Frank Sumsion’s memories of Combe Down

About Frank

Frank Sumsion

Frank Sumsion

I was born on 23 July 1926 at the Priory at Rainbow Wood.

My father worked as a gardener for a Major Lock and I believe my mother must have worked in the house as I have an old picture of my mother and some of us children with Major Lock’s daughter, Alison.

My eldest brother, Edward, was born at 6 Greendown Cottages, this was the home of my father’s eldest sister, Kate Kellaway.

Another sister was Mrs Rhymes who owned the paper shop in The Avenue.

Another of my father’s brothers was my Uncle Bert, he worked in the shop too.

J C Wilcox, Combe Down baker delivering at Southstoke early 1900s

J C Wilcox, Combe Down baker delivering at Southstoke early 1900s

My father’s youngest brother Charles, worked with his wife (apart from a short time in the RAF during WWII) all his life at Monkton Combe school.

My grand parents lived in what we called Quarry Bottom, I have a picture of her standing in the doorway of what I believe was No 1, now Quarry Vale I believe.

My cousin married Colin Wilcox, the baker in Combe Road. 

In my work life I joined Sparrows International Crane Hire and became  Managing Director of Sparrows Heavy Crawler Cranes Ltd. I have a personal website about Sparrows.

Memories of Combe Down

1930 – 1937

© Frank Sumsion 2017

Recently, whilst lying in bed after awaking around 6.45 am, for some unknown reason my mind wandered back to Combe Down (the ‘Down’) and Bath during the time of my childhood and youth.

My first vivid memory as a four or five-year-old child was moving home with my dad, mum, two brothers and sister into an almost derelict cottage in Byfield Place, off Summer Lane, Combe Down.

I clearly remember walking into a very dark room with one gas light in a corner, a stone sink and an iron fireplace with a hob and small oven.

There were two bedrooms upstairs, in one of these was a small hole in the wall that opened into the vacant cottage next door, this cottage was occupied soon afterwards by a family called West.

My dad and Mr West repaired the hole in the wall.

I do not know how we slept upstairs, however, I remember the loo . . . it was in a very small rear garden, approached by a few steps. It was stone-built, about a yard square with a door, and newspaper as a substitute for a toilet roll. There was a bucket, under a wooden plank with a hole in the middle, to this day I do not know where the contents were emptied.

There was a water tap outside the front gate that we shared with the neighbours.

I realised later that we were amongst the poorer families on the ‘Down’.

My dad’s family were very close and two of my aunts were especially kind to us and made sure that we never went without.

My brother George, sister Betty and myself attended the infants’ school in Summer Lane, just a few hundred yards from our home, almost directly behind the church. It was situated on the corner of Summer Lane and Belmont Road. It had an area of about a quarter-of-an-acre of grass, where we played on drier sunny days.

The school grounds were entered by walking across a small grass play area and up a few steps, the classroom was on the left and a small playground extended to the right. Further to the right-hand side was a row of about six to eight toilets (bucket-type again).

I can still recall my first teacher’s name, Miss Brewster.

We used to take a small lunch to school always a sandwich, very often just jam, but sometimes my mother made us a banana sandwich and by lunchtime the banana was almost black but they tasted wonderful, I still make jokes about them today.

Another memory that has lived with me: when playing in Summer Lane on a wet day with my brother George, we were sailing match boxes in the gutter. Mine floated into a drain, George somehow managed to lift the cover slightly open. I put my hand inside but he could not hold the cover and it dropped, as I pulled my hand away it caught my fingers, almost severing the top of the third finger of my left hand. A passer-by noticed the incident and rushed me to the surgery of Dr Morris in The Avenue (I believe the surgery is still there). Dr Morris managed to sew the parts together. The scar and split nail remain, as a reminder. The district nurse called at our cottage to dress the wound every day or so and my mother told me that I used to run and hide as soon as I saw her coming along the lane on her bicycle.

. . . so much for the infant times.

My memories of Combe Down are still quite clear in my mind, it was all so different then. As children, we wandered everywhere and people seemed to notice you and talk to you more.

Fale's advert 1952 - 1955 P O Directories

Fale’s advert 1952 – 1955 P O Directories

Tyning Road was prominent in that many of our class and playmates came from there, the Whittaker’s, Prescott’s and Clothiers come to mind. There were also many pupils brought from outside Combe Down, such as the villages of Hinton Charterhouse and Combe Hay. Fales coaches provided the transport.

