War (and other) Stories – Sea Mills & Coombe Dingle – Brian Gearing

My bit of Bristol

by Brian Gearing

Written by the late Brian Gearing of Coombe Dale. These are Brian’s own words but have been combined from several pieces written by him, been lightly edited and illustrated with images from his family and others. Thank you to Brian’s daughter Deb Britton for access to this wealth of wonderful material.

Portway School – Brian seated third row back, far right. The teacher is Mr Barrett. We think boys pictured include Johnnie Woodland, Peter and John Manley, Ken Hawker, Fred Farley and John Coltham.

I still live in the house I was born in over 50 years ago in Sea Mills. During that time I have married and brought my family here. The reason ? I have yet to find a more pleasant area and I have so many childhood memories that the bond I have with this part of the City just refuses to let me go.

Most of my boyhood spare time was spent playing in the Woods running behind my home in Coombe Dale. Today it does not appear to be used in the same way by the young, doubtless because they have more sophisticated forms of entertainments. It is these woods which conjure up most of the boyhood memories.

There was even a small shop half way down the lane leading into the woods, where you could buy any manner of goods from bags of sugar to matches, even on Sundays. This has sadly long gone.

L-R Front – Harriet Gearing (Brian’s Grandmother), Florence Gearing (Brian’s Mother) – with Brian on her knee, Leonard Gearing (Brian’s Grandfather). Behind is Marjorie Gearing and an unknown person – possibly an Aunt.

It was during the Second World War that these woods took on a new role in a land of make believe. There was the remainder of a Water Mill near a small bridge crossing the river Trym, with the giant water wheel still intact. Many hours were spent climbing along its length. This together with any surrounding suitable trees, became a Fighter or Bomber plane. Sometimes a Warship and sometimes a Military entrenchment. Anything in fact which the young fertile imagination could make it. The woods would resound to voices of young lads rat-a-tating make believe machine guns and other firearms. Small branches of trees were cut down, out of sight of park keepers, and turned into weapons of all kinds.

Dusk would see little groups of mud splattered, tired youngsters trudging happily home after a day of satisfying battles with an imaginary enemy. The woods would give up its harvest at each season. In the Autumn a bonanza of sweet chestnuts, in the Winter slippery slopes for slides, in the Spring armfuls of Bluebells, and in the Summer plentiful supply of a weed whose name I have forgotten, but the hollow stem of which made
excellent pea shooters.

The war years has left the most impressionable memories of the area. Stactic Water Tank at the bottom of Sylvan Way, Air Raid Wardens Post complete with warning siren and sand bags on the Square. I wonder how many people remember there was a public underground air raid shelter on the Square, opposite the Methodist Hall. The arrival of Pig Waste bins in the streets was very welcome once we found they made great wickets for cricket. The noise of ball on tin however did not endear us to the grown ups living nearby, and many a merry chase down the street was made as a result.

The biggest impact on life was the air raids. It was quite frightening at first, but we soon became accustomed to them. In the beginning we would go to our Anderson shelter in the garden. This consisted of a hole dug in the garden lined with wooden planks. The roof and sides were covered with steel arched sheets. There was no protection if it was hit be a direct bomb, but it did give protection from bits of shells from the guns called shrapnel. The shelter was covered with earth for extra protection, and most people planted vegetables. We used to grow some very large marrows.

The area was quite lucky in the dark days when Jerry made his bombing raids. There was some damage mostly from small bombs. Although I remember one morning going to look at house in Elberton Road which had been flattened during a raid the night before. Rumour had it that his had been caused by a new type of high explosive bomb. We had our share, not to the extent that the City had, but quite dramatic nevertheless. You could go out into the streets early in the morning and collect sizeable chunks of shrapnel. These were much prized by us as collectors items, and we never really saw them as being lethal and killers. Perhaps this was just as well.

Rationing was distressful, particularly for the kids, as there was a short supply of chocolate and sweets. Fresh fruit was also scarce. Sometimes a rumour would circulate that a ship was in Avonmouth loaded with bananas. This would create a panic rush on the poor shopkeepers.

We had a terrific war when the Yanks arrived. They were billeted in our homes and had a camp on the golf links at the top of Shirehampton Road. The commissioned officers were placed in the “posh”houses in the Dingle and Stoke Bishop, the other ranks had to make do with sharing our Council homes.

