Return to the past…Honeybottom, Berkshire
There are rare occasions when a place or a person influences one’s thinking and direction in life. For me Honeybottom was the place and the late John Saunderson, who owned Honeybottom when Bev and I lived there in 1973, was the person.
The name ‘Honeybottom’ came to note during Cromwellian times (1653-1658) when men of his court went to the bottom field and collected honey from the honeykeeper.
John loved the gardens of Honeybottom and his escape from the rigors of running a business was to get into the garden and breathe it, live it and love it. In the above photograph he is standing with a log splitter (the conical steel wedge on the chopping block) called a Rocket. The Rocket was driven into the sawn log with a sledgehammer and manageable pieces of firewood were split from the log. The Rocket was made in the engineering works owned and managed by him.
A public footpath ran past the shed then past the kitchen window of the house and on occasions one could look out the window and a total stranger would be looking in. This probably doesn’t happen these days as there is an alternative right of way. A sign on the gate (to the right of the shed) indicates the present owners prefer walkers not to use the path by the kitchen window.
How I met John is an intriguing story and begins in 1971, the year Bev and I met. In 1971 after returning to Australia, having driven overland from Colombo (Ceylon) to London, I was re-employed as an engineering surveyor with the NSW Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission and was sent to Tamworth. I didn’t know a soul in Tamworth but to my benefit I had a chance meeting with Bev during a squash club tournament.
Soon after our chance encounter she informed me she was going by ship to England where she intended to work prior to setting off and touring the continent. At the time colonials had no trouble getting work in the UK and while waiting to begin work in a country pub she worked as a companion to John Saunderson’s mother who lived in the Barn at Honeybottom. Following her work stints in England and a trip to Greece she ended up in Munich and attended the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.
Meanwhile I was still in Tamworth languishing over her departure and it would be an understatement to say I was feeling forlorn. Within days of first meeting her I knew I was going to marry her and with this in mind I was driven to get to her post-haste. After a favourable phonecall to enquire if she would like me to join her we finally met in Munich.
Making an international phonecall in those days was no simple matter. After a booking was made one held on until connected and if by chance a malfunction occurred the caller was disconnected and placed on what was referred to as ‘international suspense’, meaning the caller had to hold the line until reconnected. Sometimes it took hours before reconnection. This happened to me on one occasion and with subsequent phonecalls I had by my side a thermos flask of tea, sandwiches and a book.
Once in each other’s company we made plans for a grand tour of Europe and the Middle East. This involved the purchase of a VW Beetle and loaded with camping gear we headed east with the intention of visiting Baghdad in Iraq. Due to political trouble we only made it as far as Damascus in Syria, however we did well to get as far as we did as it was midwinter and we were travelling on a very tight budget.
Before setting off on the grand tour Bev had never slept in a tent or sleeping bag so the whole trip was a totally new experience for her. Some years later Bev told me that on some occasions she felt a little anxious especially when we stealth camped. At the time she never complained or voiced her anxiety and I do believe it was because she had confidence in me which probably arose from the fact that she never experienced an uncomfortable night, even when sleeping in the car.
It’s interesting to note we had no table, chairs or other camping luxuries. It’s also interesting that in many camp photographs there is a large bottle of wine. In the case above the bottle of wine is just below the tail of the fish. We didn’t catch the fish but bought it from a local fisherman. Over the hedge behind Bev was a plot of tomatoes from which the farmer told us we could help ourselves. If I remember correctly we camped there for a couple of days enjoying the warm weather.
The camp above was our first free camp and it was also the first time we erected our fantastic French Jamet tent (we still have it albeit a little rotten). Soon after the above photograph was taken a local farmer appeared cradling a shotgun and from what we could understand he wanted us to move on. We pleaded ignorance and when he realised we were not a threat to his sheep he finally wandered off into the night.
Driving in Yugoslavia in the 1970s was not for the faint-hearted as not only were the roads rough and ill maintained but many of the mountain roads had no guardrails. If a driver went off the road and into the ravine it was all over. It was not unusual to see cars at the bottom of a ravine.
Soon after the above photograph was taken we came across two men sitting on the side of the road, their car had gone over the edge and was lodged against a tree some twenty metres below. Luckily they escaped with only a few bruises. We were unable to give them a lift to the nearest town; all we could do was alert the police. In Yugoslavia at the time it was customary for friends and relatives to construct a metal sculpture made from car parts at the site of a fatality. Sadly I didn’t get a photograph of one.
After many months of travelling and camping in Europe and the Middle East we ended up in Bremerhaven northern Germany. When we enquired about a ferry to Scandinavia the only available one left in four days and being impulsive travellers we boarded another ferry that was leaving in an hour bound for Harwich England.
