When the whistle blew twice - a local childhood account of early years,
Today our clocks keep accurate time without need for winding or pulling chains. We are reminded of the time by radio and television. But it was not always like this. Before radio we relied on the church clock and on factory hooters, sirens and whistles. In Warsop one could hear no less than nine "pit blowers". The colliery steam whistles could be heard on the wind for more than five miles and they could be recognized by the subtle difference of tone and volume. Mansfield and Cresswell blowers could be heard but of course Welbeck, Warsop and Shirebrook were the loudest. Also there were Langwith, Sherwood, Thoresby, Ollerton and Clipstone collieries within earshot of Warsop.
Warsop Main colliery shift times were earlier than other local collieries and the Warsop whistle was the first to break the morning silence at five o'clock. Then there were time signals every half-hour until seven o'clock. Again at ten thirty, ten forty five and eleven o'clock, the blowers (or buzzers as some called them) would signal "snap time." This was when each colliery would close down for a fifteen-minute break. The blowers would sound again for the end of the Day shift at two o'clock, two thirty and three o'clock. Finally the blowers would call the night shift to work at 9 and 10pm.
So there was plenty of opportunity to adjust clocks and watches. Youngsters had less need for timepieces and there was no excuse for not knowing when it was time to be indoors. Most Warsop residents could recognise the blowers and they understood their timings. Farmers in the fields would check their pocket watches with the pit blowers, with knowledge that every colliery would be accurate to the second.
Church Warsop was still referred to as "Scab alley" in the uncertain years prior to World War 2. The village had gained that infamous title during the general strike of 1926. Workers living in the new colliery village did not have the same enthusiasm for striking, as did the majority of mine workers. No doubt they each had their reasons. In the years 1936 to 1939 the local mine workers were working hard for a meager wage and to make matters worse the collieries were producing more coal than could be sold. Hence, for a period, Warsop colliery would work just three or four days each week.
During this period of the short working week, Jim remembered endless warm summers. He was a six-year-old, attending the wooden hut school at Church Warsop. Ask him now and he will say he does not remember the winters and had no knowledge of hardship. For Jim life was full of wonderful surprises. He enjoyed school and there seemed plenty of time in the evenings to be with other children under the street gas lamps. It seemed that all of the kids would be outside, as in those days there was not much to remain in doors for. No radio or television, no telephone or computer to fill up ones time.
Jim was born in Church Warsop, in a house that had electricity, generated by the colliery, and constant hot water from a large boiler feeding the village. Jim took all of this for granted because he was unaware that no other part of Warsop district had electricity or piped hot water.
One of Jim's early memories were visits to his parent's friends in Albert Street, Warsop where he was fascinated by the gas lighting which was no where as bright as his own electric light. The gas always made a hissing sound and sometimes it would pop and nearly go out until a coin was put in the meter. Once Jim was able to witness the fitting of a new gas mantle and he found it very interesting. The mantle did not seem to have any shape at all until it was first lit. Then very quickly the mantle looked as if it would be consumed by fire before it popped out into a perfect globe shape. Jim could not understand why the hot tap was missing in the kitchen and thought it was quite novel that hot water had to be carried from a heater on the side of the coal fire.
When walking home to Church Warsop, over the Carrs at night, Scab alley was spectacular, lighting up the night sky with incandescent electric lighting. It used to be said that people in Warsop used to leave doors open and it could equally be said that Church Warsop people never switched their lights off. Were the lights deliberately left on, perhaps because bulbs last longer without constant switching? Or was it because the electricity cost just one shilling per week, regardless of how much was used and the Church Warsop people just forgot to switch lights off?
School holidays for Jim usually resulted in long walks with his mother Mary and his four-year-old brother Brian. They would have a picnic, which always included Jim's favorite banana sandwiches. Then they would gather a lot of herbs. Mary had learned about herbs from her mother in law and knew the best places to find particular herbs. Within a few days of the herb gathering, Jim would watch his mother boiling some of the herbs. Watched her straining and bottling the liquid. Then it was kept in the pantry but Jim cannot remember when it was drunk, or by whom. Also during the long summer holiday Jim would enjoy riding on a hay cart when his mother took the boys to a farm on Welbeck estates, where her aunt lived.
Jim had been christened James, his father and grandfather were also named James. The father worked at Warsop Main colliery, where he toiled with a pick and shovel. When not at work old James liked to indulge in the sport of angling, or fishing as he would always call it. His favorite venue was on the Great Lake, in view of Welbeck abbey. Young Jim kept asking how old he must be before he could catch fish. He was told he would be able to go to the lakes when he was bigger.
