The eyes have it . . . or do they. . .

During school assembly in March of 1959 when I was still fourteen, the headmaster of my school asked if anyone wished to take an examination to enter a merchant navy officer-training establishment called HMS Conway.

I discussed this opportunity with my parents, because I planned to stay another year to gain nationally recognised educational certificates in various subjects before applying for  a job. The extra year at school would take me to July 1960 when I would be sixteen, and looking for a job.
Most of my class friends planned to leave in July 1959 (when they were fifteen) to take up apprenticeships, working in the local shipyard or Port Sunlight soap works. None of which attracted me, which is why I wanted to stay on the extra year to take the examinations. The thought of going to sea and seeing the world suddenly became my desire.

My parents agreed that I could attempt the examination, which required a weekend at Plas Newydd (HMS Conway’s facility) on the island of Anglesey, in North Wales.

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Plas Newydd the home of the Marquis of Anglesey.

In addition to being the Marquis’ home part of the house was used by HMS Conway’s captain, Captain Hewitt and his wife, as well as first term junior cadets.

The examination had several written parts as well as an oral examination. I suppose the oral part was to see what we looked like, and if we were aware of world events.

It was weeks before I was told to report to HMS Conway for the weekend of examination, and further weeks before I received a letter of acceptance, and my father received notification that I had been awarded a scholarship, because Conway was a fee-paying school.
Overall the planning and waiting took months, and it wasn’t until close to Christmas 1959 that I was told that if I was able to pass the eye sight tests then I would be join HMS Conway for the September term in 1960.

I had to take the eye test at the Ministry of Transport in Liverpool, (UK), because all merchant navy deck officers had to have 20 / 20 vision and were not allowed to wear spectacles. Besides the traditional word chart and the colour chart,  Blind

to make sure I wasn’t colour blind (a deck officer could not be colour blind), I was given a test in a very dark room, where I was required to spot red, green and white pin pricks of lights as if I was on the bridge of a ship. The positioning of the lights would allow a lookout or the officer of the watch, to know the general direction of the other vessel.
I was able to see some of the lights, but not all and I failed the test.

Eye test fail 001As I left the testing centre I was given the above form that stated that I had failed, but if I wished to challenge this result I could apply to London for a more detailed test at my own expense. If I were successful in the London test, all of my expenses would be reimbursed.

After discussing the failed eyesight test with my father, I borrowed £5.00 from him (a weeks wages for an sixteen year old), for the return train ticket to London and the second eye test fee. I passed the London test.

Eye cert Pass 001

On returning to Liverpool I visited the MoT eye-testing centre to let them know that there was nothing wrong with my eyes. They asked me to take the test again, which I did, and failed again.
At this point someone had the bright idea to switch on the light in the testing room. I had been placed on a wooden box to view the screen, which showed the red, green and white lights, but because of my height (6 ft 1 inches) and being on top of the box, this made my eye level to be just beneath a cross-beam (the testing centre being in a basement).

On taking the test one was lead in to the testing room, which was in total darkness, and you were helped on to the viewing box. The idea of total darkness being that you would gain your night vision faster than being plunged in to darkness by switching off a light.

In the dark one has a tendency to sway slightly, because you do not have a point of reference on which to focus. The swaying was enough for me to see the lights some of the time, and not be able to see them other times, due to the beam! It made me wonder how many others had been failed, and accepted that they had an eye ‘problem’, and perhaps never going to sea, but ending up in a job that they hated.

At least I collected my £2.00 reimbursement for the second eye test, my train costs and 7/6d for my trouble. I returned the borrowed £5.00 to my father and kept the ‘profit’.

Wales – land of my mother

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I’ve always loved North & Mid Wales, perhaps because my mother was Welsh and only when the family moved from Caernarvon (Carnarfon to be PC) to Birkenhead, when she was thirteen, did she start to learn English. When my mother spoke of the move she would comment that she moved to England, which sounded strange to me as a child, because Caernarfon was only about eighty miles from Birkenhead, but it is in England so I suppose she was correct.

When Mum wanted to tell her sisters anything that I shouldn’t hear, it was always in Welsh, which was very convenient for them because they never had to whisper.

My grandfather had a butcher’s shop just off the Castle Square at 17, Pool St, which is now a branch of the Lloyds Bank

Lloyd and funny enough at 16 Pool St across the road is

Jones Dafid Wynn Jones the butcher!

