Aug 272012
 

The area around Exeter has always been a favoured part of the country. Although the city had suffered some of the effects of the war, it had got off lightly compared to the rest of the country. There had been one or two daylight bombing raids but Devon, being in the West of England, had been furthest from the Luftwaffe  airfields in Northern France. Any attacks had mainly been concentrated on the naval port of Plymouth in the south west of the county.

Devon is a county of attractive countryside with areas of bleak moorland in the centre but with a beautiful coastline indented by a number of deep inlets. One of these is the estuary of the River Exe which is a broad strip of water approximately six miles long by a mile wide and leads to Exeter, the county town and seat of the bishopric and, in those days, the only university in the south west. The Exe has one fairly substantial tributary, the Clyst, which meanders through a shallow flat valley before the rivers meet at the head of the estuary (see photo). A few miles to the east of this confluence is an area of semi-moorland called Woodbury Common – an area about six miles square of rough heathland with some forest. The Common is surrounded by rich farmland and was blessed by several beautiful old semi-grand houses. This area is the main setting for Riversmeet.

In the years after the Second World War this part of the country was one of those less affected by the upheavals of the war and one of the slowest to wake up to the new Britain which was emerging. As a result of the low level of private car ownership and the fact that most heavy freight was still carried by the railways, the roads were fairly empty and one could walk or cycle with few problems from traffic. The exception was the few weekends during the summer holiday period when the Exeter By-pass became a massive traffic jam as tourists from the North and Midlands tried to reach the resorts along the Devon coast.

However in those days many people expected to travel by train. Exeter was particularly well served in this respect, being at the crossing point between two main lines from London (the Southern Railway line to Ilfracombe and Plymouth and the Great Western line through Plymouth to Cornwall). It also had direct links to the Midlands and the North through Bristol and Birmingham. I remember seeing holiday specials going down the branch line from Exeter to the beaches at Exmouth that were absolutely bursting with tourists and sunseekers.

I count myself very fortunate to have grown up in such a pleasant area at a time before all the crowding and restrictions which now exist throughout the South of England. We did not have a lot of material goods. There was no television, no transistor radios or other electrical luxuries in our house. But we had a freedom to move about the countryside, to walk the cliffs or explore the moors, to sail in the estuary and swim off the miles of sandy beaches – many of them deserted if you lived locally and knew the right places to go. I feel sorry for the modern youngsters who will never know that freedom.

 

Next week I will tell you some more about the towns and villages of the region in the early 1950’s.

 

Aug 212012
 

What was life like in Southern England in 1953? The Second World War had ended eight years earlier but Britain had taken a long time to recover. The financial effort of fighting a huge war in Europe, Africa and the Far East (alone for nearly three years) had bankrupted the nation. It was massively in debt to the USA for the war materials it had purchased to keep its forces fighting. UK had to borrow more from the same source to pay for food and to rebuild its industries after the war. The debt was finally discharged in 2003.

The South West had suffered less than the main industrial areas. However a lot of the urban areas throughout the country had been laid waste by carpet bombing by the Luftwaffe. More than two million homes had been destroyed. Dozens of city centres had to be largely rebuilt. Hundreds of factories had been wiped off the face of the map. Even small cities like Exeter still had more than twenty “bomb sites” well into the fifties where a gap between buildings which were still standing was fenced off and filled with heaps of rubble covered in willowherb. It took more than twenty years for all these destroyed shops and flats to be rebuilt.

The essentials of life such as food and clothing were still in short supply. Some important items had continued to be rationed into the early fifties. I remember, as a child, that sweets were in short supply but there seemed to be no restriction on iced lollies. New toys were also starting to become available.

Factories took a long time to change from producing war materials to manufacturing household goods and products for export. Car production, which had stopped during the war, was slow to recover. Less than ten percent of the population owned a car in those days and most privately owned vehicles had been constructed pre-war. I can remember when our next door neighbour, who was some sort of a salesman, was provided with a new Standard Vanguard by his company (see photo). All the local kids regarded this bulbous, gleaming vehicle with awe.

There were very few of the household conveniences which we regard as essential to modern life. Only one home in five had a conventional telephone. Televisions were rare and those that existed had little black and white screens and had to be watched in the dark. Most kitchens didn’t have a refrigerators or an electric oven. Vacuum cleaners were mainly American imports and were rare. Portable radios did not exist.

Of course personal computers, mobile phones and microwave ovens were unknown.

Nevertheless there were many advantages to living in the country at that time. There was a degree of personal freedom which is unknown in the modern, heavily-regulated British society. The shortage of vehicles and greater reliance on public transport (particularly the railways which were cheap but inefficient in those days) meant that the roads were uncrowded and one could walk and cycle in safety. Also the national spirit throughout the country was much better than it is today. There was a camaraderie that resulted from fighting and winning a war together, and the new welfare state had promised good health, education and care for all.

 

Next week I will tell you some more about what it was like to live in South Devon in the early 1950’s.

 

Aug 122012
 

I am pausing from blogging about the fascinating little village of Rennes-le-Chateau in order to tell you about the new novel which I will be publishing later this month. It is called Riversmeet – Starting Out and I attach a picture of the cover. This is a different book for me in several ways.

Firstly it is not an adventure/thriller or a whodunit as most of my others have been. This is a semi-historical saga set in South Devon in England in the early post Second World War years. It was a period when a new type of Britain was emerging from the chaos of the first half of the twentieth century.

Secondly it is a novel primarily about the development of the characters, rather than concentrating on action. The central character (he is not really a hero) is a clever young man finding his way in the world under considerable difficulties. He is experiencing an awakening both sexually and financially. The other characters around him are also developing in their different ways – both in relation to him and to each other – and they are all reacting to the new socialist, property-owning democracy in which they now find themselves.

The other difference is that this novel is nearly twice as long as my previous novels (about 145,000 words). I discovered, when I was writing it, that the story seemed  to be taking over from me and extending all by itself as it developed, So, although this first book is complete in itself, I have come to realise that Riversmeet is only the first volume of what will become at least a trilogy. In fact I have already moved on to the planning of the second volume and approximately twenty thousand words have flowed out of me. So much for writer’s block!

The further aspect of the novel is that it is written about a period and is set in locations where I have myself lived and gained experiences. That is not to say that the work is in any way autobiographical. None of the characters could be recognized as people who I might have known in my youth. However many of the experiences and events which I recount are linked to those which I (at least in part) remember from my time when I was living in South Devon.

I hope that my readers will enjoy Riversmeet and (if they do) will let me have their comments so that I can continue and hopefully improve the second volume in the knowledge that it will find a welcoming readership when it comes out in about a year’s time.

 

Next week I will tell you some more about what life was like sixty years ago in Southern England..