Last week we spent a sunny Easter Sunday at home. We ate roast lamb in the garden, we had an Easter egg hunt, we went for a walk. As always happens on such occasions my thoughts wandered back to my own childhood and the memories of Easter days gone by filled my head. So this week, rather than delving into the world of Charles Dickens, I thought I would be more self indulgent and share my memories with you.
As we came downstairs to breakfast the table would be groaning under an impossible weight of chocolate eggs. It makes me positively ill now to think about how much there was. There were luridly wrapped eggs from Cadbury’s containing buttons, and there were beautifully crafted chocolate animals wrapped in transparent cellophane. The sound of that cellophane rustle was like no other, and comes clearly to me now, all these years on.
Breakfast itself was made up of ham, toast and boiled eggs but before we could eat the latter we would decorate them. Each of us had a tea towel so as not to burn our fingers and then as soon as the eggs were out of the boiling water we would scrawl patterns on with felt-tipped pens. Some of us decorated them in the style of a wrapped Easter egg with colourful chevrons, circles and stripes, others created faces representing those who sat around the table (dad with his big red beard was easy!), others drew countryside scenes with trees, fences and soaring birds in the sky. My brother Ian was always the most artistic (he would go on to study photography at the Medway College of Art and Design).
Either mum must have had a brilliant sixth sense about the cooking of eggs, or we drew very quickly, because by the time we had finished our masterpieces and had proudly shown them to the rest of the family amid guffaws of laughter, the yolks inside were never over done and oozed glutinously to obscure our artwork forever.
After breakfast (and I imagine we were allowed to make a start on the chocolate, even at such an early hour), we would set to carefully decorating more eggs, this time hard boiled, ready for the next part of our day – the pace-egging ceremony staged in the Calverley Grounds.
Tunbridge Wells is an interesting town whose fluctuating historical fortunes are displayed in a geographical timeline. The first iteration of a settlement came in 1606 when Dudley Lord North, a dashing young nobleman from the court of King James 1, stumbled over a natural spring which stained the soil around it red. With a knowledge of the sciences Dudley recognised this as an iron-rich spring and having taken a long draft of the cool water realised that this would be a perfect spot for the London gentry to spend their summers.
Over the next hundred years or so the wells near Tonbridge grew in popularity and a town grew up that rivalled Bath in its respectability. However when the Prince Regent built his magnificent Pavilion in Brighton the nobility decided that sea bathing was much more efficacious and the little spring at the bottom of the hill fell into obscurity.
The village of Tunbridge Wells bumbled on until a dashing high flying- architect decided to reinvigorate it. Decimus Burton had already made his name by re-designing the great London Parks as well as creating The Marble Arch which would eventually form an impressive gateway to Buckingham Palace. His plan for Tunbridge Wells was to ignore the original settlement in the valley but to build a brand new town at the top of the hill with large villas, elegant town houses, impressive crescents and a beautiful park. The whole development was called the Calverley Project and the park became The Calverley Grounds.
Making use of the hillside the pleasure grounds boasted formal gardens at the top and a bandstand in the bottom of the natural amphitheatre. Generations of respectable folk strolled in the gardens and sat in deck chairs on a Summer Sunday listening to brass bands playing.
The Calverley Grounds also were a perfect setting for the annual Pace Egging ceremony which was organised by the local morris dancing side, The Royal Borough Morris, which soon became part of our Easter tradition. The crowds would start to gather around the bandstand at around 10am, and soon after the first dances would begin. White hankies were waved and rustic sticks cracked together showering the audience with splinters. A terrifying hobbyhorse made out of a genuine painted horse skull crept up behind unsuspecting watchers and snapped its jaws shut with a loud ‘CLACK’ eliciting screams and laughter.
When the first set of dances were complete the egg games would begin. Firstly any children with a decorated egg would be invited forward and the individual judged as the best would be declared the winner and awarded a chocolate egg (more chocolate!). I was fortunate to win on one occasion and the victory pose was recorded on film:
After the eggs had been judged it was time for the main event, the egg rolling competition.
Egg rolling has its routes in a pagan ceremony welcoming the spring and celebrating re-birth but the tradition had also been adopted by the Christian faith to represent the rolling away of the stone from Jesus Christ’s tomb on the day of his resurrection
Such historical detail meant nothing to the children in the Calverley Grounds as all of the participants climbed to the top of the hill, stood behind a rope and on the shouted command ‘GO’ rolled the eggs. It may sound simple but there was quite an art to the egg rolling. The prize went to the egg which went furthest so the sensible thing to do was to throw it as hard as possible, but the rules specified that the egg had to be largely unbroken, so a gentle roll was maybe the way to go. The winner was somebody who could balance these two techniques, who could send the egg skimming over the grass in a sort of Barnes Wallace bouncing bomb style.
