Childhood Memories of Bilsham

Growing Up in the 50's -

Childhood Memories of Bilsham


Allen Misselbrook

With the pace of life getting forever faster and the need for more and more housing which continue to cover our green and pleasant farmland under tarmac and concrete, I would like to turn the pages back to a time when computers and mobile phones were unheard of and foreign holidays were only for the privileged few. In fact I would like to take you back to the 1950’s and early 60’s when, as a lad in short trousers, I grew up with my family in the last house at the bottom of Bilsham Lane, number 83 a semi-detached cottage. Both semis are now known as Bilsham Croft.

Although Yapton has expanded beyond all recognition, Bilsham has remained relatively unchanged. One of the major differences being HMS Peregrine which was operational up until 1959 with the main runway finishing just a couple of fields away from Bilsham Corner where, incidentally, I was born (number 85 was my grandparents house). Naval aircraft were a permanent feature in the skies above us using our house as a sighting point for their approach path. It was a time when jet aircraft were replacing the prop driven planes so although there were still types such as the Fairey Gannet stationed at Ford, it was more common to see and hear planes such as the Seahawk, Scimitar, Sea Vixens and the like screaming low over our heads. Sadly, all too often, there were accidents and it wasn’t uncommon for them to crash in the surrounding countryside. I witnessed one such event while playing in our backyard. A Seahawk, as far as I remember, had an engine failure while making his final approach to land and crashed in the field in front of me killing the pilot. Another crash occurred at the bus stop at Clymping, now the little roundabout on the A259 at the junction with the road to Ford Prison. This was the bus stop we used on our daily journey to and from Clymping Primary school.

Bilsham Lane and farm house. Note the clipped Holm Oak. Circa 1955.
(Photo: Frith Collection)

Having the airfield sited where it was meant that the road to Clymping from Yapton was closed. The A259 as we know it today didn’t exist. The road came from Comet Cottage to Yapton with a junction at Bilsham Corner which was the turning for Clymping and Littlehampton. Traffic was very light as few people owned cars. The only person I can recall owning a vehicle in Bilsham at that time was Mr. Colin Loveys, owner of Bilsham Farm (although as time passed other neighbours became car owners themselves). Consequently the only means of transport for us was public transport, cycling or walking. The local bus company, Souhdown, ran a quarter hourly double decker service, number 31, between Portsmouth and Brighton with a stop at Bilsham Corner; a single decker service number 64, from Chichester via Westergate, which terminated at Bilsham Corner; and a double decker service, number 69, from Arundel to Bognor via Middleton.

At that time our hamlet of Bilsham consisted of 16 houses of various types populated by 41 adults and 24 children under 16 which meant I had plenty of playmates. The other side of the coin was that there were 39 pairs of eyes watching and reporting back to mum and dad anything that we shouldn’t have been doing which often ended up being quite painful. Unlike today, the majority of men worked on the farm and farm life featured heavily in my early years. We were surrounded by fields which were our playground.

Old Bilsham Farm House seen here as a pair of semi-detached houses. The grain drying and store buildings can be seen on the right. Circa 1955.
(Photo of postcard by Judges)

Most of these houses were situated at Bilsham Corner where we caught the bus to Clymping School. It was here that the red post and telephone boxes were positioned. Apart from the farm houses I cannot remember any other house having a private telephone so if we needed to make a phone call it meant a half mile walk with four old pence in your pocket to the phone box. Behind these were, as now, three pairs of semi-detached houses numbers 84 – 89. These were all tied cottages owned by Bilsham Farm and occupied by farm hands and their families. In the 50’s they still had outdoor toilets and no hot water, kitchen ranges and were even lit by gas in the early part of the decade. All had large gardens where vegetables were grown and chickens kept. Around the corner were three other houses facing onto the Littlehampton road. The only one I can really remember is the end one in which Captain Luff lived. Who or what he was I never knew.

