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(August 1944)

5.  Up to the Brow of the Hill
More about the Traffic

by Chris Myers

5. Up to the Brow of the Hill and More about the Traffic

We’ll carry on up the main road and leave the cart track behind. The houses on the left hand side, looking out over the wood and the track, aren't all that old. Perhaps ten or fifteen years, rather like ours. I don’t know a lot about them. But Dad and Mum have some friends there, Mr and Mrs Hall.  He works at the G.E.C. at Witton and he's in the Home Guard, like Dad. And there's another house where a lady used to live who was my sister's godmother – Mrs Wassell. She has got twin daughters but I don’t know where she lives now.

In front of all these houses there is now a pavement and we could cross over, but we won't.

On our side of the road, just about here, I’ll tell you something which happened to me here a couple of years ago when I was six. I had just been given a fairy cycle for my birthday. I was pretty good at riding it and could pedal around on it at high speed. Mum and our neighbour Mrs. Bacon were going for a walk and, of course I went with them. I was allowed to take my bike. They were walking ever so slowly because they were busy nattering and so I zoomed way ahead of them, down the hill. I knew exactly what I was doing. But Mum started to call to me to tell me something. I couldn’t hear very well and so I tried to turn my head round to listen to her. Over one shoulder. And then the other. Of course, off I came and slid for yards. Along the gritty pavement. No long trousers for me, naturally - boys don't go into those until they are nearly grown up. So I took all the skin off my knees. I lay there feeling very sorry for myself. Mum came rushing up to help me and I found out finally what she had been shouting at me. "Don’t ride too fast, or you’ll fall off".

Mums! They are very kind and will do everything for you. But, oh dear, oh dear!

But no bandages on my knees today. And no bike. I've grown out of it, anyway. All the houses I'm looking at on our side of the road are about the same age and type. Detached and semi-detached. I'm starting to know the names of a few people who live in them. There are a lot of gaps in between where nothing has been built. And certainly won't be for a long time, probably not until the war is over and they start building again. Or possibly not even ever. After one gap is no. 69, a detached house. I think Mr. and Mrs. Parker live there. Further on - I don't know which house - Mrs. M. and her little boy Andrew live. She's a neat, sad-looking lady with gingerish hair. We sometimes see her leaning on the pushchair as she pushes Andrew up the hill to the shops and Mum often has a chat with her. Mr. M. won't be coming home. He has been killed in an accident on the aerodrome where he serves in the RAF. Everyone feels very sorry for her and for the little boy who doesn't have a father any more.

As we get almost to the top of the hill and the road starts to level out we come to the bit which I know very well indeed. It’s where we live. It's almost the ridge. That's why Mum and Dad called their new house "Windyridge". We live on the right hand side of the road, the side we’re walking on. On the other side of the road the newer houses have stopped for a moment and there's a single, bigger detached house there. It looks a bit older and grander. It belongs to a family called Brain. I don't know whether they are especially clever!

On our side, I know most of these houses, now, and who lives in them. Between two of them there’s another grassy track leading off from the main road, this one at right angles to it. (But from our side of the road, this time). Just before you get to it is a house where a family called Darlington live. It's probably no. 91. Or something close to that. The daughter is, I think, Mrs Coates and she lives there with her parents. Mr Coates is away fighting and has not been home for years. I think he’s in Burma. There's also a girl a bit younger than me who lives there as well. Or I think she does.  I'm a bit muddled about that because her surname is Bullock and so that doesn't fit in at all. Life can be so confusing, can't it! And perhaps it doesn't matter all that much, anyway, so I'm not going to worry if I've got it wrong. But the Darlingtons definitely live there, at no. 91.

