an article by Derek Ratledge
My name is Derek Ratledge and I lived at Astwell from 1935 until 1948 and during that time I experienced the joy of living there, but also on occasion the sorrow. I have written recollections of that time in something of an autobiography which is quite long so I have taken some extracts from various chapters.
The Skies Were Always Blue … taken from the Introduction.
Astwell Castle farm on which dad worked was, as most in that area, mainly a mix of stock and arable providing most, but not all, of its own animal food crops. When dad first started work at Astwell farm well before I was born it was tenanted by first of all a Mr Timms, then I think a Mr Emmerton, one of whom incidentally paid the wages in gold sovereigns (one sovereign being dad’s weekly wage at that time). The farm was later taken over by Mr Roberts who was the tenant farmer during the time that I lived there.
From Chapter 1 -
Does your mum know where you are?
It was hot, humid and peaceful on that Sunday afternoon in late July, the year was around 1938, but beyond the idyllic country scene the war clouds were gathering in Europe which was or appeared to be a million miles away from life as it was on that day. It was teatime and I was missing again. At around the age of three I have no recollection of this particular event although I have been told that, even at that young age, it was a common occurrence for me to wander off. ”Where’s he gone?”, mum said to dad. “I don’t know - he’s probably out in the field”. It seems incredible with today’s child safety problems that this remark and attitude was possible but in those days it was perfectly safe to think and act in this way. After a short while they walked through the gate from the garden to the field close to the house, they crossed the unfenced lane that led to the farm which although it was tarred and gravelled was only a narrow track dividing the field, from there they walked through the herd of cows all chewing their cud waiting to be called and taken in for evening milking, for even as this was a Sunday milking it still had to take place as it did on every other day of the week.
A few cows were lying down, some moved as mum and dad walked through, but the majority were unmoved by their presence. When they found me I was sitting between the animals having wandered into the middle of the herd, neither any of the cows or myself apparently concerned by the other. This event does to a certain extent sum up my life in the countryside and my love of the farm and nature. It should also be pointed out that in those days the practice of dehorning cattle was not common so all the cows had long horns which could, if they so wished, have been very dangerous to me.
From Chapter 6 - Care of Farm Animals
My maternal grandfather William (Will) Gascoigne was a blacksmith farrier and small scale farmer and lived at Helmdon. His line of work was hunting horses. As well he had his forge at his farmyard and he travelled from one hunting stable to another with a portable forge. For reasons explained later I did not see much of him other than to see him from a distance in his fields on the other side of the railway, or sometimes driving in his car as I walked or rode my bicycle with friends along the road to Helmdon. Grandad had a reputation of being a really bad car driver being more intent on the going’s on in the fields than the road. Many a time if we were walking to Helmdon a shout would go up “look out - Will Gasoigne is shepherding again”, and his car would bounce onto the grass verge and back to the road. This aside he must have been a very hardworking man, finding time as he did for smithing and farming, and also included in this he found time for competitions in hedge cutting and showing his special root crops of beet, mangolds, turnips and swedes as well as horseshoeing competitions.
The Ratledge Family outside Astwell cottage.
Most of grandad’s brothers were smiths all having their own forges in Sulgrave, Woodford Halse and the Bartons villages in the Cotswold’s. In later years I visited the forge in the Bartons.
My uncle Frank Ratledge used to take hunters to grandad’s brother George’s forge in Sulgrave. This forge was unusual in that in fine weather the horses were shod in the road and in wet weather in an open fronted barn. This was set into a grassed area in front of the church. It was a very picturesque setting - the forge was on the opposite side of the road next to the house, horses would stand in the road waiting for their turn. The inside of George’s house was unusual being small rooms connected by lots of corridors somewhat similar to the inside of a small rural public house, and most of the rooms had outer facing windows as well as windows facing into the corridors. In the yard at the back of the house were ducks, geese, chickens, goats and pigs with cows and calves coming in from a paddock which had a gate that never seemed to be closed. These animals and birds also had access through ever open doors into the house so there would be a regular flow of piglets, geese, ducks and chickens scuttling around the corridors.
My uncle Frank and auntie Kate lived in a cottage about 50 yards down from the forge and he worked in a stable yard next to their house. I remember he used to go to work through a small door in the wall in the corner of his garden.
