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Phil Hoare - Growing up in Ashwood Road, St Thomas

Monday nights in the 1950s, and the sound of speedway bikes fills the air…Goog Hoskins and his Falcons team-mates are riding at the County ground, St Thomas, keeping one young boy from getting off to sleep in the back bedroom of  a semi-detached house over a mile away from the track as the crow flies.

I spent 21 years of my life living at 13, Ashwood Road, St Thomas between 1943 and 1964, enjoying the benefits of the sort of all-embracing, one-for-all community that is sadly missing from large areas of today’s troubled society.

The two dozen or so semi-detached houses had been built in the early 1930s, partly on the site of an old orchard.

The length of Ashwood Road is divided by a crossroads leading from Coverdale Road to Ebrington Road, and our half, a cul-de-sac, led to a turning circle for the few vehicles that were about at the time.

Along one side is, or was, a large metal gate, the access to rows and rows of allotments. Beyond them is the railway line along which steam trains chugged their way down to Dawlish Warren and beyond down the coast.

Occasionally we would walk to St Thomas’s station, in reality a small halt in Cowick Street and jump on board for a day out at the beach. And every summer as a family of three we took the train, or the bus, which stopped on nearby Alphington Road, and went to Torquay for our fortnight’s holiday.

Few people had cars in the 50s, and the fact that we walked or cycled around our network of roads meant that we knew everyone, and they knew us. It was a friendly area, and a safe one for children in particular, provided they behaved themselves!

We had a corner shop and the milkman and vegetable man called regularly, at least one of them using horse-drawn transport. That helped the roses to grow.

The semis had three bedrooms and bathroom upstairs and a small kitchen, lounge and dining room below with two small brick outhouses at the back. One of ours was full of coal for many years, the other used as a garden shed although it may well have been designed as an outside toilet.

The old air raid shelter

Our garden had a special feature too, an old air raid shelter, covered in grass, and it smelt damp and musty if you ventured too near the door. I never did quite make it all they way inside when I was growing up, but I must have spent time in it as a baby when the air raid siren went after I was born in April, 1943.

My father, Eric Hoare, served in the Devonshire Regiment on Gibraltar and with the King’s African Rifles in  Kenya and when he came home he resumed his career as Sports Editor of the Express and Echo.

He had met my mother, Mabs, when she was a waitress at Dellers, and they had bought the house in Ashwood Road in 1930 or 1931.

The Crockers lived on one side, the Wellaways on the other, and other neighbours included the Cornishes, the Pyms, The Eveleighs, the Henleys and the Gibbonses.

School starts

There must have been about a dozen children in the road of roughly the same age, and we played and went to school together.

School for me meant five years at St Wilfrid’s, a journey made by bus along Alphington Street across Exe bridge and up Fore Street Hill before a short walk along a narrow street  where I believe the Mint had once been.

One particular day the bus had to negotiate thick smoke or fumes at the bottom of Fore Street Hill, following a fire at the nearby tannery. Funny what you remember as a child.

We were taught by a mixture of nuns and secular teachers, my last being a Mr Tremlett, who prepared me for my 11-plus and entrance exam to Exeter School where I became a founder member of Goff House in 1954.

But school can wait…

My play time at Ashwood Road included kickabouts or a game of cricket in the street, using the big allotment gate as a goal or a wicket until one of our neighbours got fed up with the sound of the ball striking the metal and came out to remonstrate.

As I grew I spread my wings, and I spent hours and hours at nearby Pinces Gardens and Barton Fields, down at the Cattle Market at Marsh Barton, or cycling further afield to the river or canal or out to Alphington or Ide.

Sometimes, of course, there would be a girl to go and see…

We had no fear…particularly of the adults, the strangers, we came across, and I would think nothing of jumping into the cab a cattle truck for a trip to another part of the county delivering livestock.

All I needed to know was that the driver would be returning to the market that day and that I would be home in time for dinner or tea as required. The Health and Safety bods would have had a field day as we scrambled across railway lines or did all those “dangerous” things that children found to do.

You could call it risk and reward.

Some of us joined the cub pack at Alphington and the myriad of things we did while growing up, creating fun for ourselves, leaves us mystified now we are pensioners when modern-day youngsters claim they have nothing to do, and strike out at society as an answer.

