1937: The Clouds of War (1)

What must have been among the most magical moments in my father, Fred’s, long and eventful life, came one day, or rather one evening, around 1937. In a long golden English summer, he and three of his childhood friends decided to use their knowledge from the Wolf Cubs and the Boy Scouts and to go off camping. Those three other boys were Jonty Brearley, Bernard Swift and John Varty. Here’s my Dad, with his bicycle. Behind him, there is nothing but fields. Nowadays, there is nothing but houses:

AG with bike 1930 8

The boys all went by bicycle down Hartshorne Lane, into the village of Hartshorne itself, past the Georgian coaching inn and the haunted old Elizabethan house. Look for the camouflaged orange arrow which points at Fred’s house. The boys rode into the top right hand corner of the map, towards the church with a square tower:

journey 1

They cycled resolutely past the old Saxon church of St Peter:


Then they took the road westwards out towards Repton. The next orange arrow on the map below points to Hartshorne Church.

Repton, off to the west, was the village where, in the winter of 873-874 AD, the Danish Great Heathen Army, led by the reputedly nine feet tall Ivar the Boneless, spent a few months resting up and slaughtering the locals:

Fred and the boys ignored these ruffians, though, and they turned off to the north, the top right corner of the map, towards the villages of Ticknall and Foremarke, home of Fred’s ancestors from the days of the Stuarts:

journey 2

At the very top of the hill, though, by now high up on the horizon, they turned yet again, eastwards along the yellow-marked Coal Lane, before they turned for the last time into Green Lane, indicated by the orange arrow. They followed this grassy track for a good distance until it joined the steep orangey road towards Pistern Hills:

journey 3

Just look how many features on this map refer either to types of tree, the shape of the landscape or the name of a long forgotten landowner.

Just before the road junction, they put their bikes in the hedge and made camp.

journey 5

Green Lane, originally, formed part of an ancient trackway, dating back perhaps to Stone Age times. I don’t have a photograph, but this is what it would have looked like in that more countrified era:

green 1xxxxxxx

No insecticides then, or petrol powered machines to cut back the homes of the bee, the butterfly and the wood mouse:


In a word, it was a countryside paradise. We’ll see who plays the part of the Serpent next time.


Filed under Bomber Command, History, Personal, Wildlife and Nature

31 responses to “1937: The Clouds of War (1)

  1. A great bit of writing John, I enjoyed reading it. I wrote once about my own dad, he was born in 1932 so was always too young for combat and I imagined like you just how wonderful those pre war years were for young people growing up then!
    Hopefully we will never forget the fallen!

  2. Very nice article. My Dad (93 yrs old now) is a WW II vet. He has stories like this of childhood friends who came back and a few more who didn’t. We visited Arlington Cemetery a couple of weeks ago – I imagined to myself about the stories there too!

    • Thank you very much for those kind words. I’m afraid WordPress got the better of me on this occasion, and you’ve also had a sneak preview of the end of the story by mistake. Still, at least you’ll know what is going to happen!

  3. John, I enjoyed reading about your father’s adventure as a boy with his three buddies. The innocence of youth unaware of the horror that awaited them in a future not too far away. For my recently completed second novel, I submerged myself in the Vietnam War for building the backstory of my American antagonist whose younger brother was a Vietnam veteran.

    War not only robs us of loved ones we hold close to our heart, but also reshapes our future and that of our nation.

    • You are absolutely correct. Great Britain was certainly brought to an impoverished stop by WW2. From what I remember of the 50s and 60s, I think that a lot of the nation’s innocence was lost when the British Army arrived at Belsen concentration camp. That horror haunted our nation’s thoughts for years.

  4. How interesting to read about your father as a boy. The innocence that we all had hides the terrors that await them in later life. How many youngsters would just cycle off and not return till dark nowadays, not many I fear.

    • That is a very interesting question! I think there were a lot fewer dangers but the bad people were all out there somewhere presumably. Nowadays I think we are a lot more aware of the possibilities of evil events and that tends to colour our views and adds to our fears.

      • When I was about 10 I cycled from Rugby to Leicester with some pals without telling anyone. I got into a lot of trouble for that!
        I think there were always ‘odd’ people, Mum and Dad just told us to steer clear!

      • I think that is true. Our awareness through the media and social networks has clouded our views, I know of families who won’t even let their children go to the park which is opposite their house! Children need to learn to deal with danger and not be kept from it in some cocoon.

  5. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if every government in the world started every day’s business sing Peter Paul and Mary’s Hymn “Where have all the Flowers Gone?”

    • The thing is that in our era the people who organise the wars never have anybody from their own family fighting them. It’s always the much despised working class who are asked to risk their lives. As far as I remember, only Prince Harry in recent years has seen combat situations. George Bush Jnr certainly hasn’t or Donald Trump.

      • I agree entirely. But I think you missed Prince Andrew who was a chopper pilot in The Falklands.