I have been told that my maternal Grandma Elizabeth Kate was an extremely good organist and was Helmdon church organist for some years until her early death in 1934, the year before I was born, I think although I am not sure, from a cancer.
Grandad had married again his second wife Dora who was always referred to as Nan. She did her best to bring my mother and him together without much success until many years later. From time to time my mother would take my sister and I to visit Nan but only when grandad was out, either at the market or on his blacksmith rounds. They lived in what was at that time a very modern house with electricity, piped water from a tank in the roof and with fresh water pumped into the house by hand pump from a well. They also had a bathroom and hot water heated by a boiler at the back of a large red tiled Triplex fire grate. On a recent visit to Helmdon I was invited into grandad’s former home Greystones and the Triplex firegrate is still there some 70 years later.
Derek as a young boy.
In retrospect there must have been some contact between them during the time we lived at Astwell as I do remember grandad had a new puppy sheepdog Floss. At 3 months old she was too young to go away for training and I think she had to be 6 or 9 months old before she could be trained, so we had her stay with us for a while. During the stay while playing with me she suffered a broken leg, the vet set the bone and put it in plaster, and being a young animal it thankfully successfully mended as good as new. She went from our house to the trainers and returned directly to granddad’s farm as I can remember hearing him whistling and could see her working with him in his fields the other side of the Tove brook and railway track.
From Chapter 8 - And so to Autumn and Winter
The local Astwell Mill ponds regularly froze over thick enough for sliding and skating. We were not supposed to go onto the ice until Mr King who owned the mill and farm had tested it. However, many times the smaller of us (being the lightest) were sent onto the ice by the older kids and if it supported us they would then go on and hope it supported them as well. As these pools were the largest expanse of water locally the evenings brought people from the villages with skates and lanterns, any snow would be swept off leaving wide lanes of ice, the skating would continue late into the night. Some skaters were very skilful and dressed in very colourful clothes, bonfires were lit on the banks of the pond, and one year I remember the bonfire was actually lit on the ice on the far side of the pool.
From Chapter 9 - Winter Work
In the winter of 1947 the snow came late and was followed by weeks of bright and frosty weather, the snow lay thick until well into March with some drifts in deep shaded field gully’s (small depressions or valleys ) lasting into late April.
As the snow was so deep we were isolated and it was at least a week before anyone got through to us. Our bakers Doug and Bill Brown who came from Blakesley used a caterpillar tractor and trailer to deliver the bread to the us and other villages, outlying farms and houses, only to be stopped one day by the local Helmdon policeman and served with a summons for not having the correct vehicle delivery license which would allow them to use it for the delivery of goods. This did not help his standing in the community, many folk bearing him a grudge for years. One good thing was that the local magistrate at the court threw out the case with, I was told, a veiled rebuke for the officer.
The roads were blocked by very deep drifts and had to be cleared by hand by gangs of men who could not get to their regular workplaces.
From Chapter 14 - The War
In my recollections I have not previously dwelt on details of the war, firstly because most of the time it did not mean very much to me. However there were a number of occasions when it was brought dangerously close as during the Battle of Britain airplanes from many aerodromes nearby fought in the skies over the farmlands. On those fateful days the sounds and sight of Spitfires and Hurricanes were common over the farm and surrounding area.
Bombing locally was rare and not premeditated as mainly the German bombers would release the loads they had been unable to drop on target. One such event was at neighbouring Astwell Park farm but luckily only a few farm buildings were damaged, unluckily though the farm stock bull was killed.
In the early days the war was something reported on the radio, however as time went by it became more obvious. Locally men would be seen digging long deep wide trenches at the bottom ends of their gardens covering them with logs of wood, soil and corrugated iron sheets, then more soil, and soldiers appeared and, of course, the home guard.
The Sharon Belle crash site near Derek's farm.
