When I was nine years old, my mum took my brother and me to the UK to meet our Granny, aunt and uncle. A Bush-child in England posted on April 20, 2012
We never called her anything but Aunty Puss, her school nickname taken from Oedipus, and as mentioned she was a nine-year-olds favourite person. I adored her. She gave me an air-pistol, and together, we shot at targets in the garden. She was a fanatic gardener; she could spot a speck of greenery under an inch of soil as a weed tried to hide away from het x-ray eyes.
She took us to all the local places of interest, like a Rare Breeds farm in the Cotswolds, and to the wetland wildlife reserve near Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, England. It is midway between Bristol and Gloucester on the eastern side of the estuary of the River Severn, a reserve set up by the artist and naturalist Sir Peter Scott,
She took us to several Point-to-Point races, the end of fox-hunt season races, which inspired me to set up a course over which I galloped myself, sometime throwing myself off into the nettles, patiently watched by my dear aunt.
I was so fond of her; I even tried to trade my mother in exchange. Poor Mum; that must have hurt.
Edith Helena Arkell was born on April Fool’s Day, 1922. She passed away on 31 May, 2006, aged 84. A very shy introvert, she never married and lived her whole life, bar boarding school, in her parent’s home called The Bay, alongside the family brewery at Donnington Mill. During WWII, she drove the Brewery truck to deliver beer to the pubs they owned.
In 1947 she joined the Royal Observer Corps which manned various posts to spot and identify aircraft in the skies over Britain, a job she continued for 35 years, receiving the Gold Spitfire badge for passing the annual master test at the highest level on more than 25 occasions. She held the ROC Medal and clasp, as well.
Her service to her community was legendary, shopping three times a week for the patients and staff at Moreton-in-Marsh Hospital, (where I was born) for forty years.
She left her worldly possessions to my brother and I to share, specifying that Richard got her vast stamp album and I got her collection of Beswick china horses. The Net told me they sold at the time for £25 to £1000 or more for special pieces. I saw no point in taking them back to Africa to gather dust or be broken by careless dusters. We were to share her other collections of coins, cigarette cards etc.
I flew from Cape Town, to Jo’burg, to London’s Heathrow at the end of September, 2006. It was just getting light as we circled over the city. I could recognise the London Eye from the air, the Thames glinting like a silver snake. Richard, who had arrived in London from Australia almost simultaneously, was supposed to meet me, but there was a mix-up about which terminal to meet, so I missed him. I finally caught a bus to Staines where I had arranged to pick up my HSBC bank card, but the idiots had sent my PIN to South Africa! Fortunately I was able to cash a cheque.
At Avis, I hired a Ford Focus and set off for Leek, Staffordshire, then the home of my son Ryan. I had a map, but trying to read it with nowhere to pull over, and needing reading glasses to do so was challenge enough without the fact that it had started to rain, so road signs disappeared in a blur…
I finally made it; phoned him to guide me to his semi – already sold, prior to his return to South Africa in December – where I met my first grandson Thomas for the second time, now aged 2. Over that weekend, Ryan and his wife, Elaine, took me for a drive over the Peak District – craggy moorland, part farmland, part National Park; quite beautiful. Ryan was, at the time, working for JCB, so Thomas pointed out each and every “digger” we came across.
On the morning of Monday 2nd October, I set off down the M6, then the M5 via Evesham to Donnington Brewery in Gloucestershire, only getting a little geographically embarrassed on the way, not having been there since 1975. Richard, and his son Mark Earle from Melbourne, were already there. Our uncle Claude Arkell (89) was looking quite gaunt and walked with a stick, but was pleased to see us. He took us out to a pub lunch. Ryan and Elaine turned up soon after and we all returned to the Brewery. Richard’s other two children, Stephen and Jenifer arrived from London where they share a flat, so it was a merry family get-together. We had supper at The Queen’s Head, one of Claude’s pubs in Stow-on-the-Wold before all, except Richard, Mark and I, left for their homes in Leek or London.
The three of us spent the night at another hotel in Stow; this one belonging to our Swindon Arkell relatives where the brew is Arkell’s Ales. After a day of sorting through the chaos in Puss’ house, the following day Richard took Mark to the Moreton station to catch a train to Heathrow to connect with his flight back to Australia, then we got stuck into dividing up our loot. This included Puss’ collections of medallions, buttons, books and cigarette cards.
At the Brewery, the autumn leaves were just turning, late that year as they had had no frost as yet. The mill pond, with its swans and wild fowl, was looking stunning, and the place was really such a spiritual home for me.
Richard went to stay with friends, who happened to be stamp dealers, in Malvern while I found a B&B in Bourton-on-the-Water, the next village from Stow on the road to Cheltenham. Claude would not hear of me camping in Puss’ house. (It’s just not done!)
I toured antique shops in Cheltenham to see what the market value was for my Beswick horses, cards, etc. but could not tell why the prices varied so much. Richard’s Malvern friends gave him £1000 for half his stamps, and gave me £50 for my cigarette cards. A couple of days later, I took some stuff to a boot sale at the world famous Cheltenham Race Course, which was a lot of fun and most interesting, for a writer, but I still returned to the Brewery with a full boot to have tea with Claude and tell him all about it.
I decided on using Humbert’s the auctioneers in Bourton to sell the horses and a few other things, so loaded them up and went to meet their representative. He was a surly man, very reluctant to walk to my car 50 metres away to see the stuff I wanted to have auctioned, until he saw the Beswick china, then he changed his tune, especially when he realised that I was related to Charles Arkell, his boss. The auction would only be on December 2nd, when I would be back in South Africa.
It was certainly sad, selling these things Aunt Puss had spent a life time collecting, but it had to be done. The exceptions were a few special items, like her ROC medal and silver coins which I later handed on to my son to keep for his children. I also boxed up a few small garden tools, paraffin lamps, ornaments and clocks for Ryan to add to his container in his move back to Pretoria.