When I was two years old, my family moved to Hartlepool, where my father worked as a marine engineer and shipping inspector. I was the youngest of seven children, so apart from Ruth, who was five years older than me, my brothers and sisters had left home by the time I was growing up, and I only saw them occasionally.
Hartlepool is still well-known throughout the north-east as “the town where they hung the monkey” (see note at end). We rented a big semi-detached house on the main Stockton road, with the trams running outside the front door. I remember it as always being very dirty. We could sit in the garden and watch the smuts from the Seaton steelworks falling around us. Sometimes the night sky would glow as the slag was tipped. Ruth and I discovered that if we rubbed our hands on the trees and then wiped them on our faces, we became completely black; which did not please Mother. One night an enormous dump of tens of thousands of wooden pit-props near the railway caught fire. The flames were so bright that you could read a book by their light, and the intense heat buckled the rail track.
We didn’t often go to the seaside, although there was a good beach quite close. The sea was always cold, and I don’t remember ever bathing in it with any degree of pleasure. Further up the coast, at Black Hall Rocks, you could find coal dust washed up on the beach from an undersea seam, and the unemployed men would come to rake it up and take it home in sacks. We preferred to have picnics up on the moors at Hobhole, where I could go fishing from the footbridge. Once, when I was about 8 or 9, I proudly told Mother that I had caught two cod and five kippers.
Father was only able to take us on longer outings on Bank Holidays. For three or four summers we stayed in a farmhouse in Kildale, up in the Cleveland hills. This was a very traditional little settlement, with a pub, a church, a local squire, and even a village idiot. The farm was run by a family called Tait: a husband and wife with a son and daughter in their 20s. This was a period of severe depression in farming, and the Taits must have been very poor. They had no motor-vehicle, and just one horse to provide all the pulling-power. It was a dairy farm, and they had their own creamery, which I remember as being the only clean part of the farm. We once bought local cheese (though I think it was from another farmer) which weighed 14 pounds! The farm had no gas or electricity, water came from a spring into a trough, and the only lavatory was a hole in the ground in an outbuilding. We enjoyed our time at the farm, though I suspect Mother would have preferred something more sophisticated.
When I was about ten, Father bought me a second-hand bicycle for £3.10/-. He took me on cycling tours, stopping for bed & breakfast overnight; up Teesdale or Weardale; to Richmond or Barnard Castle. Later I went for rides with a school friend: once we did a day’s run to Whitby and back, which must have been about 80 miles.
When I was 13 I went away to boarding school, where I became a close friend of Francis Crick, who later won the Nobel prize for his work in the discovery of DNA. Then, three years later, Father retired and moved to Bexhill in Sussex, and we never returned to the north-east.
Note: Hartlepool is known throughout the north-east as “the town where they hung the monkey”. The story goes that during the Napoleonic Wars a French ship was wrecked off the coast, and the only survivor to be washed ashore alive was the captain’s pet monkey, which had been dressed in a little military uniform. The people of Hartlepool had never set eyes on a Frenchman, and they assumed the monkey must be a French soldier, so they hanged it! Hartlepool still takes a perverse pleasure in the story of their stupidity: to this day, the mascot of the town’s football team is called “H’Angus the Monkey”
(My father died this summer, at the age of 93)