They Don’t Build Them Like That Anymore
A Stream in the Cellar
By Tim Genower
When war broke out in 1939, my father was a curate in a parish in south-west London. Along with many other families, we were evacuated at the beginning of the war, and my mother, my sister (aged five) and myself (aged three) moved to Somerset, where we stayed until early 1940, when my father accepted an appointment to become Rector of the parish of Wootton in the Isle of Wight. So it was not long after the outbreak of war we all came to live at Wootton Rectory.
It was a fine old house, as can be seen from the photograph, but although compared with the average modern residence it seems large, it was in fact the smallest rectory on the Island. It seems that those responsible for building rectories had always assumed that large house were indispensable for the clergy.
Despite the fact that the previous Rector had occupied the house for no fewer than sixteen years, at the time that we moved in it would certainly not have been considered habitable by today’s standards. Indeed, the churchwarden introduced my father to his new abode with the remark that “this’ouse ain't fit to live in. I wouldn’t live in it.”
It was not difficult to see why. There was no gas, no electricity, no main drainage. There was mains water on tap, certainly, but the only means of heating it was an antiquated solid fuel stove in the kitchen, which leaked. The bathwater was discharged in to the cellar, rainwater gullies had airbricks in them, and it was impossible to walk round the house due to the impenetrable tangle of brambles and associated undergrowth that grew right up to the walls at the rear. Given that it was wartime, with most of the men who would normally be employed in the trades that could deal with such matters away fighting for King and country, the prospect of any speedy rectification of such problems was remote to say the least.
Incidentally, six years later, in 1946, the sanitary inspector of Newport reported that the running stream in the basement was a danger to the health of the inhabitants, and such conditions must not be allowed to continue. They continued, with only slight modification until my father retired in November 1968.
There were, of course, compensations for any conveniences that we suffered. There was more than enough room to spread ourselves in the extensive accommodation which was a characteristic of old rectories such as this. For a start there were six large bedrooms, three on the first floor and three on the second, so that we all slept on the first floor. My sister and I each had a large bedroom to ourselves, with my parents sleeping in the third and largest room. Every bedroom had an open fireplace, an although these were seldom used, just occasionally if one of the family was in bed during the winter months fire would be lit in the appropriate room. I shall always be convinced that the gentle glow of firelight on the ceiling above the bed as one drifted off to sleep at night has a decided therapeutic value, and hastened the recovery of the patient.
On the second, or top, floor, one of the three bedrooms was used as a playroom for my sister and myself, and for many years I had my model railway in it (Gauge ‘0’, of course). Another top floor bedroom was designated as the “Guest Room” and although such furnishings as my parents managed to provide in those days of austerity were necessarily basic, the view from the window was absolutely magnificent, and must certainly have gladdened the hearts of such visitors as came to stay with us. Overlooking green fields which sloped gently down to the silver thread of Wootton Creek, with more fields and woods beyond, the eye could follow the course of the creek almost to the estuary at Fishbourne. The point at which the creek merged with the sea was hidden from us by the substantial spread of oak woodlands which lay between the fields and the shores of the Solent.
These woods lined the sides of a greatly flattened V, forming a frame in which was set the sea itself, with beyond that coastline of Lee-on-Solent and Gosport, and the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour. After the war was over, and the world had returned to a more peaceful existence, we often saw big ships such as the Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary, and many others, as they gradually appeared from behind the oak woods on one side of the V, steamed slowly across the expanse of water and then disappeared just as gradually behind the woods on the other side.
During the war the outlook after dark was usually of searchlights probing the night sky, but when peace returned the lights of Portsmouth, Southsea, Gosport, and Lee-on-Solent made a fascinating backdrop to the fields, the woods, the creek, and the sea. Now the fields, like the Rectory, are no more, and a conglomeration of bungalows occupies the area where once cows grazed, rabbits played, village folk walked the footpath across the fields, and nature, not man, was predominant.
However, to return to the accommodation at the Rectory. In addition to the six bedrooms, there was on the first floor a bathroom and a dressing room. On the ground floor were a study, lounge, dining room, butler’s pantry (which needless to say, was never used by a butler in our time, and became known as the “store room” by reason of the use to which it was put), a large kitchen and equally large scullery, a walk-in larder comprising an inner and an outer larder, and a W.C. (There was no upstairs lavatory when we moved in; it was not until many years later that one was installed).
The scullery overlooked a small courtyard, which was flanked by various outbuildings, including two coalsheds, a dairy, and two outside lavatories. Under the kitchen was a cellar, which, believe it or not, had a stream running through it, and which to me as a little boy always seemed a dark and forbidding place. There were both front and back stairs, the back staircase being eventually blocked up when the up-stairs lavatory was installed.
The grounds, far more than a mere “garden,” were most impressive. In total area approaching four acres, they consisted of two lawns, either of which would have presented a challenge to any ordinary lawn-mower; rather more than an acre of kitchen garden; an orchard accounting for another acre or so which was reached by a narrow overgrown path of some fifty yards, which was full of mature apple trees that, to judge by their appearance, had never been pruned since planting; and a large courtyard which was walled and gated. On one side of this were outbuildings consisting of a loosebox, two pigsties, a coach-house and harness-room with hayloft above, and a stable for three horses complete with stalls and mangers.
