One beautiful summer’s afternoon, Fred was returning on leave from his airbase at Elsham Wolds in north Lincolnshire. The orange arrow is RAF Elsham Wolds, and Fred departed from a station near Elsham before continuing to Lincoln, to Nottingham and finally to Derby:
Derby was, and is, a huge station by English standards:
Fred arrived on time at Derby station, but there were no more trains to take him on to Burton-on-Trent (bottom left on the map above). He decided therefore to walk the twelve miles back home to the little mining village of Woodville, something which he had often done in the opposite direction in pre-war years, when he had been to watch Derby County play football at the Baseball Ground.
It was a Sunday, and after a couple of miles or so, Fred crossed the River Trent over the five spans of Swarkestone Bridge:
Fred then continued across the meandering stone causeway, built by the Saxons, which crosses the floodplain of the River Trent. Things are a little bit different nowadays:
Or at least, things are a little different from what Fred would have known. These two photographs are taken from the same spot, but are separated by at least a century :
After the meandering charms of the ancient crossing, Fred then set off to the right, up the hill, towards the next village of Ticknall. As the evening moved slowly ever closer to sunset, everything grew very calm and very still, the light hovered on the edge of dusk, and just as he reached the top of the first long steady rise, Fred could hear, ringing out through the silence, the bugle sounding the Last Post at the nearby German prisoner of war camp:
Fred stopped to listen as the familiar notes echoed in evocative fashion over the late evening landscape, as the bright light of the sinking sun illuminated a pastoral scene in an England which is now long gone and will never return. It was a uniquely beautiful and unrepeatable moment in his life:
During the rest of his lifetime, Fred was never aware of a couple of facts about this moment. Firstly, he always thought that the prison camp was at Castle Donington but in actual fact it was somewhat closer to where he was, at Weston-on-Trent. I know that because I have just looked at the list of all the POW camps in the country.
Secondly, as he walked through the village of Ticknall, under the bridge which used to carry the railway to the limestone quarry…
…as he walked past St George’s Church…
….he did not know that the building held, hidden away somewhere in a safe place, a great many records of his own family history. He did not know that his family had been baptised there, married there and buried there for centuries. They included…
his own grandfather, John Knifton (1850-1934), John’s father, Thomas Moor Knifton, and his mother, Jemima Knifton, and her mother, Katharine Knifton, and then her father, Richard Kniveton and lastly, George Kniveton, born, in all probability, before 1700.
Another England which is now long gone and will never return:
Fred would have walked past all the old water pumps at the side of the road, every fifty yards through the whole village. I bet some of them were still working then. If Fred had done his long walk previously, he might even have known which pumps could slake his thirst after perhaps seven or eight miles of walking:
Fred could not possibly have known, though, that only fifteen years later, in his Connaught green Austin A40 Devon saloon, he would drive, not walk, through the village, and his young son would count the pumps out loud as they passed along. Fred didn’t know that that was going to happen in the near future. He was too busy in the present, fighting to make sure that England had a future:
16 responses to “Fred walks home on leave”
“Another England which is now long gone and will never return:” it sounds so forsaken.
Well, the country has been gradually dismantled by various groups of people, but most of all by the farmers who have ripped up hedges, cut down trees and turned what were six fields into one because they can make more profit that way. So we have lost the wildlife who need rough areas to feed and breed in. Nowadays in England, both the House Sparrow and the Common Starling are endangered because of the new farming practices. I’m sure that the USA will have its own tale to tell, with the old industries in decline and an ever increasing number of people living there.
Oh yes indeed!! Too many stories like that.
Long gone are the days when people would even consider walking 12 miles. Those water pumps in Ticknall were in use well into 1960s. My uncle and aunt lived there and they didn’t get mains water until about 1966. For me, Ticknall was the archetypal English village.
“The happy highways where I went and cannot come again.”
Ticknall has always played exactly the same role in my life. I have gone out of my way many times when visiting my Mum and Dad just so that I could drive down the hill from Swarkestone and see the smoke drift up from those centuries old cottages. And the water pumps! Well, I still count them now.
Needs must. I don’t know the route my Dad took when on leave he walked through the night to visit my Mum at Leicester
I think the thing is that he was prepared, like my Dad, to walk rather than wait for public transport. As a teenager I would do the same, but only up to three or four miles. My Dad would have walked twelve miles on the route described here, and I’m sure that your father would have done just the same to see his Mum.
Even more incentive for him – it was to see my Mum and me 🙂
What an excellent and original post this is. Thanks, John, for taking me along on Fred’s walk.
My pleasure. I’ve always had that walk, in, probably, 1942 or 1943, on my list of “things I wish I had been able to do”. I’m looking forward to a Heaven where all things are possible, and I will be able to watch live all those events in history that have fascinated me so much.
So much nostalgia along that 12-mile walk, John. For Fred, though, it must’ve been a joy to be going home.
It certainly was. He fought very hard to get back as soon as he could and to return as late as possible. He did tell me though, that every time he arrived home on leave, my Grandma would ask him, before he had even put his bag down, “When do you go back?” which I think always made him feel that he was perhaps somehow interfering with her schedule of house cleaning.
If only Fred had gone into the church, what wonders he would have found. To think he was so close to his ancestors and yet was so unaware of them. You paint a terrific image of an England long gone, its beauty the driving force behind our determination to survive and stay unconquered. We’ll done John and thank you for reminding us, through Fred, what England was once like.
I am very tempted to say that this was the England where churches were left unlocked, because nothing was ever stolen!
In our area, some churches are nowadays having their lead rooves stripped for the second or third time. Things have really changed in seventy or eighty years!
My Dad seemed very affected by this tale and he recounted it many times, as old men are wont to do. He would have been very interested to hear that his ancestors were all listed in the old records at Ticknall Church. He left me a document entitled the “History of the Family according to Aunt Mabel” and it’s quite interesting to see how slightly unacceptable truths, such as an illegitimate child born in 1806, were tweaked into something a lot more heroic, such as “The father was not there. He had been killed in the Battle of Waterloo”. Still, it’s no worse than politicians, who are the real experts at that kind of thing!
Wow!!! We’ve got some of your family history here, John. NICE! What a walk! Twelve miles is nothing to sneer at. And all that history as he walked along. Beautiful post, John!
Young men will walk twelve miles without difficulty to get home, if only for a couple of days!
I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Amy. Everywhere you go, you are surrounded by history. I bet the woods that you walk in could tell a few tales. Only a couple of hundred years ago and there must have been Native Americans there. Now that is exotic history!!