The first twenty years of my life were spent growing up on a council estate in Horfield, Bristol. We lived in two houses there, 14 Ludlow Road (smaller mid-terrace property, circled top) and 145 Wordsworth Road (larger semi-detached house, left-hand property, circled bottom). We actually moved most of our belongings directly through the hedge between them.
With its aerospace factories the city and port came in for a great deal of WWII bombing – particularly as the River Avon conveniently reflected moonlight to direct the German bombers precisely to its location.
|ASIDE: While living in Cornwall I learned of another such directional river. Taking too many losses flying to London across the south of England (revealed later to be down to radar), the Germans adopted a new approach and flew around Cornwall where on moonlit nights the River Camel conveniently provided a bearing to fly east towards London. Smart locals decided to inflict some damage as they made this turn above Padstow and put in anti-aircraft batteries. In October 1940 a plane was hit by them and repaid their accuracy by releasing its load onto Padstow, a town with no strategic significance. Six high-explosive bombs and a number of incendiaries were dropped in a radius of sixty yards, several more landed in fields. The bombs killed three, from three generations of the same family – aged 80, 45 and 3. They destroyed six buildings and damaged sixty. Later in 1942, Hitler/Goebbels had the Luftwaffe use the ‘Baedeker Guide’ to Britain to select targets, not for their military value but for their cultural and historic significance – to attack us psychologically. Baedeker raids lasted for two years targeting Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York, Canterbury…, eventually the Germans realised the high cost and low effectiveness, and turned attention to London.|
In 1940/41 there were seventy-seven air raids on Bristol, six of these were major. On the night of 2 November 1940 (to become my wedding date – twenty-eight years later) the bombers dropped 10,000 high-explosive bombs and 5,000 incendiary bombs. In total 1,299 people were killed and 1,303 seriously injured. Some 697 had to be rescued from bombed buildings – including my mum and her family near St Michael’s Hill, central Bristol. This raid also destroyed St Peter’s Church near Bristol castle. It had been a workhouse and housed the city’s Poor Records. This raid therefore frustrated my research for sources for my MA assignment seventy-eight years later!
By 1944 there were V1 and V2 rocket sites being built in France that would have had Bristol well within range, but the D-Day landings speedily overran the sites. Thankfully none were therefore ever fired at the city.
As kids growing up in the 1950s we had no appreciation of these earlier horrors but instead were delighted by the many bomb sites that became our playgrounds. There was a big one about eight homes to the right of the picture of Ludlow and Wordsworth roads above.
As soon as you could walk you were playing on these sites, the absolute antithesis of today’s ferrying children everywhere and restricting them to indoors or to sleepovers. Hordes of us from eighteen months to eighteen years old ran riot across these ‘adventure playgrounds’. Of course we all hoped to find an unexploded bomb among the rubble. As an older sibling you had to keep an eye out for your younger sprogs, which was limiting. One older boy in the group was said to have shellshock, but that was a WWI issue; his was probably just an impediment.
|ASIDE: There was quite a variety of odd behaviour locally despite our mostly ethnically narrow population. Five doors down was a young man who would go berserk quite regularly; opposite was a girl who screamed and shouted every day until her mother agreed she could not go to school. In my extended family we had two daughters who were not quite locked away in the attic but they were seldom seen. Local ethnic diversity was provided by the two large Irish families who could be recognised by their children only ever wearing wellington boots. One of my particular friends did have a German mother, his father having met her during our post-war occupation of the Fatherland. She kept to herself as there were still strong feelings afoot.|
A mile or so away there was a deserted army camp that the older kids would visit. It provided a great backcloth for our games – including in its cells. We had no fear of crossing a railway track to get to it and there was also a stream good for tadpoles and sticklebacks. This stream regularly disappeared through a series of various diameter culverts, each of which we chose to clamber through en route.
I also recall making our own rifle by hammering closed one end of a piece of copper piping and fixing it onto a wooden stock with bent nails. We hand-drilled a hole for the fuse to sit in and tamped down the contents of two or three ‘banger’ fireworks with toilet paper. We charged it with ball-bearings and further wadding, then fired it at a sheet of corrugated steel which the ball-bearings successfully penetrated, thankfully none rebounding at us. A modern health and safety person would be having kittens at these events; perhaps the result of rose-coloured specs, but I recall few mishaps.
|ASIDE: When we were living in Spain, the Las Fallas celebrations each spring with the burning of large tableaus and effigies in the centre of the cities would have given any self-respecting H&S man nightmares. On one occasion a row of latex figures bowed under the heat and the embedded rockets passed less than 30cm over the crowd’s heads. The fireworks regularly set fire to nearby balconies but the crowd just pointed this out to the bomberos who promptly hosed it down. It was the sight of toddlers lighting and dropping bangers into drains that was perhaps most shocking.|
While pondering fireworks I was at my cousins’ house one Bonfire Night and we left our, admittedly quite meagre by today’s standards (‘Standard’ fireworks pun intended), lying on the pavement and a spark or some skulduggery set them all off. The pavement was higher than the house and one rocket went straight through the hedge, didn’t smash the window but cut a clean circle in it, went through the nets and curtain leaving equally clean holes, and then straight through Nan Denton’s armchair which thankfully was the extent of the damage. Perhaps we were a bit too gung-ho back then and more care was necessary.