Winkles for Tea
by Barbara Fisher
As I was born in St. Helen’s Road, Swansea, I suppose I could not be termed a real Mumblesite (my Grannie’s word). However, as my mother was descended from a long line of Mumbles Webborns, I was welcomed with open arms as a true child of the village. Indeed I felt this very way myself as I spent much of my time at my grandparents’ house at Number 19, Gloucester Place. My mother had married a gentleman from Brynmill and even though I was devoted to both my parents, I seemed to be drawn to the Mumbles and the way of life here. My Grannie, Annie Short, one of a large family of nineteen children, had come to Mumbles from a small village in Gloucestershire to work ‘in service’ when she was about 14 years of age. She met my Grampie, Billy Webborn, a ‘Capehorner’ and was no doubt (as later I was) entranced by his sea-tales and charismatic personality. He, as were many of the village men, was a Cape Horner, who, although the salt-sea ran strong in his veins, was happy to become a landlubber when he met and married his beloved Annie. His voyages around the stormy Cape Horn to Chile on the copper ore run could take anything up to three years and Annie wanted her husband at home.
He had run away to sea when he was 12 and had served many years before the mast. Grampie (my name for him) was a strong man—stocky of stature and handsome of face, with a big white moustache and ‘Annie’ tattooed on both his forearms. He carried a round tin of ‘twist,’ which was black tarry tobacco, curled around like a worm. He would cut pieces off this with his pen-knife and chew them, a routine for many such old seamen. He had been a ship’s carpenter, so had little difficulty in finding a shore job, there being much evidence in no. 19, where he had made stair-rails, half-decks, carved on cupboards and knife boxes. He had a big black sea-chest which lived in the attic, but I do not know how it got up there as we could not get it down when we moved!
Grannie took in summer people, usually from the valleys or Birmingham, giving them ‘room and attendance.’ She always seemed to be cooking for the lodgers and the same people returned year after year, some becoming friends.
There were no washing machines in those days, but Grannie allowed herself the luxury of having a ‘washerwoman’ to attend to the laundry. Many of the village families did B&B as Mumbles was then a favourite watering hole. There were no package deals, no cheap flights to exotic faraway places! Indeed, where better, in those halcyon days, just before the Second World War than the pretty fishing village of Mumbles and the beautiful Gower bays just beyond?
Grampie had a rowing boat, the ‘Viola’ in which he gave the ‘lodgers’ trips around the bay and I often went out in the boat, with Grampie chewing his twist and telling me sailors’ tales. We would go to Langland Bay to pick laverbread from the rocks, which Grannie would boil in her big soot-blackened saucepans. It seemed to take forever to cook and smelled the sea all though the house.
I remember sunny days spent picking winkles down at Southend. Grannie would make a bottle of proper lemonade with real lemons and well-water and some jam sandwiches. Then Grampie would get his big bucket and I, my small one and off we would go on our winkle-picking safari, which began at the mighty Knab Rock. I would wear my ‘winkle clothes’ which consisted of an old dress, old gym shoes and a straw hat. Grampie wore his trousers rolled up and on his head a red and white spotted handkerchief knotted at each corner.
At certain tides there was a sandy path from the Rock to the Pier and it was along here that we would go. The sand was always wet and gritty and there were shallow pools between the stones and the rocks, where sometimes Grampie would let me sit down, take off my shoes and dabble my feet—but always with the instruction ‘don’t tell your Grannie!’ Then he would turn over the stones and I would pick the winkles and put them in our buckets. Sometimes there were also small crabs and shrimps in the pools, but we never touched those as we were after the winkles! When our buckets were full, we began our homeward journey and for me, the best part—winkles for tea! When we arrived home, Grannie would wash the winkles in salted water, put them in one of her sooty saucepans and boil them over the fire. When they were cooked, she would tip them out onto a large plate, cut some thin bread and butter and we would sit around the table to eat them. Grannie would give me her hat-pin (I am sure it was not her Sunday-best one!) to pick the winkles out, but it was not easy and they would fly all over the plate and over me! Grampie liked vinegar with his, but I just liked the lovely thin bread and butter with mine.
Between them, my grandparents had a good living, but it was hard work. After some years, there was enough saved to have an extension built on the back of the house. A kitchen was constructed downstairs, the old kitchen became a dining room and over the new kitchen, another bedroom. All this for the princely sum of £40!
In the kitchen, my grandparents had a large black-lead grate complete with brass shell cases from the Great War on the mantle-piece and a brass railed fender in front. There was a big clock, which had once belonged to a school and Mr. Hopkins, the coal man used to wind it every week and when she died, Grannie left it to him. Across the kitchen-now-dining-room door there were heavy dark red plush curtains and once the Mari Llwyd or Horse’s Head paid us a visit at New Year. I was only about 3 or 4 years old and I was terrified. Grannie rushed at the revellers (in her starched bib and apron) and berated them soundly for frightening me!
The coal-house was inside next to the flue, like a big cupboard. You could walk into it and every year Grampie would, amazingly, white-wash it! I used to go with him to fetch the lime from Norton Kiln and I remember how it smoked when he added the water and tallow. Who would white-wash a coal-house today? Who would keep coal inside the house? Indeed, who has a coal fire?
There was a well in our back garden. Every third house had one and the neighbours each side had access to this. There were special gates through which they could come to collect their water, but Grannie had a hand-operated pump installed in her new kitchen and a flush toilet built (as opposed to the existing earth closet at the top of the garden). There was no gas or electricity—oil lamps downstairs, candles upstairs were the order of the day. Grannie did have gas installed eventually, after she retired and after Grampie died, but she rarely used it, preferring the soft golden glow of the oil lamps. I must say so did I. We had big feather mattresses to sleep on and feather eiderdowns over us, so we were never cold.
