Cosy Corners in Depression and War
Autobiography of Joan Hughes
The story of one person's nests


By the Spring of 1983, my chest was still weak, but the acute bronchitis with raised temperature was not happening so often. In a determination to improve my health, most days I cut sandwiches and took a walk along the river bank. Often I was puffing and blowing, but thought that if I collapsed, I would rather it happen in the open air than indoors where no- one would notice.

I was signing on as unemployed; the doctor would not give me a sick note. I felt that I ought to have one, as I was not feeling well enough to tackle a new job. But I felt too weak to argue my case with anyone, unfortunately. This doctor's practice was unsatisfactory. Eventually I signed on with the new practise at Clapton. By this time my chest was sufficiently improved for the doctors to find nothing wrong. They sent me for a chest X- ray and gave me a thorough examination. I reported that while walking, I had attacks of breathlessness which sometimes prevented me from any further exertion, and forced me to seek shelter. They gave me a prescription for a liquid medicine designed to enlarge breathing tubes in an emergency. I wished that I had had this medicine a year ago when my trouble had been more serious.

I was making no progress in obtaining work. At this time I found I was eligible for Housing Benefit but not for any further unemployment benefit. I managed to pay my way from interest on savings and was thankful for the Housing Benefit. Inflation was rampart but interest rates were exceptionally high. I just managed to pay my way, practising strict economy.

I determined to keep going, and continued my walks along the Lea River bank, either alone or with a group. This river was bordered by Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes, which Jane and John Nash had worked so hard to prevent being converted into gravel pits. I joined the Hackney Marsh users society and did some very interesting walks with them. These were the days before the Lea Valley Park Authority had tended the marsh area and put in recognised pathways. There were few walkers, but I feel the marsh was more interesting then than it is now.

There was much giant hogweed growing by the river bank; this weed is dangerous if sucked. Unfortunately it has a hollow stem and children have been known to use it as a blow-pipe! This produces unpleasant swellings on the lips and tongue. Even if touched, it can produce sores and swellings on any area of the skin.

By the Spring of 1983, I was doing regular week-end walks with the "Lea Valley Forum", a user's group concerned with Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes. This was entirely separate from Jane and John Nash's "Save the Marshes" group.

There were a series of six Thursday evening outdoor meetings to explore the marshes and help plan the future of the Lea Valley park around the Hackney area. These were the walks I most enjoyed taken in the company of about 20 other people.

On 12th May: The Lea Bridge Filter Beds and Millfields.

On 26th May: Around Hackney Marshes.

On 9th June: Springfield Park and Walthamstow Reservoirs. (We had to get permission to take the group alongside the reservoirs, and this was been my first walk in this area).

23rd June: Low Hall and Leyton Marshes.

7th July: Bully Fen.

21st July: Walthamstow Reservoirs. (This was to give another group of people the chance to walk alongside the reservoirs with permission). I have not done this walk again, but all the other areas are partly available for public use. Some of the ground was owned by British Railways. Our present group did not ask permission to walk there, but we were very careful not to disturb anything we found in this area. Most of the walks are now freely available to the public, and access has been improved by the Park Authorities.

But though access has been improved, it makes the Marsh less exciting. Those walks with the Hackney Marsh User's Group have been unmatched. The organisers did not hurry anyone along. A woman who said she was seventy years of age was quite able to keep up. The narrow path by the river bank was quite slippery and it was no good trying to hold on to the giant hog- weed plants. The sap from this type of hogweed causes blistering of the skin. If necessary, I had to hold on to Laurie Elks or one of the other younger men with a good balance. At this time I took many photographs which remain in my album. Sometimes the reflections from a puddle of water in the gravel path looked interesting, or some unusual wild flowers and especially the giant hogweed in late summer with its red seed-heads. There used to be an old bomb crater filled with water near the path; I have a photograph of this. We were able to scramble on many parts of the wild marsh.

Now the bomb crater has been filled in and replaced by a ditch filled with water, where reeds are encouraged to grow. My "secret" blackberry bush has been uprooted. All my favourite places have been changed, and made to look more formal and subject to park management. The marsh is still pleasant but less of a wild, free place and more like a "wild park". Such is the fate of many places in our over-hurried, motorised way of life in the 1990s.

In the spring of 1983, I started an open university course called social psychology. It was a third level course, and I had had no previous experience in the study of psychology, so it was rather ambitious for me. But I enjoyed doing it, much more than the half-level in Crime and Society, which I had taken in 1982, when I had felt too ill to do very much. In 1983 my health was improving. One of the exercises was an observation on people engaged in work activity, and I chose to observe a group of young men repairing cars in the road where I lived. This was fun and the young men were not aware of what I was doing.

