Gilbert Watkins’ memories of life in Ashton-under-Hill

GILBERT Watkins is an Ashton-under-Hill man through and through, having lived in the village all his life – more than 80 years.

“I’ve not lived here all my life – but I’ve never lived anywhere else.” says Gilbert. “Because I haven’t lived it all yet!”

Gilbert was born in Little Thatch cottage, at the bottom of the village, in 1929 – the year of Al Capone’s St Valentine’s Day Massacre, the Wall Street Crash and the start of the Great Depression.

Gilbert Watkins with Grandad

Gilbert with his Grandad Fred Randall

Gilbert spent his very early life living with his parents Charlie and Bertha Watkins at Beehive Cottage, but when Gilbert was two, the family moved to his present house at 9 Elmley Road.

“My mum always said they put me out in the pram with a banana one day and they never found the skin!”

Gilbert married his wife Peggy in 1953 and, after living in Wood Lane for a while, they moved back to Gilbert’s childhood home around 1970.

Gilbert has been described by a fellow villager as a “man of good humour, huge generosity and his Christmas lights“.

Gilbert refers to Little Thatch, where his grandparents Fred and Alice Randall lived, as “The Old House”. His grandfather was cowman for Archer and Bailey farmers.

Ashton School 1937

Ashton School in 1937 when Gilbert was a pupil

He has many happy memories of his grandparents.
“I can remember my old granddad playing the melodeon,” he says. “He could sing and he also played the Jew’s harp and the tin whistle. He was a wonderful man.”

Gilbert remembers his grandparents having a two-seater toilet and he used to sit side by side with his cousin Aubrey.

“My grandparents would empty the ashes in the pit every day,” he recalls. “I remember one day when it was covered in ashes I jumped into the pit. I don’t know why. It came half-way up my leg.”.

“I used to love going down to my grandparents. Whenever a horse came by the house my gran told us boys to go out and follow that horse and pick up what he had done. One day we followed him to Grafton turn.”

Gilbert well remembers boyhood activities which included “scrumping” apples down Back Lane, turning signposts round to redirect the traffic, and selling bunches of “fake” spring onions to passers-by.

“They were tufts of grass,” he says. “We used to go down to the main road and stop the cars! Just after the war these Birmingham people used to come down and they though it was marvellous to see something like that.

“We could do anything we wanted to in those days without fear of anything. You could go out and leave the door unlocked or even open.”

Gilbert motorbiking in the early 1950s

Gilbert, left, motorbiking in the early 1950s

Gilbert smiles when he recalls a group of boys being particularly unkind to one woman in the village but one day she got her revenge, which young Gilbert witnessed.

“She emptied the gazunder right on top of them,” he recalls.
Now let Gilbert take us on a walk down Memory Lane to the Ashton of his boyhood in the late 1930s.

Starting at the top of the village, on the road out to Kersoe, he remembers there being about eight allotments, of which his father kept one.

There was no school at the top of the village – what is now Bredon Hill Middle School was built in 1965. White Hart Villa in Elmley Road was formerly a pub, before Gilbert‘s time..

The big gap between Gilbert and Peggy’s house in Elmley Road and number 8 was because Mrs Cormall didn’t want her view of Broadway Hill spoilt.

Gilbert can just about remember the council houses being built on the right-hand side of Elmley Road.

Ashton Free Church – or ‘the Chapel’ – has always been a big part of Gilbert’s life. “I was taken to the Chapel as a baby and I still attend,” he says. “The old chapel was taken down and rebuilt in 1923. Chapel Orchard became Hillside.”

Gilbert recalls how many of the road names in his day followed the names of the people who lived there. For example, opposite the Manor was Buchanan’s Lane (now Cotton’s Lane) where Mr Buchanan built his first bus.

“That was a wonderful little old bus,” remembers Gilbert. “We used to travel on it to Evesham and we used to ask the girls behind the counter at Woolworth’s for a date. It was a 20-seater and Mr Buchanan used to get over 80 on there. He used to cram them in.”