In the distance, looking towards Middleton, could be seen White Rails, another pair of tied semi-detached houses, so called after the wooden white rails bordering the road over the Rife. Walking back towards Yapton, past the houses and with the road bending to the left there behind the hedge on the right hand side was an orchard and beyond that the house of Mr Samms, manager of Hobbs' Farm. On the opposite side of the road was a footpath of compressed ballast with the row of poplars between the path and the small meadow. Hobb’s Farm, on the S-bend was owned by two women, sisters I believe, Mrs Hobbs and Mrs Boyd. At that time it was a dairy farm where we were allowed to help bring the cows in and muck out the dairy for a reward of an extremely fresh glass of milk. The dairy and all the farm buildings have since been converted to dwellings. The main entrance to the impressive ivy-clad farmhouse was to the left of the ornamental fish pond now on the right hand side. This pond was full of goldfish and eels with moorhens nesting around its edges.

Crossing the road on the S-bend to walk down Bilsham Lane was always a risky business, especially at night, but once accomplished the sight and sound of nature took over. The noise of the road traffic faded so that the only manmade sounds came from tractors in the fields and, of course the aircraft when flying. On the left were the horse chestnut 'conker' trees which attracted us children like magnets in the autumn. While on the right lay the farm track leading to the tractor sheds and bullock paddock which could be found behind Bilsham Farm House, the home of the farmer Colin Loveys and his family. These farm buildings have long since been converted into residences. In front of the farmhouse was another large fishpond also populated by goldfish and eels with a neatly clipped holm oak on the house side of the pond. During exceptionally cold winters the pond would freeze over and Miss Mary, the farmer’s sister, would use it as a ice rink.

View from our house looking over allotments towards the Piggery with the Old Farm House and the grain drying building behind. Note the Seahawk flying into Ford Airfield. Note also the threshing machine drawn up alongside the Piggery. Circa 1957.
(Photo: Allen Misselbrook)

Once passed the back garden of the farmhouse was the entrance gate, on the left, to the Brooks, a series of linked meadows which followed the course of the rife. These fields were used for rearing bullocks and quite often flooded during the winter which formed convenient slides for us when they froze over. On the right hand side of the lane, immediately before the Chapel was another pond, this one was surrounded by trees. The pond had been used as a dump for anti glider wire and posts used to deter gliders landing in the surrounding fields during the war. This of course was a great attraction for us. The Chapel itself was used for storage by the farm where fertiliser and diesel oil amongst other items were kept. This has now been converted into a house. Continuing down the lane and further into the countryside the old Bilsham Farmhouse, 'Piggery' and grain drying and storage facilities were the next group of buildings to be reached. At some point in the past the house had been converted into a pair of semis. Today they have been converted back into one house along with all the outbuildings. We were often allowed to help old 'Shep' Bailey mix the pig meal and feed it to the pigs. Opposite the Piggery was the Dutch barn where all the straw and hay along with the combine harvester were kept. This barn was eventually burnt down in the 1970’s. The adopted road ended at the Piggery, there it became a farm track full of pot holes, with a series of allotments on the left hand side before reaching the last pair of semis, one being ours. The track continued on between the fields heading towards a small field surrounded by trees known as Diamond Mead.    

Winter time was a little bleak living in a 250 year old house with solid walls, ill-fitting windows and surrounded by open fields but we didn’t seem to notice. It may have been raining or very cold but we were always outside playing whenever possible. The garden and surrounding fields were often under water making any sort of travelling an adventure and, more often or not, we would come home from playing in the fields and our feet soaking wet inside our boots. One winter the water was so deep and lay for so long that Mr. Loveys allowed our neighbour, Mr. Withal who was a tractor driver, to hitch up a trailer to his tractor and take us to school using bails of straw as seats to the envy of our class mates. Walking home in the dark down the lane was very scary at times with only star or moonlight to see by, there were no street lights except for one at Bilsham Corner. On cloudy nights it was extremely hazardous as there were deep, water filled ditches either side; one foot wrong and you could find yourself up to your waist in water.

