Memories of Leckhampstead

In the first decade of this century I left my home in London to pay a visit to some relatives in north Bucks in the village of Leckhampstead. This visit was
never terminated and from the age of four I spent the next fifty years in the same cottage that became my home. In the fifty years up to the 1914-18 war, our village life had changed very little, except when the Education Act provided free schooling. Till then our village school, built about 1850, had received such scholars whose parents could afford the few coppers a week required. The children walked the mile or so to school, where they were taught the three R's, and a smattering of history and geography by question and answer. By the time I arrived, the school was properly equipped by one qualified teacher and an assistant. Between forty and fifty children attended. The village green was our playground.
My great-uncle, Walter Hurst, was the eldest of five children born at Wood House, my great-grandfather being a woodman, as were generations of Hursts before him. My uncle tenanted a small holding of twenty-six acres and our house overlooked the green with the brook running by. He also carried on the wood business held by his forefathers, in which he employed one or two men, cutting down the undergrowth, keeping the ridings clear and utilising the wood for faggots, bean poles, pea-sticks, hurdles and rakes, which he sold in the surrounding villages. He took loads of oak-bark to the tanners in Northampton for use in the leather industry. Only horses were used for transport, and the load would start off early in the morning with probably a stop at Towcester and Blisworth to rest horses and men on the way.
We also had two 'carriage' horses as my uncle supplied carriages for the rectory nearby and was also the local 'carrier' to Buckingham on market days.
In addition my aunt kept the post office, so we were always involved in the life of the village, my uncle being also a churchwarden, school manager and parish councillor.
The rectory and its occupants were the centre of the village. Our rector was a son of the Bishop of Winchester, his wife the eldest daughter of a Scottish peer. Their house—the largest in the village—had its complement of servants, with a gardener and handy boy. The servant girls employed were usually from other villages. Our own girls were 'put out' to places chosen by the rector's wife, or they found their own from a little registry office in Buckingham. Some men worked at the iron foundry at Deanshanger, a few cycled to the Wolverton Railway Carriage Works but most were employed on the land in some capacity.
Busby, the greengrocer, came round with his horse and trolley from Buckingham to all the surrounding villages, and the children and mothers gathered with their cans and baskets of fruit, glad of the twopence a lb he gave them.
In January, the choir and bellringers had their supper, an enormous round of boiled salt beef and a huge roasted leg of pork; beetroots were cooked, peeled and sliced, Christmas puddings made and boiled, and on the day, there was a marathon potato-peeling.
Lent was a special time. We had week-night services when the local parsons 'exchanged pulpits', and usually a visiting missionary would give us a lantern lecture in the newly built parish room.
Spring sent us round the hedges 'vi-letting'. We went in groups, the elders hastening ahead to bag the best patches. They knew from experience where the rarer white and 'grey' (mauve) ones grew, even the more secret and treasured spots where deep pink ones were to be found.
By Good Friday, the primroses were out in Leckhampstead Wood and a number of the girls would make a special journey to gather them for decorating the church for Easter Day.
Early on Easter morning, the bellringers mustered to ring a peal. The Church, filled with spring flowers, looked strangely new and beautiful. Self-conscious youths and maidens were there to make their first communion as confirmations always took place in Lent.
Figs were an inescapable part of Palm Sunday, and the hot cross-buns brought round by the bakers on Good Friday morning. We had Easter Eggs too, but they were mostly the cardboard type, filled with some little novelty and tied with ribbon.
The next red-letter day after Easter was May Day. Garden flowers were begged from those who were willing to give, and we searched the banks and hedgerows for blue bells, cowslip and marsh marigolds—we called them 'water bubbles'. The simplest May garland was a bunch of flowers tied to the end of a long stick, with streamers of ribbon. Boys had these. Girls preferred two wooden hoops crossed between each other, or a child's small chair, with willow wands fastened over the back and arms in arches. This foundation was covered first in moss, then with tiny bunches of flowers. It was usual to make a cowslip ball to hang from the top of the middle arch and, to soar above it, such may as could be found together with blooms of Crown Imperial or 'Crown of Pearls'. The grandest doll that could be round was fastened securely in the whole garland veiled in a curtain to hide it from curious eyes while in transit. Two of the biggest girls carried the garland, the one selected to be Queen had a sash tied across from shoulder to waist after the style of the 'Garter' ribbon and she carried the money box. This was the song we sang:

'Good morning, young ladies and gentlemen,
I wish you a happy May. I have come to show you my May garland
Because it is May Day.

'A branch of may I have brought you
And at your door it stands.
It is but a sprout, but is well spread about
By the work of our Lord's hands.

'Now take the Bible in your hands,
And read the chapter through,
And when the day of judgement comes
God will remember you.

'And now I've finished my little short song
I can no longer stay.
So God bless you all, both great and small
In the merry month of May.'

It was a tradition that the girls wore white on Whit Sunday.
Children looked forward to hay-time, helping with the preparations for it, particularly in carrying tea. Leckhampstead is a large village in acreage though relatively small in population. Tea might have to be carried to Wicken Wood or up to Lillingstone Lovell. There was not so much arable land just before the first world war. Many farmers had put down to grass much that had been ploughed land, as they did again between the wars. There were no subsidies then.
During the day, the horse-drawn machine had cut the swathes, and by late afternoon, and the next day, the men and women workers walked in rows with their rakes, turning the swathes. The women wore long skirts and aprons and perhaps a sun-bonnet or a man's cap on their heads. After tea in the hayfield some of the men left to do the milking, then the bigger children took over. Later, when the hay was fit to carry, there were long rides in the empty waggons.
Towards the end of September, Harvest Festival was held. There were always masses of fruit, flowers and vegetables and of course the traditional sheaf of corn to stand in the chancel. One could always be sure of a well-packed church for Harvest Festival. The bellringers always stayed to this service—although they were inclined on ordinary occasions to shuffle out of the belfry-door as soon as they had 'rung down'.
The villagers by the late autumn had gathered in every hedgerow harvest; blackberries, sloes for wine-making, mushrooms culled from the dew-drenched fields, walnuts staining the fingers, and 'conkers'.
My aunt started making her puddings by the last week of Trinity. A night or two before Christmas we heard the handbell ringers outside the door. After playing a few tunes they were invited in and given beer or wine and cake. Then they rang again before they left.
Maids Moreton ringers called too: they were more proficient than our Leckhampstead ringers who were somewhat jerky in their performance.
We always sat up to hear the church bells ring the old year out and the new year in. This was echoed from the distance by Wicken or Maids Moreton belfries. Sometimes we could hear Buckingham bells too. We didn't practise any superstitious rituals.

Edith Victoria Cox, Lillingstones & Akeley

Extracted from 'A Pattern Hundreds' (1975) and reproduced with the kind permission of the Buckinghamshire Federation of Women's Institutes