20th December 1944 - Wisbech - Colchester

Up early.  Thick fog, but decided to cycle to Ely as I had intended.  Lights on at 9 o’clock, and some pair-horse drays, mere shapes in the gloom, moving slowly over the bridge.  At breakfast one of the Yorkshire “commercials” was being heavily humorous with Veronica Flood as to where she was so late last night.  We neither of us rose to the bait.  She goes back to London soon.

Paid bill - £2.14.0 for 4 days, not too dear, but a very bad hotel.  Arranged to come back, if I cannot get in anywhere else, at 11/- a day, more than I can afford.  Set off at 9.30am.  Asked a woman standing at a doorway in Elm Road if I was right for Ely, but she appeared never to have heard of the place.

All the way to Upwell there is a rail-road, now used only for goods but formerly for passenger “trams” as well.  At times one gets a glimpse of the derelict canal, part of the same waterway which runs through Wisbech.  Fog too thick to see Beaupré Hall, which is said to be very fine but much damaged.  Nothing to be seen but muddy dykes, full of weeds, and flat, black fields vanishing into the fog.  Outwell Church at 10 o’clock.  Across the old and New Bedford Rivers, and the desolate Washes, (In Welney noticed a shop with a wicker-work eel-trap in the window, exactly as shown in medieval drawings).  On the Wash road are boards marked in feet, to give the height of water in flood. 

So into Littleport.  A slight rise of ground, the first since Wisbech.  Felt a little anxious about trains, but got to Ely at midday.  Fog so thick that the top of the Cathedral was invisible, the great grey arches soaring away to be hidden in the clouds.  Hope to come here again soon in better weather.

Caught the train easily, which arrived on time but waited 45 minutes for a train from Norwich.  It was packed, and had to stand in the corridor wedged against two Artillery sergeants talking about Greece.  One said: “I’m thankful I’m not there.  Damned if I’d shoot the poor buggers,” meaning the “Reds” as they are now called.  Both talked about leave passes, Sergeant Majors, officers, immorality the colonel, etc.  One said that his Segeant Major was so afraid of being murdered by his men that he would never leave his own hut after dark, but had his supper sent in from the canteen.  They talked about service conditions, and thought that the total length of service of conscripted men would be about 10 years – one spoke of men of 42 recently conscripted – “poor sods, you ought to see ‘em!” – who would be 50 by the time they got out, “and what chance in hell have they got then?”

On my other side was a dreadful ugly woman with a screaming, coughing baby, a little boy, and a meek harassed looking air-man husband.  The woman said: “Coo, Jerry didn’t half give us what for the other morning, didn’t half wake us up.”  The poor little boy could do nothing right, the mother screaming at him wherever he stood.  The baby coughed and yelled, took some milk out of a bottle, spluttering hideously.  The mother said: “Nasty cough he’s got.  He don't half bring something up sometimes!”  Baby did so at once.

At last left Ely at quarter to two instead of 12.25, got to Cambridge at 2.15, past long lines of fog – men with their glowing braziers, the fog-signals banging like small bombs.

Colchester train left almost at once, being over an hour late, and crawled down to Bartlow, there to wait another 40 minutes.  Tall, very handsome blonde got in, very impatient about delay.  She was trying to get to Grays Thurrock, via Colchester and Chelmsford, where she hoped to get a bus, thus going about 90 miles to cover what was really 50.  She is the music teacher at Linton Rural College.  The journey would take her at least 10 hours.

Then a Women's Land Army girl got in at Haverhill.  She worked for the West Suffolk Committee, and had to reach Euston tonight to get to Stoke on Trent.  Asked her why she didn’t go by Peterborough, but her geography was not strong enough to discuss this proposition.  Another delay of half an hour at Long Melford, and finally got to Colchester at 6, 2 and a half hours late.  Gave the two girls some tea.

As I came away from the station the Edinburgh train was just about to pull out porters shouting “Edinburgh train!  Manningtree, Ipswich and the North!  Edinburgh train!”  Longed to jump on it and be safe and warm in Glengyle Terrace tomorrow morning.  Felt very sick from this awful journey, terrible headache.

Had another cup of tea at Winnie’s and then to see Poulter.  He was very despondent.  Said that at the Museum Committee yesterday there was no actual decision about my release, but that afterwards Hull and Brown (the Committee Clerk) concocted a minute to the effect that I leave on the 30th.  He says that the Committee made some “laudatory remarks” about me, which Hull is to convey to me, and which of course he won’t. (Later note: "He never did").  Sam Blomfield is very anxious to know what I am going to do with my Colchester photos.  So he may be.

