John Riches lived in Farnborough during the war as a child, but later moved away.  However he still maintains an active interest in Farnborough and its development.

  His book 'The Alley Kids Remember', written and published in 2005,  about his experiences of childhood during wartime, is reproduced in full elsewhere on this site.

This page contains further articles and reminiscences continuing the story, written more recently.

Times have Changed

I recently received a message from my local police force here in Hertfordshire; where I now live; saying that its officers would be searching for concealed weapons or illicit items as part a its campaign to tackle youth violence by educating the public on the dangers of possessing offensive weapons or bladed articles. Kate, one of my five grandchildren asked me if things were different when I was young, They certainly were! So I decided to write a description of what things were like during my childhood in the 1940’s.

I was born and brought up in a tiny farm cottage up an alley called Pleasant View (Now Pleasant View Place BR6 7BL) that led off the High Street of Farnborough in Kent. When in June 1944 the first German V1 pulse jet cruise missile - irreverently known as a Doodlebug - was launched, followed not long after by the V2 ballistic missile, Farnborough just around two miles across the fields from Biggin Hill RAF fighter airfield was a dangerous place to live. When on 13th July 1944 five local children including my classmate Sheila Vickers, plus two mothers were killed by a Doodlebug, many of our parents decided that their children should be evacuated to safer parts of the country. Many went to Stoke-on-Trent, others to North Wales. I went to Pontypool in South Wales and stayed with Doris Brace and her husband Reg who was the Station Master at Crane Street GWR station.

The V weapons offensive ended in March 1945 when Allied Forces captured their launch sites in Northern France and we evacuees flocked back to Farnborough no doubt clutching our toy pistols and tommy guns that our Dads had made for us as Christmas presents. We wanted to emulate members of the Home Guard and the Armed Forces who were common sights around Farnborough carrying weapons such as rifles and Bren guns.

We all had pen knives that we carried in the pockets of our shorts. Boys didn’t wear long trousers then until they were in the second year of Secondary School. The teachers at Farnborough Primary School such as Mrs Hole and Mrs Moat encouraged us to bring pen knives to school as in the days before ball points, they were very useful for sharpening pencils. Of course, they were also very useful up the woods where we whittled sticks from the hazel bushes. Some of the straight sticks were made into arrows and the knife was very useful for cutting notches in the end of the arrow where the bow string fitted. Our long bows, that I was good at making, were modeled on the type used by Robin Hood and his Merry Men that we read about voraciously in our comics. We made them from long hazel sticks, whilst the bow string was made from sash window cords.

One of my friends, Don Curd, had somehow obtained a commercially manufactured arrow complete with feather vanes and a blunted metal head. I asked Don if I could have a go shooting it and stood down the bottom of our Alley by Follet’s shop and fired up the hill. The commercial arrow was brilliant and travelled very fast. Just as I released it Christine Williams, the daughter of one of our neighbours walked out of the gateway to her home into the Alley. My arrow whizzed past her, and my heart thumped as I realized I could have killed her. I’m still in contact with Christine. She’s now in her 90th year and lives in Canada.

Our pen knives also came in very useful for making catapults. David Pucknell was good at this and showed us how we could cut a Y shaped twig from our favourite hazel tree, cut two slots in the top of the Y and then using stretches of rubber cut from old motor tyres, fashion a catapult that could fire up to 100 yards or so.  As there were plenty of rounded pebbles in our area, ammunition was never a problem. Graham Wood became expert in using his knives and other tools to fashion large box kites that could fly very high and had some people fearing that they could interfere with aircraft landing at Biggin Hill.  

Rosie Sims the Akela of our Cub Pack the 1st Farnborough, encouraged us to bring our pen knives so that we could cut string and cords whilst we were learning about all sorts of knots – reef knots, clove hitches, running bowlines and many others.

I well recall that in 1946 on my first day at Secondary School in Bromley my form master Mr Powell (We called him Polly.) gave a talk about what we needed to keep in our pockets or satchels, that included a bottle of ink to replenish our fountain pens, an eraser and of course a penknife to sharpen pencils in the days before ball points. I must have carried a penknife throughout my entire school days.

But we boys longed to buy a sheath knife as they were, in addition to a large khaki hat, part of a scout’s uniform. The bigger the knife the better! Bob Baldock our very conscientious Scout Master encouraged us. I managed to save up enough money to buy my sheath knife at a shop almost opposite Bromley South Station that specialized in items of scout uniform. Some of my compatriots went up to Buckingham Palace Road in London and bought their sheath knives from The Scout Shop.

