Barton Hall, Preston to 1963.
The wooden huts we lived in at Weeton camp, were miles away from Barton Hall our work place. Weeton is situated near Kirkham & Blackpool on Lancashireís Fylde coast. The village seems only to be a few houses, a church & the Eagle & Child pub. (Known as the B & B Ö Bird & bastard!). We were bussed in and out three times a day on various shifts as the Northern Air Traffic Control centre was up & running 24 hours a day. In the autumn, the lights at Blackpool caused massive road jams. It could take hours to complete the journey. The bus (called a Gharry Ö a name for a horse drawn carriage in India & Egypt, originally a Hindi word from circa 1800) ran a shuttle service between Kirkham married quarters, via Weeton camp & then through Preston. It was necessary to go via Preston to pick up local service WRAFs. A peculiar brand of the Womenís Royal Air Force that lived at home! I have no idea if they were used only at Barton or not, but we sure had them.
The huts at Weeton were the classic old two iron stoves things that the RAF used all over their airfields. Bull nights were just like going back to Barkston heath. The campsite was used by the Air Force & then, over the years, it went over to the Army.
Once again I was in the middle of nowhere without transport! On the back roads, Weeton was about 7 miles from Barton Hall. A mad Flight Lieutenant Brown, used to try & break all records in his mini cooper. (How well I remember him hitting a cow, with me in the passengers seat, on those back roads!) It was 15 or more miles via Preston & with an entire series of pick up points for the WRAFs, in the old bus that was a bit arthritic anyway.
The hall was a Manorial residence built in 1786. Barton Hall was requisitioned for the Royal Air Force in July 1940 by August the 9 Group Headquarters began to form, and set up the North West Filter Room. It became ĎAir Traffic Control Centre and Aeronautical Information centre Prestoní about 1948 & its job description was:
a. To provide Air Traffic Control services to all RAF units, formations and
military aircraft within the Northern FIR.
b. To provide an emergency and position fixing service to civil and military aircraft on the International emergency frequencies.
c. To provide advice to operational authorities about aerodromes suitable for diversions of aircraft and to arrange diversions where necessary.
d. To provide Flight Information Services to all military aircraft (including USAF) within the Northern FIR)
e. To trace overdue aircraft and initiate Air, Sea and Mountain Rescue action. To alert and liaise with appropriate Rescue Co-ordination Centres and such other agencies as may be necessary.
f. To supply information regarding civil and military aircraft movements to the Air Defence System and to assist in tracing unidentified aircraft.
In general terms, what that meant was to sit for hours doing nothing & then go into immediate action & try to save lives. I donít remember loosing anyone but Iíd rather be watching real aircraft from a control tower any day. There was a large green, glass screen with a map of the North on it. It used a thing called triangulation to be able to local the position of any aircraft broadcasting on the emergency frequencies. (243 UHF & 121.5 VHF). A green line ran out from any locator and pointed at the aircraft. Where two or three crossed was its position.
It was a three-watch system. Earlies, Afternoons & Night binds. We spent all our time playing cards, chasing women, and on night binds, we talked & talked & talked! In the town of Preston I visited the two main coffee bars, one was called the Bodega off Winkley square.It was here I learnt that many ATC officers had been taken off flying duties & made to become controllers, much against their wishes, most had a desire to fly. No wonder some were a bit bitter. In this darkened room, you never even saw an aeroplane! They were usually older, ex war guys with some of lifeís experience to share. In many cases, they shared nothing, the class system was structured so they became apart from their men. There were some ďnatural civiliansĒ in RAF uniform, a couple of free spirits being paid to indulge a hobby like Ft. Lt. John Brown & his motor sport. Some were old school forces like Ft. Lt. Barton, as small rotund man I remember. I think it was him who walked out of the desert and survived, after crashing. To end up looking at a green screen for hours must have been the antithesis of flying!
