Memories of a childhood in Kent

Apple blossom in Kent: photo courtesy of Bruce Williamson on Unsplash

Until the age of nine I lived with my family in Gravesend, Kent. I was happy there and did not want to leave, but life took me in other directions and it was about sixty years before I went back. I found many changes, but still felt an attachment to the town and the surrounding countryside, and had intended to return this summer from my present home in New Zealand. That trip is no longer possible because of coronavirus travel restrictions. Instead I joined several Facebook groups devoted to the area, and seeing all the old photos posted there has triggered a few memories of my own.

Our address was 22 The Overcliff, a Victorian house which is now a children’s day care centre. I believe there had been an orchard on that site, and the back garden contained many fruit trees, mainly apples and pears. The Bramley apples, individually wrapped, were stored in the basement over the winter. The front bedroom looked out over the Thames, with the port of Tilbury on the other side, always busy with ships sailing in and out. Between the street and the river was a disused chalk quarry where I used to play, for children were left to their own devices in those days. It was a short walk down to the river itself, and it was there that I learned to swim; no doubt the waters were polluted but I came to no harm.

I attended Milton Road Primary School but remember very little about that, and it’s not there any more. My best friend was called Jennifer Clements; we lost touch years ago.

Much clearer memories relate to outings with my grandfather, Ernest Guy. He was head of the Technical School in the 1940s till the early 50s. He had a great love and knowledge of the English countryside and, especially after he retired, took every opportunity to drive his old black car (an Austin 7?) to different parts of Kent. Summer holidays were spent camping in the Isle of Sheppey, or visiting resorts on the south coast.

Short local visits involved identifying wild flowers and birds, exploring local churches, collecting nuts or blackberries or mushrooms to cook for tea. I remember the orchards and hop fields and oast houses, and walks near Meopham, Shorne, Cobham Woods, Holly Hill … and wonder how many of the old footpaths and woodlands have now been built over, and how many “areas of natural beauty” developed into tourist sites. With no prospect of international travel in the near future perhaps it is best to remember these places as they used to be.

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Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest novel You Yet Shall Die, a family mystery set on the North Kent marshes, is available from Amazon.com.

Letters from the past

Over four years have passed since my mother died. The financial side of her estate has finally been settled, following prolonged correspondence with accountants and lawyers. A personal aspect, namely the letters in two of the box files I discovered in the spare bedroom when clearing her house, remains unresolved. I hope this is the last weekend of the Covid-19 lockdown, which would seem an ideal opportunity to deal with these boxes before my life gets busy again. But I still can’t decide what to do with them.

One box contains a series of letters written to my mother during my childhood in the 1950s and 60s, regarding a situation of which I was only dimly aware. I don’t know whether she intended me to find them after her death, but as she was a very “private person” I suspect not. I did read them, while feeling somewhat guilty about doing so. I think it likely that she intended to destroy them one day, but having become weak and unwell in the last months of her life, either lacked the energy to do so or forgot they were there. I haven’t shown the letters to my husband, but he knows something about their content, and suggests that it could make a good basis for my next novel. This may be true, but writing such a book would seem disloyal however heavily I disguised the plot. I have several options. I could destroy all the letters now. I could go through them again and copy selected extracts into a file on my computer for future reference, then destroy the rest. I could leave them in the box, with a note asking whoever finds them after my death to destroy them unread.

The other box contains the letters I sent home to my mother and grandparents in Yorkshire when I was a medical student in Oxford in the late 1960s. I have only reread some of these, having found the style embarrassingly naive, but some contain descriptions of the course which might perhaps be of interest to a medical historian. I was shocked to find that I remember nothing about most of the people and events described. What a contrast to my husband Brian Barraclough and my friend Jean Hendy-Harris, who can both recall their past lives in great detail and have published memoirs about them. I wonder which of us is the more unusual.

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Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest one You Yet Shall Die, a novel about family secrets and a long-ago crime set in southern England, is available from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukSmashwords.com and other online retailers, or can be ordered from bookshops and libraries.