cannot remember why she sought me out since she was a very grown up 12 and I was only 8 years old, but we have since decided that, because I was tall, she had assumed that I was older than I was.
Photo: The Burton family archive
Joyce and I roamed across the blackcurrant fields both on foot and on horseback. Life was full of sunny days and long hot summers, it seemed. I remember one hot day, when Billy Platt and a group of other friends, possibly the Gills, went on an adventure to climb up Lazy Hill in the sweltering heat. Billy must have been in charge, because we would have had to cross the Chester Road, which at that point was a tricky thing to do. In fact, the Chester Road was a little bit like the end of the earth, a nerve wracking thing to negotiate safely, and there were many serious accidents, some of which my father and grandfather would try and help out with, often forcing open jammed car doors. Later on, Trigger our Black Labrador lost his life on the road, having escaped courtesy of Co-op milkman, Norman, who suffered with neuralgia.
Stonnall old and new
The new bungalows lining Main Street, dipping down into the centre of the village, were either about to built, or building work had in fact started in 1957. I was soon to make friends with Mary Fisher, the Pickering girls and Margaret Greaves. We all went to the village school, of course. There was no travelling to school by car then. Generally we all walked there and back, purchasing sweets to aid the journey from the post office or Hastilow’s little shop. I do remember at least one exception to this, when my mother collected me in her ancient Austin 7. The block had cracked and it was filled with, and leaving a trail of, bright blue smoke, much to Billy Platt’s amusement.
The lower part of the village opposite to where the Kirkhams lived was bordered by wide grass verges with drainage ditches, apart from the council bungalows, there was no new building at that end of the village, and in the centre of the village, all the old house had big gardens which have now disappeared to infill building. Stonnall was a village of locals with long histories and my family were probably the last interlopers before the Main street bungalows were occupied.
We must have appeared a curious bunch. My father, although born in Holland, was German, and there we were , three generations in the same house. My father was a prisoner of war when my mother met him at Kinver Edge on a picnic with her parents on Easter Sunday in 1948. My grandmother felt very sorry for the three half-starved looking Germans who were let out of camp to work on the local farms and gave them their picnic tea to eat. My father married my mother six weeks later but, by the time that I was born in 1949, both of my parents had been diagnosed with TB. My father was classed as untreatable, and miraculously recovered because my grandmother allowed him to be a medical research case for the antibiotic Streptomycin. My mother had a massive operation in Queen Elizabeth Hospital and ultimately survived. By the time the family was reunited, my parents were very much dependent on my grandparents for accommodation. Hence, three generations in one house.
Photo: The Gerwinat family
Before we moved to Stonnall, when I was a toddler, we lived at the Beeches in Shenstone. The land adjoining and at the rear of the property had not been sold for building then, and we had a dog boarding kennels and a smallholding, with pigs, chickens and the attendant usual assortment of animals. When we arrived at the Manor House, the garden was very overgrown and neglected, so my grandfather bought a couple of pigs to turn the land over. We also had a few geese that hated me, and a number of hens, but then the garden was colonised by my grandmother and the livestock had to go. Gradually a lovely garden evolved, but the old pig sty, stable and greenhouse with a well remained.
The Manor House
We didn’t do very much work to the inside of the Manor House, apart from decoration. We did put a second window into the living room, at the side of the property. Originally it sported five windows on the north wall, not six. We put a new fireplace into the dining room. There had been some trouble with smoke escaping into my grandmother’s bedroom, through what appeared to be a second flue. This was later dubbed a secret passage, but Julian tells me that a dumb waiter has been discovered in one wall, so who knows?
The original staircase from the Manor House and the original living room fireplace, I always understood had been stripped out and sold to America. This possibly did happen, but in those days, it was usual for containers of antiques to be sent to America, so it was probably a less impressive transaction than it sounds. Apart from the huge timbers in the roof, the old straw filled ceilings, the wonderful Georgian oak boards that gleamed of honey and the space that the Manor afforded, it was to an eight-year-old just a home like any other.