The worst air plane crash in our occurred at Astwell Castle farm, the sparse details available at the time were passed on to me by mum and dad. I was eight years old having not long started full time school at Wappenham. Early on a late November morning the roar of the squadrons of B17 Flying Fortresses could be heard as they left in the morning darkness heading for one of the regular daylight air raids over Germany. At around eight o’clock in the morning, and still dark, dad was about to leave the house to bring in and feed the horses. after which he would normally return home for breakfast. but as he left the house he shouted back to mum, “there’s a plane in trouble”. This was not an unusual comment. However this time flames could be seen coming from its cockpit as it flew extremely low, heading straight toward the group of cottages where we lived. As dad watched transfixed and helpless, unable to move or to believe his eyes, he said the plane was now moving nearer and a few hundred feet high and about the same distance away and illuminated by flames. Suddenly it banked away as if pushed by some almighty hand and a wing tip appeared to have clipped the top of the large sycamore tree near the cart shed at the end of the rickyard (we found large branches lying on the floor there later in the day). As it did so it was close enough to see in the light of the flames airmen at the plane’s windows and gun turrets. It was called The Sharon Bell and reports later said it had been too low since take off from its Northants/Bedfordshire airfield, and because of this they were unable to bale out and with a full load of bombs it could not easily crash land or release the bombs over the villages in the half light of the early morning. Also it was rumoured that it had been turned away from the few fighter aerodromes on its route. Seconds later it crashed in the field immediately behind the farm buildings with part of its bomb load exploding, rattling the windows of our house, which luckily was protected by the farm buildings. Seen later the evidence was the removal of a lot of the slates from the roofs of the farm buildings. The shock from the explosions had lifted dad many yards from the other side of the hollow in the field where he had been standing to our side of the field by the garden gate.
I did not go to school that day or for a few days after. At around midday on the day of the crash some people from Wappenham, Syresham and Helmdon came over on their cycles all fearing the worst. Rumours in the villages were that the Astwell hamlet, houses and farm had been totally destroyed. My uncle Frank, who lived in Helmdon at that time had seen the fires and heard the explosions from his house, was one who came, as did my Auntie Kath from Wappenham. When he arrived Uncle Frank he said to dad ‘’Christ, Bert, you’ve had a narrow escape’’. All agreed that this was a massive understatement even for the humour and wit of Uncle Frank. Later in the day Colin Wheeler, with me tagging along, avoided the sentry airmen and walked amongst the wreckage, parts of wings, fuselage towering over us, aluminium melted and twisted, empty bullet magazines and cases.
Astwell Castle Farm and surrounding fields.
In the valley below the houses was the brook which was, in fact, the river Tove and the boundary to Astwell farm. Alongside the brook was the Northampton/Towcester to Banbury railway line and between these was a narrow strip of land which was part of my grandfather’s farm. This field was connected to the rest of his farm by a small tunnel under the railway and during the season late summer and autumn it was covered with mushrooms. The railway was only single track and because of this it was possible to stop the trains without fear of accident. This would happen almost daily. The fireman of the steam train would jump down from the engine footplate, quickly pick a hatfull of mushrooms, and jump back on again. These mushrooms would be fried with bacon and egg on the fire shovel, cooking while the train continued on its way to connect to the West coast main line at Helmdon (as most know Helmdon had two stations).
There were special trains for everything in those wartime days, coal, oil, wood, ammunition, cattle as well as soldiers and ordinary civilian passengers, also bananas (although these ceased as the war progressed).
One of the more unusual things for me was the arrival of the prisoners of war to work on the farm as well as the surrounding, replacing our own men who were in the armed services doing work such as dredging the brooks and rivers, also clearing plane crash sites. The first to arrive were the Italians, a happy band, only too glad not to have to fight any more. By day when not working they stayed in a hut made of wood and tarpaulins. One thing the Italians liked as little as fighting in the war was working on the farm in our cold wet weather, so they spent most of the day in their hut unless made to leave by the soldiers in charge. The soldiers did not stay with them all day, leaving them most of the time on their own. Some prisoners spent their spare time making simple jewellery out of airplane window Perspex and aluminium recovered from the remains of the plane crashes They had been on hand to clear the crash sites on the farms in the area. Their hut was near the osier willow beds so they also made excellent basket-ware from the thin willow branches and both the jewellery and baskets sold locally and were very much sought after.
The Italians cooked their own food and on occasions invited me to eat with them (in the same way as the Romany gypsies in Syresham lane did when I played with their children). This was my first introduction to foreign food and I loved it. When I went home my mum would without fail say, ”Have you been pestering those Italiano’s again”.
From Chapter 17 - From Farm to Village
Some 3 years after the war ended around 1948 the movement of employment restrictions were lifted. This meant that everyone had freedom to work where they wished so this was the end of farm life for me as dad left the farm, and we moved to live in Wappenham where I was at school.
Editor’s note: More about the Astwell American air force plane crash can be found in the Articles section,
nos. 47, 60 and 110.