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My trip to Greenwich on the world’s first suburban railway — as good as a holiday

I’ve been to Greenwich – rather nostalgic for me, because I went there so much in 1999 (I was writing a book) that my oldest son, William, became mad about Nelson.  He still is.  My down journey took me to London Bridge.  As we rattled, pleasantly if at no great pace, through South London, my eyes boggled at the changes that have taken place in the course of a decade.  The scene used to be shabby and featureless, now it lined with new buildings, with cloud-piercing towers in the mid distance.
I was reminded that this line represents the world’s first suburban railway.  At the end of the battle of Waterloo, the new means of going from London to Greenwich – then detached from the rest of London – was the paddlesteamer.  But coaches continued to operate: the journey took about an hour, which isnt’ that different from the car journey today, depending on traffic.  A railway was proposed in 1824, but slammed by the Quarterly Review which feared terrible things for ‘those who are to be whirled at the rate of 18 or 20 miles an hour’.  The Kentish Railway Company, as it was called, expired.
It took a former lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Engineers, George Landmann, and George Walter, from a family of financial risk-takers one of whose members had lost a fortune in the South Sea Bubble, to form the London and Greenwich Railway in 1831.  The railway strode down to Greenwich on arches – nearly 1,000 of them.  The viaduct, the purpose of which was to keep a steady gradient for the track, was a wonder in itself.  ‘As a work of art it it undoubtedly very striking, while the minor considerations involved int he plan are novel and interesting,’ commented the Penny Magazine in January 1836.  Even before the first trains were running, the company obtained a modest income from charging the public sixpence to walk down the line.
At Greenwich, I was shown around the Cutty Sark, which has been restored at a cost of £50m, to be opened by HM the Queen on April 25.  I then returned on another transport medium, the Docklands Light Railway, gliding drivelessly between the towers and over the landscaped ex-dock basins of Canary Wharf.  That bustling mobile-phone-to-ear district – devoid of old people, poor people and children – is a foreign land to me.   Altogether, my Greenwich trip was as good as a holiday.


By the way, my Greenwich book, commissioned at a time when it was thought the Millennium Dome would be a roaring success, has been out of print for ages.   But I have just checked on Google Books and most of it is here.  Amazing.

The tale of the yew trees

We meet young Frank Fry in the Vestry Minutes for 1914, planting some of the yews that are still in St Petroc’s churchyard at Lydford.  He was born with the century, and so just a lad of 14.  He would probably have been a thatcher if he had lived.  That was the trade followed by both his father Frank and his grandfather Edmund; in fact Edmund had been thatching one of the Lydford cottage roofs in 1903 when he slipped, fell off and died.

Edmund was not a local; he had originally come from Cornwall, presumably in search of work.  He brought with him the traditional songs, not all of them polite to the ears of Victorian gentlefolk, which he had grown up with; and no doubt sang them to some of his Lydford friends, who had their own repertoire from Devon.  Sometimes the squire-vicar of the neighbouring parish of Lewtrenchard, the tireless Sabine Baring-Gould, would form an audience.  Baring-Gould built his own country house-cum-rectory, fathered 14 children, wrote Onward Christian Soldiers and other hymns, and produced over 100 books – one of them being Songs of the West in which, long before Cecil Sharp, he collected the folk songs he heard in Devon.  The world in which Frank Fry spent his boyhood was homespun.
There was little money in rural Devon in those years.  To judge from old photographs, village people were none too particular about the state of their roofs, many of which had holes in; they couldn’t afford to be.  But eventually there came a point when the roof needed renewing.  Thatch was picturesque but, from the village point of view, outmoded.  Tiles were cheaper and needed less looking after.  You could get stone ones from the parish of Coryton, next door to Lydford, although they would flake in a storm.  And mass-produced concrete tiles had come onto the market.  So these were difficult times for thatchers, as for other people in Lydford.  Frank Senior made a little extra by looking after another type of thatch: he cut hair for 6d a time. 
Some time before March 1917, young Frank went down to Plymouth and enlisted with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, who put him in a reserve training battalion.  He was then posted to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.  I’m not sure that he got overseas.  He is recorded as having died from pneumonia on March 24, 1918 – probably the victim of what was to prove an even deadlier killer than the shells, bullets, bombs and mines of the Great War itself: Spanish Flu. 
He is Fry, F.W. on the war memorial; his grave lies in Lydford churchyard, near the yews that he planted.  I have yet to see the stone.  Perhaps it will add to the story.


