My maternal grandfather Robert (Bob) Shipley was the guiding light of my childhood. He farmed with shire horses on the vale of York all his life and fought with the 161st battalion of the Royal Artillery ( in charge of the horses) through the first world war, coming out unscathed. I first got to know him after his retirement. I was born in 1957, the year after he retired from farming his rented fields and moved to the house that he had been saving up to buy all his working life. For the next 25 years my parents and I lived with Bob and his wife Annie as he enjoyed a long healthy retirement.
Bob was tall, well built and strong with a ready smile and a quick temper. If you didn’t mess him about he would move heaven and earth for you. Everyone around him knew him and liked and respected him. Throughout his life he rarely left home, content to root himself securely in the soil where he had first been planted. He continued to wear what he had worn to work in the fields for the rest of his life, gardening in a collarless shirt, loose cord trousers with a thick pile held up with a belt and braces and an old suit jacket. He always called this jacket his “smock”, and it was only replaced with a thinner cotton jacket- his summer smock- when the weather warmed up. After a day in the garden he would come in, dirty the towels in the kitchen with half washed hands, sit in his Windsor chair, stretch out his Wellington booted legs towards the fire and twiddle his thumbs until you could smell the rubber heating up. When he did dress up for a whist drive or one of many day trips to the seaside nobody else could shine boots like him and he would put on a tartan tie and a gold tie pin with a fox running across it. His favourite foods were tea made with tinned carnation milk and plenty of sugar, and fruit pies. Our larder cupboard, which had a mesh window out to the open air, was permanently stocked with apple or rhubarb pies made from fruit from the garden especially for him.
Aside from his garden Bob’s interests were simple. I never saw him with a book in his hands. He liked to watch the wrestling late on Saturday afternoons, shouting at the television and calling Mick McManus a “dirty bugger”. The house was made silent so that he could watch songs of praise each week, although he only went to church on high days and holidays. He cut other men’s hair and had a full set of hairdressing kit in a polished wooden box with brass edging. He loved to go to house contents sales, a regular local attraction when someone died and a house needed clearing, and brought all kinds of things home from clocks and ornaments to handkerchiefs which he would pick up in the road and expect to be washed and used. His main gift to the village was a bowling green which he made from scratch where there had been rough farm land- a major achievement which only someone who has tried to do it would really appreciate. It included a fierce fight against the local mole population. He trapped them and strung them up on the wire fencing around the area where he was working, in order to show that he was doing his job. He was a countryman to his fingertips who liked to shoot pigeons and follow the hunt on his rickety bicycle and he had no sentimentality whatsoever. His retirement job was de-beaking turkeys at a local turkey farm, and plucking turkeys and pheasants in the run up to Christmas, and our cat’s kittens were killed ( not drowned as he thought that cruel) by an expert blow from a spade.
Bob loved spending time with me. When he bought me a colouring book he would buy a second identical one for himself and we would sit together and have colouring competitions. I had my own patch of garden and a small plastic greenhouse which he built for me and I never tired of getting under his feet as he weeded, sowed, watered, raked, mowed and mulched. He could make anything grow. The house had been chosen for the large plot of land alongside it ( another house sits on it now) and he just continued to do what he had done all his life. It wasn’t a retirement really, just a downsizing. Retiring from farming would have been like attempting to retire from his own life. He was very pleased that I was fond of horses and liked to ride. That was the other thing I remember him telling people over and over again; “She’s ‘oss mad.” He used to tell me that if he had still been at the farm I could have had a pony. It was only during the planning talk for my mother’s funeral with the vicar, many years later, that I found out that he had got a piece of land lined up to graze a pony on for me. My father stopped him from going ahead.
Bob didn’t just have one shed. He had a whole row of them. There was one for coal, one for wood, one for me to play in, one which was chock full of stuff with no purpose whatsoever, and a very large one with glass windows which was his workshop. I spent hours in there banging pieces of kindling into each other and playing with the vices and tools. Absolutely everything was kept, from the smallest piece of string to a wood-wormed chest of drawers which was turned out of the house and found itself in the dark filling up with tins of nails, screws, saws, pliers and hammers.
Bob may have adored me, but he was also a tough disciplinarian. He only once threatened me with his belt, when I had been throwing his apples over the huge privet hedge into the track separating us from the next house with the boys from next door. I was afraid when I heard him coming up the stairs (he had already taken his belt off) but he would never have used it. I was known as a good girl. I have a Torquay pottery mug with “For a good girl” written on it in slip glaze ( a present from one of only two proper holidays that he and my grandmother ever had together) to prove it. They went to Lands End and John O’Groats. My mother had been a late baby and I was his only grandchild. As the youngest of a family of twelve this was a surprise to him. When he paraded me around the village on the front of his bicycle, which had homemade stirrups and a second seat fitted for me to sit on, he would announce the fact to people over and over again. “She’s the only one I’ve got.” The unique status that this gave me was a matter of huge importance to me and I didn’t hear the disappointment in his voice, only the pride which went with it. I was the only one he had. More special than anything.