I'll take you down that cart track for a couple of minutes although of course we don't really need to go down there today, on our way home. It's green and leafy, just like being in the depths of the country. I love it. At the entrance there's a sign, nailed to a big oak tree, which says "Trespassers will be Prosecuted". Dad once expained to me what it meant but told me not to worry about it too much. The track goes down between two hedges. There are gardens on each side of them, the Darlingtons on the right, and Richardses on the left. I'll tell you about Mr and Mrs Richards in a moment. The Darlingtons' garden is long, but it's the shorter of the two. It peters out first. Then, you can see that at the end of their garden lies a huge field, all grass. And empty. This stretches right down to the back gardens of the big houses along Thornhill Road.

Carry on a few more yards down the track. It's still the Richards garden on the left. Just through a gap in their hedge you can see a very old car. It's a Citroen, probably about a 1923 model. Mr Richards parked it there many years ago. He uses it to have a nap in on a summer's afternoon. There are raspberry canes there too. I have to confess that I have pinched a few of the raspberries, from time to time. It's all very overgrown and you can't be seen from the house which is miles away. You just have to be careful that Mr Richards isn't there, having a snooze in the back of the car. I don't feel too guilty, to be honest. Of course, I should. But I would hate the shame of being caught.

Finally you come to the end of that garden. Ahead of you on the track, straight on, is a field, all blocked off by a tall hawthorn hedge and bits of fencing. Beautiful brown horses are munching on the grass on the other side of it, swishing their tails and now and again lifting their heads to glance at us. It's what we call The Riding School Field and it goes down to Thornhill Road as well, like the one we've just seen. Our track swings to the left, round the end of Mr Richards's garden and immediately opens out into a field. We are now looking all along the bottom of it, along the length of that hawthorn hedge. This field lies directly behind our own house. At the top of it, in the distance and into the sun, is the end of our garden. Here, at the bottom, is the hawthorn hedge.

You can see all this in a photograph taken from my bedroom window. It is an old one, taken in the year I was born, 1936, eight years ago. But it still looks exactly the same now.  Nothing much ever changes.

At the end of our garden, past the swing and my sister's Wendy House, is the field behind us, stretching down to to the hawthorn hedge at the bottom. And in the far, right hand corner which you can't see very well, there's the little track I've been talking about which curls around the end of Mr Richards's long garden and takes you back to the Chester Road. Beyond the hawthorn hedge are all the horses.  Then the houses in Thornhill Road, which you can just make out, and, beyond them, Sutton Park which stretches away as far as you can see. I hope you can work all that out!

That last bit of the track from the Chester Road, where it curls around and opens up into our field, is one of my favourite spots in the whole world. In the summer the grass is thick and lush, the birds sing, you can't hear anything else at all. You can lie down and read a book, or just sit there and enjoy it, or natter to your friends if you aren't alone. It's a sort of paradise. I hope it never changes.

We had better be getting back up the track to the main road. Past that field behind the Darlingtons. Before we go, I'll tell you a little story about it. Last April, when I had my birthday party, it was a nice day and my friends and I decided we would have a game of cricket. The problem was, where was there enough space and where was a decent bit of grass? Our back lawn was too small. So we picked up the stumps, a bat and a ball and marched off. Into the field behind us, round the edge to avoid treading on the spring wheat, down to the bottom right hand corner, on to my track. Came to this other field, ducked under the bit of barbed wire and set up out the stumps here in the corner of it. We had a jolly good game for a while. Then a whole lot of yelling from the Thornhill Road end. Right in the far distance. They sounded quite cross. A bit like golfers, even. We didn't wait to find out for sure. We yanked up the stumps and scarpered. Half way back to our house I realised I was missing my schoolcap. You never go anywhere without that, do you? Not even during your birthday party. And what was worse was that my cap would have my name in it, carefully written there in Indian ink by my mum.

