Yanks in the Village!!!
By David Verble
David & Joyce Verble with their daughters Kathy and Tobey
We were not the first, and, perhaps, not the last Americans to reside in the quaint, small village of Hilton, Huntingdonshire. In July 1958 I was a U. S. Air Force 2nd Lt. when my wife, Joyce, and 16-month old daughter Kathy came to reside with me at Kidman’s Farm Cottage. Joyce was also carrying our second child Tobey, another daughter soon to be delivered at USAF Hospital Wimpole Park on September 2nd. Her birth is the primary trigger that prompts this article and ultimately results in it being offered for the Spectrum.
On the occasion of Tobey’s 49th birthday, I decided to search the internet to find a satellite view of Hilton, with the intent of browsing the township for changes in those 49 years. What I found was in some ways startling. Upon viewing the image, I was very much confused by the addition of a good number of residences currently in the immediate vicinity of where I supposed Kidman’s to be. Going a bit further in my search, I discovered the Hilton Web site from which I was able to display the 1954 map of the village. Coordinating the map, which clearly marked the cottage, with the Google image, I was able to positively confirm the current existence of the house.
Kidmans Farm Cottage c1958
I cannot begin to tell the reader what a thrill this evoked for me. I could hardly wait to share my discovery with the family, especially Tobey, who has absolutely no recollection of living there, nor did Kathy. They were much too young. For 49 years we probably have not shared a lot of memories about the place other than, to have occasionally viewed a few 35mm color slides of the house, the grounds, the swans, and some interior scenes. We would always recall what a neat experience and how fortunate to have been in England, though we stayed there as a family together for only one year. But of course, being in the military service, we subsequently lived in many other places around the world, including France, Hawaii, California, and Florida. So we had many experiences to relive over the years.
We moved in just as my supervisor, Major Clifford Fosse moved out. Major Fosse and his wife Marie lived in Kidman’s while awaiting availability of quarters at RAF Station Alconbury, where we were assigned. I had been sent overseas in early May that year, unaccompanied by the family due to a shortage of housing; thus it was incumbent upon me to find and contract for a place before the Air Force would transfer the family to my duty site. The timing was perfect for my boss to open the door for my rental arrangement. Although we did not meet, we were told that another Air Force family lived in the cottage prior to the Fosse couple. This information was given by a village resident, Sally Hills, who sometimes did baby-sitting and also provided occasional house cleaning services for us.
Sid and Sally Hills and their sons
The cottage was just made for us in features, cost, and accommodations. It was furnished with everything one needed for comfortable living. Furniture, beds, linens, pots and pans, dinnerware, utilities (water, electric, waste water) – you name it and nearly all was there. I say nearly since we were accustomed to having an automatic washing machine at our disposal. Thus, we had one shipped with our household goods. But, neglecting the fact that we were now operating on 50-cycle electrical current instead of 60, there were some modifications needed. The main motor had to be rewound and the timer replaced to make it function properly. The machine was an absolute necessity for a household with two young children using lots of washable cloth diapers. Of course, everything belonging there was inventoried so that each item was accounted for when occupants moved in or moved out. One item not on the list was a large resident black cat, named Mr. Kidman, who seemed to be the continuous overseer of the place.
To the rear, in the field outside the hedge enclosing the backyard, was a large haystack which must have been at least 20 feet in height. Actually, the cottage was really on the outskirts of the village at that time. There were barns to the west, just across our driveway, and adjacent fencing to contain a number of cattle that grazed in the fields to the southwest. The grounds around the cottage, we soon came to learn, were planted with hundreds of white and yellow daffodils that were just splendid when they bloomed. The walkway to the front door was lined with a low hedge of lilac that was quite fragrant when it bloomed. Along Graveley Way, on our side of the road, was a narrow finger of a pond which at times allowed village swans to frequent our location. At the rear outside wall, a mature climbing rose bush produced blooms that could be picked from the upstairs bedroom window, and a huge coal bin was in place just outside the kitchen window. All of these features were somewhat awesome to a young couple from Beaumont, Texas who had never been out of the States and were on their first real assignment at the hands of USAF.