Once, I was on nights, there would be only a couple of us up & one of the officers brought in a Berretta handgun for me to see. It was very considerate, it may well have been illegal & he brought it, as he knew I would be interested. Another officer was deeply into the theatre & used to sit for hours learning his lines & rehearsing silently. It was fun to watch, he was miles away many an evening! The food was on site & a small club provided snacks in the evening. The Singletonís pork pies were memorable! There must have been a small theatre attached to the club, it was there was we put on a least one show. One of the civilian technicians was into Gilbert & Sullivan at Blackpool. He decided we would do Snow white and her three dwarfs! Of course, Ken Harper & I were two of the dwarves straightaway. (Ken is forever known as ďgreen tights KenĒ in the family) It was great fun, stupid and memorable for two reasons. 1. We didnít have gear to go under our tights (Underpants are so unattractive!). 2. We did it to give entertainment to the local orphans. As someone forgot to invite them, it was a little pointless! I think it was Paul Austin who played a dragon. He managed to scare one kid witless! Who ever started it couldnít carry on directing it, so I was volunteered. Completely hopeless, wrong choice altogether! I can remember forgetting my lines & ad-libing like mad. Ken & I have stayed in touch over the years. He was definitely madder than me, but not by much.
It was probably through Ken having a car & starting to court Kathleen, my future wife, that finally got me on the road to owning some wheels. We met while Kath was a local service WRAF at Barton Hall, she lived miles away in Grimsagh. I had to get wheels! Trying to cover these distances was really difficult, so I stuck my toe in & bought a Zundap Bella scooter in maroon. It was a large machine by scooter standards. Kath was a farmerís daughter living as many miles away from Barton Hall, as Weeton camp was. To be honest, I wasnít that keen on two wheels. It was freedom for sure, but it was wet, windy & cold. I knew how dangerous it was. Not just my inexperience but also other road users and you had little protection from the slightest incident. I understand how bikers love their wheels. I guess I was never born to be a one. I recall coming back from a Shawbury in Shropshire, after a course, the journey was windy, cold & tiring. At least I was free to do it but with hindsight, it was just plain dangerous! What I needed as a car! Boy oh boy, did I buy a car!I was conned by a salesman who had a Ď38 Morris 8 for sale. My mate, at Lyneham, had had a Morris 8; Iíd seen pictures of my Uncle Ernest with one, so this one must be a natural for me! It still had its wartime blinkers on the headlights in 1963. Although it had a rust hole at the rear, it started & ran well and cost me the princely sum of £12-10s-od (£12.50). The insurance was £25! Of course being a learner, I had to have someone with me all the time.
After a day out, with the lads, up to the Lake District, I wondered why it leaned to one side. The rust hole was where the broken road spring had come through! I was so naÔve. I had no idea of what to look for and of course, cars didnít need MOTs then. There were so many death traps on the road. In 1938, a Morris 8 had an 8hp, 884cc side valve engines, which proved very reliable. They had three speed gearboxes, lots of instruments, leather seats & wooden floors. They had no automatic chokes then. You pulled out a choke knob that cut off the air to the carburettor, if you didnít push it back in a bit at a time; it would flood the pistons with too much fuel the engine would die. Of course, now engine sensors do it all automatically. If your battery was flat, you had a crank handle. A long tube bent to form an offset handle. It went thru a hole in the bumper and attached itself to the bottom on the crankcase. By turning it you physically turned the engine & with luck, it would fire up. Some of the bigger cars & trucks would have a huge kickback, put your thumb in the wrong position & you got it broken!
All older cars, like the Morris, had semaphore indicators. This was a system using electric magnets to lift out an illuminated arrow on either side of the car to show you were turning. Sometimes they would stick & you had to hit the side of the car to knock them out! No wonder cars turned to winking lights! Of course, seat belts were unknown and it had ďsuicide doorsĒ (these front doors had the hinge at the back and they would spring open easily in an accident and the inmates would shoot out into the road) On the safety side, they accelerated like a dead cat & youíd be lucky to get 60 mph out of it. It had hydraulic brakes, not the old cable brakes. These were just shoes pushing on a drum. No disc brakes in those days. The instruments werenít illuminated. To see them in the dark, you turned a chrome shade half a turn and a single bulb lit all the dials. Although Ken had no fear about fixing anything, I donít think we actually serviced any cars. We looked at them a lot & tried to mend anything broken, but preventive servicing was not in our vocabulary. They really needed more care than a modern car. I once took it to the garage in Grimsargh; I had £1 and asked them to do as much of a service as they could for a quid! I was either naÔve, stupid or desperate! There were points in the distributor to reset. The car was covered in grease nipples that needed frequent attention. The nearest we got to servicing was checking it had oil. As now, cars donít run without that! The petrol pump used to tick like mad when you turned the key. If you didnít set those points correctly, you didnít get fuel! Tyres had inner tubes that were patched up like bicycle tyres and there were no Kwik Fit Fitters then! These were the days that if you were rich enough to join the RAC or AA motoring clubs, the patrolman would salute you as he passed. If he didnít, then it was a sign of police in the area!
