Bill Martin was evacuated to Arkengarthdale School from Gateshead during World War II. Fifty years later he returned to the area to live with his wife Eileen. He has a tanned, open face, a gentle north-east accent and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. When a memory didn’t surface instantly, he had a habit of drumming on his head with his fingers ‘to stir it up a bit’. The main picture shows Bill outside Arkengarthdale School at its 360-year Celebration Day, held last July before the school closed. We went to record his memories at his cosy cottage in Reeth on a snowy February day. The full transcript will be shared at the exhibition; here is a summary:
I was born in 1932, so I was six nearly seven-years-old when the war begun. I went to school in Gateshead near Newcastle, where we lived. Anyway the war began and there was a rush on… things got bad, the bombing started.
In due course, like a lot of other schools, the pupils were evacuated. I was evacuated twice. First I was evacuated to near Stokesley and stayed with a family there for I don’t know how long, maybe six months through the summer. I wasn’t very happy really. I was away from home for one thing and I would see my mother only about once a week. I was staying with a professional family, and we had little holidays to Whitby which was nice, but it was terrible being away from my mum and dad.
I’m trying to remember the process but you turned up in a bus with your gas mask and a little bag containing your possessions, and a family - a host family - would come into the hall and say ‘I’ll have that one, I’ll take that one’. It was all too much and too confusing.
In due course we drifted back home as there seemed to be a lull in the bombing. But I hadn’t been back home so long when the bombing started again.
It got so dangerous we decided to come here to Arkengarthdale. Our family had had a holiday cottage in the hamlet Booze for a long, long time. It belonged to my aunt, but we all used to come for holidays here. You might think it was unusual to have a holiday cottage back then, but in those days Arkengarthdale wasn’t very sought-after in that way y’know. It wasn’t like today. They were rather primitive cottages because there was no running water. We used to have to go to the well with a bucket for water. And dare I say it the toilets - it was an earth closet, and it was rather cold.
My uncle and his family who lived in London got the idea to come up here first so they came and occupied the cottage and we found another cottage in Booze. There were two or three bedrooms, plus a kitchen and living room. It was a bit of a hotchpotch with various children and additional family members like my father and uncle coming to stay at the weekend. There was no electricity. We had oil lamps lit with a clear liquid - paraffin I think it was. They were small lights, about the size of a teapot.
Being evacuated as a family was a much better experience than being evacuated on my own in Stokesley. I don’t know how I could’ve got by otherwise. It meant my mother had to leave my father in Gateshead and look after us. My father was deaf so he couldn’t join the army, so he was still at home as a lorry driver and warehouse man. He used to come at weekends to see us.
I attended Arkengarthdale School which was enjoyable. It was safe and friendly. We used to run down the hill, spend the day at school and sort of run back home without much trouble. If it was wet at school we’d put our clothes over the rail in front of the fire. It was all quite homely really. The walk was longer coming back as we lived up a steep hill – especially in the deep snow.
I can only remember Miss Lee the headmistress as she is in the photos. Miss Lee was very strict. She sat on a high chair on a platform and it made her look very important. She had a big counting frame, and we had to chant our arithmetic tables every morning after she called the register.
School was quiet and orderly. We learnt some useful skills too - how to make hooky mats and how to knit. We had very pleasant days out walking and learning about flowers and wildlife, but we had to work hard in school. I do remember we used slates with chalk to write with, but the senior pupils had exercise books.
I can't remember many toys at school. But we had playtimes. One game was hoops and stick. One or two of the boys had a steel hoop about the size of a car wheel, just thin, but strong enough to hold together. There was also something like a hooked poker, so if you were walking or running down the street you used the hook to drive it along. You used to set it off on its course and it would go as fast as you could run or as fast as you could keep it in line. We used to do it in the school yard or down the road as there were not many cars then.
Many of the boys played the mouth organ, but I used to play the knackers. They were like two smooth bones. You held them between your fingers and with a bit of practice you could rattle out some tunes with them. They were roughly the length of a mobile phone but a bit narrower than that. They were animal bone probably, I don’t think they were plastic as we didn’t have plastic then.
We didn’t see many sweets or chocolate during the war. I can remember the teacher coming in with a box of tins and in the tins was cocoa powder, which we hadn’t seen, quite big tins which were a gift from Canada. I opened the top and dipped my finger in. It tasted so nice that by four o’clock I’d finished all of it so I didn’t bother taking the tin home, it was too late by then.
At Arkengarthdale School there was an outside toilet with a stream running underneath it, just like Roman times. It was like that till about ten years ago. There was this toilet block with about six separate cubicles that had seats with a hole in it and you could hear and see the stream running under. It was like an open sewer and finished up at Langthwaite. Some kids got a bit wild really. They would put sticks through and so forth, and have a look at where they all came along. No toilet paper either. Just newspapers cut into squares. I don’t think it did any harm, y’know.
We were very young, and didn't know too much about the war and all the awful things which were happening. Sometimes at night though, we could hear German planes in the sky - they made a different noise from our planes, a sort of whining drone. They were on their way to bomb the big cities - Liverpool and Manchester, or maybe just off-course. There is still evidence of aircraft wrecks on the hills. We could sometimes see the searchlights in the sky from Richmond or Teesside looking for them.
At Arkengarthdale school we had gas mask practice once a week in the porch. They were quite difficult at first to put on. They were made from rubber which had an unpleasant smell and soon became hot. Fortunately they were never needed, but we always had to be prepared.
We had an advantage because we used to come here on holidays so we knew people. But certainly they spoke differently to us, they had different attitudes. I can remember towards the end, I was only about sixteen so that must have been 1948… we came to a dance at Arkengarthdale School. I was with one of my pals, a local lad, and we were weighing up the girls. I said: ‘I fancy that one, I’ll ask her for a dance’, and he said ‘oh I think I’ll go for her’ (pointing to a different girl) ‘she’s a grand worker you know’. So (laughing) it was interesting to see the contrast. He probably had more sense than me. I went for the best-looking one and he went for the one over there who was the grand worker. It was the difference between growing up in the town and having an office job, and being a farmer for a living, really.
I never experienced any disharmony between the evacuee children and the local children. In many ways the local children were much more practical than we townies and we learnt a lot from them. I can remember just lying down as kids, we’d been running around and we just lay down on a summer’s day on the moor somewhere and my friend got his penknife out and started digging, and he dug out this little plant and wiped it off and started eating it. Now I had no idea what it was… but being a countryman he knew what he was doing. Fishing was another thing, quite a few of the local lads knew how to tickle trout, just to pull trout out of the river with their hands, which we couldn’t do. We never seemed to be bored.
Evacuation swelled the numbers at Arkengarthdale School. Bearing in mind we were infants, we all mucked in. I’ve got photographs of the school. I’ve been told that that’s me at the front, right in the middle, but I’ve got me doubts. See how many pupils are in the picture, but the school just closed last year with about five or six pupils.
For some of us Arkengarthdale became a much-loved second-home and we never forgot it. We enjoyed being in the country, we enjoyed going to the school. I went on to pursue my career elsewhere, but we’d often come up here for a holiday, and of course I came back here to live when I retired. I was too young to think about it but looking back I think being here did enrich my life.