David Oates draws on intensely personal childhood memories, of some seventy years ago, to find echoes of an age now gone. An age where leisure and pleasure before the time of universal car ownership was found close to home. The advent of car ownership, too, marked the beginning of the end of communities travelling and enjoying leisure as groups rather than as individuals. Sunshine days, gone forever.
Lead photograph: Penponds Woods – a continuum of history – an Iron Age round and Celtic outfield at The Hood – a track following the river from before the Middle Ages walked on by Philip Godryvy in 1426 going to Barripper – the West Cornwall Railway from 1834 and then the Great Western.
Leisure time in a small village in West Cornwall during my childhood, in the early 1950s was a very different proposition from that enjoyed by many “couch potatoes” today. It was, in those days, inextricably bound up in village society, although Camborne was only a short distance away. Cricket was a passion for many – though I never felt drawn to it myself – and the Playing Field was where many could be found on a summer Saturday afternoon. There was another domestic source of pleasure, other than the Playing Field, found a short stroll down the valley, still following the stream, the Connor River, which linked all the communities in the valley and led us, ultimately, to the sea. This source of pleasure was to be found in Penponds Woods, named after a neighbouring village but just as close to Barripper. It was a far, far different place from that seen today. A place too, inextricably bound up with the past and to truly appreciate all its nuances we can reveal its story, layer by layer.
David and Doris Oates, Bernice, Christine and Silas Bath, Penponds Woods
Older people in the Camborne area have a special affection for Penponds Woods, now sadly neglected and overgrown, as in former years it served as what we would now call an “amenity area”. Lack of finance and transport led the people of Camborne to take their leisure within walking distance of the town and this small area of woodland ranks alongside Carn Brea, Godrevy and Camborne Cliffs in local affection. In the 1950s, and long before that, it was common, particularly on a warm Sunday afternoon in summer, for families to walk and picnic here on broad grassy slopes leading down to the river. It was at its most popular with those who took that traditional promenade between Sunday School and the six o’clock chapel service. Its place in local affection is clearly shown in the dialect stories of the late Herbie Lean, a true man of Camborne, as the following extract from one entitled, “Penponds”, shows. It features his most well-known character, Richard Henery:
“W’ats say”, said mother, “shall us ‘ave a r’ale ‘oliday and go down Penponds Woods, pick primroses, like everbody used to do Good Fridays. I abben been since we went there courting.”
“That’s ’nuff ’bout that”, said Father.
“I can ‘member ‘ow we sat on the bank and you ‘eld my ‘and”.
“Better fit you ‘old your tongue”.
Do ‘ee ‘member ‘ow you ‘elped me over the stream and tumbled in yourself?”
“All right, shuttest up, I’ll go, there w’eant be no peace nor quietness til I do.”
“‘Ave Penponds got a town clock ?” asked Richard Henery as he was winding up his top.
“No,” replied Father, “nor no pub now”
“How can they tell the time?”
“Watch the trains go by.”
“I w’eant stop ‘ere and ‘ear ‘ee ‘busing Penponds ’cause I do call it some pretty l’il place, shops and all, ‘sides I read in a book Richard Trevithick used to live there, come from Redruth out there ‘ee did.”
“Cheap house I s’pose. If you’re going, com’est on, tidy up and gettest ready.”
I don’t suppose Richard Henery and his like, those generations of folk from Camborne, Barripper and Penponds, knew or cared much about the tale the landscape at Penponds Woods had to tell and took its beauty at face value – their simple, hardworking lives had other, more pressing priorities. There is, though, more than meets the eye at first sight, with evidence of the industrial past and great feats of engineering – all of which are factors in the way our ancestors lived and developed.
The valley in which Barripper sits contains paths and tracks from the distant past, but here in Penponds Woods a more modern routeway crosses the Connor River, carried on the high, majestic viaduct of the Great Western Railway, a legend in its own time, but now forgotten. Built by gangs of navvies, with little sophisticated machinery, their grace and accuracy of building stand as testaments to a bygone age. It is interesting to note that many of the navvies were of Irish origin and many settled, temporarily, or more permanently, in the village of Brea, near Camborne. These Irish origins, which were necessarily catholic in nature, coupled with a probable view that local jobs were at risk, led to the anti-Catholic fervour – this spiritual paradox led, in the last century to a breakdown of law and order and the sacking of the Catholic Church in Camborne.