As soon as the eggs had been rolled or thrown we all rushed down the hill trampling our rivals’ efforts on the way. With my grown up head on now I cannot imagine how difficult the task of cleaning up after the event would have been, or how detestable the sulphurous odour of rotten eggs must have been in the weeks following.
Once the winner had been announced and they had been awarded with, guess what, a chocolate egg, so the Mummers play would be performed in front of the bandstand. We loved the stock characters of good St George, the doctor and the evil Turk. When George was slain the doctor would try to revive him by pouring an elixir (ale) into his throat via a large funnel and length of rubber tubing. When this treatment proved unsuccessful the doctor decreed that the only cure possible was the kiss from a princess and he would run into the crowd and pull out some young beauty who would be encouraged to place a kiss on the lips of the patient. Naturally George would wake and all of the other characters would fall flat on their backs, necessitating a kiss for each from the poor girl. It never changed and we loved it.
After some more dancing we drifted home and got ready for our Easter lunch of roast lamb and all the trimmings.
I remember that one year my eldest sister Liz indulged me by agreeing to perform a special morris dance for the rest of the family. Unfortunately all of the chocolate that I had consumed during the morning was having a most unfortunate effect on my tummy and instead of the traditional accordion and fiddle accompaniment I seemed to have provided an entire flatulent brass section complete with rather unpleasant odours to boot. When Liz complained I reassured her: ‘don’t worry, it only happens when I’ve eaten chocolate and when I jump up and down!’ Morris dancing on Easter Sunday wasn’t the perfect time to test this theory….
Sadly it seems now that The Calverley Grounds is to be redeveloped once more. The beautiful slopes down which we rolled eggs, the bandstand around which we gathered, the Victorian pavilion that served teas are all due to be flattened to make way for a brand new council office block. Of course progress is inevitable and I am sure that Decimus Burton’s Calverley Project plans met with an outcry too, but this will be a tragic loss to the town which I will always regard as home.
In the afternoon came the Easter egg hunt. Whilst we made inroads into yet more chocolate the curtains would be closed and Dad went into the garden to hide hundreds of mini eggs. He loved it when Easter fell later in the spring because there were lots of flowers in bloom within which he could cunningly disguise the prizes. There were standard places that we knew and would instantly head for: the bumper of the car and the plastic handle of the wheelbarrow. A curled piece of hosepipe was perfect as was a little stack of terra cotta flowerpots. But each year there would be new hiding places and fifty-odd years on I now realise how seemingly lazily untidied rubbish had in fact been carefully laid in place weeks before in readiness for the great day.
When the hiding was complete we would be led to the back door clasping bowls and with our eyes closed (maybe even blindfolded) until the starting order was given and there was a rush to pick up the first egg.
My sister Nicky always won. Always. Every Year. If we were to hold a family Easter reunion and stage another egg hunt I am sure that she would still win. How did Nicky do it? Well quite simply she was more focussed, more competitive, more stealthy than the rest of us. There was never any hint of cheating, or barging her competitors out of the way as they headed for an egg. Nope, she was just brilliant at finding tiny foil-wrapped eggs. And playing card games. And board games. The same qualities and her attention to detail have turned her into an astounding businesswoman who has created the most amazing bar and restaurant in Ireland.
In preparing this piece Nicky kindly sent me pictures from her photo album, the above one captioned ‘Me winning Easter egg hunt’ was sent four times just to make sure I had it. That competitive drive still runs deep!
And so our Easter day drifted from afternoon into evening and I cant recall any specific details of that time but I am sure that it involved yet more consumption of chocolate, if there were any left.
On the Easter Monday we would pack a huge picnic (mum’s picnics were extraordinary creations!) into our mustard yellow Hillman Hunter estate, or later into our midnight blue Chrysler Alpine, or later still into our gold Vauxhall and head off to the local point-to-point races, where we would park right next to one of the jumps and watch as powerful horses with brightly attired jockeys on their backs thundered past throwing great clods of earth into the air.
The state of the weather was immaterial and if the wind blew and the rain lashed down dad simply rigged up some old sheets of tarpaulin on some cut tree branches (tied with knots perfected during his days in the Royal Navy), onto our car thereby fashioning a shelter for our feast.
When the racing started we would study the listings for each event and chose our favourites to cheer on based purely on a name we liked. We were even occasionally allowed to place a 50p bet with one of the bookies who stood in front of their little stalls waving their arms about using the traditional tic-tac sign language to communicate.
The race was held on farmland and the toilet facilities were basic in the extreme meaning that many people preferred to use a nearby Bluebell wood for quick relief. One year a member of our party attending the races for the first time decided that she would do the same and disappeared among the trees, only to hear an indignant voice barking at her in the tones of a retired military officer ‘Excuse ME! Don’t you know, this is the GENTLEMAN’S wood?!’
Such happy memories from more innocent times.
Thanks to Ian and Nicky for the pictures and in loving memory of Dad, Mum and Liz