Part 1 – Introduction – the house
Mother was a farmer’s daughter, a Devonian, born on Peter’s Farm, Marldon, some three miles inland from Paignton, and living there until she married and went north to live. What a contrast and traumatic experience it must have been for her to exchange the beautiful Devon countryside for the drabness of Albert Road. Strange, looking back that I never heard her talk about this turning point in her life. But what luck for me – and Muriel – to have been born the grandchildren of a farmer and to spend every summer holiday from birth to 16 or 17 in that wonderful world of animals and plants. These annual visits must have been one of the biggest influences of my life and outlook and are so much impressed on my mind and still giving me so much pleasure and delight, that I vow never to return to Marldon. Progress – so called – has invaded Peter’s Farm. Paignton has pushed its frontiers over the fields which swept down to the farm itself from Marldon Cross Hill and Five Lanes. The meadows of Cross Lomardy, Middle Lomardy, Cow Lomardy and Five Lanes Lomardy now echo to the noise of children playing in their gardens. Washing blows on clothes lines and cars are washed and repaired in the suburban drives where once the red Devon cows and sheep grazed, and grasshoppers jumped in meadows where a profusion of wild flowers and grasses grew. I’ve never seen this desecration nor wish to do so – it would shatter a long held and cherished dream.
Peter’s nestled in a hollow not far from the centre of the village. The house looking L-shaped from the front, its walls plastered and whitewashed, consisted of three parts which had been built at different times. The upper kitchen or higher kitchen as it was called was the oldest part, an original cottage. Its sloping floor was made up of irregularly shaped flat stones. One almost oval in shape and five foot long was of blue stone and time and many feet had polished and smoothed its slippery surface. At the foot of the wall opposite the front door was the ‘well’; this had the only tap in the house. There was no drain and surplus water collected at the bottom of the square shaped depression. I suppose there may well have been a well at one time but I never heard it mentioned. At the top end of the sloping kitchen was a white-washed larder in which milk for sale was kept. Most of the milk was sent to a dairy in Paignton but some was sold at the door. Village folk would come with jugs or enamel cans to collect their pint or quart. The milk was served out by a pint measure, a cylinder with a vertical handle which looped over the edge of the can. The only thing in the higher kitchen was an oil stove with four burners, two below pan rings and two below an oven. Close to the well a door opened to the back stairs. These were old and almost rickety, uncarpeted and led up to two bedrooms. These were unoccupied, a few odd items, an old chair, a black trunk, were stored there but they were mainly used for keeping apples during the winter. Our holidays were always in August but the smell of the apples still lingered.
Part of the other arm of the ‘L’ which had been built much later contained the main kitchen, a large airy room with its paved flagstone floor. On one side was a wide open fire place, big enough to take the largest logs and though possibly there was room for seats inside at each end, there was no evidence that there ever had been. From a point up the chimney (what fun to look up and see the sky) hung the toothed metal hook from which hung a large oval cauldron, the outside thick with soot. Across the ‘dogs’ lay a faggot of wood. This was lit first thing in the morning and soon there was a cauldron of hot water available for use. The water was scooped out with the ‘dipper’, a metal half sphere to which a handle was attached. It was one of the duties of one of the farmhands to bring in a new faggot from the faggot stack before leaving work each evening. This early morning fire held great attractions for me and I revelled in blowing up the grey embers with the bellows and adding logs to keep it going, especially when my Grandfather ( Richard Stranger) came to rest for a while in the old armchair by the fire. From an early age I was called ‘the good stoker’. I loved the smell of wood smoke and when in later years I romanticised about the blue haze which sometimes hung about the kitchen when the wind blew in the wrong direction, I was told off in no uncertain terms by Aunt Sue who had to suffer the discomfort of a smoke filled kitchen on many a day.
Projecting from the wall was a large open stove. The stove fire heated a hob above and an oven to its right whilst above the oven was a shallower tank of water. This was sealed with a brass top into which were affixed two brass lids, some 18 inches to 2 feet wide. When these were removed, two large bowls of milk could be placed in the circular holes and slowly scalded by the boiling water below. Gradually the cream rose to the surface and after a period of time the bowls were taken to the dairy to cool and the thick rich cream formed a firm crust. This was skimmed off and was of course the famous Devonshire Cream. Nothing sold in tubs in supermarkets these days bears any resemblance to the real thing. What memories of Sunday teas with bowls of fresh raspberries and spoonfuls of delicious cream, or cream spread thickly on a thick slice of bread topped with golden syrup – thunder and lightening as it was called.
There was a very large white wooden table in the kitchen which had been scrubbed so white and hard that the soft parts had been worn away and the tough lines of annual rings stood up in ridges. A bench was let into the wall along one side of the table and on this at meal times the men – and the cat – sat. I always sat there too and felt very much a recognised worker on the farm. There was a strange ritual that dinner was eaten at the bottom end of the table near the door, whilst tea was always served at the top end close to a wide window seat on which stood Aunt Sue’s geraniums. At both meals Grandma presided at the head of the table clad always in the Victorian/Edwardian black dress reaching the floor, its dark colour, relieved by a small white collar which matched her lovely white hair upswept into a bun. At this table she would draw chickens, pointing out to us the various organs and giving us our first biology lessons, and grind down huge blocks of salt for household use. And sometimes on a Monday she would patiently sit and chop the left over joint of beef to make the best meat and potato pasties I’ve ever tasted. Against the wall near the door stood a small bureau which contained a jumble of farm bills and receipts and above it a calendar supplied by Bibbys, the animal feedstuffs manufacturers with pictures each month of bulls, cows and sheep. The opposite end of the kitchen was taken up by cupboards which reached to the ceiling. Here were kept the cups and saucers and all the dry foods. Aunt Sue would stand with her head in one of these cupboards about mid morning eating a bread and butter sandwich. On the other side of the fireplace was a window high up on the wall and overlooking the front garden. Any letters for posting were placed behind a loose metal bar of the frame and the postman on seeing them would call in to collect them. Such was the courtesy and service of tho se days. Below the window on a narrow ledge was a shallow wicker basket containing a selection of old keys. Their use was long forgotten and yet year after year they languished in their dusty container. Above the mantelpiece on the wall hung two shot guns, whilst on the mantelpiece itself stood several ornaments and the clock which was always kept ten minutes fast. Uncle Stanley had little sense of time and Aunt Sue reckoned he might just be ready for Newton Abbot Market if the clock were kept fast. She would have his best leggings polished bright in time but more often than not he was late and it was not unknown for him to dash out to the bus which stopped outside the farmhouse with his leggings in his hand and on some occasions even his boots.