It passed through my mind that perhaps the family lived across the road from their butcher shop, but I think it more likely that they would have lived over the shop, because I doubt that they were rich enough to have owned two properties, or even to have rented two properties.

My grandfather’s problem was that he had four daughters – my mother, born in 1909 was the youngest – but he didn’t have a son to take over the butchery shop. In the early part of the twentieth century, and living in Wales, daughters did not run or own a butchers shops. His other problem was his generosity – he allowed his customers to run up bills, because they were his friends, and as one would expect there came a time when his friends couldn’t pay for one reason or another. The mixture of poor payers and the lack of a male to carry on with the business was all too much, so the family ’emigrated’ to England.

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Castle Square around 1900

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Castle Square a hundred years later.

A short while before moving to England my mother’s eldest sister married a local man, so we always had a place to stay when on holiday.

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In the 1950’s I was old enough to be let out on my own and I spent hours in and around the castle. I became so well known at the castle that they gave me the same concession as a local – I was allowed in for nothing.
Later in life I revisited the castle, once in 2004 & again in 2008, (I paid each time) and I was very pleased to see that a lot of care and attention had been spent on the inside of the castle, because now it had become a major tourist attraction. Perhaps the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969 had helped create the demand. There have been two investitures in Caernarfon castle in the twentieth century, 1911 and 1969.

As a child the other attraction for me was swimming across the Aber River or this is what I thought the river was called. Later I found out that the river is called Seiont River and ‘aber’ is a Welsh word that means ‘river mouth’ in English, and for years I thought I’d swam the Aber River – we live an learn.

Swing bridgeThe old bridge that I used to cross the river and sometimes swim under when the tide was right.

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The new bridge installed in 1969

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All our yesterdays – I would dive in to the river from about this point and swim across to the trees – I could do it at ten, but I doubt that I’d do it now – too far.

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The red car is near where I was standing in the previous photo.

The first picture in this blog is of the Welsh flag flying over Harlech Castle, which is in mid-Wales. You can just see the sea, which used to lap the bottom of the battlements.

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It is now a long way from the sea. During a siege the castle was supplied by sea.

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The castle can just be seen – I had my back to the start of the sand hills, the sea was further away again from the sand hills.

Men of Harlech the original was as a poem, which was later set to music. In the film Zulu the song that the British (Welsh) soldiers sang was written especially for the film.

Rick Rescorla check this link for something different linked to the music of Men of Harlech and the terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York.

To drive from the mainland to Anglesey we would have to cross the Menai Straits.

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P5131829rBuilt by Telford and opened in 1826

Holiday 049rWhat ever the weather I never get tired of the scenery in Wales.

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I did manage to swim the Straits a couple of times, to the house on the other side, and back again, all in one go. At sixteen it seemed a good idea – I slept well that night.

The photo was taken from the Marquis of Anglesey’s home on the Anglesey side of the Straits.

As a child, North Wales was more than castles, bridges or swimming in rivers it meant Gronant, and beaches, where the sun always shined, the sand was clean and the water was warm.

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The boy on the left is yours truly abut 1953, my best mate, John, was three years older than me, but the age difference never bothered us, and we stayed friends for over sixty years – he died a couple of years ago.

We’d never heard of ‘flop flops’, you either had sandals or you went bare foot.

Gronant 1Try peddling these things across grass . . .

Gronant 3

I told you the water was warm . . . me on the right.

The accommodation at Rainford’s Holiday park was a wooden bungalow, which didn’t have running water or an indoor toilet. John and I had the job of keeping two large buckets full of fresh water for the kitchen which we hauled from a central tap. The public toilets were ‘dry’ toilets, so you only visited this area of the camp when you had to  . . ..

We spent a fortnight of living in shorts and running bare foot everywhere everyday unless we went in to Prestatyn for a knickerbocker glory.

knickerbockerglory_bluesmThe treat of the holiday, cost was 1/- when I first went to Prestatyn, (which was expensive, so it was a great treat), but over the  years the price grew to 2/6d by 1958, which, I think, was my last visit to this ice cream shop and my last visit to Gronant.

The whole experience of Gronant was the creation of great memories – we didn’t even have a radio never mind an iPad, smart phone, DVD player etc and our amusement from dawn to dusk was self created using twigs as guns for cowboys and indians and going mad by spending 6d for a bamboo poll with a net on the end so as to fish in the gully that ran from the shore to the sea. With hindsight we were fortunate in not catching anything, other than stings from nettles.