Clive Pearson - Dartmouth
My Dartmouth - Clive Pearson
“The thing about penguins’ eggs is they taste a bit fishy if you just poach them or boil them. The white stays clear when you cook them, and the yolk is almost red – but they make great Swiss rolls!”
When Clive Pearson’s culinary dabblings at home led his parents to demand that he be the only grammar school boy in Dartmouth to study cookery and domestic science in a class full of girls, little did he realise his aptitude for cooking would lead him to tackle the most unusual ingredients in the most southerly kitchen on the planet.
Clive was born and brought up in Dartmouth, and now lives just a few yards from the house where he was born in Victoria Road. But his travels have taken him all over the world – giving Clive a great repertoire in stories!
It was in March 1935 that Clive’s mother, Violet, walked from the family home in Victoria Road to her mother-in-law’s house a few doors up in Valetta Terrace, just days away from having her second baby.
“The path was pretty uneven, and Mum tripped and broke her leg,” Clive explained. “Our house was up lots of steps, so Mum had to stay at Granny’s, and there I was born a few days later, with poor Mum’s leg up in a splint.”
There were eight brothers and sisters in all. Clive’s parents George and Violet Pearson met and married in Dartmouth, but their families hailed from further afield. George was from Liverpool, the son of a chef on the railways who brought his family to Dartmouth in 1916, drawn by a better rate of pay. Violet was born in London, the daughter of a Dartmouth man who had fled to the capital.
“My Grandfather worked as an ostler at Norton Park, and got into terrible trouble with his employer after he moved a ladder, not realising it was used by his employer to get back into the house after visiting the girls in the servants quarters.
He found work at a stable yard in London, married and had three children. But in 1912 his wife died of milk fever and my Grandfather was injured when a horse fell on him and broke both his legs.
My mother was declared an orphan, and aged four she was brought to live with a great aunt in South Ford. The baby went to her grandparents in North Ford Road, and her other sister to a relation in Dittisham. The aunts were all from the Adams family, and I remember them as being very grand.
“My Grandfather eventually recovered and made his way back to Dartmouth. He had married again by then and had a son, who I remember well. Sadly the lad was killed when the Noss shipyard was bombed.”
George Pearson worked in the maintenance team at Britannia Royal Naval College, and was a keen rower. From a young age, Clive was a regular at the rowing club, swiftly learning about staying away from the water after stepping off the slipway and disappearing under the surface in his best toddler outfit.
“My first memory is of being taken by my father to a flat field at the back of the headmaster’s house at the Naval College, from where we watched the launch of the RRS Research – a beautiful ship built at Noss. It was magnificent, white and lovely to look at, but it was never used.
It was just before the war, which brought with it so many advances that afterwards the Research was declared obsolete and scrapped. It must have been awful for the men who built it. It would have made an amazing private yacht.
“The second memory is of being held up to a very small window at the Dartmouth Amateur Rowing Club and watching the opening of Coronation Park. They cut a ribbon and all the children ran onto the grass. It was lovely to see – before that it was just a muddy pond.”
Clive went to infants school in Higher Street, but things got off to a shaky start: “Part way through the morning the teacher said we could go, meaning we could get our drink of milk and have a wee, but all I heard was that we could go. I thought school was over so I walked home.”
He enjoyed school days in Higher Street, then the boys’ school in Victoria Road and finally the Grammar School in Vicarage Hill. Clive remembers air raid shelters and water tanks for war time fire fighting being built at the boys’ school, and the cellars being reinforced so staff and children could take cover.
He did well at grammar, maths and science but was caned frequently, “for the usual things – letting off stink bombs in class, throwing water over somebody.”
It caused a stir when Clive’s parents persuaded the Grammar School to let their son study cookery with the girls instead of woodwork. He remembered: “There was a girl in the class who was always at loggerheads with the cookery teacher – her name was Jenny McCloud – and she said ‘If Pearson can do cooking then I want to do woodwork,’ so she did. It was so revolutionary that we made it into the national press.”