Beneath the viaduct, however, overgrown and barely visible, is the embankment of an older railway, which ran from Hayle to serve the mines of Camborne and Redruth. This was opened in 1834 and was originally known as the Hayle Railway, later becoming the West Cornwall Railway. Its track can still be traced, including the famous incline at Steamer’s Hill at Angarrack and here at Penponds a deviation from the present railway line can be seen, looping through the fields and then up through the heart of the village, to the south of the modern line – a far cry from the men walking up the valley in the Middle Ages to be ordained at Barripper at the Chapel of the Blessed Mary, but part of the same continuum and part of our collective past.
The walk to the woods usually took in a detour by way of what is now known as “Hood Hill” pronounced as in part of a garment to cover the head. However, in my youth the place was always termed “The Hood” – pronounced as in “food”. Here could be found a curious circular field within a larger “outfield” that clearly pre-dated the modern field enclosures by a long time. This circular field had a ditch around it and although as a child I didn’t place it in any precise historical period, it was, and is, a place of mystery – a place apart from the modern world. Indeed, within what I came to know as an Iron Age fortified site was found a polished stone axe from a much earlier period.
However, that liberator of the working class, the push-bike, broadened our horizons and put the beaches of our beloved Godrevy and Gwithian, and the North Cliffs, within our grasp. There was no other choice because no-one, at least within the circle of people I knew, had a car. It wasn’t just an unaffordable luxury: it wasn’t something most village folk would even think of possessing. However, my uncle, who had been to the School of Mines and had more disposable income than the rest of us, had an Austin 7, into which it seemed like dozens of us crammed for the occasional outing and there was one famous time when this car “gave up the ghost” by breaking its springs in the middle of the railway crossing at Gwinear Road and we all had to walk back to Barripper!
Much later, of course, the transport revolution swept through Barripper, as through every other community, but in those immediate post-war years you walked, cycled or didn’t go.
There was an exception. Barripper was almost exclusively populated by my maternal grandmother’s family, the Moons, and an off-shoot of that family, by marriage, ran a bus company at Leedstown. Pollard’s buses provided a welcome respite from walking into town but had an altogether more valuable function – they ran excursions, weekly in summer, from the village to Praa Sands (pronounced “Pray”, in spite of more recent attempts to anglicise it), an altogether more exotic location to those of us accustomed only to the abrasive nature of the wild north coast at Godrevy although it was no more than ten miles away and my father and others would cycle regularly to that coast to go fishing.
We longed for that day to come each week and prayed for fine weather. It seems to me now that it was always fine but I guess we remembered the fine days more clearly. Strange though it may seem now, it was a rare and exciting pleasure to travel, in comparative comfort, to that mecca of sea and sand that was Praa Sands (it was always “Pray“ Sands to us and I like to think this is a direct link to our ancient tongue and refers to the grassy dunes that fringed the beach). I much prefer the solitude of the north coast now but then Praa Sands possessed the almost regulation tea-rooms, deckchairs and ice-cream kiosks which put it, in the eyes of Barripper folk, a cut above the normal run-of-the-mill beach. (It was also where the bus company chose to run their excursions, so, in reality, we had little choice)
In order to attain this glittering prize we had to get there and as long as I live I shall never forget those Pollard’s buses and the men who drove them, individuals everyone, each with an amusing quirk or party piece to help the journey along. One was a comedian of great talent while another sang like a thrush. One was an outrageous flirt and always raised a chorus of titters and cackles from that cargo of young mums and their older, female relatives. They knew us and we knew them and together we formed a bustling cargo of happiness and contentment bowling along on its way to the sea. The buses themselves were almost human, each with a character of its own. No sleek, streamlined models these but solid, square carriers of humanity with protruding bonnets, curving wings and huge headlamps sticking obstinately out in front. This was all surmounted by a magnificent radiator cap, which fussed and worried, ejecting a thin jet of steam at regular intervals. My mechanically naive mind saw nothing amiss with this but it was a sign of things to come!
On the morning in question a queue would start to form in the village square quite some time before the bus was due to arrive, everyone exchanging raucous greetings and eager to secure the seat of their choice, the extremes of front and back being most popular. This opportunity was not long arriving and the approach of the bus was heralded by the rough squawk of its horn long before it came into sight – remember we are talking about unimproved roads and less than reliable vehicles which travelled slowly.
