There was a pretty cottage within a cherry orchard on the Gleed’s land called Maes y Dalla. It was here that Pastor Valentine Evans and his wife came to live. They were Pentecostalists and soon after they arrived they held Prayer Meetings and began a Sunday school at their home. Word spread throughout the village and Hilda, maybe because she was curious, started attending the prayer meetings, which were popular with the chapel folk, especially the younger ones. There seemed to be an entourage of rather handsome young men in attendance, always smartly dressed as I recall. No doubt this was an added attraction for the young women of Penallt. In Rush’s eyes Hilda could do no wrong. However, he disapproved of her attendance at these meetings, one of the rare times I remember him being upset with her. He was a traditional Anglican, though he loved the gospel hymns we sang. I started going to the Sunday school which was an altogether more cheerful experience than the church one. The prayer meetings to which I accompanied Hilda, involved a lot of cries of “Hallelujah!” People were encouraged to stand up and be ‘saved’ after Pastor Evans had described in colourful terms the sins of his youth and how he had seen the light and had ‘come to Jesus.’ Hilda seemed to be fascinated by these revelations though, to my relief she never stood up to be ‘saved’, thinking no doubt that in her case she didn’t need saving.
A little further along the road from Maes y Dalla was Llananant Farm, one of the oldest buildings in Penallt. There was a brook running through its land and it was here during the summer that the baptisms took place. A crowd of us gathered at the widest part of the brook to watch while two or three young women, wrapped discreetly in what looked to me like large white sheets, waited to be immersed in the water by Pastor Evans. To my young eyes this was an extraordinary spectacle and I hoped I would never have to be dipped in the cold water and come out dripping in front of all those onlookers. I thought that perhaps this was what it took to be saved, in which case I would have to stay a sinner.
On one occasion when I was ill with bronchitis after almost catching my death playing outside in the winter snow until I was chilled to the marrow, Hilda called Pastor Evans to come and pray for me. Hilda was in a state of anxiety as my illness must have been quite serious, the doctor having called several times to examine me. I felt faintly nervous as Pastor Evans, albeit kindly, laid his hands on my head and prayed that I might recover. I am sure Hilda put my recovery down to Pastor Evans’ laying on of hands and not to the doctor’s medicine.
Eventually, Mr and Mrs Evans moved to Monmouth, where Mr Evans became Pastor of the Elim Pentecostal Church. On fine Sunday evenings Hilda and I would walk to the top of Troy Woods and follow the path all the way down to Monmouth for the evening prayer service while Rushton attended evensong at Penallt. He still disapproved of Hilda’s attraction to the Pentecostal Church and I remember feeling embarrassed by the people, who shouted out uninhibitedly “Praise the Lord!” and “Jesus save me!” during the service. Hilda never shouted out but she was not in the least fazed or embarrassed by the people who did. I was rather disturbed by the amount of people, who stood up and recounted their sins and then were baptised in a big white square baptismal bath at the front of the church. I remember that Hilda and I were always given a lift back with one of the young men, who owned a car and who lived in a village near Penallt. At last the walk to Monmouth on Sunday evenings became too difficult, especially during the winter months and it was back to evensong at the church, much to Rushton’s relief.
The next spring, I began piano lessons with Teacher Morgan. She lived in an attractive house in a place called New Mills, some distance away from the school. I would walk there once a week after school with two music books under my arm, one containing scales and finger exercises, not to my liking at all, and the other with more interesting contents, simple waltzes with names like Fairy Dance or Woodland Elves. Teacher Morgan’s house was about a mile’s walk away from Cartref. I had to pass a stretch of grassy hillocks in an open green area of common known as the Kiln Tumps. Many years before the hillocks had been lime kilns. That summer, a family of gypsies set up camp there. Two brown skinned boys with long dark hair would run out as I passed and shout, “We’ll have those books off you!” Why they would want my books of scales and fairy waltzes I couldn’t imagine but my heart would pound as I came near the gypsy camp and I would run as fast as I could until I reached the path that led down to Teacher Morgan’s, the boys laughing and shouting scornfully after me. I should have known they just liked teasing me. Uncle Rush would always come to meet me on my return and how thankful I was to see him waiting for me by the Kiln Tumps.
When I returned to London I continued piano lessons for a time with a Miss Smith, who lived just round the corner. She was a totally different proposition to gentle Teacher Morgan. Small and bent and bad tempered, she had a long pencil, which she would use to rap me over the knuckles when I played a wrong note. Each week the pencil would become slightly shorter and I hoped it would disappear altogether, but Miss Smith always managed to produce a new one before my hopre realised.
