There are a host of scents, smells, odours and stenches which transport me to the scene of the first holiday away from home that I can remember. How much of it is fact and how much is what some people call fancy I do not know but it is all quite genuine experience.
My Great Uncle Joseph lived at Catterick. My Aunt Agnes was looking after him in his latter days. She must have invited us children to stay.
Visually the village presents itself as being eternally in a blinding light, hot white sunlight reflected from white or grey walls, cobbled stones and dusty white roads. The stream too running down to the main road through the village was forever sparkling and dazzling. The smell of washed flagstones and box hedges meets you everywhere. The stone passages running from front to back of the houses are so cool, and the smell of butter churns, yeast and, I think rose petals, hangs in the cool air and is as refreshing as a sparkling drink. The windows of the living room look straight on to the street. They are open but you can’t see in. There is a framework covered with wire gauze in the opening. It keeps out flies and a certain amount of dust and obstructs the vision of passers-by. The clear, clean smell of dairy, wine cellar and pantry seem to follow you about the house and even the darkest corners seem to glow from reflected sunlight. The painting is all white. The white staircase with its delicate white balustrade and the white sashed window on the landing fill the hall with a heavenly light. But on that landing, the halfway point of the stairs, there was a devil. It had a presence, a most evil presence. It looked at me with an almost hypnotic effect. I couldn’t go past it alone. Someone had to hold my hand and walk between me and the evil one. I would stand at the top of the stairs not daring to pick my way slowly down the steep steps. The devil was a barometer of some antiquity. All the furniture in the house was old, mostly mahogany of the best 18th century period. The beautiful brass handles on the sideboard, which were about my eye level, sparkled in relief against the highly polished deep red wood. But the chairs, at any rate those I had to sit on (as I probably dropped food when eating), had seats of black horsehair, black and shiny and slippery too. But, worst of all, bits of hair like needles stuck into my legs under my knees.
There were two enormous cruet stands with sparkling cut glass bottles containing dark brown and yellow liquids; also a decanter with wine, a silver basin with rose petals in it and a cribbage board, chessmen and leather cases of playing cards. A dignified portrait in a gold frame of Uncle Joseph hung on the wall. I remember him with his heavy, rather ruddy face sitting opposite me at the table with a spotless white napkin fixed to his waistcoat with a great hook. The sound of ducks in the stream and the occasional cart going by and the hum of flies or wasps zipping against the mesh frames in the windows were all the sounds to be heard.
There was a vegetable and fruit garden somewhere up behind the house. The narrow paths were flanked by low box hedges, which gave off that warm comforting scent in the hot sun.
And here I made my first acquaintance with a tragedy that haunted my sleep for many a night. A blackbird caught in the strawberry nettling, struggling and struggling to free itself and only becoming more and more engulfed in the terrible twine.
There was a gardener/coachman named Park. He took me for short drives in a convertible wagonette. It was usually open but it had a top with windows, which turned the vehicle into a kind of cab. The leather seats were all cracking with age and the windows had blinds that pulled down with a tassel. The iron step at the back and the low door gave the whole contrivance an inviting, toy-like quality and the cosy, musty interior with the all-pervading odour of horse and harness was already part of a past age. I sometimes sat on the box with Park. A long and elegant whip, which he never used, stood with its lash with a few knots in it, dangling gently, in a leather tube fixed to the shallow rail by his seat which was a little higher than mine. The reins went through two iron eyeholes and along the horse’s back. How different a horse looked from that point of view and how fascinating when its tail went up - and yet it could keep on trotting.
The shapes of things you can touch and which are at eye level are naturally among one’s earliest experiences. Door handles always interested me, and other people’s houses had different kinds of knobs, handles and levers. They were pleasantly cool to the touch and when they were not just round, but had many facets, sometimes with gold ornament on a white ground, or even small flower designs, they became associated with the house and the people who lived in it. There were too the amber glass door handles shaped like jellies. Small children try to suck them and they are gratifying to the touch. There were many knobs on doors and drawers in the house at Catterick, but other shapes began to be of interest. There was the pendulum in the grandfather clock. For some time the fact that this clock seemed to stop for no apparent reason at odd times had puzzled those who could tell the time until one day I was observed holding the pendulum in my hand.
There was a shopping basket of generous proportions with coracle-like curves. It looked beautiful when full of eggs. One of my first errands was to go all alone to get some eggs from the mill farm of Mr. and Mrs. Plum (or was it Prune?) I was very nervous and went in fear and trembling. The mill had a water-wheel inside the building and when a trap door was opened in the floor you could see down in the awful darkness this monster turning slowly round with the swishing and splashing going on in the depths. I didn’t like to stand very close. It had that ponderous movement that I had experienced in nightmares.