You never forget your first car but it was just one of a series. Ken had a 1932 Lanchester. It was a huge saloon with a pre-selector gearbox. We both had bubble cars; I had the Isetta, in blue & white, Ken drove a red Heinkel and later, he had a three wheel Reliant Robin. Three wheels meant low road tax plus you could drive them on a motorcycle licence, as long as the reverse gear was blocked off. They did a fair bit to the gallon but I guess we thought the bubble cars were trendy too. As they were only good for about 60mph, we were slightly cheesed off when one of the WRAFs came passed us in a Meserschmit Tiger, another three-wheeled bubble car, which was good for 80mph!
The Isetta had a clever steering mechanism that allowed the steering wheel to come forward with the one front opening door. There was a shelf at the rear but no boot. Behind the seat was a bent piece of metal. In one position it left a small amount of fuel in the tank, if the engine stuttered, as it ran out of fuel, you put it in the second position & there was enough petrol, in reserve, to enable you to get to a garage and refuel. Crude but effective! The gear lever was by cable & needed adjustment as the cable stretched. It was a bouncy, reliable, fun mode of transport. Bubble cars were very popular in their day. It was a way to keep your girl friend dry & comfortable on the cheap! One of my first accidents I ever had was in the bubble. The snow really came down & I lost it on some ice, on the back road coming back from Kathís. I can see the sky at the bottom & the road going across the top. I am sure the cars being so round helped get it back on its wheels. Some nice guy turned up to see if I was OK. Neither of us could stand on the sheet ice that covered the road. No salt put down by councils then! It had an air-cooled engine and rear wheel drive. This made sure it could handle snow & ice (well, up to a point, anyway!). It was designed with a BMW engine in Germany. It was a three seater if you didnít mind squeezing in. No seat belts of course! By coincidence, near my original airfield at Cranwell, there is a small museum for micro-cars. It was fun to go back & see all those tiny cars, especially as I arrived in the modern equivalent car, a Smart Fortwo.
One of the guys in the early days had a lovely MG Magnette saloon car. I think his father had a garage. One of his ATC mates borrowed it & managed to roll it in a ditch. That must have set back the friendship a bit!
Ken & I got into cine filming while it was standard 8mm. My first camera was a Eumig C3M. Three separate lenses and excellent quality. You put the raw film in, ran it one way for 4 minutes, then opened the camera, turned it round & ran it back again. Kodak in Hemel Hempstead processed the movie by splitting the film after developing it; sticking the ends together & sending your 8 minutes back to you. Eventually, they changed it to a Super 8 cartridge principal, but of cause it was all killed off my video! It was very expensive. You can tell when we were running out of money by the family movies having gaps in them!
We all got together & made a comedy film about a thing called a Muxi! It was hopeless but so much fun. We filmed on the sand dunes at Lytham. I can remember showing it to a critical audience once. They were kind but very unimpressed! Another film was done to show the taking out of a heart & lungs, donít ask me why or what it was about, I would film anything then, it was just great fun. I even had thoughts of becoming a film editor. As usual I knew nothing. Kathís uncle Jim knew some one, (it was claimed to be his insurance man. This guy was no man from the Pru thatís for sure) who knew someone who got me an interview with Granada Television as a cameraman. Donít ask how I got this. I wanted to be an editor & ended up being interviewed whilst they were looking for an experienced camera operator. Uncle Jim & Auntie Laura were nearly nice people, Iíd cleaned his beautiful Jaguar car, but nothing that warranted such consideration. Looking back, it was so strange. Who had the influence to pull strings like that? How come I ended up there? It was a kindness from Uncle Jim, who knew someone! A wonderful example of, ďits not what you know, its who you know, that countsĒ Of course I was total unprepared, had no idea what I was doing and to be honest, I was wasting peoples time. But things just seem to happen!Cameras, film & video have stayed with me all my life. We filmed all sorts of things, trips out, daft films, and family life. The advent of modern digital photography & computers borders on a cross between black magic & ecstasy for me now! I came from an age of light sensitive chemicals on a film that was wrapped in paper. You threaded it onto a spool in a Brownie box camera. The view finders were pieces of glass in two of its corners. You often needed your hand to shade the tiny image in any bright light. The film was wound on by hand and there was a small viewing point, where the number of the frame, would tell you if it was wound on enough. There was no guard against double exposure, so if you didnít remember to wind on, you got both views at once! The shutter was a lever, not a button. The nearest it every got to batteries, was in the torch you used to try and find it under the stairs. It was expensive to develop the pictures, so it only came out on high days & holidays!
