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Tales of Christmas past in the county of Derbyshire

After the horrors of war, parents did their upmost to provide children with a happy and plentiful Christmas Photo: Getty Images
After the horrors of war, parents did their upmost to provide children with a happy and plentiful Christmas Photo: Getty Images

The festive season can be a nostalgic time. Derbyshire-born author Christine Palmer will never forget her childhood Christmases in 54 South Derbyshire and the special moments spent wit

A large red cabbage and a basket of pickling onions always heralded the start of our family Christmas preparations.

They usually arrived on the kitchen table at the end of November, carefully selected by my father at the open market in Derby.

The onions were soaked in warm water, then my father would undergo the arduous task of peeling them, leaving his hands brown and eyes streaming.

Mum and I would select the spices, which we tied up in little muslin bags, heated the vinegar and assembled everything in ‘Kilner’ jars.

Years later my boyfriend, who worked at Rolls-Royce, invited me before Christmas to meet his landlady Mrs Blore, who lived in Normanton.

Delightful, but understandably strict, Mrs Blore only allowed visiting young ladies to sit in her dark and gloomy kitchen.

Imagine my horror when I saw a line of large ‘Kilner’ jars on the window ledge, with what appeared to be a pickled hand suspended in each one.

Seeing my surprise, Mrs Blore explained one of her other gentleman lodgers was a bookie at the Greyhound Stadium. ‘Lovely little man’ she assured me, ‘got tiny hands’.

At this point I was already thinking Sweeney Todd. Fortunately, she explained, all bookies when communicating over the crowds with another bookie wore white cotton gloves.

‘So, I scrounged a few’ she continued, ‘perfect for putting my spices in’.

Along with pickled onions, she had pickled red cabbage and piccalilli, with each jar sporting a small white hand which appeared to be waving in an attempt to escape.

In his In search of lost time the French author Marcel Proust describes how the aroma of madeleine cakes heralded his childhood memories.

The French call it a ‘Madeleine Moment’. For me the Christmas cake, not just the joyous smell of it cooking, but the beginning of its conception, evokes Christmas memories.

Great British Life: Christmas can evoke many nostalgic memories of times gone by Photo: Getty ImagesChristmas can evoke many nostalgic memories of times gone by Photo: Getty Images

In late November my mother and I would pay a hallowed visit to Hodgkinson’s in the Cornmarket. I say hallowed as Hodgkinson’s was an emporium of top-quality dried fruits, spices, coffee, ham and cheeses whose odours had over the years been absorbed into the dark wood-panelled interior and seductively embraced customers as they entered.

Most goods were weighed on huge brass scales, then poured into brown paper bags or wrapped in crisp white paper. My mother, who had worked in Green Park in London as a ladies’ maid, was familiar with similar establishments.

Always elegantly dressed, she would encourage me in my look-a-like Princess Elizabeth velvet collared coat to, when invited, sample the dried fruits and cheeses. I had tasted Stilton, Cheddar and Derbyshire green at an early age.

After, we would purchase the ingredients for the Christmas cake, pudding, and mincemeat. Then, as a special treat, a box of ‘Newberry Fruits’ for me and ‘Buttered Brazils’ for my mother.

When I came to write about Hodgkinson’s and extensively search archives for a photograph, I was disappointed as nothing seems to exist. Had I dreamed it, I wondered? Feeling a little uncertain I emailed my friend Ann who, like me, is a Derbyshire girl.

‘Yes,’ she replied ‘it was Hodgkinson’s. We used to shop there but it went years ago. It always used to smell nice’.

Ann reminded me we used to go to Bond’s on Sadlergate and on their paper bags was a little rhyme.

‘Sing a song of bacon,

sizzling in the pan

Sending out an aroma

as only bacon can.

When the frying’s over

the family gather round

this is better bacon.

Bonds’ I’ll be bound.

Inspired by Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol, Christmas became more orientated around children, and was seen as a time for caring and sharing.

Born just after the Second World War I think most parents, no matter their circumstances, sought to give their children a happy and plentiful Christmas. My parents were not well off but like most of my friends our stockings were full.

Great British Life: Christine's treasured dolls-house, which now resides in a local playgroup Photo: Christine PalmerChristine's treasured dolls-house, which now resides in a local playgroup Photo: Christine Palmer

Aged six I dropped hints about the dolls-house I had seen in the Derby Co-op. Sadly, no one seemed to notice and as my letter to Father Christmas didn’t go up the chimney but dropped annoyingly into the fire, I wasn’t hopeful.

