The Amblers at Whittingham

our houseWhen I was six, and Ted was 2, we moved from Preston to a place called Whittingham, just outside Preston. 

Whittingham was one of Europe's largest Psychiatric Hospitals. My father, Kenneth was the Chief Fire Officer there. A house in the grounds of the hospital came with the job. I can safely say I grew up on the Funny Farm!  And I can truly say they were the best years of my life. Whittingham Hospital was next to a small village called Goosnargh.  The famous Goosnargh Pub, The Stags Head, stands right next to the gates of the hospital.The village had a small C of E church and village school.

The Catholic School where I went for my Primary years was outside the hospital and village in the countryside. It was called St Joseph's, The Hill,  RC.  Father Richardson was the Parish Priest, a stern man. He once locked us all in the chapel at the hospital to make sure we stayed for Benediction after mass. We stayed, but when the last blessing was said, my father and four other members of the hospital staff walked to the door, took out their keys and unlocked the door. He never did that again.

My teacher was Miss Gillow. I have fond and funny memories of my schooldays, travelling to school on the bus in the snow, and cheering when high snowdrifts turned us back.  The school is at the end of a long driveway. I once tied my best friend to a tree halfway up the drive (playing cowboys and Indians) and then forgot her. She was there all afternoon - poor Julia.
In 2000 I went back to Goosnargh and paid a visit to my old school - Miss Gillow was there to greet me!  There were not many changes. The school is still small and friendly, four classes now instead of two. There are some new rooms, but the hall and the old classrooms, the Chapel and Father's garden are still beautiful and very familiar.

It was a golden time for kids, everywhere. There was a freedom and safety to wander the countryside without adult supervision that has sadly vanished. I remember getting up very, very early one morning, it must have been at around four o'clock, to catch a rabbit. I had seen rabbits playing in the woods at the end of our lane. I took a cardboard box and a carrot, a stick and some string and set a trap. I hid behind the bushes waiting for that little black rabbit to come for the carrot - I was all of about eight years old and anything seemed possible.  I didn't catch the rabbit - but I did catch it from Mum when I wandered home with my arms full of bluebells from the woods.  She had no idea where I was and was worried sick!

We often gave her grief!  There was a pond in the field next to the house. It had been an ornamental pond, built when the old gasometer was pulled down. It was round.  There was an outer circle of shallow water and an inner pool of quite deep water. That pond was a source of wonderful fun!  Frogs laid their masses of jelly eggs in the shallow outer ring. We gathered the frog spawn and put it in jars, watching the tadpoles grow and hatch and turn into frogs. On the inner pool we used an old barn door as a raft and a long tree branch as a pole to play pirates and sail to the island in the middle. Falling in was always a danger for we who couldn't swim - but somehow we never did.

Well, there was one time... The pond had been drained so that it could be cleaned. All that was left of the deep pool was about half a foot of thick greeny black ooze. The outer ring was full of water, just about to the calves of my legs - and it was frog spawn season. My very ladylike cousin Faith was visiting. Faith hated frogspawn.  It was icky and gooey and it made her squeal. So of course I had to fill my hands with it and chase her screaming around the concrete ring that separated the shallow from the deep water.  Ted was standing in her way. Faith pushed past him. He fell into the ooze.  Oh my what a sight!  Black goo ran from his nose and ears, he was covered head to foot in green slime.  Mother was not impressed. I got the blame as always... but it was worth it!

The hospital was enormous, and completely self sufficient. Besides its own Chapel, there were four farms, a power station, engineering works, garden nursery, shops, kitchens, stores, sewerage works, morgue, crematorium... even its own railway. Ted and I lived an adventurous childhood. We roamed the farmlands, climbed trees in the woodlands, scrambled around the banks of the brooks and ponds, rode the railway on the engine footplate, sailed rafts made from old barn doors on the lakes and had a host of other adventures that children wouldn't be permitted to consider today.

Were there no dangerous patients there?  Yes there were. There were quite a number of the criminally insane, detained at Her Majesties pleasure. We never saw them, nor were we even aware that they existed.  There were wards that were locked and barred, but they were not on our visiting list.

We had rules - speak only to people you know, take no unwrapped sweets, stay together and whenever you see Queeny, curtesy.

Queeny was a very large lady.She wore a white kitchenmaid's uniform and a black beret (she was completely bald) and she believed she was the Queen. So, when you met Queeny, you curtsied.

We accepted this as if it were quite the normal thing, just as we accepted Jimmy's strange whooping noises and his incessant juggling. Jimmy was a patient who worked for Dad. He was our friend. He adored us. Most of our toys; dolls houses, farms, forts, miniature ironing boards, wooden animals and soldiers, were made by Jimmy. He was a master with his hands. Jimmy was also our protector and bodyguard. Any patients that he thought might harm us were quickly seen off with a flea in their ear. Mum and Dad enjoyed life at the hospital too. There was an active Social Club and an Amateur Theatre Group in the local village. Mum and Dad were both talented actors. Dad particularly was a fine comedian.
The hospital produced a Pantomime each year. It had a wonderful reputation. The costumes, scenery and props were all produced in the hospital workshops. The orchestra was made up of patients and staff and the cast and orchestra was entirely made up of patients and staff. Mind you we had some very talented patients and staff. One patient who took a comedy part every year in the Panto was the father of the famous English comedienne, Hilda Baker.

Running for a week before Christmas, the Whittingham Hospital Pantomime drew crowds from all over the County. Dad was always the Widow Twanky, or the silly Policeman. In the year before we left Whittingham, I trod the boards with him, as Jack, in Jack and Jill. My Dad was my mother - the Widow Twanky. My favourite of all Dad's roles was PC49 in Aladdin.

In 1957, a decision was made to unlock the security wards where the criminally insane were housed. It was time to leave Whittingham. It would no longer be a safe place, my parents felt, to bring up a teenage daughter.

Don Heggie had been urging Dad and Mum to emigrate, to make a better life for all of us in Australia. When, finally, after 5 years of trying, the approval for us to emmigrate was given in 1958, we packed our bags and our 10 teachests, sold what we couldn't bring and left England behind.

Dad was 32, Mum turned 32 on board the ship. They had little money, two children aged 12 and 8 and knew one person in all of Australia. Theirs was that same brand of courage that brought the settlers of the 1800s to the Great South Land.

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