LOOKING BACK: Post-war memories of the South Downs

The Patterson family in the 1950s
The Patterson family in the 1950s

Looking Back continues with the memoirs of David Patterson who lived locally before moving to America.

We take up his story in the 1940s.

David Patterson

David Patterson

He writes, “The nation was still staggering from the impact of World War Two and that lasted well into the late 50s. Very few people had cars so the roads were much more peaceful than they are today. In my class of 33 only two families had cars, and they were company-owned anyway.

“Sitting around the campfire, drinking cocoa and smoking ‘cheroots’, and occasionally looking to the south across the valley to the A259 in the distance, we’d sometimes see vehicle headlights or taillights, moving silently down or up the hill.

“But, most of the time, that hill was lost in darkness, except for a couple of isolated lights from cottage windows. When I went back to our old campsite for a nostalgic night-time visit in 1992, it was to witness a constant stream of lights moving up and down the A259, like strings of red or white pearls.

“We were so lucky to have seen the English countryside before things got that way. The ‘big white horse’ referred to in a poem I wrote is 93 feet long and 65 feet tall. It was cut sometime in the early part of the 20th century, unlike the much more impressive image on a north-west flank of the Downs some miles distant, known as The Long Man of Wilmington, which was cut, like the High-And-Over white horse when the south of England was below sea level.

“The Long Man is believed to have been created about 300 years ago and is 227 feet tall. The sheer white image against the short green grass of the hills can be seen from a long way away and from high up in the air. It was painted green during the Second World War apparently, in order to deny German aviators a highly-visible navigation aid.

“My mother was reluctant to let me venture onto the Downs. She had good reason for concern of course. Unexploded bombs were still being discovered, some as late at the 1960s and there was a lot of concern about anti-personnel mines that, seemingly, had been scattered randomly from enemy bombers.

“And, every so often, bigger mines got washed up on the beach, which were usually towed out to sea at high tide and exploded at a safe distance by rifle-fire. Due to bombing and the expectation of a German invasion in 1940, my family was evacuated along with about 70 per cent of the rest of the population of Eastbourne.

“About all I remember of that significant event (I was not quite four years old) was getting off the train in London and getting the Tube to go to the mainline station that would take us after a few more changes of transportation to the tiny village of Gretton in Gloucestershire.

“About the only signs in Gretton of a war going on were occasional truckloads of Italian prisoners of wars that passed close by our roadside cottage. We moved to South Shields, where most of my mother’s family lived and where Dad, too old for military service, might get a decent job.

“And that took us back to bombing. We spent nights in a communal air raid shelter in our back yard from time to time, listening to explosions and no doubt jumping involuntarily, and got to know the neighbours that way. Sometimes we’d just hunker down in a cupboard under the stairs during a raid.

“I found what I believe was anti-aircraft shrapnel in the back yard after one raid. I never quite forgave my dear mother for throwing that valuable souvenir away after I left home years later to join the RAF.”

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