The Down as I knew it then, still had many open areas, mostly allotments.

Directly opposite Wilcox, the baker in Combe Road, was a large area of allotments (now Westerleigh Road and housing). At the entrance to the allotments was a large stack, faggots of wood (bundles of wood), that

Mr Wilcox used to heat his bread ovens. All his bread in those days was cooked in his wood-burning ovens.

Walking across the allotments to the far right-hand corner, at the bottom of Rock Lane, was a stone works where you could walk underground into the Combe Down stone mines.

There was another entrance to the stone mines at a quarry behind Combe Down rugby club. This quarry became a landfill site during my childhood days.

Just along from our cottage in Byfield Place was a flight of steps. At the top of the steps, to the right, was a butcher’s shop and next to that was ‘The Jupiter’, one of seven public houses that were on the Down at that time. Across the road from the butcher’s shop was a small builders’ yard and on the corner of Summer Lane and Church Road was Appleby’s the greengrocers.

Continuing along Church Road towards the church (Holy Trinity), on the right-hand side, was a small shop and then a dressmaker.

Another 50 yards or so brought you to Mrs Colmer’s sweet shop, a favourite of ours. Mrs Colmer ran the shop, and Mr Colmer, the local shoe repairer, worked in the cellar below. We wore boots most of the time, the soles covered in studs to make them last, my dad repaired them.

I believe there were two other shops before you arrived at more allotments, my uncle Bert used one of these. Beyond the allotments and continuing along the road there was an entrance to a walkway (drung) to Belmont Road, and after the entrance was Holy Trinity church, where we were all christened. Beyond that again the vicarage and Combe Down senior school, now an apartment block.

On the corner of Church Road and Belmont Road is another drung, leading to Summer Lane. At the end of the drung, on the opposite side of the road, are Bluebell Steps. These steps drop down to the ‘stream field’ as we knew it. Combe Down Waterworks are at the bottom beside the former railway viaduct at Tucking Mill.

Bradford Road water tank in Combe Down 1950s

Bradford Road water tank in Combe Down 1950s

At the bottom of the field to the right, almost under the railway viaduct, was the Combe Down Waterworks pumping station which pumped water to the elevated water tank, opposite the Foresters’ Arms (now the Forester & Flower). It also pumped water to a reservoir at Hampton Down, close to the university, and in the opposite direction across Midford Brook via an underground pipe to a water tank that existed in the Crown car park at Hinton Charterhouse. On peaceful nights the sound of the two large gas-fired engines inside the pumping station could be heard clearly on the Down.

The Avenue on Combe Down holds many of my favourite memories . . .

Entering from Church Road: on the right was the bank, it was an imposing building. Next to the bank there was a small lane. The lane ran to the rear of my Aunt Nell’s newsagents (I believe this is now a cycle shop) and the church rooms. My uncle also had a garage in the lane.

Beyond the lane was a row of three cottages, which included the newsagents, all owned by Aunt Nell (Mrs Rhymes). My brothers and I became ‘paperboys’ for her. Opposite the newsagents were Cobbs the bakers, a chemist and the Co-op.

Next door to Aunt Nell lived the caretakers of the church rooms.

After the cottages came the church rooms building (I was at a dance here when the Bath blitz began). Continuing further were two small shops, then the exit from the lane previously mentioned, then allotments with a row of garages at the rear of them.

Before Williamstowe was Dr Morris’ surgery. He was very well known and I remember my parents recalling his kindness and caring for his patients.

Williamstowe was an unmade lane leading to the baptist chapel, it was a large tin hut. One of its preachers was Mr Noad, he ran the post office in Combe Road. Most of the other buildings in the lane were cottages.

Mr Davies lived in Williamstowe, he was the dairyman and he delivered milk locally, using a yoke across his shoulders and two large churns.

Further along The Avenue was ‘Ings’ the grocers. Their deliveryman was well known on the Down as he rode a carrier bike (it had a carrying frame in front of the handlebars). Rain or shine he always wore a trilby hat.

Next was Fale and Ralph’s garage, it’s where my uncle purchased his petrol. I remember one brand of petrol they sold, Cleveland, it cost 11½ pennies per gallon (approximately 5p in today’s money!). Fales ran a coach service, the coaches were garaged in Gladstone Road (also unmade), off Tyning Road.

