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The days when we coped with winter

PUBLISHED: 15:50 25 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:50 30 June 2010

An upper ferry boat rows through floating ice as it crosses the Yare from Southtown to Great Yarmouth in December 1927

An upper ferry boat rows through floating ice as it crosses the Yare from Southtown to Great Yarmouth in December 1927

BY the time you read today's column, I hope the snow and ice have long gone, although its subject matter might well induce a shiver or two as it prompts memories of the start of 2010 when this area suffered Arctic conditions, albeit not as savage as other parts of Britain.

An iced-up ship in Yarmouth harbour

BY the time you read today's column, I hope the snow and ice have long gone, although its subject matter might well induce a shiver or two as it prompts memories of the start of 2010 when this area suffered Arctic conditions, albeit not as savage as other parts of Britain.

When I look through our Mercury files covering the first half of the last century, the winter weeks are usually dominated by reports of harsh winters with which townsfolk and country dwellers alike had to cope. They managed to survive blizzards and prolonged spells of extreme weather without the benefits of central heating, double glazing, wall and loft insulation, cars and many of the facilities we take for granted now.

By 50-or-so years ago, we began to experience the slow emergence of those improvements and innovations that would make winters more tolerable. Many readers will share my recollections of winters in the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston area in the 1940s and 1950s when living was less sophisticated.

I recall the family's fervent hopes that the coalman (Bessey and Palmer in my parents' case, possibly Futter at my maternal grandma's home in Newtown) would make a timely delivery before the last few shovelfuls of dust were put into the scuttle, emptying the bunker and leaving us reliant on a smelly paraffin heater...provided we had some paraffin. I believe coal was rationed in wartime, exacerbating problems.

Every household had the daily chore of cleaning out the grate and relaying it. Also, there was kindling to chop, or to buy in twine-tied bundles, a situation echoed in a hill-billy ditty long ago that reported: “He holds the lantern while his mother chops the wood!”

Only the living room was heated, a coal fire warming little farther than the hearth rug, and bedrooms were numbingly cold. Frost coated the inside of bedroom windows in the bleak midwinter, you kept your socks on in bed, clothes were tucked under the blankets so as to be more comfortable to don in the morning. We all used hot water bottles. Frozen pipes were common, and bursts a likely outcome through either natural or induced thaw.

The milkman (Long for us, Cotton for Nan) always called regardless of weather, but the cardboard cap would be a-top a pillar of iced cream jutting up from the neck if the bottle stood on the doorstep too long before it was fetched indoors.

At infants' school (Stradbroke or Alderman Swindell) the third-of-a-pint bottles for pupils were perched on the old iron radiators to warm the milk slightly before play-time. In my childhood, I enjoyed that break-time milk. Today the thought of drinking lukewarm milk induces a queasy feeling, for I love ice-cold milk on my breakfast cereal.

Health and safety? In every school playground the pupils created slides for which we queued, dashing up to them, feet apart as we sped to the end, hurrying back to rejoin the queue. Snowball fights were the other snow-time pleasure in playgrounds. Seldom was it too bad for us to be allowed out, and school closures were unheard of, perhaps because teachers and pupils lived within walking distance.

Oh yes: apart from milkmen calling at homes daily, bakers, errand and paper boys, postmen and dustmen all managed to carry on as usual despite the frozen and snow-filled conditions. Outside workers did not have the benefits of thermal clothing. Fingerless mittens were of little benefit.

I cannot vouch for the Eastern Counties buses that covered the country routes, but I will wager that only a road blocked by drifting snow defeated them. As for our Yarmouth Corporation buses, well, they were all on urban roads within the county borough, apart from the Caister service along Caister Road.

It would be foolish to claim that those corporation services were never disrupted in, for example, that dreadful winter of 1947, but stoppages - if any - were limited to the very minimum. Even in the postwar years when I lived in southern Gorleston and was being education in northern Yarmouth, I cannot remember any enforced break from lessons, either through transport difficulties or school closures.

My family home in Gorleston was built in the mid-1930s and had the enviable benefit of an inside bathroom and lavatory, and permanent hot water provided by a Palesco coal-fired range. In contrast, my grandma's rented terrace cottage in Harley Road, Newtown, was primitive, with all hot water having to be boiled in a kettle in the stone-flagged scullery.

In winter, if my mother and I were staying with her while my father was at sea serving in minesweepers, the biggest downside of her home was the outside lavatory.

By day, it was bad enough, but at night it was unlit and even a flickering torch or night-light was risky because the ill-fitting door not only allowed the wind and cold in but also let light seep out...and that was during the wartime blackout when even a chink in the curtains would result in the peremptory order from a patrolling ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden to: “Put that light out!”

I had the feeling that if I used a light in that toilet and any filtered out to be seen by an ARP warden, I would probably be hauled off to prison as a traitor and Gestapo sympathiser, trying to give raiding Nazi aircraft a hint that Yarmouth was below them.

The other downside of Nan's lavatory was that the shortage of toilet rolls in the shops did not bother her: she used cut-up squares of the previous week's Radio Times, pierced at one corner by a large curved needle. Then a bit of string was looped through the sheets to hang on a nail.

I do not think quilted tissue toilet rolls had been invented then. It was almost a luxury when she acquired the occasional San Izal roll (with “Medicated with Izal germicide” on every tear-off sheet) or Bronco pack.

No, despite the absence of all the facilities we take for granted in 2010, everyone just got on with everyday living, grumbling but accepting the inevitable. There was no sense of deprivation.

Hmm, as I write finish penning this column, the wind is getting up and darkness has fallen. I must stir myself and turn the central heating up a couple of degrees so Peggotty's Hut is comfortable. Such a chore...

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