Archive for February, 2009

Pontypool’s great snow of 1947

February 5, 2009

I live in a split-level house so that my lounge is on the top floor. Three-quarters of one wall consists of a huge window with a sliding door leading out onto a roof garden. I can look straight across at the low hills of Caerleon; to the west is Twm Barllwm mountain and to the east the tree-clad hills of Wentwood. For over 40 years I’ve seen this vista change through the year as we go through the seasons.

As I write now I can see the whole scene blanketed in snow. It’s only about three inches deep here, but I imagine in Pontypool – being 600 feet higher than Newport – the snow is considerably deeper.

My memory returns to the great snow of 1947 which was my last year living in Pontypool. What snow we had then! We woke up one Sunday morning to find that about 12 inches of snow had fallen overnight. As it was a Sunday, about 12 or so young men and boys, armed with spades and shovels, decided to dig our way down to the main road. The snow was only just a little below the tops of our wellingtons. We only cleared a path a couple of yards wide, but it would have enabled anyone on foot to walk down to the main road fairly easily.  I didn’t know at that time that our efforts were to be recorded in “timeless verse” and we would receive the accolade of “heroes”. (See below)

After many hours of hard toil we returned home for our very welcome hot Sunday dinner and took it easy indoors for the rest of the day; but when we awoke the following morning a new fall of snow had filled in our pathway. As the snow now was much higher than wellington boots, our one consolation was that, by wearing wellingtons we could at least get down to the main road.

I was talking about this matter to my friend, Eric Smith, a few weeks ago, (Sadly after the funeral of his much loved wife, Betty.) and he recalled having to dig a way out at Wern Terrace, only to find it filled in again the following morning. He also remembered that, because of the extreme cold, birds were found, in Pontypool Park, dead and encased in ice.

There were all sorts of accounts passed on by word of mouth about the huge snow drifts that were about. I remember one person telling me that when he was up the Varteg he saw some boys sliding down a roof top and straight on to a snow drift which had reached the eaves of the house. From 2nd February until 22nd of that month it snowed every day. It was not until the middle of March that the very cold weather eased and we eagerly looked forward to the approaching spring.

The war had only ended just two years before so we were used to hardships and shortages; rationing was still in force anyway; in fact it lasted for 14 years! The snow stayed for many weeks and deliveries by tradesmen were impossible. I remember having to walk over to Harry Brown’s bakery in High Street to get a loaf of bread. As it was obvious that, if supplies of food and other essential commodities were to get through, the roads would have to be cleared, the wartime spirit returned and volunteers came forward in large numbers to do the job.

Naturally the whole event was recorded in the Free Press, and a local poet, using the pseudonym “Chware Teg” of Varteg, wrote a poem called “A Ballad of the North Ward“. In the style of Rudyard Kipling’s “Gunga Din” he writes:

Have you ever been at Varteg with the needle three below,

Or on Garn when drifts are piling ten feet high?

Have you ever drawn your belt in with the kids a-starving slow

And “No Nuthin'” in addition to “No Beer”?

Have you seen the way a blank, with a single trodden path

Just six feet up above the road that was,

With Pontypool and Griff just five miles down the line,

With half a world between us till it thaws?

There’s an epic of the South Ward, blazoned in the weekly “Press”;

How the heroes of Wainfelin dug a way.

How the men of Pontypool and the warriors of Griff,

Opened up their bit of highway – without pay.

But the men of Garn had stirred, and the Varteg lads had heard,

And the road to Abersychan lay ahead.

They were seven or eight score strong, and I won’t be in the wrong

When I say that at the end of it was BREAD.

Two whole days they toiled and sang, Ira Tucker in the “van”,

Linking up with Rowley Hanson by the Church.

Varteg Co-op to “Bob-a-day”, on the ribbon wound its way,

And the men from Abersychan? . . . Well, just search!

There’s a saga of the North Ward, etched in piles of virgin snow,

Of the volunteer road men, strong and true.

