Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Recollections of boyhood holidays spent in Eton 1931-1939

The memories I relate here are those I recall after a lapse of more than 70 years. They are fragmentary in nature and of no special significance, except insofar as they give me pleasure in recalling scenes of my boyhood.

My first acquaintance with Eton would have been in 1931. We lived in Belfast, where my father had moved after the 1914-18 war, and this was my first journey outside Ireland. Leaving Belfast on the evening boat to Liverpool, we journeyed by train to Euston, then over to Paddington, from whence we traveled to Slough, changed trains for the Windsor branch line, and arrived in Windsor Central sometime in the late afternoon. Crossing Windsor Bridge, we walked down the High Street until we came to a Garage. Suddenly we turned down a narrow lane — Tangier Lane. A short distance further on we turned off into Sunbury Road, where my grandparents lived at No. 11. A meal, and then, for my sister and 1, bed. Sunbury Road was a quiet little cul-de-sac, at the end of which was a large yard containing some timber sheds and a wired-off hen run. On the opposite side of the road was a small shop of the General Store variety, where my sister and I — when we were given the money — bought Sherbet Bags from which one sucked sherbet through a liquorice tube, Grandma occasionally gave us scraps of bread to feed to the hens, which were owned by a rather dour man whose name I cannot remember with certainty.

Granddad's house was small, two downstairs rooms and a kitchen. The WC was outside, accessed from the back garden. It was in the front room that, one sunny afternoon, I discovered on a bookshelf Jules Verne's "From the Earth to The Moon". I was entranced by this, and could hardly put it down when called for tea.

Two sounds stay in my memory. One, the mellow chimes of the College clock; the other, the peculiar yodelling call of the milkman "Milk-ooo", as I sat reading in the front room.

In those years, the High Street was quite busy with buses and lorries of various sorts, although as the years passed the traffic became heavier. However, it was easy enough to cross over to the passageway leading to St. John's — which at that time still had a spire — and which brought us into South Meadow, A short distance away were two swings, which my sister and I made frequent use of
The river played a large part in our holidays. At approximately the spot where the river boats now start, one could hire rowing boats of various sizes. My father, whose service in the Royal Navy in the 1914-18 war probably influenced his choice, always hired a four-oar Gig, in which in the course of time I learned to row quite competently under his instruction, and could "feather" my oars. The photograph below shows one of these Gigs with my sister and I rowing, with father and Granddad in the stern seat Granddad is the one with a cap and the tiller lines over his shoulder. I think that I was making some uncomplimentary remark to my sister.


We usually rowed up towards Boveney, as I remember my father instructing me to turn "bows on" to the not inconsiderable wake left by the river steamers of that time, so this photo was most likely taken by my mother somewhere on the way.

River steamers at that time started from Riverside, and had to lower their funnels to pass under Windsor Bridge. A partial view of one of the steamers in shown on Page 122 of the series of photographs of Windsor and district taken by the late Samuel Logan in the mid 1930's, and is reproduced below.



On the way up to Windsor, there was at the corner of the Bridge and on the left hand side, there was a small shop that sold fishing tackle (could this by the one mentioned by Brinsley-Richard in his "Seven Years at Eton"?). One day my father bought a fishing rod and tackle, and, equipped with sandwiches and ginger beer tablets, he and I proceeded along the Brocas until we found a suitable spot to sit and cast our 1ine into the water. Our catch that day was five gudgeon. We had them fried for tea and a disappointment they were, as they had a distinctly muddy flavour, as also had our ginger beer when we dissolved the ginger beer tablets in river water. 

My father was always interested in church architecture, and we never failed to take a walk up to Boveney Church which I think was still in use at that time. The door was open, and I recollect the Sanctuary Lamp suspended from the roof was lit on the occasion of my first visit. 

At that time, Windsor was not nearly as crowded with tourists as it is now. Access to the Castle was simply a matter of walking through the Henry VIII Gateway — no queue or entrance charge — and thereafter the whole Castle, with the exception of the private areas, was open to one. Up the circular staircase in the Round Tower, passing the Sebastopol Bell and onto the battlements, the Curfew Tower, Cloisters, and down the Hundred Steps. Other walks took us through the College, past the Cloisters, where the pump was still in working order, out past King Prajadhipok's Garden and so over to Fellows Pond and Sixth Form Bench, where for the first time in my life I saw a kingfisher. 

Reverting to Granddad's house, the street door opened directly into the front room, where the penny in the slot gas meter was installed. As the only lighting was by gas, a sudden diminution in the light warned that another penny had to be put into the meter. Cooking was by gas stove in the kitchen, entered from the living room, where a large coal-fired range was still in place, but never used except possibly in winter for heating the room. 

In the garden at the back was an arch, over which and along the railings separating the house Granddad had trained hops which, according to Grandma, came from the "Hop Garden". My father took a root of this home, where it flourished. In course of time I took a root of this when I moved to and settled in Dublin. It still grows vigorously in my back garden, and it is to me my last living link with Eton. 

With the outbreak of war our visits to Eton ceased, and I did not see it again until 1948. Grandma was dead, and Granddad was in a nursing home in Slough. That summer I went to visit him, and stayed in the Cockpit which at that time took paying guests. Apart from the damage to the College, Eton looked much the same as I remembered it. Buses to Slough were still operating via the High Street, Undoubtedly, the closing of Windsor Bridge to traffic has, in my opinion, improved Eton by restoring to it comparative calm and peacefulness. 

While jotting down these recollections of the past, brief and inconsequential as they are, I wondered why I have such an interest in, and affection for, Eton. It may simply be that I was so happy and received so many new experiences there as a boy. It may be because it appealed so much to my interest in history and things of the past.

By S. Baldwin

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