I visit Dick Petherick, brought up in Lydford but now retired, in his house on the outskirts of Tavistock.  He is named after his uncle, R.J.Petherick, who died on the Somme in 1916.  Dick has twenty or so photographs that will help me.  R.J.Petherick’s father, Herbert, was a builder.  A square-faced man in a bowler hat, his clothes have the rough look that working men’s clothes always do have in photographs from before the age of dry cleaning, when there was only a brush to take the mud off.  This man lost his wife when the last of the children was born and a female relative, Aunt Mary, from the pool of women who always seemed to exist for such services, arrived to take charge of the family; a white-haired spinster of determined mein. 

One of R.J.Petherick’s brothers is captured in a studio portrait aged twenty-one, in a stiff collar, long jacket and jaunty cap, a posed image in the guise of a man about town, swinging a cane.  The same young man looks quite different – and more at ease — with his sheep, sleeves rolled up and smoking a cigarette, a broad smile on his face.  There is a photograph of the Lydford football club, players in white shorts down to their knees, flanked by other men of the village, respectably dressed in their collars and ties, if not looking too comfortable in them.  Dick isn’t sure whether R.J. is in the picture.  R.J. played in it with Archie Huggins (see earlier post).  Instead, we see him as a boy, in a family group with his proud father; he wears a suit of heavy cloth, with a watch chain hanging prominently in front of his waistcoat.  In another shot, he is shown, with the others, in the vegetable garden: R.J. is the one holding the horse’s rein.  He is the oldest of the three Petherick boys.  There’s also his sister, Frances, in a white apron. 
Like Huggins, he had been a member of the Royal North Devon Hussars (a yeomanry regiment equivalent to the modern Territorial Army) but was posted into the 5th Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiemnt.  A group photograph of Dorsetshire soldiers has been made into a postcard.  ‘Dear Frances,’ reads the message, dated August 28, 1916, saying that he can be seen in the back row at the right.  ‘…It’s a bit of a mixed up lot you can see.’  He means that companies had been amalgamated to make good the losses they had suffered.  ‘Have had a fairly decent time so far, billets are better than canvas.  Shall have to leave next Sat.’  He expects the exam he is sitting on Thursday to be a ‘washout’.  Dick died on November 24, 1916, aged twenty-one.  He is one of the 72,194 British and South African soldiers whose names are emblazoned on the great Thiepval Arch, the memorial to the Missing: men whose bodies were blown to pieces in the shelling of the battlefield and never recovered for burial. 
What was the action in which he died?  I plan to find out.  Whatever the fight, it would have been hardly imaginable to the village he left.  The Great War not only took a son and brother from the Petherick family but may have imposed other sacrifices on those who stayed behind.  Frances never married, suffering the pain of a generation whose sweethearts never came home.  