The Hadley Arms, Combe Down c 1950s

The Hadley Arms, Combe Down c 1950s

At the end of The Avenue, opposite the Hadley Arms, was a shelter for tram passengers. Also there was a drung, this lead to Church Road and re-entered near the school. Two-thirds along the drung was the school playground. Behind the Hadley was the scout hut and a couple of tennis courts.

The Firs Field, or recreation ground, had a small children’s playground at its entrance with swings and a roundabout that you ran beside and pushed to make it turn before jumping on.

Towards the right-hand side of the Firs Field was a ‘light hole’, approximately 20 feet in diameter, it serviced the underground stone mines, it was surrounded by a dry-stone wall three or four feet high. We were told never to climb over the wall.

The war memorial at the top of the field (backing on to North Road) was always well-maintained and we were always taken there on Remembrance Day when buglers and a band often played.

A large party was held in Firs Field to celebrate King George V’s silver jubilee. Aunt Nell had a stall selling sweets and ice cream.

The Firs Field road was still unmade at this time with lots of large puddles during heavy rain, there was a footpath in front of the houses .

The last house, at the North end of the road, was the hairdressers, Mr Pearce, ‘Shaver’ as he was kindly known. Our haircuts? Short back and sides!

Going back now to my childhood memories: we moved from Byfield Place in late 1931 to Odd Down.

My parents now occupied a brand-new council house. This must have been like a gift from heaven to them . . . from an almost derelict cottage on the Down to a three-bedroomed (one with a fireplace) home.

On the ground floor was a front room with a fireplace and cupboards to one side; a kitchen, with a gas cooker and new glazed sink with draining boards either side and a gas boiler for hot water. There was also a larder and a coal room; a bathroom with a bath, wash-hand basin and a flush toilet. And the icing-on-the-cake was electric lighting. They must have been in a dream world.

Our house number was No18, on Upper Bloomfield Road.

The front of the semi-detached house was approached by a tarmac path to the front door with an unmade garden either side, the path then continued to the rear of the house, with a good-sized rear garden.

The few pieces of furniture my parents owned were brought from the Down on a horse-drawn coal cart. My Uncle Bill borrowed the cart from Mr West who lived at No 1 Greendown Cottages.

Upper Bloomfield Road was not fully made-up when we arrived, it needed the top small hardcore filling and steam-rolling. We would watch the rollers rolling back and forth. This was followed by tarmacing and gravelling. The hot tar was spread from horse-drawn, coal-heated tanks. I remember feeling sorry for the horses, their fetlocks were covered in tar which had blown from the spray guns of the men who were carrying out the work. The men also looked almost black. And then, again, came the steamrollers to finish off the final surface.

A new fish and chip shop opened directly opposite our house. A good-sized piece of fish with chips was 6d (2½p today). Further along to our left was a grocers, ‘Dauntons’, and then a brand-new Co-op.

Our milk was delivered by Mr Griffith, he also carried two large churns supported by a yoke on his shoulders, as Mr Davies previously mentioned at Combe Down. Our bread was delivered by Colin Wilcox, from his bakery at Combe Road, Combe Down, in his horse-drawn van. His delivery round included both Southstoke and Odd Down. It was delicious bread.

Coal was delivered by Mr Banks on his horse and cart. He had a yard in the quarry at the rear of Odd Down Cottages on Upper Wellsway.

We had a bus stop almost on our doorstep. The buses were some of the very first used in Bath and ran to various parts of the city, our service ran to Grand Parade. I have a vague memory that it was the No 11 service.

For about a year we attended St Philip’s School on Odd Down but we were not happy.

On our way to St Philip’s School the area between Odins Road, Wansdyke Road and Bloomfield Road was an old quarry being used as a landfill site. Lorries powered by steam were still widely used and the large ones, from the Bath City Steam Co, were often to be seen tipping all types of loads. Horses with carts were also used, offloading waste. Smaller lorries were beginning to replace horse-drawn transport and the Ford and Chevrolet lorries of about 30 cwt / 2 tons capacity were becoming popular, especially with the Bath coal companies.

Somehow we found ourselves back at Combe Down school. I suspect this was partly arranged by Aunt Nell, as we three boys very soon had paper rounds to carry out in the mornings and evenings. It meant leaving home at 6.30 am and cycling to The Avenue, collecting a small amount of newspapers to deliver before breakfast at the paper shop. I loved the breakfast unless it was porridge. In later years my aunts told me that they made me sit until I finished it, but more often-than-not I won (I didn’t finish it) and it was ‘wash your hands’ and off to school.