The closeness of the families living in Ashwood Road sheltered us from that sort of thinking, especially as we had a police inspector living among us!

Trips out with the family

Other family treats included a regular trip to one of the three cinemas every Monday evening, watching a film at the Gaumont, Savoy or Odeon, preceded by tea at Lyon’s Corner House in the High Street.

And every year we went to the pantomime at the Theatre Royal, where the manager Cliff Gwilliam by name I think, would stand in the foyer in his evening dress and talk to patrons. Who remembers Randolph Sutton as the dame?

My father, dint of his Express and Echo connections, often benefited from free tickets and also seemed to know everyone in the sporting, particularly the cricketing, fraternity around the city.

I grew up watching him work at his desk in our lounge, planning each edition of the Saturday evening sports paper, or scribbling handwritten reports of bits and pieces of news which he had picked up on the grapevine from his contacts.

We had no telephone, and the grapevine included conversations in the street or on buses and chatting to people in the pub after a weekend cricket match.

He played himself, for Exeter St James’s, and cricket was the mainstay of our weekend social life from April to September.

The home ground was at Wonford House, where the hospital now stands. We needed two buses to get us there before a longish walk up ore down Barrack Road into the hospital grounds.

It was a real family club. The wives, few of any of whom had jobs of their own, provided the teas, and the bonding was such that the kids had a Christmas party and a trip to the beach each year. Sixty or seventy people at least would be at each club dinner in the autumn.

Sunday games included trips to Crediton, Killerton, Sidmouth, Exmouth, Honiton, Whimple and Tiverton and there were also fixtures against Alphington, Cullompton, Exeter St Thomas’s, Civil Service and Christchurch whose home ground backed onto St James’s.

I got lost one Sunday after wandering away from the Tiverton Heathcoat ground and the game had to stop while everyone looked for me down nearby country lanes.

Playing cricket became an integral part of my teenage years as well, and I eventually played for St James’s and St Thomas’s.

A memorable year

1953 was a memorable year for everyone, and we got our first TV set especially to see the Queen’s Coronation.

One other memory of early TV.  The elderly lady at number 11, Mrs Wellaway, mother to a large family I remember, liked a glass of Guinness or other stout to go with her evening’s watching.

She couldn’t get it for herself, and she would invite me in to watch programmes with her provided I fetched her favourite tipple from the off-licence at the Crawford Hotel.

1953? What a year. Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing climbed Everest…Sir Gordon Richards won the Derby on Pinza, and we were on a beach near Torquay when England won the Ashes by beating Australia at the Oval. To top it all, Blackpool and Stanley Matthews won the Cup Final at Wembley, 4-3 against Bolton.

Plenty of heroes for boys…and I was sports mad, following in Dad’s footsteps and with a house full of sports books to feed my hunger. I still have most of them.

I was also getting ready to take my 11-plus the following year. Once that major academic hurdle was out of the way, I started at Exeter School in September, 1954.

A new school

Like all my new classmates I was resplendent in my uniform, bought from Cornishes, the official outfitters, whose shop was at the corner of Fore Street and North Street.

White shirts with removable collars, medium grey suits…it all cost a fortune, but my parents were prepared to make big sacrifices for what turned out to be a rewarding experience, even if I found much of the mass of academic work beyond me.

Exeter School was a culture shock for me. I suddenly went from being a bright pupil in a small ‘pool’ to being just about average among 600 or so, and suddenly life became highly competitive both in the classroom and outside.

The weeks were long, including Saturdays in part or in whole, filled with a heavy timetable, regular sport, the CCF and the choir, the demands on our musical talents included preparations for a Christmas concert, Handel’s Messiah and madrigals included.

A cub reporter

I left at Christmas, 1959, after a bruising battle with O levels and scraped just enough passes to become a junior reporter on the Express and Echo, following not only in my father’s footsteps but also those of my uncle Bob, the editor.

Life in Ashwood Road had been life enhancing…so had my two schools…and work on the paper for the next four years and a bit proved fresh challenges and the chance to enjoy a wonderful city as a teenager and young adult.

