“And I Name This Ship”: A tale of cola, rafts, ladybirds and…

There’s always something interesting about snippets of local history, whether old or recent, in the way they provide insights into the other people’s lives whilst adding colour and character to the places we know well. We’ve been asking you to submit your Twickenham memories on our “social history page” and we’ve had some great insights. With this particular tale we thought we’d give it an airing on the front page too. We’ve got all the classic ingredients: childhood memories, a long hot summer and a great local pub. And so, in this guest post, long term Twickenham and Teddington resident Dominique sketches a portrait of school holidays 1970s style in…

Cola, Rafts and Ladybirds

The White Swan

The White Swan

During the long hot summer of 1976 I spent as much time as possible at the White Swan pub in Twickenham; not because I was a kid who liked a pint in the heat, but because my best mate Vicky lived above the smoke-filled bar with her family.

There was a lot of fun to be had and mischief to get into over the river, away from grown-ups, and fuelled by bags of crisps. Another year and I’d be embarking upon the much trickier secondary stage of schooling; but now I had 6 weeks of glorious carefree holiday stretching ahead of me. Nothing could be better than spending it with Vicky at the pub. So I took myself off regularly at weekends, sometimes during the week too, and almost certainly outstayed my welcome.

The familiar 281 bus journey from Teddington was stickily hot. People fanned themselves or hung out the back of the route-master to catch a draft of two-strokey air. I arrived at the pub, just a carrier bag in hand with a nylon nightie in it and a toothbrush. The wonderful prospect of sitting on the slipway steps, a bottle of coke in hand was only minutes away. Vicky and I would sit there, flares rolled up, legs in the water to cool off, surrounded by the reassuring smell of the evaporating murky river, that rose in feathered waves as flies nipped at our sweaty heads.

On one particular day, we decided to bother Mr Hastings the ferryman who rowed the huge wooden ferry-boat from the bottom of Lebanon Park over to the concrete steps on the opposite bank. Mr Hastings was a flame-haired, kindly man with huge forearms, and a sprinkling of freckles across his smiling face. He wore suit trousers, a waistcoat and a clean white shirt with rolled sleeves. He was often accompanied by 3 red-headed sons with similar freckles and good natures.

“Can we row the boat today Mr H?” we asked.
“What’s that funny smell, Mr H, is it your oily rollocks?!”
“Now now girls,” Mr Hastings would counter, “Where’re you off to today then?”
“Dunno, just over the water please, we’re collecting ladybirds,” we told him.

Vicky and I had the foresight to bring two takeaway trays to collect the ladybirds. There was a huge abundance of them that year; they were everywhere, perhaps brought on by the heat and additional sticky aphids. They’d land, do an orangey coloured poo and bite you surprisingly painfully – all part of the charm. Once on the other side amongst the tall dry grasslands, dotted red with the insects, we quickly collected dozens in our trays, and as they started to escape because we’d neglected to bring lids, we pinned the upturned trays full of glistening bodies to our tummies, getting bitten by escapees. Mr Hastings rowed us back and waved away our promise to pay him back because we’d lost the fare in the long grass.

Later, on the shore opposite the pub, we found a wooden loading-palette, and decided to make a raft. We collected some old tyres from the garage, a length of frayed rope, a big lump of cracked cork – which we sawed in two. We added a scuffed buoy and began to piece our raft together. We were aiming for the sort of craft Robinson Crusoe would have been proud to sail away from his island on.

Vicky’s little brother helped out too, until he got fed up with our girlish bossiness. Some of the White Swan punters came over to lend a hand, and at last it was finished. We were assured, by ourselves, that it would float a treat. Before launching our wonderful raft on the waves, we fashioned a name-sign out of hardboard and lashed it to the tail end with elastic bands.

“What shall we call it then?” Vicky enquired.
“How about The Raft? No, no, I know – The Swan!” I said waving a hand at our creation.
“Nah, that’s silly,” Vicky scoffed. “It should be something personal, like The DV after you and me.”
“But that sounds like we’re saying it’s divvy or stupid, we can’t call it that!” I moaned.
“Well then, it’s obvious,” Vicky said, “It’ll just have to be… The VD,” she said importantly!
“Brilliant,” I said, “Got any paint?”

