If you ever visit the nature reserve on the foreshore at Grain and relax on one of the recently arrived benches you will find it a pleasantly calming experience. There probably won’t be many other people about but any strangers who do happen by will smile and chat for as much or little time as you like. And if you choose to rest your rear on the seat below the carpark you may notice that it bears a nifty plaque dedicated to our mum. The dates tell that she died over 40 years ago and you may wonder what on earth took us so long.

Mum was neither super-woman nor saint. Intelligent but ill educated (like most females of her time) she did her bit in the WRAF during the war but made rotten choices in men. So we became a poor family of 4 small kids and single parent in an era when government benefit help was sparse. Our home was a tiny cottage in Maidstone with no electricity or bathroom and the toilet at the bottom of the garden. But this was no pit of poverty and despair. The twice weekly immersion in the tin bath by the iron range fire was great fun (although my elder sister always reckoned that her golden skin tone was due to the water being over 50% sibling pee by the time it was her turn to be dunked!). If we had a shilling for the meter, winter evenings were spent playing cards and board games and listening to stories told in the sputtering glow of the gas light. Maidstone had been heavily attacked during the war and nearby still remained the rubble of bombed buildings where we constructed elaborate multi roomed camps and foraged for wood and wheels to create go-carts. Our local fraternity of kids considered ourselves a cut above the rough rabble from ‘the flats’ and had to prove it in fiercely fought go-cart races down Queen Anne Road.

When the season came the family finances received a welcome boost when we headed for the fields to pick hops, strawberries, cherries and apples. A chronic post war labour shortage and existence of many war bereaved, cash strapped families made the Kent Education Authorities acknowledge the need and grant an extra 2 weeks holiday for the purpose. But mum knew that the way out of poverty was through education so apart from this brief interval, missing school was a definite no-no. And for us the farms were not places of child labour and exploitation but where we became wealthy in laughter and life experience. I learned that cunning is not exclusive to humans and higher animals when a chicken sneaked up behind me and stole my cheese sandwich – literally out of my mouth!

But the truly golden times were at Grain. Determined to give us good holidays, mum somehow acquired an ex-army tent and for 6 weeks every summer we camped on the beach. Apart from locals the area was deserted as the only access to it was through the vast, pollution belching and often foul smelling oil refinery. But beyond lay a children’s paradise. Every day mum lugged buckets of fresh water and provisions from the village and cooked on 2 parafin primus stoves. Oblivious to her labour we just had fun. The earth beneath concrete tank defences and a pill box had eroded and caused them to tumble haphazardly onto the shore. This created exciting places to climb and rock pools teeming with marine life. We found ways into the old fort and martello tower and our shoes crunched on broken glass as we crept through the rooms, tingling with fear and the feeling that we were in the presence of ghosts. But due to our upbringing I think we were not vandals. There was a honky tonk piano – out of tune but intact, and I was so sad the following year to find it smashed to smithereens. Every day we beach-combed and assembled personal hoards of ‘treasure’. I once found a real message in a bottle and although a bit disappointed that it was only from relatively near Southend corresponded with the sender for a while.

We dined like kings. Winkles covered the breakwaters and wrecked barge. Handfuls of cockles were scooped out of the mud and the sea was so abundant with eels they could be easily caught even without hooks. Trot lines laid at low tide harvested an assortment of flat fish. We gathered blackberries and mushrooms and bought truly free ranch eggs from a local smallholder. We scoffed huge hunks of lovely fresh bread with cheap butter and cheese from Commonwealth New Zealand and, thanks to the inventions of Mr. Kellog, demolished large bowls of cornflakes and weetabix drenched in creamy local milk.
So the 60’s had nearly passed. Now in a super council house and with her kids all doing well mum was suddenly stricken with cancer and, aged only 48, died within 6 months. Grief is complicated. We had no idea at the time that her legacy to us was that we were all left wonderfully equipped to gain good educational qualifications and flourish in professional jobs. But for over 30 years we just didn’t or couldn’t talk about her. Until quite recently that is when we all realised that our deep common regret is that when she became ill we simply didn’t know enough to thank her while there was still time. Now we are sincerely grateful to the Kent Wildlife Trust and Grain Parish Council for helping us to correct this with our memorial bench.

The only counsel I would give to anyone with elderly or sick loved ones is to try to face up to the inevitable and tell them what you feel while they are still able to hear it. On the other hand, even if it takes over 40 years it’s still never too late.

Thanks mum – you are still much missed.

Lesley, Pauline, Kevin and Colleen

Advertisements