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Twelve Christmas memories of Castle Hedingham (Part Two)

Updated: Jan 9, 2022

We hope you enjoy our second offering of festive memories of Castle Hedingham - uncovered by heritage researchers from the St Nicholas Church Voices from the Pews project.

With thanks to Rob Worley, Charlie Bird, Andy Smith and Tim Nash, and to the Essex Records Office for the transcribed oral memories of Jean Beasley, David Bettinson, Michael (Joe) Brown, Don Darkins, Jackie Hart, Monica Nash and Nellie Plumb.

Wishing you a happy and safe Christmas and all best wishes for 2021.

Martin Crowther (Heritage Engagement Officer) and the Voices from the Pews project team

In the harsh winter of 1947, deep snowdrifts covered much of Britain. In Castle Hedingham they reached over 8 feet deep, and almost buried young Charlie Bird and his paper bike!

7. Charlie Bird’s Christmas memories

Charlie Bird, a long-standing member of St Nicholas Church congregation, and much-respected local historian, recalls some of his favourite Christmas memories from during and shortly after the Second World War.

Unusual wartime decorations

Before I came to Castle Hedingham at the end of the Second World War, I was placed along with twenty five other boys in an orphanage at Ashdon near Saffron Walden which was run by the Church of England Children's Society. The enemy planes often dropped aluminium foil called ‘chaff’ to confuse our radar, and after one raid near Christmas, the sisters took us out into the fields to collect the shiny strips which we then used to decorate the Home. lt looked lovely.

Christmas 1947 at St Nicholas Church

The choirmaster was Mr Frank Montgomery. We knew him as 'Monty'. He lived with his wife at a house called The Hollies at Chapel Green in Queen Street. The choir was composed entirely of men and boys and the organist was either Mrs Moll or Mr Ripper. Before the service the choir used to robe up in the organ loft and process down the North aisle, then up the centre aisle preceded by a boy bearing the cross. At Christmas 1947 the blackout curtains had been taken down and a Christmas tree stood in each of the arches down each side of the nave. For many in the congregation this was their first service with their families after the war had ended with the surrender of Japan, and the church of St Nicholas was packed. The message of Christmas was never more warmly received.

Digging a bike out of a snowdrift

The winter of 1946/67 was like a Christmas card. It started snowing with piercing frosts about the middle of January 1947. It was the 'Bleak Midwinter' alright! The whole country was blanketed in huge falls of snow that lasted weeks, making roads impassable and everyday life a struggle against drifting snow. Around the Hedinghams these could easily reach a depth of 8 feet or more. At Witham the temperature dropped to minus 20 degrees and the ponds and rivers froze end to end. I had a daily paper round with the Gatehouse Stores in Queen Street. At Sheepcote Road the snow was level with the fields, and l had to push the heavy paper bike. Near Hopwells, I and the bike fell into the deep snow covering the road, and I had to struggle out and continue on foot the rest of the way. It made me late for (and wet for ) school in Back Lane. l had to go back and dig the bike out.

Prams similar to these were raced from the Rising Sun to the Bell, while on Boxing Day, competitors scattered across the Nunnery Street area in search of an empty barrel, which was exchanged for an equivalent amount of beer!

8. The Pram Race and Boxing Day Barrel Hunt

They used to have a pram race from the [Rising] Sun. I don’t know how many times they had to go back and forth with these prams. It used to be to put on a dinner for old people for Christmas time.

David Bettinson, interviewed in 2005. This memory is transcribed from an oral history recording at the Essex Records Office. Ref SA54/16/1.

Andy Smith, writing in 2020, also recounts his memories of the pram race… and of the much-lamented Boxing Day Barrel Hunt.

I entered the pram race on a couple of occasions, both times in a wheelbarrow, rather than a pram! Again, my memory may be playing tricks on me, but from what I remember the race took place from the Rising Sun up to The Bell.

The Barrel hunt, which took place on Boxing Day was organised by Jim Taylor the landlord of the Rising Sun. The idea was a barrel was hidden and people went off to find it. From my memory it tended to be mainly men, although I believe some took their children. It was an ideal way to rid oneself of a Christmas hang over, but it was more than likely that returned later in the day. If memory serves the hunt was centred on the Nunnery Street area as there were plenty of hiding places available, bearing in mind that Bowmans Park was not there, in fact the area was allotments, neither was the Primary School or the houses opposite! The competitors, if they can be called that, scattered to all areas of Nunnery Street, as far as the river or Pye Corner and the winners were those who found the barrel, which was empty, and returned it to the Sun, where they were rewarded with the equivalent amount of beer, which was shared amongst all those who searched for the barrel. Probably bringing back the hangover from the day before or setting off a new one!