A web site run by a ex-WRAF called Tass Cotton about Barton Hall, has helped my very poor memory. Many of the old names came up and that jogged the old grey stuff. Mind you I saw photographs of names I knew but didnít recognize the face! They hold re-unions and keep in touch, but I am embarrassed not to recognize people & I feel it is, sort of, living in the past. (Thatís an interesting viewpoint from someone writing a life story!). A few years ago Val Yates, who joined at the same time as Kath, had her surprise party. I was ashamed at how many people I didnít know or recognize.
1963 was an interesting year. The Profumo sex scandal rocked the establishment. Buddhist monks set fire to themselves in protest to a crackdown on their religion by President Diem. Martin Luther King gave his ďI have a dreamĒ speech. JFK was assassinated in Dallas. There was the great train robbery. And we got married! In '63 things were changing slowly. There was still no "new man". There were still bastions of manly behaviour around in the 60s. They didn't attend births, push prams, change nappies, Hoover the floor, do any washing or hanging out the clothes. There was no such thing as being politically correct yet! It was still expected that men worked hard to bring in the money & women looked after the home. No one thought this demeaning or strange, then it was considered a partnership. It was just the way the world worked. Before the children, Kath had her own work but we naturally assumed that after the children arrived, Kath would stay at home. Divorce was still the exception but it wasn't the shame and family secret it had been.
Kath had wanted to marry at Grimsargh church in the village. But the church ruled that, because she lived on Cow hill, she was in another parish & we had to go to the church at Broughton. It was a lovely place but wonderfully pointless. That church had never heard of us. The church she attended regularly, rejected her. I thought banns were to make sure people were aware of who was marrying. No one in Broughton Parish church would have heard of either of us! It was a good job I wasnít a fully-fledged atheist then.
It was either fear or pressure that made sure I remembered nothing of the wedding. I can remember going in the hired mini we used for our honeymoon and one of the lads asking me not to drive too fast, then I remember the chauffer offering us a cigarette as we headed to the reception afterwards. The rest was a blank. Apparently, my best man Frank Booth gave a very good speech. What a pity I canít remember anything! Luckily Uncle Les took some good movie film with a lovely Bolex camera. No sound of course, but I least I can fill in some blank spaces.
Our friends had used lipstick to decorate the mini and that didnít come off easily. We stayed our first night in the Blossoms hotel in Chester. While I parked the car, Kath forgot she was Mrs. Lowe, when reception called her to the desk. Judy, her sister, had rung the hotel & asked for single beds. So much for trusting your family! To put distances into perspective in 1963, we had a second stop in Bath before going down to The Sleepy Hollow Hotel, in Polperro. (Well, a nice bungalow in the top of the hill above the village.) There were very few motorways and we thought it was a long way to Cornwall. It was a long way, just not that long that we needed two stops. I think we came back completely broke & on fumes from the petrol tank.I can remember being in a shop & looking at a single lens Bronica camera. The man in a camera shop in Polpero village was willing to let me have it and pay by an informal arrangement, sending what I could and marking it down on a card. He was very trusting or he really needed to sell that camera. If only we hadnít have been so honest! I have lusted after one every since.
Our first flat was in Fulwood Hall Lane. An old lady with a cat called Billy. We had returned to the flat after going to the cinema with Ken & his first wife Lorraine, to hear the news of President Kennedyís death. They do say everybody remembers where they were, when they heard the news of the assassination.
We did our shopping round the corner at a grocery store. Supermarkets werenít big then. They used dirty old Lancashire spinning mills, piled the goods high & sold it cheap. We had an account at the grocers, one week we forgot to pay. It nearly crippled us. We never did that again. Got a box with lots of compartments & put money away each week after that. You could have a bank account & chequebook but there were no bank guarantee cards, cheques werenít accepted as easily, it was a cash business then. You could get hire purchase easily enough, but no credit cards and they actually checked if you could afford stuff then. Would you believe it, that if a grown women wanted to buy something on H.P. she still had to get a husband/father/brother to sign as guarantor even then. Pay wasnít put in the bank directly. You lined up on pay parades once a fortnight, they called your name, you shouted out the last three of your service number and there it was pounds shillings & pence in your hand! We did live from week to week. Counted coppers (old pennies) and were usually short of money.