By the end of 1944, most of the other evacuees had gone back to their various homes. My friend Betty had long gone back to London and so had our London teacher, Miss Fraser. My best friend at this time was Joy Morgan, who lived in a pretty cottage about half a mile away in a place called Tregagle. I would walk there through the Argoed Walks, grounds belonging to the old manor house, one of the big houses where Hilda had worked as a young woman. There was a public footpath (and still is) through the grounds. In those days the grounds, probably because of the shortage of labour, had been allowed to become wild and overgrown. On both sides of the driveway there were giant Wellingtonias and there was one particular tree with wide spreading lower branches, which were easy to reach. I became an expert climber managing to scramble up to the topmost branches and from there I had a bird’s eye view and could survey all around me without being seen. Down below bracken had spread everywhere so that in the summer it became a ferny forest. Joy and I spent most of the summer holidays making fern houses. We would sit inside our warm, steamy shelter gossiping and making up stories. Although Joy was younger than I, she was more knowing and daring. She had two attractive older sisters, who had male admirers. Maybe this was why Joy seemed to know things concerning boys that I had no idea about.
Sometimes we would be sent to Pool Farm by Joy’s mother with a small churn to be filled with milk. Joy had dared me to swing the milk churn round and round without spilling a drop. Amazingly, I managed to do this without any accidents, though it was a wonder the milk hadn’t turned to butter by the time we handed it to Joy’s mother.
A short walk away from Rose Cottage, where Joy lived, was a large forest known as the Colonel’s Park. At the top of the wood there were tall mature beech trees, the beauty of their smooth grey trunks and soft green round leaves enhanced in the spring by a haze of bluebells growing at their feet. Several paths led steeply through the wood to Whitebrook, a magical place where there was a walk along a stream at the back of some pretty cottages with stone ruins in their gardens which had once been paper mills. It was amazing to think that this idyllic place had once been a hive of industry in the 19th century. The only evidence of this during the war was the tinworks further down the river at Redbrook, which then employed many locals. The water here under the railway bridge crossing the river from Penallt to Redbrook (image) ran red from the tin. The tinworks closed during the 1960’s as did the railway that ran alongside the river, a short sighted closure if ever there was one as it would have been a great tourist attraction today passing as it did Tintern Abbey and the woods Wordsworth walked, a wonderful way to see the beauty of the now much visited Wye Valley.
One of my favourite paths running down through the Colonel’s Park Wood was called Bessie Ben, at least this is what Hilda called it. How it came by that name no one seemed to know. I used to imagine some old woman called Bessie, probably a witch, living on her own in the middle of the wood casting spells. You needed stamina to climb up or down Bessie Ben as it was the steepest, rockiest path through the wood with slippery steps at the bottom. Joy and I ran wild in that wood and sometimes spent the better part of a day there without seeing a soul, except maybe a squirrel or two and sometimes the shadow of a deer.
One hot summer’s day on our way through some fields not far from Joy’s cottage, Joy spotted a small pool where the cows went for water. “Let’s take our clothes off and go in the pool,” suggested Joy. I was hesitant. “Supposing someone comes by,” I said. “Besides it looks a bit muddy to me.” But Joy was already stripping off. “Come on, you’re such a cowardy custard!” Reluctantly I took off my clothes and joined my young friend in the pool. The water felt unpleasantly warm and sticky. Then to my horror out of the corner of my eye I saw a figure making its way across the field. It was a woman, dressed in rather odd flapping clothes. She stopped to look at us with a strange smile on her round pudding like face. “Well, well! There’s a nice sight!” I recognized her. She had not lived in Penallt for long and when I had met her while going on a walk with Rushton and Hilda there was something about her that made me feel very uncomfortable. It was the way she smiled, not in a warm friendly way at all but as though she held a nasty secret. I was terrified that she was going to tell Auntie Hilda about our little exploit. I thought this knowledge might shock her and make her ashamed of me. She was trying so hard to make me into a little lady. I don’t know why I was so inhibited about my naked body. Such things didn’t seem to bother Joy at all, even if her mother was a Sunday school teacher!
In fact, as far as I know Hilda never found out about our shedding our clothes and being seen naked in the cow pond. If indeed she did, she never mentioned it. At any rate Joy and I never repeated the experience and I became very wary of Joy’s dares, although she remained my best friend during the time I spent in Penallt.
[Next: The war ends]
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