Back in the garage we found some old bitumen and a brush. We returned to the shoreline and daubed in big letters The VD. The lettering dribbled blackly down the board.

“Let’s show your Mum,” I said enthusiastically, noticing her watering the flower boxes in the upstairs windows.
“Mum, Mum,” Vicky shouted across the road. The drinkers in the garden now looking round.
“We’ve built a raft – it’s really cool,” I proclaimed.
Vicky added “And we’ve given it a name and everything. It’s called…”
The VD!” I piped in.

Vicky’s mum was silent for a moment, then stuck her head further out of the window. In a loud whisper she responded, “Erm, you can’t call it that, think of something else. How about The DV?”
Crest-fallen we explained the genius of the name we had chosen.
“It’s better as The VD,” we insisted.
A few punters jeered.
“No,” Vicky’s Mum whispering more loudly, “You really, can’t call it that!”
“But why?” we wailed.
Cue more merriment from the drinkers.
“Well,” Vicky’s mum continued, “VD is a… a disease in your bottom!” she hissed loudly, watering can still in hand.
“Oh!” we chorused, profoundly disappointed.

Turning to each other we removed the sign from the twanging bands and turned it around. Somewhat less enthusiastically we re-painted it The DV, knowing in our hearts that this was indeed a ‘divvy’ name to call a raft; a raft which bobbed around slightly submerged as we pushed it into the water and climbed shakily aboard. Once we’d sat down, we felt it tip ever so slowly backwards, soaking our trousers and forcing us to lumber clumsily off the ailing vessel. Now sloshing in the shallows it was time to abandon ship, and go inside for Crispy Pancakes, oodles more cola and a game of Mousetrap with Vicky’s little brother.

The DV‘s maiden voyage had been a failure, but whether The VD would have fared any better, I cannot be sure but somehow I think it’s highly unlikely.

D. Holt. 2013

* Memories: The twickerati social history page
* Dominique Holt, Artist


Filed under Features, Random Stuff

5 responses to ““And I Name This Ship”: A tale of cola, rafts, ladybirds and…

  1. Anonymous

    The White Swan annual raft race lives on.Was this how it all began?

  2. Dominique

    Recalling the heat-wave of 1976 has brought home just how carefree that time was. Despite what we have learned recently about the dangers around in the 1970’s from apparent ‘predatory celebrities’, or parents like mine who chain-smoked next to their children, at the time I had a real sense of freedom. I could cycle my bike for miles at a time without fear of traffic, my friends and I would roam the streets and chat to anyone we cared to without our parents worrying. Above all we were outdoors all the time; and apart from hours’ TV after school, we’d be out, often out until it got dark. I regularly hung about the beautiful grasslands by the river until the sun began to set, somehow I can’t imagine a 9 or 10 year old doing this today, and I can only wonder at what people would say about the parents who allowed their child to do this now?

    My own children have a fraction of the freedom I had at the same age. My 10 year old boy’s friends are generally not allowed out with, say, just a friend. They’ve rarely experienced being by themselves in a park, on a street, a bus or a bike at any time of the day. Yet, it’s often reported that there are no more inherent dangers to children from stranger-danger now than there was in the past (I’ve looked for stats on this and it seems unclear). What has changed, is parents’ perception of the potential dangers to their children and I guess we have the media to thank for that. Having said this, the traffic problem is definitely worse, but does this justify how much we shelter our children in 2013? We keep them indoors with us; all too often looking at a screen. Why don’t we let our 9 and 10 year old children go out freely, exploring the world around them enjoying something of the discovery of nature, learning about themselves and the people around them? I include myself in this question, why don’t I do this – let my children have anything like the freedom to roam I had? Because I know they are, quite simply, missing out.

  3. Anonymous

    Nice to read about children enjoying a bit of freedom. I wonder how many modern parents would be happy about letting their 10 year old children play around on the river, building rafts and talking to adults who weren’t either family or close friends. It’s strange how we often talk about children growing up more quickly these days with their gadgets, music, fashions and the impact of TV but in their younger years they have a lot less freedom than most of their parents did.

  4. Pat Pending

    Great memories. These days you would need 3 people to build the raft for the same result, Susan, Tania & Debbie. That’s progress for you.