The Kent family has a long history in Aston Abbotts and Peter Kent grew up here along with his brother Ray. These childhood memories tell an evocative story of what life was like in Aston Abbotts before and during the war. iPeter moved to Bletchley when he met and married Jean, but he has always retained a strong association with the village and is often to be seen at village events. We are very grateful to him for sharing his memories with us.
I was born at No 16 Aston Abbotts, a small two up, two down terraced cottage. My Great Grandfather, John Higgs, local coal merchant purchased that row of four cottages during the late 1800's. There are three similar rows all built in 1854 and originally owned by Lord Overstone, frequently referred to as Overstone Cottages. Initially he kept his horse in a field rented on Elliot's farm, but later purchased the 2½ acre field adjacent to his cottages (now the recreation field). Each cottage had a large vegetable garden; 40 pole, (¼ acre), enabling families to be self-sufficient and there was no season when fresh vegetables were not available. No herbicides or pesticides were used, and no artificial fertilizer, just good quality mature farmyard muck. Fruit trees included apples, pear, plum, greengage, damson and bullace, as well as blackcurrant, redcurrant and gooseberry bushes. We had large horseradish and rhubarb beds, each year the latter was mulched with straw encouraging an early crop. At a very early age my late brother Ray and I were each given our own plot and encouraged by Dad to cultivate and grow our own crops. We didn't realise then how that early introduction to gardening would later become such an important asset. One lasting memory was when he said to Ray and I, "Now don't you forget my boys, you hoe when there are no weeds". Very sound advice. At the of rear the cottages were brick built coal barns and a shared pump house where drinking water was pumped from a well, and a
communal brick built bread oven. Water for washing etc. was collected in large storage tanks from the house roofs. All hot water was boiled in a large kettle on the grate, or during washdays in the coal/wood fired copper in the kitchen. To complete the "mod cons" each cottage had a pig stye and the all important privy. When the bucket had served its useful purpose it wasn't disposed of, but cleaned and inverted over a patch of the rhubarb, encouraging a much earlier crop of young succulent tasty rhubarb. Recycling is not entirely new!
I cannot recall my earliest memory in Aston Abbotts; I have so many, but when I was four years old Mum became a founder member of the Ladies Club, weekly meetings were held in the Church Room. Ray had started school, but for a short time I accompanied Mum to those early meetings and encouraged to behave. My formal education began at the Aston Abbotts C of E School, our teachers were Mrs Brock, head mistress, and Miss Childerly. Both excellent teachers and dedicated to their responsibilities, despite times when we must have exhausted their patience. There were two class rooms referred to as the small room and the big room. Each year during September we spent an afternoon collecting blackberries, usually in Cold Comfort Farm, we ate as many as we put in our baskets. I recall during one of those forays we released the pigs from the farm yard at the far end of the field. Miss Childerly was not amused; we had to round up the pigs and return them to their enclosure. That punishment gave us as much fun as originally allowing the pigs their freedom. Returning to school we received a "ticking off" from Mrs Brock.
My maternal grandmother Sarah Ann Simmons lived next door and during those early years the doctor's surgery was held in her front room. Few people will remember Dr Ryder Richardson from Whitchurch; a brilliant doctor but wouldn't tolerate timewasters.
