This article was the first attempt I ever made to write up a piece of my family history. It contains a mixture of my own and my mother’s memories of my Great-Grandmother.
Our journey starts in the back of an old Ford Capri….
Image: By Kieran White from Manchester, England (1988 Ford Capri 280) CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Travelling to Chepstow, Monmouthshire, Wales. To see my Great-Gran, Zellah. A journey to another world – an exotic visit to a far away land. The voices are different. And there’s funny writing on all the signs. Crammed into Mum’s dark blue Ford Capri. Mum’s name, Libby, written in tiny calligraphy letters down the side of a set of parallel silver racing stripes. Squeezed into the back seats. Brothers. Cousins. At least 4 kids. No seat belts. Fights with my little brother Liam over who has to sit in the middle.
A blur of roads and houses and roads and houses. Long motorways, and endless tedium. Traffic jams. Toilet stops. More fighting with Liam. Singing Michael Jackson hits. Hoping the cassette tape doesn’t get chewed up. Eye Spy. First one to see the 7th Bridge is the winner!! The 7th Bridge itself – a bridge that bounds my world and the magical land of my Welsh relatives – where sweets, treats and glorious unbounded attention awaits us.
(Note it’s the 7th Bridge…It didn’t become the Severn Bridge to me until I was much older…probably around the same time Whales became Wales.
Arriving at the Severn Bridge
Mum scrambling around in the bottom of her handbag for change. My Step Dad tutting, “You’ve had the whole journey to get the money ready!” Then finally, everyone grinning and yelling “we’re on the bridge!! Nearly there!”. Foreheads pressed against the cool of the car windows, before our arms start frantically pumping at the handle to wind them down. Mum snapping, “Wind those windows back up! Now!”
Casting my eyes down at the swirling grey river. The world seems suddenly so big. The wind whistles, and howls. The Capri shakes and rattles. The bridge sways. Eyes darting up from the river to the blue sky and the crisscross of cables that tower above. A rush of fear, a good fear – a little thrill at the sensation of imagined danger. My Mum, “you know as soon as they finish painting the Severn, they have to start from the beginning again”. The same adage, every time. I imagine men swinging from suspended platforms, paintbrushes in hand. Gaze back down. Don’t see anyone painting. 5 minutes of silence. No fighting. The Bridge is pure magic.
I wish I had had even just one Christmas at Chepstow. Mum, Aunty Cathy and their cousins have all recollected (on numerous occasions) their magical Christmas Eve memories. They’d tiptoe, bare foot up to the bedroom window, fingers grasping the sill to peer out into the night sky and the lights from the Severn Bridge. Every single adult of that generation swears that they heard Santa’s bells and even saw a glimpse of his sledge sailing through the air above the bridge. Chepstow was so magical that it could even bring Father Christmas to life. The Bridge is irrevocably linked to Christmas in the mind of most of my mother’s side of the family. I am envious.
Give Us A Kiss & Lend Us A Bob
Hopping from foot to foot. Can’t stay still. Too excited. Liam and I pushing each other. Mum’s voice loud and sharp, “will you two both pack it in”. The door opening. Gran’s large soft body wedged into the doorway. Mum trying to push us down the hall. “Shoes off!” Suddenly we are pulled into a tight cuddle. Gran with her fat warm body. That huge squidgy bosom you could lie your head on for hours just listening to her heart beat. Gran’s welsh tones tickling my ear, “Give us a kiss and lend us a bob!”. Her tongue poking out of her false teeth and her blue eyes bright with laughter.
Image of Zellah Elizabeth Martin, courtesy of Peter Davies. Please ask for permission before using.
Tea and food is first on the agenda. A brown teapot. A knitted tea cosy. Strange objects in this foreign land. Gran’s shaky hands holding a tiny china cup and saucer. Gran pulling funny faces, poking her front teeth out, smacking her lips. I watch her wobble her cup up to her mouth, slurp and then shakily try to return said teacup to saucer – tea slopping over the edge. Gran grinning.
My Mum, Zellah’s granddaughter, remembers that whist making tea, or cooking, my Gran would often have a cigarette on the go. She never fully inhaled – puffing the smoke straight from her mouth. Cigarette’s were placed upside down on the windowsill creating rows of butts with little columns of burnt down ash. Sometimes ash would fall into the meal. One of Gran’s sayings was “a bit of dirt never killed anyone”. She wasn’t the tidiest of persons.
According to Mum, when I was a baby, my Gran gave me a chicken bone to gnaw on. Good for the gums. Mum was horrified. I would not relinquish the bone. Gran was resolute. Stop fussing.
You Spend It On What You Want...
Gran with a bag of sweets. Me being polite and saying “no thank you”. Gran getting cross. Finally, taking the sweets away and saying “say no to me and you don’t get them”. I knew why she was angry. I’d been all good-manners, like she was a stranger. She’s hurt. My brother munches on his smarties. Gran does not relent. I go without. Lesson learnt.
Gran taking us to the The Three Tuns for lunch – her eating too many prawn cocktails and turning pink. Do I remember this, or is it a false memory based on others accounts? That thought makes me sad. I know I remember a clutch purse and everyone telling her to put her money away.