Jim would watch his dad's every action as preparations were made for an angling session. Nylon had not been invented and the hemp line was thick and heavy. Before use the line had to be greased to make it float. This involved unwinding from the reel and fastening between line posts on the garden. Then copious amounts of mutton fat were transferred to the line via a piece of rag. Bait consisted of garden worms, kept in a linen bag with some moss added, pearl barley (stewed) and caddis grubs. The latter were collected from flat stones in the river Meden between Stone Bridge and Monkey Island. Jim was not allowed to go into the river but James would hand a few stones for Jim to find the caddis and place in a tin with damp seaweed.
So it was that young Jim seemed to know everything needed to catch fish but apart from a few Sunday trips to Marnham and the Trent, he was still looking forward to the decision that he will be old enough to visit the lakes. The Fishermen's special train could be boarded at Warsop station every Sunday morning during the season and most anglers would get off at Fledborough. Jim cannot remember seeing many big fish caught from the Trent, although there were many other delights. In the meadows near the big wide river, there were lots of mushrooms to be found in the morning. Jim was thrilled to see the river traffic and in particular the trains of barges loaded with gravel that caused a stirring of the water and made waves as the banks were washed with muddy water. Then Jim recalls a sleepy walk back to Fledborough, where James would buy apples and pears from a farm. It would be dark when the train reached Warsop and then there was another walk to the alley. So much for fishing the Trent.
One day Jim came home from school for lunch and his mother told him that his dad was fishing on the top lake in Welbeck Park. Jim was to hurry home from school at three thirty and he could take some tea to his dad. Jim did not need reminding and he certainly was the first child out of school that afternoon. Mary helped little Jim over the garden fence, into the field and passed him a cloth bag containing the food and drink. "Now take care as you cross the road." said Mary, although there was not much traffic in those days, "Your dad is on Cuckney stream end, do you know how to get there?" "Yes Mam, I know the way" replied Jim, as he started to run across the field near the farm. Jim had seen Cuckney stream end from a distance several times when he had been taken to the farm. "Your dad says you should not be frightened of the stags." Shouted Mary.
Jim ran most of the way, up hill, over two more fields, where he turned and waved. Mary was of course still watching and she waved back. Jim crossed the road at the top Cuckney hill and ran past the keepers lodge and onto Donkey lane. Jim wondered why it was called Donkey lane and Jim thought it might be nice to see a Donkey because he had only ever seen them at Mablethorpe and Skegness. Many years later Jim learned that Donkey lane was really called Sandy lane.
When not running Jim did a kind of quick loping walk. Several times a rabbit or hare being disturbed on the path, or the fluttering and loud chattering of a pheasant set up and startled the lad. Animal, bird and boy may have been equally startled but Jim kept going and never looked back. Just once on Donkey lane when Jim met with a fox was he a little worried. Jim thought all foxes should run away and not stop and stare. Was this a fox or some other dangerous beast? After what seemed like hours although it could have been but a few seconds, the fox slunk away and Jim found his best rhythm again, soon reached Norton village. After Norton the lake could be reached through a gate that led direct to the Cuckney stream end. But this involved passing close to a spinney where there was always a herd of red deer with some large stags with very big antlers. The alternative route was via the main gate and this added more than half a mile to the trip.
Jim stopped at the first gate. Sure enough the herd was there and the stags looked huge. Jim thought about being told that he should not be frightened, but it didn't seem to help him much now, he could not stop being frightened. Jim decided that he would go this short way but if a stag looked threatening he would retrace his steps (much quicker) and go the long way. Tentatively, Jim walked through the gate.
Most of the herd was resting and the big stags looked like sentries, just standing still, but watching. Jim had been told to ignore the stags as he passed by. "Do not look at them" he had been told. But that was difficult, especially as Jim knew the stags were looking at him. Even when he had passed by the spinney and the majestic animals, Jim could not help turning his head to make sure he was not being followed. Then he was pleased to see his dad. "Good lad" said James. "Let's see what's in the bag." There were sandwiches for James, some kind of meat perhaps. For Jim there were of course banana sandwiches. But what had made the bag heavy and the reason he had been warned not to drop the bag was a bottle of tea in a wool sock. Either flasks had not been invented or else Jim's parents could not afford one, but it was many years later that he first saw a thermos flask. The tea was still hot.
