27th April 1941 - Wartime visit to Maidenhead

Dull and cold. To Maidenhead today by car, driven by a member of the Women's Voluntary Services (WVS), who turned out to be none other than Mrs. Ward, who brought with her Nancy, who used to ride my ponies at Horse Shows in the long ago. Unfortunately, it was a very small car, and they had not reckoned on my going as well, so it was a terrible squeeze. However, we got an incredible amount of luggage roped onto the carrier, and we all packed in, leaving Colchester just on 10 o’clock. I felt fine, and, as I have so often done before, deluded myself that I should continue to feel so.

At Coggeshall I noticed the Church tower has quite disappeared [as a result of bomb damage in September 1940]. All the land round there, especially near Frank Warren’s [a member of the Essex War Agricultural Committee], looks very well.

At Braintree one can see the burnt and shattered roofs where mines fell on two streets, and the devastated area on Bank Corner where the bombs fell on February 15th. I was glad to see the Old White Hart showed little signs of damage. The Bank site has been well cleared up, and a temporary wooden building erected. The school nearby is badly damaged, and the garage on Colchester Road quite gone. It is miraculous that only 3 persons were killed, especially quite early in the evening as that was. In spite of this damage though, the largest “devastated area” in Braintree is the “slum clearance area” of Sandpit Lane, where both sides of the lane, including the old inn, with stables where I used to put up, charming little cottages, an orchard and sheds have all been wiped away.

All through Braintree, Rayne etc there were police “specials” on duty at by-roads. At first we thought some important personage might be expected, but I heard when I got home that it was part of some grand manoeuvres, which were to include the landing of parachute troops. Mrs. Ward wanted to stop and enquire, but this was considered imprudent as Nancy had no identity card, which might lead to awkward situations.

Dunmow was just the same, plenty of soldiers walking about. At Bishops Stortford we saw the College, badly damaged by a direct hit. Three young girls were killed there. Hertford showed several houses badly damaged on each side of the main road, rather as if a mine had fallen nearby. The lovely view across the river, when you come up from Ware, was the same as ever. (We made the same old mistake in Ware of overshooting the turning to Hertford).

By this time I felt very bad, and had to have the car stopped while I walked up and down for a time. Conditions in the rear of the vehicle were made worse by the fact that Mother insisted on smoking and could not bear to have the windows open at all. Father looked rather bad, but he never complained.

At Watford, one house had gone in the main road coming in from the By-Pass. At Rickmansworth there was a very pathetic sight – a long row of horrible new, cheap villas, stretching out into the county, and the last two houses had been destroyed by a direct hit. You could see a bath hanging by its waterpipes, leaning down in the room below. Two walls stood, but all the rest was timber and rubble. It seems impossible that anyone could have remained alive, but such amazing luck so often occurs. Another 50 yards, and the bomb would have been in open fields. A few doors away from the ruin, a man was digging in his front garden, and children were playing.

On past Denham, the film studios all apparently closed, across the Uxbridge Road, and down to Slough, untouched and unharmed, the enormous Gas Works, Suttons Seed Farms, everything. We went past the little cafĂ© where I had lunch one day two years ago, and the forage merchant’s where I bought food for Bob. Through Slough, along by the Trading Estate, where there was a terrible accident – a car literally smashed to pieces, a broken motor cycle, petrol, oil, blood, and glass all over the road. On the grass verge, two still figures, each surrounded by a small crowd. There were several cars and lorries pulled up along the road on both sides. We edged our way through, just as an ambulance drew up.

On through Cippenham, with just a glimpse of Windsor Castle. I thought of the damage to Eton, and how I had looked with surprise at the air raid shelters being built there just two years ago. Under the railway and into Maidenhead, all unchanged, even the aged cab-horse still on the rank by the bridge, although with a brougham instead of a landau, presumably because of the cold weather. I have never seen anybody hire that landau yet. Through the town, directing Mrs. Ward through all the mazes of one way streets, and so up to Grenfell Road, past the old Park where I played as a child and up to No. 112. A hearty welcome, although I was disappointed to find that Maitland [EJR's cousin] had had to go off to Lambourne to Cousin Bert’s, to get his car overhauled. He did not know I was coming. We all had a hurried lunch, and a hasty goodbye before I started back with Mrs. Ward. I gave father £5. Aunt Het seemed very glad to see the old folks.

We left at about 2.30, and I had a little trouble in persuading them to go right into St. Albans town in order that I might have a few minutes in the Museum, which I had never seen since it was opened. This we did, and the Wards went to a visit a friend in the town while I dashed down Romeland Hill and by the old ford. I again noticed the old house I had hoped to have lived in, had I been able to get the Curatorship of the place. The Museum is beautifully arranged, rather like the Silchester Collection, indeed there is almost only one general method of showing stuff from a Roman town site. I could hardly have done this better myself. I asked for Corder [the Curator] but was surprised to hear that he was now engaged on special work at the British Museum, and only came to St Albans one day a week. I had only about 15 minutes in the Museum before I had to meet Mrs. Ward near the “Cricketer’s Arms”, so was only able to get a hurried impression of a very nice, well arranged collection. There were about 20 people in when I was there, although there was an admission charge of 6d.

I walked back through the Park, across the line of the city wall, past the old “Fighting Cocks”, where we all had bread and cheese with [R.E. Mortimer] Wheeler one day some years ago, under the great Abbey Gateway, by the scene of the Martyrdom, and so back into the main street. The Abbey looked as superb as ever. Pray that it is not damaged by bombs. The streets were crowded, and the tea shops open doing good trade. I looked at them longingly, as I had had nothing but a sandwich since lunch. Anyway, I soon found Mrs. Ward and we started back to Colchester, they full of tea, I eating the remainder of my sandwiches.

By the time we reached Bishops Stortford again I was feeling very ill indeed, and longed to stop the car, but they were in a desperate hurry to get home in order to hear the 6 o’clock News. Some people go almost insane if they miss one of the six daily news bulletins). However, miss it they did, as we did not reach Colchester until just on 7 o’clock. I got out in Crouch Street, thanked them, and staggered round to Seymour’s for some tea. Alas, hardly had I been there an hour when an alarm sounded and I had to go. A few planes came over, but nothing happened, and there was an early “All Clear”.

To bed terribly tired and feeling sick.

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