One of the semi-detached houses that constituted Old Bilsham Farm House. Note the grain store at the rear and the track that was our cricket/football pitch. Circa 1950.
(Photo: David Ruffle)

The surrounding fields, hedgerows and ditches were always an attraction whatever time of year. As winter slowly turned to spring wild flowers started to raise their heads in the strengthening sunshine. Snowdrops appeared first followed by primroses, dog violets and bluebells. The ditch around the field in front of our house was christened 'Primrose Ditch' because the banks were transformed into yellow carpets of primroses some of which we picked for our mother to place in jam jars to decorate the house. Sadly, the last time I visited the ditch in springtime there were no primroses to be seen. Yellow lesser celandines and white stitchwort appeared along the Lane verges with the fresh green leaves of the hawthorn hedges hiding the nest building activities of blackbirds, song thrushes and robins. If we were lucky we would discover a domed wren's nest near the ground made from moss and downy feathers with its entrance hole in the side. We would discover the locations of many of the nests by watching for the coming and goings of the birds and wait with growing excitement firstly for the eggs to appear and then for them to hatch and finally for the young birds to fly the nest.

While all this was going on at ground level, above our heads trees were awakening from their dormancy. The sticky buds of the horse chestnut trees were unfurling and the cones of white blossom appeared at the ends of the branches like candles on a Christmas tree promising a new crop of shiny brown conkers in the autumn. Elms, sycamores, oaks and ash trees cloaked themselves with leaves and helped form a living tunnel for most of the Lane's length, and when the sun shone from a clear blue sky shafts of sunlight danced along the road. One memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life is that of being walked home on a warm Sunday evening in late spring by my grandparents after spending the day with them and hearing the birds whistling and the scent of cow parsley in the air. They would point out the various flowers and birds to me and teach me their names. Cow parsley was a very useful plant. The thicker stemmed growth could be cut off at the base to a length of 12 inches or so and because it was hollow made a very passable peashooter.

The farm and the countryside featured a lot in our play. There was always enough of us available to form a gang and go off in search of adventure. Sometimes we would decide to dam a ditch to see how high we could get the water to rise, much to the annoyance of the farmer. Another favourite would be to follow the lane past our house where the fields rose up on either side to form a sunken track, to a place where the ditch widened into a small pond. There we would go pond dipping for newts, sticklebacks and minnows. Other inhabitants were water snails, water boatmen and some thin black creatures which looked like underwater slugs. Camp building came very high on our activity list. Quite often we would sort ourselves into two groups and each set out to build a camp out of branches in the hedgerows, tufts of grass and any other material that we could find to make our structures waterproof. We became quite proficient at this with some lasting all summer long and proved useful if we were caught out in a shower. One of our more energetic games was competing in races around the fields. These were usually organised by my Uncle Brian who is just a few years older than me. He would bring us all together, set a route and give us numbers which were created on our tee-shirts with the Velcro like flowers of the burdock plant and off we went after being given a time handicap according to our ages. We didn’t need expensive toys to enjoy ourselves. When evening came and it was time to go home and get ready for bed Dad would stand outside the back door of our house and give such a piercing whistle that it could be heard fields away. We ignored this summons at our peril.

Bilsham Chapel being used as a farm store. 'Mizz' Misselbrook working in yard with his wife (my Gran), my mother, me and Brian (on bicycle). Note diesel pipe on far corner. Circa 1955.
(Photo: Stuart Nolan)

As summer days started to shorten foraging became the order of the day. The hedges of the 'Brooks', the fields which border the Parish boundary formed by the rife, contained brambles which produced  many pounds of blackberries every year which we picked and took home to add to the apples that we 'borrowed' from the farmer's orchards. The Brooks were also a source of mushrooms in the autumn which made a tasty addition to our meals, maggots and all. We collected damsons from the trees growing in the paddock behind the Piggery. The Canadians chose this field during WW2 in which to site their NAFFI. Sloes and hazelnuts were also plentiful in the hedgerows. Another enjoyable task that we undertook was to collect any fallen branches, pine cones or wood chippings to supplement the supply of coal which was delivered in hundred weight sacks by Burningham’s Coal Merchants of Middleton. This was fuel for the kitchen range and open fire of which there was only one in our house plus the copper in the scullery which was used for boiling water for the laundry and for bathing.  

