Growing up in Meldreth in the 1940s & 1950s
Meldreth was a great village for young boys. We had four rivers; the Mel, Chiswick End waters and the Guilden Brook, all running into the Rhee. We had three pits for fishing and ice skating, two run-down watermills, a station yard in which to play and the Atlas line with abandoned bogey wheels. There were also three woods to explore, orchards (many of which were unkempt and overgrown), grass fields to play football and cricket in and a church where we could go to Sunday school!!
Exploring Meldreth’s Rivers
My favourite area was the River Mel walk. We called this walk “the 17 stiles”, so I suppose there must have been 17 stiles! To get to the river, from my end of the village (near the station), we walked down the railway line to the pile bridge. Along the river were run-down orchards, Mr Sheldrick’s farm where I worked doing odd jobs, the school meadow and School that we all attended. Also the Woolpack where the Salmon brothers lived and further along was Topcliffe Mill beside a lovely grass field. In the spring the field was full of buttercups. Barn owls nested in the shed in the corner and the best conkers were found there. In the 1940’s the mill was unoccupied and we could gain access by climbing along the water wheel shaft and up into the mill. It was a dark eerie place and not all of us were brave enough to climb to the top. The windows were covered in dusty cobwebs making it dark inside and pigeon and bat droppings covered the floor. It was quite frightening for us 10 year olds. I was much happier outside. I’m afraid one of our pastimes was to remove railway sleepers from one of the bridges across the river and float them down the river until they got stuck at the mill. We did eventually get one past by blocking the sluice and raising the water level high enough to float a railway sleeper through. I remember the satisfaction of seeing it in the mill pond. Later we floated it all the way down to the Rhee.
The Salmon brothers, Peter, Colin and Johnnie, lived in the small cottage at the Woolpack. From there we could walk down to the river through Mr. Ellis‘s orchard. On one occasion poor Johnnie fell off the bridge into the water. He went right under and was being sucked into the tunnel under the bridge when Colin and I jumped in and managed to grab him before he disappeared into the tunnel. Their house had two rooms upstairs and two downstairs. One room I remember had a brick floor, in the middle of which was a bowl of water and that was all. The living room had an open fire, a table, two stools and some old chairs. With their mum and dad were the three boys and two girls. I never saw upstairs!! Their mum always gave me the same greeting, “Come in Ken and have something to eat”. This would consist of a piece of bread which I had to hold in front of the fire to toast and blacken. None of the boys married and after their mum and dad died they all moved to the Isle of Wight.
Chiswick End brook was a favourite place to fish for sticklebacks. Most boys and girls had fishing nets and a jam jar with a string handle. It annoyed me that girls, especially Mavis Sims and Mavis Plumb, could catch more fish than us boys. I think that they may have had proper fishing nets, whereas us boys had a bamboo cane (cut from those growing by the High Street) with a loop of wire tied to the end and an old stocking for a net. I remember fishing there one evening and I accidentally fell in and had to walk home soaking wet, in the dark, along the Atlas line. I was seven and a half years old at the time and it was March 23rd 1943! I know the date because when I got home, Mum was upset to see the state of me as she was in labour, about to give birth to my brother Ron.
At the end of Chiswick End was the lime kiln and pit. The lime kiln was a brick structure with two kilns, one was half demolished and the brick and mortar rubble allowed us to climb to the top where we could look down into the other kiln. The adjacent pit was surrounded by small trees and contained roach and perch. We fished using a bent pin and string tied to a stick. I made a super rod out of three straight sycamore sticks fitted together with brass tubes, with staples hammered into the rod to thread the string through and a cotton reel to wind the string around. The area around the pit was short lush grass and a favourite place for picnics.
The stream carried on past this area to the fir tree wood. The trees were in straight lines and close together making it very dark inside with little growth or green. It was a frightening place for us young lads and on one occasion I was with the Salmon brothers and Adrian Pearce when there was a frightening bellow from close by that echoed through the wood. We did not stop to wonder, but ran as fast as we could until we reached the safety of the top of the lime kiln. I would guess it was a stag.
The second wood further along the stream was a much more pleasant place of deciduous trees and the source of the stream where we would drink the clear pure water!!
The Guilden Arch river was deeper, cleaner and the sticklebacks bigger. This is where most of us boys learned to swim. We did not have towels and only some of us had swimming trunks but we must have managed somehow. Sixty years later I can still feel that icy cold water!!