The house was approached from the road by a horseshoe-shaped driveway, with two gates opening on to the road itself – an arrangement that was greatly appreciated by visitors with cars, as they could drive in at one gate and out at the other. There were, however, very few cars about in those days; it was not until long after the war that the crunch of pneumatic tyres on gravel became a familiar sound at the Rectory.
Indeed, for many years we had to keep the gates firmly shut, as otherwise the cows that were driven up and down the road every day by the local farmer would inevitably invade our garden – and once in, it was none too easy to get them out. Many a time we had a garden full of cows, before we managed to train ourselves never to forget to fasten the gates, but as the years passed many of the fields that once been pasture were sold for development, the cows ambled along the road for the last time, motor cars became for more numerous, and the gates were left permanently open.
In the kitchen garden there were two ponds, adjacent to one another, and connected by a small stream, with a small garden shed beside the larger pond. A stream flowed out of the lower pond and down the fields, ultimately, to arrive at Wootton Creek. Later, these ponds became known as the duck ponds, for during the war my father took advantage of the environment in which we lived, and at one time or another kept hens, ducks, geese, pigs, and rabbits. All these were in addition to the indispensable cat that kept the rats and mice at bay.
Of the assorted livestock, the most successful were the hens, providing us with a supply of eggs when such things could not be bought for money – man people will still remember the egg powder that was sold as a substitute for eggs. The rabbits were a total failure, needing regular feeding but serving no useful purpose whatsoever, we could not bear to kill and eat them. Pigs in wartime, were a marvellous investment, providing a most welcome supply of pork, bacon and cooking fat.
At the rear of the outbuildings bordering the large courtyard was a sizeable ditch. This was usually full of water in winter, but dry in summer, and it marked the boundary of the Rectory grounds on the north side. Beyond this, however, were two adjoining plots of land that were also church property, and on these plots stood two small semi-detached cottages. The tenants who lived in these cottages paid a rent of five shillings per week each (25p in today’s money). Many years after the war these cottages were modernised, and both given a proper bathroom and indoor toilet (replacing the outdoor privy which each garden had harboured), and the rents were raised to ten shillings per week each, which the tenants were very happy to pay for their improved accommodation.
During the 28 years that we spent at the Rectory, a process of gradual improvements went on that slowly but surely rendered the house more fit to live in and the garden both more amenable and more productive. The first requirement, of course, was for a supply of gas or electricity – preferably both. As my mother had cooked by gas in London, it was logical to ask the local gas company if they could provide a supply of gas to the Rectory. However, they were not interested. The electricity company, on the other hand, were only too willing to cooperate, and so before many months had passed electricians were busy wiring up the place, and in due course we were able to enjoy the wonders of mains electricity. In between power cuts, that is, which were plentiful in wartime. The leaky stove in the kitchen was replaced with one known as an Ideal “Cookanheat” which both cooked our food and heated the water, and my mother was able to put aside the paraffin stove on which all her cooking had been done, and keep it in reserve for emergencies.
Incidentally, both the gas and electricity concerns were private companies then. The wheel turns full circle, it seems. And I still have a card of fusewire dating back to those early days bearing the legend “Isle of Wight Electric Light and Power Co. Ltd.”
Other improvements followed the introduction of electricity and the solid fuel cooker. My father found a man who was handy with a scythe, who came and attended to the lawns for us. Linoleum was laid in the hall (whoever heard of hall carpets in those days?). My mother became proud owner of an electric cooker to augment the solid fuel one. The orchard was eventually sold, reducing the cultivated area of the garden to a more manageable size. A soakaway was provided for the bathwater. The cellar was pumped dry and the stream contained within pipes, although this was many years after we first moved in.
Also in later years, an electric immersion heater was installed so that it was no longer necessary to keep the kitchen stove alight during the summer months, and in due course this stove itself, having rendered long and faithful service, was replaced by an Aga cooker. But during the war years improvements came very slowly indeed, and compared with the standard of living that so many folk take for granted today, life in the Rectory was, in many respects, Spartan.
But I would certainly not have wished to spend my childhood anywhere else, and I have many happy memories of that lovely place – the tremendous log fires in the lounge that kept us thoroughly warm in winter, the sunshine streaming in through the south-facing lounge windows, the jungle of a garden that brought such joy to my sister, myself, and all our friends when we were children, the view across the creek and the Solent that was beyond compare, the immense pleasure of living in the country, and many more.
The Rectory was demolished in 1968 when my father retired, and a new one built on what used to be our front lawn. The original one had been built in 1856 at a cost of £1,275 plus architect’s fees of £69 15s. I was very sorry that it ended its days as an undignified heap of rubble, but there is no doubt that it was not a suitable house for today’s requirements. Given a butler, two or three maids, and half a dozen gardeners, it would be a proposition. But progress is progress, and we live in a very different age now.
This article was also reproduced in ‘Yesterday’ In Hampshire, Sussex and Isle of Wight. April 1989.
Full permission to reproduce the article has been given by Mr Tim Genower of Gosport.
Note: Mr. Genower’s father was the Rev. A. H. Genower B.A.This page was last edited on: 4th March, 2015 06:16:29