Youngsters in the village have always had their ‘meeting places’. Nowadays the bus shelter on Great Green, Toot Hill or outside the village hall; often to the disapproving look of nearby residents, but a place where gossip is exchanged, friendships talked over and time passed. Little has changed over the years….except the place where the youngsters meet!
Next time you pass the corner where Crabtree Lane meets the High Street, take a look at the brick wall outside No. 1/3 Crabtree Lane, the house now known as Splint Cottage, home of Elizabeth & Edward Willis, the house dating back to the early seventeenth century.. The wall used to continue nearer to Red Lion Cottage next door. So why did children sit astride this wall, apart from it having a nice round top? Because the part of the cottage nearest the Red Lion, then a pub, was a shop owned by one of the children’s favourites, Alice Bunyan. Pop in, receive a cheery welcome from Alice, buy a sherbet dab or a vinegar flat and then sit astride this wall for a gossip. Joy Franklin wrote of this childhood memory* and many others who, like Joy, were children in the village in the 30’s and 4O’s easily recall it.
But the shop goes back much further , for it served the village for over a century. Ann (Pitts or Kingsley), who was born in 1866, lived in one of the cottages opposite the pond when she married Alfred Bunyan. Sometime in the 1880’s they moved to Crabtree Lane corner, or at least the right part, for the left hand side was a separate house for many years (indeed it may even have been three cottages at an earlier stage). It’s likely that Ann and Alfred started their family sometime before the Crabtree Lane move. Ann and Alfred had no less than thirteen children including two sets of twins. Seven survived infancy.
Ann decided to start a shop and where better than to open it than in the front room of their Crabtree Lane cottage! Whilst the building consisted of two premises a Victorian extension (the right hand site as you look towards the building) was added at some uncertain date – perhaps even to accommodate the large Bunyan family! Ann’s shop was the centre part (where the bow window is situated) but at various times in the future the shop was to vary from running across the centre and right hand part to simply the right hand side as trade began to diminish a century later.
Ann ran it with help from some of her own family until sometime after the First World War, Ann had a stroke and became blind. Her daughter Alice took over the shop and looked after her mother mainly with the support of sisters Gladys and Hilda who shared the house with Alice and their mother. Ann Bunyan died in 1932. It was some time later that Alice married Arthur Reynolds and they did not have children of their own. From Alice’s niece Christine, whose mother was Eva Buckett (nee Bunyan & sister of Alice), much about the shop before and during the 1939-45 is recalled. Christine Morris, who now lives in Danefield Road, like all her friends of the time, remembers her aunt, Alice with great affection.
“She was a wonderful lady. Kind, welcoming and a lot of village people were grateful for her help in so many ways”, recalls Christine. Before the mid 1930’s the outside loo was across the garden, water had to be drawn from the well at the back of the shop and there was no electricity. No wonder Ted Titmuss sold a great deal of paraffin from his shop in the High Street! Virtually everyone in the village depended on it.
Alice Bunyan, who had been born in 1894, not only kept the grocers going that her mother had started, but increased its business. It was one of three grocers in the village (also Harry Davis in High Street and Mr Rushton near the Knoll) for most villagers did all their shopping in Pirton. “And people were so loyal to their own particular grocery shop, they rarely went to either of the others,” recalls Christine. “I’m not sure what the opening hours were, but I do remember there was a loud bell on the door and when Aunt Alice heard it ring, she came to serve the customer. I guess that if she was at home the shop was open. Mind you, it stayed open until 8.00pm on Saturdays. I don’t know why, but Sid Jarvis, his mother and aunt always came to the shop at five minutes to eight every Saturday to do their week’s shopping. If the church clock struck eight o’clock and they hadn’t come, we would really get worried!”
Most of their stock came from the wholesalers Moss’ of Hitchin (now Steve’s Sports in Bancroft) although some things arrived from elsewhere by van or horse drawn cart. Sugar arrived in huge sacks and had to weighed out into lbs. and put into individual blue bags, sausages were always sold on Tuesdays (that was the day Moss’ van delivered them – no fridges then). And a great village favourite was Alice’s brawn. Pigs’ trotters, heads and other bits probably came from Harry Davis the butcher in High Street, but certainly Alice frequently had them simmering away on the great range in the other room. “I can remember picking a bone or so out of the pot every time I went by. Then when the brawn was ready, ladies came into the shop and Aunt Alice filled the bowls they brought up with brawn”.
Under the stairs was the vinegar barrel and customers own bottles were filled up on request; a strong smell of vinegar in that part of the small cottage was ever present. And then there was the great set of wooden draws, each filled with different provisions – sultanas, currants and so on. “On Saturdays I had to help weigh a lot of them, put them in bags and make them ready for the shop”, remembers Christine. She also remembers a slightly hilarious moment. “Before modern detergents and washing powders, soap flakes had come in to being as the great aid to washing. The first time the soap flakes arrived to the shop we opened the container prior to weighing them out. “It was like a snowstorm as the soap flakes flew off in every direction”.
But it was the sweets that were the favourite with the children. Christine remembers the first Mars Bars arriving (“They were a bit too sweet for me”) but how the children loved taking their time over choosing from the great range of confectionery. And all the time Alice Bunyan smiled, showed cheerful patience whilst the great decisions were made, then wrapped the selected goodies in paper bags and a whole 1d. or so went into the till! Christine used to help in the shop on Saturdays and vividly recalls young Arthur Bethell who came in every Saturday and asked for ‘A pen’orth of knock-me-over-the- counter drops and wrap them up in brown paper’. Then Arthur would smile and Christine would ask him what he really wanted to buy! Christine would deliver to a few customers on Saturday mornings and always enjoyed going to Mrs Bell who lived next to the Cat & Fiddle; Mrs Bell always rewarded her with a 1d.
It was not a flamboyant shop from outside. A small window with just a few items for sale and a modest sign over the door. Everyone just knew it as ‘Alice Bunyan’s shop’. In 1950 Alice had a stroke and died, aged fifty-six. She had married Arthur Reynolds, a bus driver in London who lived in Shillington Road (no. 2 where Zoe Burton now lives) Arthur gave up his London job and helped Alice run the shop. After Alice’s death, Arthur remarried and with his second wife ran the shop for a number of years.
Later on the shop was run by the Daldry family who subsequently moved to Lytham St. Annes, followed by Roy and Pam Wilkes who then went to Cambridgeshire. In 1986 Tricia Matthews bought the shop, which had already been reduced in size in 1984 by the previous owners. For some time the shop had enjoyed only a very limited trade, even while the post office was there. In 1989 the post office transferred to its present site in the High Street where it had previously been until 1956. The shop door was finally closed just after the post office moved and Tricia ran the newly sited post office in the present High Street premises whilst Doug and Chris Crawley ran the rest of the shop – but that’s another story. So the Crabtree Lane shop closed to become an enlarged private house, but the sweets and the good nature of Alice Bunyan will be remembered for a long time…. the wall, meeting place for many children, remains.
* Joy Franklin’s delightful book “Memories of Old Joys”, published in 1992 is available in the Pirton Village Stores, as is ‘A Foot on Three Daisies’ which, as always, is an invaluable source of village