Wednesday 23 October 2019

Eton Wick Remembered - The Common Ponds

Gates and stiles across the roads and passage ways leading to the common prevented the cattle straying - unless someone left a gate open. Inevitably this often happened, especially at night and a lot of damage could be done before the animals were captured. No doubt more than one person has bitter memories of a devastated allotment. The main gate across Sheepcote Road was padlocked, for the road was private with a right of access for vehicles only as far as the school. Walkers could use the footpath and side gate.  The Walk was also a private road, but its gate was used by anyone who wished; both gates, however, were closed to all traffic on Good Friday by a rope at the Eton Wick Road ends. There was a gate across the main road at the edge of Dorney Common, and this had a gatekeeper; but other gates in the village usually had to be opened by the users. Mrs Newell and young Ginny, however, would often do duty as gatekeeper for people who wanted to use the gate between their house and Wheatbutts; Ginny was frequently rewarded with a halfpenny or penny for her trouble. Earlier in the century when Mr Vaughan rode into the village he would often shout 'Gate: Gate’ and wait for it to be opened. These gates were still in use as late as the 1950s and one gatepost survived until the Walk was widened in 1969.  The death knell for the gates came with the improvement in agriculture. It was impossible to manoeuvre a combine harvester round the Common Lane corner by Wheatbutts successfully without knocking into the gate. It was equally difficult for the market lorry from Manor Farm to get round the curve in the road by the Greyhound with its jug-and-bottle extension. Several times the lorry took the tiles off the roof, and finally a tractor pulling a harrow and drill did untold damage to the gate which was then removed sometime in the fifties. We take the sight of a combine harvester for granted now, but when Manor Farm first began to use one the police escort provided a fine spectacle as it was taken along the narrow, winding Eton Wick Road.

Thoughts of the common provoke many more memories of a village now lost. Some are fleeting, like that of a spring morning in about 1932 when a much younger Cyril Doe watched a heron feed off twenty-seven fish caught in the brook by Albert Place. Other memories belong to no particular year for the events were repeated many times. Every November two bonfires were built on the common, one opposite Dairy Farm and the other beyond the Greyhound. There was rivalry   between the builders of the two fires, which ensured that each was bigger and better than the other and much larger than any that could be built in a backyard. In the early part of the century the cricket club had its annual dinner on the common; the crockery being provided by the players' families and the trestle tables and food by the Greyhound.  Occasionally a wedding feast was also held here, conjuring up a delightful picture of village finery and stiff Sunday-best suits. A Victory Party was held here in 1945, several sales to raise money for kidney machines were held on the common in the 1960s and this year, 1977, the Jubilee bonfire was lit on the common.

For as long as can be remembered until 1969 there were three ponds along the stretch of brook between the Greyhound and Wheatbutts.  Mr Elkins used to punt across the one opposite the public house in order to reach his smithy when he was the blacksmith, though there were also a line of stepping stones. Before the First World War the ponds were quite deep, and there are   apocryphal stories of horses that were drowned or stuck In the mud and deep water.  The largest of the ponds stretched from Dairy Farm to the roadside, and here lads of the village enjoyed bathing.  As the decades passed, however, silting made them too shallow, and the boys of the 1930s had to make do with 'punting' in old fashioned round tubs. Even so a line of white posts marked the shallow edge. Once a year a motorcycle club from Windsor used this as a water splash. The motor cyclists had to keep between the posts and roadside railings and on the morning of the rally It was usual for a club member to test the depth of the water to ensure it did not come above the exhaust pipes.  One year in the mid-thirties two lads from the village damned the brook just below the pond so that by the time the cyclists arrived the water was too deep for them to ride through; one after another they had to dismount and push their cycles out of the pond.

The farmer of Dairy Farm regularly washed his cows and carts in the brook and the housewives of Common Road used to throw waste water onto the common. Even so the water reminded clean enough for great islands of rich green watercress to grow where the water was not stagnant. In between the wars an old chap from Chalvey came with his four-wheeled pram and a couple of washing baskets to fill with watercress, which he would then tie into small bunches and sell for 6d each in Slough. Village folk could and did collect their own whenever they wished. Fish were abundant In the brook, Including jack pike and trout - big enough to attract men with rod and line as well as children with nets and home-made lines. In a year of drought there were hundreds of fish for the taking to eat or sell, so many in the drying-up pools they could be scooped out.