However, my brother Len, who was 21 years my senior, seemed to be spending a lot of time with my father in the shed at the bottom of the garden, although it never occurred to me they were constructing a dolls-house.

Imagine my delight when, on Christmas morning, there it stood, standing majestically by the tree in the sitting-room.

It was no ordinary dolls-house, and a cut-above the one in the Co-op, but a double fronted half-timbered house with leaded windows.

It was, I recognised, the same style of house my mum aspired to as we travelled by bus from Derby to Nottingham on our bi-annual shopping spree.

Each room was decorated with wallpaper offcuts. My aunts and uncles had bought a selection of furniture complete with rugs, bedding and tiny crocheted cushions.

The ‘piece de resistance’ came in the evening when my father turned off our house lights and revealed a little hatch in the roof which housed batteries and a switch that illuminated a tiny bulb in every room.

It gave me - and later our children and six grand-children - enormous pleasure and now resides with a Derbyshire playgroup. Hopefully the lights still work.

Boot’s the Chemist, situated on the corner of East Street, was the first shop in Derby, I believe, to have an escalator, which afforded my friends and I fun before being told off.

Sadly, I’m now cautious of going down an escalator, whereas in those days I could walk down backwards.

Boot’s had one of the best Christmas gift catalogues. I would spend hours browsing it, working out if my pocket-money would cover the gifts I wanted to buy, or whether I would have to dip into my Post Office savings accounts.

Aunts would usually receive bath salts or talcum powder, or both if I could afford a gift box. My mother, a bottle of ‘Blue grass’ perfume, and for my three best friends pretty, initialled handkerchiefs or writing paper and envelopes for the dreaded ‘thank you’ letters one was expected to write.

Another Christmas treat was going with mum to collect our Co-op ‘divi’. We had to go to the Co-op head office and stand in a queue, then state our name, address and ‘divi’ number.

Mum used to let me say the number ‘54545’, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Once we had collected our divi we would purchase my father a new pipe. One year, after he and I had been reading Heidi together, I chose a curved one, the same as Heidi’s grandfather’s.

It now resides in a stone niche in our medieval turret in France evoking a ‘Madelaine Moment’ when the sun warms it up and releases the smell of ‘Condor sliced’, my father’s favourite tobacco.

The run up to Christmas became a family affair as we would often help my Auntie Dot and Uncle Bob at their farm at Cross-o-the-Hands as they prepared the poultry they had bred for Christmas.

Most of the plucking and dressing was done in the outbuildings. As I didn’t like the tiny feathers getting up my nose, I would sit in the kitchen playing with an assortment of goose, turkey and chicken feathers.

Great British Life: The Girl with the Hoop Photo: Christine PalmerThe Girl with the Hoop Photo: Christine Palmer

Above me was a painting allegedly by Derbyshire artist Frank Beresford who, as a friend of my aunt and uncle, had exchanged it for a supply of goose eggs.

Unlike ‘the girl with the pearl ear-ring’ it is unfinished, but the young woman it portrays holding a hoop, displays to me a similar poignance.

Even at a young age I was creating stories around her. Happily, and not unsurprisingly, I inherited it a few years ago.

Derby Hills Farm was a childhood paradise. It was possibly 200 years old, beamed, with a farmyard that gave shelter to cows, calves, geese, chickens and cats that sat on the wall which separated the yard from the front door.

The view, which from the house could only be seen from a small pantry window, celebrated the rolling hills of Derbyshire.

At Christmas the pantry’s stone shelves were ladened with poultry, meats, cakes, preserves, vegetables, mince pies, the Christmas cake and my favourite - shortbread biscuits. My Aunt’s secret ingredient for the biscuits was a teaspoonful of dried ginger which enhanced their flavour.

If we visited on Boxing Day or just after Christmas, we always had beef, and my aunt would make her own horseradish sauce.

The horseradish was from the garden and, wherever I have moved to, I’ve taken horseradish from the original Derby Hills Farm plant. I continue to use my aunt’s recipe.

My aunt adored flowers and taught me to draw and press them in the family bible which still bears the stains.

At Christmas her sister and her husband would supply bowers of holly from the Kedleston Hall estate where they worked.

My uncle John, as head gamekeeper, strongly disapproved of people cutting holly from the estate and would often shoot his gun into the air to scare them away. However, my aunt would always cycle over with a huge bunch tied on the back of her bike.

I continue to enjoy Christmas despite the hype and technology, and after seeing and enjoying - to my surprise - the recent Barbie film I might be tempted to ask Father Christmas for a Barbie doll.

However, I will be forever grateful for my childhood memories of a Derbyshire Christmas and feel privileged to pass the memories onto my children and grandchildren.



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