by Chris Cowland –
Huddled up in quarantine a few months ago reminded me of some childhood memories. Sometimes in life you want to be safe, and alone.
I was born shortly after the Second World War, and air raid shelters were a common sight, although by 1952 they had fallen into disuse. The big threat at the time was the Cold War, and when Kennedy faced up to Russia during the Cuba crisis, many people revisited their underground cocoons and started stocking up with cans of food and propane stoves, just in case a nuclear bomb were to be dropped on London. The television and newspapers would feature what they called the “Doomsday Clock,” which was just a few minutes before midnight. Daily events would advance or turn back the clock, but it was pretty worrying for me as a child, or even into my 20s.
I was about 12 when I first explored an air raid shelter. I lived in a small village called Eton Wick, and it was a mile or so away from the famous Eton College. I would hang out with a small group of schoolfriends, and one day Kenny (he was the one with the Mini with concrete sills when he was older – see my November 2018 column) announced that he had come across an air raid shelter tucked away in Eton College. We jumped on our bikes and headed over. Barry stood as lookout while Ken, Gary and I surreptitiously slid through a college Master’s back garden and opened the old, creaky door. It was pitch black, nobody had brought a flashlight, and we could hear the rustling of rats in the background. Once our eyes got used to the darkness, we could vaguely make out some wooden racks, and to our immense delight we discovered that they held numerous bottles of wine.
We grabbed one each (it’s hard to ride a bike holding any more), plus one for Barry, and headed off into the countryside. Luckily Gary had a Swiss Army knife with a corkscrew, and we spent the next 10 minutes extracting the mouldy cork from the first bottle. Imagine the anticipation of having your first illicit taste of real alcohol … .
Gary took the first swig, and sprayed the rest of us with a very expensive vinegar. The wine had probably been there since 1945, but the intervening 21 years had not been kind. The other bottles were identically terrible.
But the idea of a quarantine nest stayed with me. We discovered a few other spots that might have worked. Close by that shelter, there is a small pond beside Baldwin’s Shore. If you climb over the fence, shimmy down a wall and open a metal door, there are two tunnels that go under Eton High Street, with a metal grating on the sidewalk on the other side of the road. We would wait until pedestrians were passing overhead, and would make werewolf howling noises from below, and then giggle like schoolboys (hey, why not?) at the reactions.
The theme of these memories is hidden safe places.
We did not contemplate hoarding 100 rolls of toilet paper and we had no idea how long we would have to survive in our nest until it was safe to emerge, but isn’t it interesting to see how things have re-emerged? The more things change, the more they stay the same …