In 1952 the family moved from Sawbridgeworth to 10 Stag Lane, Buckhurst Hill, but before doing so we looked at a number of other houses, including one at Harlow that had a large cluster of outbuildings at the back, and I added a love of outbuildings to my love of attics.

10 Stag Lane was a yellow-brick, grey-slate semi-detached house just like thousands of others, and I was very disappointed with it, but it did have a redeeming feature. There was a cellar that could be reached from the garden or from the cupboard under the stairs, and from the cellar you could get into the foundations of the house. It was at this time that I added a love of cellars to my love of attics and outbuildings.

From our house it was a quarter of a mile walk via Tuttlebee Lane to Epping Forest, the same distance as from Whistlefield to Hatfield Forest. Discounting conifer plantations, there are very few forests in England, and I was remarkably lucky to live so close to two of them.

Stag Lane took its name from the Bald-faced Stag, the public house where the pianist Gladys Mills was discovered. From my bedroom window I had an unobstructed view across the suburbs of north London to Alexandra Palace, which was the B.B.C.’s main television transmitter at the time. There were several church steeples in the view, but I found that the number visible varied from day to day. It was at Buckhurst Hill that I first saw a television set. The Mynotts next door had one, and they invited us in to watch the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It was not until 1958 that we acquired one of our own.

At school we made a model of Westminster Abbey, where the Coronation took place, each pupil being responsible for a particular part of the building. At the end of term I acquired some of the decorations, and I put them up in my bedroom.

When I was living at Buckhurst Hill I started to collect the labels from match-boxes that were lying at the side of the road. I found that the Epping New Road was a better source than the High Road because it led to more distant parts of the country. Altogether I collected 91 labels, and I still have them. I could have had more if I had kept all the Clock Brand labels because each one showed a different time, but in the end I decided to keep only one.

Every year, around June 21st, I would have a birthday outing. In 1953 I wanted to go to Ivinghoe Beacon, which I had admired at a distance from Whipsnade Zoo, but it was decided that instead I would go with my mother to the stately home of Hatfield House. On the way there, between Potters Bar and Hatfield, we passed a number of tall poles on the right. Then I took a double take: one of the poles was much taller than the others and reached a prodigious height. I worked out that it should be visible from High Beach, and the next time I went there I found it. It occurred to me that it might even be visible from my bedroom window, and sure enough, by piling up the furniture I managed to see it. I gave it the name of Hatfield Pole. Later on I learned that it was called the Brookmans Park Transmitting Station and that the height of the tallest mast was 500 feet.

I found Hatfield House a disappointment. We went round in a group of people, one of whom distracted our attention by talking all the time. One of the things I liked about Berkeley Castle was that you could wander around without a guide. Back in the town of Hatfield I overheard my mother enquiring about buses to Dunstable, and then I knew that we were going to Ivinghoe Beacon. Ivinghoe Beacon was not a disappointment. There was a strong breeze and there were cowslips everywhere, but what inspired me most was the wonderful view; I think that I must have been lucky enough to arrive on a very clear day. Ivinghoe Beacon was for me what Orrest Head was for Wainwright.

 

On 9th January, 1954 I won a copy of Tom Sawyer in a children’s essay competition about how to improve my junior library. On 1st January, 1955 I went with my brother to see This is Cinerama at the London Casino, and I thought that I had never seen anything so beautiful before. In 2010 I saw it again at the National Media Museum in Bradford. This was the only place in Britain where it could still be seen, and I was lucky that it was only sixty miles from where I was living at the time.

 

Daiglen

Soon after we moved to Buckhurst Hill I started going to Daiglen School in Palmerston Road. I remember running down the outside staircase and thinking that if a film was made of my childhood the film-makers would have to find someone who could run downstairs quickly to play my part. Actually it was not totally impossible that a film would be made of my childhood because that is what happened to Gerald Durrell. Similarly, before I left for Wareham in 1958 I imagined myself singing about Dorset in front of a live audience. This was impossible because I couldn’t sing, but something like that did happen to Bonny Sartin of the Yetties.

We used to play rugby on the banks of the Ching in Epping Forest, and a boy called Palmer was the only one who could jump across the stream.

 

Isle of Wight

In 1953 we had our first family holiday based at Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight. I remember going to Carisbrooke Castle and being disappointed to find that it was not properly ruined: though starting to crumble in places the walls were largely intact. We also went to Tennyson Down, Alum Bay, Blackgang Chine and St Boniface Down. The bus journey to Freshwater Bay from the east with Tennyson Down in the distance I always associate with a tune that I later learned was the Prelude to Suite No 1 by Bizet. The highlight of the holiday was to fly round the island in an aeroplane with my mother.

 

Swanage

The following year my mother, my sister and I had a holiday based at Swanage, and I discovered the beauties of the Isle of Purbeck for the first time. It was this holiday that inspired me to move to Dorset in 1958 and to produce a book about the area in 1982. Among the places we visited were Ballard Down, the cliff-top near Old Harry, the village of Worth Matravers and Corfe Castle. I was pleased to discover that, unlike Carisbrooke, Corfe Castle was quite definitely ruined. I have a photograph of myself on the top of an old wall that I later learned was part of the Gloriette.

I remember seeing an enormous grasshopper in Swanage and thinking that it must have come on a boat from a foreign country and jumped ashore. I later learned that it was a great green bush cricket and quite common in the Swanage area.

