My parents met in Bath during the early days of World War II. My mother was a Bathonian, born and bred; my father was posted to Bath with the Admiralty, which he’d joined as an 18 year old in 1941. My mother reputedly had many suitors in her youth but my father was more persistent than most. Whilst others fell by the wayside, he wrote to her frequently throughout his wartime service with the Fleet Air Arm whilst she was, by her own account, enjoying her war in the Land Army. When my father returned to Bath, after refusing him twice, my mother finally accepted his proposal of marriage which he made in the back of a taxi as they travelled home from the theatre one night. They were married in Bath the day before my mother’s 24th birthday, on 24th February 1949. Six months later, my father sailed to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to take up a post at the Royal Naval dockyard in Trincomalee. My mother joined him in April 1950, travelling out on the SS Himalaya.
So, I was born at 1.30am on Wednesday, March 7th 1951 in the Royal Naval Hospital at Trincomalee. For the first few days of my life I was nursed by an ayah who, I’m told, greatly amused herself by pulling my ears. Luckily for me, and my ears, my parents decided to return to England in the July and we sailed on the RMS Strathmore. We settled in Bath for a while and lived in Grove Street, in a cramped little flat over a flower shop called Caudle’s. My father worked and my mother stayed at home to look after me. Most days we’d go to a greengrocer’s shop called Adam’s which was in Argyle Street, off the Pulteney Bridge. I can still conjure up an image of the shop; each shelf meticulously laid out with dozens of tins and packets, jars of sweets, bunches of flowers in tin buckets, wooden crates of tissue-wrapped fruit, vegetables piled up in wicker baskets on the floor. I’d be put on a high wooden stool and sometimes given a chocolate biscuit to keep me happy whilst my mother chatted with the shopkeeper. His young assistant would scurry round the shelves collecting the things that we wanted and put them into a cardboard box to be delivered later.
Every Monday was washing day – our kitchen was “like a Chinese laundry” according to my Dad, with tubs of soapy water bubbling away on the gas rings filling the flat with steam and the fragrance of washing powder. I can remember the ‘Dolly blue bag’ sitting on the sink, trickling blue dye – I think somehow it made the laundry extra white. My mother used a mangle to squeeze out the water and then she would drape everything all over the place because we didn’t have access to a garden. The ironing would be done on Tuesdays in the day time – not much choice because the iron was plugged into the kitchen light socket!
My mother’s parents were born in Bath and when I was a child, they lived in a large detached house in Bloomfield Avenue. Sometimes I’d visit or even stay a few days, which I always enjoyed. I have surprisingly strong memories of one particular day in 1953 – sitting cross-legged on the floor in the lounge, staring at a tiny screen set in a huge mahogany cabinet; the fuzzy black and white picture magnified by a thick convex lens. My grandfather was probably one of the first people in Bath to own a TV set – he loved gadgets. Well, on this day the room was filled with adults, there to witness a technological marvel – the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II – probably the most ambitious live outside broadcast made by the BBC up to that point. As a two-year old sitting with my cousins, hushed to silence no doubt, I had no idea of what was going on but it still made a lasting impact on me.
During WWII, ‘Baedeker’ bombing raids on Bath were carried out by the Luftwaffe in retaliation for the destruction of the historic city of Lübeck by the RAF. The city was of no great strategic importance but, as was the intention, was targeted for its historic and architectural beauty. The raids occurred on the nights of the 25th and 26th April1942 and bombs were dropped along the vertical and horizontal axes of a cross drawn on a map of the city. At the centre of this cross was the area of Kingsmead which, being hit twice, was severely damaged. My grandfather had a fish and chip restaurant at 38 Kingsmead Street and had only just moved the business from across the road at 10 Kingsmead Square.He’d had a new plate glass shop window fitted and a reinforced floor put in, enabling the basement to be used as a public air raid shelter. He and his family escaped death by a hair’s breadth on the first night of the blitz. Fortunately no-one was injured but the front of the shop was blown out and was considered unsafe so the family were evacuated to Bradford-on Avon, along with Mr Betts, their neighbour who kept a shoe shop. His was the last building left standing on that side of Kingsmead Street and remains so today. My grandfather resumed the business after a few months and it stayed in the family until he died in 1966.
