Early years in Newquay

The world I arrived in was still Edwardian in many ways, and scientific invention was still in the middle of the age of steam. Radio was in it's infancy, and had in no way reached anybody's home. Cars were simple, primitive, and comparatively rare, only owned by the well-to-do, or the professional classes. Road transport ( buses, lorries, and taxies ) were either huge and judderingly noisy, with enormous primitive wheels, and radiators like a separate boiler stuck steaming on the front; or small and rickety, with a hint of horse- drawn carriage in their design. But the majority of traffic was horse-drawn -- bakers' vans, brewers' drays, farm carts, and so on. I, of course, was too young to notice all this at the time, and anyway tended to get it wrong. When I was three, I saw for the first time a man riding on a horse, and apparently said " Look, Mummy, the cart's come off." 

My memories of those days in South Wales are only very vague; we left when I was four. But one memorable place was Llangynidr, where Uncle Sid and Aunt Cis had retired -- a village in Breconshire, with cottages winding down to a beautiful old bridge which crosses the Usk river. A narrow bridge, with triangular embrasures for pedestrians to stand, to let the traffic of centuries go by; and under it the Usk flows, rushing over boulders, a constant movement between wooded banks. A beautiful river, well known for it's excellent fishing. We used to drive to Llangynidr on many a week-end to see the old couple; and I can remember walking with Mum down through the village, being welcomed by warm Welsh voices; because so many in the village were Watkins, relations of Aunt Cis. They lived in spotless cottages, with sides of bacon hanging on hooks along the ceiling. The men all had big walrus moustaches, a fashion after the first war, and they all seemed very old to me, though probably many were still under thirty. To this day, I remember their warm welcome.  


By 1927, Mum and Dad were thinking of moving to a better environment. Since the General Strike of 1926, the whole area was going into recession. They had looked tentatively at a practice in Newquay, Cornwall, when a great blow struck. Dad developed a TB lung -- in those days a very common hazard of medical practice. They went to a consultant in Harley Street, who told him that he had a good prognosis if he moved to a more healthy climate -- somewhere. the man said, like Cornwall ! 

So that is how we came to move to Newquay. The consultant was right, and Dad recovered. He bought a practice in Newquay, and we moved into a big house, Cheriton, at the top of Mount Wise, a long slope of pleasant houses and small hotels above the town. Cheriton was a large, red-brick and pebble-dash house, built about 1900, with an acre of garden. Economically, our life move up a notch - a much larger house, a maid, a gardener/chauffeur, and a much more varied and cosmopolitan community. In those days, Camborne School of Mines sent mining engineers all over the British Empire, particularly to India. They sent their children home to England to be educated, and finally retired to Cornwall themselves. This general rule also applied to many Army families. The result was a rich mixture in Newquay of well-travelled youth, and an older generation of wide and adventurous experience -- and often of marked eccentricity. So it was an interesting community to land in. 

Of course, in 1928 at the age of four, all this was ahead of me. All I understood was that we were moving to a new and nicer place. Dad had motored on ahead to settle everything, so my first impression of Newquay was arriving by train, and seeing in the station yard, not taxies, but a line of "jingles". A jingle was a horse-drawn tub-like conveyance; you entered by a step and a little door at the back, and inside there was room for the driver and three passengers. They plied for hire for many years, their name presumably coming from the jingling sound of the ponies' harness. I loved them, but it was considered that a trip in a jingle was only a rare treat. However, sometimes Mum would take a jingle when she couldn't face the long walk back up Mount Wise from the beach, loaded with picnic remains and towing a tired and fractious child. 

After Abersychan, Newquay of course was literally a breath of fresh air. It was in those days a popular rather up-market resort, with three or four great and luxurious hotels, and many lesser hotels and boarding-houses. In the summer it was crowded but seemly; in the winter, practically deserted, and one knew every face in the street. But above all, the spring and summer were wonderful times -- times for the beach, which at low tide stretched for miles; for trips to exciting place of vast and wonderful views; times for the sun -- everyone looked brown and healthy and nobody worried about melanoma. 

At the age of five, I went to Thelema College, a small school for girls from 4 to 16, and for boys from 4 to 8. It was run by two old ladies, Miss Watkins and Miss Judge, and had a staff of younger ladies in their twenties, who dressed in short skirts and wore their hair in buns over their ears that looked like ear-muffs. They were all very sweet and motherly, but the education proceeded with care -- tables, spelling, writing, were all drummed well into us; and my passable French accent dates from Miss Judge's patient tuition at a very early age. 

