Summer 1939 – by Jane Box

It was a long fine summer. Of course it was ! Weren’t all the summers fine and hot when you were a child ? We went to Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, where we’d been before, stayed in a bed & breakfast and hired a hut right on the beach. We made this into a second home, my mother, sister & myself. My father didn’t come. He didn’t like the seaside and hated sand ! My grand parents with Aunt Nell and her grown up* daughter Dorrie were there too, and this year Aunt May, whose relationship I never fathomed, came too, with her teenage son Phil & his friend Timmy. Sue & I greatly despised them. They teased us and easily escaped, leaping when chased. I’ve still not forgotten sitting on the hut steps with my eye in a cup of water to get out the sand Phil had thrown. It was amazing to hear a few years later that Phil was a fighter pilot & Timmy was decorated for his part in the Dieppe raid.
Granny & her sister, Aunt Nell would sometimes leave their deck chairs & newspapers, to go, greatly daring, for a paddle. Shoes and stockings discarded & skirts held high enough to display voluminous bloomers, they would stand bravely in the little ripples of sea. A larger wave over their ankles would be greeted with shrieks of surprise. Sometimes Grandpa would join them, trousers rolled up & there’d be back chat & laughter.
Sue & I were constantly in and out of the sea, running on the warm firm sand. We made large sand castles with turreted towers, arches and moats, using metal spades with wooden handles, or turning out sand pies from tin pails. When the tide came in we would frantically try to defend our castle from the encroaching waves, piling yet more sand on the crumbling walls, till the sea swept in on all sides. Then surely it was time for lunch ? My mother and Dorrie would concoct all sorts of lovely meals on a little primus – but the only detail I remember was a little kettle with a folding handle. To go to the small shack by the steps was  a great treat – to get ice creams. Sometimes we would hear a cycle bell & a hoarse shout of  “Stop me & buy one” from the Walls ice cream man. This was something we never saw at home so we would hope eagerly that someone, probably Grandpa, would send us to get cones for everyone.
Another treat was to go to the rocks at the end of the bay, to clamber about & gaze fascinated into the rock pools. Tiny fish, shrimp and scuttling crabs inhabited this other world. Red beadlet anemones waved their tentacles for prey but withdrew with lightning speed to become a jelly like lump if gently touched by a human finger. Winkles and whelks wandered under the water, & limpets clung to their rocks, never to be prised off. Seaweeds, so dull and limpish on the beach were transformed under water, beautiful fronds of brown, green & red floating gently.
In the evening after a high tea we might go along the pier, enjoying the adventure of being out strolling in the warm air amongst all the other holiday makers. For country children to be in such a crowd was another excitement. One evening we went to Community singing in the Chine to join in old folk songs under the trees strung with fairy lights. I was much affected by the song “Poor Old Joe” & clearly recall weeping in the dark for the old negro.
One night for a tremendous treat we went to the pictures to see what my mother thought was a cowboy & indian film. Too late she recognised the title “The Four Feathers“. I had nightmares for weeks afterwards ! It didn’t help to come out to unlit & unfamiliar streets & walk a subdued return to the B & B.
By now the adults would have realised this would be the last such holiday for many years. The streets were unlit for a practice blackout & searchlight fingers beamed out to the stars. In the last few days groups of children labelled & each draped with a little brown box & holding small cases, huddled miserably at street corners. Evacuees. Now the sunny blue sky held strange little white puffs of cloud as distant ack ack guns were fired. But Hitler was not going to shorten our holiday.
On the last afternoon, Friday 1st September, clutching at belongings from the beach huts we all trooped up the road. Nearly every house had its windows open & the wireless on. We went silently, Sue & I oppressed by something we didn’t really understand & by the grim expressions of the adults, hearing the 6 o’clock news as we walked. Then I felt only anxiety when I heard Dorrie say firmly to Aunt Nell “Now Mother, if it’s war, please don’t faint here” though now the memory makes me smile.
Our return was chaotic, for trains were packed with people going home early. We stood crammed together in the Portsmouth train, lunchless, for the boys with the food were further down the train. My mother, Sue & I got out at Guildford (the rest went on to London). We were met by my father, triumphant. He had managed to get some tarred brown paper & had been putting up our blackout.
The lovely weather continued. Sunday 3rd of Sept. was a beautiful sunny day.

This is where my mothers account finishes. She would have been ten, almost eleven at the time. The description of the marine life shows her early interest in marine biology, which would in later years take her to Dale Fort Field Study Centre, where she would meet my father.

One comment

  1. Although it is spring the weather feels like summer, but as I look out through the window of my home office at the trees and fields, under nearly cloudless blue sky – the lane eerily quiet, I am reminded of this article.
    I know that beyond the peaceful view that I can see the world is going though a great upheaval, and I hope we all emerge from our enforced separation closer and more aware of how we are all interlinked.

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