One of the treats that we looked forward to when we went to stay with our grandmother -
especially in the spring, was a trip to Poole Park. I remember it as spring, because the leaves
on the trees were yet to emerge fully and lying on my back on dry land once again, I could see
the blue sky and the sprays of cloud scudding across it, as I tried to stop the world spinning
The great attraction about Poole Park, was the lake and the opportunity to go out in a rowing
boat. It was a brisk morning, when with my brother, my mother and I seem to recall a cousin
and her mother, I succumbed to the greatest indignity of all – being seasick in a rowing boat at
My head felt light, I started to perspire heavily and I lay in the bottom of the boat praying that
we would reach the shore, not I should add very far distant at any time. Needless to say I was
dumped under a tree and the rowing boat made its way jerkily around the large pond – for that
in reality was what it was.
Full of waterfowl and home to ducks of different kinds, it was no more than a glorified pond
in the middle of the park. We liked to think of it as a lake however and the episode of ‘Peter
being seasick on the lake at Poole Park' was etched firmly into the family annals and trotted
out at various inappropriate occasions to embarrass me.
From such an inauspicious start it is difficult to believe that much later in my life I spent some
twenty-five years at sea in the Merchant Navy, like Nelson being afflicted with seasickness to
varying degrees, all of that time.
It was always a bit of an ‘expedition’ as my mother fondly called it – just getting to Poole Park.
It involved changing buses at Parkstone and endless waiting around.
Years later when we had our own car, I was always anxious to stop and give lifts to others less
fortunate than us, but in those days few people bothered, as they bowled by leaving us sitting
shivering on a hard wooden bench, my mother, scarf tightly wrapped over her head, clutching
shopping bags of various descriptions, inevitably containing a fresh set of clothes in case one
or other of us tumbled into the water.
My grandmother lived in a very wealthy area of Bournemouth, where everyone seemed to have
large cars and even larger houses with well-kept gardens – despite the privations of the war
Opposite her lived a retired sea captain from the Blue Star Line. I am certain that Captain
Caldwell had a Blue Star tattooed on his arse – for he was that sort of man and it was that sort
of an era. Although I never found out – for he was a remote and aloof little figure in his dark
blue battledress and his beret, with the company crest on it.
No doubt he would have gone from apprentice to captain in the same company, climbing
steadily up the ladder and becoming more and more divorced from reality the higher up he got.
This was a time when the Master was God and it must have been a rude awakening to be
relegated to shopping duties once his seagoing career had ended.
Every morning and every evening Captain Caldwell stood beside the large flagpole in his front
garden, solemnly either hauling the Union Jack up or down, depending on the time of day.
Those were also the days when the British Merchant Navy bestrode the world like a commercial
colossus and home leave was granted only at the end of signing two years articles, or provided
the ship was homeward bound “…and as soon thereafter that it reaches a British port.”
I used to watch the good Captain from the shade of the clump of bamboo that grew on the righthand
side of my grandmother’s front gate. He cut rather a wistful figure, as with garden trug to
hand, filled with small gardening tools, he would peruse the immaculate order of his garden,
pulling an imaginary weed from a pristine flowerbed, or dead-heading a rose bush trimmed
already within an inch of its life.
I guess after traipsing the world - a phrase that my mother was very fond of saying – we always
seemed to be “traipsing here or there, up this hill or down that hill.”
It must have been a pretty dull and unexciting life being put out to pasture as it were.
Perhaps Captain’s Caldwell’s death was hastened by his smoking habit, for he never seemed
to be without either a cigarette or a little, short stemmed pipe. Sometimes if the heavy garden
gate was shut, leaving just a small smooth expanse of yellow gravel visible, I could follow the
good Captain’s progress around his garden, by the clouds of blueish smoke that wafted into the
air above the clipped evergreen hedge that faced the road.