At that time there were no supermarkets competing for business, but with few exceptions all was available in the village shops stocking a wide variety of provisions. In Aston Abbotts the shop belonged to my uncle and aunt, Horace and Edie Osborn with their son Bernard. Although not in direct competition, numerous other traders plied for business in the village. I recall the scissor grinder's regular visits, and Samuel's the Chemists from Leighton Buzzard. Every Tuesday evening he drove his little Austin 7 van fully loaded, calling at every house. Haberdashery was catered for by a partially sighted Leighton Buzzard man regularly calling with his merchandise in a very overloaded and untidy suitcase. Mr Piper from Wing visited selling clothes, but often to order and delivered later. Those unable to purchase outright paid a weekly amount until they had accrued sufficient credit to purchase. It was not then customary to buy what could not be paid for at the time of purchase. Hire purchase in reverse! George Cheney from Cublington was the local butcher. Twice weekly he delivered meat by horse and cart. It was necessary to order during a previous visit. Rabbits were available from the fields particularly during harvest time. A wet fish man from Aylesbury visited weekly, and again by horse and cart. Bread was available from Tom Humphrey at the Bull and Butcher, and cakes every Friday. Although collection was available he delivered with horse and cart,
later progressing to a small vanFresh milk was available from farms including my uncle, Sid Smith, Red Barn Farm, who provided a daily delivery, No pasteurising then, straight from the cows through a milk cooler and delivered fresh each morning. Luke How, Church Farm also supplied milk, and cream, but no delivery was available. Employees at The Abbey and other farms received a daily supply of milk. Most milk from the farms was collected daily each morning by Nestles of Aylesbury. Soft drinks including Corona were available weekly. The van driver always stopped his vehicle on that blind bend at the corner of Moat Lane. Imagine that now! There was never a problem obtaining clothes pegs. Gypsies frequently visited selling their pegs and on occasions could be seen sitting along the hedgerows making them.
We had a small wireless powered by a large battery and rechargeable accumulator; similar to a small car battery, and requiring occasional recharging. Harry Brandon at the blacksmiths shop charged three pence to recharge. His premises would have given the health and safety inspector a nightmare just knowing where to start. On occasions I took my uncles horses there to be re-shoed. Many residents including my Grandmother and Mum made wine from a wide variety of home grown vegetables; Ray and I would also collect various flowers from the fields, including dandelions, cowslips, elderflowers and elderberries. Then we would have to go to the Bull and Butcher for a pennyworth of yeast.My paternal and maternal ancestors were members of the Primitive Methodist Chapel, so from an early age Ray and I attended the morning Sunday School. We always accompanied Mum and Dad to the evening service. Dad possessing a fine bass voice, he sang at many local church and social concerts.
I clearly recall life in Aston Abbotts during the Second World War. President Beneš, his guards and staff moved from temporary accommodation in Putney taking up residence at The Abbey. Captain Morton and family vacated and moved to The Old House. A camp mainly consisting of Nissan huts was built along the Abbey rear drive and Norduck Road. Walking across Lines Hill on Sunday afternoons we frequently met President Beneš, accompanied by his wife, nieces, and Alsatian dog Toga; closely followed by guards. He always acknowledged us and spoke. Later the camp was extended becoming a prisoner of war camp, firstly for Italians and then Germans. Many of the prisoners were taken out each morning working on local farms. Sid Smith employed several on his farm; they were excellent workers and during the busy hay and harvest time would work all day Saturday for a half ounce of tobacco. Some prisoners were allowed out for a limited time on Sundays. Three frequently visited us for tea and came to Chapel for the evening service. Along the three approaching roads into the village were the "Defence Logs". Large elm tree trunks suitably fixed to be swung across the road during any invasion, and installed by Harry Brandon the village blacksmith. They were positioned adjacent to the allotments, just
beyond the school and in Moat Lane around the corner from Hunters Way entrance. At times they became meeting points, somewhere for us to sit and chat whilst carving our names with our jack knives. Early graffiti? Coinciding with the start of the Second World War in September 1939 the Local Defence Volunteers was formed nationwide, later renamed The Home Guard. Dad, who had served during The Great War volunteered and was quickly promoted to Sergeant. There were nightly guard duties around the village, jointly with President Beneš's guards; HQ was in the Church Room. However, it was noted that on occasions visits were made to The Bull and Butcher. Rifle and hand grenade practice took place in the old brick pits adjacent to Rousham Barns. Everyone was issued with a gas mask; we had to carry ours to school each day.