Once on English soil we thought, what next? At this stage we were getting low on funds and getting a job was a priority. At this time I had not met John Saunderson or visited Honeybottom but Bev told me about her experiences there and she thought that maybe John might give me a job in his engineering works. Down to Honeybottom we went and when John and I met we made a connection that continued until his passing in 2007. After telling him that I was a toolmaker and had studied time and motion study before surveying he made an excited repetitious utterance ‘yes, yes, yes’ and offered me a position at his engineering works. I taught Bev how to read a micrometer and she was employed in the inspection department.
The Ainjest was an attachment that enabled the cutting of screw threads at high speed when attached to production lathes. The engineer-minded readers will appreciate the precision machining of the components making up these units.
Most businesses have humble beginnings and that was the case with Saunderson and Costin, which had its beginnings in the barn (before conversion) at Honeybottom.
John told me during many of our fireside chats that his first lathe was earthed using a short piece of copper wire attached to a screwdriver shoved into the lawn outside.
Bev and I were very happy with our lot, we both had jobs and lived in the Wing. In return for free lodgings I was the jobbing gardener around the estate. Jobbing gardeners don’t do delicate work such as pruning roses or planting out seedlings, they do the rough work and in my case it involved gathering and splitting firewood, cutting the grass and maintaining the boundary fence. This was a top priority for John in order to prevent deer from an adjoining common getting through and devastating his beloved garden.
An appropriate cliché as to how we were feeling would be ‘we were as happy as pigs in mud’.
The Wing where we lived was haunted. On one occasion during the night a curtain draped in front of an open window moved sideways and then a few seconds later a securely closed door opened and closed. I mentioned the event to John over breakfast the next morning and he told me I was not the first to report the supernatural event.
On the right was a workshop and one of my many jobs when living at HB was to replace the rotten wooden window frame of the workshop.
Just inside the door in the above photograph was an inglenook which is a large fireplace in which seats are built into the actual fireplace. When the oldest part of the house was built there was no central heating and the warmest place was in the fireplace, sitting close to the fire.
Another of my jobs whilst at HB was to save the back door from complete collapse. The protruding bricks at the right-hand corner of the building indicate the original builders envisaged extensions at some time.
In addition to the free lodgings John supplied us with a baby Fiat car (Italian backpack) to get to and from work each day. I couldn’t drive it as the pedals were too close together and my wide foot would hit the clutch and brake pedal simultaneously. Bev did the driving.
During this tour of England (Encountering the Past Part 3) we visited one of John’s sons, David (subject of the Totnes post), and he told me of a conversation he had with his father relating to my employment. To his ‘You don’t have a job for Fred’, John’s reply was, ‘If someone turns up with skills, create one for them’. At the time I was not privy to this conversation and knowing this now makes me more appreciative of John’s attitude to a couple of colonials. It is only this year that I realise why John liked to have colonials around him: during WW2 many of his bomber crew and fellow commanders were Australians and New Zealanders and he held them in high regard. There will be stories about John’s wartime experiences in the next post ‘Honeybottom and John S Part 2’.
During the time we lived at HB there were two New Zealand housekeepers in John’s employ, Natalie and Allison. On a number of occasions I remember the girls suggesting to John we should have a party. A party for John was not a simple matter of having a few friends over for a barbecue, a party was an organised affair. After some discussion (there was always discussion even when it related to a trivial matter) it was decided that the party was to have a Greek flavour and before the big event it was imperative to have a test run. The chef who was to cook at the forthcoming big event cooked dolmades and presented John with samples of various Greek wines for testing.
The only people at the test run party, other than a few of John’s closest friends, were the two New Zealand girls and an Irish lad and his girlfriend who lived in a cottage attached to the Honeybottom estate. It could be said that we all had ‘a super time’, except Allison. During the party Allison came to the realisation that the tall handsome Irish lad, who often rode a fine black stallion through the fields next to HB, was spoken for. To console her broken heart she indulged in too much wine, left the house and went wandering into the darkness of the night.
Midnight came and after telling John that Allison was missing he decided we should search for her. John was dressed in black and almost impossible to see, all I could do was follow the tinkling of ice in his glass of whisky. After suggesting to John I couldn’t see him he placed a white handkerchief on his shoulder, which provided me with a beacon to follow.
We searched along the garden path, by the garden pool and finally found her lying in the stinging nettles beside a cottage where the man of her dreams lived. As we looked down at Allison in the stinging nettles John and I discussed what the best plan of action might be. He was always one for making action plans, leaving nothing to chance, even to the trimming of a tree. I guess it could be said he was a tactician. The plan involved me supporting her on one side and him on the other. It was difficult staggering back to the house as on the way up to the cottage John had lost the beacon handkerchief and every time a moonbeam shafted through the overhead canopy he bent down thinking the moonbeam was the lost handkerchief. Each time he bent down Allison fell on top of him and I fell on top of her. Allison was oblivious to our rescue attempts and in between crying bouts she called ‘I want to go to Nelson’. Nelson was her hometown in New Zealand. She was obviously having a bout of homesickness brought on after learning the man she desired was unavailable.
