Ken Cook

The cows used to come up the High Street

“I was born in Kingham, Oxfordshire, in 1924. My parents were Watlington people, and when I was four or five years old, we moved back here.

It was a nice little town. It was very self contained – you could buy anything here. You could even have a suit made here in those days. There were lots of shops, and two milkmen. Fred Simmons had the dairy in Brook Street and they used to bring the cows there from Cuxham twice a day. The other one was Smith’s farm, where the library is now. The cows were kept where the school is now, and they were brought up for milking to the High Street twice a day, up past the Chequers, up Chapel Street, around the war memorial, and across the road into the farmyard. You can imagine the mess they made on the High Street!

Simmons supplied the milk to pretty much everyone in Watlington, and Smiths concentrated on cheese and butter. When we were boys we could stand outside the dairy window and watch the women making up the butter pats. They used to take the lumps of butter from the churn, weigh it, and shape it into the pats.

We had a police station with an Inspector, a Sergeant, four Constables and two or three Specials. We had no crime, apart from a few poachers! We had our own court rooms with cells below, it was at the bottom of Couching Street. It’s been converted into houses now. The Specials used to stand on the town hall corner directing the traffic – probably one car every twenty minutes! This was around 1930. We knew everyone, and the police knew all of us boys as well. They used to carry a cane and if we got into mischief they’d hit us on the backside. We didn’t dare go home and tell our Dad either, or we’d have had another one!

We spent most of our time on the hills, or scrumping in the summer months. In the winter we used to go tobogganing with the Boy Scouts, down the White Mark. The Nightingales gave a bit of land to the Scouts on Pyrton Hill, and a Scout Hut was built. We used to go on camps up there.

There used to be a garage opposite Calnan’s butchers. The petrol pumps were on the side of the road and they were hand operated. There was a garage at the back and a shop where it was threepence to get the accumulator for your radio recharged.

There were three butchers and they all had their own slaughter houses out the back. There was Gibbs on Chapel Street, Mick Thompson on Shirburn Street (actually in part of the Fat Fox pub), and Lees butchers in what is now Kingfisher Fish & Chips shop.

The headmaster at Senior School was Mr. Slaymaker. His favourite hobby was wielding the stick and we used to get some hidings off him! You’d go into the playground and someone would start a fight. Afterwards, you’d get sent to Slaymaker. Four stripes of the cane right across your fingers. Then they’d wonder why you couldn’t write when your fingers were still numb! It was a pretty hard life really.

There wasn’t much at the Rec, just a cricket pitch, an old tin hut and a see saw. There was a merry go round as well – a post with chains hanging down from it – but it was very little used and the chains gradually disappeared, and finally the whole thing disappeared. So we’d just tear off into the hills.

I left school when I was fourteen, in 1938. I went to work in Stokenchurch in one of the chair factories there. I used to cycle there, five and a half days a week. The wages were 10 shillings. I was in the polishing shop, sanding chairs. It was a terrible job really, very sore on your fingers. One day I made the mistake of asking for a rise, and I was told to collect my cards.

It was 1938 and we were getting rumours of war breaking out. I was working at the Pressed Steel plant in Cowley, where the BMW Mini plant is now. I was making ammunition boxes, and the wages were £2.50. It was piece work, and it was hard work. I riveted the hinges on the anti aircraft shell boxes. I can’t remember how many thousand we must have done. They were going full blast.

Then, in 1942, when I was 17, I volunteered for the Air Force. I wanted to fly spitfires! But they were not recruiting, so I walked round the corner into the Royal Navy recruitment office. He tested me to see if I was colour blind, which I wasn’t, and told me to go home. The next thing was that I was on a boys training ship, the Ganges, which was at Shotley, Ipswich. Then I did a gunnery course at St Mary’s barracks in Chatham. I’d turned 18 by then, so it was straight into the Navy proper as an ordinary seaman gunner.

The Coastal Forces was formed that year, and we were equipped with motor launches. I spent most of my time in the Med, serving on a minesweeping motor launch. We had 1200 boats all around the world and led all the invasions and landings, including D Day. But the Navy wouldn’t recognise us, and we were put under “Special Forces” which were disbanded after the War. Nobody ever mentions the Coastal Forces now.

At the end of the war, I was at a camp outside Alexandria and I saw Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill on their way back from their conference in Tehran. There was a big cavalcade, and they were together in a car. They pulled up, and gave us a wave.

I came home, and had ten days leave before going out to Germany for another twelve months. I was the coxson for Lieutenant Commander Peter Scott, who was the senior officer of the flotilla. I was responsible for everything on the boat, from cleanliness, to the ropes, to making sure the guns were in order. I had a crew of sixteen. I married a German girl out there and we had two sons. The marriage didn’t work out and I was given sole custody of the boys. My mother helped look after them.

Back in Watlington I joined the family business with my dad and brothers. We did various things, including a farriers and farm equipment repairs. My brother was an expert in welding. I was responsible for the watercress beds. We employed several local men when it was busy at different times of the year. We used to send watercress all over the place – Birmingham, Wolverhampton, and Reading. It went on the 6pm train from Watlington and would be in the markets the following morning. We took over West Wycombe Park, nearly an acre of watercress beds on a 99 year lease. But it turned out that the water was from a borehole and was too pure to grow watercress. We went bust, and my brother got a job as an engineer on a farm. I went back to Pressed Steel, where I stayed for the next thirty-seven years, working as a Shop Steward.

I met my second wife Greta at a New Years Eve works dance. It was a blind date! We clicked, and after that we saw each other every weekend. She met my boys and they approved. She was wonderful! We got married in 1960 and we were together for 50 years.

I retired when I was 63 and took a job on a small estate belonging to the MD of Debenhams, Peter and Catherine Kausland. I worked for them for 25 years, until I had a heart attack. They are still good friends of mine.

The British Legion has been an important part of my life. I helped set up the Watlington Branch in 1976, with the aid of General John Mogg, and Jack Frost the butcher. I was Chairman for seven years, and I ran the welfare part of the branch for nearly 20 years. I hold every honour the British Legion can give. I am very proud of what I’ve achieved with the British Legion. I still go into the Primary School to talk to the children about the Poppy Appeal. We had the best branch in the county for years and years but now it is struggling to survive.

These days, my eyes are failing and I am registered blind. When I was first told that I was going blind a friend told me about the Blind Veterans. It is the most wonderful organisation in the world. I get a visit once a week from a lady. She is lovely.

Watlington now, there’s no policemen, cars park on the pavement, there’s too much traffic, and all the old shops have gone. I’m very disappointed about all that. I’ve got some good friends here, and very good neighbours Margaret and Len. It does get a bit lonely, but I can’t complain. It’s all part of life I suppose.”


Watlington Folk is a documentary project by photographer Nicola Schafer. Watlington is blessed with pretty buildings and beautiful countryside, however it is the people who live here that truly make the place. This project aims to capture that through a series of portraits of the people who live here together with their “Watlington Story”. For more information, please contact Nicola through her website 



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