These soldiers had their lives plagued by the young locals with cries for chewing gum, sweets and comics, but bearing in mind how these simple things were so scarce to us, we should be forgiven. A popular cry was “Have you any gum, chum?” They were quite pleasant and did pass chocolate and sweets to the kids. Teenage girls were also asking for nylon stockings, which were also very scarce. Many of the yanks were black, but we had no experience as kids of any race barriers.

I remember being awakened early one morning by the sound of shouted orders and the trample of heavy boots in the street. Looking out of my bedroom window, saw rows of our Yanks lined up and then marched away. It would be many years later that I was to grasp that this was part of the mobilisation of the invasion forces, and these Americans had been held here in readiness for D. Day. We were never to see any of these again.

V.E. Day came and a street party was held in Weston Close with music and dancing. I don’t recall the food, although we must have had a special feast, food rationing or no food rationing. What did strike me most was the sight of Grown-ups,’ particularly those whom over the years we as young mischievous terrors, had crossed swords with,
including the Pig Bin defenders, behaving in a most uncharacteristic manner. Letting their hair down in an unbelievable way. Here were grown-ups, who only a week before we had decided were mean ogres for not giving us our ball back when hit into their
flower gardens, actually doing the Conga down the street, and later rendering chorus after chorus of Roll Me Over in the Clover with verses we had never heard before. This was mind bogging and a real eyeopener to us lads.

VE Day Street party in Weston Close. 2nd on left Louie Goffe, 4th and 5th seated on right Jim and Rosie Yarnell. This photograph was taken by Jim Goffe on his faithful Box Brownie. Can you help us identify any of the other people pictured?

In the evening a large bonfire was lit on the green in Coombe Dale which is today occupied by an Old Peoples Home. Fuel for the fire was obtained by the grown-ups raiding the woods cutting down trees and branches. Something which we had been forbidden to do in the past. We just stood there awe-struck. It was with more than a twinge of regret that we saw our favourite tree cut down. This had served us faithfully over the years as a Spitfire Fighter, Destroyer and many other fighting machines. We
stood by helpless as this was unceremoniously chopped down and then thrown on the bonfire. We were to miss that tree later.

The likes of this behaviour was never to be witnessed by us youngsters again, and any notions we may have nourished that the grown-ups were now one of us, very quickly disappeared as they withdrew back into their shells to take up their lives in the now post-war years with its own new problems. Refusals to give us our ball back continued in the same old way. Oh well it was good whilst it lasted.

Another recollection is of an open air dance held on Sea Mills Square. Loud speakers were connected up from Mr. Berrys Fish and Chip shop and couples swayed to the latest ballroom tunes until a late hour. Unfortunately I cannot remember the reason for this event.

A high spot of those days would be a visit to the local Co-op in Shirehampton Road and watch the little cups being catapulted through the air along overhead wires carrying money to the cash desk and returning change to the counters. High technology of the day! Just across the road from the Co-op where the Mill House Pub now
stands was the local small off licence at the top of a flight of stone steps and bottles of pop and packets of crisps could be bought for a few pence.

Late Friday afternoon was magic time. No school until Monday and together with friends I would meet my Mother on the Square off the bus from Avonmouth from her war work , and escort her to Eddys Dairy where the Spar shop now trades*, and armed with the current weeks sweet allowance coupons and Mums pay packet, select what goodies could be obtained. The allowance was quickly exhausted and we would then have to look forward to the following week.

In those days you could position yourself at the end of the road at Sylvan Way and spend an hour or so taking down car numbers. You could wait ages between cars. Today you could not cope the volume of traffic which races past.

The estate has a large number of PRC houses, designated for repairs under the new Defecting Housing Act, and there are suggestions that these may have to be pulled down. This however is another story and who knows what will happen. Perhaps another chapter will be written on this in another decade by another “Miller” on what changes occur.

Meanwhile not withstanding this I intend to hold on to my affection for Sea Mills and I can still -so far – wander along among the trees in the woods, reliving my school days.

*This is now the Sea Mills Convenience Store


Brian cut his journalistic teeth on the home produced “The Children’s Chronicle”, with friends Eddie Hancock, Fred Farley and Dave Pimm. He later went on to write for “The Evening World” and was a regular contributor to “The Shire” newspaper.

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