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18/7/2007

STRAITS HOUSE WARTIME MEMORIES

The long running sale of the Straits House pub is finally and sadly complete, after Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries received a reported 1.2 million from Birmingham property firm William Ashley Developments Ltd.

As the local community contemplates the reality of this historic building being carved up into 24 apartments, Yampy was grateful to receive a timely reminder of its former glory in the form of an interesting and vivid contribution from Peter Bent, whose family were once its proud owners:

The Straits House/Hall was a beautiful secluded private country house, set in its own small estate, with outbuildings such as coach houses, a large barn (complete with barn owls & a colony of bats, substantial horse stables, cow sheds, pig sties, chicken sheds etc. It also possessed a most beautiful kitchen garden, complete with box hedges edging the large well kept vegetable beds, a west wall with at least two potting sheds, and a fantastic number of old apple trees, one of which had mistletoe growing on it. There were also damson trees,pear trees and every conceivable variety of currant, including blackcurrant, red currant & white currant bushes - also "logan" berries (a large type of rasberry).

All this and the rest of the gardens too, which included and still includes a beautiful walnut tree to one side of the house - which now has a baby tree growing next to it.

The old house, and the private estate in the middle of which it stood in its heyday, bears little resemblance to its modern setting - though Masefield Road follows virtually the exact path of the old carriage drive, which went from the main road through the Straits. The old porters lodge was on the right side going up. Mr.Leach, the marvellous gardener who looked after the grounds and much else for my family, lived there with his own family - a wonderful gentleman.

During the Second World War, the Straits House was the headquarters of the local Homeguard Company, raised by my father - Mr.E.J.Bent - himself a First World War veteran. He had been slightly gassed whilst serving on horseback with the Royal Horse Artillery in France.

In the early days of the Second World War the local "ARP" post was also situated in one of the stables adjacent to the farmyard - the warden at that time being our gardener Mr. Leach, who was also an ex First World War soldier, having been a lewis gunner in the trenches. He commenced working at the Straits House as a gardener for my great grandfather (Edward Wones), served in the army during 1914/18 and then returned to his job at the Straits after the War.

My father had the cellars re-enforced with pit-props at the beginning of the 2nd World War in case of a direct hit from a bomb, because German bombers frequently used to fly directly overhead, on their way to the Black Country furnaces and to poor old Birmingham. It was not only used by my family but also anyone from the Straits was always welcome to come & shelter there too, and quite a few did. We all knew each other, and what marvellous friendly people they were too.

I remember my grandmother saying that if she was going to die because of bombs being dropped, then she was going to make sure that she was at least comfortable in bed to start with! I believe she did grudgngly change her mind after quite a few bombers had thundered ovehead.

The bombers probably followed the River Severn so many kilometers North & then turned Eastwards to find the Black Country & Birmingham. More than once our fields were covered with the narrow strips of tin foil they dropped attempting to fool our radar, and which I was given strict instructions not to touch. Naturally I did, but realised later in life that possible chemical warfare was expected and that the wretched things could have been contaminated - I'm still here.

We all had gas masks. I was terrified of mine, a ghastly pink imitation of Mickey Mouse. Enough to frighten the birds off the trees! I learnt later in life that although everybody in the UK was issued with a gas mask, the German civilians were not issued with them.

Many a time in the mornings there were huge splinters of shrapnel (pieces of anti-aircraft shells) stuck almost halfway through the tree trunks in the gardens - enough to take your head off. These were from our anti-aircraft guns firing at the bombers. No wonder Dad wouldn't let us go outside to watch
the planes overhead - his dreadful experiences during the Ist World War made him only too aware of what could easily happen, although he would be somewhere in the area outside, with the Homeguard company he formed from local men, waiting in case German paratroopers landed. They were expected at any moment.

It wasn't particularly like "Dad's Army", although he used to roar with laughter at the TV series. I think there were also basic measures in place to give any panzer tank commander a bit of a shock.I expect the old place and us with it might well have been blown to smithereens, but there would most certainly have been opposition.

The Old Straits House really was a much loved family home to four generations of my family and to see how very much it had changed through the years was, to put it mildly, a shock. The conversion of its beautiful kitchen garden into a car park (losing in the process the fantastic productivity of excellently maintained vegetable beds, filled with some of the finest black loam).. the cutting down of ancient fruit trees still highly productive and consisting of old English varieties never to be seen now.. the large area of its fields lost forever.. the farmyard.. the large brick-built barn together with its wild life.. the coach houses (certainly four).. the horse stabling (enough I think for 5 - possibly more & including a tack room).. the hay lofts overhead (they were all two storey buildings - more than enough for a smallholding).. the two cottages halfway down the drive and the original porters lodge at the drive entrance - later to become home to our gardener & his family.

However, since then and thanks to the kindness & hospitality of various landlords , I have been able to look round some of the interior and have a drink in our old kitchen - which became a bar, and even entertain some of my cousins in the old drawing room (another bar). To cap it all I have attended the birthday party of my best friend's daughter, held in the function room. This was where we basically lived all through the 1940's & early 1950's , in its former role as the breakfast room (at least part of it - the other bit was the china pantry!)

I've also been kindly allowed to stand at the head of the cellar stairs, & close my eyes & wait for the fabulous smell of earth covered potatoes to waft upwards - as I used to do as a small lad. It didn't materialise, but I was very grateful to be allowed to try & savour the atmosphere once again.

I am very well aware how very fortunate I was to have been brought up in such a beautiful old place & count it a great blessing, but I cannot but feel that the local area has lost quite an important time capsule, a real jewel - what a tragedy!