Of the lads who moved that load from Garn to Foundry Road,

And let the bread and rations hurry through.

You have heard of British Fairplay, and the North Ward men don’t boast,

And they did their job without a coin, – or moan.

But the Press should blare it forth as “The Ballad of the North”

Or “How Garn and Varteg more than held their own.”

The games we used to play in Pontypool

February 2, 2009


Despite all the doom and gloom preached today about global warming, the warmest decade in living memory was the 1930s. This accords with my memories of my early childhood, the Town School days.

We spent most of our time outdoors when the weather was fine, most of it playing games. Naturally we played cricket , rugby and soccer whenever possible but that meant rounding up a good number of friends and having some basic equipment. Some of this we had to make ourselves, so that a rugby ball was often a tightly rolled up newspaper tied around with string; and goal posts, and quite often stumps, were our coats placed on the ground.

It was quite possible to play cricket and football in the main street at the front of the houses because very little traffic came along the road; just the odd car and from time to time the baker’s van or the horse and cart of the salt and vinegar man. French cricket was somewhat easier to play as all we needed was a bat and a soft ball. The idea was to hit the legs of the batsman not a wicket, and you could get as close as you liked, but must not move once you had retrieved the ball; even just three could play this game.

Quite often I would play games with my friend Eric Smith and perhaps one or two other boys; that meant playing games for small numbers. Here are some of the games which were our favourites:

boys-play-marblesboys playing marbles

Marbles  There were various versions of this game. We played with both colourful glass marbles, sometimes referred to as allies (pronounced arleez), and also the smaller dull brown clay marbles. The back lane behind Wern Terrace was made of a mixture of earth and ashes so it was quite easy to draw a circle on it with a sharp stick. Each of us would place two or three clay marbles in the circle and then shoot at them from a marked line with our glass marbles. The idea was to knock the clay marbles out of the circle; we kept all we knocked out. When the last marble was won the game was over and we started another. Before we started to play we decided whether we would play “keepsies” or not. If we did, then all the marbles won could be kept. If we did not play “keepsies” then after all the games each person had his own marbles returned.

There were certain cries which were shouted out. When we decided to play, one of us might shout “largall” which meant they would shoot last. There were other cries also: if another player was quite near to your marble, you could shout “Knuckle down” which meant the shooter had to point his knuckles at the ground making a hit much more difficult. The most tongue-twisting cry I can remember was “knuckledowninbarfullock”. I’m sure it meant something but I can’t remember what.

Another version of marbles was “following taws” and was quite often played along a gutter. This was usually played between two boys. The first player would shoot his marble and the second would then try to hit it with his marble. If he scored a hit he kept the marble. If not it would be the turn of the other boy to shoot. Sometimes it would take quite a while before a marble was hit; as you can imagine there were all sorts of obstacles in the gutter to hinder a shot such as stones, patches of earth, cigarette ends and spent matches.

Jackstones  This was one of my favourite games and could be played indoors or out and on almost any surface. It was played with five smooth stones or pebbles about three-quarters of an inch in length and one hand. First, all five stones were thrown in the air and we had to catch as many as possible on the back of our throwing hand. If we only caught one we had to start in “onesies” which meant throwing all five stones in a rough circle, and then throwing one stone in the air, picking up one stone and catching the other before it dropped to the ground. “Twosies” meant we had to pick up two stones at a time before catching the other. Then we progressed to three and four stones. If we made a mistake in any of this then we had to start again from the beginning. If you caught two stones on the back of your hand you started at “twosies”, and so on.

If all this was done successfully we progressed to “dappers” when we had to take all five stones in our hand, throw one stone in the air, dap the others on the ground and catch the thrown stone before it reached the ground. The stone was then set aside so that we next did it with three stones, then two and so on. Again, any mistake meant we had to start dappers all over again.

If we went through all this without a single mistake we claimed one game and could immediately start another. The one with the most games was the winner.