At some point in the 50’s, Bath and my much loved grandparents were left behind us as we started travelling. Our ‘grand tour’ of Britain took me to so many different houses and schools that my brain recorded very few childhood memories after the age of five and so I can’t really recall names, places or dates very well. I do know that when I was about twelve we returned to Bath and I went to the City of Bath Girls School for a year or two. There were ‘houses’, a bit like Hogwart’s School in the Harry Potter books, but instead of Hufflepuff and Gryffindor, our house names were Long, Roxburgh, King and Sarah Grand. I was in Long and wore a round mauve house brooch – healthy competition was encouraged! The head, Miss Winifred Cook, was a caricature of the strict public school mistress – a tall woman with her hair pulled back into a bun and of whom I, like everyone else including my parents, was terrified. In early March 1964, Miss Cook uncharacteristically granted the school a half day off – if she hadn’t we’d have scarpered anyway. To a girl, we were off to Oldfield Park junction, a railway halt just down the road from the school. Rather magically on this day, the already world famous pop group, the Beatles, made a brief stop here on their way from London to Minehead during the making of their first film “A Hard Day’s Night”. They bravely left the safety of the train and stood on the tiny platform surrounded by yelling, hysterical fans. I managed to touch my hero, Paul McCartney on his jacket – I’ve obviously never forgotten that moment but I imagine that Sir Paul probably has.
Much though the conditions at the school were austere, I was sad to leave but we were off again – back to the seaside town of Weymouth. Going to a mixed school was a real shock and I didn’t like Weymouth Grammar School one bit. Academically, the move was a disaster and in 1968, after two attempts, I managed to scrape just four GCE ‘O’ levels which even in those days, qualified one for little more than a life of clerical obscurity. A year beforehand I had left home and was living above a little restaurant called the Sea Cow Bistro, which was by the quayside in Weymouth Harbour. I worked there at weekends and, after I had left school, in the evenings as well. The place was very fashionable; tables covered with red and white chequered tablecloths, moodily lit by candles planted in wax covered Chianti bottles – it was chic and very much of its era. Beatles records were played non-stop every evening – ‘Revolver’ was my favourite. We’d sometimes have celebrities come in to dine – ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ was shot near Weymouth and several times the actors and crew filled our tiny restaurant, staying until the wee small hours. I managed to secure myself a walk-on part in the film but, having watched it since, caught only a glimpse of one shoulder!
Despite these happy times, I eventually spread my wings and moved away from the town in which my parents still lived to go back to Bath, my ‘adopted’ home. In a local junk shop I exchanged my antique, wind-up gramophone and collection of 78rpm records for two second-hand suitcases and then I hit the road. Once in Bath I found myself a room in a shared house but, after a few months, I moved into a single bedsit which was on the third floor of 11 Laura Place. I paid £3 a week rent, about a quarter of the average weekly wage at that time, and I thought it was a palace although it was just one room with a tiny Baby Belling single ring cooker and a sink in the walk-in kitchen cupboard with a shared bathroom across the landing. Through my sash window, though, I could see the River Avon, running under Pulteney Bridge and over the weir. It was an exciting place to live and 1969 was to be an exciting year.
In June, the first Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music was held in the city. Despite the fact that I lived just around the corner from all the activity I spent the night before the event sleeping on a bench in the Abbey Churchyard along with all the other festival goers just to ‘get into the groove’. Seeing live music performed for the first time made a big impression on me and so it was with great anticipation, but no money, that I went that August to the Isle of Wight Festival of Music. The main act was Bob Dylan but the whole line-up over the three days read like a who’s who of contemporary rock and blues. I slept under the stars, with 35,000 other people, listening to the music, living on doughnuts and cups of tea. It was a life-changing experience and one that I will always remember, if not in every detail then at least in essence. For quite a while I was seduced by ‘flower power’ and, like my contemporaries, wore tie-and-dye T-shirts, bleached jeans, beads, pale panstick makeup and long hair.
The following year I returned for the IOW Festival of 1970 which was thought, by some, to signal an end to the ‘age of innocence’. Some folk objected to paying for tickets and tried to break into the performance enclosure but the promoters stood to lose a lot of money and so there was violence and ill feeling. In any event, the musical line-up was even more impressive than it had been before and, with an attendance of about 600,000 people, exceeded any other single musical event before or since, including the legendary Woodstock.
