Alan Mills – Evacuees – Otley Beckons

Memories from Crossgates Resident Alan Mills

Evacuees Part One. Otley Beckons

In 1939, Yorkshire again won the County Cricket Championship and on the 3rd of September, Britain declared war on Germany. To me it certainly was a momentous year. I was an eleven year old pupil at Kirkstall Road Elementary School and became one of the thousands of kids  evacuated to the countryside in anticipation of the expected bombing of our  industrial towns and cities.

Monday morning, the day after the declaration, we all had to assemble at the school where we were met by our teachers and tabulated with luggage labels which were tied on our coats. Then clutching our small cases we were marshalled onto double decker buses – where to? Nobody seemed to know.

Eventually we arrived outside the Congregational Church in Otley. Despite been only twelve miles up the road from Leeds a place I’d never visited or even heard of. I remember vividly the hush on the bus, no excitement, just a solemn silence as we awaited to see what happened next. Within minutes some homely ladies from Otley W.V.S acting as billeting officers, took us in hand and began the operation of organising us into foster homes.

I was paired with a lad from the next street in Leeds who was only a month or so older than me, so I knew him quite well. We were billeted with a childless couple, it was difficult to estimate their ages but I would say late 30’s. They welcomed us into their lovely bungalow, up the side of the Chevin, about 3 miles from the centre of Otley. The view from the front garden was spectacular. A natural painting, looking downhill you could see the River Wharfe winding it’s way through what was locally known as Mile Fields cumulating at Farnley Hall, a manor house with connections to Guy Fawkes. The river ran parallel with the railway line connecting Leeds to Otley, Ilkley and Bingley.  From our arrival in Otley the weather was beautiful warm sunshine, the heat of the Sun and the September mists rising from the river combined to make a dense haze. When the small tank engine which served the railway line came chuffing along inside this dense belt of mist, all you could see was little smoke signals emitting from above it, I often wish I’d had a camera for just a lovely peaceful memory.

As far a school was concerned, we had to turn up at the Congregational Church at 9am, Monday to Friday. We used to always jog the three mile trip, in the morning, back for lunch, then back again in the afternoon. Five days a week, wet or fine, we were fit as butchers dogs!

After registration, we attended makeshift lessons and twice a week rambles were organised round and about Otley, interesting though they were, I think they were only organised to keep us out of our foster parents hair although most of us enjoyed them. We were not allowed to take glass bottles on these rambles (it was before the days of plastic) – anyway, this particular day we’d been walking in the vicinity of Ilkley Moor and most of us had been moaning about being hot and thirsty, however, we were on the last lap which was a row of very up-market houses leading up to where our bus was parked. Most of us were from back to backs in Leeds and the ornamental iron gates, long drives and manicured lawns were something we’d never really seen before. A gardener was watering the lawn with a hosepipe, this prompted a few of our young lads to drop down on all fours and crawl up the drive, gasping water!water!  Well, this old fella had his back to them – suddenly he turned round, saw these kids, dropped the hose pipe and promptly fled!

After a couple of months they found an excuse to get us back into full-time schooling. This took place in the church, with a few of our old teachers and some new lady teachers. Despite this reigning in of our almost unlimited freedom, after school a few of us found a bit of entertainment at the Cattle Market Auction. Despite our city origins, we actually worked out how to milk the cows. So when they were all lined up in the stalls waiting for transport after the auctions, it wasn’t unusual to see half a dozen kids climb under the fence with billy-cans. The farmers didn’t like it though and on the many occasions we were caught, it wasn’t unusual to be on the receiving end of a well aimed kick up the backside which sent you sprawling into a healthy pile of cow muck.

One day there was a bull in one of the stalls. A magnificent animal. To us city kids this bull was awesome although very docile. We nicknamed him ‘Cannonballs,’ the subject had caused immense interest. We were joined by a group of Otley Kids. Now, boys will be boys, there was always a bit of friction and rivalry between the evacuees and the locals. One of them levelled his eyes on me and dared me to grab the subject matter. Considering who it came from, this was more of a challenge than a dare, there was no way I would back out of anything concerning the Otley kids, call it civic pride.

Taking a deep breath, I ducked under the rails of the stalls. Despite it’s calm appearance, I knew I was dealing with a dangerous animal which could probably kick me into the centre of Leeds. I approached quietly from behind, the bull didn’t seem to realise I was there. But someone else did, round the corner came two farmers, one of them lengthened his stride yelling, ‘Oi, you don’t milk that.’ I just managed to avoid a boot from the farmer as I clambered under the fence and joined the others as we scattered. One of our lot shouted ‘Very observant, you’d make a good farmer.’  I think if the farmer had caught us, he’d have impaled us on the bull’s horns.

As we approached the Autumn of 1939, we were having a bit of an Indian Summer, however the days began to get shorter and colder. My memories are of how picturesque it was, the mists rolling over the fields and the trees covered with the most vivid tints of bronze, golds and yellows and the hawthorns were full of red berries. Then suddenly in mid-November the mornings dawned white with keen overnight frosts. This found us knee deep in fallen leaves and in early December we got our first fall of snow. For ages after that it seemed to be wellington boots, wet clothes, chilblains, chapped hands although there was always a warm, roaring fire to come home to.

Later in life as a father of three, I often reflected on how this foster mother must have coped, having two boisterous, permanently ravenous young lads dumped on her.  But cope she did – majestically – but one of her favourite sayings was ‘I’m proper mafted.’ We all used to snigger at the way she said it.  Her husband was a key worker and thus deferred military service, although he worked very long hours. On his few days off he’d take us into the nearby woods and cut up a fallen pine tree, oh happy logging days!

During one of these excursions he set us a task to find a large stone with inscriptions carved in it. We spent many a day searching from one end of the wood to another, but no luck. Later, as the weather improved, he took us and revealed the stone with it’s weather worn carvings, he explained it was the grave of an old saxon chief – fascinating for two young schoolboys and all part of my alternative Otley education.

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