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Village tales of days gone by...
Memories of maypole dancing, unusual courtships and the days before supermarkets form the basis of a new exhibition that looks at disappeared ways of life in the village of Plumpton.
Hidden Histories is the result of an EU-funded project by the University of Sussex’s Centre for Community Engagement, which trained local volunteers to carry out oral history interviews with older residents of the East Sussex parish.
What has emerged is a portrait of a much-changed village. Photographs illustrate the high street of old, where one resident recalled being able to buy everything from the weekly shop to clothes for a funeral. Sound clips, which visitors to the exhibition will be able hear in specially created listening posts, tell of people “playing out” as children, their mothers blissfully unaware of where they were: “But they all came home for their dinners at middle-day.”
John Lunn was evacuated to the village from London during the Second World War, and remembers his confusion at being suddenly immersed in an alien rural life. He panicked the first time he saw sheep being dipped, thinking they were being drowned, but fondly remembers fierce “conker streaks” in the playground of Plumpton School where he would take on the local children, who “didn’t like us Londoners there”.
Dorothy French was another newcomer during the war, arriving in the village as a landgirl and falling in love with a local plumber. He would help her catch the horse that pulled the cart she delivered milk from, and he wooed her further by bringing hot doughnuts from Cheall’s bakery. “I wasn’t courted with red roses, hot doughnuts I got!” she says.
Gilbert Upton, now 95, remembers diving under his bed to escape the impact of a bomb which destroyed his family’s cottage at Riddens Farm and left him trapped beneath rubble unable to move. “My mother came and found me in the end when they found I was missing. She apparently climbed up the outside of the house, which was just a pile of rubble, sort of thing. I shouted to her and then she came and found me in the end.”
The exhibition is illustrated by a number of archive photographs and documents, including the evacuee register that shows John Lunn and others’ arrival in the village and the shillings paid every week for their upkeep.
It opens in Plumpton Village Hall from 3pm to 5pm today as part of the village’s Jubilee Celebrations. River Jones, who has helped coordinate the project, says the exhibition will then go on tour, with locations likely to include Newhaven Fort, the waiting room at Plumpton Station and the University of Sussex campus.
Jones says, “Although this is very specifically an exhibition about Plumpton, it will no doubt reflect the experiences of those in other villages. The idea is that this exhibition forms a resource that other communities can use to do similar projects and form a record of the life of their village.”
The celebrations also include the launch of a book by Ken Beard, who has collated early photographs and postcards of Plumpton, and the unveiling of the Plumpton Diamond Jubilee Recipe Book, originally conceived as a book of recipes associated with Royal events that has now evolved into stories of Plumpton people whose lives have been touched by members of the Royal Family.
Find out which member of the Royal Family camped with the Pony Club on the racecourse; who ate breakfast with Prince William on a flight to Manchester; who tweaked the Queen’s favourite strawberry shortcake recipe (and won Royal approval for his temerity); which member of the Royal family rode in the Mad Hatter’s private sweepstake at Plumpton racecourse, and who taught the Duchess of Cornwall to drive. Cakes made from recipes in the book will also be available at the exhibition launch.
* For more information about the exhibition and the project, visit www.hiddenhistories.euproject.org
Excerpts from the oral histories collected from local residents
“It was those bombs that messed everything up. […] They were so close together that four were in one big hole and the other one that hit the house, you see [...] It was suggested that somebody was showing a light, but it was so bright you could read even small print outside, you could. That’s how bright it was. In any case, my old granddad was killed there, he more or less suffocated.
I was upstairs at the time. I was just changing because I’d been outside, just looking, if anything came over, you see. For that sort of thing that came down. That one bomb actually hit the house. I was three storeys up, I was. The first thing I remember, not being able to move [...] I couldn’t move an inch. It weren’t until I sort of came round a bit, I suppose, I could hear them shouting downstairs. There were George Hills, Rodney Hills’s father, I heard him having a roll call. See he was home for Christmas. Then he came to my name, ‘Oh, he was upstairs.’ You see, well what happened with me up there, if you can imagine, well playing diving and you were standing there and you slid along the floor you see. And I slid under the bed, partially under the bed, and it was an old type bed, of course, double bed, and there was a thick wooden bar that went right across and that come across my throat [laughs]. And I couldn’t move a thing. [...] My mother come and found me in the end when they found I was missing. She apparently climbed up the outside of the house, which was just a pile of rubble, sort of thing. I shouted to her then she come and found me in the end. There was a chest of drawers on top of me as well, you see, that’s what helped to protect me.”
“When the war started I was evacuated down to Streat Barn […] we came down in the charabancs. We pulled into this village hall and then all the local farmers and people came to find out what boys and girls they wanted to live with. There was a great group of us and we had tags on our lapels and they came along and said we’ll have you and have you and I finished up at St Helena Farm. […] It was all strange. When I went to the farm, [...] they were dipping sheep and I said, 'You’re drowning them, you’re drowning them.' Yeah, I didn’t know these things you see. […] I remember the first day at Plumpton School and the village boys and girls didn’t like us Londoners there, and the school was divided into two. We had our own teachers and the village children had their teachers, you see, and we only mixed in the playgrounds and [we had] conker fights and conker streaks. I called them weeds, weaklings, you know. As you got older [...] when you lived with these other people in the village they sort of mixed with you and you blended in with ’em, but there was always rivals [...] between us, chucking clay at you, all sorts of things you know.”