Published: 06:00, 29 September 2019
In the story of rags to riches author Lena Kennedy, who gained inspiration from her woodland home from home at Cliffe Woods, we had reached a point where she and her husband had managed to buy their plot. Peter Cook explains how they needed to make it more habitable as a holiday retreat…
Having secured ownership of their plot of woodland, Lena and Fred began to think about putting up some kind of dwelling, to make their sojourns there more comfortable. At last they found an old railway hut for sale. It could be dismantled and re-erected at Cliffe Woods.
Up till then they relied on their old tent for accommodation and a ramshackle shed for storage.
On a rainy day, Fred and a workmate loaded the hut onto a lorry and headed for Kent. When he returned to their London home, soaked and exhausted, he was able to tell the family that the hut was up with doors and windows in place. It forms the basis of the shack dwelling that hides among the trees there to this day.
The following Sunday, Fred fired up their baby Austin and headed once more for Cliffe Woods, in the knowledge that they would now have a roof over their heads to keep the rain out.
It was time to give their second home a name, and they settled on Five Oaks, in recognition of the stately trees that stood in front of the little hut.
Easter was soon upon them. Already the bed from the Allhallows camp site had been installed in the hut. Now Lena piled the faithful Austin Seven high with blankets, bits of furniture, curtains and everything needed to turn the hut into a home away from home.
'It was all so different from the dark London streets where Lena had grown up'
There was no electricity of course, and they still relied on the hurricane lamp for light. Water had to be fetched in a bucket from a standpipe.
But they had a primus on which to make a pot of tea, and to cook basic meals, and of an evening Fred and Lena could sit out beside a wood fire and enjoy their woodland retreat.
Now they had a more permanent dwelling they were able to explore the local area, including the Cliffe foreshore, and a village shop called Harpers, which according to Lena, appeared to sell just about everything.
They also discovered an old-fashioned baker’s, and a farm where you could buy butter, milk and eggs.
It was all so different from the dark London streets where Lena had grown up, and a combination of exercise and fresh food brought about a transformation in the health and happiness of the whole family.
Fred set about clearing more trees while Lena worked hard at turning the patch of ground in front of the hut into a colourful and productive garden.
Sanitation was rudimentary, but Fred was able to turn the old shed into a primitive loo, by means of making the door secure and installing a bucket.
The following year, Lena began working on her vegetable garden, and soon had a row of lettuces thriving. On a visit to Maidstone Market they bought three apple trees, a plum and a pear tree.
More furniture was acquired, including a Welsh dresser and a big wind-up gramophone, which they enjoyed despite having only two records: “The Sheik of Araby” and “Lily Marlene”.
Visitors came down from London. Not all of them were happy with the toilet arrangements and one rather large lady overbalanced, knocking over both the bucket and the structure which housed it.
Lena’s friend Madge was always welcomed, and the pair went on fruit picking expeditions to earn extra cash.
In the evenings, the family would sometimes walk through the woods to the Merry Boys pub, which is now a private dwelling. Even in those days, children were allowed inside. “Slowly but surely we began to make ourselves known,” wrote Lena in her memoire. “Locals would chat to Fred about fishing and boating and gardening.”
People would offer vegetables and fruit from their gardens and the family would return to London with the Austin loaded with produce, as well as the vegetables Lena grew in her own plot.
One day Fred returned home with an old Kitchener stove lashed to the Austin. It was old and rusty but soon polished up, and of course there was no shortage of wood for fuel. It transformed the hut, throwing out a terrific heat, making a cosy retreat from the cold autumn evenings. It would also boil a kettle and cook toast.
But autumn gave way to winter and despite the stove, it was time to leave Five Oaks until the following spring, which would be full of promise and new adventures.
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