Halcyon Days

The passing of time has changed many things over the years, none more so than children being out-of-doors.

As a child in the early 1930s, I cannot remember having any worries about being on my own, anywhere, at any time. Going to and from school, whether on foot, bicycle or public transport there was never a problem.

Of course, our parents worried if we were out later than expected but for most of the time we moved around as we pleased. There were obviously things going on that we knew little about but generally, amongst all the poverty and hard times, people coped well. As far as I am concerned, they were ‘the good old days’.

During weekends and school holidays we’d spend day-after-day wandering around fields and local villages, sometimes going for cycle rides but more often just walking through the fields and woods.

The collecting of birds’ eggs was not illegal and as children we would walk many miles along hedgerows seeking out birds’ nests. My father gave us strict rules, we never removed more than one egg from a nest, and never returned to the same nest. However, in this instance time has changed for the good . . . the Protection of Birds Act 1954 put a stop to this, and rightly so.

Northern Lapwing – Vanellus vanellus

I vividly remember vast numbers of the once-common lapwing (the peewit). Before the Second World War lapwings would flock at Foxhill. There were no houses only fields, owned by Springfield Farm. Part of my evening paper round involved delivering to an old farmhouse, at the outset of war it was taken over by the Admiralty. During what must have been early summer, I would spend an hour or more sitting perfectly still in the fields, surrounded by hundreds of these birds. Also there always seemed to be a skylark, high in the sky, singing clearly. I never hear it these days. Lovely memories.

Rabbits were to be seen in abundance in the countryside, accompanied by the odd hare. I remember that we found some young hares (leverets), we took a couple home but Dad made us return them.

Wild flowers were in profusion from springtime and all throughout the summer months. There were primroses, violets, bluebells, cowslips, moon daises, dog roses and occasionally a wild orchid.

We had settled at 18 Upper Bloomfield Road and made a few new friends at Odd Down.

My father soon had the garden in shape. The front garden had flowers and the rear vegetables. Dad also had an allotment to supplement the supply of fresh vegetables. He also built a small chicken house and run at the end of our garden, we had a few fresh eggs. Rabbit was our main meat as they were very plentiful and very cheap.

I must have been seven or eight years old when we first had our trolleys. They were assembled using a plank of wood approximately 4ft in length and about 12ins wide. Two other pieces of wood held the axles, the front axle was fixed with a large bolt in the centre, enabling it to be steered using our feet or a piece of rope. At the rear would be a soapbox (bars of soap, such as carbolic, were delivered in wooden boxes about 2ft long x 18ins wide, about 12ins in depth), perfect for sitting in. Most of the wood came from a landfill tip between Odins Road and Upper Bloomfield, the wheels and axles from discarded perambulators.

There were very few cars and lorries on the road . . . We had an excellent trolley run from Odd Down, starting at the top of Combe Hay Lane. It was a free ride all the way to Combe Hay village. Afterwards we’d pull our trolleys back to the start line to repeat the ride, passing the Wheatsheaf Inn (then owned by a local farmer, one of his sons was in my class at Combe Down School), via the old Fosseway Lane.

My paper round, I believe my age was nine-years-old, started with a 6.30 am cycle ride from Odd Down to Combe Down.

My morning delivery consisted of about a dozen or so newspapers. In Belmont Road, Captain Daubeney’s family lived in a large house, on the corner with Summer Lane, I entered through large wooden double gates; then onto Quarry Vale . . . my grandparents once lived here but it was before my time, we always called it Quarry Bottom. Some of the residents I recall here were Mr Elliot; the Robinsons and Milsoms. Also the Fishlock family lived at one of the better-built cottages on the right of the steps that lead up to Church Road.

My evening round, of about 25/30 papers, started at North Road just beyond the Foresters Arms. The first delivery was at Horsecombe Grove; then Cleevedale Road, Mr Pavey, one of our schoolmasters, lived there; then on to Foxhill, fields at this time (as mentioned previously). There was an old farmhouse at the top of Foxhill, on the right, just before you entered the hill (it was near here that I sat with the lapwings).

