In 1990 I came back to England after a four and a half-year stint in Holland. My then wife and I were amazed at how quickly the country had changed in such a short time. She was a “local” girl and we’d moved to a section of country that wasn’t her hometown.
Back then the USAF had a base outside the small village of Woodbridge. The village enjoyed having the “Yanks” here as they funnelled a huge amount of money into the local economy. No one was more upset than local commerce about this loss of revenue when the base closed down in 1993.
I came to the village today on personal business. I’d been yesterday and as I did not know where I was going I took a somewhat scenic tour of the village. It had been quite a while since I’d been here and that was on the not very pleasant business of attending a work colleague’s funeral.
A tragic year, I lost three colleagues in the short span of six months. The small community of Prison Officers were reeling with the shock of losing so many friends way too early.
Today’s business was nowhere near as unpleasant and I noticed how much the village had changed from when I first got here in 1990 and how it looked today.
The village is still an odd mixture of old and new; foreign and domestic; timely and faded. I took my iPhone 5 and took a slew of shop sign pictures and shop fronts. These images show much better than I could ever describe the dichotomy that is the High Street (main street) of a typical English village.
Sitting here in the ‘village’ Costa Coffee that would not have been here a few short years ago, I’m savouring my coffee while I savour the irony as I write this post on my iPad.
I’ll finish up with a few images of the village called Woodbridge and hopefully you’ll see the old and the new; and how they mix together.
A new arrival in the unit asked me if I was interested in sharing a house with him in a small Suffolk village. He’d rented the house and it was large and had about four bedrooms in it. I went out to the village of Swaffham Prior and had a look at the place.
For starters it was excellently placed in the village as it was right across the street from the village Pub. Don’t get the wrong idea. I liked my drink as much as the next person, but that wasn’t why I was so pleased with the proximity of the Pub.
Pub’s were, at that time anyway, a meeting place for the village. Through the Pub, you met people, found out what was happening around the area and who was who in the village. That and if the Pub was close enough, you could drink a skin-full of booze and just stagger home.
The house itself was old. It had been a coach house in the olden days. (I cannot for the life of me remember when the house was originally built, but the coach house bit is a dead give away for how old it actually was) It was long, much longer than than the Google earth picture above. And when I lived there with Ralph, it was white.
On the right hand side of the house as you faced it from the street was an agate gravel drive that branched off to the left and led you to the back door. The front door was used only once when I lived there and that was when the local vicar stopped by to welcome us to the village.
When you entered the back door you would find the back hall, bathroom, stairs to the first floor (that’s second floor to denizens of the US) and a smaller hall to the rest of the house.
Nestled in between the drive and the back door path was our ‘sitting’ room. It had a two seater settee, Ralph’s leather recliner, a fireplace and the television. The window faced the front of the Pub across the street.
When you walked out of the ‘sitting room’ you crossed the small hallway and walked past the front door to the huge dining room. If you continued you walked through the kitchen (a perfect square of a room) and on the other side of the kitchen was my massive bedroom. That plus a utility room that housed our washer and dryer made up the ground floor of the house.
My bedroom featured the only other door that opened onto the high street. I say opened, but that is a bit of a misnomer. The massive four inch wide door was sealed shut and could not be opened at all.
The first floor of the house was comprised entirely of bedrooms. The one opposite the Pub was our ‘cold’ store. In the winter we left a window cracked and it kept most of our perishable foodstuff nice and cool.
The first couple of months that Ralph and I lived there we would occasionally both watch the telly in the sitting room. When anyone walked up the gravel drive and the path to our door you could hear them as clearly as if the path were in the room with us. One night we sat there watching the news when, during a break between stories, the volume lowered enough for us to hear someone walking up the drive.
“Looks like we have a visitor.” Ralph said with a smile.
He turned down the volume on the TV. We both sat grinning like a couple of idiots as we listened to the footsteps progress from the side of the house to the back door. The gravelly steps stopped at our back door and waited we for the knock.
Silence permeated the air. No knock. Nothing. We sat there is silence and waited for the footsteps to start their journey back to the street. Still, nothing.
Finally, we couldn’t take the suspense any longer. We both got up and jogged to the back door. Ralph flung open the door with a loud and cheery, “Hi!”
There was no one there.
We had quite a giggle about this turn of events and made jokes about ghosts and possible pranksters having a laugh at the ‘new boys’ in the village. As we walked back into the sitting room we watched the fancy leather throw on the back of Ralph’s recliner start swinging back and forth.
Ralph looked at me with one eyebrow up and said, “The fireplace must be open. I’ll close the draft.” He walked over to the fireplace and knelt down to close the flue. He suddenly stopped and looked up the chimney. He looked back over his shoulder at me.
“Damn thing’s closed already.”
As he stood up, the throw began to sway again. Ralph walked over to it and held his hand by the throw. “Nothing.” He moved his hand fractionally. “Not a breath of air.” We both shrugged and sat back down to finish watching the news.
This occurrence would be a regular event at the house. We used to make jokes about our mysterious sitting room ghost and our invisible house guest who was too shy to knock on the back door.
