When my dad ran away from home to join the Guards, he tried to escape the influence of his father’s name on his own career by enlisting in the Coldstreams. Short-lived dream: the enrolling officers in the Coldstream Guards knew the name Howitt all too well and shunted him off to the Scots Guards real fast. It was a tradition that sons should follow in their father’s regiment.
Now my grandfather’s mother, Georgiana Howitt (nee Hewitt – Yes!), ran a cab yard at the top of Normanton Road, Derby, England, where I was born. This involved taxi services, funeral services (all horse-drawn), and a hostelry, or inn. Though she had brothers, it was she who took the business over from her father. So horses run deep in the family.
I used to hear family talk about “the cab yard” from time to time. It was many years before I got to the bottom of what it was all about. Not until of my own volition I started riding horses – and wishing I’d learned earlier in life.
To keep her only son out of trouble – and probably to give herself time to run her business – Georgiana packed him off at an early age to live with relatives in Heanor, a small mining and textiles town about 8 miles north-east of Derby. In that rural environment he labored, did carpentry, found time to paint and sharpened his skills with horses. As a result I believe he became senior riding instructor at Sandhurst for awhile. He was also an outstanding soldier.
My grandfather fought as an NCO with the Scots Guards in the trenches in France in World War l and was severely gassed. His batman saved his life, and he returned home, to be invalided out of the Guards and into the Sherwood Foresters (now part of the Mercian Regiment of the British Army).
Sherwood Forest – now THERE’S a name that rings through family history down the generations – of which, more to follow later.
My grandfather died when I was still a toddler. I can remember he used to call me ‘Poppy’, and I remember his roses, his woodworking shed and the aviaries at the bottom of his garden. I dearly wish I had got to know him. Aside from roses, his love was finches, budgies and canaries. As a sideline, I have bred rare breeds poultry. That kind of came upon me and I didn’t think of the connection when I first got started …
When my aunt, Ena May Howitt (my father’s twin), died in Boston USA in 1983, my mother and I went over to clear up her estate. I hoped above all that I might find some of grandpa’s paintings from the Heanor days. I’d heard about them – especially one of a water mill at Heanor – and I clung to the dream that they might have been in my aunt’s house in the States.
Well, I came home with heaps of family photos and stuff – but no paintings. The only artwork I have of his are a pair of beautifully painted Scots Guards crests – one for each of his twins, with their names hand-lettered underneath. They are very dear to me.
Among my aunt’s belongings I found my grandfather’s Regular Army Certificate of Service – another of those slim red books. It came home with me to join my father’s.
Once again, history repeats itself … The Final Assessment of Conduct & Character, completed personally in the handwriting of his CO, Major A A Sims, was : “Exemplary”.
True: but journeys don’t only have beginnings – they have roots. Physical and spiritual roots that reach back through the generations standing behind us. It’s scary to contemplate at times.
We accept readily enough that our immediate physical world operates by cause and effect. No-one has the slightest difficulty in understanding that if they jump off a building they will hit the ground. What we do have trouble with is recognizing that same law operates on a spiritual level as well, both for individuals and generationally – “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” Hummmm. Food for thought.
My father, Kenneth Methuen Howitt, was the source of my artistic journey. Its roots lay on his side of my family. Regimental Sergeant Major of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards, with an army career spanning 24 years, he had an amazing artistic talent operating around the sidelines of a busy working life. As I’ll explain later, he nurtured in me the talents I got from him, and though he never had time to be a serious ‘painter’, he produced great sculpture with seemingly little effort.
He organized and ran some stunning Charity Balls for the Guards in London – with Royalty counted amongst the guests. He thought big, and produced the results to go with it: everything had to be right and to look great – and some of that at least rubbed off on me.
He was exceptional in the skills of training and handling men – which may have saved his life more than once. One time, in April/May 1940 contingents from the Scots Guards were sent on the ill-fated Allied invasion of Norway. My mother often told the story of going down to visit him in London and arriving at the barracks late at night to find – unexpectedly – the troops lined up on the square ready to move off for Norway. One can only imagine her state of mind as she waited at the barracks gate while one of the sentries went to find her husband.