Gilbert remembers how his father used to take his turkey to the Old Bakehouse on Christmas Day to be cooked

Another landmark is the old Plough & Harrow pub, now Plough Cottage. “Peggy Bell used to be at the Plough & Harrow. We used to call him Peggy because he only had one leg and the other one was a wooden stump.”

Then there was Barbara Robeson’s shop, where the Copes now live. “We used to go and sit in this shop until 9 o’ clock in the winter, just talking to Miss Robeson,” says Gilbert.

Mr Whitter lived at Walnut Tree House. “Back in the 1950s I did a job for Mr Whitter. He was making a cake but he had a dewdrop on the end of his nose. It was hanging down quite a long way. The next morning I went back to finish the job and he asked me if I wanted a piece of cake. I politely said ‘no thank you’.

Gilbert’s teacher at the first school was Miss Eunice Barnett, who lived with her father who was a thatcher. Jack Grove, who was a very bright pupil, once said a bad word, recalls Gilbert. “Mrs Church, the headmistress, took him out and washed his mouth out with carbolic soap. Nobody swore in class after that.”

The Star Inn, which is still open, was quite popular in Gilbert’s youth.

Station Road, now The Groaten, was very different when Gilbert was a lad. “I have always called Station Road by that name and not The Groaten as there was a station down there,” he insists. “There was only three houses down Station Road.”

Gilbert remembers regularly visiting the station as a boy. “Some of the shunters who were delivering coal down there would ask if we wanted a ride,” he recalls.

He used to ride his bicycle to work in Evesham but if the weather was bad, he would catch the 7.20 to Evesham and put his bike on the train.

Gilbert once remembers seeing graffiti on a chain at the station which said there was a £5 penalty if you pulled it.
The graffiti read: “If £5 you can afford, try your strength and pull the chord; if £5 you do not own, leave the blinking thing alone.”

Gilbert is just about old enough to remember an accident in 1935 when a train derailed at Ashton and the 60-year-old driver was killed.

After leaving Ashton School, Gilbert attended Bredon Hancocks before leaving school for good at the age of 14.

Marrying Peggy was “the best thing ever I did,” says Gilbert.

There were some great characters in Ashton in those days, including Alec Barnett who once gave him advice on planting potatoes.  “Don’t put ’em in too deep,” said Alec. “You’ve only got to get ’em out again.”
Ashton in the 1930s and 1940s was a close-knit community where everyone knew everyone. “There were not so many houses in those days,” says Gilbert. “You couldn’t say anything bad about anybody because everybody was related.”

Gilbert had a varied working life. After leaving school, he worked briefly at Smiths factory, which he hated.

He then worked as an apprentice plumber for Averills in Evesham until he was about 20. “I used to cycle into Evesham for 8 0’ clock in the morning and knock off at half past 5 at night. And you imagine coming back along that road – dark at 4 o’ clock, coming along it was very much like coming along in the middle of the night at half past five a night against them howling winds and snow and hail. I tell you what, kids wouldn’t have it today.”

Gilbert moved jobs to Cheltenham to work for Jesse Flint for a several years and then became a self-employed plumber and painter with his brother-in-law Syd Davis.

From 1969 to 1989 he worked for Dowty’s in their rubber stores.
Gilbert ended his working life working for Rex Brooks as a storeman.

Apart from his various “day jobs”, Gilbert spent about 30 years working part-time as a bus driver for Springs Coaches.

Asked whether he wishes Ashton was still like it was in the 1940s, Gilbert says: “I wish it was the same. They were good days.
“I can remember seeing them horses and carts going down at 11 0’ clock at night double summer time during the war, dragging loads of hay. It was lovely. Now the tractors are coming down here 30 miles an hour.

“I think it was a little bit more laid back then. It’s a rat race today.”

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