Memories of a Severnside childhood
PUBLISHED: 00:16 16 November 2011 | UPDATED: 20:18 20 February 2013
Ray Pickernell, author of Yanto's Summer, tells Katie Jarvis of a childhood spent elvering, eating rabbit caught by his grandfather, and the night the whole town danced in the square at Berkeley.
As Ray Pickernell will tell you, the Vale of Berkeley is not the Cotswolds. But it is a beautiful part of Gloucestershire, and one he knows like the back of his hand. He grew up, learning to swim in the Severn, picnicking in the woods, catching rabbits in the fields of the Vale. Many years later, while working as a car salesman in Gloucester, he started to write a novel featuring many of his treasured childhood memories. Yantos Summer, first out in 1988, has just been republished. It is, he says, a book about happy times, when England was still Merry England.
Where do you live and why?
I live in Tuffley Avenue in Gloucester. Theres a nice big frontage on this property, and its set well back from the road so theres no noise. We fell for the location.
How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
I was born in the Vale of Berkeley which is not the Cotswolds and I had a wonderful childhood. The Severn always reminds me of those days: I adore the river. Years ago, youd get cod and plaice in there, and even a lot of porpoise I thought it was sharks when I first saw them! There was a huge whale once beached at Littleton-on-Severn about 60 or 70 feet long; and I remember going to see a sturgeon they caught down by the breakwater, which was hung up in Berkeley at the local butchers shop. Id never seen anything so big in my life. They transported it to London because it had to be offered to the King but, by the time it got up there, it was almost rotten. They were only interested in the caviar anyway.
Whats your idea of a perfect weekend?
It would be a weekend from my childhood, when I learned to swim in the brook at Ham, where we lived. There was also the Game Park 300-odd acres surrounded by a huge wall where wed spend a lot of time trying to stalk the deer, though they always smelled us coming. Theres a lake in the park where wed catch beautiful golden carp, using a stick with a fork tied to the end. Wed have got murdered if wed been caught! The carp didnt swim off from you, funnily enough; theyd run charge across the top of the water so you could corral them. Id take them home for my grandfather, though he always found them a bit bony. We also used to snare rabbits and find moorhen eggs that mother would cook for us.
If money were no object, where would you live?
My dream is to buy a converted mill with a millstream, where I could make a big natural swimming lake. But Id also love to buy our old cottage in Ham; its beautiful now. When I was a kid, there was no water all we had was a big pump in the yard that froze in winter and there was no power. When I got to about six or seven, I was allowed to carry the oil lamp up to bed myself, but my mother said: Remember! If you ever drop that oil lamp, the house will catch fire and well all be burned to death. One day, I was getting ready to go to bed and turned round a bit quick and knocked the oil lamp off. Everything went into slow motion. I watched it fall and thought, Right! Im dead. Were all dead. It hit the floor and went out!
Where are you least likely to live?
I wouldnt want to live in Sharpness; it would remind me of the good days, all gone, when there were always a dozen ships in the docks very colourful and lots of life. Since the docks died, its like a desert.
Wheres the best pub in the area?
Berkeley had more pubs per head of population than most places in the country and every pub in those days was crammed full. The night that stands out in my mind above all others is VE night. We were playing outside Berkeley Picture House, which is no longer there, unfortunately, and old Jack Neale came along pushing his bike, saying, Boys, the wars over. Therell be dancing in the square tonight! And they went mad. The pubs were bursting out and they used Berkeley Square as a dance hall, with music coming from the town hall. I remember my grandfather was dancing with Mrs Woodman who he hated normally. Of course, we were still at war with Japan so someone built a fire in the middle of the Market Place and they had a replica of the Japanese Emperor that they put on the top. It melted the tar and made a hell of a mess of the road.
Whats the best thing about Gloucestershire?
We dont generally seem to get the extremes of weather they get in other parts of the country. My book is set in one of the hottest summers and coldest winters (1947). I remember it well, though I was only eight. We were still swimming in the brook in September but, when the snow came, it was dreadful. The morning I woke up after the blizzard, the snow was literally up to the roof and my grandfather had to dig his way out of the back door. My grandfather rented an orchard at the cottage for 5 a year we used to make that 10 times over by selling the plums and the thing that stands out in my mind was standing among the trees looking at what can only be described as a fairytale scene from Disney.