When he finally came, it was with the news that he was not going to Norway – he had been promoted and held behind to carry on with training the troops. Thank goodness – as I child I can remember being told many men were lost in the Norway Invasion. Wikipedia states “The British lost 1,869 killed, wounded and missing on land and approximately 2,500 at sea.”
Years later when we moved up to Aberdeen, my dad was seconded to run to run the Aberdeen University Training Corps under Lt Colonel Thomas Broun Smith, QC – training potential army officers from the ranks of the students at Aberdeen University. He was later commissioned into the Gordon Highlanders, wearing the kilt and continuing to conduct training maneuvers in the Highlands of Scotland – with the same outstanding qualities of character.
I still have his Regular Army Certificate of Service – a small, slim, red book that details every step of his army career. The Final Assessment of Conduct and Character, completed personally in the handwriting of his Commanding Officer, Lt Colonel Tom B Smith, was “Exemplary”.
It begins in the City of London, right in Regents Street. It was there in one of the greatest and busiest cities of the world that a very small girl found her favorite haunt on the top floor of a wonderful toy shop – was it Hamleys or Gammages?
My mom, dad and I were living in Chelsea Barracks close to the Thames and Big Ben. Even as a small child I got used to looking for the light on top of Big Ben that showed Parliament was sitting.
We were part way through a whirlwind of army life. I realized later at the age of 16 I had lived in 16 different houses scattered through the country in towns as far apart as Derby, Caterham, Aldershot, Windsor, London and Aberdeen.
What I didn’t know then was that much more travel was to follow.
In fact, it was some years before it dawned on me that travel was (and still is) the always recurring theme in my dreams. Whatever else appears In my sleep, I am usually going somewhere, traveling along a road or trying to find my way… Journeying.
Model Railway – Hamleys or Gammages?
Back to Model Railways. We used to frequent both Hamleys and Gammages. In all of those enormous stores, with all their floors and dazzling displays of toys, my favorite place was right up on the mezzanine under the roof where the toy trains lived in – I think it was Gammages. Strange that it wasn’t the dolls departments – or even the teddy bears. I much preferred teddy bears to dolls, which I didn’t have much time for. But no, it wasn’t even the teddy bear department that drew me like a magnet. It was the model trains.
I could have stayed for hours – and probably did – watching the trains come and go, walking around the huge oval model railway display that circled right round the balustrade of the mezzanine floor. In and out of the little stations they clattered, along the winding tracks, through the tunnels in the hilly landscape. YES – those hills: for some unexplained reason, they had a fascination for me. Gammages’ train tracks were beautifully landscaped and I was fascinated by the green, paper mache sculptured landforms that made the journeys of those little trains such a joy to watch.
I always wanted a train set. I never got one, and in all truth if I had, it would probably have been a disappointment. Without all those wonderful hills and tunnels, I doubt that it would have really satisfied.
My dad with his artistic skills could have made a landscape for me – if he had the time. I remember an indoor target range he made for the London Scottish regiment with a green landscape made of plywood flats where tanks and other targets appeared and disappeared, running on hidden rails between the hills – quite like the trains, in fact. The night he took me to see that still sticks in my memory.
I was a city girl, born into a Brigade of Guards family, used to living in barracks around London and Windsor and used to hearing my father drilling troops on the square daily. The only hills I had seen were on train journeys between Derby and London – visiting my dad before we moved up to London to live with him in barracks – and of course at Gammages. Now, I am a lover of steam railways and vintage British Rail Posters.
Then when I was 8 we moved from London to Aberdeen, living initially in a suburb on the edge of town and later moving to the village of Peterculter, on the Deeside road to Balmoral. There I had my first encounter with cows – right over the fence of the small house we lived in. The hills didn’t make any great impression though – that was to come later.