A Dorset life for me
By Roger Guttridge; the illustration is by Becky Unwin
Published in August ’13
Hearing an old Nat King Cole number the other day reminded me of those ‘lazy, hazy, crazy days’ of summers past. The song’s soda, pretzels and beer mostly passed me by in ’fifties and ’sixties Sturminster Newton, save for the occasional half of Hall and Woodhouse’s finest, surreptitiously consumed in a pub that shall be nameless. But of lazy, crazy days I had my share.
Many involved the River Stour, itself the epitome of laziness as it wends its leisurely way through the Dorset countryside. Few families in the ’fifties had a car, so a trip to the seaside was a rare event that required public transport. Fiddleford Mill provided the perfect alternative, and on a hot summer Sunday dozens of families could be seen traipsing across the fields from Sturminster, towels, swimming cossies and picnic baskets in hand. Fiddleford’s facilities included a sloping strip of concrete that made an ideal platform for sunbathing; shallow pools that were perfect for paddling or learning to swim, as long as you didn’t mind the carpet of slimy green weed beneath your feet; and deeper, darker depths for the confident swimmer, who was in a tiny minority.
The paddling pools were provided by a weir of sorts, a few yards upstream from the hatches. An angling website tells me that this cascading water-feature is a recently restored ‘fish pass’ but in my childhood I never once heard it called a fish pass. To my youthful ears, the grown-ups seemed to call it the ‘Roman bay’, or perhaps they said ‘rolling bay’ and I was mishearing. Half-a-century on, I’m still not sure, and a Google search of ‘Roman’ and ‘rolling’ yielded nil results. Perhaps a reader can enlighten me.
Below this ‘fish pass’ was the millpond where, on those same summer days, vast shoals of chub could be seen basking near the surface – the same millpond and chub described by Monica Hutchings in Dorset River (1956): ‘There are swans and the overhanging oak woods, water-meadows and distant glimpses of Sturminster, and a pool so full of chub that they appeared to be climbing over each other to get back into the main stream,’
It was probably the advent of the family car that ended these summer gatherings at Fiddleford. My father had one of the first on the Rixon council estate and we traded the river for the seaside. Like many of its generation, our ageing Morris 8 was prone to overheating, especially in the frustrating queues that stretched for miles into Studland and Swanage on hot summer Sunday mornings. Those queues stole hours of my childhood.
As the Faltering ’Fifties gave way to the Swinging ’Sixties, childhood gave way to teens for me. The unhurried Stour still contributed to those lazy, crazy days of summer as I joined friends on the riverbank downstream from Sturminster recreation ground. Sunbathing on the grass alternated with impromptu swimming races. No lifeguards, of course, and no thoughts about health and safety. But we all survived.
The Stour was also the venue for the river sports, a regular feature of Sturminster’s August carnival week in those days. Tug-of-war was the main attraction, and with a river separating each pair of teams, it was far more entertaining than its dry-land equivalent. I can still picture the lines of red-faced muscle-men, heaving and groaning as they dug their hobnailed heels into the mud and put their weight on the rope. Some pulls lasted many minutes but once a side was broken, its members slithered into the deep in rapid succession.
On carnival day itself, topicality was key. My own interpretation of Roger Bannister won a prize at the afternoon children’s carnival in 1954. In the prizewinners’ parade, I was advised to follow the carnival queen and, being a literal four-year-old, I did the first four-minute miler proud by sprinting past the other winners and planting myself almost on Her Majesty’s train.
On carnival night huge crowds packed the pavements for the procession of floats, bands, coin collectors and Keystone Kop-style lunatics whose slapstick routines kept the spectators in stitches. Then it was away to Herbert’s funfair, where prices had doubled since the afternoon and fairgoers jostled and swooped for bumper cars like seagulls chasing chips on Poole Quay.
An extra attraction one year was a middle-aged stripper who strutted her stuff in a tiny tent as a gaggle of lads aged 14 or 15 giggled four feet away. Even the artiste herself dissolved into laughter when one of our number – a visitor from ‘oop North’ – straight-facedly inquired in his Lancashire accent: ‘Can we tooch?’ This educational experience cost us a shilling each, but all agreed it was a shilling well spent.
I won a goldfish at the fair once, and named him Herbert after his previous owners. Like the ageing stripper, he was one of life’s survivors. After I used bleach to clean his tank, the poor little fellow turned a whiter shade of pale. And after inadvertently washing him down the kitchen sink, I dashed outside in time to execute a rescue before he reached the drain.