My next stop was Horsecombe Brow, Mr Brown, our school headmaster, lived here; then Pioneer Avenue followed by Hawthorn Grove. The entry to the grove was from Entry Hill. There were open quarries either side of the grove and also one at the top of Entry Hill, on the corner, as you entered the hill from Bradford Road, it is now a small playing field. I think the shop on the corner of Hawthorn Grove was Ridgeways. My final delivery was a few yards down Entry Hill, to the last house of a short rank, on the right-hand side, it was up a few steps and I can still remember being tired and ready for home.

View over Limpley Stoke Valley from Brassknocker Hill, Monkton Combe

View over Limpley Stoke Valley from Brassknocker Hill, Monkton Combe

Moving on . . . nine or ten years old. Most of my Saturday mornings were spent helping my uncle, Bert Sumsion (he worked alongside my Aunt Nell in the newsagents). He had his own paper round, delivering from Mount Pleasant at Shaft Road to Claverton village in the Limpley Stoke valley. I enjoyed going with him.

Mount Pleasant was a row of old stone miners’ cottages, we would park Uncle Bert’s car and walk along the track in front of them. The track was unmade, full of potholes that filled with water in winter. There were a few outside water taps for the people living in the cottages and I vaguely remember a water trough about half way along the rank of cottages. Water troughs were a common sight, welcomed by the many horses used to pull carts.

We moved on to deliver at Combe Grove House (a majestic house, now a hotel and leisure centre) and then along a rough track that exited almost at the start of Brassknocker Hill. There were a few cottages opposite and in one of them we had tea and a biscuit.

We went up the hill, the next delivery was at the old convalescent home. Uncle Bert made several other deliveries and I usually stayed in the car (a Singer 10).

We also delivered to a gamekeeper’s cottage, it was well back from the road on the right, as we proceeded towards Claverton Down. I always went with my uncle to see the gamekeeper, they would usually talk about rabbit shooting and I believe that sometimes my uncle joined him.

We had no deliveries at Claverton Down.

We would drive along another rough track that came out on the road leading down to the village of Claverton and the Warminster Road, delivering papers on the way to Claverton Manor (now the American Museum). We would continue down the hill to a farm in the valley, on our right, before arriving at the village where we delivered to several cottages. The last delivery was to an elderly lady who again gave us tea or cocoa and biscuits or cake, Uncle Bert was a popular man. It would be nearly lunchtime when we returned to the shop.

My uncle also bred budgerigars, he had 20 or 30, perhaps more, in a large aviary above his garage. I helped with the cleaning.

Also on Saturday mornings my brother, George, delivered prescriptions for the local chemist, Davy, John and Aspell. Their shop was in Combe Road between the Jupiter and King William pubs. When he finished his deliveries he came back to the shop and we were given something to eat.

I previously mentioned our return to Combe Down School. My first teacher was Miss Condy, she taught juniors and came from Claverton. She was kind and caring. I soon moved up the general classes and remember most of the teachers names:

  • Mr Brown, the headmaster, taught English;
  • Mr Pavey, history and geography;
  • Miss Tanner (Hetty), mathematics. The most strict teacher.
  • Mr Flaherty, science.

Another teacher taught the girls cookery, on the ground floor of the building.

Boys sometimes had gardening lessons, these took place in a small plot next to the infant school, adjoining gardens at Quarry Vale.

Miss Tanner will be remembered by every pupil in her class. We each had small wooden pencil cases, about 1¼” square and 10 inches long. Miss Tanner had a habit of looking over your shoulder. If you made what to her was a simple mistake, she would rap you over the back of your neck, quite hard, with the pencil case. I was very often the recipient. However, it must have done some good, as I went on to win a scholarship at 11 years of age (I don’t know why they called her Hetty).

At the school we renewed our friendships with the local children, Whittakers, Dowdings, Prescotts and Clothiers come to mind.

Weekends and holidays were nearly all spent with our friends on the Down, at Beech Wood or Rainbow Wood, next to the tram terminal where you could walk through to the monument field and on to Claverton.
In Rainbow Wood there were many undulating tracks, we all rode our bikes as fast as we could, not too many spills but very exciting for us.

My first memory of a picnic was a lovely sunny day at Hampton Down. We passed through Rainbow Wood, across the monument field, along a footpath through fields before crossing the road at Claverton Down and walking on to Hampton Rocks as we called them. There were panoramic views in all directions but as children we were more interested in climbing the rocks and looking inside one or two small caves.

Final Memories to follow