Jim enjoyed the banana sandwiches but was anxious for his dad to finish eating and to start catching more fish. At last James produced a rod and reel he had previously got ready for Jim. What elation, what joy. Jim was at last being allowed to fish so he must be old enough! Just holding the rod over the water was enough. If a fish had been hooked it would have been a bonus, or then again it could have been an intrusion. Jim still remembers the satisfaction of that moment. Surprisingly he does not remember catching his first fish but he will never forget the day.
As the light grew dim and James packed away the fishing tackle. As James fastened tackle to his big "sit up and beg" bike, they both could hear the calls of the night birds. Also the chiming of the clock at the abbey could be heard clearly. Across the lake at Welbeck Woodhouse a brass band started practicing. James wheeled the bike close to the spinney, where the monster stags still guarded the herd and he commented on how the spinney route was by far the shortest. "If we keep to the track and ignore them, the stags will not make any move." Said James, with confidence. Jim felt much safer going passed the herd with his dad, but he made sure the big bike was between himself and the antlers.
Once on the road James peddled the big bike with Jim on the cross bar. On a carrier behind the seat was fastened a basket. The rods were lashed under the cross bar and James had a large bag containing fish over his shoulder. Hanging from the handlebars were two large pike, doubled with cord to prevent tails dragging on the road. Jim still remembers the exhilaration of the rides down Cuckney hill, with hair streaming back and brake blocks screaming and smoking. The breeze was welcome on a balmy summer evening. Thinking back on this Jim would agree that it was a dangerous ride and such a contraption would not be allowed on the roads today. It must also be agreed that parents of today dare not allow a seven-year-old child to venture far without supervision.
That summer Jim ran down Donkey lane several times, seeing plenty of wild life but seldom meeting a human. Bravely passing the spinney whether the herd was there or not, but always fearful of the large stags. Tea and banana sandwiches, trying to catch fish quicker than his dad, then the ride home. James always took fish and Mary would make some into fish cakes by adding potatoes, onions and herbs to the somewhat earthy tasting Perch. Several households near to where Jim lived would be glad of a few fish, or a steak of Pike. The Pike was cooked and eaten like Cod, which few locals could afford at the time. Before Mary served the coarse fish she would spend some time removing the bones. Pike never tasted like cod but it was nutritious and the herbs and onion made it more palatable.
One memorable evening James and Jim saw the complete herd of red deer stampeding towards the lake. They dived in where the water was deep or waded in the shallows near the bank side. Soon only heads and antlers could be seen as they reached deep water. As Jim remembers the lake at that point is more than 200 yards across and some of the deer were still jumping in the water after the leaders had finished the swim and were gathering near the Beeches and Chestnuts. Jim was anxious that some of the small fawn might drown but James assured him that they would all make it. There appeared to be some difficulty scrambling up the far bank but at last the herd moved off together into the trees and heading in the direction of Welbeck Woodhouse. Altogether this episode might have taken all of twenty minutes. James could not say why the herd went over to the North side of the lake, except to suggest that they may have wanted new pastures. Jim never again witnessed such a sight.
James once told Jim that fishing was next to praying, but Jim did not at the time understand what was meant. Later Jim concluded that to catch fish one certainly needed faith. In addition to the thrill of catching fish, Jim never tired of seeing the wealth of wild life, which abounded in the park. Although there was still some annual hunting on the estate, most of the land was more of a nature reserve. Behind Carburton Lake, in Nightingale wood, there is a heronry. It was at one time the largest in the country. With so many birds competing for food it is a wonder there are any fish left in the lakes. At least anglers are no longer allowed to take fish and according to Jim we do not have the need to take fish like when he was a boy. The herons now feed their chicks on plump goldfish from garden ponds in Warsop because the pickings are easier than the lakes.
Jim was very much confused when his dad told him one day that if he came to the lakes he must not go anywhere near the herd. To get to Cuckney stream end, Jim must take the long path. Jim asked his Mam about it and she said it was because we were into the rutting season. Jim did not seem to get any more explanation and it was a few years later when he learned about rutting.
When Jim asked Mary about James going fishing again she told Jim it might be Wednesday but he would not know until early Wednesday morning. "Why doesn't he know Mam?" asked Jim. "Because your dad wants to go to work but on Wednesday the pit might be closed." Explained Mary. It was then that Jim learned that when the big steam whistle at Warsop colliery blew twice it was to tell workers not to come because there was no work. Wednesday came and nothing was said before school, but when Jim came home for lunch he was told "Warsop blew twice this morning, your dad is on the Cuckney stream end. Hurry home this afternoon and you can go near the spinney. The herd is on the other side."
We never get summers like that any more.