A country childhood

We went to Thirsk, our next nearest market town this week, to the cinema.  Nothing remarkable about that – to anyone but me.

The Ritz: and the queues waiting to see the film

I last went to the Ritz almost exactly 60 years ago, my very first visit to this, or any other cinema. I’d gone with the whole school – about 40 of us – to see the newsreel showing the Queen’s coronation.  I remember queuing with all my classmates, quietly and slightly over-awed, outside this vast building and going up dark stairs to an even darker and cavernous auditorium.  I remember the excitement of seeing that screen, so large it filled our entire view, with its flickering black and white images of the Queen’s horse-drawn carriage processing with regiments of  bearskin-helmeted soldiers marching before her.  But I can’t remember how we got there or how we got back: yet it must have been quite an expedition from our village school in Sandhutton, some 2-3 miles away, normally connected to Thirsk only by a twice-weekly bus.

So it was quite a shock the other day to discover that the Ritz is far from palatial in size.  In these days of the multi-plex, it has room for only one screen.  It feels small, intimate and cosily shabby, much loved by its team of volunteers of a certain age.

As part of our day out, we simply had to visit Sandhutton, the village where I’d spent several years and begun my school career.  It looked much the same as I’d remembered it.  There was the endearingly small parish church (I remember cathedral-like proportions) at one end of the village green, the pub at the other: it’s like a stage set for the Archers.  Nowadays, the farm labourers who were our near neighbours seem thin on the ground.  We called in at the village shop and found it selling an eclectic collection of fine wines, decent cheeses and craft-bakery cakes rather than more workaday essentials.

And my school, originally outside the village, but now joined to it by a street of modern housing, has become a community hall.

The school at Sandhutton

Back in the early 1950’s, my mother was head of a two-teacher school, and we lived in the school house behind.  Now it’s a handsome family dwelling.  It always was, but it looks as though the privy is no longer at the bottom of the garden.  Nor is the school’s row of outdoor toilets still in use.

The school had two classes.  I was in the one for 5 – 8 year olds.  Our teacher was Miss Burnett, and a recently found photo confirms that she was  slender, white-haired and elderly.  The high point of the day for the little ones was when we gathered round the school wireless to listen to that day’s broadcast of ‘Listen with Mother’.  That same wireless broadcast ‘Music and Movement’ twice a week, and we pushed our desks to one side to prance around pretending to be storm-tossed trees, nymphs or dragons.

Sandhutton Board School, built 1892

My mother had the 9 – 15 year olds. Those who passed their 11+ could go off to Grammar School.  Few passed, and none went to the Grammar School in any case, as they were expected to leave school at 15 and get farm work.  There were days designated as holidays from school when the older children went potato-picking.

And in those post-war vitamin C starved days, we would have whole afternoons when the entire school would go rosehip-gathering for the syrup producers such as Delrosa. Expert pickers could aspire to a tin badge for their efforts, but we 5 year olds had no hope of this exciting prize and our work went unrewarded.

I wasn’t at Sandhutton school for very long.  My father was Polish, and like many of his countrymen had fled to Britain and joined the RAF during the war.  Unable to find a job locally afterwards, despite his degree and excellent English, he’d gone to London.   When he found work, he sent for us.  London became my home until I left school.

My father’s work turned into his life-long business.  My mother was able to return to her preferred option, teaching Classics in a Grammar School.  And I tried to keep my head above water in a large inner-city primary school with as many children in a single class as we’d had in the whole of Sandhutton school: oh, and to lose my northern accent pdq.

19 thoughts on “A country childhood”

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Margaret. I never knew about your early childhood. I wish I had. And I would love to hear even more about it. How much has changed in the lives of our generation! I remember, briefly, outdoor toilets as well! And picking wild plums and blackberries for the table and for jams. And fishing. How did we ever survive all that risk and inconvenience?

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  2. Very interesting and reminds me of my first school on the Isle of Islay, a village school with 16 pupils and one teacher. Then when I was 9 we moved to a town near Dundee and I found myself in a class of more than 30 which was a very daunting and confusing experience. With English parents I was always conscious of the way I spoke and ended with two accents that I could switch in and out of (and still can!) Thanks for sharing, have you ever thought of writing a book telling your story?

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    1. I don’t remember going for the bilingual option myself, but my elder daughter did. No, three actually. RP at home, mild northern for other adults, Leeds at school. No wonder she’s now a voice-over with a diverse range of accents at her command!

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  3. I love the Ritz! Where else can you go for a night out for £9 (£5 for me and £4 for Pete!).
    Last time I went was a few months back to see Jane Eyre and I cried buckets (that ending gets me every time when she goes back to see Rochester).

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      1. “…get coffee and a biscuit thrown in…”

        I’m sure there’s the makings of a joke there somewhere…

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  4. What a lovely post, reminding me of so much of my own childhood. We went to my aunt’s in Oxford to watch the Coronation on her television, the first time I had ever seen a TV. Outside toilet? Yes, until I was 15. And bath in a zinc tub in front of the fire on a Friday night.

    And ‘Listen With Mother’ – I loved it, but only until I was five, I went to a Catholic convent and we didn’t have any of that frivolous stuff there! It was known in our house by the name I called it – Dingy Donk – you remember the music at the beginning?

    Thanks for a nice bit of nostalgia.

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    1. Oh I LIKE ‘Dingy Donk’! I’ll never forget that music. I saw the coronation on TV too. Me and the whole village crammed into the front room at the neighbouring farm – one of those 9” screens. Couldn’t see a thing, obviously.

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    1. He tended to avoid the war, unsurprisingly. Sadly, his past is pretty much a closed book and of course we had no contact with what was left of his family. So I’ll never know…..

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  5. A fascinating portrait of post-war Britain. I love to watch old TV shows from that period. Also a moving personal story of the upheaval of war and the difficulty getting settled in the new home.

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    1. You don’t know the half. Getting a place in any London school when you were part of the post war ‘bulge’ in babies was quite an undertaking, but I only lasted a term in that particular seat of learning. Thank goodness!

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  6. I used to be able to switch in and out but clearly dad’s slight Yorkshire twang and school days have taken their toll on my accent and the low ‘u’ sound will stay forever with me. My friends out here have coined it ‘posh Yorkshire’ though. Nice for you to share this, mum – you should tell us more about things like this.

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  7. Reblogged this on Notes on a family and commented:

    I remembered this post which I published four years ago on my blog ‘From Pyrenees to Pennines’. It tells much of the story of my year or so at my first school in a small village. I’ve found out more since, including a school photo, but I’ll have to show you that in another post.

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  8. When I read this, I’m struck by how much the world has changed in 60 years and also how many similarities between your life and mine. My mother started her teaching career in a two-room school, our tiny local theatre, where I saw my first movies, has been been restored and is an arty stage now, everything that seemed large is revealed as small and homely . . .

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