Saturday, 7 July 2012

St Catherines

One Tuesday morning in January 1953, two brothers, aged 10 and 8, were woken earlier than usual.  After breakfast, each with his suitcase, the boys were taken by their mother to the railway station where they caught the London train.  They crossed the city to a different railway terminus where they boarded another train bound for Portsmouth harbour.  A half-hour ferry ride took the trio to the Isle of Wight and another train, this one an old London Undrground train doing service on the Island railway.  Alighting at the other end of the line, at Ventnor, they made their way through the streets.  The gate was opened by a nun and, soon after, my mother started her 4-hour return journey in tears.  My brother and I were shown our bedroom, a small room with two beds which was to be "our" room until we had settled in enough to be moved into the main dormitory.

I have no recollection whatsoever of the journey and only vague memories of that small bedroom - but I do remember very well that my brother and I cried ourselves to sleep that night and for several nights.

Please don't run away with the idea that our mother had simply dumped us.  She must have felt pretty rotten herself.  This would be the first time since my birth that she was on her own in the home.  My father was serving in the Royal Navy and had left for Belfast only a few days earlier where he was to "stand by" a ship being built.  My mother, bless her, was acting on the best professional advice available to her when she consigned the care of my brother and me to the nuns of Ventnor.  Both of us boys suffered from asthma and our doctor was convinced that living in the Medway towns was a conributory factor.  Being on the River Medway, just about at its confluence with the Thames, he thought that foul airs and miasmas were collected in the basin fromed by the rivers.  The fresh air of Ventnor, where the breezes had travelled thousands of miles across an empty ocean, would be extremely beneficial and it just so happened that in the town was what was described by the nuns who ran it as an open-air school for deleicate childen.  I have no idea what payment arrangements were in force, nor do I know what was the long-term plan.  Indeed, I suspect that there was no long-term plan.

Children are surprisingly resilient animals and it really was not very long before my brother and I were transferred to St Joseph's House under the care of Sir and Nursie.  As with all children of that age, our days were taken up with lessons (in classrooms - not under the baobab tree).  That was all day for four days.  Wednesdays and Saturdays we had school only in the mornings.  We were sent to our beds for a rest after lunch every day and, after our rest, on our half days we were taken for walks on the Downs behind the town or - occasionally - to a secluded cove where we could scramble over the rocks and explore the contents of the pools.  One walk, into Coombe Bottom, took us past the remains of a crashed aircraft (it was still not so very long after the end of WW2) and another was through a tunnel on a disused railway.  Highly exciting.

Also very exciting was what took place before our rest on Wednesdays and either Saturdays or Sundays (neither my brother nor I can remember which).  That was when we allowed our sweet ration.  There were, I think, just three different sweets to choose from: boiled fruit sweets, chewy peppermints or Cadbury's flakes.  We were allowed two boiled sweets or peppermints (or one of each) or a Cadbury's flake.  Oh, the thought and deliberation that went into the twice-weekly selection.  On the one hand, the boiled sweets lasted the longest but were just a little bit boring.  The peppermints could be sucked but somehow always drove one to chew them.  But oh, the ecstacy as the chocolate of the flake dissolved on one's tongue.

I am reasonable certain that sweets came off the ration while my brother and I were on the island but if anything different happened on those two days, I have no memory of it.

While we were there, I sat the 11-plus exam and was awarded  a place at Gillingham County Grammar School for Boys.  My education was deemed more important that the fresh air of the Isle of Wight so we came home again in August that year ready for me to start my new school in September.


The Race for Life in aid of cncer research took place in Stanmer Park and woods last weekend.  This wee we have the Brighton Kite Festival - but at least that's not in the woods.

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