Only one option, go back and get it. I ran back, got to the barbed wire and saw the grown-ups had beaten me to it, had finished their examination of all the damage they suspected we had done and were now looking straight at me. And between them and me, my cap lying on the grass. No option, duck under, retrieve it, face the music. Eventually I went back to rejoin my mates. At that moment I felt very relieved. I hadn't had a clip around the ear. The telling-off wasn't too bad, considering. They weren't promising to come and have a word with Dad. But now, months later, I just think - you miserable, miserable blighters! What harm do you think we were doing? Enough to make it worthwhile to run a couple of hundred yards up a huge field, just to see what had been going on? I BET they play golf.

Now, out of the cart track, turn right and carry on up the Chester Road, to its brow.

After that track the next house belongs to Mr and Mrs Richards as I've just told you. I think it's no. 93. Mr Richards drives an old car which sounds like a busy, noisy insect and has wire wheels and the spare attached to the back of it. I don't know what make it is. I don't know why I don't because I'm very interested in cars. Perhaps the badge has dropped off or I've never been close enough to look at it. He’s quite old. Like his car. And he has a waxed moustache and looks a bit fierce. Although I don't know if he is. Mrs Richards is always known as Nurse Richards and does good work in Streetly although I don't know exactly what. She always wears a grey uniform and looks smart and neat and talks to Mum when they see each other. I think she’s quite a bit older, though. But still a lot younger than Mr. Richards.

Then more houses.

Mrs Farrington lives in one, no. 95. I think that Mr Farrington died in Egypt or somewhere at the very beginning of the war. I think he was ill or something on a business trip. Not in the Army. I don’t remember ever seeing him. But we had to be very quiet at that time if we played in the field behind their house. Out of respect, Mum said, because Mrs Farrington was probably very sad. In front of her house, on the grass verge, are the pig bins. They look like ordinary dustbins but you put all your food scraps in them. You mustn't waste anything. The only thing you can't put in them is peapods. Those aren't good for pigs. I don't know why. The bins are emptied every few days.

Then Mr and Mrs Holt and their daughter Wendy at no. 97. I can't remember who was there before they bought it. It might have been somebody called Jessop. Or there might have been someone in between. The reason why I know about the Jessops is that between 97 and 99 there's a wonderful, tall, dividing wall which stretches from the houses half way down the two gardens. It's made of big, round stones, held together with concrete. And it's admired and talked about by everyone. One of the wonders of it is that it was built by Mrs. Jessop with her own hands. Ladies are not supposed to do that sort of thing, even if they know how to do it. It's always man's work. I expect it was a way of using up all the stones which had been raked up when the garden was first being made out of the ploughed field. I think the land here is quite stoney. I don't know what Dad did with all ours. Probably used them for foundations or something. But certainly not a wall, like Mrs Jessop did. It still stands, years later. It comes to an end halfway down. There it tapers off. Like it has petered out. Perhaps she lost interest after a while. Or ran out of stones. Or perhaps she just moved away before it was finished. I never knew her, I don't think, but she has certainly left something to be remembered by. I wonder how long it will stand there for.

After that Mr and Mrs Behague at no. 99. They’re always very nice to me. Here's me, helping Mrs. Behague to mow her front lawn. I can remember the house being empty and the day they moved in, in 1939 or 1940. But not the people who lived there before them. Mr and Mrs Kendall, perhaps? Mr Behague is a fireman in the NFS. He has fought a lot of fires in Birmingham and has also travelled to other cities when they were being blitzed. I saw him in action once. Mum was in a panic one day. She saw smoke coming up from under the floorboards in front of our lounge fire. Fortunately Mr Behague was there and he was even in uniform, ready to go on duty. He quickly tore the floorboards up and investigated the problem. Mum was hovering there, holding a full kettle of water, all ready. It was a floor joist which was smouldering. It had never been cut off when the house was being built and was too close to the fire. Mr Behague quickly dealt with it.  The room was quite a mess after that. I was a bit surprised when he got up off his knees, Mum thanked him very much and off he went, without putting the floorboards back. I thought that was a bit rude. But now I'm older and know about such things, I know that he left it like that, all open, just to make sure the fire was properly out. Dad put everything back to rights when he got home from work. It's jolly useful, having a fireman living next door to you.