As we grew older and joined the Youth Hostels Association and hiked or hitchhiked in many different parts of Britain, our sheath knives came with us so that we could use them to help prepare our self-catering food. When in 1953 my best Secondary School friend Ian Roberts and I decided to hitch hike round Germany just eight years after World War Two had ended, we wore our sheath knives with pride. Then in 1954 Ian and I were called up into The Royal Artillery where we were taught to kill people efficiently using a whole variety of weapons that included rifles, bren guns, sten guns, hand grenades, 25 pounders, 7.2 and 155mm howitzers, bayonets and unarmed combat where your boots and belt were your best friend. Sadly, Ian was killed in an accident whilst on a military exercise near Aldershot.

I left the Army in 1956 and a few days later celebrated my 21st birthday and at that point became an adult. All my friends who lived up and around our alley embarked on their careers, married, and had children. David became a skilled milkman, Christine emigrated to Canada and set up her own business, Don became a salesman, and I became a teacher. Graham, through hard work, became a world authority on corrosion and was awarded a Fellowship of The Royal Society (FRS) .

Our childhood involved weapons of many varieties but none of us was involved with antisocial behaviour of any kind. Times have changed!!! 

Gas Lighting in Farnborough.  

The War ended on 8th May 1945. To Farnborough children it was an exciting time as few of us living in or around our alley – Pleasant View – could remember pre-war days. Air raid sirens, anti-aircraft guns, Spitfires zooming across our skies, evacuation, barrage balloons, gas masks, no fathers at home and darkness because of the black-out were normality as far as we were concerned.  

I remember being excited when I saw the lamp lighter for the first time, lighting the streetlight outside my Gran’s home at 36 High Street. The streetlights were still lit by gas and after dark they cast a warm glow over the High Street. It wasn’t long before we children congregated beneath its light to play games with our friends. There was very little traffic on the road and our parents thought we were quite safe.  

Indoors the blackout shutters were taken down as there was no longer a need for Charlie Brown our local Air Raid Warden to bash on the window and boom “Put that blooming light out.” Although electricity had been laid on to some of the houses in the High Street there was none up our Alley. My home 3 Prospect Place (now 12 Pleasant View Place) was lit by gas lighting downstairs and candles upstairs. As darkness approached my Mum would light a match, turn the gas on and hold the flame to the mantle that would soon be glowing brightly and also generating a lot of warmth.  

I remember one day in 36 High Street when I was staying with my Gran Mrs Mary Still. We were playing “Hunt the thimble.” I had to try to find a thimble that had been hidden somewhere in the room. I couldn’t find it until there was a most awful smell. The thimble made from Bakelite one of the earliest forms of plastic, had been hidden on the top of the shade over the gas mantle. It had melted – hence the smell.  

Gas mantles didn’t last very long and one of my errands was to go down the village to buy a new one from the hardware shop. Was it Tubbs then?  

My friend Graham Wood who lived in 61 High Street immediately behind the Parish Room (Village Hall) became a world-renowned expert and was awarded an FRS (Fellowship of the Royal Society) surely the highest scientific accolade in the land? His home never had electricity laid on and he did all his studying by the soft, warm light of a gas mantle. …

John Riches



“Going Down Chalky?”

In the years immediately after World War II my memories are that snow fell most winters. But it was the winter of 1946 – 1947 that really sticks in the mind as records show that Farnborough experienced its heaviest snowfall since 1814. The ground was continuously covered with snow from 27th January right up until 17th March.

It seems incredible now, but boys didn’t wear long trousers in those days until they were in the second year at Secondary School – Year 8 in today’s educational language. Once the snow fell – out came the sledges – some bought in the shops – others made in the garden shed. My Dad had made ours and it came in very handy for dragging logs home from the woods to be sawn up into logs for our open fire. But for us children it was sledging down the hills was the most fun. And we all knew where the longest sledging run was close to the Village Centre – “Chalky!”

That was our nickname, as it probably still is today, for Chalky Luggate, a long slope starting close to The Manse down Church Road and ending at the stile at the bottom of the valley next to Shire Lane. My Mum always said that “Chalky Luggate” was a corruption of its proper name “Chalk Hill Ludgate.” But whether that is true or not I have never been able to confirm.

Once the snow had settled my friends up and around the Alley – Pleasant View – would say, “Goin’ down Chalky?” We would drag our sledges through the village, down Church Hill and join what seemed to be half the children in the village having great fun sitting or lying on their sledges and then swooping down the slope to the stile in the hedge.

We boys must have looked a scruffy lot by today’s standards. Anoraks were not around then – neither were synthetic materials. My garb, from toe to head, would consist of black rubber wellingtons, long woollen socks probably knitted by my grandma in 36 High Street, khaki cotton shorts and thick knitted woollen jumpers. On our heads we often wore knitted balaclavas that completely covered our skulls and only exposed our eyes and mouth. Of course, we wore hand knitted gloves as well.

Sledging was exhausting exercise and by the time we had slid down Chalky three or four times and dragged the sledge back up to the top we were very tired and trudged back through the village to go home to dry out and get warm.

So, let us hope that this winter there is a wonderful snow fall so that Farnborough’s children can enjoy the delights of “Going down Chalky!”


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