The Bridge Interviews
This month’s interview is with someone who went to a school which had five pupils, played as a child inside Second World War gliders and dandled the infant Cedric Reavley on her knee. She is also a member of one of Burford’s best-known families. Burford is blessed with many families who have lived here through several generations and who have contributed greatly to the town.
Christine was born at Chipping Norton, the oldest of three children, on the day when Edward VIII abdicated. (10 December 1936 but she looks decades younger than this.) He parents were living at Over Norton at that time and they moved to Shilton when she was a year old. Her father had served in the RAF and, after leaving the service, he took a job as a civilian driver at Brize Norton. Two other children followed: Andrew, who lives at Lechlade, and Rachel, who lives at Eynsham. The Laurels (now Brook Cottage) had no running water, indoor toilet or bathroom. All the water had to be carried from an outdoor pump. Bath night took place by means of a tin bath in the kitchen with water heated in a copper. They all shared the same water: children first, then mother, then father, with the water being topped up from time to time to keep it hot.
The school in Shilton had five pupils. If the children were good the teacher would read Enid Blyton stories to them in the afternoon. Sometimes the children were not so good. Christine recalls a time when one of them threw a fishpaste jar at a house opposite the school. The others joined in and threw whatever they could find. When the teacher discovered what they had done, they all had to line up and get a slap on the hand with a ruler, after which they were sent to apologise to the house owner and clear up the mess. Christine still remembers her words: “If you don’t want something nasty done to you, don’t do it to anyone else”.
Part of her father’s job involved driving a huge vehicle nicknamed the “Queen Mary”. This was used to carry glider fuselages from Brize to another airfield near where the Cotswold Wildlife Park is now found. There they had wings fitted before they were used to carry troops.* Sometimes he would let five or six children get into the glider and he would tow it around so they could see who could stay standing longest. (Hard to see Health & Safety allowing that today).
Christine’s connection with Burford began when she left school and cycled off to work for Reavley’s pharmacy. This was then run by Robert Reavley, his son Eric and Eric’s wife Sybil. Christine used to take the twins, Cedric and Alison, for a walk round the town in their pushchair. She also recalls helping Cedric to build snowmen. She was paid £1 per week, out of which she gave ten shillings to her mother and kept the rest. Her next job was at Brize, which was then an American base, working in the PX shop. After that she worked for the Paine & Pearman garage on the A40 as a petrol pump attendant. This was near where the antique market now stands, and before the roundabout was built. There were pumps on both sides of the road and she used to skip across from one side to the other as needed, filling the tanks, checking the oil and pumping up the tyres.
Her final job was as an auxiliary nurse at the Burford Cottage Hospital. She had to clean the ward first thing in the morning, then bed bath the patients and treat them with soap and surgical spirit to prevent bedsores. The strict sister would come round, check what the nurses had done and, if necessary, tell them to do it again. “No-one had any bedsores”. In between times, Christine was asked to do some modelling as can be seen here.
Christine met her future husband, Cyril, when she was working at Reavleys. His father, Albert, had moved to Burford soon after the First World War and started a building business. Cyril, who was born in Plumtree Cottage in Witney Street, had a lorry and wooed Christine by driving her and her bike back to Shilton on rainy days. They married when she was just short of 19. “My parents were a bit worried about me marrying so young”. At first they lived in Guildenford and then had a council house at the top of the hill. Her first son, Robin, was born in 1959, followed by Christopher in 1962. Robin, who lives in Witney, is a painter and decorator. His van, bearing the name “The Finishing Touch”, is often seen in Burford where he has a thriving practice. Christopher lives at Shipton and is in business buying and selling at auctions and one of his car boot purchases for £3 later turned out to be a 17th century ivory depiction of Adam and Eve which was sold for £1000. He has two daughters, Samone and Mikala, while Simone in turn has two children, Sophia and Rafferty. The great-grandchildren are regular visitors to Christine’s home.