With the close proximity to Cublington/Wing Aerodrome air raid warnings were quite frequent. Wardens cycled round the village blowing a loud whistle, later followed by the all clear. Several villagers built shelters providing cover, but with a large storage cupboard under the stairs Dad would usher Mum, Ray and I in there. I recall him saying "Don't worry they'll be after the aerodrome at Cublington". He then went to the top of the garden looking across to Halton Camp as the searchlights scanned the sky. We did have several bombs land around the village, but fortunately no casualties. Shortly after the war started children from London were evacuated into the towns and villages; I have clear memories of the day evacuees arrived in Aston Abbotts and assembled in the school playground. Despite being quite young at the time it was pitiful to see them, as I'm sure it must have been extremely heartbreaking for their parents to see them leaving home. Families from the village came to the school, volunteering to take them into their homes. Mr and Mrs Steele took in two families, the Wootons and Cakebreads. With more children at school it was necessary to employ an additional teacher. During the war a blackout was enforced; like many villages at that time there were no street lights in Aston Abbotts. However, during the hours of darkness it was obligatory to ensure that no light was
visible from windows. Additional thick curtains or blinds were hung at all windows. Wardens patrolled to check no lights could be seen, and this rule had been adhered to. On occasions several of us carried out our patrols and walking around the village if we could see any light from a window we called out "lights out or blackouts up". It worked. Vehicle lights were dimmed and partially masked with a grill, directing light onto the road a short distance to the front.
I vividly recall 18 September 1942, Dad was working for Fleet and Roberts a family firm of builders in Wingrave; during that time they were building a prisoner of war camp at Hartwell. That evening he was late home. At around 5 o'clock a British Single Seater plane crashed close to where he was working and caught fire. Without thought for his own safety he ran to the plane and successfully rescued the pilot from the cockpit. Then with additional help the pilot was supported to safety, and taken to Stoke Mandeville hospital. Dad received numerous letters acknowledging his brave conduct, including Herbert Morrison, then Home Secretary, The Air Ministry in Whitehall and Regional Command HQ in Slough. Amongst further correspondence was a citation from Winston Churchill on behalf of King George V1. He first received brave conduct lapel badges, but The King authorised the award of The Silver Laurel Leaf, awarded for acts of bravery during civilian life
When we were young there was little to do in the village; we had to create our own amusement. Naturally we did get into mischief, there was of course door knocking, taking off garden gates and re-hanging them upside down. Potatoes were forced up the exhaust pipe of a stationary car so it wouldn't start. (I could count the number of cars in Aston Abbotts then with the fingers on one hand). On occasions we pushed the chemist's van just along the road or around the corner. Naturally firework night was always good fun despite a shortage of fireworks. As we knew who would give chase they would be targeted first, then we quickly dispersed into adjacent fields. Chapman's field became our sports field, cricket, football and athletics, but we had to share it with his herd of milking cows. The main handicap was the enormous amount of cowpats, but so what, it was after all, their field. A large unused henhouse which was fortunately on wheels was towed out to the edge of our cricket area, one side sawn out and refitted with hinges. We had our own pavilion. At the age of ten I passed a scholarship examination to attend the Aylesbury Grammar School. From a big fish in a small pond I quickly realised I was a small fish in a large pond. Fortunately I received a bus pass which allowed travel free, or it's certain I would not have gone. We had to walk to and from Wingrave Crossroads. Despite being the youngest in my class I settled in reasonably well but soon
discovered that this new life was completely different from Aston Abbotts School. Shortly after starting at Aylesbury a few of us became enterprising and sought our fortunes. Walking down the High Street we passed the Co-Operative store and regularly bought cakes just one penny each, these we sold during morning break with a 50% mark up.
