It is often said that you ought not to visit the home where you were brought up as you may be sadly disappointed at all the changes that have taken place. Well, such is not always the case! My formative years were spent in the small village of Styal in Cheshire, where my father was the village policeman, and earlier this year I returned for a reunion.
Seventy years ago Styal was very much a small village. It moved from being a hamlet in an earlier century when Samuel Gregg built a mill in the Bollin Valley. Then it was a model of its kind, and today it is no longer a working mill, but an industrial museum, attracting people from across the country and beyond.
Not only did Sam Gregg build the mill, he also constructed several rows of terrace houses for the mill workers, and a school, which was the first school I attended. The little school, set in the heart of the village, still functions as a school today, and our reunion brought together those of us who were pupils there and residents in the village in the 1940’s. Amazingly, more than 70 of us travelled from far and wide to meet each other again, and to enjoy lunch in the Mill Restaurant; something we would never have dreamed of doing 70 years ago.
Naturally it was a time to share memories. There were many stories told about my father, who patrolled the village on his bicycle and kept law and order! As far as any of us could remember there was little crime.
‘Scrumping’ (pinching apples), or riding bicycles without lights, were fairly high on the crime sheet, along with acts of mischief by local youngsters.
We all remarked on how fortunate we had been to have been brought up in such a self-contained environment. I was a chorister in the ‘Tin Tabernacle,’ the village Anglican Church constructed mainly from iron sheeting.
When it rained the preacher was inaudible, much to the relief of the choirboys! Many of my friends attended the Methodist Church in the heart of the village, and this was a real centre of social life.
Another popular centre was the Ship Inn almost directly opposite the Police House. It was in a room above the public bar that Canon Reeman came from Wilmslow, two miles away, to conduct my confirmation classes.
The Club Room, attached to the pub, was where I saw my first film – The Lady Vanishes – starring Margaret Lockwood. I was terrified when I saw the elderly ‘Miss Froy’ played by Dame May Witty, bandaged from head to toe. Having since watched the film again I can only conclude that I must have been easily frightened!
Alan Gardiner, who lives at Oak Farm, is a particular friend of mine and we are still friends today. He continues to farm in the same place that his father farmed before him, and not a great deal has changed apart from the fact that he has lost some of his land to the ever hungry demands of Manchester Airport.
We laughed together about the time we camped in one of his father’s fields. I had read stories of exhausted travellers finding a barn and relaxing for the night on a heap of straw, so I filled a sack with straw and climbed in. What a night! At about one in the morning we called the adventure off as we could not stand the irritation of the straw, and the biting of the insects who also took to it for a night’s rest!
Bonfire night was a great village event, and a huge bonfire was constructed in the village. When it had burned low and all the fireworks had gone we would bake potatoes in the glowing embers.
The Greggs were, as far as I understand it, Unitarians, and as well as an Anglican and Methodist Church there was a Unitarian place of worship at the entrance to Styal Woods. The Tin Tabernacle has long gone, but the Methodists and Unitarians still have a place to attend on Sundays.
The woods were a place where I spent hours exploring and occasionally falling into the River Bollin. I saw the mill come to the end of its working life and gradually fall into disrepair. Today it has been wonderfully restored and is well worth a visit. We all had a great day together. It was tinged with a certain sadness as we recognised that it might well be the last time some of us would meet each other.
As wartime children we were well into our allotted span in this world. Each and every one of us was glad that we had been so fortunate to have spent our formative years in such a secure and beautiful setting.
The trials and troubles of wartime Britain were but a distant memory. The UK was now a very different place, but Styal had not changed vastly and I was not disappointed.