As it was mainly a girls' school, with only a few small boys, my earliest friends at Thelema were girls. There was Phyllis Smart, whose blond hair I stared at in wonder; Madge Nicholls, whose father used to collect her in an open Austin tourer -- he looked like Satan, and I thought he probably was; and there were Hilary and Rachel, two small sisters who lived near me. When I was about six, I wandered down one day to see Hilary and Rachel; their mother, a hard-smoking army wife, took me upstairs where the two girls were having a bath. I stared in disbelief; something was missing. They were different, and I had never known until then. I pottered home with my head full of this new and puzzling knowledge.


My other friends were boys. About four houses along from us lived Mrs. Ethel Lean, a delightful, plump, and motherly lady, whose brother in India relied upon to look after his family as he sent them home to be educated. So every school holiday the Rees children arrived at their Auntie Ethel's. There were four of them, and Neville the youngest was about my age. He and I used to play together, get up to mischief generally, and aggravate Auntie Ethel and my mother. Neville was always very clean and polite, and Mum used to imply that I should try to be more like him. 

Not far down the road lived Bradford Johns, a tough little boy, very freckled. He lived with his mother, a farmer's widow who spoiled us with big teas. Brad was always an extremely practical boy. He had an upstairs playroom, full of toy steam-engines, Hornby trains, and Meccano, which kept us both busy for hours; and when later I was the youngest member of a gang of boys, roaming the area on bikes, mine was always the smallest bike, and if it went wrong Brad was always the kindly boy who helped me to fix it. He became a dear and life-long friend. 

As I got older, life broadened. The gang of boys was pretty innocuous - rather like the William stories really. The worst we did was once to let off a large firework on an old lady's window-sill; it didn't break the glass, but it must have given her an awful fright. As she was a near neighbour, she knew well enough whom to complain to, and the "gang" (about seven of us ) found ourselves lined up in front of the fearsome presence of my extremely angry parents. After a severe dressing-down from my father, my mother then made each of us write a letter of apology to the old lady; something along the lines of " Dear Miss Smith, I am very sorry that we put a banger on yore window-sill. We wont do it agen". 

The gang seemed to gather at our house, Cheriton, quite often. It had the advantage of a gravel drive and path all round the house, and a rougher path round the vegetable garden; we could race our bikes round the house, doing skid turns on the gravel, and shout -- all at the same time. There was a garage we could climb on top of and survey the world like voyagers; and there were hedges and shrubs that we could leap from shouting "Bang, you're dead" in a game called Bo Bandit that we'd invented after seeing Paul Muni in "Scarface" 

Perhaps our most imaginative game was in the laundry. This was a large wash-room with an outside entrance, it's walls lined with about six deep zinc sinks; it had an old-fashioned mangle in the middle of the floor, it's pressure adjusted by a big two-fisted handle on the top; and it had a large sash window leading to a sloping lead roof, from the top of which there was a view of the back garden. The whole place was a relic of the days of many servants, and was now totally redundant. But to us, the gang ,this old laundry-room was an entirely convincing submarine. The look-out sat at the top of the roof. When he shouted "Enemy ships ahead", he would slide down the roof into the room, and slam the window shut. The captain would peer into the top handle of the mangle, as into a periscope, and shout "Dive, Dive, Dive"; whereupon a boy would feverishly turn the mangle, and others would turn on all the taps and fill the sinks around the walls. We were all completely absorbed in this game; it convinced us that we really were in a submarine, and besides, we enjoyed all the noise and splashing. 

In those days before TV, there was considerable freedom for children, and they tended to be more active outdoors in search of entertainment. We ranged far and wide on our bikes, often as an unruly pack, sometimes in pairs, and just as often alone. There was little traffic, and little of the modern threat or fear of molestation. We knew every lane, every cove, every climbable tree, for two or three miles around. But above all, the Gannel was our playground. The Gannel is a tidal estuary,about two miles long by quarter of a mile wide; at low tide, it revealed large stretches of sand, and pools, and mossy islands and rivulets; at high tide it was a sheet of water, six to ten feet deep, and the whole aspect changed. When I was six I was taught to row by 'Erb Tozer the ferryman, and some years later had a boat of my own. Life was not all play however. At the age of eight, I left Thelema, and went to the local County Grammar School. It was a lively place, full of sturdy farmers' sons, and I enjoyed it. I don't remember learning much there, but I expect some knowledge penetrated; I certainly learned to stand up for myself in this new and rough-and-tumble world. I also became bilingual in broad Cornish and "accepted speech"; this used to amuse Dad, particularly my Cornish rendering of How Horatius Held the Bridge; but Mum was not so amused, and if I teased her by lapsing into Cornish, she'd say "Peter, Peter, don't talk like that". It was at the County School that I first met Jan Saunders, a little red-headed boy whose father owned a string of shoe shops all up and down Cornwall. Jan stayed on at the County School, and the next time we met, in 1947, we were both ex-service undergraduates at Exeter College, Oxford.

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Peter Mitchell’s Memoirs


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Clifton College

Outbreak of War



Essex Yeomanry