I covered funerals, magistrates courts, Rotary Club lunches, inquests, council meetings and a wide variety of other assignments in the city and beyond and also got the chance to cover sport, particularly Exeter and District League fixtures every Saturday in the winter, taking a bus or cycling to games and phoning reports at half-time and full-time for inclusion in the football paper.

I even had my own column, With the Amateurs, following the fortunes of the most successful teams of the time: Cullompton, Dawlish, Heavitree, Friernhay and St Luke’s among them. Players’ names are with me even to this day…

The social life was good, ask any young journalist about that, and on Saturday nights we would be out on the town drinking in the Turk’s Head, perhaps, or the Greyhound, or the Long Bar, and dancing at St George’s Hall.

In midweek a pint or two in the Rougemont or the Queen’s Hotel was the prelude to a visit to the trad jazz club in the Civic Hall…who remembers the Crescent City Stompers or the visits by Acker Bilk in his striped waistcoat and bowler hat?

More girls there of course, if we could pluck up the courage to ask them to dance. I wonder where Margaret, Elizabeth, Jackie, Gill and others are these days…

The city was changing fast, recovering from the ravages of war.

I had grown up aware of the bomb sites, particularly around the South Street and Paris Street areas where my maternal grandparents, the Darkes, had been bombed out, but they were quickly disappearing under new developments.

The remnants of our parents’ pre-war social life lingered on but now we had bingo halls, and Chinese restaurants and Berni Inns too.

The streets were gradually filling with cars and more and more people had ‘mod cons’ like telephones and fridges. People were buying luxuries on credit as the austerity of the war years faded from their minds.

The late 50s gave way to the Swinging Sixties, the Kennedy era. Do I remember where I was when he was assassinated? Clearly. In the Guildhall, covering a Red Cross meeting when proceedings were stopped to tell us what had happened in Dallas.

Our horizons were rapidly broadening and so were our musical and fashion tastes.

We had coffee bars, remember the El Zamba in an arcade in Fore Street?, and  the Mersey sound was everywhere, driven by Beatlemania.

I’m 65 now, retired after a long career in journalism and living in Norfolk, and this excellent website has resurrected glimpses of the wonderful times I had in Exeter.

I read the item on the 1960 floods, which brought back memories of a trip to Manchester at that time to watch Exeter City in the return leg of a League Cup tie.

I travelled up on the train with a City apprentice named Tony Irons, and after the game we met up for the night journey home. It took us 11 hours to get back in pouring rain and the flooding grew gradually worse as we got to the Westcountry.

Finally I walked down Fore Street Hill to Exe Bridge, unable to believe what I could see, and had to complete my journey home along Alphington Street by boat. Water had got into the house, as it also did on another occasion, leaving a slimy mess to clean up.

Leaving the old town

Then in 1964, my ambitious juices flowing, I was off to pastures new, making the break from home to start work on a newspaper in Sussex, turning my back on a wonderful city in the search for fame and fortune. Later I moved on to jobs in East Anglia.

My father and uncle worked for the Echo for 50 years. But ours was a different generation…restless and chasing different dreams. The grass is always greener…

But wherever I am, I love hearing that distinctive, unmistakable, Exeter accent, and love having a chat about the old place. You can take the boy out of Devon but you can’t take Devon out of the boy.

Once, on holiday in the Caribbean, the conversation with one couple went like this:

 “Where did you live in Exeter?”

“In St Thomas’s”.


“In Ashwood Road”

“What number?”


I discovered that one of their younger relatives was now living in my old home and they went on to tell me about the home improvements he had carried out, seventy odd years after my parents bought it.

The world is truly a small place. And Exeter is still the centre of my comfort zone even after 44 years away.

Semper Fidelis.

© 2008 Phil Hoare

Philip Hoare was born in Exeter in 1943. Many will remember his  father who was Sports Editor of the Express and Echo and his uncle, the Editor. Philip was also a reporter for the Echo until he moved away to Sussex to work on another newspaper.

St Wilfrids School 1948 St Wilfrids School in 1948. Goff House cricket team, Exeter School 1957 Goff House, Exeter School cricket team in 1957. Philip Hoare back left. Doug Yeabsley, front left went on to play for Devon for many years.

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