In 1983 I noticed an advertisement on the back page of the "Catholic Herald." A society called Catholic Peace Action were planning to hold a prayer service combined with a protest against the Trident Nuclear Weapon and similar weapons of war outside the Ministry of Defence building in Whitehall.

I answered this advertisement and a group of people visited my house in the spring of 1983. They planned to hold a demonstration with prayer on the steps of the Ministry of Defence in October. They showed a leaflet giving photographs of people previously involved on Ash Wednesday that year. Four people had chained themselves together and had blocked the entrance. These were Sarah Hipperson, Pat Gaffney, Ray Towey and a young student called Patrick. They had also written signs in charcoal on the steps and pillars of the main entrance. The words written were "Repent," "Peace" and "Choose Life". They were demonstrating against nuclear weapons as a Christian group, with prayers being said before and during the action. The two people who visited me were Pat Gaffney and Ray Towey. Ray Towey was a consultant anaesthetist working at Guy's Hospital. Pat was a full- time worker in overseas charitable aid. The next action was planned for October 1983. They asked me if I would like to join it. I thought about it carefully. I pointed out that I had breathing problems from time to time. After much thought the symbolism of using chains did not appeal to me and I said that for this reason I could not join the action. I was also afraid of becoming ill suddenly which often happened to me during the cold weather in the winter of 1982/1983. Then I would have to leave the scene suddenly. This would not be possible if I was chained to other people. The way this action was set up disturbed me, and I said regretfully that I could not take part.

In October that year I was not present even as an observer. This was due to the cold weather, which aggravated the bronchitis which had plagued me most of the year. However I was keen to support and offered £140 as a donation from "my father and myself" though I do not think Dad would have wholly approved. He was against spending money on Trident Nuclear Weapons, but was more politically than religiously opposed to them. I do not think he would have considered an unofficial Catholic group the right way to go about protesting against nuclear weapons.

I thought that these weapons were entirely immoral and would have been glad if the Catholic Church and other Christian churches had totally opposed their manufacture. So I was very pleased that a Catholic group had been set up to oppose nuclear weapons. At the same time I wanted also to oppose these weapons through the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I thought that wholly secular groups opposing the weapons for moral reasons equally valid and supported all such groups if I could summon the energy to do so. In 1983 my energy reserves were low. I was often out of breath while walking but continued to take sandwiches and walk along the river bank very often in an effort to improve my health.

In the summer of 1983, my father asked me to spend two weeks at Gordona as he intended to enter hospital to have an operation for a rupture. Until that time he been satisfactorily wearing a truss and continuing to do some gardening. That year he bought a "Fly-Mo" electric motor for cutting the lawns and was delighted with it. It was like a new toy. When I visited him I used it to cut the grass at the back of the house.

After two or three days spent with Dad cutting the grass, the ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital in Colchester. He declared that he would face this operation in the same way as he had faced going to the trenches int the First World War. I thought this was a very dramatic way of putting things.

I spent two weeks alone in the house at Gordona; I was worried about signing on unemployed in Hackney and was glad to return to London after Dad arrived home. He had meals on wheels and regular visits from a nurse. By then my chest was playing up. I decided to have a week or two in Eastbourne and went to the Melody Hotel, a bed and breakfast place I had visited in 1982. It was pleasant. I visited Marjorie and met her uncle, aged about 97, and her two friends Teresa, a nurse and Hope who lived opposite Marjorie and used to travel on the train with her when they had both commuted to london. I took Marjorie some cakes which I had bought in Eastbourne. She gave me a chicken dinner that day, and we sat on the verandah in the garden in the afternoon. Marjorie told me that looking after her uncle was a full-time occupation.

After I returned from Eastbourne it was time to go to York University. I saw the geese again and enjoyed walking along the covered paths to the various laboratories and meeting rooms for tutorials. There was one older woman doing the course. I did badly with the practical work.

By Christmas 1983 I was feeling better and was able to visit my father in Manningtree. This was the last Christmas when his health remained fairly good and he insisted on cooking the complete Christmas dinner. I went to church at 5 pm on Christmas Day. I think I had to walk a mile there but was given a lift home by someone with a car. The Mass was held in the Church of England Church at Mistley. For the rest of the time my father and I settled down to play some long games of chess. This was his favourite pastime.

before after


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Copyright Joan Hughes 1993-1997. Published with permission.