Chapter 24: Back to School - Ripon, 1947
There were a dozen or more officers, warriors from Engineers and Signals, who had been selected to go up to Cambridge in 1947, but we learned that there was a substantial hurdle to be cleared first. There would be a Qualifying Exam to be run at Cambridge that would eliminate those who failed to pass. This was not taken lightly and the War Office gathered us together in Ripon to polish up what remained of our knowledge of mathematics.
I needed a car, but it was not a question of walking in to a showroom and driving out with the model of one’s choice. Industry had been busy on other things and was only slowly arranging to look after such needs. The wily foresaw an opportunity. They were early in getting put down on lists for new models. Another new car was ordered as soon as the first car was delivered. When this second car arrived a couple of years later it would nearly be paid for by the second hand value of the first. I had no skills in this sort of market and had to do what I could. My father, one handed, could drive Armstrong Siddleys with manual gear change on the steering column. He had a fine large model that was referred to as ‘Queen Mary’. I picked up rather a smart drop-head variation of the same breed that, not unnaturally, became ‘Princess Elizabeth’. It served me well.
Arriving with the Sapper Regiment in Ripon I discovered that my Commanding officer there was the man that had been my Company Commander when I was a cadet at Woolwich. We were now of the same rank. The fortunes of war were very varied even for those that had survived physically unimpaired. Prisoners of war had often missed out on several promotions. In war you went where you were sent and did the job asked of you. It was not a time for self-seeking. I learned nothing of Colonel Gayer’s war, for that was his name, but am most grateful for his example in command of our cadet company. Commanders at any level come in different patterns. There are martinets, bold and courageous leaders, nitpickers and so the list builds up. Gayer achieved high standards calmly and helpfully. I describe him as a good human being, a high classification in my book. The instruction in Ripon was first class and when it came to the test some two thirds of us met the required entry standard.
There were family friends near York who I stayed with from time to time. I remember going to a Hunt Ball on one occasion and wondering in the early hours what it was we were all up to. Was this a relic of the five-and-a-half-day working week when there was only the half day of Saturday for riotous entertainment. Sunday had to be quieter. The issue is unimportant in itself. What it brought home to me was that in settled times we all grew up accepting the social structure in everything we did. After the war every old concept was being looked at with new eyes. One of the few advantages of war is that it stimulates new ideas in a valuable way - much good can result.
It was of interest to me to be serving in this part of Yorkshire as my mother’s family, by name Baynes, came from the neighbourhood. Many people today enjoy tracing their ancestors and this had also been a popular pursuit at the end of the 19th century, usually with professional help. I knew that a book, Bayne of Nidderdale, had been produced on the initiative of a Mayor of Ripon, John Baynes, who was not a traceable relation. The publisher in 1896 was William Harrison of Ripon and I found a stationers shop of this name. No surprise was shown when I asked if they had a copy of this elderly book. “Send for George,” someone said. George had been a lad in the shop for decades. “Yes”, he said, “I think there is an unbound copy tucked away” and sure enough there was. I bought it and had it well bound in Cambridge.
The River Nidd runs down a Dale, to the west of Ripon to Pateley Bridge at its foot by way of Fountains Moor. The habitation in the upper reaches is remote even today. As in the Swiss Alps those living in isolated mountain villages often know their genealogy well back through the centuries. The book contains a detailed family tree for our branch from 1593 down to my mother’s generation, with short biographies of many of the participants. There is an interesting speculation that takes the story back to the 12th century and beyond, but I could not follow it up at the time. I was far too busy and indeed preoccupied.
Back in India, Sheelah and her parents had moved to Alwar State to the northeast of Jaipur. Her father Rex had retired from his long service work and taken employment with the Maharaja. Alwar had suffered the desecration of the time; all Moslem edifices had been razed to the ground. The exchange of letters between Ripon and Alwar was amongst the highest priorities at both ends of the link. Visiting the Signals HQ Mess in Catterick Camp I took post in one of the two phone boxes and made my first inter-continental telephone call. When it was over Sheelah and I were engaged to be married. I have long thought that there should be a well-polished brass plate on the site to record the event.
The large entrance hall of the Mess that we had to abandon as a result of one of the Army reorganizations is panelled in oak by Robert Thompson of Kilburn. His trademark, a carved mouse, appears on every piece of furniture made in his workshops. In these days when the computer and its mouse play such an important part in our communications I consider that Signals might use Thompson’s traditional mouse in our Corps heraldics. Thompson happens to have been born in Kilburn Hall where my branch of the Baynes family lived for nearly 100 years from 1650.
Course completed, I drove to Montford Bridge in Shropshire to stay with my godmother Eleanor Beauville, a lady of character. She said that she could not have survived the recent winter, the worst for 60 years, if she had not been able to keep her circulation going by sitting with her feet in the plate warming oven of her Aga. She also claimed to have won praise at a Conservative meeting when she presented the local Member of Parliament with a dozen eggs, died a handsome blue. With egg rationing this was no mean prize.
Driving back to Oxfordshire I told my mother of my engagement. Having seen the charming and glamorous photographs I had brought back with me from India, my choice was applauded, particularly by my father.