9th December 1944 - Wisbech - Cambridge
Woke about 7, to the sound of people in wooden soled shoes walking along the river brink. Had a very good night. Knocked up at 8 by a maid called Bella, with a terrific uproar. Quite a good breakfast.
Sat opposite the fat schoolteacher, and another middle-aged woman who looked as if she might be a school-mistress as well. The manageress of the “White Lion”. Mrs Smith, came in and said to them:
“Did you hear about Mr Hoyles?”
“Which Mr Hoyles?”
The one you know.”
Hoyles? of Queen’s Road? What about him?”
“Well, I don't want to give you a shock, but he’s dead. He died suddenly last night.”
“Dead?” said the fat woman. “My God, how awful. Are you sure?”
“Well, my husband told me, and he got it from the Club last night. Died right suddenly, after he’d drunk a cup of tea.”
“But how awful! His wife and daughter were going off to Hunstanton for the weekend, and she asked me to go over tonight to see him as usual. Of course he’d been ill, but how awfully sudden.”
“Yes, well there is its, I’m sure it’s right, because I heard they were all talking about it at the Club.”
She went out, and the two women settled down to eat, because whoever might have died after drinking a cup of tea, tea must be drunk and sausages (however doubtful) must be eaten. After a time the fat woman said thoughtfully: “Well, my God, what a thing to happen. I must go over there right away. The only thing is I must go over to school first, and I don't want to wear my fur coat there, so I suppose I shall have to come back and change before I go to Queen’s Road.”
The sallow one replied “Yes, that would be best … Sad about poor old Hoyles. I always think it must be terrible for old men when they see people they know dying off.” The other said, “Yes, I know, two girls I went to school with have died during the last year. It makes you think doesn’t it?” And she sat staring out of the window at the grey sky and the grey river, and that grand sweep of houses, banks and inns, wondering when the time would come for her to face eternity and join old Mr Hoyles and the two school-friends. All the time bombers droned over, one by one.
Cold morning, but the sun came through the haze later. Walked about the town, and admired the houses and the buildings, pushing my way through dense crowds of people.
Began looking for places where I might live, but only “in secret”, as chickens must not be counted before they are hatched. The ideal would be to get a couple of rooms in the Crescent or in
Square, or better still, on North or South Brink.
Walked into the Church (a most extraordinary building with a double nave) and saw Canon Stallard again, who was just gong to take a children’s service. He was very affable, and said he hoped I had liked the Museum. Seemed quite anxious for me to take the job. Looked round the church for a few minutes. The double nave makes the place appear almost square. There is a very long chancel to the N. nave, which contains 2 good wall-monuments, one to Parke, which is very fine, and a brass to Sir Thomas Bramstone, Constable of the Castle in 1401. Must discover whether he is any connection with the Bramstons of Skreens. Unfortunately the chancel is too dark to see the monuments properly. Several good 18th century monuments, and a very fine and large coat of arms.
Caught train for
Cambridge at 11.10, and trundled slowly down
to March, and so by changing to Ely. The
Fens looked very different in the cold bright
sunshine to what they did yesterday. One
gets an impression of a remoteness unfelt even in Wales
or Scotland. Another change at Ely, into a Norwich-London
train, packed to the very doors. 20 or
30 people had to get into the brake-van, where I got a seat on a pile of
kitbags. Everybody seemed fairly good
natured except a stout, red-faced man who shouted to the young guard (he didn’t
look a day more than 19) “What about putting another coach on? We’ve paid our fares you know! Bloody scandal, I call it!” Nobody, not even the guard took the slightest
bit of notice.
Tremendous amount of sugar beet to be seen all along the line at every station – literally hundreds of trucks at Ely. In some places beet was being carted straight off the fields to railway trucks in bright pink carts! usually hauled by two Percherons. Once a gang of Italians in bright green uniforms swept by, walking slowly along the top of a dyke. Everywhere one sees the glittering drains running straight as railway tracks.
The marshes between the Bedford Rivers was a huge shining lake.
At last pulled into
Cambridge at one p.m. Registered at the Gt. Northern Hotel, and
went off to find some lunch. Tried the
“Victory Café”, hung with British and Greek flags, Greek waiters
dashing about, and a radio playing very loudly.
Very expensive – soup and fish, and nothing else came to 3/11. A young fair haired soldier came in, and
moved to sit an empty table near the window.
At once, a dark waiter dashed forward, crying loudly “No sir, not
there sir … I keep that table for a party of four.” “Oh what the hell!” shouted the soldier. “I’ll bloody well go somewhere else,” slamming the door so hard that the crockery rattled and the card
saying “Café Open” fell down, showing the word “Closed” on the other side. Everybody looked very uncomfortable.
Walked along to
Street, but the archaeology museum was shut – is apparently always
shut on Saturday afternoons.
Crowds of pretty girls cycling off to hockey, with brilliantly coloured scarves and stockings, pleated skirts, and their hair blowing in the winds. Plenty of black students about. Noticed two black students in gowns, walking with a white woman.
Trumpington Street, to the
Fitzwilliam. Love to see the clear streams
of water trickling down the concrete gutters.
Went into the Museum – lovely, gracious, quiet. Walked around for an hour or so, vaguely
admiring the glorious treasures.
Then to the
to go carefully over the collections there.
Lambeth has done a splendid job.
The stuff is shown as well as can be under the circumstances. Should have thought that there was some
considerable risk in having so many small objects not in cases, but Lambeth
told me that the only precaution he has found necessary is to compel all
Americans to enter their names and serial numbers in the Visitors’ Book. Lambert says that the Museum finances are almost
non-existent, and that he and his wife keep the place going more as a labour of
love than anything else. (He of course has
a salary as Rural Industries Organiser).
He was rather depressed altogether, and told me of the endless troubles
he has with the Ministry of Labour, when trying to get blacksmiths released from
industry to take up rural work. The Ministry of Labour refuse to admit any necessity for rural farriers. Folk Museum
Stayed to tea, and talked until half past 8. Told me that a few ‘divers’ had passed S. of Cambridge, and got as far as Sandy and Potton in Bedfordshire. A rocket fell at Fulbourn, about 6 miles away, but no serious damage.
Castle Street, felt rather sick, and a
bad headache. Decided not to have
anything to eat but to go to a cinema instead.
Saw “The Eve of St Mark”, a very poor thing indeed. But felt better.
Crowds in the Market Place and the streets, bright lights everywhere, undergraduates in gowns, bareheaded, wandering about. Poor devils, they are almost all on army or air-force courses – hardly any other forms of study allowed. On walls people had chalked: “Down with Churchill”, “Up with Churchill”, “Amery must Go”, “Save Greece”, “
Fascist”, and so on. Lots of posters
about political meetings.
Walked back to the Gt. Northern Hotel at 10.30. Seems decent and clean, but no hot water in bedroom. Just was I was falling asleep, about 11.30, somebody in the street began shooting, single shots, then two together, about a dozen shots in all. Sounded like a rifle. Looked out, but could see nothing. Very curious.