Cigarette cards  In those days every boy had a collection of cigarette cards. There were all sorts of cigarettes sold, from the humble Woodbine to the more upper class Players. Most of the packets contained a cigarette card, and fathers, uncles and other relatives were always willing to hand them over to us. Often, when playing in the main street, we would ask any passing men whether they had any cigarette cards to give to us. They would sometimes take out their packet and remove the card for us, but sometimes, if we struck lucky, we might ask someone who had six or eight cards in his pocket; that would be a great occasion.

Each make of cigarette had cards with a theme such as cricketers, footballers, flowers, animals of all sorts and, during the war we had a set on ARP precautions. Some of these cards now, in good condition, are very valuable, particularly if you have the complete set. You sometimes see them framed for hanging on the wall.

The game with cigarette cards was almost always played indoors. We knelt down on the floor some six or eight feet away from a wall and took it in turns flicking a cigarette card towards the wall. The card was held between the index and middle fingers and, with a sharp flick of the wrist, the card travelled several feet. The idea was to flick a card on top of another one or possibly more than one. All the cards that were covered, even partially covered, in this way were then kept by the person doing the flicking. When only one person was left with any cards, the game was over. Of course, before we started, we would decide whether to play “keepsies” or not. We would never risk our rarer cards in a game which we might lose.

On occasions we might use a pack of playing cards for the game but that was definitely not for “keepsies”.

Conkers  This was a seasonal game in the main as it depended on a good supply of conkers – generally gleaned from the park. I understand that, today, children playing in school are required to wear protective goggles. We didn’t have any such mamby-pamby nonsense when we played, and from time to time we did get the odd few bruises. If the two conker strings became intertwined, the first to shout “strings” had the next swing. We sometimes hardened our conkers by heating them in an oven so that they wouldn’t break so easily but this was a practice frowned upon by some.

Pellet shooting  This was one of the minor games. A rectangular piece of paper was folded over and over until it was about an inch or so long and a quarter of an inch wide. This was then folded in two. A wide elastic band was then held between the index finger and thumb and the pellet fitted across the elastic band. The two ends were pulled back to stretch the band and then suddenly released projecting the pellet forward at a target. The target might be anything from a toy soldier to an old tin can.

Cowboys and Indians  This was a game invariably played out of doors. Some sort of cowboy costume was almost mandatory and we always wore at least a hat, gun belt and revolver over our normal clothes. There were some very convincing cap guns on sale and the little red explosive caps were very cheap; a box of 100 usually cost no more than a penny or two. Thus armed, we set out to slaughter masses of Indians. It was always difficult to persuade anyone to be an Indian as they invariably lost the fight and were killed off in large numbers. A latecomer wanting to play with us was often dragooned into being an Indian, otherwise we all took our turn at being shot.

Three other games which we dallied with in a minor way were rounders, hopscotch and skipping but we tended to regard these as girls’ games. Consequently, as far as we were concerned it was almost infra dig to indulge in this sort of thing; but for some reason there were always a few girls who wanted to join in our games but were pretty hopeless at cricket and football. They didn’t possess any cigarette cards or marbles but occasionally we did press them into service as Indians. As a result we found we had to play some of their games, mainly skipping and hopscotch. Girls seemed to play these for hours on end so were very skilled at them. We boys were more or less learners so after a few turns with the skipping rope, while the girls did the chanting of the rhymes, and a few games of hopscotch, we usually returned to our more favoured pastimes.

Patricia M. Spacks, in her book “Boredom: the literary history of a state of mind” points out that the word “boredom” did not exist in the English language until 1750. So many young children today complain that they are bored despite the fact of having a huge number of games, electronic and others; but I can honestly say that I cannot remember a single instance of me, or any of my friends, saying that we were bored. Perhaps the reason is that we never had much in the way of ready-made games; we had to make our own. It could be that the manufacture led to greater enjoyment.