Both my grandparents were very fond of pictures and, at least in Grampie’s case the more seascapes the better. Two, which I remember well, were an oil painting of the Mumbles Lifeboat being launched and the other of Jack Cornwall, the boy hero who went down with his ship.
He also loved the cinema. The Regent, which occupied the building now housing the Castleton Walk Arcade, was a favourite, especially if a sea-saga was showing. The performances were continuous from 2.00pm until approximately 10.00p.m. On one occasion, Grampie took me to see Spencer Tracey and Freddie Batholemew in ‘Captain Courageous’, a tale of the Newfoundland Bank. We went in at 2 o’clock and came out at 8.00 and, only then because Grannie, dressed in her bib and apron, had come to fetch us and had given Grampie a big row for keeping me out so late!
Grampie had a fine voice and belonged to the Mumbles Male Voice Choir, which practised in the Park Inn. Of course, there was no TV then and I remember my mother, who was an accomplished pianist playing on the parlour piano, for Grampie to sing of an evening. Before she died, Grannie said she wanted All Saints Church to have her piano and afterwards, it remained there for many years. She would have been very pleased, as she was a devout Church-woman, also arranging Sunday-school treats, Whitsun teas and jumble sales. I remember tying cotton on her teaspoons so that they would not be lost at the tea parties. If anyone in the street was ill or paper-hanging needed to be done, the cry was ‘Get Annie!’ and she also assisted at childbirth and with ‘laying out’.
She had long light brown/grey hair, which she wore in a bun, in her ears she wore gold ‘sleeper’ earrings and around her neck a gold crucifix. Sunday was the only day I remember seeing her without her white starched bib and apron, as that was the day she would don her black skirt, white crepe-de-chine blouse with real pearl-shell buttons and large black hat with two long hat-pins. Once ready, she would take up her ivory encased prayer book, with gold-edged leaves and depart for Church. I often used to accompany her and she always gave me a silver thru’penny bit for the collection. At Christmas, she would take me in for a private viewing of the manger before the service began.
During the summer, some of Grannie’s relatives would visit, but of course she never had time to take them about as she had to look after her visitors or ‘PGs.’ That task was usually left to my mother and myself.
Two of them that I especially remember were Aunt Jen from Wootten-under-Edge and my mother’s cousin, Elsie Lugg from Bristol. We used to go down the bays or for a walk to the pier, where we would usually enjoy an ice-cream. We also used to take the Lodgers out and they were all enchanted with our beaches, Caswell being the favourite, mostly reached by a walk around the cliffs. Sounds, smells and tastes still evoke memories. I will never forget the cold sweet taste of water direct from the well. I recall black and white cats always called Jim andcanaries, generations of which were called Pip and all of which sang beautifully, sounds which bring back memories of No.19, along with the memory of listening, while in bed to Grannie’s carriage clock marking the hours with ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Bonnie Dundee’. Other noises recalled but now rarely heard, include the rockets or maroons fired to muster the lifeboat crew, the rattle of the Mumbles train and the Church bells, now heard less often, although the clock still chimes the years away.
My grandparents’ house was also full of unforgettable aromas—sea smells, fresh bread baking in the coal oven, even the soot, and beeswax and linoleum in the bedrooms. The perfume from the jasmine and honeysuckle, which entwined around each other and climbed up the front of the house from the front garden. The intoxicating smell of apples in the attic where they were stored and where the fragrance remained even after they were all used up so that they always seemed to be there. I used to help Grannie store them and she always impressed upon me not to put bad next to good, else the bad would rot the good. She never let me forget the significance of this and paralleled it with bad people corrupting the good.
In those days, around 1932, Gloucester Place was a quiet pretty village street with railed or walled front gardens full of spring and summer flowers. The only traffic was the stick & paraffin man, with his horse and cart, the cockle woman who brought home-grown veg with her cockles, also the coal man. But my favourites were the beautiful dray horses, which brought the beer to the Victoria Public House a little further up the road from No. 19. Other memories of long ago include watching the lamp-lighter light the gas lamps in the Gloucester Place and seeing Grampie attempting to climb the greasy pole on Regatta day in his bathing suit, which had built-up shoulders and legs!
Next door to No.19 was a large double-fronted house called Woodland Villa. I believe the name arose from the fact that when the house was first built approximately 100 or more years ago, the woods, which now hover on the skyline, like a crown over Gloucester Place came much further down the street. Woodland Villa belonged to the |Hayward family and there were four children—three girls and a boy. When the eldest daughter married, Grannie made her some pillows, with feathers from her own back-yard chickens sewn into the ticks by hand. Megan tells me she still has them over fifty years later. It was to this house that we were one day to move and although I loved my time in no.19, we are happy here.
Those were lovely days, which have lain half-forgotten in my memory until I began to write this story. Memories evoked perhaps by the scent of jasmine, a whiff of tobacco, a snatch of one of Grampie’s songs or a soft feather pillow. Never really gone, just filed away in a ‘time’ cabinet, to be taken out and caressed when desired.
Seventy years on, the quiet village street is no more. Almost every household has a car or cars. They lie littered like a never-ending necklace of clumpy metal up Gloucester Place, across Westbourne Place and down Park Street. (Most streets are sadly now like this) The stick man and the horses are gone and replaced by juggernaut lorries which bump their way up the street about their deliveries, scraping all the walls as they do so. Times have changed and we cannot leave our doors unlocked or lower windows open as in my Grandparents’ day.
I hope this has entertained you, dear reader and perhaps sparked off some memories of your own.