Arriving at the seaside – David Oates at front right
The journey itself was a joy – a leisurely promenade through green tunnels which wound and twisted through the morning sunlight. We sat through frequent stops and temporary breakdowns, clutching bucket and spade and never, in my memory, losing patience. We sat at the side of the road, playing and chatting, until, with a hesitant cough, the engine came to life again and carried us on our way. The lanes were full of luxurious growth and as the bus brushed against it, the air was filled with the scents of summer, cow-parsley, elder and the coconutty smell of hot gorse.
In the fullness of time we would come to that moment which always brought a thrill of excitement – the first glimpse of the sea. The bus would tip gently over the ridge formed by Tregoning and Godolphin Hills and would descend, at an ever-increasing rate, finally bumping to a dusty halt by the tea-rooms, which sat at the very edge of the sands.
Before the engine had stopped running, a deluge of children would pour through the open door and take part in a ritual race across the sand to the water’s edge – a mad dash brought about by an urgent desire to feel that first shock of cold water between the toes. With our appetites satisfied, the retreat from the water’s edge was more leisurely and by the time we reached the high tide mark the entire company was twisting across the beach like some disorientated crocodile. A suitable spot was chosen and a corral of deckchairs erected. No separate enclaves of privacy for us – we had travelled as a community and that was the way we would spend the day. Our circle expanded and contracted during the day, exploding, at periodic intervals, into gales of laughter and screams of excitement. The more extrovert amongst us performed like troupers for the entertainment of others – humour, song, you name it, nothing was beyond those stars of village life. Sometimes it was a little risqué but never, never offensive.
Thus we spent our time, eating together, swimming together and creating fantastic sculptures of aeroplanes and cars in the sand. Did ever a parsley pasty taste so good as they did on those days at Praa Sands? My mother would make them early in the day and then, wrapped in tea towels, they would retain some of their heat until dinner time – we always had dinner and then tea, never the lunch and dinner of those who knew better. I suspect this is not particularly Cornish but more a reflection of our working-class origins. Having worked professionally for forty years, it is still with me and will be for the rest of my days.
Doris and David Oates in “corral” of deckchairs – Phyllis Oates (née Moon) on left
There was a very real purpose to those days apart from leisure and it is still clear in my mind over all these years later. This concerned the communal gathering of limpets. One can imagine the distaste most people would express today on being offered a limpet to eat but these now discarded shellfish were considered a delicate, and welcome addition to our diet. Waiting until the tide approached its lowest ebb, the matriarchs of our group, relatives all, would hitch up voluminous skirts and lead off in procession to the far end of the beach where, in the shadows of the cliffs were the rocks on which the unsuspecting limpets lay. This area often lay in shadow for much of the day and its rocks were covered in a particularly slippery and slimy green seaweed – though I suppose the limpets liked it as they were there in abundance. To me, then, it was a rather forbidding area and the presence of a noisy group ferreting around amongst the rocks did nothing to dispel the gloom.
A certain skill was required to remove the limpets from the rocks and many had their own individual tools for the job, no doubt made, as most things were, “up Foundry” by “Jan Luke”. Translated, “up Foundry” meant the factory of Holman Brothers, the principal employers of the area, and “Jan Luke” was that universally known, but non-existent, employee who did all the jobs which found their way into employees homes. I suppose in these days we should view it as the crime it was but then it seemed a thoroughly natural part of everyday life! Many houses and sheds in Camborne were painted the same colour as the machinery in the works and it was a standing joke in the town that your house could be painted any colour as long as it was green!
One lovely Barripper character, Arthur Pearce, whose wife, Doris, often joined the Praa Sands excursions, was a renowned breeder and shower of bantams and the story is still told of how when one of his prize breeding birds broke a leg, the Foundry was mobilised to design and manufacture the most efficient crutch or support for the bird’s leg until it healed! Arthur’s birds were beautifully cared for and it was a joy to see them, especially when they were young. He gave me a pair and I, too, had the bantam bug for years until the demands of a working life far removed from Barripper made me abandon them. Many people were bird fanciers, either bantams or pigeons, and Arthur had a rival at Barripper when one Walter Small married into the village and was equally as enthusiastic in the bantam world.
