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Family visiting us in Fakenham brings back memories of the War

In his weekly Wensum column, Jim Harding looks back at childhood...

I don’t see much of my family these days as they’re spread far and wide both in this country and abroad. So when the opportunity to get together does come along it’s not to be missed. The conversations inevitably dwell on the past with different versions of ‘incidents’ being described.

My sister Kay is staying with us for a few days and I’ve found the chance to reminisce a bit of a goldmine. Knowing that my own memory has been adjudged to be vulnerable – whose isn’t? – I’m delighted to be reminded of childhood goings-on when the five of us were crammed together in a small semi-detached house on the outskirts of Woking.

Jim Harding's dad Charles Harding (far right) on duty with his Home Guard squad during the war years
Jim Harding's dad Charles Harding (far right) on duty with his Home Guard squad during the war years

The war was still in progress but soon to be ended which meant a slight easing of the restrictions which had become our ‘normal’ way of life. I was born in late 1942 and all us brothers and sisters were born within a year or two of each other. So war safety precautions were inevitable.

After the launch of the Anderson air raid shelter, designed mainly for outside use and not that popular, the Government turned to Home Secretary Herbert Morrison to come up with a more viable alternative. He commissioned what came to be known as the ‘Morrison’s Shelter’. This was made of heavy steel and could be put together and placed inside to be used as sleeping quarters at night or when air raids were signalled.

Its other benefit was that it could be used as a table. I was vividly reminded of this just recently when in conversation with my older brother Maurice. He was visiting us from his home in Princeton, New Jersey and, because he also likes writing and was at work on his personal memoir, decided a visit to the War Museum in London would be a good idea.

On display there was the self-same Morrison’s Shelter which produced in him a strong emotional reaction. He recalled sleeping in the shelter in the front room of our house – Woking was an important railway junction between Portsmouth and Waterloo - and was virtually in tears when recalling those times as a tender youngster.

The shelter could take two or three children but I have no memory at all of it being my temporary ‘bedroom’. But am grateful to know that our parents were doing what they could to protect us during that frightening period. I do remember the space underneath the stairs which was often half-full of bits and pieces and this refuge was often sought as a ‘next best’ retreat during air raids.

The alternative, not to my liking, was a heavyweight shelter on the field at the bottom of our garden. It stayed there long after the war was over and, probably as a dare, some of us used to find our way in and enjoy the echoes when we shouted. It was cold, dank and smelly, so hardly a sought-after playground.

As we were all so young during the war, I’m not sure the fear factor weighed heavily on our shoulders. And as my father was a railwayman he was invariably around between shifts working at the Woking station. He also served in the Home Guard which required frequent ‘patrols’ around our region. Adult concerns would have inevitably concentrated on the war but most of such conversations were probably way above our heads. In retrospect, we were lucky to have avoided serious conflict, to have had kind neighbours and parents who made sure we were kept warm, safe and well-fed.

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