In July, I rented my very first black and white television just so that I could watch the first manned space walk from Apollo 11. I was the only person in the building who had a TV and so I invited everyone to come and watch in my bedsit. Fourteen people sat on my divan bed that night and the legs gave way. Not surprisingly, my landlord found the explanation for the breakage a little implausible and charged me for the repairs!
Three months later, unemployed and broke, I was walking along in the city centre and it started to pour with rain. I had no coat and so was in for a soaking. I ducked quickly inside an open doorway to wait it out. Whilst I was standing around I looked at some of the posters on the wall…. “If you like solving crosswords and reading Agatha Christie novels then we have just the job for you”… with an invitation to go upstairs and find out more. By the time I left the building not only had the rain stopped but I’d joined the Army! The poster was advertising the job of cryptanalyst – a code breaker in other words. On the 2nd November 1970 I joined the colours and went to the Queen Elizabeth Barracks, Guildford where the W.R.A.C. training centre was then situated. After weeks of square bashing and months of trade training in Aldershot and Loughborough, as Pte W/439151 I qualified as a cryptanalyst and was posted to 13 Signals Regiment, BFPO 40, Mercury Barracks, Birgelen in West Germany.
I had the time of my life, enjoying the camaraderie of living and working with others, something I’d never experienced before, being an only child. I particularly liked to travel home in my smart green uniform, designed by Norman Hartnell apparently; peaked cap and bottle green double breasted greatcoat with brass buttons. I was proud to wear it and I have to admit that I rather enjoyed the attention it brought me and the connection that I felt with other service people that I met on my travels. Before the Irish Republican Army launched terrorist attacks in mainland Britain, soldiers, sailors and airmen were a common sight in public but eventually, civilian clothes had to be worn in public places and service personnel became unidentifiable.I was in Germany during the Cold War, when allied forces maintained the peace and nuclear war, we were often told, could break out at any time. I once travelled to the Hartz Mountains and saw the East-West German border, erected after the war. I’d expected it to be more substantial but it was just two low wooden picket fences separated by No-Mans Land, stretching as far as the eye could see. Strange that a country could be divided this way but the manned guard towers and flower strewn roadside memorials were testament to the barriers’ effectiveness.
One achievement of which I was proud during my time in the army, apart from riding a horse, jumping out of a plane and learning to glide, was taking part in the Vierdaagse, or Nijmegen March, an annual endurance event which has taken place in Holland most years since 1909. This is now said to be the world’s biggest march and every year attracts many thousands of entrants from military teams and civilians alike. In July 1971, in fierce heat, our squad from 13 Signals Regiment marched 25 miles each day for four days running. It was a punishing ordeal and I’m happy to say that I didn’t even get a blister! On the last day, each successful marcher was awarded an official Dutch medal at a grand ceremony in the town square and we were also given a gladiolus, the flower of Nijmegen. Not all my military service was marked by glory however. I was a bit of a prankster and often led others in the commission of practical jokes. One night, because we were fed up to the back teeth with a girl in our dormitory that snored loudly, we pushed her bed into the middle of the vast parade ground and left her there, still sound asleep. In the morning we were treated to the sight of one sleepy, disoriented soldier struggling to cover her modesty with a sheet whilst hobbling back barefoot to the block.
After I left the army I went to live in London. By now it was 1973 – Britain had joined the Common Market and also, whilst I was in Germany, had adopted decimal currency. The ‘mods’ were a thing of the past and ‘hippies’ were almost considered mainstream. I was glad to be back in bedsit land even though I was at the mercy of some real rogue landlords – life was sometimes a bit like a ‘60s Nell Dunn novel, rather monochrome and a bit depressing. One bedsit I had, at Sumatra Road in Kilburn, was very tiny with a single bed and kitchen dresser in one room and a bath and gas cooker in the other. The geyser over the bath terrified me – when I turned the hot tap on, blue flames would leap right across the room. The close proximity of the bath to the stove was useful, though, since I could bathe and cook tea at the same time. The toilet was a brick built outhouse at the end of the back yard, next to the railway lines. When high speed trains went through to Paddington everything in the kitchen would rattle and crockery would threaten to fall off the shelves. One summer morning I awoke very early and had to use the ‘facilities’. On my sleepy way back up the garden path, I had the sense of being watched and turned round to see a stationary breakfast Pullman in which sat several men, forkfuls of egg and bacon halfway to their mouths, slack jawed with surprise. I had forgotten to put any clothes on.
