'Tis the season to be indulgent', as the old carol goes, and so I'm posting an extract from 'Nanny 1897 – 1991 An Uncommon Woman', which was written about my grandmother, Hilda Hill, by my uncle, Noel Hill, after her death.
In the early days we always went to my father's parents' home for Christmas Day. Nanny Hill, or Big Nanny as we called her, was a tall, rather elegant kind of woman, in contrast to my mother's mother who was short and stocky with a ramrod back, and who, as was appropriate, laboured under the title of Little Nanny. Whilst Little Nanny was less well endowed with culinary skills, Big Nanny was an excellent cook and as a devout Anglo-Catholic had the additional advantage of having no inhibitions about feasting at the appropriate time in the liturgical calendar. At Christmas time her table groaned with the weight of her provisions, and it is not just the quantity that I recall. My father's forebears had been farmers and Grampy Hill loved good food which Fanny Tutton, his wife, knew how to provide. She was one of 16 children, most of whom were girls. Her sisters were called by names such as Rose and Polly and Nellie, and wore long frocks and black bands around their throats. Although my great-grandfather had been but a farm worker, all these girls spoke well and knew how to conduct themselves with refinement, for the Tuttons had had little option but to place them all in service as they reached 13 or 14 years of age, if only to free bedroom space for their burgeoning family. When the girls married, however, it was to boys appropriate to their original station in life. I have this abiding memory of my great-uncles and -aunts – the men all stout Somerset yeomen speaking with broad accents in which the sound of the letter 'z' supplants that of the 's', whilst their wives all sounded like ladies of leisure and insisted that my name was pronounced 'Noelle' and not 'Nole'. The lives of these most impressive ladies seemed to be dedicated to the fruitless task of improving their menfolk.
We would arrive at Big Nanny's shortly before lunch (dinner). My father would take a glass with his parents but Big Nanny would instruct Grampy not to offer Hilda the sherry since it would be a waste. (Her teetotal tendencies were viewed with approbation at my Little grandparents, with disdain at the Bigger edition.) I need hardly describe the Christmas dinner, except to refer to some of the little touches, like the chestnut stuffing, the giblet gravy, the pudding flamed with brandy and stuffed with silver thru'penny bits, and plated mince tart with clotted cream. I will not dwell on the presents after dinner, the carols we small children sang to the grown-ups – three or four of us lined up with our backs to Big Nanny's larder door, our tummies full and the grown-ups even fuller, and all of them trying to stay awake and show proper appreciation of our discordant renderings of 'Away in a Manger' and 'Whilst Shepherds Watched', with my mother, the most alert for having supplemented her meal with lemonade rather than more dissolute beverages, acting as a prompter and mouthing every word as we sang.
I shall also pass over the tea, excepting perhaps to mention Big Nanny's home-made blackcurrant jelly on freshly-made crusty bread with thick butter and scald cream or the junkets lightly sprinkled with nutmeg, because I am impatient to get to the supper, for on Christmas Day we stayed up for supper and Big Nanny's were well worth staying up for. Cold meats were at the core of the meal and extended well beyond the remnants of the turkey. Big Nanny could cook a 'fore spur' (pronounced 'forceburr', a West Country term for the foreleg of a cured pig) so that it tasted better than
I must have been about nine years of age, by which time I had five brothers and sisters. Grampy Hill would have been 'getting on in years', as they say, and whilst he dearly loved his grandchildren, it was a bit thick having six of the little so-and-sos round your backside all day. They never stopped talking and fancy having to listen to them sing carols just after dinner when a man ought to be having a nap. He had tried to have a word with his son, Jack, and had said 'Now look here, my zunner (he called anyone he liked 'my son', be they male or female, only it always came out as 'my zunner') don't 'ee think five little 'uns is enough?' but Jack hadn't listened and now they had this new baby, Mollie, and he just didn't know how it was all going to end. Grampy just about survived the day; well, at least until supper time.
