Made in the Fens

We moved to the Fens in the February before my eighth birthday, away from my extended family, who all came from Essex. I am happy to be an Essex Girl, with their ridiculous reputation, but the years spent in the Fens were far more formative.

This was fruit growing country, with huge fields, dykes and wide horizons. I lived in a small village, on the outskirts of Wisbech, where my father was the foreman of the biggest fruit farm around. There were orchards, where the apples and plums grew and where, as children, we hung out and vast acres of gooseberries and strawberries, which required extra help to get picked before being sent off to the jam factory.

My Dad would organise the fruit picking and I would go along on Saturday and sometimes Sunday mornings, during the strawberry picking season, when the fruit needed to be picked urgently, and earn dizzying amounts of extra money.

It was piece work, so you were paid for what you picked. You took each carton of fruit up to the scales, where it was weighed and you were given a token, which could be cashed in at the end of the week.

I’d be up at 5am at weekends to be out in the field as early as possible, before the heat of the sun made it uncomfortable. On Sundays we never worked beyond noon, anyway, in case workers wanted to attend church. I’d also go down after school, and stay until 6 or so, as that was when they packed up for the evening.

I’d save most of this money for our annual holiday, but some of it I’d spend on things I wanted, like my first pair of stilettos, (an Essex Girl after all) and going-out clothes. I had five shillings a week pocket money back then, the equivalent of 25p now, and I could earn ten shillings in a morning.

I loved having money and I think that, more than anything affected me. I still love having spare cash, to splash around. Most of my life I’ve been financially independent, and enjoyed the freedom and autonomy earning my own money has given me.

In our village, a contingent of cockneys, as we called them, came down to help pick the strawberries. This was fascinating for us, as they were different to us country people. I’d make friends with some of the girls, who probably should have been in school, who’d regale me with stories as to what was cool and what wasn’t, like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

But by far the most exciting occurrence happened on some of the other farms, as they brought foreign students in to help pick the fruit. These were virtually all young men and we young local girls were beside ourselves with excitement at their appearance in our midst.

The various camps would organise dances, usually on a Wednesday night, sometimes on a Friday as well, so as not to clash with the regular Saturday dance in the town. Coaches were laid on to take us and we’d regularly go to the Wednesday dance at the Friday Bridge Camp.

The students might only stay a couple of weeks, maximum three, before they’d go home and a fresh lot would arrive, so we had numerous short liaisons over the summer months. They invariably spoke very little English but that didn’t stop us being boyfriend and girlfriend for the time of their stay. The students came from a wide range of European countries.

Living, as I did, in a small backwater, it gave me a glimpse of another world. The mixture of having money and being in the company of those from other cultures was intoxicating. Those summer months were a giddy time, which didn’t last very long but widened my horizons. Besides motivating me to work hard and appreciate the financial rewards, I knew there was a big wide world out there waiting for me. I headed off to London, at 16 to find my way in it.

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