Tales of tunnels, highwaymen and ghosts
But there was the tunnel, filled-in everyone said, but linking Wordsley House and the Manor House and, supposedly, going under Chester Road to Castle Hill. And there was the story that Dick Turpin stayed at the house when it was the Swan Inn. Also a ghost in South Manor house. But only the tunnel really seized my imagination.
Mr Hofton’s first wife, Dolly, loved children, and on occasions invited the Gill children and myself to visit for squash and biscuits. [The Hoftons were neighbours in the South Monor House - Editor] We were allowed to wander freely around the downstairs rooms, and on one occasion ended up in the cellar. North Manor House did not have a cellar, so this should have been adventure enough, but I was completely taken aback to see the entrance to the tunnel. I was really quite nervous about it because, having been told that it had been filled in, the sight of the arched brickwork and huge door was really amazing, I now understand that what I saw was the entrance to the staircase down to the tunnel, (Julian has been doing a lot of work on this.) Julian has told me there was a second entrance in our courtyard, something which my father thought was a sewer cover. I remember rushing home to tell my parents, who were underwhelmed by my revelation and who probably assumed I was mistaken. When you are aged 8 or 9, the prospect of the possibility of strangers being able to access your home via an underground tunnel is mildly disturbing!
Some Stonnall people
Those few years, between moving to the village. and, broadening my horizons, and going to the Friary School in Lichfield, passed pleasantly enough. There was never a dull moment: long days filled with play and adventure, catching sticklebacks in the pond with jam jars, riding our bikes, etc, usually watched over by Bottle Glover at Ivy Cottage, who spent many a warm evening leaning on his picket gate, taking the air and watching our antics. The old police house was situated next to Marlais House, and Christopher Hill, the police constable’s son was much younger than our little gang and frequently threatened us that he would get his dad to arrest us all.
When the Boydells still lived at Marlais House, there was often some entertainment in the form of Mrs. Wynn, Mrs. Boydell’s mother, chasing her grandson Christopher down Main Street. He usually escaped without socks or shoes, and normally outran her. He would have been a young teenager at the time. Our family were very vocal, disagreements between the generations were frequent, but the Boydell household were in a league of their own, when it came to disagreements, with three sons, their parents, a grandparent and a host of stable girls usually supplementing their number. My family, although loyal to each other in many respects should really have been housed separately!
The high spot of the year was fruit picking at Burton's blackcurrant farm. Stonnall became a hive of activity and was inundated by all and sundry, mainly women who came to earn a little extra. On one occasion, Susan and Geoffrey Gill and I decided to have a go. After all, we thought it couldn’t be that difficult, and it would be good to supplement our pocket money. A full bucket of blackcurrants earned two shillings and sixpence, and whilst the experienced pickers around us filled bucket after bucket, I gave up after about two and a half hours with my bucket still not full, but only about a couple of inches from the top. I think I got paid about one shilling and sixpence, and decided there and then that that was the end of my fruit-picking career. The regular pickers were a tough breed, determined, energetic and very hard working.
Photo: The Burton family archive
The last few months at the school
Things became a little more serious when I entered Mr Stephens' class at School. A fiery Welshman with red hair, he was an excellent teacher and, apart from Dennis Ramsell, the whole class was in awe of him. This was the time when we started preparing for the 11+ exam. Intelligence tests, arithmetic papers and English were the order of the day. I frequently felt nauseous with nerves and really dreaded the whole thing. I think Mr. Stephens did too. He often went into the back room to have a cigarette whilst we were doing quiet reading. I cannot imagine that Dennis Ramsell had a nerve in his body, he was totally irrepressible! Lucky Dennis!