Eventually, I was drawn back to Bath again and returned in 1974. By now I was 23 – I found myself a flat and applied for a post as a cytologist in the Royal United Hospital. I’d been doing this job in the Middlesex Hospital in London, and I’d expected to be able to apply successfully for the same post in Bath. The job involved examining stained microscope slides, looking for cancerous cells in patient’s samples. I’d proved reasonably adept at this but at Bath, previous experience and my four ‘O’ levels were not enough and I was turned away. Enrolling on a correspondence course, I crammed night and day and managed to pass three more ‘O’ levels a few months later. I returned to the hospital, asked for a job again and this time was successful. I worked as a cytologist in the Area Central Laboratory from 1975 to 1979 and, during this time, I also progressed from living in a furnished bedsit to having an unfurnished flat. I had a good social life and was drifting in and out of relationships but life was not particularly challenging or exciting. I had entered a state of ‘anaesthesia’ where the years could have slipped by almost without being noticed had I not, in an impulsive moment, joined the Wiltshire Constabulary in June 1979 and become WPC 829.
Life in the police was hard by any standard – unsocial hours, anti-social people, violence, anger, ignorance and fear – and in those days there was no counselling for officers who’d experienced traumatic events. On the plus side, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dramatically raised police pay soon after I joined and I was given a police house for which I paid only nominal rent. My standard of living went up and by 1980 I earned nearly £10,000 a year, which was probably above average for the time. In 1979 the police had taught me to drive so that I could man a patrol car and cover a rural beat so I bought my first car at the age of 29, quite old by today’s standards no doubt. It was a white Austin Mini 1000 with an ‘L’ (1972) registration which cost me £750. I lavished much attention on it and it lasted quite well until becoming overcome by rust. No car came close to my affections after my first love!
Amongst the day-to-day grind, I was involved with one event of national importance. The anti-Cruise protests at RAF Greenham Common started in September 1981 and were to last for 19 years. Women chained themselves to the fences at the RAF base and refused to move until plans were changed to host US missiles on British soil. I was sent there a few times to help keep the peace between the protesters and RAF personnel. Things were generally calm and the women were good natured, but strong willed. Many had left homes and families behind them to spend years rough camping at the roadside – similar determination to the women suffragettes who had changed history earlier in the century.
Death is a familiar concept to police officers as they deal with road accidents, suicides, cot deaths, sudden deaths and occasionally even murder. It’s hard for people to imagine that there might be a funny side to this gloomy subject but it existed. During one very heavy winter, the roads were impassable and covered in deep snow drifts. I had a rural beat around Devizes and I’d had a ‘shout’ – I was asked to investigate a report from a lady who’d been unable to contact her elderly, housebound mother who lived in a remote cottage. The postman had tried to raise her too and they feared that the old girl had perished from hypothermia. A snow plough before me, I skidded along in my van and eventually met the postman at the cottage. After banging on the door for some time, I had to break in and we went together around the house, calling out, but answer came there none. I knew that the lady was most probably dead and told the postman to wait downstairs whilst I went up but he followed me. We found the body lying in bed and I went over, pulled down the covers and started my examination whereupon the body sat up abruptly, looked at me and said “Hello my dear”. I heard a faint sigh and a thump behind me; I wasn’t that composed myself. When he recovered, the postman left me to explain to the poor woman why I’d broken her front door down in the middle of a freezing winter’s day when she’d had the good sense to stay in bed and keep warm!
Humour aside, the stresses and strains of ‘the job’ had a very detrimental effect on my health and, when my nerves finally snapped, I was awarded a pension and honourably discharged from the force. I moved to Swindon in the summer of 1985, because housing was cheaper there; I found a post with Thames Water and was trained to be a water quality scientist. My job was to perform biological and chemical testing of potable drinking water to which end I would sample reservoirs, bore holes, rivers and pumping stations and then test the samples which I’d collected. It was interesting enough work and I enjoyed it for four years; the water quality laboratory was at a pumping station in Latton, a little village between Cirencester and Swindon. Because at one point I’d also trained as a computer programmer, I set up a network system for the lab and could have progressed in the company but I’d hit the ‘glass ceiling’. My lack of education was holding me back from career progression – not that I’d stayed in any job long enough to progress anyway! By this time I was 35, had been out of education for many years and considered myself to be a lost cause. Then I discovered the Open University.
