Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Searching for the WW1 Nissen huts above Cowcombe Hill

My gran and gramp ended up living in a Nissen hut near Cowcombe Hill in 1921. This was after volunteering and serving in France, and then being made redundant in London ‘owing to slackness of trade’; whilst gran had brought up two young children, as well as working as a ‘canary girl’.
Those two young children – my dad and Auntie Kath – would eventually have two other brothers, but those first years in the early twenties must have been idyllic for Rod and Kath.
Dad loved being taken to the Crown at Frampton Mansell in his later years, and would sit outside gazing wistfully into the distance. My auntie sent dad this poem when he was ailing in the 1980s. I took it with me on my cycling expedition today (19.1.16), searching for the site of the Nissen huts.

For My Brother

When we were young and full of fun
And all our days were carefree
Do you remember that September
We climbed the old pear tree?

The finest crop grows at the top,
That bramble jam we ate,
Our mother made and carefully laid
On shelves with name and date.

We took a stick and went to pick
The biggest blackest berries,
Pulling down to near the ground
Clusters hung like cherries.

Remember the gate where we used to wait
For the early morning light,
To show in the field the wonderful yield
Of mushrooms, gleaming white.

The nuts we found so full and round
And filberts too, so rare,
That lovely autumn on Sapperton Common,
What joy we used to share.

Wild harvest brings a host of things
Mushrooms, nuts and fruit,
But best of all, with every fall,
Comes memory, absolute.

I would like to thank Diana Wall of the Minchinhampton History Society for helping me find the location of the huts. I posted a request for information on the Facebook Five Valleys WW1 group and Diana was so helpful:

‘I wonder if they were the huts left by the Australian Air Force at Minchinhampton Aerodrome? Although just in Minchinhampton parish, they seem nearer Frampton Mansell and were used as rental accommodation in the twenties and thirties …the huts were down the little lane that goes from Gypsy Lane to the main entrance of Aston Down (it is now blocked off for cars) Some of the bungalows there still contain elements from those early huts - one contains part of the chapel. I will see if I have any pictures in my stuff on the aerodrome.’

The bungalows there have names such as Old Aerodrome Farm and ANZAC Bungalow – there was nobody around when I visited and it was real edgelands terrain: I had to make my way circumspectly through a motley collection of old vehicles in what might have been a scrap yard. But it was easy to imagine that the cars and vans could have made their own way there, riderless, through their own volition. It felt as though I had wandered into a Cohen brothers’ film, surreally set in a Forest of Dean 1980s enclave, but on top of the Cotswolds in 2016. A sort of Wolds Fargo.
But there was something even more captivating down the end of the lane – a mouldering, roofless, ivy clad red brick structure, with mature ash trees and saplings poking out through the windows from what once had been the floor. I knew I must be in the right spot because involuntary memory kicked in:
Dad could never eat chicken – he always ate beef on Christmas Day in those pre-turkey days of the 1950s and ‘60s - and every Christmas Day, after a few pints, he would tell us why. The annual story of life in the Nissan hut never varied but always entertained:
‘I was just a boy and got stuck in the pantry. The door closed to with a bang and there was no light, no lamp, no candle. I couldn’t see the door-handle to get out, and I was surrounded by the most awful screeching and squawking. It was all around me like banshees from Hell. I was scared out of my wits.
It wasn’t till my eyes got accustomed that I saw all these chickens hanging from the wall. Dad had wrung their necks but hadn’t finished the job and they were half dead and half alive. It was horrible. I screamed and screamed till mum eventually came and got me out. I haven’t touched chicken since that day. Never have and never will.’
Now, my dad was no softy … It was universally acknowledged that he’d had a bad war - he served in the jungle behind Japanese lines with the Chindits in World War Two, and he used to tell me some hair raising stories about that when he sat me on his knee in the mid/late 1950s … but he could never eat chicken.
And that all came back to me today – the right place at the right time. As was my brother, Keith, who told me that the hut was so elongated that dad learnt how to ride a bike inside the home – up and down, up and down. To keep warm, too, I should think.

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