The mill house was on the other side of the beck, standing on a higher level and the mill pond was again higher behind the mill so that the water came down into the mill and out into the stream below. I approached the farm over the bridge keeping my eyes fixed on the gap between it and the mill where I knew the pond to be. As the surface full of weed came into view a strange thing happened. A shadowy figure among the reeds and trees on the opposite bank threw something into the air and then out of the water came an arm, which opened its hand. A sword fell into its grasp. It vibrated with the impact, gave a flourish and returned under the water. The ducks and hens continued their search for food and a horse standing nearby appeared to be dozing. Mrs. Plum gave me the eggs apparently unaware of the strange goings on and no doubt thought me a scared little thing, which I was.
One day on our way to church we passed a group of village lads in their Sunday best. Among them was an elderly man who used to sit on a seat by the beck and talk to me while I was fishing with a piece of string tied to a stick. He had only one leg and walked with crutches. But seeing him standing there I was amazed to see that he had two legs! I was troubled about the transformation but I did not voice my observations and so it was never explained.
I have a very distinct visual experience of Granny taking me to the church and leading me up to the organ, signing to me ('one does not talk in church') to sit down by her on the stool while she played the hymns. I learned the organ later and I asked Granny about her performance. She was somewhat mystified, admitted that she had occasionally played the organ but could not remember the incident.
Not very far from Uncle Joseph’s cottage there was the Manor Farm. The Hutchinsons who owned it knew Mother’s family well. One of the daughters was a pupil of Herkomer and had painted the portrait of Uncle Joseph hanging in the living room. The farm seemed a vast and wonderful place, the smell of hay and dung, the dark cool cowsheds where the animals in their stalls were hardly visible until one’s eyes got used to the dimness after the bright light outside. There were hens and ducks and turkeys wandering about all over the farmyard and an enormous barn with mountains of straw in it. The poultry scratching about in the shadows made it seem alive. But in the darkness beyond there were some monstrous shapes looming up like elephants (I half expected to see their trunks swaying gently like a pendulum) but it was a tremendous traction engine used for driving threshing machines and general farm use. There too we found hutches full of rabbits and a friendly dog dozing, when suddenly a mound of straw rose up and a gigantic pig blinked its humorous little eyes at me.
While we were staying at Catterick we made a visit lasting a few weeks I suppose, with our lady-help, to Bishop Monkton where Great Aunt Monkton lived. She was a dignified old lady dressed in black. She took us to a field to do some haymaking. I think she had purchased some hay rakes for us. I know I was greatly distressed when I found one of the teeth broken. They were made of wood and had a very wide span. We stayed at a house that looked over the village green and the inevitable beck, which ran through the middle of all these villages. One day there was a good deal of mystification and we were told to stay indoors and keep the curtains drawn across the windows. We couldn’t understand all this and it was naturally irksome to be kept in a darkened room on a sunny day. Then we noticed that our lady-help was peeping through the curtains evidently watching something with great interest. So we could not be kept away. There was a slow procession of people dressed in black, several of them were carrying a large yellow box with flowers laid on it. They were going to the church. Margaret began asking questions and I listened 'What was in the box?' Our lady-help said old Mr. So-and-so, whom we knew quite well. 'But what are they doing to him?' 'They are going to bury him.' I was astonished at these revelations. I couldn’t understand how Mr. So-and-so could consent to being shut up in a box and buried. I decided that I could never allow such a thing to happen to me. Margaret told Great Aunt Margaret that we had seen the funeral and asked if she had too. Aunt Margaret was evasive but admitted she had seen a few black people about, 'BLACK people!' exclaimed Margaret thinking she had missed something. 'I saw no black people.'
Catterick remains in my mind as a sleepy place of great antiquity (Aunt Agnes said it was there in Roman times) and a place of perpetual sunshine. On one walk a green field with blazing white fencing emerges and I see a curving line of gaily coloured jockeys flash by, and that is all.
The sun seemed to be much in evidence in those days. The Coronation summer of 1911 was talked about for years as the hottest and sunniest in living memory and it was at Whitby that we spent that summer holiday. It was the first seaside holiday I remember. We boarded in a house in one of the large crescents on the cliffs. There was a little balcony running the whole length. As well as flags and buntings, these balconies had candles in glasses for illuminations. There were lots of amusements with funny clowns wandering about entertaining the crowds, and brass bands. There were steamer excursions with the town crier announcing that 'There will be no sea-sickness as the weather is perfectly fine' (indeed it was), and ladies playing harps in a concert room on the cliffs. But most popular with us was what we called The Zoo. This consisted of a few empty cages (the occupants may always have been asleep in the back premises) and a few birds including a handsome raven.