Then there is us, at no. 101, the house I was born in and we all still live in - Mum, Dad and my older sister, Sheila. My brother Graham has now been away for more than two years, first of all in North Africa, then in Sicily and now in Italy, as I told you earlier. I’m starting to forget what he looks like and I’m looking forward to the day he comes home safely. Then we shall be five again. I hope for ever.

The neighbour on the other side of us, at no. 103, is Mrs Bacon. She has a daughter Elizabeth who is a playmate of mine although she's only four. Mr Bacon has been in Malta for years and, like Mr Bullock hasn’t been home almost for as long as I can remember. He's an officer in the Royal Artillery. Here's me and Elizabeth, in the snow last year, in their back garden.

A bit more about the traffic we can see

While we are here, on the brow of the hill and outside our house, I'll tell you a bit more about the traffic I see. There is always something interesting going past. Sometimes, on a nice day, I drag our kitchen chair down the drive and sit outside the  front gate, just to watch what is going past. It's quite safe. There's not all that much traffic and most of it doesn't go very fast. It's where we are standing at the moment.

I saw a steam lorry once. I don't think that one smelt of speed. More like a railway engine, really, smelling of steam and oil and coal. And doing a lot of hissing. There are plenty of motorbike-and-sidecars but those aren't very interesting, not like lorries or big cars. But they do make quite a bit of noise and sometimes you think something really interesting is coming, from the direction of the Hardwick, because you can hear it. Then it comes into view and you find out it's not some sort of sports car or something special like that, it's just a perishing motor bike. With the passenger in goggles and huddled up and wearing one of those soft leather helmets pulled down over his head. It's really very disappointing. But then, to make up for it, a car comes by which, for once, isn't black. I saw a pink one once. Dad said they had picked up the wrong tin of paint.

(Our Ford Prefect is black. And so was the Ford V8. The Morris Cowley was as well, and the Morris Oxford, but I never knew either of those. Here's the Morris Cowley in Erdington at the previous house and my sister standing by it. It was Dad's very first car.  In 1929 or 1930).

Every now and again a very strange convoy goes past, roaring up the hill. Always in just the one direction. Out of Birmingham. The vehicles in it are just lorry chassis, with an engine to make them go and you can see that and the gearbox and how it all connects up with the rear wheels. And there's a muffled-up figure, hunched up and seated right up high in the air in the only seat. The man is wearing a thick coat with a big collar, pulled up. A scarf around his face and goggles. And huge leather gauntlets which keep his hands warm as he hangs onto the steering wheel. Winter and summer you see these. I think they must be the important parts of a lorry, perhaps built in Birmingham, and they are on their way to another factory who will put a body on them. Perhaps somewhere in Cheshire, or the north-west. I don't think they can be going to the Liverpool docks, as other traffic probably is, because they aren't much use to anybody without their bodies.

The other things I see go past between about 5 and 7 o'clock in the evening are streams of coaches. Green Harper's coaches. Or Happy Days, with a picture of the sun and its golden rays on the back of them. And others. The sort of coaches which used to take people on their holidays. Now they are all workers' coaches. They transport hundreds of people every single day to and from the Birmingham factories. Many hundreds of them. Building tanks and shells and guns and lorries and Spitfires and all the bits that go into things like that. The people all live somewhere further down the Chester Road. In places like Brownhills and Walsall Wood and Hednesford and Cannock. Perhaps a few even further away. Every day, summer and winter. I don't really see them in winter, when it's dark. But, even so, I still think about all those people, on the way home, tired out, sitting huddled up all together, every window closed, everyone puffing away on cigarettes and all of them just wanting to get back to their firesides and supper. And then the whole thing starts again tomorrow, early in the morning. Day after day after day. Month after month. Year after year.


   6. On to the Manor Road
  and Bridle Lane



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