“I’ve been keeping bees since I was at school”
I was born in 1963 in the old Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, and was brought back to this house where I still live now. This was the first house the council built in the lane, so it was called number one. My Gramp was the first tenant. Then they changed it to number 12, built some more houses and changed it to number 40. Then a further 8 houses were built, and it became number 48. So, we’ve had 4 numbers, and I’ve never even moved. Opposite the house used to be a field where the Fairground was put on. But it’s all houses now.
It was quite a big family, with my dad, his three brothers and a sister, and there was a lodger. They all lived here, in this one house, with three bedrooms. As time went by, it was just my Gramp left. My parents lived here and looked after him, and then they had me.
My Gramp used to be a shepherd at Golder near Stoke Talmage. He lived in a shepherd’s hut during lambing season, and the rest of the year he walked there and back every day.
When I was growing up, Gramp had three allotments. We had a chicken house with twenty or thirty chickens, a sty with two pigs at a time, and when I was four or five I kept bantams. We had a great big old-fashioned aviary on stilts, with eight or nine fattening cockerels which people bought at Christmas time. In the top pen we kept six geese and ten ducks. A couple would be kept back for laying and the rest would be slaughtered at Christmas. That was my Gramp’s project which my dad took over and kept going until the mid 80s. I’ve always been an allotment holder, all these years, but I just grow fruit and vegetables now.
My dad, Don, did service in the Coldstream Guards in Chelsea, London. Then he worked for Pressed Steel in Oxford. He worked the rest of his life there. My dad liked to drink, he was out every night, playing darts and socialising. So, he was a well-known man in the town. Stanmore was a traditional Watlington name, there used to be loads of us here.
In those days, we all lived in the kitchen, even though it was tiny, and the front room was hardly ever used. I remember we used to hatch eggs, and we kept the chicks in a box in the kitchen. We had budgies and canaries in the kitchen too, and we’ve always had dogs.
I went to the old Watlington Primary School, next to the bus garage it was. I remember Mrs. Tucker was my teacher there. My aunt, Vera Bull, was the head cook at school. She lived four doors up from us. We were always close, in and out of each other’s houses. She’s 100 now, and in a nursing home in Princes Risborough.
I joined the Watlington Cubs, the Akela was Marion Millen, who used to live across the road. Then I went to Icknield. I joined the Livestock Club, but I got thrown out of that, because there were a couple of nasty chickens who used to come at you, and one day I put my foot out to stop them, and got thrown out because of it.
We never had a car, growing up. There was a bus driver, Ernie Foreman, who used to do trips for a local group we were in. There were about fifty people and we used to go on trips to the seaside or to see a show in London or Oxford, at least twice a month.
I used to help the local milkman, Fred Simmons. He had a funny contraption, an electric pull cart. From the age of twelve I used to help him in the mornings before school from 4 am until 8 am, and I also had a paper round for the local newsagent Terry Varley. I’d always be late for school, which no one could understand as we lived right next to it. I then developed a paper round on Sunday which was the bulk of Watlington and the Watlington Hospital. I used to go round the individual beds seeing if anyone wanted a Sunday paper. I used a trade bike for my deliveries. When Fred Simmons decided he couldn’t do the milk round any more he sold the business to Elm Farm Dairy in Ewelme, and they were then taken over by Clifford’s Dairies.
As we had poultry, we used to get bags of stale bread from the bakery to feed the birds. I got a job after school helping at the bakers, and then I was offered a Saturday job there, which was where Tutu Delicious is now. So, I had to give up the milk round, although I kept the paper round. Towards the end of my time at Icknield I decided to go down the route of becoming a baker and confectioner, and worked as a trainee at the bakers. I had one day at week at college in Reading, where I got my City & Guilds.
My interest in bee-keeping had a very strange start. We had a school trip to Rouse Honey in Ewelme. Being the sort of collecting person I am, I asked Mr. Rouse if I could have a selection of his honey labels. Some of those labels had a nice picture of a bee hive on them, and I thought I’d like one for the garden. I found some old hives on my Sunday paper round on Hill Road and I purchased one. After I’d bodged this aging beehive up and painted it, and put it in the garden it came to crunch time. I’d like some bees in there! I put the word out and somebody contacted me about a swarm of bees in the Rec. So, I went down there with a box and some gloves. I got stung about 30 times but I got the bees and that was that. Now I have 11 hives up at the farm at Cuxham, and I sell the honey at Calnan’s butchers in Watlington. I also did bell ringing at St Leonard’s Church for about 30 years, until I had to give it up because of it not fitting in with work.
I joined the fire service in the town in about 1982 with Barry Adby, Derek Thatcher and others. I had always loved fire engines, and I even bought one, a 1971 Bedford TK which I have fully restored, and used to take to shows. But after three years, I was made redundant from the bakers and had to get a job out of town, which meant that I couldn’t give the cover for the Fire Service, so I had to give it up.
I worked at Tesco’s bakery in High Wycombe, and then at another bakery in Moulsford, but a couple of years later I found out that I could earn more as a milkman than as a fully skilled baker. So, that’s when my life changed again, and in 1986 I joined Clifford’s Dairies. My first round was RAF Benson. Eventually I became a supervisor, and after taking over a franchise in Bicester for four years, I came back and became a product controller in the depot, where I still am. We have been through Dairy Crest and now we are Milk & More.
I met Sharon in 1995 at an Over 30s night at Rivers Night Club in Benson, opposite where the Waterfront Café is. She knew she was onto a winner when she met me! We exchanged numbers and I was on a milk round in the afternoon when she called me. We clicked straight away. I used to drive down every evening to see her until her children grew up, then she moved in here with me. My dad was still with us then, and she helped look after him and we did the place up. Sharon remembers me with a snazzy waistcoat and one of the first mobile phones!
Since Lockdown I am just working and sleeping, it has been so busy. There was an uptake in milk deliveries last year after the Blue Planet documentary with David Attenborough, when people started wanting milk in glass bottles rather than plastic. But it is the Corona Virus that has really changed things. We had to stop taking on new customers for a while, as the systems couldn’t handle it.
Walking up the town used to take so long, because you would talk to everyone. But people have moved out and it’s not the same. You don’t even have to nod to people now. I am working so much, and such unsociable hours, I don’t really have time to get involved with the community. If I have any spare time, it is completely taken up with the garden and the allotment.
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 http://www.nicolaschafer.co.uk