It was only after we had lived there for about six months that the activity increased and soon shifted it’s focus on to Ralph’s new girlfriend. But that was after it decided to pick on me and after I had moved out of the house and into a flat with my new fiancée .
Way back in the 1980’s when you arrived in the United Kingdom you were given a briefing by the RAF commander who was the base liaison. He was, in fact, the only RAF member attached to the base and a bit of a character. His briefing to the newly arrived ‘yanks’ was funny. Full of little anecdotes and homilies. He was very informative as well.
Part of the spiel he gave had to do with the average age of the houses in the area and the differences in the way that the local police force operated.
The average house age turned out to be about 300 to 400 years old. We were all suitably impressed as this meant that these houses were older than our home country. The local police were called Bobby‘s if they were on foot and ‘Sir‘ if they were in a patrol car and had pulled you over.
I only met one ‘Bobby’ and in this case Bobby was a she.
I had moved off base and was living in a ‘cold-water flat’ that consisted of one room and not enough space to swing a dead cat in. I shared a communal toilet and shower with about fifteen other people. A little later I moved from my tiny first floor flat to a much larger ground floor flat that had a communal shower and toilet in a separate room that was shared with only one other occupant. The new flat was also ‘haunted’ but that’s another story.
First floor is English for the American second floor and my ‘new’ first floor flat had curb-side parking that was only legal between the hours of six in the evening to eight the following morning, weekdays and all day for the weekend. I was dating a barmaid who worked in my ‘local.’
A ‘local’ was the term used for a public house aka pub. I loved the pub. It was a great social gathering place and a good way to meet the local folks who lived in the villages close to the bases. My first local was a very rough pub. I had decided to change my local after two rather exciting nights in a row. The first night I had sat at a table and was enjoying a prawn sandwich and a pint of lager when a fight broke out.
It sort of ranged from one side of the central bar area to the other where I was seated. When the fight moved to my side of the pub, I kept a wary eye on the action while wolfing down my ‘sarnie’ and drinking my pint. When the action got a little too close for comfort, I decided to grab the sandwich in one hand and the pint in the other and move. I had just stood up and taken one step away from the table when the two combatants slammed into the now empty table missing me by a hair.
The second ‘exciting’ night was literally the next day when a drunk made specific threats to the publican and his wife. The publican was a huge chap and he was also an ex-policeman. Lifting the bar top up he lunged through and grabbed the drunken lout by the scruff of the neck. He drug him to the pub entrance and held the trouble maker up with his left hand gripping his collar. His right hand flung the pub door open and then curled up into a fist which smashed into the back of the drunk’s head. He then physically threw the now semi-concious thug into the busy street.
When one of the other customer’s questioned the publican about the thugs possibly getting struck by a passing vehicle, he looked coldly at the customer and said, “Fuck him.”
Later in the same evening, a girl got glassed in the face. For those of you who are of a more peaceful nature, getting ‘glassed’ is where someone breaks a pint glass or bottle and then shoves the remaining shards into someone’s face. Very bloody and painful it leaves a large scar.
I then decided that my Uncle Sam might not be too impressed with my choice of pub so I moved to the hotel bar that was catty-corner across the street from my current pub. There I met not only local business men and their wives but folks from all over the world. I met people from Australia, Canada, and London. In those days, to me at least, London seemed exotic enough to class as a world away from where I was living.
As I said, I was dating one of the barmaids who was half American and since she did not get off work till around midnight each night, our dates started late and finished even later. Oversleeping became a bad habit. One that got me in trouble at work and with the local police force.
Because I was oversleeping I was violating the parking laws and got three parking tickets in rapid succession. On the fourth morning, I had leapt out of bed and rushed out to move my car before I could get yet another ticket. The car was an old rust bucket that a friend had practically given me when he left. It was hard to start.
Just as I got the old heap running, someone tapped on my window. I looked up into a set of the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen on a human being. Those beautiful eyes belonged to an equally beautiful face. Unfortunately both eyes and face belonged to a female cop.
She made a window rolling gesture with her hand. I turned the car off and rolled down my window.
“Good morning, sir. May I see your driving license.”
I fumbled for my wallet and passed the license over. She took the license and walked a few steps away from the car and spoke into a radio that had a microphone attached to her shoulder epaulette. After a moment she came back and leaned down to hand back my license and look at me sternly through the window.
“I see that you have gotten a few tickets already.”
“If I don’t give you another one, will you keep parking here illegally?”
“I hope you appreciate that I’m giving you a break here, sir.”
“I don’t ever want to catch you parking here again.”
“Have I made myself clear?”
“Right then, get this car moved and, sir?”
“Have a nice day.”
“Yes Ma-am, thank you Ma-am, and uh, you too Ma-am.”
As I moved the car I couldn’t help but reflect that I’d just met the most gorgeous woman I’d ever seen anywhere and that the full extent of my conversation with her had been, Yes Ma-am, No Ma-am and you too Ma-am. While she was telling me off, I’d felt like a naughty two year old caught with his hand still in the cookie jar.
The worst part of the entire encounter was that I’d never even gotten this stern angels name, not that it would have done me any good. I’m sure the police have a few rules about fraternizing with known law breakers.