Dad's very tragic and untimely death on 1 May 1945 left an irreplaceable gap in our family; life would never be the same again. Mum received a small widow's pension, but with rent to pay it was insufficient to support a young, growing and hungry family. Her main priority was Ray and I and she often went without herself. To supplement her pension she found it necessary to obtain local employment, and worked for Mrs Morton at The Abbey and Mrs Steele at The Firs. Frequently our clothes were patched and darned and passed down from Ray to me, but Mum ensured that we never went without a meal. Until Dad's death he always cut our hair, we then had to go to Jo Clarke's shed in his back garden, just one style, short back and sides, cost three pence. He was also the "village snob", and repaired shoes. Ray and I were aware of the financial situation and saw the necessity to contribute financially, so we found Saturday jobs. At least we were able to make contributions into the weekly housekeeping. Overtime was often available particularly during hay and harvest time and not unusual to work a twelve hour day. Snow could always be guaranteed, so winter evenings were frequently spent tobogganing; it didn't matter that it was dark. We had several fields suitable but the favourite was Lines Hill, particularly from the top down towards the Osier Beds.
There was of course the large ¼ acre vegetable garden and despite receiving initial practical help from a retired village person Ray and I got stuck in to the job. Our friend Victor Scott, despite having a similar size garden gave us encouragement and practical help in many ways. We soon realised how important that early introduction to gardening with Dad really was. It was about that time our friendship with Vic grew and we became very close friends. His interest in the natural world encouraged us and when ever time allowed it was spent walking around the fields studying the natural world; birds, flowers, butterflies; they were there to discover and record. That friendship with Vic was very special continuing until his death in 2011. During those years his encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural world made any walk in the country so much more interesting. That was especially so during holidays I later shared in the UK and various overseas countries.
Whilst in our early teens we started a youth club, meeting weekly on Friday evenings in the Church Room. We purchased a second hand half size Billiard/Snooker table from The Rose and Crown in Wingrave, and borrowed a tractor and trailer to collect it. Later we purchased a table tennis table, dart board etc. We fixed a membership fee, made tea and coffee and bought biscuits; these were sold to help cover expenses. Our first holiday was in 1948, a week in a small guest house in Ethelbert Road, Cliftonville. It would not have been possible unless Ray and I paid our own rail fares and boarding house costs. Whenever possible we worked to earn extra money. It was a very memorable holiday. I was sixteen when first playing cricket for Aston Abbotts, matches played against neighbouring villages; our cricket pitch was in The Grove. I recall one Whit Monday playing in Regents Park against a team from Willesden Working Mens Club. Each August Bank Holiday Monday we hosted a team from St Martins in The Fields. Teas for visiting teams were at The Bull and Butcher; jam doughnuts always a favourite. Regretfully as time passed it became impossible to form a team so we had to disband.
When leaving school at sixteen my first job was at The Royal Bucks Hospital where I commenced training in the pharmacy. My first pay was just over £2 per week, so to avoid bus fares I borrowed £20 and bought a new bicycle from Atkins in Aylesbury. National Service was then obligatory, I had to register and attend an interview. I passed my medical, and chose to serve in The Royal Artillery. In July 1952 I received a 2nd class travel warrant to Oswestry, where we were met and taken by lorry to Park Hall Camp That was a "fitting out camp", collect our kit, "spit and polish" and an introduction to square bashing. Two weeks later I was posted to 65th HAA Regiment, Seaton Barracks, Crownhill, Plymouth. A further fifteen weeks strenuous training followed. During the first six months my pay was 28 shillings per week. From that I allowed Mum 10 shillings weekly, there were stoppages to cover replacement kit, and we had to buy all our own polishes, blanco etc. Very little left! Following our passing out parade I chose to train as a radar operator, further training courses followed including more advanced sophisticated Radar. I progressed and received promotion to Lance Bombardier, qualifying me to instruct new recruits and bringing forward my next pay increase, another seven shillings a week; I was rich.
I was demobbed in July 1954, and decided on a career change. At that time the motor industry appeared to offer a future, but until I found a suitable position I worked on the farm. It was the busy season, plenty of overtime and the opportunity to earn money. During late August 1954 I joined The Aylesbury Motor Company; main distributors for all Ford products. In 1955 I purchased my first car, a second hand 1937 Austin 10 making journeys to Aylesbury much easier.
A new chapter in my life started in 1955 when I met Jean.