All of these rivers flow into the Rhee which was accessible from Roger Hart’s farm [in Fenny Lane]. To us the Rhee was deep, dangerous and way out in the country. An adventure that David May and I undertook was to follow each of the three Meldreth rivers from their source to the Rhee. We did need to trespass over private land but in our time we were unaware of official footpaths and tended to wander wherever we chose. On reaching the Rhee we would light a fire, cook and eat our lunch and carve our names on a tree. I wonder how many Meldreth boys or girls have done this?
The Railway Station and the Atlas Line
The station yard was an ideal playground and great for playing hide and seek. The places to hide were numerous and I remember some of them: in the goods shed among the bags of Silcox animal feed; on the roof of the goods shed; in the stable behind the horse; up the ladder above the windmill water well and I believe it was Brian Pepper who lay down between the main line rails!!
Also of interest was watching the daily workings of the yard, such as the horse struggling to get a heavy wagon moving, the cows and sheep being herded into trucks and the loading of fruit, asbestos and bags of corn. The fruit wagons were picked up each day during the season by a special goods train. I did get worried when my father shut Charlie Wisken in one of the fruit wagons and left him there. He had to stay there until he got to Shepreth where they let him out.
At another time we were running alongside a fruit wagon which was being picked up, rather too fast by the goods engine, when the wagon came off the rails, bounced along the railway sleepers and then jumped back onto the track again. The railway workers didn’t believe us at first when we told them what had happened, but they did once we showed them the mess it had made of the sleepers.
The Atlas line was the usual route from the station area to Chiswick End and Kneesworth Road. I walked it often and it was a haven for birds and spring flowers. Every spring I would walk (always alone) along the line to the corner where the lines turns to the right to see the first coltsfoot flowers to appear. I had a book of pressed flowers and where they were found, hidden away.
The Puffing Billy used the line to transport asbestos to the station but we never managed to get a ride in it.
There were a number of bogey wheels dumped at the side of the line. They were too heavy to lift but we managed to make up a ramp to get some onto the line and push them along. I remember Peter Harrup acting as a signal to get us to stop. He had his foot on the line and by accident we ran over it. He yelled out in pain and collapsed on the ground, while we all laughed. He lay there for ages pretended to be hurt and didn’t move until it was time to go home for lunch.
Meldreth orchards were explored and we soon got to know where the best fruit was to be found. The best pears were from Hubert Ellis’s Woolpack orchard. The orchard was run-down and I don’t remember the fruit ever being picked but there were lovely William and Conference pears there.
Greengages and Early River plums were from the orchards by Mettle Hill. I think we all had tummy upsets eating too many of these fruits. Coxes apples from Oakrits orchards. Not an ideal place for scrumping, it was too close to home (Station Hill). Victoria plums were bigger and juicier from Hubert Ellis’s orchard just behind his house. We had to be careful there because if seen he would fire his shotgun at us. I’m not sure if he aimed at us or not, but it was a little scary, and maybe dangerous!!.
The cherry orchards backed onto the Atlas line and we never missed a season scrumping a few cherries. Later when in our teens four or five of us were picking cherries from the orchard when we heard a shout and we all ran to get through the small hole in the fence. Peter Cooper, who was even then rather well built, cleared the five feet high fence in one leap as shotgun pellets rattled against the fence.
The Cam Pit
The Cam pit is a place where we were lucky not to have come to any harm. We ice skated on the pit. It seemed to freeze over most years. After school in the moonlight, some of us with torches, we would skate on the thin ice. I still remember vividly the loud crack of the ice that often occurred and echoed around the old buildings and pit, causing everyone to rush to the side. Then, after a few minutes someone would venture out again, usually Melvyn Thurley, he being braver than the rest of us. (I think it was bravery.) Also there were usually areas of water that hadn’t frozen that we had to avoid. Some boys had reasonably good ice skates but mine were plain skates tied onto an old pair of boots with stockings. They were not suitable for double axle jumps!!
Also the very silly and dangerous thing that we did was to ride in one of the small trucks, that were on rails that lead down into the pit. About four of us, plus a dog, would climb into the truck and let it run down the line and we would jump out just before it entered the water and disappeared. The dog would stay in and have to swim ashore, much to our amusement. I still think about those times at the pit and what could have happened.
Sundays Were Special
After all our wrong doings, Sunday afternoons brought a change. It was best clothes time and Sunday school. We never played any football or cricket or got up to any mischief on a Sunday. I cannot remember much that was taught but it must of been of some interest because later, I did read the Bible through from start to finish. (I cannot remember much of that either.)
Sunday was also a time with the family, a walk down the river, a picnic by the lime kiln pit, or Grandad and Grandma coming for tea and listening intently to Grandad’s tales of his youth.
Later, most of us were confirmed in the church so we must have been fairly good boys!!