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Oral History

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February 2020

Mud and Cider

Sometimes we are reminded just how much we have forgotten. How much our local villages have changed in just 50 or 60 years, in our own lifetimes even. Places for commuters and ‘online’ living were once thriving communities where everyone worked and played together. The ‘Forgotten Landscape Project’ looked at the communities of the Severn Vale before it was too late to remember, and out of that project was born the West of England Oral History Partnership to interview people with memories of those communities. Jacquie Rinaldi and Stephen Carroll from the project shared some of those memories with us at the February gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeology Society. The working and playing together seemed to involve an awful lot of mud and cider.

Village life held memories of Sunday School outings to Severn Beach on a horse and cart. Or the old van that made the school run stopping to pick up barrels of cider, salmon, and boxes of apples as well as pupils. Memories of picking elderflowers for home-made wine. (Man cannot live by cider alone). ‘Mudding’ down at the Severn, where would-be bathers got covered more in mud than in water. Making nets from old stockings to catch sticklebacks and eels in the rhines (drainage ditches).

Memories of the wartime included prisoners of war working on the local farms, transported morning and evening by lorry. Evacuee children were taken in by local farmers who had rooms and food to spare. Rations were often short and the rabbit and pigeon populations were dwindling. A blackbird baked in a rasher was a welcome treat. (But don’t tell Chris Packham). American soldiers billeted at Over Court were eager to try the local cider. They drove a jeep to the local pub where they set up a dance band, to which the local ‘bobby’ turned a blind eye. Regiments billeted in Thornbury would go swimming in the ‘Bathings’ at the bottom of Bath Road.

Cider was the local currency, and for a day’s farm-work a gallon of cider was a fair exchange. In September the apples would ripen and the children were sent up the trees. Orchards then covered much of the vale and some farms had their own cider mill. The others would use a travelling mill, which went round the vale from October to Christmas crushing apples between its two heavy stones.

Memories of winters and floods scarred deep. In ’63 there were feet of snow and ice-flows on the river. Villages were snowed in. Milk churns were buried. It was a sore trial to bring the cows from the field to milk, and get the milk by tractor into Thornbury. Then fields would be under water for months. Sheep drowned and bales of hay were stuck up in the trees. Water came up to the bar in the Anchor pub, and lapped the houses at Shepperdine. One person looked out of his widow to see a seal looking back at him. Over the years the sea walls were raised and improved.

In those days the Severn teemed with salmon. They enjoyed the warm water from the newly built power station, but employees were forbidden to catch them on site. One enterprising man was spotted walking stiffly towards the exit gate with a large fish tail poking from the bottom of his trousers. Salmon fishing along the river was a lucrative, but very muddy, business. You might see long rows of ‘putchers’ (conical wicker baskets) slotted together and stored in fields or yards waiting for the season from mid April to mid August. Then, hundreds of putchers were tied onto stakes set into the river bed. It was hard, muddy work trekking out twice a day at low tide to relieve the putchers of their shining salmon before the gulls could ruin them. Muddy work indeed, but the cider helped.

If you have memories of the old Severn Vale communities you would like to tell, or if you are interested in interviewing people then please contact Stephen Carroll from the project. Phone 07973 469557 or email weohpartnership@gmail.com. And if you want to hear the memories for yourself you can listen in at the Chantry in Thornbury, or Gloucester Archives. Many thanks to Jacquie and Stephen for transporting us back in time.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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