Gran stuffing a £5 note into my hand, “you spend it on what you want – if you want £5 of sweets, you buy £5 of sweets”. My Mum groaning but smiling. Trip to Woolworths. Penny sweets, when they really did cost 1p each. Getting £5 worth, plus the ones we’d sneakily eaten before paying. Paper bags bursting to the brim. As many fizzy cola bottles stuffed into my mouth as are in the bag. No one minded.
I pull a big pair of knickers on, over my tights. Giggling, my cousins are stuffing my underwear with scrunched up newspaper. I’m about to star in the role of a lifetime – the lead role in Roald Dahl’s poem “The Porcupine”. Pegs are clipped on to my underwear to replicate spikes.
“My backside seemed to catch on fire,
A hundred red-hot bits of wire.
A hundred prickles sticking in
And puncturing my precious skin.
I ran for home, I shouted, “Mum,
Behold the prickles in my bum!”
Gran roaring with laughter, holding her belly. Tears are streaming down her face. Us kids are all grinning. The play has been a great success. Maybe when I’m grown up I’ll be a famous actress…
Next up is “Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men”, someone told us it’s Gran’s favourite. Tall cousin Racheal wearing a cardboard head-dress of petals – she’s Little Weed. Brothers Luke and Ben have their cheeks covered in bright red lipstick – they are the flowerpot men.
Image Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Bill and Ben Uploaded by tm) CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Gran probably encouraged our theatrical exploits. She enjoyed them herself! Before my time, she’d been a geriatric nurse and every year she, and the rest of the hospital staff, used to put on a play for the elderly patients. The staff were probably all female, so Gran would sometimes play the male roles. She roped in husband Jim too. Everyone had to play several roles. Mum recalls Gran dressed in a policeman hat with false mustache. Or, Gran dressed up as a school girl, Jim as a school boy – in a cap, shorts and stripey tie. He’d sing “if you were the only girl in the world”, and Gran would join in.
James Campbell-Powell (Jim) and Zellah Elizabeth Martin. Please seek permission before using.
Mum remembers Gran in a bright aqua nylon nightie, wearing a long plaited wig. There were ponchos and guns, and cowboy hats. Plays normally consisted of popular 1940s and ’50s musicals, like ‘South of the Border’. Jim had a good Welsh voice, and would belt out ‘Down Mexico Way’…he only knew the first two lines, so just repeated them for his entire performance…with great enthusiasm!
Please Remember, Don't Forget
Play finished, time to wash the makeup off our faces. Sitting on the toilet reading the tin poster on the back of Gran’s bathroom door.
The original tin poster probably rusted away, but I found and brought my own little Mabel Lucie Attwell many years later.
Mum remembers a bathroom cabinet full of ancient tonics and lotions. As a child these green and blue bottles fascinated her. Being a nurse, Gran’s draws were filled with first aid stuff – bandages and slings. The grandchildren were allowed to play with it all. Mum spent a day playing with, what she thought were lipsticks, happily smearing her lips…to my Gran’s amusement. Turns out the “lipsticks” were suppositories!
Gran's Glass Cabinet
I sit on the carpet, cross-legged, back straight, staring at the assortment of china ornaments in Gran’s glass cabinet. These are precious things. Gran eases herself up from a floral wing-back chair, gingerly leans down and opens the cabinet doors. It’s like Aladdin’s cave opening. Solemnly, “you can pick one. Any one but only one.” I toy with a rabbit in an armchair surrounded by books. Or a witch with a chipped pointy hat. Or a three legged horse? It’s an agonising choice. Gran waits patiently. I chose a smooth white cat with big blue eyes. Gran nods. A feeling of pride swells in my chest. I somehow know that the cat was the right answer. I feel myself glow in unspoken approval.
Cat comes home with me and sits on my dresser. Days roll into weeks, and months and years. Gran dies. I grow up. Time trickles on. Cat comes to uni with me, and to my first home. And to the next, and the next. Carefully wrapped up in bundles of bubble wrap and newspaper. Kept in my handbag each time we move. Never in a box. Always with me. Cat is on the bookshelf, waiting for me, when finally, 2 weeks after giving birth, I come home from hospital – with my newborn baby, Zellah. Cat is one of my most treasured possessions. She’s badly painted, with a smudged nose. But I love her.
Perhaps Cat is so special to me because receiving her is one of my last really clear memories of my great-grandmother. I was 11 when she died.
Bon Sante, See You On The Ice
Changed into pajamas and nighties. Coats on top. Gran outside, her breath visible in the crisp night air. Kisses, cuddles. Gran loudly, “Bon sante, see you on the ice!” Never goodbye. Gran waving. Everyone yelling, “Go back inside, you’ll catch a cold!” Gran laughing, shaking her head. Tucked into the car, a bundle of warm bodies. Smothered in blankets. No music this time. Trying to keep my eyes open as the street lights flash by. Glimpsing the lights of the bridge. Watching them fade into the distance. Eyes slowly closing. Falling asleep. On the way home.
Gran was born Zellah Elizabeth Martin. Her first husband was Frederick William Frank Davies (aka: Bill), who sadly died serving during WW2. James Campbell-Powell (aka: Jim) was her second husband.
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