Perhaps one of my favourite memories of the common as seen through the eyes of others tells of a time very different from today. It concerns a series of tiny actions which happened countless times in the twenties and thirties. Early each morning a shed door was opened, and fifty chickens and a dozen ducks were let out on to the common. The ducks quickly joined their wild cousins on the ponds, but the chickens scattered all over the common and the fields to the north, roaming even as far as Chalvey? Each evening they returned home, none was ever lost, and they provided enough eggs for a basket to be sold each day to a baker in Eton.

Apart from the farmers not many people in the village owned horses and those that did mostly had some kind of business. Messrs Parrot and Hood, both coal merchants, delivered by horse and cart, as did Thomas Lovell, baker, Bert Bond, greengrocer, George Howell, decorator and   undertaker, Mrs. Lanfier, Jack Prior, Rolly Bond and others. Bill Langridge operated a cab service before the First World War when he lived at Thatch Cottage. Few of the houses had their own stables, though Ye Olde Cottage, Thatch Cottage and Eton Cottage did, and the stables of Albert Hood in Sheepcote Road have already been mentioned. There were stables too at the Three Horseshoes and the Greyhound and these were used by some of the tradesmen. Rolly Bond's horses were kept at the Three Horseshoes and Thomas Lovell kept his at the large brick stables in Victoria Road belonging to Heathcote House.  A few families had a horse and trap, the equivalent of the family car. The Smiths who lived at Albert Place had one before the First World War; the black lean to shed did duty as stable and 'garage', but during the floods the horse had to be brought Into the scullery.  As in any English village the horse was an integral part of the scene; the sight of a horse and cart was as commonplace as the car is today, and a horse drawing a plough or harrow was seen far more often than the tractor simply because jobs took so much longer before they were mechanized.  Long before this, however, the sight of a carriage and four-in-hand using the old road which linked Boveney and Brocas Street in Eton had become only a memory.

Many people in the village kept other livestock: bantams, chickens, geese, ducks, rabbits and pigs.  These were for the family to eat and to sell, and, even if memory exaggerates, thirty or more rabbits was not an unusually large number for one family to keep. No wonder the collecting of green stuff from the verges and field edges looms large in childhood memories.  Enjoyable on warm sunny evenings, or before school when the air was crisp and bright, it was less pleasant when the vegetation was cold and wet. Household waste was collected for pigswill by many housewives to feed their own pig or to give to a neighbour. It was a good arrangement, - it helped to solve the problem of what to do with waste, as there were no dustbins. When the pig was killed a lump of pork would be given in return to the neighbour. Most families sold the pig to the butcher taking only part of it for themselves, So that it truly was a 'piggy bank.'

All sorts of other foods were prepared in the home as a matter of course jams and chutneys, although they could be bought by the tuppence worth form the grocer if you took your own jar.  Fruit and tomatoes were bottled, eggs pickled in isinglass, and peas and even runner beans were dried to ensure a supply of pulse vegetables during the winter months.  Mushrooms could be gathered from the meadows such as Meux's Field, and blackberries from the hedges of the same field, along the slipes (the path running from Moores Lane to Wood Lane) and around Little Common.  Fruit and vegetables were grown in gardens and allotments, and it should be remembered that between the wars Eton Wick had many acres of allotments. But not all   families were self-sufficient; other memories paint intriguing glimpses of life in the old village, such as housewives buying twopence worth of 'pot herbs' from Bert Bond's cart.  These were not herbs at all, but a selection of root vegetables suitable for a stew, and they were often carried home in the housewives' apron. The same housewives might buy a rabbit for a few pence and insist on watching it skinned then and there for fear of being palmed off with a cat: Tinned and packaged goods were rarely bought, partly   because of economy and partly because of prejudice against their supposedly inferior quality. Items such as butter, sugar, dried fruit, bacon and cheese were bought loose; but tinned fruit was considered a great treat for Sunday tea or at Christmas. All this made the lack of a dustbin less of a handicap.  Much too of what we think of as rubbish today had a further use forty years ago. String and paper could be used again, ash was needed to keep the well-trodden path from the house to the outside privy dry and the compost heap made good use of tea-leaves and much food waste. Any ash that was surplus to needs could be taken away for a very small charge each week by Peaky Barratt in the 1920s and '30s.

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