About the time when we’d first got the motorbikes we’d been crab-appling and for some reason we decided to call at my grandma’s in Rugby. We must have been near there. She used to make a lot of preserves. We’d got all these crab apples, and my auntie said, ‘Well, we’ll call over and see them.’ I think they used to correspond now and again. ‘We’ll call at your grandma’s and take her these apples. She’ll probably use them. It’s a shame to waste them now we’ve picked them all.’ I must have been getting on for thirteen or so then, and that’s when I remember seeing them in Rugby again.

Then after I left school I sometimes used to go over on the bus to my grandma’s (I never used to go to my dad’s) – not very often: perhaps six months in between. I got in with our Phyl then, and we got closer. Before we were more like distant cousins – we didn’t know one another. I knew I’d got a sister, but I didn’t know what she was like.



Phyllis was four years older than me. She used to see my dad, because he used to go to his mother’s house every week – he wasn’t allowed to miss going to see his mother: she was one of that sort.

Grandma Barnwell was over ninety when she died, and I saw her almost up to the end. Her hair was jet black – she must have had it dyed – and she always had it done like when you see these head cooks, you know: swept up, not in a bun, like you see them in Pride and Prejudice. And always when I stayed there she had a darkish apron on to get the ashes up in the breakfast-room, and as soon as she was finished when she was baking she always had a white apron on. The back kitchen had a great big walk-in pantry you could get lost in – it was a very big kitchen.

Grandma Barnwell always used to have this sideboard in the hall with a big oval mirror at the back of it and a beautiful dish all full of fruit – lovely apples, oranges, peaches and grapes – reflected in the mirror, right in the middle. These grapes used to fascinate me and I used to walk past there a lot, and one day I thought to myself, ‘She never asks me to have one, but I’ll try one of those grapes.’ And they were false! They wouldn’t come off. I pressed one and it was as hard as iron. I was about fifteen or sixteen at the time.

Our Phyl was engaged to Wal then, and I used to stop at Wal’s house, in Newbold Road, more than my grandma’s. I used to get on ever so well with his mum and dad. The Bolderstons were like my auntie – anyone could go in, whereas you almost wanted a written invitation to go to the Barnwells. I used to go over there quite a lot then, because I was in with the crowd.

Of course my grandma thought no one was really good enough for our Phyl – if the Prince of Wales had asked her she’d probably have had to think about it twice – although Wal had got a good job and was an apprentice, a foreman and all that, and his father had got a good job in the offices. Our Phyl had everything – dancing lessons and piano lessons – but they told her at the finish it wasn’t worth paying any more: she wasn’t musical at all. I think she went to private school for a bit as well. I don’t know who they thought she was going to marry I’m sure, because she was very easy-going. She met Wal at work. She was a telephonist. He was the only one she ever went out with.

Wal’s mother was smashing – ever so little and dainty. His dad was a tall, handsome man – very well-dressed, and always wore immaculate clothes. I used to spend an awful lot of time there. We were very fond of one another – it was almost like a second home. That’s why Wal used to say, ‘It’s only you that knows my family. It’s only you that I can talk to about them … no one else.’ None of his children knew them, because they’d all gone before them. I’m the only one left that knows anything about his brothers and sisters.

Wal’s sister Ida was going with Hedley. I used to sleep in with Ida, in the single bed. She used to come home and didn’t know I was staying there. I used to be in the bed, and she used to come in about two in the morning and shove me up in this single bed – I was crammed against the wall. But at my grandma’s everything had to be planned.

When I got in with our Phyl again I was a bridesmaid at her wedding.

Wal had a brother, Frank, and he was married to a London girl, Ruby. They lived in Willesden, and Ruby was a dressmaker and made our Phyl’s wedding dress and our bridesmaids’ dresses. Phyl and I used to go down on the five-bob trips – the last train at five to twelve, you know – to have them fitted. And I remember Frank used to take us into town at night, into London. I remember him taking us to Forte’s once and having all these gorgeous cakes. I was only about seventeen or eighteen then. It was quite an experience.

I also used to go to the shows in London with the girls from work – Ivor Novello and so on. We never used to think anything of it. I’ve seen Gertrude Lawrence down there. Then we used to walk all the way from the station home. I never kept the programmes, because we were all hard up and we only used to buy one between us, so whoever was holding it last kept it. But we never thought they were valuable like they would be now. I’ve seen no end of things down there, but we just took it for granted – it was just a giggle and a night out.