Village hero

This is a photograph of Huggins, A.R., as the Lydford war memorial calls him; to his family he was Archie, short for Archibald Reginald.  How the village must have loved him.  Not only did he play for the Lydford Rangers football, but was the sterling right back of the Tavistock Football Club, whose defensive work often saved the day, and (according to an obituary in the Tavistock Gazette) ‘won him unstinted praise from both friend and foe.’   (In September 1914, the club thought it ought to suspend matches ‘until December, or until the war is over.’   Like so many other people, they imagined it would be a short war.)  Lyford was not much of a cricketing village, to judge from surviving score books; but one day in August 1901 Archie managed to reach 48.  
In January 1914, Archie is recorded as the hero of the church billiards team, playing a team raised by his brother Harry in the village reading room.  Archie was then 27.  In his huge paws – he could pick up an old-fashioned leather football in one hand- – the billiard cue must have looked like a match stick.  Did Archie have his own horse?  He must have had access to one, being a member of the Royal North Devon Hussars; the Hussars were one of the yeomanry regiments – a forerunner of the Territorial Army.
The Huggins family had been in Lydford since the 18th century.  Originally they were miners: this was an important area for tin  Later they became stonemasons, which was just as well, because the mines – having tried copper and finally arsenic – closed.  Stone was plentiful: Archie developed those massive hands levering stones off the surface of Dartmoor.  Work, however, was less so.  Nothing more than a village, Lydford was crowded with builders, carpenters and masons — at a time when farming, which underpinned the economy, had been in recession for decades.   When Archie married Lily Wonnacott one late spring day in 1914, he left of his parents’ modest cottage – which would have been cramped for a strapping fellow like him, as well as crowded with other siblings (he was one of 13) – and set up home in another Devon village, towards the north coast.
As a member of the Hussars, Archie would already have been available for service when the war started.  He was a sergeant.  We see him here, eager as a schoolboy, in the pith helmet in which he was sent to the Dardanelles.  This is a strange thing, though.  He was died on October 26, 1915, only days after his ship — SS Olympic, sister of the Titanic — docked, and is buried, not at Gallipoli, but in the British War Graves Cemetery  in Alexandria.  What happened to him?  What was the role of the Hussars?  I am writing the book to find out.


I have begun a new project.  I am so completely absorbed by it that I am deleting my old blog and devoting this space entirely to this new theme.  I hope you’ll be as gripped by it as I am…
One of my earliest memories is of a war memorial.  We were sitting in the church where I grew up, waiting for the service to begin, and out of tedium I began to read through the names on the marble tablet on the wall.  My mother hushed me.   Relatives of the men who had died might be upset by it, she said.  Since she was not someone to reprove her children normally, I could tell that this was a solemn object indeed.  
In those days, the Second World War was still raw in the memory of my parents’ generation.  My mother’s father fought in the First World War, losing an eye; he then went back as a stretcher bearer and lost him an arm.  (He died just as I was born, as a result of which I was the lucky one who was given his ornate silver christening mug; for obvious reasons, I imagined him as Nelsonian.)  Decades later, the two World Wars seem more remote, but the war memorials are still there, in almost every village in the country — as well as schools, colleges, railway stations, department stores, town halls, factories, offices, banks: any institution that was functioning in the first half of the twentieth century.  The village memorials are specially poignant because of their peaceful setting.  So many names, particularly from the First World War; such small communities.   I know I’m not the only person who finds himself often looking at them, with feelings of grief tinged with awe and wonder.  Would our generation give so much?  Who were the people who went to fight?  What had been their lives in the village, and what did they face overseas?
I have decided to write a book about one.  I’ve chosen Lydford in Devon.  It isn’t quite a random selection.  On the western edge of Dartmoor, Lydford is a quiet place, whose residents are determined to do without street lighting; but it has an interesting history, having been a Saxon burgh (it could mint its own silver coins) and a castle that used to serve as a prison for the rough justice meted out by the stannary (tin-mining) courts.  The war memorial, a granite cross, is unusual in having names from after the Second World War on it – one from the Falklands, another from Iraq.  But of those and the other 21 names – 13 from the First World War — I knew nothing when I set out.  They are simply shown with the initials, not even Christian names or ranks.
Who were those 23 individuals?  They might have been thatchers or builders, gardeners or grooms; young men who played on the village football team – or perhaps hardly knew Lydford, having come from another part of the country to marry a local girl, before being sent to the Front.  They could have been brilliant young scholars, or country boys, happy enough to follow their fathers’ trades.  They met their deaths on the Somme, at Gallipoli, on the sea, in the air. I have started to find out about them.   And although I am only at the beginning of my project, I am finding myself drawn deep into the lives of the men (and one woman) who died.  In some cases, they are not at all what I had expected.