Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Straits (part 2)

Travelling down Sickles Road towards the Straits, the piece of land where the gypsy encampment was, is to the right hand side as you cross the path of the old railway track. It is shown on the O.S Map as a triangular plot and has now a building upon it. At the time I am writing of there were three vardos located in this plot and they were situated on the inside of the roadside hedge. Access to the area was through an opening and path about thirty yards up from the railway crossing. Having entered the site the vardos were to the left extending in line towards the corner of the plot which was opposite the Staits junction. The biggest vardo was of the Reading type and stood between the other two vardos which were of a smaller rounded roof type.

The people were all Hughes. The senior couple were Claira and Henry. Henry worked for the Council on the roads and went off each day on an old bicycle and returned at evening around five thirty. Claira and Henry lived in the Reading vardo. The other couple were Liza and Jimmy and they occupied the vardo nearest the corner and the third was occupied by two males, Joey and Ernie. Ernie, as far as I can remember was the son of Liza and Jimmy.

Claira and Henry had no children. Joey was, I think Liza’s brother. Jimmy had mental health problems and spent periods of time in Park Prewett mental hospital. He was reputed to have strange "turns" at the time of the full moon. These things were not talked about very much in front of me. I spent lots of time with the gypsies and was fascinated by their activities. They made clothes pegs from hazel sticks and strips of metal cut from used tin cans. These were sold in the area in strips of a dozen. They also produced carnations flowers from coloured crepe paper and roses from wax. The flower heads of the roses were fashioned from the wax and these were then stuck on to various twigs to resemble stems. Large numbers of these flowers were produced and sold at Christmas time.

Apart from these activities Claira spent a great deal of time painting her wagon. Its base colour was a deep wine colour and on to this there were painted all manner of intricate scroll work, patterns and flowers and leaves. The colours used varied from bright yellow, red, blue and green and included lots of gold and silver paint as well. Claira spent hours on this work, working with extraordinary precision and skill. She seldom made a mistake, and throughout she was responding to my never ending chatter. The paint came in small tins and as she reached the the end of the tin Claira would give me the dregs to paint hazel sticks. This was great fun and I produced lots of highly treasured and colourful sticks, not to mention re-colouring many of my clothes in the process. I liked Claira, she was quite my favourite, she was always kind and had the time for this little boy. She wore the traditional long gypsy skirts and petticoats that reached to the ground. Her fingers were clad in numerous rings and her wrists bore lots of bracelets and bangles.

The inside of her wagon was spotless with lots of highly polished brass and colourful glass wear. Lace also featured heavily in her d├ęcore. Her morning ritual began after Henry had left for work. Well,actually,it began before he left as Claira was always up first and made tea and breakfast and packed a lunch bag for her husband. When he had gone Claira had her wash. This was achieved with the use of an open bowl filled with warm water from the fire which seemed never to go out. The ablutions were conducted outside of the wagon on fine days with the bowl placed on the top step of the wagon. They had a large metal bath but I never witnessed its use. That isn’t to say they were dirty, they most certainly were not. But I imagine that bathing was achieved in the privacy of the wagon, possibly at weekends. It should be remembered that having a bath in the countryside in those days was, for the most part, a weekend activity. Water had to be heated and the bath filled using numerous buckets of water and this was shared by the whole family. It was a very labour intensive activity. Modern bath rooms and showers etc. were not common in rural communities in that period and Kingsley was no exception to this.

However, once washed, Claira would then turn her attention to her hair. This was very long and extended right down her back to her waist. With the aid of her large comb she would divide her hair at the back of her head into two halves. Each half would be vigorously combed and brushed and then formed into a long plait. When both sides had been plaited each would be coiled and positioned on its respective side of her head, above the ears, and pinned into position. This would then all be covered over by a large and colourful scarf which was knotted at the back.

When all of this was complete the work of the day would begin. Pots and pans were scrubbed, washing was done and all the general tasks of the camp. The fire, in the open on the ground, remain alight at all times. This was used for cooking and boiling water for their tea. Wood was the fuel and this was gathered from all around the area by the men. The horses which pulled the wagons were tethered in the area of the camp and moved on to fresh ground daily. Several dogs resided on the camp and were of both terrier and lurcher types. I spent days on end at the camp, mostly with Claira, as other than occasional shopping trips she stayed on site most of the time.