 

Buckhurst Hill County High School

From 1953 until 1958 I attended Buckhurst Hill County High School, which was situated midway between Buckhurst Hill and Chigwell on the banks of the River Roding. In the first year I was in the A stream because I got a high score in the scholarship examination, but after that I was always in the lowest stream. My best subject, and the only subject that I thought was useful, was English language. I was helped in this by Mr Gray, who knew that I wanted to be an author and showed me how to construct sentences properly.

In 1953 I was taught chemistry for the first time. I learned about substances called chemicals with names like ‘nitrogen’ and ‘sulphur’, and what happened when you mixed one substance with another, but nobody told me what these chemicals were. I thought that they must be substances that people dug up out of the ground, and that the reason people dug them up was to find out what happened when they were mixed together. If it had been explained to me that everything in the world is made of chemicals, and that chemical reactions are going on around us all the time I am sure that I would have found the subject much more interesting than I did.

When I was at school I made a number of discoveries in the realm of mathematics, and I often used to wonder whether there were other discoveries still to be made. Many years later I learned about imaginary numbers, which are the square roots of negative numbers and neither negative or positive. I thought that they could be of no possible use, but I later found out that there are equations that can only be solved using these numbers. Now I wonder what aspects of mathematics there are that I still don’t know about and never will.

I left school with four ‘O’ level passes – English language (distinction), English literature, mathematics and geography.

 

The Bus Club

On 12th January, 1954 I started up a club made up of pupils of my own age, which I called the Bus Club. I have found references to twenty-one members in my diary and in surviving documents, but they were not all members at the same time. The club was inspired by the Outlaws in the William books by Richmal Crompton. One difference was that William’s leadership was never challenged, but mine was. On one occasion it was proposed that a boy called Nutmeg should become the leader, and I was outvoted. I once wrote ‘leader Nutmeg, official leader Jesty’ on a club document and Nutmeg objected, saying that I was not the official leader, but this was just my way of saying that it was still my club because I started it. Looking back I am inclined to the view that he was right and I was wrong: I was not the official leader. But if I had written ‘Leader Nutmeg, founder Jesty’ and he had objected to that I would have been right and he would have been wrong. The moral of this tale is that it pays to have a good working vocabulary.

I also started up the Junior Natural History Society. We held meetings and showed films and arranged visits to the Natural History Museum, Kew Gardens and Whipsnade Zoo. At one time there were thirty-two members, but, as with many societies, the number of active members was much smaller.

Papers relating to the Bus Club (later to be renamed the Ghost Club) and the J.N.H.S. went into my scrap book. Among these papers are the Ghost Club Magazine of September 11th 1954, including a crossword, a maze, a map and an article entitled ‘How Things Began’, which can be summarised in one sentence: I had no idea how things began. I remained in ignorance of the origin of the Universe until I read an amazing account of it in 1979.

 

Astronomy

The first time I looked at the stars I was disappointed to find that they were not arranged in constellations as I had been led to believe. In fact, if they had been arranged in constellations they would have been much less interesting because it would mean that they had been put there by people and were therefore not very far away. It was only when I moved to Buckhurst Hill in 1952 that I started to study them seriously. One day I noticed a lot of stars very close together, and I later learned that they were called the Pleiades. This was the first indication I had that the stars were not arranged completely at random. In later life I could only see six of them, but in those days my eyesight was much better and I could see thirteen. Apparently the record is seventeen, but the difference in brightness between the thirteenth and seventeenth is very small.

The Milky Way, on the other hand, I read about before I saw it for myself. In fact, I looked for it several times and failed to find it.

I have continued to be interested in astronomy ever since. I used to think that all the stars were the same distance away, but then I learned that some are farther than others. I thought it would be interesting to find a star that was easy to locate, but that was much farther away than most of the other stars. Eventually I discovered Deneb, which is 2600 light years away at the end of the shortest arm of the Northern Cross, so if anyone asks you what is the farthest place visible from Snowdon or Ben Nevis a good answer would be ‘Deneb’ (or ‘the Swan’s tail’).

Here are some more of my observations on astronomy:

The earth orbits the sun at 67,000 m.p.h.; the sun orbits the centre of the Milky Way at 500,000 m.p.h. and the Milky Way is moving towards the constellation Serpens Caput at 1,300,000 m.p.h. relative to the cosmic background radiation; so if anyone asks you what is the maximum speed of a particular vehicle a good answer would be ‘1,300,000 m.p.h.’

It is generally thought that, apart from the earth, there are six planets that are visible to the naked eye, but there is one more, Uranus, that can sometimes be seen by people with exceptionally good eyesight. There is a well-known song that begins ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night …’ Those words would never have been written if there hadn’t been thousands of people engaged in a similar activity for hundreds of years. Apart from watching their flocks there wasn’t much for these people to do except to study the stars. No doubt most of them concentrated on the brighter stars, but there must have been some who preferred to study a small area of sky, and surely a few of these would have noticed a very faint star that changed its position over time and must therefore be a planet. There could have been many arguments over the years between people who claimed that there were seven planets and people who thought that there were only six because they couldn’t see the seventh and because ‘everybody knows’ that there are only six.

There are sun-like stars a thousand million years older than the sun, which means that there may be civilisations millions of years in advance of ours. It is extremely sunlikely, but not impossible, that one of them may discover the Earth in the near future and share with us their latest discoveries and inventions.

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