A Vanished Past – Portrait of a Country Couple (4 of 5)

Part 4 : Lucy and Jim – Life in Chapel Cottage

by Honor (Morgan) Berry

Lucy’s house, by village standards, had much more spacious rooms than most cottages. It was older than many of the buildings and had stone mullions over the windows. At some time a piece of the garden had been sold, and a Methodist chapel built adjacent to the house, so that on Sundays the singing of hymns could be heard through the walls of the house. The remaining garden curled round the chapel, so that much of the garden was more private than it would otherwise have been. The house was thatched and had thick walls and small windows. The entire house consisted of four equal sized rooms, two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. There were no fitments of any kind other than a grate in the living room. The front and back doors both opened directly into the living room as did the stairs, which was not much more than a short wide ladder hidden behind a third door. The fourth door opened into the flagged kitchen which had four distempered but unplastered bumpy stone walls, and two windows, one wide one looking out onto the front garden and the village street, and the other a tiny one-paned window set into the thick wall and overlooking the kitchen garden, shedding a beam of daylight into an otherwise totally dark corner.

Water tap outside Chapel Cottage 1930s cWm Gunn 2013There was no running water, so there were no taps, no sink, and no bathroom. Since there was no drainage there was no flushing lavatory either inside or outside the house, and neither was there anywhere in the kitchen to empty away any dirty water. It was all thrown onto the garden. But since the water all had to be carried in buckets from the village tap out in the main village street, people were very economical in their use of water, and there was not much to throw away. There was no electricity either and consequently Lucy had no electric kettle, cooker, vacuum cleaner, or lighting. Refrigerators were in any case uncommon and freezers were unknown to us in Horley at this time in the fifties and sixties.

Nonetheless the kitchen had its own delights for us and was a most comforting place to be. Since people’s basic needs have always been the same, housewives then had their ways of making life comfortable even though they managed it differently. The appliances that Lucy had which were crucial were those used for cooking. She had three means of cooking. In Victorian times her living room had acquired an open, cast-iron grate with brass fittings that had been set into the wide chimney that still rose straight to the sky, so there was always a danger in wet or windy weather that the fire would be put out. Part of the grate was an oven for slow cooking which served nicely for casseroles with thick gravy, and meats that needed gentle roasting to make them succulent. Lucy had clever ways with game and meat, and was not afraid of larding joints liberally. Her greatest skill lay in traditional fare: pies, meat puddings, roasts and stews, and she understood how to use her ovens and make even the humblest food taste delicious.

Her other oven was a paraffin cooker which looked like a tin box with a door, perched precariously on a paraffin burner. This cooked roasts and stews faster than the grate, and was always used for tarts and cakes. Lucy also had a separate burner for the kettle or for cooking vegetables. Cooking a meal meant an intricate series of moves and cooking vegetables in sequence – but Lucy had long learnt this pattern of moves and accomplished it with deftness and speed.

The storage of food was less easy. Like everyone else, instead of a fridge Lucy made do with a meat-safe, which was a small wall-cupboard with perforated doors to allow air to circulate around the food stored in it. It helped keep the food fresh, particularly in summer, and kept out the flies and mice. Even so it meant a twice-weekly visit to the butchers in Banbury if one was to eat meat or fish daily. Many of the vegetables were taken directly from the garden in season, so their storage presented no problem, although Lucy had a small wooden barrel in the corner of her kitchen in which she stored potatoes during the winter months. Onions were hung up from the beams in the shed outside the back door, alongside the garden tools and washday equipment. Other vegetables needed storing inside the house or they would have been eaten by the rats, but even in the kitchen care had to be taken to keep food away from the ever present if hidden armies of mice.

Along one of her bumpy distempered kitchen walls, Lucy had a large waist-high apple-green cupboard with a wide top. In the cupboards below she kept her stores of jam and pickled onions and walnuts. On top she made wines in large wide enamel and china bowls – usually the discarded basins of washing sets when the jugs had broken. Here the fruits fermented below the pungent yeast-laden pieces of toast that floated on their frothy surface, before they were bottled and stored for the winter months.

Against another wall stood a 1930s sideboard that she had been given (Lucy never bought any furniture save the spring mattress for her bed). This stored her cooking utensils, her hair sieves, mincer, wire-whisk as well as numerous pie, cake and meat tins. On the top of this sideboard stood five tins: three cake tins and two biscuit tins, each of which had something inside. At any one time Lucy had two cakes on the go: the remains of one, and a fresh one, which might be a fruit cake or a Victoria sponge flavoured either with coffee, or chocolate, or orange or occasionally one sprinkled with cherry and walnuts. In the third tin were jam tarts or little buns. Sometimes these overflowed into the two biscuit tins, which might contain custard creams and digestive biscuits, but they were not much favoured in view of what else was on offer. Lucy allowed us children to help ourselves to whatever we chose: ‘ʹAve what yer want’, ‘Finish that hoff for me Hhonor’, and ʹAve another one. Goo on’, were her instructions. Since Jim ate so very little, all this baking was solely for Lucy and her visitors to eat, and not surprisingly her generosity and open hospitality meant that she had many callers, who, in exchange for food and her friendship gave Lucy what she prized most of all – the news.

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