I had been commissioned and entered into active duty in December of 1956 and gone on to pilot training in North Carolina and Texas. Upon receiving my wings, I was selected for an administrative assignment at RAF Station Alconbury with the civil engineering group, working in the maintenance and construction branch in concert with the British Air Ministry. I maintained my flying skills while making occasional flights in the C-47 after some number of hours learning to fly a conventional landing gear aircraft, rather than a tri-cycle configuration. Thus, mine was a three-dimensional world, finding the greenery of England a thing of beauty compared to the arid lands of west Texas over which I last flew. Also, it exposed me to the international rules of flight that one must follow when abroad. Thank goodness, everyone was required to speak English in order to occupy the airspace.
Joyce Verble with her daughters Kathy and Tobey
Though we lived in this rather rural country setting, our exposure to the village and the residents was quite minimal. This I realize now was absolutely unnecessary and completely our own fault as we met and chose to associate primarily with Air Force couples who were also assigned to Alconbury. One of those couples had leased an apartment on the grounds of Hinchingbrook House in Huntingdon. What a magnificent complex with historical significance in itself! That association entitled us to an invitation to a memorable Easter egg hunt in1959 on the spacious grounds. At that time, the main building was unoccupied although it was suggested that the Alconbury officer’s club should attempt to relocate there. That was a lot of wishful thinking, probably from the bar, but through the windows, an expansive wooden floor invited onlookers to imagine its use as a grand ballroom. Our neglect in integrating ourselves with the village resulted in limiting our contacts to two families – Sid and Sally Hills and their two sons, and George Gingell, a retired London bobby. I do not remember that we ever met his wife. But in Jack Dady’s book “Hilton, Huntingdonshire,” the first page mentions a Helen Gingell who, I have concluded, was surely George’s wife; thus, it must have been George who found the flint axe-head which Helen donated to the Norris Museum. Now, even if today I had not wanted to know everything there is to learn about Hilton, which I failed to learn while in your midst, this was worth the price of the book. It is astounding to know we can place ourselves into the historic realm of things past and present. I must also admit that even today I am still quite unfamiliar with English history, but a little more learned than yesterday. I have now read most of Dady’s book on Hilton and have also gleaned a short internet course in the changing scene from Roman times all the way through the Battle of Hastings. Previously, I had never heard of Hastings, but now I am aware of the major turning point it played in the entire course of British history.
After arriving in May 1958, I lived in the base lodging complex. With a small loan from my mother-in-law, I purchased a used left-hand-drive 1955 Ford Anglia. Of course, that placed me on the wrong side of the car with impaired road visibility, since all vehicles drive the left side of the road. But now I at least had wheels and was no longer confined to bus, taxi, and train transportation. That helped a lot. It allowed me to drive to RAF Burtonwood to gather the family and return with them to Hilton. It was my transportation to and from work as well as our pleasure auto. Much smaller than most American autos, it was quite adequate for two adults and two small children, and allowed us to freely move about in the area. Thus, St. Ives, St. Neots, Cambridge, Huntingdon, Peterborough and other villages were points that we journeyed to for shopping and outings. It allowed us to visit some of the wonders of London as well, plus to take a lengthy camping trip to Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.
Unfortunately, or otherwise as the case may be, our tour was cut short as my military career took precedence over remaining in England. I was suddenly offered a flying assignment in France which caused us to pack up in August 1959 and head for the ferry at Dover for relocation to Dreux Air Base, France. So our little Anglia was filled with Verbles and a few parcels in the boot to sustain us for the trip. Off we went, hardly aware of the real and intrinsic value of our stay in a dwelling dating back to the 16th century. It was only the recent curiosity of wondering about the past that the age of this marvelous treasure came to light and our great fortune was revealed.
Many times since I have let my mind travel back to the times we spent in this quiet village setting. One of the special treats was the delivery of fresh milk to our door stoop several times a week. In the winter, “fog calls” were somewhat frequent and the base would release personnel early when the condition was forecast. It was great to get home early, start a fire in the huge fireplace, have dinner, and then sit back and see what the BBC had to offer for the evening’s entertainment on the telly. Those were the “priceless days” with no commercials!!!
David & Joyce Verble
Today, I am still in awe over this most unique experience. I suppose that we could not have conceived such an adventure in our wildest imagination. We are grateful for those who made our visit possible and especially to the village of Hilton and its residents, past and present, who survived much adversity and yet maintain Kidman’s farm cottage as it was and now remains today. As well, I wish to individually thank Andy Bush and Peter Blake of Hilton for their part in promoting this writing. I hope to visit again!
Colonel, USAF, Retired