Fog very thick tonight, so ‘divers’ unlikely.  Only rockets tonight.

19th December 1944 - Wisbech

Thick fog all day.  Spent the whole time in the Museum.  Among other things, there is a manuscript account, apparently by an eye-witness, of the trial of the Earl of Essex, found among rubbish in a Wisbech lawyers’ office. 

This evening got talking to a very pleasant girl called Flood, (Veronica) a London school teacher evacuated here, and took her to the cinema.  She talked a good deal about her life here. She is a Catholic, and told me of the incredible insults she had to put up with on that account.  Catholic children from South London were treated badly when they came here in 1939.  A strong type of Calvinism is rampant here, which makes life very hard for strangers.

All this was said while we walked along the river bank after the cinema, and we did not get back to the “Lion” until 11.15, to find the whole place shut up and in darkness – the streets were also in almost complete darkness by this time, too.  Had some trouble to get in, being at last admitted by a surly bad-tempered boot-boy.  Among other things Veronica talked of was the degree of illiteracy in Wisbech.  She says hundreds of children can neither read nor write.  This wants a lot of believing, but may well be true.

18th December 1944 - Wisbech

Wakened about 4am by sirens.  So surprised felt no alarm at all.  Looked out to see a still calm night, with the gentle murmur of a ‘plane far away.  Heard somebody get up and go out, and the sound of a car or two travelling at speed.  Wondered whether the Germans now intend to send in ‘divers’ over the WashLondon is only 80 miles, and there are no defences whatever.  It would be just my luck to walk into such a thing as that.  ‘All-clear’ came in about 15 minutes.

Later today a mass of fantastic rumours were going round the town – Jerry ‘planes at King’s Lynn, where they had 2 alarms, an unexploded bomb at Smeeth Road station, (about 3 miles away), a flying bomb at or near Spalding.  Some say they heard machine guns.  All I heard was one fighter go over, to the north, but everybody else felt the windows shake.

Lovely sunny day.  Went all over the town trying to get rooms, but without success, in most places being rebuffed with extraordinary rudeness, old women shouting that they “never took lodgers”, in spite of their names and addresses being on the list provided by the Billeting Office.  Shall have to stay at the “Lion” for a time.

Sent off 7lbs of Fen apples to Edinburgh for the Biggams, and some cigarettes and a long letter to Ann at Inverness.  This afternoon went round to see if there was any chance of getting a stable, so that I could bring Robin here, but again quite unlucky.  Found a riding school a long way along North Brink, even more dilapidated and dirty than poor old Grubb’s.  It is run by a Miss Russell who looks very much like Grubb, but is very much ruder.  Told me there was no chance whatever of livery there.  Anyway, a horrible looking collection of broken down sheds, everything knee-deep in mud.  She has, however, a covered school.  Told me she has to pay £10 a ton for mixture.

Went to Museum for a couple of hours, going through drawers and cupboards.  The wealth of the collection is surprising.  To Edwards again for tea, and then tonight spent 4 hours writing letters, journal, etc.  Cannot realise that this, and not Colchester is now my town, and perhaps likely to be for 10, 20 or even 30 years.  No doubt all the work I have done in Colchester will be entirely forgotten.  Hull will destroy all he can, Poulter will leave, and there will soon be no sign that I ever lived there.  If I were to go back there a quarter of a century from now, no doubt the town will be unrecognisable, and if I said “I worked here for 20 years”, they will say “Did you?  What did you do?”

Looked out at midnight, impenetrable fog, and not a sound anywhere, so perhaps we may have a quiet night.  Then, just as I shut the window, far away comes the clanking of a train shunting.

17th December 1944 - Wisbech

Violent stormy night.  Out at 9, and walked round the deserted streets, rain clouds blowing up from the S.W.  Looked at the Museum and the nice houses in the Crescent.  Must try and get rooms in one of them.  An American lorry parked in the Market Place, obviously been there all night.  Noticed one or two ancient names – “Hogshead Lane”, “Little Ship Street” (now Church Street) “Love Lane” by the Churchyard.

Bought a Sunday paper – a serious crisis between England and America can no longer be concealed.

Back to hotel, and old Edwards came in.  Said he would take me to the Museum, but he thought the caretaker “would not like it, as she is very strict”.  Asked me to tea.  This afternoon reading and writing in the lounge, while Salvation Army carol singers and band played “Good King Wenceslas” by the river side.  Some women in the lounge were talking about workers near Norwich.

Went to Clarkson Avenue to tea.  Crowds of Italians with young girls in the Park.  After we went round to Sandringham Avenue to call on dear old Guy Pearson.  He looks very much like Father.  Went back to Curtis Edwards’, and a very pleasant looking woman came in, with a little girl.  I think her name was Dimmock or something like that.  Her husband is a schoolteacher, now serving in Africa.

