Dartmouth People - Godfrey Tall
People born in Dartmouth have built-in elastic. No matter how far away their lives take them, it always pulls them back in the end.
Take Godfrey Tall, who describes himself as Dartmouth through-and-through. Born and brought up here, he followed the railways to London and the Midlands, but is now back in the town he always thought of as home.
Ironically, as Dartmouth recovers from the devastation of the May fire, Godfrey’s first memories are of a town with buildings destroyed.
He explained: “I was born in 1940, in a flat above Hawkes in Duke Street. My father was away at war. We lived there until I was a toddler, and my earliest memory is of sitting in a pram looking up at the sky, seeing planes flying overhead - then my mother’s panic.
“That was the day bombs were dropped on Dartmouth. It was 1943. Thankfully we weren’t at home – Mum had taken me out to pay the rates. If she hadn’t we might not have survived. All the buildings opposite our home were destroyed and our flat and the buildings surrounding it left unusable. There was a lot of damage, glass everywhere. We had to move out, and went to live with my aunt and uncle in South Ford Road.”
The Duke Street bomb destroyed a block of historic buildings from the end of the Butterwalk to the chapel in Foss Street. Others caused terrible damage in Higher Street. Fourteen people lost their lives. Godfrey believes it was the shock of seeing real fear in his mother’s eyes that planted the vivid memories even though he was so young at the time.
As he grew up, the bomb sites became an alluring playground perfect for boisterous games – all the more desirable because the youngsters were told not to go there. “The Higher Street site was tiered so you could stand up there and throw stones - very handy as it was right next door to our school. We were always in there, hiding in the chimney breasts and playing games, up until the early 50s.”
Godfrey remembers being passed over the heads of a crowd to get to American GIs giving out candy and gum. The Americans made a big impact but left the Dartmouth youngsters baffled when they all suddenly disappeared at D-Day.
Meanwhile, Godfrey’s father was serving in Burma and the family moved to Roseville Street. Early one morning there was a commotion. Godfrey looked out to see a man banging on the dustbins. His mother rushed to let him in. “My Dad had come home, earlier than we expected him. Of course he didn’t have a key – he’d never lived in that house! He was a stranger to me. He came in with an Australian Army-style hat, and he put that on my head. I also remember he brought me home a toy yacht and a train set. I used to put on his hat and go out to play, pretending I was a cowboy.”
Rationing continued well after the war but a well-meaning cousin, stationed in the Azores with the RAF, posted Godfrey his first banana. “We used to boil and mash parsnips and add banana essence but I had never seen a real banana. For many years I thought all bananas were jet black, pulpy and inedible. Another boy received an entire coconut through the post, the stamp stuck on the husk and the address written on it.”
Godfrey went to the grammar school in Vicarage Hill and remembers a great atmosphere and steep walk up Mount Flagon Steps. He and his friends would do their homework before they got home, leaning on the ivy-covered wall above the bowling green. After O Levels he left school and began his long association with the railways, starting as a clerk in the Torquay office of British Railways Western Region. He can still remember the fares! Every day started with a train journey, tickets bought in Dartmouth at the country’s only station with no track. In those days the station building was on stilts over the river, a covered walkway linking it to the railway ferry, the Mew, “which always ran exactly on time to fit with the trains from Kingswear. In those days everyone used the train to travel to and from Dartmouth, local people and visitors. If you had to go to Torbay you caught the train. There weren’t many cars – and no parking problems!”
Godfrey recalls packed trains on the Newton Abbot to Kingswear branch, so frequent they had to queue at signals. He loved his job, but as his friends began to move away to cities, Godfrey yearned for change and to live in London. He transferred to Paddington, and loved London life – the morning stampede of commuters heading for his ticket office, the huge escalators, the Guinness Brewery, Wembley Stadium, and the busy railways which were “the people’s way of travelling.”
Godfrey spent time working in Birmingham and was promoted back to London, but it wasn’t all independent living: “I used to send my washing home by post! It went back on the train on Saturday, Mum would get it on Monday, wash, dry and iron it, post it back on Tuesday and I would get it on Wednesday. She used to put little notes and things in with it and it worked well – until she tried to send me a dozen eggs and they broke all over my clean clothes!”
Godfrey saw the railways go from all manned ticket offices to computers, witnessing many changes. He took early retirement in 1993 and returned to Dartmouth in 2000 with his wife Hazel. The couple, both volunteers at Dartmouth Museum, live in Churchfields and have a beautiful view of the town and the river.
“We always came for Regatta every year with my sister and I always wanted to move back eventually. It’s good to be home!”
First published July 2010 By the Dart