A Chance Encounter

I met this old man in Dagnam Park in the London Borough of Havering in the winter of about 1973. He had an old push chair, for transporting his logs, a bow saw to separate them into reasonable sized chunks and a club hammer and a steel wedge for splitting them . I stopped to talk to him in the narrow strip of woodland from Hatter’s Wood down towards the old Priory. I spent an hour with him taking a few pictures and asking him far too many questions. Among the freely given answers he explained that he lived in Gillingham House in Lindfield Road, Harold Hill along with his wife and that he used fallen wood for their open fire. I asked him if he had always lived on Harold Hill. He said “no, far from it, before I retired I was a gamekeeper in Suffolk”. He told me of his memories as a boy, memories going back to his village in the early 1900s.old man in wood 4
I was absorbed by his memories of rural life in Suffolk decades earlier. I remember thinking it was so sad that such an obvious countryman was going to end his days on a council estate in Romford but he made no complaints about that. The memories that he seemed most interested in sharing with me were those of the first world war when he remembered that only a few of the boys who had enlisted just a few years previously had returned home. He told me how after the end of the war the mothers would congregate every day in the lane into the village from the nearest railway station. They knew that there was one train every day. They knew that the men who had survived would disembark from each day’s solitary train and walk or in some cases hobble the final few miles back home. They were all ever hopeful. Though as the weeks and months passed less and less mothers congregated as their hopes faded. Until the day came when the last mother to give up all hope walked back home alone for the last time.old man in wood 3
Many never returned. He said “some mothers lost all of their sons”.
More mundanely he also told me that every Friday in his village a cart would turn up with fresh fish. All the villagers would collect around the cart to buy their weekly treat. He answered all of my questions but sadly I never wrote all of his answers down and I can only recollect a few of them, but I kept the negatives.
I promised him I would print the photos and drop them off at his flat and he gave me his address. In those days I developed and printed all my own black and white film. I was pleased with these photos and about a week after I first met him I turned up at his ground floor flat with a couple of enlarged prints. On knocking the door was opened by his wife who was seriously suspicious about my story. The old boy was not home but his wife softened when I handed her the photos. She looked genuinely pleased with them.
Earlier in the woods I had noticed that his bow saw blade was completely blunt and the following week I managed to get a new blade, that looked about the right size from Everards at Hilldene Shops. I paid a second visit to the flat and lied to his wife that I had found the blade in my shed. I handed it over and she was grateful. I never saw her again.old man in wood 1
Some weeks later I met up with the old boy in the woods for the second and last time, I asked him if he had the new blade. “Yes” he said. I asked him how he had replaced the old blade and he described to me in detail how to install a bow saw blade using the tourniquet method.
Simply put, this requires a string loop to be placed around both ends of the bow. Then you need to insert a stick in the loop and wind and wind the loop; The string gets shorter and shorter and eventually it pulls the two arms of the bow saw together enabling you to engage the new blade. It was a revelation and a lesson to me. (Note; nowadays it’s all done with a butterfly nut)
I never knew his name. I don’t recall the name of his village and sadly I never saw him again.
Del Smith (2014)

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