Mum, Dad, Big Brother and I were off to stay with my aunt and uncle in a small Yorkshire village for Christmas. I had passed my driving test about a year earlier and was to drive us all up in my second-hand Mk. 1 Ford Escort. Mum was delighted not to have been in charge of meals over the holidays and looking forward to being “off duty” for a few days. Barry, my brother, was home for a month, which for the first time since he had started working on Caribbean cruise ships that leave coincided with Christmas and we were looking forward to a huge family get together.
We had to travel on the afternoon of Christmas Eve as Dad had to work the morning. His office closed at noon so he promised to skip going to the pub with his office friends. It took about an hour for him to get home to our house in Finchley, so we planned to set off at about one-thirty. The car was packed, I had been out and filled up the tank, checked the tyre pressures, filled the washer bottle and more importantly checked out the roads as the day before it had snowed. Not heavily but just enough to worry Mum. The road was all lovely and clear, the council had gritted them, even our side street. However, the weather was cold and the pavements icy.
Our house was on a “T” junction and offered a view straight up the long leg of the “T” to the park at the other end. Dad’s journey home from the West End meant a trip on the Northern Line to Finchley Central, a walk along the main local shopping street, Ballards Lane, cut across the park and then down the long leg of the “T” to home. About five to one my brother called out that Dad was in sight.
The next thing I heard was Barry saying, “Oh hell, he’s fallen over”. Dad had slipped on the icy pavement and gone down with a crash. By the time we got to him, Dad was sitting on the pavement nursing his left arm and swearing softly. He explained when he felt himself sliding he had put out his left hand to save himself because in his right hand he had a carrier bag containing a bottle of Gordons Gin, a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label and a bottle of white wine all gifts from customers. His wrist was clearly broken, but the bottles all survived!
The nearest A&E, in those days called the Casualty Department, was five minutes walk from where we were and involved passing our house. We helped Dad to his feet and set off very carefully to Finchley Memorial Hospital. Barry took the carrier and as we passed the house went in to tell Mum what was happening. At the hospital, Dad was instantly whisked into a cubicle and I was relegated to the waiting room. Around quarter past two Dad emerged from the bowels of the hospital, his wrist in plaster, his arm in a sling and a loaded of painkillers. He had been x-rayed, fortunately, it wasn’t a bad break and was to return to the fracture clinic at the end of December.
As we walked home, Dad asked if we were ready to go and I said yes but was he? He said well we’ve got to we have nothing in for Christmas, his sister was expecting us and now his wrist was in plaster he was comfortable. When we got home Mum was acting weirdly. Barry explained that she had been panicking about what to do and he had given her a Valium tablet from a stock the ship’s doctor had dished out to people flying home to help them sleep on the flight. A family discussion and it was agreed we were going. A quick phone call to warn my aunt we had been delayed and would be a couple of hours later than expected and we were off. Mum and Dad in the back-seat and Barry navigating.
I drove up the A1000 to Barnet, onto the A1080 to South Mimms and then onto the M10 which in those days was a spur to the M1. By the time I was at Newport Pagnell the snow had completely gone. Mum had dropped off to sleep and Dad was OK on the painkillers. We stopped for a coffee and left Mum sleeping. Other than that the journey was completely uneventful. We pulled into my uncle’s smallholding at about seven-thirty, by which time Mum was awake and not worrying anymore, to be greeted with “good to see you, dinners ready”. Auntie Ciss had prepared a massive Ham, served hot with carrots, peas and crispy roast potatoes. All the produce came from the smallholding even if the peas were home frozen. At this point, I must say Auntie Ciss was a fantastic cook, a WI judge and had appeared several times on the Yorkshire TV program “Country Kitchen”, which was presented by one of her fellow WI judges.
Dinner was spent telling the tale of Dad’s falls to my aunt, uncle, two cousins, their partners and my grandma. After dinner, we settled into the little front room in front of a roaring log fire and the Christmas Eve TV. About 11 o’clock Uncle George announced it was nearly time for Midnight Mass and who was coming to the village church. The church was on the edge of the village up a narrow lane, too far to walk so a convoy set off. Grandma wanted her bed, so opted out and Mum agreed to stay with her.
The lovely old church was beautifully decorated for Christmas, packed with villagers but absolutely freezing cold. We all had to keep coats, scarves and gloves on. When it came to the Holy Communion, Dad struggled to his feet and as he passed Uncle George he was told in a very loud voice, “Have you got the salt and pepper?” And Uncle George pulled a cruet from his coat pocket. Well, of course, we all collapsed in laughter and got filthy looks from some of the congregation. As we came out of the church the bells started ringing. In that dark moonlit churchyard, it was magical.
We split up into two groups, we went back to my aunt and uncle’s and my two cousins and partners went off to my older cousin’s house in the village, but they were told to be back at the smallholding for 8 o’clock for breakfast and presents. Breakfast for 11, and the Jack Russell, was an event. Eggs from Uncle George’s chickens, home-cured bacon and sausages from his pigs and homegrown mushrooms.
The turkey was in the oven, but more fresh vegetables were needed. Uncle George and I were sent off “down the land” to the vegetable patch at the far end near the River Ouse. Fresh parsnips and carrots were dug and sprout on the stalks were cut. Loads were needed as we were joining my oldest cousin’s in-laws. His MiL ran a workman’s cafe on the Goole dockside and her contribution was to a huge roast goose from the smallholding, that she was cooking that morning in the café’s commercial oven. She was also boiling two of my aunt’s Christmas puddings as my aunt’s little cooker just couldn’t cope.
The food was wonderful, but I have memories of my aunt not being happy at her son’s MiL slapping things on plates just as if she were in her cafe! I did manage to stop her pouring about a gallon of turkey gravy on my plate. After lunch, it was time for a snooze in front of the fire for the oldies while us cousins and their wives went for a bracing walk along the river bank with the Jack Russell whose name completely escapes me. That night as I was dropping off to sleep I suddenly heard peels of laughter coming from my uncle. It later transpired that while my aunt was in the bathroom he had tied several knots in her nightie.
Boxing Day was another big breakfast and then the men all set out to Boothferry Park to watch Hull City. It’s a long time ago, but I seem to remember it was a local derby and they beat Scunthorpe. Back to the smallholding for another family dinner. This time cold ham, turkey and goose, jacket potatoes and salad again nearly all grown “down the land”. The tomatoes and cucumber came from a local market garden where they had heated glasshouses. Then it was over to the road to the Blacksmiths Arms for a jolly evening. A little village pub at Christmas is amazing, packed with locals, everyone knew everyone else and they all knew who we were, the relatives from “the smoke”.
We left for home the next day, after breakfast. We were packed up with so much produce from the smallholding and leftovers from the meals that Mum cancelled her planned trip to Sainsbury’s. How that little car made it back to Finchley I’ll never know, it was that heavily laden.
That’s was the last Christmas the whole family were able to hold together on the smallholding. Grandma died the following June and Uncle George had a bad stroke a month or two later. My eldest cousin took over cultivating some of “the land” but having a full-time job, much of it was laid to lawn and a big ride on mower acquired. He kept a large vegetable patch and one barn of laying hens, but the pigs, turkeys, geese, most of the chickens and all but one of the greenhouses went. It broke my uncle’s heart that he could no longer provide so much for the kitchen.
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file