What people dont realise was that, back in 1607, they had a tsunami up the Severn. There was an earthquake just off the coast of Ireland and it caused a massive surge to go up the Bristol Channel, engulfing the Somerset Levels. Of course, the wave came up the Severn like the bore does, and it drowned 2,000 people and thousands of animals. The only buildings you could see for 10 miles either side of the river were the church steeples, and they were taking cows out of the tops of trees for months afterwards.
and the worst?
People dont smile like they used to. Years ago, nobody had any money but there was an air of optimism. Everyone was whistling; you never hear anyone whistle nowadays. Every time you met one of your friends, they told you a joke; you rarely get anybody telling jokes nowadays. But they were happy because everyone was in the same boat. You accepted the fact that you had your place. The squire was in his manor house with his carpets. The farmer was in the farmhouse and had linoleum on the floor, but the ordinary peasants had to scrub the stone floors.
Whats the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?
The River Severn. I love the Severn but its always taking lives every year people drowned. One of the most terrible things of recent years was in Lydney. A husband, wife and two children were passing through on holiday; theres nothing lovelier than when the tide is right out and you see those endless reaches of yellow sand. This family went out onto the sand, playing; but when the tide comes in, it cuts you off. They were trapped and all drowned. Theres a lot of quicksand there, too, which takes you up to your shins very quickly and then starts taking you down slowly. There was always a gang of us kids pulling each other out. We found that, if you hold yourself stiff and fall forward very slowly, the suction on your feet is broken and you can wriggle your feet out of the sand. My parents would have gone mad if theyd known what we were doing.
What would be a three-course local meal?
Im not a great lover of fish but my grandfather lived off eels because he was always eeling. And, of course, people loved elvers. In those days, they would catch a load of elvers and put them in a bath outside with a cloth over it: that meant, Come and help yourself. Nowadays, a pound of elvers would cost you 100 or more. Since the elver stations came into effect, it ruined everything. People cant even afford to eat their own elvers now.
But I like rabbit. My grandfather never came home without at least two or three rabbits on his person that hed caught and tied round his waist like a belt. He would paunch them and skin them the smell was dreadful but my granny could do things with a rabbit that you wouldnt get in the Ritz. Shed stuff it with sage and onion, then sew it up with cotton like she was sewing the hem of a dress, and put it in the oven. The oven was built on the side of the fire grate and there was no power she had to push the embers of the fire underneath with a special flat flange poker. But the dinners she turned out of that oven! Shed bake the rabbit and cut it in cutlets and it was better than any chicken.
Whats your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
When I got married, I lived in Dursley, and Id drive to Stroud over Selsley Common. Not long before you get to the Nympsfield gliding club, youve got a magnificent view over the Vale, up to the Black Mountains. I always stop and drink it in: fabulous.
Whats your quintessential village and why?
I love Ham, which is more of a hamlet than a village. They were proper communities in those days we didnt move about as much as they do now and I knew everybody in the entire place, from the bloke who came round distributing the gas masks to all the farmers. They were tenant farmers, and the estate was a good landlord, but they were powerful people. In the old days, it was a feudal system. My grandfather was up in the Game Park once, poaching rabbits. He had two or three on his person and he was totally caught unawares by the Earl of Berkeley himself, who came along on his horse and got him red-handed. The Earl looked down on him and said, Whats the game? On my land, pinching my rabbits! And my grandfather who was fiery said, How come your family got all these thousands of acres? The Lord made it for all of us. And the Earl said, Because my ancestors fought for it. And my gramp said, Well get off the horse, take your jacket off and Ill fight you for it! Poor old gramp got done for a guinea but he had it back tenfold, of course.
Whats your favourite buildingand why?
Berkeley Castle is an imposing building. I love history. Wed sneak into the castle grounds regularly, sniffing around anywhere we shouldnt have been!
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
I wouldnt be in favour of a Severn barrage. I think thats mucking about with nature just a bit too much. It would be great for Weston (super-Mare) high tide all the time instead of having to go for a route-march to get to the water. But it would mean the end of the bore, which is a world phenomenon.