      • Yep actually the Royals are a different kettle of fish since governments decide to go to wars now. There have been four successive generations of war time service in the Royals. Bertie was at the Battle of Jutland. A sickly man while in the Navy and later RAF for the bulk of the war he did not much time at sea. Jutland though was one of the largest naval engagements of the war and he acquitted himself well being Mentioned in Dispatches. His brother who was first in line to the throne did not see action but visited the front often to raise morale on the Western Front. He was awarded the Military Cross with no reasonable citation for this. Not to be disrespectful but this seems unusual. Prince Philip of course as an ex-pat Greek Royal, with Lord Mountbatten as his patron, served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War where he too was mentioned in dispatches. This is effectively fourth level bravery award in the British military. Philip’s service was at a time when the hope of him marrying into the Royal family was minimal at best. Prince Andrew as mentioned served in the Falklands War. He flew Exocet decoy missions (flying at missiles to get them to lock off the ship onto the chopper before pulling a sudden manuever to cause them to crash into the sea. He was also on deck during incoming attacks and flew over damaged vessels after they’d been struck. Its fair to say he had the best helicopter pilot in the Royal Navy sitting next to him in the cockpit of the Sea King. It’s also fair to say he did his job, his life was at risk and he saw things that changed him. He has referred to feeling lonely lying down on the carrier deck during missile strikes waiting for the hits that fortunately never came. Prince William has done the most operational role he could get by pushing to be a Sea Rescue pilot. He’s been responsible for many lives in stormy weather. Then there’s Prince Harry. During an attack on his base he was bunkered down hid away while US Marines and British soldiers were killed during the attack. These are precautions that probably don’t sit well with him. Nonetheless he has flown combat missions in support of land forces in an Apache helicopters. While not directly stating he’s killed he has said “Take a live to save a live.” That was his second tour in Afghanistan. In his first he called in air support missions. He went out on patrols through villages and during one attack on his FOB he manned a heavy machine gun and fired at the enemy. Prince Harry now continues work with and for veterans through the Invictus games.

      • The last serving Prime Minister to have seen war was Gough Whitlam having been in the RAAF during World War II. The last serving President was George Bush who was highly decorated combat pilot during World War II in the Pacific. His plane was shot down near the Philippines and his crew lost before he was rescued by a submarine. Bill Clinton dodged the draft. Dubya served in the National Guard which at the time was a great way for rich kids to serve without getting sent to Vietnam. His six years in the National Air Guard were fine until about four years his record appears spotty. Trump said his time in military school was like or even worse than serving and once occasioned that banging random chicks during the 80s at various night clubs was dangerous with all the STDs and was his Vietnam. He also called John McCain a decorated Naval Aviator whose hair was turned white from his years as a POW was a loser because he got captured. Winston Churchill of course was in the Army seeing service in Sudan and World War I. As a war correspondent he went to the Spanish American War and most famously saw action in the Boer War. Prime Minister Anthony Eden served in World War I where he was awarded the Military Cross. Help me out here John was that the last British Prime Minister who served?

  6. Thank you for sharing, and always anywhere in the world, the locals are slaughtered. Humans !!

  7. Really enjoyed this read, John. What I got a kick out of while studying the maps was the symbol for the telephone. Now you don’t see that these days! Thank you! 🤗

  8. My pleasure and I’m glad you enjoyed it. The maps are what used to be called Ordnance Survey maps and they were done originally by the British army so that they could be more accurate when firing their cannons and cannonballs, or “ordnance” as they were called then. I can only presume that if they needed accurate maps of England for the cannons, they must have been anticipating revolts and uprisings across the country. When we were at school, everybody had to learn all the symbols on the maps and there was a always a Geography exam question which asked you to describe what you would see if you walked from one place to another. .

  9. In reply to Lloyd, the last Prime Minister to have been in the Forces during wartime was James Callaghan in the late 1970s. Before that there was Ted Heath and, most notably, Harold Macmillan. What I was really getting at is that politicians are never so keen to start wars that their own children may be involved in. To take it in a slightly different direction, it would be interesting to see if in recent times, wars have generally been started by politicians who have no experience of war themselves whereas those who do have experience of war are not quite so enthusiastic. The only difficulty is that sometimes, because of treaties, politicians have no choice but to go to war when faced by aggressive invasions. That would cover the Falklands War and the First Gulf War. Incidentally, I did find one Prime Minister whose son was killed while his father was actively in charge of the war. It was Herbert Asquith in 1916 when his son Raymond was killed in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette in France.

  10. Ivar the Boneless sounds like an interesting character!

  11. Nice to see the Vikings getting a mention – considering their importance to our history they don’t seem to get the coverage they deserve.

    To be fair to Anthony Eden, despite his legacy of Suez, he was generally a peaceable man, having lost two brothers and a son to the world wars.

  12. “No insecticides then, or petrol powered machines to cut back the homes of the bee, the butterfly and the wood mouse:” How absolutely wonderful. And I remember in yr 10 geography learning the symbols of Ordnance Maps. It is lovely to read this story again.

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