Despite the large double gates of black stained wood, I do not recall Captain Caldwell ever
driving a car. Perhaps he did not know how to drive – so many questions I wanted to ask him,
but now it is all too late.
There was another seafarer, living nearby – an ex-chief engineer from the British India Line,
who was now well and truly retired. A little Scotsman, with a sallow face and gifted fingers,
for his years at sea had been spent learning and mastering the Spanish guitar.
He and his wife, who if my memory serves me correctly, spent years at sea with him – she
playing the mandolin to his Spanish guitar - his strong, supple fingers, quite unlike those of an
engineer, could still pluck the strings of his many guitars, their curving, strong sinews dancing
over the strings, releasing melodies deep and resonant in the twilight of his darkened lounge
I recall the black-and-white photographs of him with his wife, as a handsome young couple, he
in his white uniform and epaulettes, his hair as full as his face, his wife standing beside him
clutching her mandolin.
Many of the photos were obviously taken at ships’ parties with other officers in their uniforms
standing around, drinks in their hands. Some were taken at clubs and hotels ashore, with
beaming waiters dressed in full Indian mess dress, complete with turbans and fierce looking
Mr Campbell’s house was hidden from the rough road, leading to my grandmother’s house,
behind a tall, black, creosoted fence and a stand of even taller pine trees.
It was gloomy walking up his drive and on opening the door, Mr Campbell looked rather a sad
and diminutive figure in his shirtsleeves and leather slippers.
“C’mon in laddie” he said gesturing with a pipe in his hand.
Like the good Captain Caldwell, Chief Engineer Campbell spent much of his retirement puffing
on a vast selection of pipes. There was a pipe rack on the shiny hall table and another near his
sofa by the fire in the drawing room.
I never progressed beyond the hall and the drawing room, both of which had a sort of gloomy,
lugubrious feel about them and the drawn curtains made of a heavy velvet material, dark bottle
green with a once gold trim, let not a chink of light into the austere room.
It needed a woman’s touch I think – at least that is what I think now, but back then it just seem
natural to walk into the semi-darkness – Mr Campbell must have led a lonely life with no
children, his walls bare of paintings, a couple of guitars hung near the fireplace.
Photographs of times gone by, when the ships he was on would have never come home, must
have been his only company.
“I’ll show you how it’s done, sonny,” he would say softly as he took down one of his guitars
from the wall, tuned it carefully and sitting on the low sofa plucked a few chords, before
launching into a catchy melody. And almost before it had started, it was time to go,
“Y’eerd best be goi’n home now sonny,” he would say with a sigh, placing the guitar flat down
on the dark carpet and getting to his feet. What did he do to kill the long hours of daylight and the
even longer ones of darkness? I often pondered. Was he a Russian spy? At least that would
account for the house being permanently closed up.
There was a small card table just inside the heavy curtain of the drawing room door with its
brass rail and I imagined Mr Campbell with his signalling equipment… In reality it was just a
game of patience – not even bridge or canasta. Unlike Captain Caldwell, Chief Engineer Campbell
was not a gardening fanatic - the very opposite and his garden was unkempt, the tall birch trees
making sunlight a stranger, so that only a few straggly bushes and some dense rhododendrons were visible.
What little lawn there was, seemed to have been swallowed up by lichens and moss. I was
always glad to leave the drive and scamper into daylight again.
Probably thinking back, having spent his whole life at sea, much of it on the Indian and African
coasts with his wife, retirement and the reality of everyday life ashore, held no pleasures for
Mr Campbell. With his wife now gone, he seemed to shrink each visit I made and the last time I saw him, he
was like a bow-legged little bird, with a red, beak-like nose and small glittery eyes.
So many, many sailors, especially from the Merchant Navy, who were away for years on end
from their families, knew no other reality, other than the cosseted, artificial life of being at sea.
Hence few lasted long in the retirement that they had worked so hard to attain – it was almost
like a poisoned chalice and lonely and without many friends, they quickly succumbed.