Sunday, 22 August 2010

My Welsh childhood

Well, several months of it anyway. Early months - I would have been three at the time, and here were formed some of my earliest lucid memories.

In 1960, the firm for whom my father worked, West's Piling, won the contract to design and build the foundations for the steelworks in Llanwern. So soon after we moved from Hanwell, London W7, to live in a village called Malpas, outside Newport, Gwent (Monmouthshire at the time).

We rented a house from a Mrs Hopkins. My father would drive to work on the site in a Series II Land Rover (short wheelbase with canvas roof). It was a blue with a khaki roof; inside it had colourful knobs on the gear levers (one for high- and low-range four wheel drive). There were three seats in the front, none in the back, no seatbelts (or indeed children's safety seats) in those days.

Above: It would have been a soft-top like the one left, but it was exactly the blue colour like the one on the right. So much more impressive than our Morris Minor (where I'd always sit in the back). Later on in life I'd buy a soft-top short wheelbase blue Land Rover of my own (albeit a Series I).

Above: photo taken by my father, back end of the Land Rover in shot. It's wonderful to have found this neg, as it seems to be the only photographic evidence that we indeed did have a Land Rover back then. In the distance - Malpas? Below: The Usk Valley?

I remember a couple of things about the house in Malpas. In the garden was a fallen tree trunk, which to me was a horse, a train, a lorry. The garden looked down over a Welsh valley along which a real steam railway ran. That's me, left, trying to explore further afield. Every Tuesday (?) the mobile library would visit. I would run up to the bay windows at the front of the house shouting "Biblioteka! Biblioteka!" and with my mother we'd go out to chose me a book. The library was a large van, entered up wooden stairs, books on shelves on either side of a central passage, all illuminated by a translucent skylight. The books I remember seeking out would be ones containing pictures of aircraft. This was when I was three and half.

I also remember Newport. Three memories - the first being the city's iconic transporter bridge. The second being the 25-pounder field gun, all polished and shiny, standing outside the artillery barracks. The third being a clothes shop in which the basement had been opened up and made accessible via an open staircase - very modern and impressive. These things somehow clicked with me in an atavistic way, immediately reminiscent.

Another memory while I'm here - my father's friend Pan Albert who had at the time a convertible Austin A40. And this construction toy, consisting of coloured polyethelene rods, with four rows of holes on opposites side and one at the end, and four matching spiggots on the other two sides and one at the other end. You could join them together to make thing. Aeroplanes in my case.

I also remember a children's comic with the characters Snip and Snap - an anthropomorphic pair of scissors(?). Sitting in the car on a summer's day outside a village shop somewhere in South Wales. *PAFF!* It could have been ten seconds ago - it's just that vivid.

From Malpas we'd go on weekend excursions; one I recall was Caerleon, the Roman fort. Weston-super-Mare, across the Bristol Channel beckoned; in Bristol - Bristol Zoo. The journey across the Bristol Channel was by paddle steamer. In the depths of the paddle steamer, we saw the boiler; a man was standing on the other side of the flames shovelling coal in. From where we were observing this scene, it looked like the poor chap was actually engulfed in flame.

By the end of the summer of 1961 I was back in London, ready to start nursery school on The Avenue, West Ealing.

As for Llanwern, the plant opened in 1962, and closed in 2001.

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