Castle Hedingham handbell ringers outside the old pottery of Edward Bingham in Queen Street in about 1906. From left to right: ‘Mottie Earey, H Earey, George Drury, A Drury, Harry Duvall and Nun Schooling. From Pictures from the Past:Castle Hedingham in Old Photographs by Charles Bird.

9. Hand bell ringing round the village

Handbell ringing at Christmas and other times of the year was a popular village pastime in Edwardian times, as can be seen in this photograph taken in about 1906. It was still going strong in the late 20th century as Michael (Joe) Brown recalled when interviewed in 2013:

We used to go round the village bell ringing at Christmas. We had 6 of us and there were 12 hand bells. However, we found there were a few carols [for which] you needed 13 bells! We called the new bell X. A lot of us used to ring 2 bells. My cousin Albi was the leader, and when he gave up Mike Cholmeley took over. We normally used to play in [St Nicholas] church at Christmas, but then go round the village with the carol singers.

This memory is transcribed from an oral history recording at the Essex Records Office. Ref SA54/20/1.

10. Stirring the Christmas pudding

We always used to make our own Christmas puddings. I remember we had a big plastic bowl. We used to call it the baby bath! I used to mix it all up and then I used to say… ‘Can the Children come and stir the Christmas pudding?’, because that’s the thing that was always done in my day. Then all these snotty little children used to come and stir the Christmas pudding! And we used to say ‘You’ve got to make a wish’, and all that, because I thought it was nice for them to see that’s the way it used to be.

Nellie Plumb, interviewed in 2007 was Cook at the De Vere Primary School, Castle Hedingham in the 1970s and 80s. She made home-made school meals from scratch for over a hundred pupils. This memory is transcribed from an oral history recording at the Essex Records Office. Ref SA54/70/1, side A, part 10.

11. Joy to the World

Joy to the World; the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King! Let ev'ry heart prepare Him room, And Heaven and nature sing.

Dr Isaac Watts (1674-1748), one of the world’s most popular and prolific hymn writers preached at the Independent Chapel in Castle Hedingham during visits to the Ashhurst family at Hedingham Castle in the early 1700s. The chapel opened in 1719 and was extremely popular, sometimes attracting congregations of over 500 people.

According to local historian Edward Bingham in his 1894 lecture Castle Hedingham in the Olden Times ‘a long piece of smooth greensward in the pleasure gardens [at Hedingham Castle] was the place of his meditations, and of the composition of many well-known hymns, especially those for children.’

His carol Joy to the World, first published in 1719, is still immensely popular today, and has even been recorded by Mariah Carey.

The 18th century pulpit Dr Isaac Watts preached from, still survives in Castle Hedingham’s former United Reformed Church, which replaced the Independent Chapel in 1842.

12. Eric Ravilious and Tirzah Garwood

Rob Worley, Chairman of Hedingham Heritage Society shares his research into the village Christmases of two accomplished local artists…

Eric Ravilious and Tirzah Garwood came to Castle Hedingham in 1934. They rented Bank House, now marked with a blue plaque and stayed in the house until Eric’s untimely death in 1942.

A painter, designer, book illustrator and wood engraver, Eric Ravilious is widely considered one of the key figures of mid-20th century design and one of the finest English watercolour artists. Tirzah Garwood was an equally talented artist and wood engraver but as the mother of three children and the wife of her more famous husband she is often confined to the shadows of their story.

Soon after Eric and Tirzah arrived in the village they befriended the vicar and his wife, Rev.Guy and Evelyn Hepher. The vicarage afforded a refuge for Eric and Tirzah one very cold Christmas when all their pipes had frozen up and was lovingly captured by Eric in the snow in that cold winter of 1935. You can see a copy of the painting here.

Tirzah writes in her diary that Eric’s paint had frozen on the brush and some days later Eric wrote:

The snow picture is finished and not bad - rather pretty, but so was the thing, like a Christmas card’

A painting showing the junction of Sheepcot Road and Station Road/Queen Street can be seen here. It is snowing, large flakes pulling the eye this way and that. Ravilious was fascinated with winter and would have started this painting outside and finished it in his studio in Bank House. He wrote at the time:

Scratching the spots all over the drawing later with a penknife for a change and I enjoyed it. I have in mind a series of drawings of houses in this village because in winter they are such a lovely colour

The horse chestnut painted here still stands on Chapel Green but is considerably bigger now and the tracks on the road are those of bicycles and prams. Few cars would be seen in Castle Hedingham in 1935.

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