The others seemed to do the selling of the goods they produced. Joey was a man of about forty and was most notable for a large growth on the side of his left jaw. This was round and the size of a tennis ball and seemed to protrude below his left jaw and beneath his left ear in a way that forced the ear lobe to jut upwards. In,what I imagine, was an attempt to minimize its appearance this ball like appendage was not shaved. Mind you Joey didn’t seem to shave often, he always seemed to have quite a few whiskers upon his face. As long as I knew them the growth remained static and neither grew nor shrank. Joey’s other noticeable feature were his rather claw like finger nails. Long and curving inwards they housed the most disgusting amount of dirt. I don’t ever recall them being otherwise and I avoided, at all costs, having anything to do with his hands.

Ernie was a sullen moody person who said very little and appeared to carry the troubles of the world upon his shoulders. I didn’t like Ernie, not least because one day when I was sitting round the fire with the two males when he suddenly lashed out and belted me round the head. I remember squealing like a stuck pig and running home to mum. That evening father went down to the camp and had words. I was told that Claira had dealt with the matter and it would never happen again. To this day I have no idea why he reacted in the way he did. Nothing like it ever happened again. Perhaps Ernie had some of the strange behavior that periodically resulted in his father, Jimmy, going off to the mental hospital. I returned the next day and as far as I am aware the matter was never discussed again. Most days when not out selling their produce the men would sit around the fire preparing the various bits needed to make the items they sold. In the case of the clothes pegs this meant shaving off the bark of the hazel sticks that would form the pegs. The bark came off in large coiled strips and the resultant piles were burned on the fire. The men sat on large logs whilst working and worked for long periods at a time. In the evenings Claira and Liza both cooked the meal on the open fire. There was always a large cast iron pot hanging over the fire and it appeared to me that this was always full of some sort of stew. The frying pan was the other well used item for cooking and the large heavy kettle was always suspended over the fire.

It was the custom,during the dark evenings, for Claira to watch for Henry’s bicycle light coming down the hill from the village. When this was spotted she poured the water from the kettle into the equally large tea pot. The brew was ready for Henry upon his arrival. It was the norm for Claira to come up to our house in the afternoons occasionally for a cup of tea with mum. They would sit beside the range and natter whilst having their tea and a sandwich or piece of cake. The other vivid memory I have of Claira was on one of these occasions. I was playing in the garden and was stung by a wasp. I ran into the house bawling. Claira asked mum for a box of matches. She put a couple of matches into her mouth to moisten them and then began to rub the softened ends over my sting. I suppose it must have been something to do with the sulphur in the match. I don’t recall if this afforded me any relief but what I do recall,with horror to this day, is the fact that Claira had been eating a cheese sandwich with her tea and together with the chemical material from the match, she was liberally spreading bits of partly consumed cheese and saliva over my arm. This, I clearly remember, upset me far more than the sting. It took days before I stop washing the spot!!!

The train which travelled between Bentley and Bordon was known in Kingsley as The Bordon Bullet. It was a small steam train and went between the two towns several times a day. There was a raised station platform with a Kingsley name board and a light. There were also a row of poplar trees behind the platform. In addition to the regular passenger service goods trains often used the line to take and fetch items from the Bordon army camp. As previously mentioned Charley Taylor was the station master. He was not there on a permanent basis but he had responsibility for it. He wore a railway uniform and would get on the train to travel to Bentley where I think he was based. He periodically walked the line checking on various things and meeting the railway gangs that in those days cleared the embankments and kept the lines in good order. My other granddad from Oakhanger worked on the lines and I would often encounter him when he was in the Kingsley area. There were huts made of sleepers spaced along the route and it was in these that the workmen had their meals and took shelter in bad weather and where small boys went to visit. Mr. Pethybridge was one of the engine drivers, he was also Doris’s husband. He was Archy. It was when he pulled up at Kingsley Holt, as it was known that I and other boys were allowed on to the engine for a few minutes. Wonderful. More from the Staits next month.

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