When I was a teenager I used to deliver newspapers in the countryside around the village of Welham Green in Hertfordshire. Because the delivery round was eight miles long Fred the newsagent allowed me to use his car – the “Rusty Husky” – a rather tired Hillman Husky with holes in the floor and a hundredweight sack of sugar over the back axle to help with traction in muddy farmyards and fallen snow.
The first stop was in Marshmoor Lane and a family of travellers who lived in a small fenced compound complete with a bunch of yappy dogs, a flatbed wagon with a one-eyed horse and a tidy pile of sorted scrap metal – ferrous to the left, non-ferrous to the right. Although some people in the village saw the family, Mum, Dad, Granny and assorted kids, as layabouts and scroungers they were unfailingly courteous, helpful and generous to me particularly at Christmas which is more than can be said for many of my other ‘customers’. Knowing that I was a Scout one year they gave me an old hurricane lamp “for camping”. The fact that it had ‘Property of J. Mowlem’ stamped on it didn’t make it shine any less brightly.
Next on the round was the Rookery Transport Café on the historic Great North Road running from Smithfield Market in Clerkenwell, northwards to York and on to Edinburgh. Legend had it that the highwayman Dick Turpin rode up the Great North Road to York completing the 190 mile journey in 15 hours. Some say that his ghost still makes the journey at night. Various hostelries along the way claimed that he stopped with them for a meal and a break for his famous horse Black Bess. If he had stopped at the Rookery he would have found a car park knee deep in mud and an excellent “All Day Breakfast”. The Rookery is still there today, a 5 star café and holding the 2015 People’s Voice Award for Travel. It still serves the “All Day Breakfast”. I wonder if they call the paperboy “Ringo” as they did back in 1963.
Another stop was the Woodman Pub at Wild Hill. Due to its ancient license the pub was only allowed to sell beer. No wines or spirits here. Inside the front door was a small hall blocked by a wooden fold-down bar. The beer, bitter and mild, was served on that bar from barrels underneath the stairs. The room off to the left was closed and private for the family. The room to the right was for the public who clearly weren’t bothered by the absence of wine and spirits. They were happy sitting around a table playing a game called “Passing the Buck”. As far as I could tell the rules involved passing a “buck”, a coin, beneath the table from player to player without being detected by the others. There wasn’t much else to do in Wild Hill in 1963 apart from a bit of poaching
The Woodman is now a highly rated 10 x CAMRA winner and serves food as well as wines and spirits. The “Pass the Buck” players have long gone, probably off poaching.
The final stop on the circuit was Camfield Place, the home of the romantic novelist Dame Barbara Cartland or Mrs McCorquodale as she was known to the locals. My routine was to go to the back of the house where the newspaper was collected by the housekeeper. On a few occasions Barbara Cartland took the paper herself – and a bedazzling vision in pink she always seemed to be and full of advice for my spotty self ranging from “Eat more honey” to “Less sweets and go to bed early”.
Although she had written over 700 novels and published more than 750 million when she died in 2000 the gross value of her estate was a modest £1,139,123. After debts and liabilities were set against assets her net value was nil. She was either flat broke or just extremely canny with her wealth. It didn’t affect the usual Christmas box – a brace of pheasants and bottles of whiskey, sherry and port.
This was all a long time ago. The country lanes were empty in those days – no Lycra clad cyclists, SUV four wheelers or fervent walkers with their Nordic poles. The only delay might come from the occasional Sunday hunt blocking the lane or a farmer herding live stock from one field to another. For the rest there was nothing but peace and the rising dawn. No ghosts of Dick Turpin, no flatbed wagons or one-eyed horses.
Fred once said that newspaper boys and girls were the end of an extended communication chain – from the journalist crouching in a foxhole in Vietnam to a boy in a battered Hillman Husky in Hertfordshire. It remains the same today, from Syria to St Margarets, from Trump to Twickenham. The news must get through Fred would say – and it did and still does.
Barbara Cartland sings “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square.”
— from Martyn Day