The dairy was up two steps from the kitchen, a cool airy room whose stone floor could be wetted to keep it so. Three or four trestles stretched the length of the dairy made specially to hold the bowls of colling cream.
A small outer kitchen led from the main kitchen on the farmyard side and in which there was a back door. It had whitewashed walls and a stone floor and here the spare faggots were kept with the chopping block and billhook. At the far end, cupboards contained various medicines and drenches for the livestock. On the windowsill stood the lanterns for use in the winter. In this room too, Grandma slit the throats of hens for the table whilst Muriel and I looked on in irresistible horror and morbid fascination as the blood dripped into a bucket and the poor birds frantically flapped their last moments. But the main purpose of the room was to house the milk churns before they were taken to the dairy by milk float. The milk was brought in in buckets from the cow houses (hand milking) and strained into the churns. The hygiene of those days would hardly be acceptable today.
The sitting room led off the kitchen and faced the main road. During the summer this room was rarely used except on Sundays and it possessed the atmosphere of a museum. Each piece of furniture, each ornament seemed fixed, never to be moved. A living room is alive, its character changes every day as papers lie around, flower petals drop, a pair of shoes is pushed under a chair and unfinished work lies on the table. But Peter’s front room was static. Sometimes Grandma would sit by the armchair by the window and she seemed to take on the quality of a wax model at Madame Tussauds. The room came slightly to life when we could persuade Aunt Sue to play a hymn on the old out-of-tune piano which stood in one dark corner. In the opposite corner a door opened onto the main stairs (the sitting room and bedrooms above were the last to be built). When I was first old enough to notice such things, the lock on this door was broken and throughout the years we holidayed at Peter’s, a pair of old scissors rested on a ledge by the door, ready to prise back the catch to open it and go upstairs. These stairs were carpeted and led to a short landing at the top of which was a glass case of stuffed birds including a kingfisher. The landing led to my grandparents undistinguished bedroom above the kitchen. A door on the opposite of this room led to another landing off which were both Uncle Stanley’s and Aunt Sue’s rooms, both functionally furnished and situated over the kitchen and dairy. The ‘guests’ used the front stairs and the guest bedroom was just off the landing overlooking the front garden. This room had character. A brass knobbed bedstead was fitted with a soft mattress and feather pillows and light rose-patterned eiderdowns: sleeping here was a luxury. On the wall opposite the bed were two samplers, each with a Biblical text embellished with roses and other flowers, all beautifully worked by Mother and Aunt Sue when young. On the washstand stood a large wash bowl and jug. No question of hot water here unless brought up from the cauldron in the kitchen – and really no need in summer. The small windows looked out over the front lawn and a main road (i.e Village Road – MLHG).Few cars passed by, instead the bright clip clop of a pony and trap or the heavier sound of a horse and cart echoed into the bedroom, and on a Sunday morning the peals of Church bells floated over the grassy hill in front. The windows on the landing overlooked the farmyard and above them under the eaves the martins built their nests. By August, the young were almost ready to leave the nests and we woke to the music of their chatter. How enchanting to start a new day in such surroundings on a fine sunny morning. When I grew older I had a bed in Aunt Sue’s room. I often woke later in the evening to find Aunt Sue on her way to bed sitting on her chamber pot giving her back and bottom a good scratch. When propriety decreed that developing youths should not share with maiden aunts, I ended up in Uncle Stanley’s room. There was no modern lighting system; candles were taken flickering to bed and as the evenings began to draw in towards the end of August, we spent the hour or so before bed in the soft yellow light of the oil lamp.
One room I haven’t mentioned was the bathroom – there wasn’t one. The only tap was in the upper kitchen and water had to be carried upstairs in the large china jugs. The other necessity was across the bottom of the front garden. This was a little stone building with a slate roof. It was divided into two, one half facing the garden and the other the lower orchard. A wooden seat provided the comfort and was affixed over sloping ground. The products of the visits accumulated and slid slowly away down into the lower orchard in a foul stream. Toilet paper was provided by neatly torn squares of the Western Morning News, strung on a string hung from a nail. A relaxing 10-15 minutes could be spent here reading news items one had missed but always experiencing the frustration of finding that the continuation of a particularly interesting item had been on the previous piece of paper already used. Again propriety was in evidence. The ladies of the farmhouse and visitors used the garden side, the men the orchard side. Whether the mess was cleared away at intervals, I don’t know, but certainly during our month’s holiday the ‘pile’ grew. In very hot weather, slug like creatures bred and crawled up inside the hole but I never saw one actually reach the seat.