Can any of us imagine what the tiny children, only three or four years old, must have felt when they climbed onto a bus in a small north London street one September morning and trundled out of the city, travelling for some two hours before arriving at a strange, enormous, blacked-out house in the middle of the countryside with just their teachers and assistants, the latter who were just young girls, still teenagers, themselves? Or what their parents must have felt like, arms around each other, waving their children goodbye, being brave, as the bus disappeared from view?
In fact, some of the parents simply could not bear the parting and came to collect their children soon after they arrived. History does not relate what happened to them but, given how badly London was bombed in the Second World War, it may not have worked out well for all of them.
However, the photographs of the ones that remained here draw us in, evoking glimpses of their life of country walks, clambering on gates, groups of them clustering round their teachers. Perhaps they would have laughed as they chased falling leaves or looked for where the fairies lived in the remains of tree stumps. Spring would have been welcome each and every year with the hope that perhaps the war might end and they could go home.
It certainly would have been a very different life to the urban industrial world they had been born into. In one archive folder is a sketch book full of crayon drawings on rough brown paper done by the children. Looking closely at each one gives clues to what they saw, from the tanks (I know they were Canadian) to Lord Carnarvon (who had to be a King because he lived in a Castle).
It was not just the children whose childhoods were fundamentally altered. The teachers and nursing assistants sent with them had very little time off and a very different training and experience from their original plans. The clothes they could not buy due to lack of supply, the dances they could not go to as they were “stuck out” in the countryside although I am sure there were fun moments too with admiring glances from locally billeted soldiers and lifts hitched into Newbury to meet friends.
In Spring 1945 the girls looking after the children would have been crowded round wireless sets, listening to the news, hoping that the allies were advancing, picking up the gossip in local pubs from the American airbase at Greenham. Rationing remained, not just of the news but of clothes and food, so the idea of lent and fasting during spring would not have been the same as in times of plenty. The B-17 plane crash that took place behind the Castle would have haunted all who lived here, the estate team running up and to try to drag the airmen out. One survivor was taken away to hospital still alive whilst the USA Air Force from Greenham Common collected and removed all the major parts of the plane.
And then, almost without warning, the war in Europe was over. The cheers must have been heard by the legendary man in the moon with enormous crowds collecting in London and other cities, the tears of relief and the smiles. Would the children staying here have understood the news? Perhaps they were still too young but I like to imagine that they grasped the fact that they would be seeing their parents again.
“Imagine” by John Lennon has become almost the song of choice that we sing or hum along to when contemplating a world of peace:
“Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one.”
Over 140 million people have viewed him singing this on “YouTube” but I wonder what those who shouted for joy on VE Day would think of where we are today?
At the very least our celebration at Highclere this year on 8th May, along with all those other events happening throughout Europe, is about saying thank you to all those who fought or served during WWII and to those who still serve and save today. Highclere has a big heart but we are a small team so if any of you can support us on this day, please do – we would love to have your input.
As Winnie the Pooh said “It never hurts to keep looking for sunshine”.