Studying for his City and Guilds qualifications at South Devon Tech, Clive worked in hotels and restaurants all around Dartmouth, Kingswear and Torquay, waiting on tables at civic functions and learning his trade. His first real job was at a hotel in Sidmouth, leaving Dartmouth for the first time in 1952.
National Service meant a spell in the Army, and because he was a cook, Clive found his way into the regular Army Catering Corps, working in Kent and Sussex. Demobbed in 1956 he returned to Dartmouth and worked in the senior gun room galley at the Naval College – 14 cooks and 70 stewards on every shift, cooking for 500 to 600 people at a time. Working a split shift earned the prize of an extra half a crown.
But a chance conversation set Clive off on his travels with an experience that was to change his life forever.
“Someone said did I fancy a job in the Falkland Islands? I said if I knew where that was I could maybe give him an answer.”
At 22, Clive found himself being interviewed in London. “They asked me about my motorbike and my boat, and I got the job. I still didn’t really know where I was going.”
The job was general assistant and cook to an expedition to Antarctica. Clive set sail from Southampton on the RRS John Biscoe, and when he was seasick before the Needles he wondered if he had made the right decision.
“I surfaced from my bunk at the bottom of the Bay of Biscay. On board with our expedition team were a new agricultural administrator and a new head teacher for Tristan da Cunha, plus general cargo for St Helena. The administrator had his wife and two young children with him. What an amazing adventure for that young family.
“Our first stop was St Helena where we dropped off their supplies, then to Tristan da Cunha – the loneliest place in the world. Twelve square miles and sheer cliffs rising out of the wild sea. While we were there the weather was really ugly.
Waves 20ft high smashed a barge and our motorboat so we had to off load using the lifeboat. Some of the crew were stranded on the island and the ship had to shelter around the other side until the weather calmed down. Eventually we set sail again, this time to South Georgia, and then the Falklands.
“There was a party for us in Government House in Port Stanley and we loaded up with building materials for the base we were building in Antarctica. We were on the final leg of our voyage when we heard that the Shackleton had hit an iceberg and been holed. So it was back to South Georgia to help the Shackleton into the whaling dockyard, where they patched her with sheet metal.”
In January 1958, Clive and the expedition finally arrived at their scientific base in the Antarctic, from where scientists would continue research into the weather, the resources and the landscape. In the snow and ice, Dartmouth seemed like a distant memory.
“In the first weeks it was really busy because the outgoing team stayed on so that a power station could be built. When they left things settled down, and the 11 of us lived there together for the next three years.”
As the permanent cook on the team, Clive didn’t have to get involved in the research. And his being there meant that the researchers didn’t have to take turns in the kitchen, apart from covering Clive’s day off every Sunday, much needed after working round the clock six days a week.
Immediately everyone was allocated a birthday. Clive explained: “We didn’t want all the celebrations at the same time, so with 11 of us we could make sure there was a birthday party every month, and then Christmas.
We were each entitled to one tin of beer a fortnight, 14 cigarettes a day or the equivalent in pipe tobacco, and nine bottles of whisky and gin plus nine stone jars of rum a year. We saved most of the drink for the parties, and I would always make and ice a celebration cake to reflect any interests of the person involved, or any incidents they’d been involved in. I made ski slopes, books – and of course Christmas cakes.”
The men found various ways to entertain themselves, gathering penguin eggs during the laying season (“I cooked penguin once but nobody liked it – they weren’t keen on cormorant either, even though the cormorants out there are as big as a goose”), shooting the occasional seal for steaks, devising plays and shows, swimming (“I did it once just to say I had – round the jetty and out again onto the snow”) inventing gadgets and going for walks. On one trip to climb a mountain on the Antarctic mainland, Clive fell 80ft and landed on his binoculars. He had to walk back with two broken ribs, which still hurt today.
With no fresh food, Clive had to be inventive with tinned bacon and dehydrated veg. A favourite tipple was Bergy Bits, made with National Health concentrated orange juice, honey that had crystallised, hot water and rum. But he baked fresh bread every day and no-one ever went hungry, even though the stores were only replenished once a year!