Now to have proper sympathy with my grandfather you really should have met him, but since you didn't, I should try to describe him. He was not very tall – perhaps 5'8", but a well-made man of substantial girth and weighing in at about 16 stone. He had ginger hair fading to silver at the sides and still had a good head of hair to the day he died. He boasted a large, ginger moustache that prickled when he kissed you. His complexion was ruddy, his eyes blue and his hands huge and horny. He was a carpenter by trade and could do wonders with those hands, including measuring saw cuts by holding up his thumb, closing one eye and estimating the required length. He could also hold a piece of cheese in his palm and pare it with a pocket knife, putting the cheese to his mouth on the knife blade, to Big Nanny's everlasting shame and disgust. He drank cider from a huge mug, slurped as he drank it and smacked his lips with relish at anything that pleased his palate. I always picture him dressed in a light brown pair of dungarees, the kind with bib and braces, over a collarless shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, although on Christmas Day his discomfiture with his numerous grandchildren was compounded by the stiff white collar and suit Big Nanny insisted he wore.
Like so many men of his era and age, Grampy Hill was a creature of habit who viewed with disfavour any attempt to change his ways. Big Nanny was the proud possessor of a rather fine mahogany, Regency, twin-pedestal dining table which, with leaf in, accommodated us all for supper. Grampy had an equally fine, spoke-backed oak carver which was his chair at its head, and although it did not match the table, he defied anyone to say so. On this fatal Christmas Day, because of the growing number of Jack and Hilda's children, the beloved chair was removed by Big Nanny and a bench introduced. Grampy Hill was banished to the settle along the long wall of the dining room. The settle was rather low, Grampy's tummy was rather large, the kids had been getting on his nerves since teatime and his face was purple, his countenance dejected. Big Nanny was on her feet organising us all (she organised everything) when Grampy disappeared beneath the table. Big Nanny adjusted her spectacles (she did not use a lorgnette, but Big Nanny could make the most ordinary pair of spectacles look like one) and in her haughty and refined voice proclaimed 'Tom, what on earth are you doing?' We had already detected Grampy-like grunts from between the claw-footed pedestals of the table and then one of my grandfather's huge hands appeared above the sparkling white tablecloth and dripped freshly-made Colman's English mustard upon it and a voice from below deck thundered 'Mustard! Shit!' My grandfather had dropped the rather oversized mustard pot beneath the table, failed to recover it by groping whilst seated, had slid beneath the table and put his fingers straight into the mustard. We were never asked for Christmas again.
Lest you think the slightest evil of my paternal grandparents, let me just add that they were the very salt of the earth. They were pillars of their parish church where my grandfather served for years as a sidesman. My grandmother was a great seamstress and would darn clothes until there was more darn than cloth. She did most of my mother's mending, searched church sales for frocks for the girls, and was like a family nurse in dispensing medicaments to us all if we had a cold or a cough. Amongst Big Nanny's potions was a cough mixture called Syrup of Squills and Fox's Lung Tonic. It was quite pleasant to the taste and I could usually muster a sufficiently harrowing cough to be invited to take a teaspoonful of what I thought for years was syrup of squirrels and foxes' lungs.
Without the support of their relations, I think my parents would have been hard-pressed to rear their enormous flock. I don't know what their financial input was, although it could only have been modest, for both sets of grandparents were of humble means, but I did see the gifts they lovingly bore to Douglas Road and I can see Grampy Hill now, puffing in through the back gate on his bike with the two quarts of skim milk he brought up for his grandchildren most days, and sometimes sprats caught by his brother-in-law Joe at Clevedon, or a joint of meat he had purchased cheaply, late on a Saturday night. I also knew that despite the burden of his eldest son's brood, Tom and Fanny Hill helped another family in their Church all through the Great Depression when the breadwinner fell out of work.
This good man died in agony with cancer of the bowel, but as I walked away from his house a day or so later, a perfect stranger asked me whether I was Tom Hill's grandson, and when I said I was, he said, 'If you grow up half as good as he was, you'll be alright, my son'. I thanked him and walked on, only to be accosted by another stranger who said almost precisely the same thing.
They say that I look like him and even more like his brother who died not long after I was born. At the age of 23 I called on a farmer in Gloucestershire called Ford. As I walked towards him, a look of apprehension crossed his face and he said, 'Don't say anything – your name is Hill, isn't it?' When I agreed, he said 'Lord bless me, you nearly scared me to death, I thought old Billie Hill was walking through my gate and he's been dead for nigh on 20 years.' He was talking of my great-uncle, whom I had never seen but who had farmed next to Ford before the latter moved to Gloucestershire from