Harvest time was always an exciting time. We would wake-up one sunny morning to the noise of banging and clattering coming from the Dutch barn at the end of the allotments as the combine harvester was being made ready to earn its keep. Once the corn had been harvested and the waste straw dried in rows it would be the turn of my grandfather 'Mizz' to start baling. The baler was hitched up to his tractor and a wooden sled attached behind the baler. The bales were stacked onto the sled and when several had been stacked on top of each other they were pushed off the back to wait collection. If we were lucky we were allowed to ride on the sled but only when Mr Loveys wasn’t around. Unfortunately for Mr Loveys, these bales were too good an opportunity to miss. They were excellent building blocks for camps and tunnels. During the summer holidays we made full use them. It wasn’t our fault that the string used to hold them together kept coming off. One Saturday morning Mr Loveys drove a tractor and trailer fully laden with bales stopping at our fence backing onto the field at the back of the house and unloaded them. His comment was "These bales are for you Misselbrooks to play with. Kindly leave my b*****s alone."

The Bilsham gang. Circa 1958.
(Photo: Allen Misselbrook)

These were the days before the giant supermarkets so most of the local shops owned delivery vans and made regular visits to householders delivering all kinds of produce. We were a large family which required a lot of feeding so there was a steady stream of delivery vans arriving at our the house. Holts bakers of Lake Lane, Barnham, alas no longer trading, used to deliver bread three times a week, while Earleys butchers of Barnham, still trading, used to deliver on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Our general groceries were delivered by Mr Wighton of Middleton Stores, once a week and three pints of milk appeared on our doorstep every morning at about 6am by Saits Dairies of Middleton along with bottles of orange which I believe were still under rations in the early days. We also had the luxury of fruit and vegetables being delivered; although dad grew most of the basic vegetables they still needed to be supplemented with the more specialised varieties. Our mobile greengrocer was Don Boxall who would arrive with his van full of fresh produce. He ran his business from Brow Cottage, now Hobdens Estate Agents. The local Post Office and Haberdashers was run by local brothers Jim and Gordon Diggance who also provided a home delivery service whereby mum could order clothes and other garments on account and Jim or his daughter Jenny would call on a Saturday morning to deliver and collect weekly payments. Should any further shopping be required I was usually given a list and had to walk up to Bilsham Stores or Hall Stores , now Merry Meats, to buy them but I can never remember having to pay. I can only assume that Mum or Dad settled at the end of each week. The walk from Bilsham wasn’t as dangerous as it is today as there was a hardcore path laid all the way from Bilsham to the Lamb pub, another victim of progress. My fetch and carry services where required again on most Friday lunchtimes during school holidays when I was usually asked by the farmhands to go to the backdoor of the Lamb to collect bottles of Brickwoods Brown Ale put there by the Landlord for the men to enjoy during their lunch break.

Quite often, after tea during the week, most of us youngsters would congregate in the drive of the Old Farmhouse and join our fathers and men folk for a game of football or cricket. A cricket bat sawn from a plank of wood, a tennis ball and an oil drum for the wicket would be produced, two sides were picked and for the next couple of hours, battle commenced. Football consisted of the time honoured coats for goalposts and an inflated plastic ball and grazed knees from the gravel pitch.

For better or worse these days are now long gone but hopefully not forgotten.

Allen Misselbrook
Yapton & Ford Local History Group
December 2015