By 1989 I’d been happily studying with the OU for four years and was doing OK with my exams, which made a pleasant change from my experiences at school. But life was to change yet again. I went with a friend to Oxford one afternoon to meet some other friends and share a birthday meal with them. I was musing aloud at how lucky the students at Oxford were, how they were so privileged studying full time and in such perfect surroundings. My friend retorted “Well, why don’t you go to university then?” I thought she was mad but it sparked my curiosity and the following week I went to see a tutor at Bath University. I turned up in jeans and a T-shirt with some of my OU stuff under one arm. At the end of our chat, much to my surprise, the tutor said “I’m happy to offer you a place in October” and shook my hand – I didn’t even know that I’d been interviewed by the admissions tutor! So, in my usual impulsive fashion, I got a mature student’s grant and studied for an honours degree in Applied Biology. I lapped up the academic lifestyle and fitted in with my fellow students far better than I’d ever managed at school, even though they were all twenty years younger than me! In the third year I did a twelve month placement with the Metropolitan Police Forensic Laboratory at Lambeth, which was truly fascinating. I paid a visit to the Black Museum, something that the public cannot do. Here I saw the actual exhibits and photos from real crimes: Jack the Ripper, John George Haigh, Hawley Harvey Crippen, Reginald Halliday Christie and many more. I was in my element.
After the degree I stayed on at Bath and did a PhD. I enjoyed study and science so much and wanted the chance to work in a laboratory and do my own research – at last my glass ceiling was broken. By the time I’d finished full time study I was 46. My speciality was neuroendocrinology – studying the hormones of the brain and pituitary gland, and my first post-doctoral position was in Edinburgh Medical School. I fell in love with the city and the two years passed too quickly. I lived in a little furnished one room bedsit, about the same size as the one I had in Laura Place back when I was just 19. The difference was that this room cost me £350 a month, nearly thirty times more expensive!
At the end of the contract my boss had no more grants in the pipeline so, reluctantly, I had to take the next post that came my way, which brought me to where I am today – Cardiff. I’ve always had mixed feelings about living here – I have met some extraordinarily nice people but I’ve also experienced some tough times too. But more than ten years later I’m still here.
After completing a research contract in 2003 I reached another crossroads. A long term relationship had broken up and I’d received a sizeable chunk of money, proceeds from a house sale. For the first time in my life I had capital and choices to make: invest or spend? I could either buy a bigger flat or I could do something more interesting. I opted for the latter. I sold my flat, bought a caravan and moved myself into it. A nice young student, with whom I was working, wanted very much to find somewhere quiet to live whilst she was writing up her PhD thesis. I, on the other hand, wanted someone to look after my possessions and my cat, Ralph. We came to an agreement, the student became the house/cat sitter and I paid the rent. I looked on the internet for the longest, most exciting and affordable travel experience that I could find and found ‘Exodus’ a travel company which specialised in overlanding; travelling by truck across many miles, camping and seeing foreign parts at ‘ground level’. So I went on an adventure which lasted for eight months and took me to ten countries, starting in India. It would take several books to describe all the wonderful sights and experiences that I had on the road. Travel showed me how volatile and changeable the world is. As we passed through there was an assassination in Nepal, terrorism in Mumbai and war in Afghanistan. And yet the travel was thrilling and I was severely ‘bitten’ by the travel bug. I took up photography and started trying to capture what I saw in these places – perhaps, in another life, I would have been a journalist, or a photographer, or a best-selling author, or a naturalist or….
These stories are just snippets of my life and do not describe more than a few highlights along the way. Many important world events have occurred during my tenure on this planet. There were wars in the Falklands, the Gulf and the Middle East. Presidents were assassinated and Royals died; some in tragic circumstances. Men walked on the moon and landed the shuttle like an aeroplane. Calculators and computers were invented and the microchip revolutionised our world. Now, instead of writing an air mail and waiting a month for a reply I send a text and get an instant response. It’s not all good though. Junk food has turned a lot of kids into blobs and we are sinking under the weight of discarded pizza boxes and drinks cans. Quite bizarrely, computers and mobile phones have replaced writing and speaking for many people. But, all in all, I count myself lucky to have grown up during the times that I did and to have seen and experienced the world in its different moods.
Now I’m very nearly sixty and am facing retirement with a sense of cautious optimism. More time to study my family history. The adventure isn’t over yet…