If you want an idea of what the Village was like before WWII, then Jack Knight, who lives in Blacksmiths Lane, is the man to talk to. Over a cup of tea with Jack, and his wife Jean, I learnt more about old St. Michael's than in all the 14 years I have lived here.
The picture Jack describes is a more simple, and no doubt harder, life than now, but of a largely self-sufficient community. We had working farms in the center of the Village - on the site of the Express Dairy and where the museum is now. Garden allotments covered the Roman theatre site and Bell Meadow. Kingsbury Mill was working and no doubt supplied the Bakery opposite the "Six Bells". The Sally Lunn was a general store, and Jack remembers the shop's cat whose favourite snoozing place was on the box of aniseed balls in the window. Next to the Sally Lunn was the "Nell Gwynne" tea-rooms and when it closed their old visitors' books from the war years found their way into Jack's safekeeping. They contain poignant comments and verse from visiting servicemen and women on leave or convalescing in the arera.
Jack's real love of the outdoor life comes alive with stories of his work and times on and around the Gorhambury Estate - but those will have to wait for later "Newsletters". Aside from all this activity, remarkably he found time to complete a 46-year career with the Post Office. If you ever wondered who was responsible for organising our postcodes - it was Jack, who along with a few colleagues walked and recorded every postman's round from Elstree in the south of the county to the Bedfordshire border in the north. It took 3 years to complete, a remarkable feat (or should it be "feet?").
Jack Knight's Memories of St. Michael's village (Part 2)
Before the discovery of natural gas, “town gas” was made from coal at gas works all over the country. The remaining coke was then sold as fuel to local businesses and households. As a young boy in the late 1920’s, Jack Knight and his pals were sent to collect coke from the Gas Works at the bottom of Holywell Hill and bring it back for their parents and neighbours.
The boys made barrows from wooden crates (obtained from the market) and old pram wheels, and these were used to haul the coke up Holywell Hill as far as Sumpter Yard, past the Abbey and down Fishpool Street. “It took three of us “, Jack told me, “one pushing and two pulling on ropes. We would stop at Sumpter Yard and go back to fetch another loaded barrow. It was much easier coming down Fishpool Street but we reversed so the boys on the ropes were stopping the barrow running away from us”. When I asked about coming across the Park as a short cut, Jack said “We couldn’t, there were no good paths in those days, just overgrown tracks and up to your ankles in mud in the winter”.
There are many stories about the bottom end of Fishpool Street being a rough neighbourhood a century or so ago, and Jack, whose grandfather ran the ‘Blue Anchor’, confirms much of what I had heard but did you know that the ‘Black Lion’ had a boxing ring? It was in a barn at the back of the pub where the car park is today. The landlord, Frank Myland, was a boxer and the ring was used to train fairground prize fighters. Frank’s son did not quite follow in father’s footsteps – he became an Olympic wrestler.
Jack was a regular helper at shoots in the St. Michael’s area and recalls with great fondness the characters he has met over the decades. One name that crops up regularly is Jack Burrows, Head Keeper at Gorhambury, and in his day, the Childwickbury estate was owned by the Joel family, famous race-horse owners. Each year the Joel’s held a shoot for jockeys that had ridden for them and Jack Burrow was invited as a guest gun. The leading jockey, and best known at the time was Sir Gordon Richards and on one particular shoot, Sir Gordon was having an off day and missed every bird that came his way. Jack Burrow went over to commiserate and said: “Never mind, Sir Gordon, I’ll fetch you a horse and you can chase the blighters!” Happy Days.
Jack Knight's Memories of St. Michael's village (Part 3)
Not forgetting Jean's recipes
I fully intended to talk to Jack about past winters that he could remember, but as I was invited to sit down I saw that Jean had prepared a tray with a bottle of Sloe Gin and some glasses. When it comes to food and drink I can resist anything but temptation and the 1992 vintage sounded too good to miss. It was excellent so here is the recipe:
1 lb sloes (best picked after a frost); 1 pint gin; half pound sugar. Prick the sloes (or slice them), mix the gin and sugar then add to the sloes in a large jar. Turn the jar every few days, then strain the sloe gin into bottles after three months.
Just as tempting is Jean’s recipe for using the gin and sugar soaked sloes:
De-stone the sloes and place in a shallow tray. Melt some good quality dark chocolate and pour over.
When we eventually got round to winters past, I started with 1962 when it started snowing heavily on Boxing Day and some of the deeper drifts stayed through to March. Jack thought 1947 was the worst winter he could remember though at the time, he told me, ‘I had the best job ever.’
Jack had recently left the Army after the war and had re-joined the Post Office. He delivered mail in the St. Michael’s/Gorhambury area and as he travelled down George Street he would call at the newsagents (now Roope’s Opticians) and collect a paper or two for people on his round. One sure call was the POW camp along Gorhambury Drive where the German inmates enjoyed bacon and eggs for breakfast, and, courtesy of the cook, so did Jack! Then later on a cup of tea here and there and occasionally a Doctor’s prescription would be left out for Jack to have made up in town, or a request for him to buy a bag of sugar. All of which Jack told me was “officially not allowed” but that was how it was in those days! Back to 1947, when the snow was so deep and frozen so hard that Gorhambury Drive was impassable, so Jack abandoned his bike and walked along the frozen flat top of the hedge. The breakfast must have tasted good that day.
In July 2004 Jean and Jack went to the Blenheim Palace Game Fair where their son Bernard, Head Gamekeeper at Gorhambury, received an award for completing 40 years on the estate.