That home was built by Albert Agg who bought two cottages in Winey Street in about 1949, knocked them down and rebuilt them as one house. The house was designed by Russell Cox who worked in Sheep Street. The new house had to be built in the same style as the original ones apart from only having one front door. It is the only house on Witney Street which has a damp course. When Cyril’s mother died, he and Christine moved there to look after Albert. Christine is still there.
Albert did building work for Lord and Lady Piercy who owned The Great House. One of his jobs was to install the stone pineapples which can still be seen on the roof. He also had to mix paint for the house in exactly the same colour as the jewel in Lady Piercy’s ring.
The young Cyril on his way home from school would climb up the wobbly, wooden ladder to join his father on the roof (more palpitations for the H&S commissars who would insist on scaffolding now). The house was later owned by Christopher Lennox Boyd, who had an elderly Rolls Royce and went around in ragged clothes. (His obituary in the Daily Telegraph described him as someone who “stood in the great tradition of English eccentric antique scholars”).
Burford in the 1950s must have been a very convenient place to live. There were two or three grocers’ shops, two garages where the kitchen shop and Co-op now stand and an ironmonger. Gale’s shop on the corner of Sheep Street sold all sorts of things including furniture and clothing. There were two shoe shops on the present sites of Maggie White and Stone Gallery. There was Scoots the bakers and another baker who came with a van from Northleach, a fishmonger and an electrical shop. There was a police station, a bell foundry and the surgery was by the bridge. Next to the Cotswold Arms was another clothes shop and upstairs was the dentist, Mr Flower. Christine remembers having a dental abscess while she was working in the pharmacy. Robert Reavley sent her down to Mr Flower in her lunch hour. He anaesthetised her with gas, took the tooth out and she went back to work in the afternoon.
Cyril spent most of his working life as a haulage contractor, going all over this country. He worked on the extension of Brize Norton aerodrome, and for the London Brick Company delivering bricks. He used to keep his lorry in the garden in Witney Street. Passers-by used to stop and watch him reverse the lorry in. “You won’t get that in there, mate” was a frequent comment, but with wing mirrors folded in he would squeeze it in with millimetres to spare. He used to watch Mr Bond casting the bells at the bell foundry and drove the last bell cast there to the Whitechapel Foundry to be tuned. He also had a part-time job as a gamekeeper at Widford. “He loved fishing and all outdoor sports.”
His last major customer was Indalex in Cheltenham who made aluminium components for windows and the like. In 1984 Indalex said they would like to give him more work but recommended that he bought a new lorry as the one he had was wearing out. He ordered a new one from Oxford and after some hesitation he and Christine decided to pay cash for it. The Friday before it was due to be collected he gave Christopher a lift to Witney in his car. On the return journey, when waiting to turn right at the Widford turn-off, his car was struck by a BT van going very fast towards Burford. His car finished up upside down on the roof of another car. He was badly injured. His seat belt saved his life but itself caused injuries during the impact. He had to bring legal proceedings against BT and after a 6 year struggle the case was settled at the door of the High Court. He never drove a lorry again. The only small crumb of comfort was that he had not paid for the new lorry.
Cyril was a very keen member of the Burford Bowls Club and he played a big part in building the new club house.
After his accident, Cyril did odd jobs, working with his brother-in-law. He was one of four men who founded the Burford Angling Club which continues to this day. More unusually, he enjoyed spending six weeks at Pinewood Studios as an extra playing an elf in “Santa Claus – The Movie”. (This also starred Dudley Moore and is on television just about every Christmas and this photograph shows him in character.) He was a well-known character in Burford and his regular chair in the Royal Oak is still called “Cyril’s seat’. He died in July 2012.
Christine now has her garden to look after. “Cyril used to grow the vegetables and I grow flowers”. She opens the garden during Burford Festivals. She enjoys the company of the next three generation of Aggs as well as the “Chinwaggers”, a group of Burford ladies who regularly meet to discuss past, present and local matters of interest.
*Historical note: Troops from the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in Horsa gliders landed in Normandy on the night of 5/6 June 1944 and captured intact two vital bridges across the Orne river and the Caen canal in advance of the D-Day landings. Gliders were also used at Arnhem and for the crossing of the Rhine.