Childhood in Swallownest 1 – Winter Mornings

Getting up on a Winter’s morning meant braving the cold. Poking my face out of the covers  meant watching my breath form clouds and dissipate across the room. Mine was quite a big room, with my Grandma’s  old bed, a huge, high double, with a ticking covered bolster and two pillows that I could pull round to make a nest to sleep in with my much loved teddy, who never had any name but teddy but who kept me safe on many a night when I lay wakeful and a little scared in the dark.

The bedding was brushed nylon, very much the in thing at the time, and it always felt warm to the touch. You had to be careful what pyjamas you wore, or the static electricity built up , giving off sparks and your hair would stand on end.  It wasn’t until years later that I started to really appreciate cold cotton sheets. As a child, it was easier to be cold than warm, so warm sheets were just what we wanted. Nylon in Summer and flannelette in winter, checked designs in pinks and pastel green, with matching pillowslips.

On cold nights, and there were many of them, I would go to bed with a hot water bottle for my feet, that I would cuddle in my arms until my feet were too cold to bear it and then push it down to hold between my freezing toes until I fell asleep, only to wake up with a shock at some point in the night, when my feet found the now cold bottle and frantically pushed it away to the bottom of the bed.

My bedroom had a small fireplace but it was only in the direst emergencies, if I was very ill indeed, that there was a fire in it. When the wind was in the right direction, it would howl in the chimney and, knowing I was safe and warm, I would huddle down, listening with delectable fright to the violence of the gale. There was a large window overlooking the back garden with curtains that moved in the night, as if someone hid behind them, waiting in silence. On those Winter mornings, there would always be condensation fogging the glass but, if there had been a frost, the window would be a magical expanse of white, thick frost on the inside that I would write my name in, using my warm finger to melt the ice, and a little face, or a heart to finish.

The frost was pearl white and diamonds, in complex and tiny patterns, never the same two days in a row.  Even at a young age, I saw the beauty as well as felt the cold and I would imagine the Ice Queen striding across the landscape, turning the grass crystal white and furring up the twigs in the hedgerows. The Ice Queen was my own variant of the Snow Queen, haughty and distant but not wicked, concerned only with the land, she had no time for people and was, therefore, no threat. Half hoping to see her,  I would breathe on the glass and quickly rub it, to clear a space to see through, looking out over the crisp, cold winter landscape.

The view from my bedroom window was over a field, which sloped away, down to Bradley’s orchard and the bottom of the village and then out and across to  Brookhouse Pit, where the winding gear stood stark against the sky. Beighton church in the distance was grey and might have been a foreign land, for it was a place we never went, except to visit Uncle Ralph and Auntie Theo every Boxing Day.  The field was never cultivated but the woman who owned it, Mrs Peat, known as Gertie Peat to us children, ever disrespectful of her slightly odd behaviour at times, would let people graze their horses there and I would watch them for hours, their breath forming huge clouds in the clear air.

At the bottom of the garden, just beyond our fence, stood a huge tree, even its very lowest branches too high to climb, though every Summer we tried, hoping that this year we would be big enough and strong enough to get up to that first branch, but we never were.  Beyond the tree, to the right, I could see the bottom of Mr and Mrs Satterley’s garden, which was longer than ours. They sometimes had chickens, or a pig, and I would see Mr Satterley going down to feed them early in a morning, while I was dawdling instead of getting dressed, and watch him, cigarette hanging from his lower lip, calling to them and scattering kitchen scraps for them to eat.

Beyond that, were the allotments, where local men rented a piece of land to grow vegetables or keep racing pigeons in big sheds, their roofs painted in bright stripes, easily visible from the air. Every day, at some point, I would hear one or other of the pigeon owners calling to the birds:

“Come on. Come on. Come on then my loves…” and the birds, grey, silver, white or beige would wheel and flutter down to land on the roof of the pigeon loft, to be petted and fed, then thrown up into the air again to fly free.

In the Winter of 1962/63, there were terrible gales, which caused enormous damage across the country and I remember standing at my window in the dark, watching the leaping branches of the tree and hearing the creaking of the wood under strain. Eventually too cold to watch any more, I would retreat to my bed and snuggle down, wondering if the tree would still be there in the morning. One night, the very worst of nights, I was staring out at the weather, listening and watching, half afraid, half excited by the violence, when a huge winged beast flapped awkwardly across the back garden, ten, maybe fifteen feet in the air. Each wing was something like six feet by ten and as I watched, I realised it was the corrugated roof of a garage, blown off by the force of the gale. As I stared, one corner hit the ground and it somersaulted down the field, catching the hedge at the bottom and finally  coming to an uneasy rest against the trees.

In our village alone, three people died that night because of the weather and one house on the main road lost its entire roof, the child in bed upstairs, only a toddler at the time,  finding herself suddenly exposed to the elements, the ceiling ripped from her room. Later in life, she had learning and psychological difficulties and her parents were always convinced it was the result of that stormy night. I was eleven at the time and the thought of the roof being torn off gave me nightmares for weeks.  Where was safe if you could be attacked by the elements even in your own bed?

On the coldest winter mornings, there was no watching Mr Satterley feeding the hens, but a desperate rush to dress, Mum reminding me to get a good wash first and me, leaping the gap between bedroom carpet and the runner on the landing, trying not to let my feet touch the cold lino in between.  If I was lucky, there would still be hot water left over from the day before but, if one of us had had a bath the night before, the morning wash was a skimpy affair, the cold water finally bringing me wide awake and ready for breakfast.


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