Canon Gordon Hewitt thinks back to well over 50 years ago
Memories of Pirton, 1933 -1948
My father was Vicar of Pirton during these years. For six years previously he had charge of a bleak parish in North Norfolk and, before that, for fourteen years in a grimy town in North Staffordshire. For both my parents coming to Pirton was like arriving in a promised land. Nestling under the eastern edge of the Chilterns, shaded (then) by eight hundred elms, it felt like a place where you would be made welcome and could put down roots. My sisters and I – now all in our 80’s – always enjoyed getting back there and still think of Pirton in those years with great affection.
This bunch of memories is mostly about houses which we lived in. The first was Rectory Farm (in Shillington Road). Known in the 1930’s as Rectory Manor it had a lot of character and could spring some surprises. Apparently, it boasted the earliest flushing lavatory in Pirton, but it still lacked electricity and gas. Oil-lamps left patches of deep shadow in every room and passage, and a house built in the early 1600’s tends to creak mysteriously. But there was something more. China cups and jugs used to slide about and collide in a display cupboard, and doors and windows would slam shut or open without any breeze. After a month or two of these disturbances, my father decided the house must be offering hospitality to a poltergeist and, as his predecessors in earlier centuries would have done, he decided to exorcise it. This was duly carried out with, as he described it, remarkable results. During the early hours he was awakened by a noise like an express train moving up and away from the house. There were no more disturbances in the two years or so he lived there.
However, having recently read in ‘A Foot on Three Daisies’ (page 33) the account of Mrs Edith Huckle’s frightening experiences in 1938, one wonders whether the Rectory Farm poltergeist had migrated within the village.
In 1936 our parents moved into the new vicarage in Walnut Tree Road ,having spent the previous winter in a hut on the site. As a newly ordained clergyman I had the privilege of acting as chaplain to the Bishop of Bedford (Rt. Rev. Lumsden Barkway) when he blessed the vicarage; no scope for poltergeists there, but much to give pleasure in living in it. Standing on one edge of the village, but much higher than Rectory Farm, it commanded a broad sweep of open country -looking towards Letchworth with only fields and coppices in between.
My mother worked hard to create a garden of colours and character, around which memories would accumulate. For instance, there was a Saturday afternoon in the late 1930’s when I sat in a deck chair watching monoplanes in circuit in the Kings Cup Air Race which took them several times over the village, not much above tree height. It became a precious peacetime memory, for soon it would be Spitfires and Hurricanes engaged in dogfights against German planes in that same Home Counties sky. In September 1940 I was setting out from Pirton for some months to work at Leeds parish church and when our bus got to Hitchin it was greeted by an air-raid warning; and at the centre of a personal ‘Dad’s Army’ legend stands not Captain Mainwaring but Mr Paternoster outside what was then his famous bookshop (now the charity shop Scope in Market Square) peering into the sky with a shotgun in his hands.
Another garden memory concerns chiefly Mr R Bryant and a swarm of bees. He was headmaster of Pirton School from 1927 to 1940. One sultry afternoon my father happened to notice a glistening black patch that appeared to be hanging from a standard rose bush yet moving. “I must get Bryant”, my father said, remembering that handling bees was one of his skills. He arrived after an hour or so and, from a secure distance, we watched him don his hat, veil, and other protective clothing, and set to work. By the way he was stamping round in small circles it appeared that the protection was far from perfect; but he soldiered on, found the queen bee, and soon had the swarm of perhaps 8,000 bees safely in his skip. With some apprehension I agreed to go back with him to Hitchin and watch the bees transfer to the hive he had prepared for them. It was a magical moment to hold on to when our human world was so terribly disordered and disrupted.
Reading the splendid parish history, “A Foot on Three Daisies” recently, it provided pegs to hang memories on. For example, it notes that thirty species of butterfly have been recorded in the parish. During a sunny October afternoon I counted almost half that number on a walk up Wood Lane and across to Highdown; a naturalist would have ticked off more . The book also gives a date for a last Pirton memory when it was still a family home – Monday 10th March, 1947. It says the school was closed from 6th to 10th March due to deep snow and the lavatories being frozen. That was the story of many of the Home Counties from January to March that year, not made easier by the turning of the screw of rationing a notch further. When would it all end?
I had arrived in Pirton by train and bus in a snowstorm on a Saturday and the snow was lying throughout the Sunday. However, during the night the temperature rose sharply to around fifty degrees and in the morning the snow was gone. The grass was spring-green and the birds, so long silent, were singing their heads off. They at least had no doubt that the long winter was over.