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ERNEST VINE 1908 - 1997

(October & November 1993, reprinted March 1997)

Ernie Vine died in February and will be affectionately remembered by many people in Feltwell where he spent the whole of his life. He was married to Mrs Hilda Vine for 60 years and was sexton of St Mary's for fifty years. Four years ago, at the age of 84, he spoke to Coreen Turner in the Life and Times series for this magazine, and in his memory we recall again his own account of his life.

The house I was born in was in Long Lane but was pulled down a long time ago. I went to the Infants' School with Miss Knights, and then onto the big school. The certificate you see by the front door I got for Attendance. I was all right there, a bit of a scholar, I always used to pass all my subjects, but I was best at painting and drawing. In my row of six I used to do all the others - they would push theirs along to me and I'd do it for them: I'd to make each one a little different as Mr Fassnedge was quite a shrewd man. I always got 10 out of 10.

I left at 12 to go and work with Father, digging turf on the fens. They were still covered in water then, they weren't drained in 1920, so we were very cold and wet. I had to stand in water a lot of the day. I did have an old pair of rubber boots and I changed to a dry shirt twice a day. The browles, which were pits, were dug the year before, and we'd take the top off and dig down to the turf below, The land on the fen for turf went with all the public houses, and that's who we were digging it for; it was twenty rods, eleven yards to the rod, for the Chequers, the West End, the Oak - all the pubs had their piece of land for turf digging so that they could burn it all the winter. I used to dig our own too, and then cart it to Lakenheath with the horse and sell it. There were common rights too for some houses to dig their own, to burn in their brick ovens for their baking. To dig the turf we used a beckett, a tool with a straight handle with a bit of wood 5 inches wide with a steel tip.

I started shooting at 14. In those days the fens around Feltwell and Methwold weren't drained, they were just rough grass and water. On the pieces that weren't owned there was always a distress warrant, and if you were caught shooting there you were classed as the owner and made to pay for the drainage! There weren't a lot of birds there, but there were duck, pheasant, partridge and lots of hares and foxes. I was a fair shot even then and got better as I got older. We sold a hare for half a crown, and a lot of people liked hare and would ask me to get them one for the weekend. If I couldn't shoot one I'd snare it. I've snared scores and scores.

I met Hilda when I was working on the farm at Shrub Hill with my father. Her family had come from Norwich and she used to lead the horse I was working with when we were sowing beet. We decided to court one another and she'd had enough of land work and thought she should go and do some domestic work in London to get some experience. She was friendly with a policeman's daughter who worked at Lady Cowdray's in Pall Mall, and that's where she went. There were lots of them in the house. I used to go up on a Sunday excursion from Lakenheath station for 5/- when she had an afternoon off. We went to Green Park and sat there, viewing the scenery. About twelve of us would go up on the train, Tom Cooper, Albert Reed, John Rice were special friends, and the train would be packed. We had a good time! Once Hilda took me into the Cowdray house and a maid showed me round. The carpets were so thick she was lifting them up behind me so my foot marks didn't show and no one would know I'd been there.

After two years Hilda had had enough of London; she didn't know anyone except my aunt Sarah in Bayswater who she could visit for a cup of tea on her afternoon off and she said "I want to get married." I had saved about 19 so we decided to get wed and were married at Hockwold. Tom Cooper was our best man; he died one week before our sixtieth anniversary, so he never came to the party. Hilda only lasted 12 days after it and she died too. First of all we lived on the old aerodrome, on the right as you go into Hockwold, it was full of people then. We had three big rooms for 18 pence a week. They were old married quarters from the First World War. Then we went to Oak Street for a year, then to Hill Street where Mr Reeves now lives. Finally, when Weasenham Farms built Western Close for their workers, we moved to number 9, and I was there for 50 years, before I came to Mulberry Close.

