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From Derek Palmer, July 2009

Having seen the Lydford website, Mr Antony Michell, who lived in Lydford when he was a boy and was a pupil at Lydford Primary School, and now lives in South Devon after spending much of his life abroad. has sent to me the following very interesting reminiscences about his life in Lydford and has agreed to my invitation that it be put into the website for the present people of Lydford, some of whom, in addition to Cyril and Anne Friend, may remember him.

"An Old Man’s Ramblings"

          I lived at Lydford from the age of two, attending Lydford Elementary, Tavistock Grammar and then Kelly until almost nineteen when I went to Camborne School of Mines and thence abroad.

         My mother was the head teacher at the Elementary (later Primary) school from 1932 until 1964. Her predecessor was in situ, I believe, even longer at about 35 years. During the 1930s it had up to 130 pupils aged from 5 to 14 and was acknowledged by Devon Education Committee to be one of the best elementary schools in the county. Also in after-school activities the school was placed or won a large number of competitions for music, elocution, drama etc. in the County. The visit from the HMI (inspector of schools) was always feared by my mother but she was not as fearful as some local parents when the child-catcher called unexpectedly. He was the attendance officer and had plenty of work especially at hay making and corn cutting seasons when children decided that they were in great demand by farming parents. As my mother was an Essex and Cornwall tennis and hockey player she quickly introduced cricket and hockey which we played on the moor after school. Because the school could not afford hockey sticks she obtained shinty sticks cheaply to serve the same purpose. There was a bench full equipped with carpentry tools for the older boys (certainly not allowed nowadays) giving them early experiences for life after 14. In summer we were taken on nature rambles around Lydford lanes; an occupation also frowned upon now. I was fascinated by the school register which dated back to the 1870s with the first pupil being Frank Fry. Frank cut my hair for 6d and was highly regarded as the best Thatcher in the county, dying when just over 100. In those days children left school at 14 and then started apprenticeships or went straight into farm labouring. As any of them will confirm their education was well rounded and excellent.

         We boys, of course, went swimming at Black Rock which in those days was a much larger pool and deep with the two big rocks much closer together than now. Many of us could swim but Jimmy Bickle could not but used to dive across the whole pool to our wonder. At 15 he joined the Merchant Navy and shortly afterwards drowned on a tanker which was torpedoed crossing the Atlantic.

         I broke my arm when about 8 and old Dr Postlethwaite was called. He had the only car in the village which was more like a chariot (possibly a Wolseley 16 HP) and took me to “Tavy hospital”. I remember it well as the excitement to be for the first time in a car turned rapidly to pain at being driven with a broken arm on the main Tavistock un-tarmacademed road; what we would now call “a bush road”. Pre-war we never saw a tractor but the arrival of the steam combine harvester was a great event and considerable fun for us boys and girls.

         Cyril Friend was the senior boy when I started school and I still visit him and Anne at Station Cottage. Anne looked after me for much of my childhood. She’s lovely! I hope many villagers have heard Cyril’s recording made a few years back about life on Dartmoor. He has a truly rich Lydford/Okehampton accent, a change from that around Tavistock while around Plymouth the accent is yet again quite different. I have a bungalow at Loddiswell in the South Hams and there the accent is different again.

         Although the Castle was locked securely we boys found that when looking for owls nests we could squeeze through the arrow slits in the walls as long as our heads would go through (10 inches or so). I have not tried it recently but who knows next time I come to Lydford! When the war came the Gorge gates were locked and we boys could only get in down by the stream beside the slaughter house. So we were delighted when the US Army came and blew the locks off with carbines and revolvers. Another fascination was the blacksmith who most of his time made shoes for the innumerable horses. Some of us spent hours watching and pumping his giant bellows. I still smell that operation of the horse being shod.

         Willsworthy camp was the army summer camping ground dating from the mid 1800s until the war and as many as 20,000 arrived by train at the station together with several thousand horses from Aldershot. The whole area was covered in tents and presumably was a great source of revenue for the two pubs. Changes came fast and in late 1940 we saw the first tracked Bren gun carriers rattling through the village.

         Soon afterwards we saw long trains coming up the gradient from Plymouth with huge red crosses on their carriage tops. These trains were up to 30 carriages long and presented a sad sight as they wound their way at about only 15-20 mph over the viaduct and past the village. These hospital trains continued throughout the war but were especially common in 1940.

