Donald May: memories of Shorne Woods

Donald May remembers his childhood

I lived in The Cottage, now Merston Lodge, Butchers Hill, Shorne, from when I was born in 1924 until I was called up for the Royal Navy in 1942. [Shorne Parish used to be called Shorne and Merston.]

I haven’t got a lot of memories of Shorne Woods but I did play there as a child. The slurry pit, which was the main clay excavation area, was probably quite dangerous, although not to us. I can remember losing a wellington in the wet clay so it must have been quite bad. The diggers loaded the conveyor belt, which transported the clay to the slurry tank, from where it was pumped to Swanscombe, as far as I know it was a 24 hour a day operation.

We had no fear of being attacked and we roamed wherever we wanted. The ‘Lookout Tower’ was somewhere that we used to go – it was a bit rickety but we still climbed it – without any thought for our safety. I can’t actually place where it was but you could get to it from a track that ran from the Scammells up into the woods. It was built for the Darnley family to watch their son, Ivo Bligh, come back up the river after the victorious Ashes tour of Australia of 1883.

The Scammells is the grass area at the back of Woodlands but I don’t know where the boundaries are, or why it is called the Scammells. There was a pond there that we used to go fishing in, but I think it has since dried up. The gravel extraction started about 1938. They dug out and graded rounded pebbles and sand, never sharp gravel. Later the machinery stood there rusting for many years, into the 1950s or 60s. The army activity was only in the woods around the Scammells. In wartime poles were erected in the woods at the back towards the slurry pit and they had lights on them so that it appeared from the air like an airfield; in other words it was a decoy site.

There was a lake in the woods that we used to go to and I can remember playing with a tin bath in the lake.

I went to Shorne School at the top of Butchers Hill and once, only once, we were taken for a paper chase through the woods. I then went to the Boys’ Grammar School, which in those days was in Darnley Road, before it moved to Church Walk in Milton.

When I was about 12 years old, I used to help the woodman Harry Pepper, who was from Cuxton. He used to arrive in a ‘banger’ or an old van and would light a fire which lasted until the following morning, when more wood was put on it, so that it never went out. Harry cut the chestnut coppice, debarked the poles with simple equipment, split them to make spile fencing and sold the bundles of fence poles on the fencing market. He only cut down a bigger tree such as an oak if the landowner requested it. We helped Harry with the debarking and learnt this useful way of keeping a fire going for days.

In the cottages on the Ridgeway there were no flush toilets and I can remember sewage buckets being collected and put on the local allotments as fertiliser. At the Cottage we had flush toilets, and a cesspit in the garden.

There was a large army camp at the Woodlands Lane end of the woods, it seemed as if another village had appeared. The only regiment I can recall is the Durham Light Infantry.

There are four or five chalk caves to the north of the Shorne/Ifield Road that I believe were used by pilots from the Thong Lane airfield possibly as living accommodation but anyway as a place to shelter near the airfield while they were on call. I don’t think that civilians used these caves. I only know of one bomb being dropped on Shorne and that was in Crown Lane, but there may have been more as I left Shorne in 1942.

One other thing I recall from the Shorne/Ifield Road is the cottage where they kept pigs; it was on the left-hand side of the road, turning left from the Holloway, opposite the old cottage that is still there.

At the bottom of Tanyard Hill there is a tree in the middle of the road that used to be in the front garden of a row of terraced houses, on the left as you go up the hill, but these were demolished in the 1930s. This was where we played bicycle polo with walking sticks as polo mallets.

One other thing that always struck me was that there were five places of worship in Shorne: the Zion Methodist Chapel, Brethren Meeting House on the Ridgeway, St Peter & St Paul Church of England, Weslyan Methodists and St Katherine’s Roman Catholic Chapel.

We used to go down to Queen’s Farm (Houghtons still) in Lower Shorne and camp and shoot rabbits. We met our young friends from Cliffe and they taught me to swim by throwing me into the green and slimy canal.

(As told to Trevor Bent.)

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