I used to help my father with the grave digging, but he was getting on and Mr Pearson was giving up so I took it on on my own in 1942. I was counting up in my book today: I dug 704 graves in Feltwell including the airmen's graves, and 30 or 40 at Hockwold too, and some at Mundford, for which I don't have the records. I stopped about two years ago. They were all dug by hand, no machinery like today. I used to think all sorts of things as I was digging! I used to work for Mr Palmer at Southery and the only time I could dig then was at night; we were living in Hill Street and I used to be able to hop in from the end of my garden to the churchyard. No, I was never frightened! One night I opened up a grave for Mrs Walker and I was busy digging, in right up to my chest and shoulders, full moonlight, and I was just taking a breather when I heard footsteps and it was an airman and a WAAF, they often did their courting up there. As they came level I just turned towards them and looked. Roger Bannister couldn't have touched them as they ran off!

I had the option of staying on the land at Weasenham but I'd have had to give up all sorts of other jobs. I've always enjoyed doing lots of different jobs, and I was delivering milk and papers and I was learning to drive. I'd have had to give up the grave digging too, and working my six acres of land with my father. It had been left to my father by his uncle, and it was then left to me and my brothers and sister. I worked it until 1974, when we sold it to Mr Sol and Mr Fred Lambert. I was often working down on that piece of land at ten o'clock at night riddling onions. I still worked for them at weekends and they were very good to me and lent machinery.

I did other jobs too - I used to go all round the farms in Feltwell and Southery thatching the haystacks to keep them dry. Sometimes I'd do twenty stacks at Wissington Farms and then for all the smallholders in the fen. Then there was the grave digging, the papers and the milk, beating for shoots, my six acres and folks' gardens; I used to cut trees down and blow up bog oaks on the farms too. What did I do in my spare time? I never had any spare time! I worked day and night. Wages were low. We never had a holiday. I've never been abroad. I promised Hilda I would take her to Lords one day to see the cricket, because she loved cricket. We never got to Lords and that I do regret.

When the war started I joined the Civil Defence, which later became the Home Guard. I'd have liked to have gone in the Navy but they said I was better staying here. Mr Southgate was VC from the Great War and he and the Rector, Mr Cope, got together and twelve of us volunteered for a start. Was it like Dad's Army I suppose it was in a way! Our HQ was the Mission Hall in Hill Street where we met twice a week. We used to go on exercises at night. We were out one Saturday night and we had to put up a barricade at the end of Lodge Road. The Reverend Cope came up in the dark and issued us with these beer bottles and our sergeant started unscrewing them to drink. The Reverend shouted "Don't do that!" because it was phosphorous and petrol to smash against any tanks we might meet. I finished up ammunitions officer, in charge of rifles and inspector of ammunition. I went on a course when an officer came to Downham Market and showed us how to place explosive material near the unexploded bombs. I got my lieutenant's pips after that. We used to have barrels of explosives buried in the banks along the Hythe Road by the allotments gate. I trained others with grenades and one night a man who was what you'd call ten pence in shilling nearly killed both of us at the sand pits. I shan't forget that!

We moved from Hill Street to Western Close when Stubbins, the foreman of Weasenham Farms said the houses were ready and would we like to move in about a week. I said, "How about tonight?" so I went home and said to Hilda "Let's have tea quickly - we're moving tonight." I borrowed a trailer and off we went. She wasn't too pleased at first, but she was when we got there. I suppose I was a strict father. I used to rattle my belt at them and say "If you don't behave you'll get this." I think I did hit my eldest son once because he'll talk about it today. But they were all good children, no trouble at all. We never went without food, I'd go up at 5.30 am to where the doctor's surgery is now where there were lots of rabbits and knock a few off, and they'd be ready for the night.

Which part of my life have I enjoyed most? I've enjoyed all of it, I was a demon for work and when I was working I was always happy. I used to suffer at night with aching fingers when I'd been thatching all day but I'd never been ill until 1975 when I had pneumonia. When I got to hospital they were really concerned about this red patch on my chest and called other doctors to look at it. I came round then and I told them it was where I'd been holding on to the hot water bottle!.

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