The two piers at that time ended with the platform mounting the two fine stone lighthouses. I think they were about to start constructing the extensions. There was a great iron girder arrangement known as The Iron Man which had something to do with moving huge blocks of stone.
This was before the internal combustion engine had been applied to fishing boats and the beautifully painted striped cobles (surely one of the most graceful ships in the world) had their masts stopped at a rakish acute angle. A dark tanned sail, unlike any other in shape, drove the boat which had a sharp prow but a flat bottomed stern, through heavy seas. The stern was shaped like that of a galleon and the flat bottom enabled the boat to be drawn upon a beach and easily refloated again. The rudder was a tremendous length. Hung on the stern, it disappeared under and below the ship, the tiller coming to the hand of the helmsman from a great height. They nearly all had Biblical names like Galilee and Gethsemane. I think that all painters will agree that the cobles are most difficult to draw.
There were at that time two large lifeboats which were so housed that they had to be hauled out by hand, taken a short way along the quayside and sent down the incline north of the harbour into stormy breakers rolling in on the beach and curling against the pier. It must have been extremely dangerous getting a lifeboat with no motor away safely. The modern craft is now housed inside the harbour where it can slide into deep water at any time or tide. The old lifeboats had caterpillar attachments to the great red wheels so as to prevent them sinking into the sand. I remember seeing dozens of men and a great number of women, the latter in bonnets, lined up with the great tow-rope hauling the boat in.
There was a certain amount of fog and the great moocow foghorn beyond the Abbey was most penetrating and eerie. Lying in bed one heard this noise even in one’s sleep in which it became the voice of terrifying giants. We walked over the cliffs one day to see the monster and I found it difficult to believe that there wasn’t some wild animal behind the white walls which encircled the lighthouse, cottages and power house. Under the guise of holiday atmosphere there still lurked at that time a spirit of adventure and dark deeds. The wrecks which may have been lured on to the rocks by those desirous of plunder, brought furniture and other goods to the houses of many. The shade of Caedmon and Captain Cook seemed to me to haunt that great cliff with the incredibly solid black old church on the top, the great roadway of stone steps leading to it out of the dark passages among the red tiled roofs of the town below. But we played on the sands a great deal making sandcastles with moats round them which gradually filled with water as the tide came in. We stood on the castle watching the encroaching water. The final catastrophe as the whole structure collapsed and was flattened out in a few seconds was a minor demonstration of that power of the sea which man will always have to contend with.
We carried back to our lodgings in triumph the long strands of beautiful shining wet seaweed, taking with us sand on our clothes and in our shoes, buckets and towels - in fact in everything. The seaweed turned into a nasty mess and showered dry sand everywhere. Our beds were full of it from our hair and feet but we returned undaunted to build bigger and better castles next morning. That summer seemed to go on forever. They were the days before crowds of visitors came in just for the day, and we got to know our fellow diggers of sand. The place had completeness about it and we were part of it. The final departure from the railway station was like a bad dream. It was not real. The sands and breakers were still over there behind the town and we thought they must be forlorn without us. But I for one left something there and I have gone back to try to recapture it but it just evades me. I prefer to remember it as we knew it in those carefree days.
But by chance and good fortune the future was bound up with Whitby. When I was sixteen I stayed at Sandsend nearby painting all day long. Whitby was there just along the sands. Sometimes purple stormy skies in the evening threw into strong relief the red cliffs with the hotels which became palaces and the Abbey was golden. The reflections in the lighthouses looked like diamonds and, to make the whole scene hardly of this world, a rainbow took up the hues of the sea and cliffs, the whole having an unearthly radiance. Then all in a moment, the sun departed and a grey curtain came down and the wind became cold, the sands desolate. It was time to go home.
We also spent a holiday at Arnside and Silverdale in Lancashire. There was a railway bridge in full view of the lodgings, which spanned the estuary to Grange-over-Sands and appeared to be miles long. Sometimes it just seemed to vanish into space. We used to count the trucks on goods trains, the number of them being almost fabulous. This bit of coast I see as a paradise of trees and hedges with wild flowers everywhere so that the colour of the place appears to be all yellow and pink and mossy stones, shady pools overhung by trees and walls of delicate limestone.
The little terrace in which our house stood was a cul-de-sac so it was safe to play in the road. One day I was there looking over the wall towards the sea when I heard a scuttering noise of bits of loose stone falling to the ground. Looking along the wall I saw a red squirrel skipping towards me. It came straight on and I held out my hands to it in welcome. It brushed straight through them and on, suddenly jumping into a tree, looked round at me and was gone. I rushed indoors to tell the others what had occurred but there was no evidence and they knew I had been reading Squirrel Nutkin.