Early in 1939, when I was eight, I was playing in the garden of our Finchley house when I looked up and saw a most extraordinary grey object in the sky. It was massive, soft and menacing 'It’s only a barrage balloon,' my sister, thirteen, said all knowingly. 'The Royal Air Force at Hendon are testing it. A network of them will stop Zeppelins coming over and dropping bombs on us..’
I had no idea what Zeppelins could be nor why they would drop bombs on us, but soon learned that war was imminent.
The sighting of the balloon signalled a change in the direction of our lives for it spurred my parents on to take evasive action. They bought a property in the country, well away from London before panic broke out and everyone thought of doing the same thing.
Within a few months we moved from our familiar French enclave in suburbia to Pangbourne, a beautiful Thames side village in very English Berkshire and an even more beautiful house that overlooked the weir.
Once a small cottage, ‘Weir Pool’ as it was named, had been added onto over the centuries and comprised six bedrooms, five reception rooms, three staircases, two inglenook fireplaces, and lots of unusual cupboards to hide in. Its garden ran along the waterfront for a hundred yards or so and there was a rope and plank bridge across to a small island, part of the property, which was overgrown with willow trees, wild mint and nettles where otters left the carcasses of fish.
The island was reputed to have been the setting for much of Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, who had lived in the village, and the house had previously belonged to a relative of Cardinal Manning, Archbishop of Westminster in the 1860s. Basil Rathbone, the film actor famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, had rented it for holidays where he had entertained a number of well known stars, a fact which thrilled my mother much to the irritation of my father who considered anything connected with the cinema to be trivial.
Life became unexpectedly blissful. As my parents busied themselves unpacking tea chests containing all our worldly goods or buying second hand furniture to fill the empty rooms, I spent most of my time discovering nature, for much of the garden, unlike the one in Finchley, was wild and untended. Birds nested low in the bushes, tiger patterned spiders spun their webs across hedges and, under rocks and stones, earwigs, woodlice and worms lived their dark undisturbed contented lives till I came along.
During my earlier bouts of breathing problems, from which I no longer suffered, I had been sent to various spas and had learned to swim. Though there was always a risk that I might fall into the river and drown, I was allowed to paddle the long, narrow punt that had come with the property up and down the rive, while my sister, also discovering her new found freedom, took a great delight in climbing the apple and pear trees pretending to be a damsel in distress or something equally daft.
These exceptional pleasures, however, were not to last. As a family we were quite unaware that it was unwise for foreigners like us to purchase one of the most idyllic houses in the centre of a home counties village and expect to be welcomed with open arms by the locals.
My sister and I were the first to suffer their indignation...
Weir Pool House, Pangbourne.
Regine and Simone over the river.