Note the molehills in the above photograph. Moles are small furry mammals that develop a series of tunnels (traps) into which earthworms and small invertebrates fall. Once the mole detects the worm they zoom in and with front paws grab the worm and stretch it to force out any earth in its intestines before eating. If the worm is not eaten immediately the worm is taken off and stored in a larder for later consumption. Researchers have discovered mole larders with over a thousand worms in them.
The hills are not where the mole comes to the surface for air but are spots near the surface where the food being sought is. Moles are high-speed tunnel diggers, they can dig four metres of tunnel per hour.
The saying, ‘don’t make a mountain out of a molehill’, meaning don’t exaggerate the problem, was first recorded in Tudor times.
One morning following the rescue of Allison we were gathered in the kitchen for breakfast. John joined us and read a poem he had written for her.
Did she dream of Nelson as she wandered through the night,
Or was it alien cultures that urged her soul to flight.
We only knew that we must aid a spirit so forlorn
So I was picking moonbeams by the holly and the thorn.
We sought her down the woodland paths upon that night so cool.
We searched among the brambles and in the garden pool.
Our fears were nigh to madness as onward swept the dawn
And I was picking moonbeams by the holly and the thorn.
We found her by the cottage wall, lying so cold and still
Nature had taken a cruel toll, sorrow had had its fill.
Ask not what happened then my dears so long before the dawn,
For I was picking moonbeams by the holly and the thorn.
EJ Saunderson 29.9.1973
THE NIGHT OF the BIG EVENT
Friends of John’s from far and wide came to the big event. It was my duty to meet each car and present the driver and passengers with a glass of chilled champagne. By dark the carpark was full of Bentleys, Rolls and Jaguars and one of the Rolls Royce owners insisted he park his car directly facing the dining room windows. When I questioned the move he informed me that he had paid big money for his car and he wanted to be sure all those inside saw it. Such is the status game.
Prior to the party I made sure the grounds were in top order. The lawns looked their best and I tied bunches of grapes imported from Spain on the grapevine. Only the very observant would know of the deception and I heard a number of visitors remark to John that they couldn’t believe he was able to grow grapes out of season.
The party was a success and in retrospect it reminded me of a flamboyant roaring 20s party, beautiful people enjoying the moment as if there was no tomorrow. John wanted a photographic record of the night and asked me to click away at will. Everyone posed happily, many of the ladies presenting their best profile before I took the shot. However there was one woman, an actress, who refused, ‘Darling, my face is under copyright and if you want to pay a fee you may take my photograph’.
Some of John’s friends stayed overnight and one, Chalky White who, to quote John, ‘was black and an engineering officer’ stood unaccounted for. Again John and I headed off into the night and after once again searching along the garden path and by the garden pool we found him near the tennis court: he had fallen down an embankment and lay prostrate jammed between a brick retaining wall and the tennis court fence. I don’t believe Chalky was under the influence, he simply went for a walk into the night and lost his bearings.
Life at Honeybottom did not revolve around frivolity all the time, there were serious moments too. Often on a Sunday afternoon John organised a musical soiree. Musician friends played delicious classical music on violin, viola, piano, flute and cello. John was an accomplished cellist and played with the Newbury Symphony Orchestra. On a number of occasions flautist Hilary du Pre, sister of renowned cellist Jacqueline du Pre, joined John and the other musicians. Prior to living at HB Bev and I had only a passing interest in classical music, however after sitting in on the musical soirees we began to appreciate the beauty of the music. Every time I hear a cello as either part of a major orchestral production or as a solo rendition I think of the heady days at Honeybottom and the Sunday afternoon soirees.
A couple of major projects were undertaken during our time at Honeybottom. One was the building of a conservatory between the main house and the Barn. All houses in England need a conservatory: a warm place to sit on a cold day to read and sup on a cup of tea. The conservatory can be seen at the beginning of the post.
The building of a conservatory is not really all that interesting as a topic but what’s interesting is how John transported the reinforced glass for the roof from the builders’ yard to the site. The following photograph shows how it was done.
Some might consider driving narrow country lanes with sheets of glass at neck level, a dangerous exercise. No doubt it was but when one is privy to John’s WW2 Royal Air Force and postwar experiences as a test pilot taking this sort of risk was minimal.
That’s the end of this post. The next will detail John’s WW2 experiences and our return to Honeybottom in the 1980s with our two boys Tim and Toby.
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After re visiting HB and thinking of the days we had there I went in search of a suitable quotation and I came up with the words of Robert Browning (1812-1889) esteemed English poet.
‘How sad and bad and mad it was – but then, how it was sweet’.