The first stupid mistake I made was to forget that I could not leave the Castle until 1.30, and not 12.30. By hurrying I managed to get the 1.42, which ought to get to London by 3 o’clock, and would allow me to catch the 5.30 to Cheltenham. By the time we reached Witham an alarm was on, and the train slowed down to 15 mph. I noticed that one of the lodges opposite Boreham New Hall had a lot of tiles off the roof, and the Ford Fruit Packing depot nearby was damaged and burnt. I don't know when this happened. I began, without any reason, to feel very nervous, and was most reluctant to go on by train to Liverpool Street, so when we got to Chelmsford I fell in a complete panic and got out, cycle and all. I decided to cycle to Ongar, take train to Woodford Green, and then cycle to [Daven] Soar’s place for the night. I set off briskly in beautiful weather along the Ongar Road. I have not felt so well for years, and the following wind made cycling a pleasure.
It was glorious. Very little traffic, fine road, beautiful farm lands on either side. Then, somewhere near Norton Mandeville, a pub with its roof off, and an enormous crater in a football field nearby. That’s what I don't like – the way the Germans have covered the whole country. I believe there is hardly a parish in Essex which has not had a bomb in it. I went on to Ongar Station, and found there was no train out for nearly 2 hours. I had imagined that being almost a suburban line there would be a frequent service. Time was getting on, and I was worried, as I thought I must be at least 20 miles from my destination. (I found later it was nearly 30). There was obviously nothing for it but to get on and hope to reach Stanmore before dark. It was useless to turn back.
First, I found the road to Abridge blocked by a sentry, and had to turn back over Passingford Bridge and take a higher road. From there I could see the aerodrome buildings and planes parked under hedges on the other side of the valley. On past the fortifications of London, a great wall of concrete blocks near Rolls Park. They are supposed to stop tanks, but I doubt it. On through Chigwell, looking very London-over-the-Border, but quite unwarlike, and down to Woodford Bridge. Still no sign of raid damage anywhere. Through Woodford, where the station is being rebuilt in connection with the electrification of the line, and across the main road to Highams Park. It was just along here I could hear the 6 o’clock News blaring from radios in various houses. Life seemed very normal, everybody doing their Saturday shopping. A good number of larger houses are shut up. I could see the Barrage Balloons now, all very high, shining in the evening sun.
Round Highams Park, through Hale End and on to the Lea Valley Viaduct, where I was amazed to see scores of great factories, all absolutely untouched, not a sign of bomb damage anywhere, and even new factories being erected. Through Edmonton to New Southgate, where I enquired the way of the first policeman I had seen since coming into London, and was rather put out by the information that I was at least 8 miles from Stanmore. Dusk was falling. I bought some chocolate and sweets. Through Friern Barnet to Whetstone, where I saw the first bomb damage – the back of two modern houses smashed, on the N. side of the road. [Along] here people were moving along carrying bundles and bedding, obviously going to shelters for the night. Over Dollis Brook into Hertfordshire, and I could see down over Hampstead, across innumerable chimneys, to the misty London six or seven miles away, and I thought of the millions of people down there, crowding into Tubes and cellars, hoping that this night was not their last.
Totteridge, Mill Hill, and down to Edgware, all among masses of new houses. The pity of it all. Only just over a year ago they would have been glowing under the evening lamps, their horrible little stucco houses the very epitome of modern suburbia, while the householders, clad in white flannels, walked home from tennis, looking forward to a supper prepared by wife or mother. Now the tennis players are all soldiers, and the wives, reduced from comfortable circumstances to almost penury in a moment, make their way, children in hand, to the nearest shelter, or else try to settle into a dreadful little Anderson shelter, if they have one. I wonder if the street lamps will ever gleam on white-clad tennis players again. After 5 or 6 years of killing or training to kill, does one easily slip back to playing tennis?
At Edgware I was rather confused by the mazes of new streets. It was now about 7.30, and almost dark. I was very nervous, and much afraid that a raid would start before I reached Soar’s house. From now I went on blindly, trusting to my sense of direction. Twice I thought I had hit up “Belmont Circle”, but the third time was lucky, then over the railway and up to Curzon Avenue. There was the nasty little house and all the other nasty little houses round it, absolutely safe and untouched. How pleased I was to see it!
Daven was very surprised to see me [but said] I could certainly stop the night, and could either sleep upstairs or on the sofa in the front room. On being told that there was an AA battery only just over a quarter of a mile from the house I chose the sofa. Daven and his wife sleep on the floor in the dining room, and the baby sleeps in a cupboard under the stairs.
I had hardly been in the house 10 minutes when the sirens sounded. We could hear six or seven, all round. A few minutes later the guns opened up. The noise was not so great as I had imagined, and was in some ways comforting. I quite liked the roll of a dozen shell bursts over head. Daven insisted we should go upstairs to see what was what, in fact “make a reconnaissance flight”, as he said. I didn't think much of standing against bedroom windows on an occasion like this, but as a guest felt I had to comply. We could see searchlights to the S. over London and could hear the hum of AA shells as they were fired over the house. It was very frightening, but quite unreal. Just fantastic. Every now and then I heard the dull clump of bombs, and wondered how many more people were killed.
About 1am I was surprised to hear “All Clear”, being sounded on some sirens, Watford and Bushey I suppose, although the guns were still firing over us. Sometimes I could hear the noise of plane engines, but not often, and occasionally the whistle of bombs almost a mile away, but somehow this did not frighten me so much as it did at home.
E.J. Rudsdale Talk
I will be giving a talk as part of the Chelmsford Ideas Festival on E.J. Rudsdale's Journals, entitled 'Creating History: A Civilian's Experience of the Second World War in Essex' on Thursday 30th October from 7.30-9.00pm at Anglia Ruskin University. Tickets are free. Book your ticket here. Many thanks, Catherine Pearson