Went back to the hotel, old Edwards warning me very solemnly about the danger of getting lost in the Park (200 yards wide!) in the “blackout”.  He has apparently never seen the street lamps are now lit.  The church bells were ringing out for evening service, and bombers were beginning to stream out from Lincolnshire.  A big noisy swearing crowd outside the cinema.

Had a poor meal, and spent the rest of the evening reading, bed at 10.30, hoping for sleep.

16th December 1944

Still not sure that I am doing the right thing.  It would be a small thing indeed to change my tune towards Sam Blomfield, and to ask humbly if I may go back to my own job, the job which is still mine.  Wondering whether Father really wants me to go?  Feel that my time here is up –  Hull wants me to go, and I feel too ill and too tired to go on with the battle of the last sixteen years.  But how reluctant I am to leave my own home.

Fine and cold at first, but came on to rain about 11.  Meant to catch 1.15 to Wisbech, but so great a crowd at the station could not get a ticket.  Went home.  All well there.  Father genuinely anxious for me to “better myself”.  Called at Holly Trees.  Poulter says Sam is making difficulties about my release, saying the War Agricultural Committee can’t let me go, and that he doesn’t think the Museum Committee can either.  Too late, dear Sam, too late.  You should have thought of that before.

Caught the 4 o’clock to Cambridge.  Rain gone, and a huge crimson sunset over the fields at Marks Tey.  A jolly girl with a soldier and 2 school girls going to Haverhill got in.

Train dragged slowly through all the little stations along this line, and at last crawled into Cambridge.  Much too dark to see the Bartlow Hills.  Just caught a Wisbech train, which was apparently very late, the guard cursing me for the trouble of getting my cycle on board.  Train went via Ely, and then across the broad flat Fens, silent under the stars – no aircraft, no ‘divers’, nothing.  Wisbech at quarter to 9, and walked through the silent shabby streets, the sound of church bells ringing.  Hardly anybody about, and most houses with lights in their bedroom windows.  Trying to think what it will be like to make a home here, perhaps for the rest of my life.  Bed in a cold cheerless room at the “White Lion” after a surly welcome by the land-lady.  Lay in bed listening to the noise of drunks being turned out of a dance in the Town Hall opposite, streams of filthy language floating across the black river among the glittering gas lamps, most of which were put out at about 11 o’clock.

15th December 1944

Letter from Wisbech – I have been appointed Curator and Librarian.  

Tonight went out to Lt. Rivers, to see the Roses who were delighted, but Stuart very dubious about my leaving Colchester.  ‘Phoned to the Wisbech “White Lion” from the call-box at Boxted, and got a bed for a couple of nights, which ought to give me time to get settled in somewhere.  Shall certainly try for the Crescent.

Stayed talking to the Roses until past 11.  No alarm, although a fine night.

Back to Woodside, bed at quarter to one, and lay awake wondering if I have done right.

14th December 1944

Woke at 4, and got up.  Very dark under glittering stars.  Up at 8, still dark, and low clouds drifting up from the S.W.  The glass remains high. 

To town early, and did some shopping.  Nothing from Wisbech – am becoming very anxious.  Saw Poulter, and he obviously hopes I hear nothing.  Went home, had a talk with Father, did not in any way show my anxiety about the job.  

This afternoon to the Public Library for a couple of hours, going through “Essex Review”.  

Went over to the Rep.  Met the delightful Yvonne, who hailed me rapturously as “Darling!”  Had a cup of tea there with her and Diana, and Diana got me a seat for tonight’s performance.  It was first class – “Lady into Fox”, most excellently done, part of “Les Sylphides”, which I could with ease watch for hours on end, and the usual oddments, including the delightful “brothel scene” which I always enjoy so much.

If I don't get the job, I don't know what on earth I shall do, yet I cannot bear the thought of leaving Colchester for ever.  If only the war would end, it would make a great difference in these things.

Had a letter from Maidstone this morning, very sharp, unnecessarily so I thought, asking me to take my pony and trap away from Wigborough.  The Committee have had good use of it this last year or so, anyway.

Went to see Poulter again after the ballet, and more talk.  He senses now that I will go if I get the chance, and feels both sad and angry.  Said he would miss me a lot.  Tried to cheer him up by telling him I haven’t gone yet.  He says Hull’s behaviour during the last few days has been quite indescribable.  Maybe he has got wind of my plans – much as he would like me to go, he would not like me to do so without his permission.

To Boxted 10.30, sat reading, and to bed at midnight.  Fine but misty.