I remember the night before Phyllis was getting married. As I say, I used to go over to Wal’s a lot, and the night before they were married we’d been at Wal’s and out doing something and I know that when we got back to my grandma’s – I was staying at my grandma’s, because I was a bridesmaid – it was about five minutes to twelve. And there were my grandma and my Auntie Vi on the doorstep as soon as we walked in.

I was just opening the door and I went to walk in the hall to leave Wal and our Phyl to say goodnight, and all of a sudden these two came dashing up the hall and dragged our Phyl in – ‘Come in quick and shut the door.’ They never had time to say goodnight. ‘You’re not supposed to see the man on the day! It’s unlucky to see your groom on the day of your wedding.’ Our Phyl and I looked at each other and wondered what had happened – we didn’t realise what the time was. My grandma was wringing her hands in the front room saying ‘You’ve got to get in before twelve!’

Phyllis's wedding

Phyllis’s wedding: (L to R) Ida, Hedley, page boy (unknown), Wal, Phyllis, Pauline (Vi and Len’s daughter), Chris, Albert Barnwell

My dad gave Phyl away, but Beat wasn’t allowed to go to the wedding. Beat was never allowed in my grandma’s house all the years they were married. They never spoke at all.

Wal was a nice fellow, a very attractive fellow. He used to play rugby on Saturday – he was the captain of the rugger team – and was mad on fishing. He used to take our Phyl and me fishing before they were married. He used to say, ‘Come on, you can come fishing with us,’ and then every time we went to speak it was ‘Sh!’ We used to have to go and sit in another field miles away because he reckoned we disturbed the fish. We used to sit there, we were absolutely cold, not saying a word, just eating now and then.

And then, when he’d finished, he used to have this net hanging in the water. He used to get them up, look at them all, and then throw them all back in. I thought that was the end! I said to our Phyl, ‘That’s it! I’ll never come here again. We’ve been here two hours, he’s caught all these fish, he’s counted them and put them all back in.’ I thought it was daft! So I think I only went fishing with him once. I’d had enough of that.

Hear Chris describe going fishing with Wal:

Phyllis and Wal

Phyllis and Wal

After they were married Phyl and Wal had a house of their own in Craven Street – rented, but it was nice house. Then, when Phyl was having a baby – most people had babies at home: they didn’t go into hospital – Mrs Bolderston said, ‘When you have the baby you can come to our house and have it here.’ So she went to Newbold Road to have the baby (Tony). And she hadn’t been used to babies, and she stayed on there for a bit. And she didn’t want to go back to her house, did she? So they gave their own house up and stopped with his mother. My grandma nearly went berserk!

While they were staying with Wal’s parents his dad was taken ill and he died. He had dropsy; he was ill for a while. So Wal decided then he’d get another house, and he rented one in Grosvenor Road and he took his mother and his sister, Ida, with him. There was only his sister left at home. He had another, older, sister – Minnie – who was married to Cuthbert, and they already lived in Grosvenor Road. Then a couple of years later, when Wal’s mother had died and Ida had got married, Phyllis and Wal bought a house in Hillfield Road.

I knew Hedley, who got married to Wal’s sister, well, because we used to go about with each other. He and Ida used to take a travelling-rug into our Phyl’s front room and do all their courting on our Phyl’s sofa in Grosvenor Road. They used to be in there for ages. I used to go to bed, and then Ida would come up later on.

When Phyllis and Wal were in Craven Street they had some nice neighbours next door who’d got a big old Wolsey car. These people had got some relatives somewhere in Lancashire – I think it was Burnley – and we decided to go up there in the car. There was him and his wife and their daughter and Phyl, Wal and me.

Well, we got lost on the way up there and we had to spend a night in this car on the moors. It was quite an experience that – thick fog it was, and we went round and round and round.

I always remember King’s Road. It was like a roundabout. We kept going round trying to find where we were going, and we kept coming round to this King’s Road – we couldn’t find this house. But we did at the finish. We just had time to say, ‘Hello, we’ve come to see you,’ and then we went home again in case we had to spend another night on the moors.

Contents | Previous chapter | Next chapter