Memories of Robert Holder, born 1937

My name is Robert Owen Holder, I was born on 6th June 1937, the seventh of eight children all born in the Lodge, Cheltenham. My father was Frederick William Holder and he was the Park Keeper of the Agg Garden Recreation Ground. The Lodge was a substantial brick-built building, built in Victorian times on the edge of the grounds to house the keeper.

My father had been keeper for some time when I was born. He had served in the First World War, Gloucester regiment, entering as a farrier, caring for horses from the knee down, but ended up fighting on the Somme with his brother Harry who was killed in the last days of the war. Harry’s name is on the Cheltenham War Memorial on the Promenade.

My father had been born on a smallholding and could turn his hands to most things. His job was to see to the security and general maintenance of the grounds. Each morning he would cycle round to unlock the three gates and again in the evening to lock them. He would see to the planting out of the flower beds at the main entrance, the marking out of the football and cricket pitches and the upkeep of the sports pavilion. He would also make sure the paddling pool and children’s playground were in good order.

My memories of the Lodge and the grounds are those of a young child. I think I lived there until I was nine or ten. It was situated off Marle Hill Road. There were large wooden gates, allowing vehicle access. A smaller wooden gate opened to a small front garden in front of the lodge. We would enter through the front door. The hall led to a toilet, a cold storage cupboard and a pantry with marble topped shelves. You then entered the kitchen which had a long pale yellow sink with a cold tap above. There was a fireplace in one corner. A large copper bowl was situated above this. Water was put into the bowl and heated by fire. This was used for washing and for laundry. There was a mangle with adjustable rollers. By the time I was born a gas cooker was in place. You went through the kitchen to the living room. This still had the original black cast-iron range. The fire in the range was the main source of heating. I do not remember the ovens being used. The fire was sometimes covered in slack (black coal-dust) so that it burned very slowly. We also burnt fallen wood from the grounds. On the wall was a photo of Uncle Harry in his army uniform, wearing his peaked cap. There was another of my mother as a young woman and this was colour-tinted.

A small front room was approached from the hall. This had a piano with a stool containing sheet music. The stairs curved up to the three bedrooms. There was no bathroom. 

I was still a very small child when the Second World War started. My two older brothers served in the armed forces. Fred was in the Royal Marines and was on the Edinburgh when it suffered a direct hit. He woke up in a Russian hospital with a badly injured leg. His leg was scarred and he walked with a slight limp for the rest of his life. Len was in the Royal Air Force. Once bombing started two concrete air raid shelters were built in the grounds, but I cannot remember them being used. Our family sheltered under the kitchen table. There was a direct hit on the paddling pool and my father kept a piece of the bomb casing under the stairs as a souvenir. 

My younger brother Ron and I enjoyed the freedom of the Rec grounds and roamed over all of it. We, together with our elder sister Pam, were the last of the eight children still living in the Lodge. Eventually I, then Ron, went to nearby St Paul’s school.

I have many memories of my Cheltenham childhood. On entering the Rec there was an elaborate drinking fountain. You walked up the steps to reach the four iron cups which were suspended on chains.

Ron and I would take our sweet coupons to the corner shop, Mabel’s. This was a small house partly converted into a shop. We would buy sherbert dips, Spanish liquorice and nipons. Nipons were cough sweets, which were not on ration. Some of the sweets were a farthing each or a ha’penny. The correct amount of coupons were cut out for each transaction.

An Austin seven was parked in Marle Hill Drive. It was the only car around for miles. I think it belonged to a lady who was a local headteacher. Petrol was still rationed and there were few private cars.

The Sabatella family had an ice-cream shop in the Lower High Street. Throughout the summer Mrs Sabatella would push a hand-decorated ice cream cart complete with a canopy to the gates of the Rec. Dad would ask us to take a jug of tea out to her. She would then give us ice cream in exchange.

My father had a large allotment close to the pavilion. In the summer he grew strawberries along one side. Ron and I would creep in to enjoy them.

Sometimes Edwards funfair would visit. Ron and I enjoyed the stalls, the carousel and the dodgems. Even better, the circus would come sometimes. First a procession of the animals in their cages and the circus folk would come down Marle Hill Road and into the Rec. There was great excitement when the big top was erected.

I visit Cheltenham regularly and of course walk through Pittville Park to the Recreation ground which is now part of the park. It is strange to see the quiet fields.

Robert Holder