         At the time of Dunkirk we knew little from the BBC except that our armies were “re-positioning a little to the rear to stronger positions in preparation for a fresh advance” so it was a considerable shock to all villagers when tired, hungry and sad soldiers walked down the 2 miles from Willsworthy camp knocking on doors asking for food. They had been shipped back from Dunkirk to Plymouth and then by train to Lydford and Willsworthy camp where there was nothing for them. They were told them to go to the nearest villages and ask for food. I remember we had about 12 of them and my mother was extremely nervous, wondering if they were fifth columnists or spies. It was not until they had talked to her for a while that she started to partially comprehend what they had been through. It was not for several days that the village heard the full story and my mother, for one, always wished afterwards that she had done much more for them. They gave me a franc which I still have.

          Almost the only bombs dropped were when the Luftwaffe tried to hit the first Radar station situated near Willsworthy. After 1943 we saw the bombers straggling back after raids on Germany and of course some of us saw Plymouth during its blitz in 1941. In 1943 the US army arrived adding to the Canadians and British at Okehampton and Willsworthy. The roads around Lydford quickly became packed with shells and other army munitions with guard huts every mile or two. That was more excitement for us children. Immediately before D-day all of this equipment together with the troops vanished almost within a couple of weeks and we knew something was up. I happened to visit Plymouth a few days before D-day and the whole of the Sound and right out as far as the eye could see and way past the Eddystone the sea was full of several thousand vessels; an incredible sight.

         I was by then at the Grammar School and after D-day it was a great disappointment when we no longer heard the practice siren and were able to drop school books in class and run 100 yards down to the long trenches dug along the school boundary. Until D-day the US army used Piper Cub aircraft to land on any suitable fields and that of course included school playing fields; a welcome and exciting relief for us when in the middle of maths lessons!

         Anne’s brother George was in the RAF and in about 1942 he confided in Anne a crazy story which was so absurd that she related it to me. He said that at his RAF station he had seen an aircraft fly without a propeller and had used instead a “Jet” engine. How ridiculous we thought!

         I knew the Rev. Thorpe well; a dry old stick but he told me when I was about 8 (in 1938) about the Lydford silver pennies being in Stockholm museum. I think he was the first person from Lydford to track them down and then see them. When in Stockholm on some mining business I remembered and went to see them. The museum keeper was most helpful and delighted to show them to me. However, when I asked for the ill-gotten booty back for the village he demurred! I went to Sunday School with the Rev. Thorpe only so as to go on the summer trip by charabanc to Teignmouth!

         The Rev Thorpe took a daily walk up the moor gate and back; (nothing like carrying out the modern practice of visiting the sick or helping villagers, unless they were in extremis). He always wore all black including a black hat and used to chat to my father endlessly about history and mining. My father had little else to do and on those occasions trapped the vicar and they conversed for hours. My father was a mining engineer working in one of the Gold Coast mines (the country named The White Man’s Grave and now Ghana). In those days they worked underground for 9 months and then had 3 months leave each year. I used to go out in the tender from Plymouth Western docks to meet him. The ship called at Plymouth on its way to Southampton and/or Liverpool so as to drop off the sick. Of the 100 odd passengers I would see about 20 stretchered off usually suffering from malaria, black water or sleeping sickness. My father firmly believed that it was whisky which did them in, not taking quinine or not using mosquito sheets when drunk. However it was a sight which affected me at eight. As it happened every one of the dozen or so liners of the Elder Dempster line were torpedoed. My father (a strong swimmer) was on the Abba when she was sunk off Sierra Leone and was most surprised after 8 hours swimming in the sea (after giving up his seat in a lifeboat to a woman passenger) before being rescued to be met in Sierra Leone on board the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle by his brother. Francis Michell was the cypher officer on the Eagle and on receiving the message that the Abba was sinking sent a signal to a destroyer to leave port and rescue survivors. He had already guessed that his brother might be on the Abba.

         Looking back on our lives as children we were extremely fortunate in so many respects.

         Enough of ramblings!

Antony Michell

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Copyright Antony Mithell and Derek W Palmer, 2009

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