Tons of limpets must have been gathered from those rocks and one would have expected the spot to become barren but each time we came, there they were in their unsuspecting hundreds waiting to be carried miles inland and consumed in a sea of salt and vinegar. I sometimes wonder what some future archaeologist will make of the thousands of limpet shells which must exist, buried in Barripper gardens. Some crushed them and added them to the feed for the fowls that many kept as grit was essential to their digestive systems.
In those days, before the advent of freezers, an ice-cream was an eagerly anticipated luxury to be had from the occasional passing ice-cream salesman, usually from Daniel’s, from far down west, but on occasions such as this they were freely available from a kiosk on the sands. We would stand in tiers on the steps leading to the kiosk, clutching sandy coins and drooling at the icy confections being prepared within. When my turn arrived, there was only one choice – a “rainbow”. Vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, coffee and peppermint all went together to form a glorious whole – it looked almost too good to eat. I’m sure similar frozen delights were available on other beaches but at that time this was a unique pleasure for me and that place was a paradise on earth.
All day long we ran, played, swam and ate, skins getting redder and redder, ignoring all advice to cover up and by evening, tired and sore, we were ready for home and that journey was always memorable, too, as before many minutes had elapsed, the singing would start – old favourites like “She’ll be coming round the mountain” and “The happy wanderer”, but these would gradually change to the hymns beloved of the Cornish – “Love Divine”, “Diadem” and “Guide me O thou Great Jehovah”, interspersed with some of the American religious imports which were popular – for some strange reason the peculiar brand of evangelising seen in America was quite popular in Cornwall – not so strange, perhaps, when one considers the strong links between the two areas through mining and the very regular interchange of relatives that Barripper folk who had stayed behind were always overjoyed to see.
All these were sung with gusto, with people taking their own parts, making as good a noise as many trained choirs. However, all good things come to an end and in the gathering dusk we would almost fall out of the bus, tired but contented. Home meant two things at the end of such a day – the seaside smell of limpets boiling and being placed in vinegar and the inevitable calamine lotion which needed to be applied to raw backs, arms and legs before ”climbing the timbern ‘ill” and then asleep.
There was one other excursion in the village that is worth noting – the chapel tea treat – an occasion typical of Methodism in Cornwall and, to my mind, at least, the equivalent of the Anglican Feast Days or the Breton pardons. Traditionally, this was a day of fun, festivity and witness which took place in the village community – parades, games and tea, including the unique tea treat bun, a large confection of fruit and saffron which was given to every child. There was also the obligatory brass band – usually Camborne Band in our area with my paternal grandfather as a stalwart member. By my young days, however, Pollard’s buses had brought about a dramatic change in that ancient tradition that most certainly pre-dates Methodism and we went, for the day, to the beach at St Ives or Carbis Bay. It still included the giving of the tea treat bun to each child at a prescribed time on the beach!
I remember one other outing, which was such an adventure for me that I still recall it clearly. Pollard’s buses ran an occasional trip to Plymouth. It was always in winter so I suspect it was connected with Christmas shopping. The buses were old and slow. The roads were unimproved and went through every town and village and we left before dawn had broken, wandering along towards Plymouth. There was no bridge south of Gunnislake so the only option was the chain ferry at Saltash and that was a real thrill for folk who rarely had the opportunity to be afloat. That ferry ceased on the completion of the Tamar Bridge but that at Torpoint still provides access to and from Plymouth. What sticks in my mind, even now, was the state of Plymouth at the time. It must have been in the early fifties but much of the city was still devastated after the wartime bombing and the centre was just an expanse of bomb sites and areas boarded up for building. I do remember that a start had been made on Dingles store. It is still a matter of debate as to whether the re-building destroyed the soul of that great city.
David Oates is a Cornish bard who has published a history of Troon, entitled “Echoes of an Age”, a guide to Godrevy and Gwithian, “Walk the hidden ways” and a slim volume of his own verse, “Poems from the far west”. His unpublished work includes a reflection on a Cornish childhood, “What time do they close the gates, Mister?” and a fictionalised story for young people based on the extant life of St Gwinear, with the working title, “The son of a king”. David is working on another guide in the “Walk the hidden ways” series, entitled “Hard Rock country”.
David is a tenor singer with the well-known group, Proper Job, based in mid- Cornwall and has collaborated with Portreath musician, Alice Allsworth, to write the lyrics for a number of songs about Cornwall and the Cornish.