“I absolutely loved it – I had the time of my life,” Clive said.
By 1960 he had arrived back in Dartmouth. Taking a break from catering he worked in the building trade and remembers refurbishing the Mariners’ Homes in Victoria Road, and working an excavator at projects all over Dartmouth. Building flats behind the old Townstal Post Office, he was given the job of lagging floors. But his building career was cut short by an explosion.
“The propane cylinder had been leaking and there was an explosion. I lost the skin off my face, the back of my hands, my ears and my hair. I couldn’t work for some time.”
Once back to full health, Clive joined the maintenance team at the Naval College like his father before him, and enjoyed the camaraderie of the his workmates. However he now had a reputation for adventure, and was suggested for a job in Ascension Island. “In all I did three years – it was a brilliant life.
We were working in a power station, increasing the number of engines, which were each the size of my sitting room. When I got there they were still building our barracks, so for a while I lived in a tent, then in one of the boxes the engines arrived in.
But when we moved into the barracks it was great – some men brought their families with them so we were a proper community, although people came and went. When I left I was the longest serving resident!”
Back at the Naval College, Clive still had his eyes on the horizon and had no hesitation in applying for another job in Cyprus. He was interviewed – and offered a job in Ghan.
“Ghan is a tropical island in the Indian Ocean and a big military base. I was a shift engineer and was there for 19 months living the high life. Again we did amateur dramatics, and there was an active church. I did a lot of diving and it was all great fun.”
By this time Clive had met Laurie, who had transferred to Lloyds Bank in Dartmouth as part of a staff reshuffle, and was lodging with an aunt in Fairview. Clive had always been involved with Scouts, and Laurie was a leader with the Guides.
While Clive was in Ghan, Laurie embarked on a round-the-world trip. The pair arrived back in Dartmouth within days of each other, and have been together ever since. They married in 1976 and are known by everyone in Dartmouth who has ever been a Scout or a Guide.
Clive said: “My father was a scout as a boy and encouraged me to join. His friend Bob Middleton was the scout leader. I loved it – being outdoors with all my mates, going to camps all over the place, learning about leadership and survival skills.”
When he was too old to be a scout himself, Clive stayed on as a leader. Between them Clive and Laurie helped shape the lives of nearly all the children in Dartmouth! He helped build the scout hut in Broadpark and became District Commissioner, only retiring in 2000 when the organisation’s strict rules on age prevented him from carrying on.
“I missed it terribly,” Clive said. “So Laurie and I took off round the world again. We had a big send off down in the town.”
Clive is still involved with the Royal Naval College. Having finished his working life there with spells in the stores and the swimming pool, finally winding up as verger in the chapel, he became a tour guide, a job he enjoys to this day.
With a life that’s seen him travel so far from home, has Clive ever been tempted to leave Dartmouth behind for good?
“The thought never crossed my mind,” Clive said. “I love it here. It is difficult to explain without appearing corny. I am prepared to go away and try all sorts of new things, but when I am here I am completely at ease.
This is my home town, where I was born, where I played with my friends as a child, where we made dens in Dyers Wood and Old Mill, and where we set up camp in an American tent left over from the D-Day preparations which we pitched in the field between Waterpool and Victoria Road, just over the road from where I live now.
“I grew up swimming in the Boat Float, playing in the fields, and going to church and Sunday school every week (I’ve been an alter boy since 1944 – although you’d call me a server now!)
“What we have here is a real bona fide community. We might not know every person in every house as we used to, but the fact is that Dartmouth is still a community.
“I love the Regatta and I have been on the organising committee for many years. As a young lad I used to work in the printers where Kendricks is now, printing the Chronicle through the night. I ring the bells in St Saviours and St Clements and have done for years. I love the river, the view from Yorke Road and the walk up through Ditcham’s Field, off Jawbones.
“It has never entered my head to live anywhere else. If you are from Dartmouth you feel part of it, and it feels part of you.”
First published December 2010 By the Dart