This, of course, was the beginning of the end for many of the friendships in that little school. By the following September, we would be allotted places in four different schools in Lichfield: the new Kings Hill Comprehensive, the Central, the Friary or King Edwards, and gradually our paths diverged as life took over. I wouldn’t be being completely honest if I said that I was really happy at school. It was still not that long after the war, and children are very adept at finding one’s Achilles heel. So when there was any trivial disagreement, I inevitably took flack because my father was German. Clifford Denton, whose family lived in the houses below the post office, had a German mother, but he was not around for very long because his mother could not settle and I believe the family relocated to Germany.
In 1960, I started at the Friary School. Thus began our twice daily trips on Harper's buses. Generally this was the best part of the day, not especially in the first couple of years , but later when I had ceased being shy and retiring. What fun we had! It would start from the minute that we waited at the bus stop on the green triangle by the Manor House. The journey to school was always more subdued than the riotous return journey. which closely resembled a St Trinians outing. On more than one occasion, one of our long suffering bus conductors known as Clint, used to order the bus to stop, and he would tell us that we were no better than a load of animals who should be in a cattle truck, and that the bus would not start again unless we all sat in our seats and shut up.
The days when we had cookery classes were the best. The boys from the grammar school would eat the decent cakes that had been made and throw the others around. Mine, sadly, fell into the latter category.
Our school hats were frequently used to clean the steam from the windows of the bus. This was in order to make them suitably scruffy so as to be cool. Then, there was Joyce Burton and her attempts to squash a certain King Ed’s sixth former into submission on the back seat. She did actually achieve this but then went on to greater things in the shape of her better half, Iain.
One of the brighter moments, that caused much hilarity, was when Bryan Preston, the younger son of the Prestons who kept the chemist shop in Aldridge, had his foot run over by a Harper Bros bus. I don’t think it could have done him too much damage. He has recently been Mayor in Saltash, on the Cornish border. His parents retired to St Germans many years ago.
My teenage years
Early teenage years in Stonnall, were little different from my childhood days, but now there was homework, so roving across the fields took a backseat. The youth club was a thriving concern, but I was not allowed to go, presumably considered to be too young, so I felt very annoyed with my parents and rather less sophisticated than the girls who did attend.
During these years my parents were friendly with Margaret and Alan Ball, and were introduced to caravanning by them, so many weekends were spent away from the village, and gradually I spent less and less time actually in Stonnall, as visits to friends from school played a bigger part in my life. By the time I was 15, my friends and I went to the Deep Litter club in Chesterfield. This was literally a Deep Litter hut that had been converted to provide a Disco and venue for small local bands. It was very popular then and we loved Saturday nights. During these teenage years, I still occasionally attended church with the Burton family. I used to be in the church choir during my junior School days but this probably got put on the back burner when I went to the Friary.
The Reverend Ward-Davies had the dubious honour of baptising me when I was 14. This happened so late because of my parents' illness when I was a baby, and then the years just rolled by. Later I attended confirmation classes with Joyce Burton, but did a runner at the second class because I had not learned the Apostle’s Creed as requested by the Reverend Ward-Davies. He very kindly came to my home to see if I was worried about anything, but I didn’t own up to my laziness.
Farewell and lasting reflections
We left the village for Shenstone when I was twenty. Stonnall had grown and changed a lot over years. The old original villagers were equalled or outnumbered by incomers, many of whom are probably old villagers themselves now! During my last few years at the Manor House, I really rather lost touch with the village, but living and growing up in Stonnall had a lasting effect on my life and engendered a love of the outdoors and rural living that has dictated many life choices. I also have to admit to having acquired an unusual role model from my time there. As a child playing by the pond watched over by Bottle Glover at his gate, I often wondered what it was he thought about as he stood so peacefully enjoying the summer evenings, I have always believed it to be very important to take time to reflect upon our lives and make sense of where we have been and understand the relevance of that. I have recalled Bottle many times over the years. Sadly, I cannot recall anything of real consequence, probably not what Julian would have hoped for... but this was my time in Stonnall.
© Linda Gerwinat 2015
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