Starter homes or executive properties?
The tragedy of it is that high house prices break up communities. When I was a child, every sphere of the community was there; you had the well-offs, the not so well-offs and the dead skint, but it was balanced and people got along. People who didnt have much helped the ones who did. As a family, we were much better off than most people in the area but you dont realise that as a child. When I went to school during the war, Id take a sandwich with me and there was always one of the kids asking me if they could have the crusts or the core of my apple. Thinking back, of course, they were hungry. When young people cant afford houses in the places they were born, it means the local school has got no kids and then theres a chain reaction. The shops start closing because people only come at weekends. Its a horrible thing.
Whats the first piece of advice youd give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
Explore the Vale. Theres an atmosphere on the river, which is almost eerie at times. If you go down to a riverside pub, like the Berkeley Arms, at high tide when the water is right up to the grass, everything is quiet and theres a real aura. When theres no wind at all, its like sheet glass all the way over to Lydney.
And which book should they read?
Obviously, Id like them to read Yantos Summer. It was first published in June 1988 and, for a couple of years, it was the most-borrowed book from Gloucester library. I truly believe its a trip back to a better time. Im amazed at the number of people whove read my book and have gone down to see all the places it mentions: Ive got letters from all over the world. One lady wrote to say I caused her to spend an extra day in hospital; she was getting ready to go home, read the book, and laughed at one of the jokes so much that she burst her stitches.
Which event, or activity, best sums up Gloucestershire?
The Severn Bore is a phenomenon. Unless you want to go to China and watch the one on the Yangtze, youre not going to get one like it anywhere else. We used to swim in it when we were kids. Needless to say our parents didnt know it, but wed get swept up river about half a mile before we got to the other side. We always pulled one another out if anyone was in trouble.
You can be out in green fields with a hundred yards-wide river running through, which one minute is very low youre looking down into a trough and then theres that old familiar roar. If you didnt know anything about the bore, it would frighten you to death. Suddenly, the river that was empty is instant high tide.
The wave comes into Gloucester and is split in two at Lower Partings; then the main channel carries on to Maisemore Weir, where the wave bashes itself to extinction. You stand there and its the weirdest thing: theres the roar from the weir one way, and the roar from the bore coming the other it looks like a herd of sheep running at you. When the bore hits the weir, thats the end of it; but what strikes you is the utter silence. The incoming roar of the tide drowns the weir and, suddenly, all this noise in stereo ends in dead silence.
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
I would love to go back in time to Ham and watch my grandparents with all the kids at home; Id love to have seen all my uncles and aunties as little babbies. My granny worked so hard; she had 16 kids, though the older ones were in service by the time the younger ones came along. But at the high point, she had eight kids living at home; Id just love to be a fly on the wall. The terrible thing is that she lost two children within three months. On bonfire night, in 1915, her son, Francis, got soaking wet because it was raining like the devil. He dried off in front of the bonfire, which brought on rheumatic fever. He died a week or two after; he was 14. In the September of the same year, my uncle Ted had been killed in the trenches in the Battle of Loos.
To whom or what should there be a memorial?
Every area has its heroes, and I really do think my grandfather, William Lewis Ruther, was a hero. He brought 16 kids into the world as my mother always berated him, any fool can do that! but he fed them all. He never stopped working. At one point, he was working as a builders labourer, and he would cycle from Berkeley to Gloucester, do a full days labouring, and then would be back and on the garden. It was like the Garden of Eden you could eat any fruit or veg there that it is possible to grow in England. If it was too dark, he would come in and make beautiful picture frames and mend all the familys boots. My mother said to me once, We didnt realise how hard he worked until he died; within a fortnight, the garden was in a mess. I think thats heroic.
With whom would you most like to have a cider?
Id like to have a drink with Winston Churchill, the greatest Englishman who ever lived.
Yantos Summer is available in Gloucestershire bookshops, or directly from author Ray Pickernell on 01452 527180, priced 7.99 plus p&p of 1.04 first class, UK only. For more information, visit www.yantossummer.co.uk