Being short of dosh, never stopped Ken & I when we saw another Morris 8 on the corner of the lane. It was a desirable convertible. The trouble was, once youíd tasted the freedom of a mode of transport, it was hard to be without. Buses in the pouring rain and lugging shopping around was a great incentive.
We towed it to Percyís farm & set about sorting it out. It was terrible with hindsight, but I loved it! The clutch was seized. After towing it with a tractor to free the clutch, we put the plug leads on back to front & wondered why it wouldnít start! The electrics were a bit dodgy, it leaked like a sieve but it looked great. Sadly it ended up sad & neglected on a car park in Weeton camp. I needed another car, a better reliable car, suitable for a family man. Kath was pregnant & we were going to have to shift stuff around! For some unknown reason, I was in Lancaster and saw a very nice Austin Somerset. It was about a 1953 model, in beige & looked good. I rang the garage to see it. ďNo problem sir, that one has gone but I have another one just as good.Ē Said a salesman, ďIíll bring it down to show youĒ It wasnít just as good, I think the salesman was pulling a switch sale on me & selling one of his own cars. I just refused to take it; he lowered the price again & again. Even Percy was surprised that I chopped his legs from under him, lowering the price. I guess he just needed to get rid of the car. It turned out to be a good one. It was big, comfortable & reliable. I got it for a song. Mainly because I was so cheesed off at missing the one I wanted, nothing to do with my skill at negotiating! It was the car that brought Andrew our first son, home in after a long wait for him coming at Sharoe Green Maternity hospital in 1965. She was in labour 36 hours I think.
We had had a picnic on the sand dunes at Lytham when Andrew was very young. Our friend Claire Melville came with us. As I came round a corner, on the way home, the farm hand had not controlled the cows & they shot out onto the road. It dinged the car badly! I was as mad as hell! He was a few years older by the time he stood by a Somerset at a car museum!
The shock absorbers were very distinctive on that car. You could tell any Austin when they went. Any lump in the road & it used to wallow up & down like a ship in a swell! I used to like plenty of instruments & the A40 had lots. It also had a bench seat at the front. This car was handy & good. It could take three in the front & three in the back. (Still no seat belts yet!) The problem was, itís seats gave no support and any fast driving, (a relative term!) meant you slid around the cockpit on the genuine plastic, imitation leather seats.
We moved to married quarters at Weeton. That house was so cold! It also didnít help that Andrew never slept. We had little idea how to be parents. We were keen, worried and a bit clueless! When he was very young, he wouldnít stop crying, got a rash & we took him to the doctors. He was creating such a din that the receptionist took us to the head of the queue. The doctor took one look, sat us down & said it was quite hot, and there was no need to wrap him up so much. It was just a heat rash. He did need air as well as loving!As he grew older, he continued not the sleep. Both of us were exhausted. On a trip to see Grandma Sarah, (Billy Hebdenís second wife) she said, all you needed to get him to sleep well was a teaspoon of brandy. Of course, she had some & Andy took it really well. In fact so well, he was up & dancing in the back of the car, even more awake and looking for fun!
I made good friends with Kathís cousin Frank Robson & his wife Wendy. There had a farm in Catteral near Garstang. It was the place that Kath grew up. It was always a joy to go & see them. Frank enjoyed his hunting shooting & fishing. I could wander his fields killing poor defenceless animals for the fun of it. Much later on, I was delighted to be able to film both his kidís weddings. We both had an interest in cars & he often lent me his Mini Cooper, until auntie thought that this could be quite dodgy with the insurance company. The Robson family were more relaxed than the Gornallís and we got on well. Mind you at one party, someone stitched me up with spiked drinks & I started doing bird noises on the table before descending into alcoholic poisoning! I have few memories of how Frank got me home to our flat, whilst I was incoherent & very ill.I was well into being a civilian by now. I wanted to get out of the air force. I was too much of a free spirit and hated my wife & kids being subject to the whim of the R.A.F. With only about 18 months left to serve, the faceless people up there decided I should be posted, on what is normally a three-year stint to Germany. At least it was a chance to earn extra money, save up a bit before leaving and become Mr. Lowe again. Plus they actually had real aircraft at a real flying field!