Those Were The Days

When Graham and Linda Dean bought Bridge Cottage, the Bridge Cafť, a large shed and one petrol pump in 1955 they took on more than they bargained for.

The old cottage had peeling wallpaper, roof tiles you had to adjust when it rained, and a flagstone floor that was liable to flooding in winter. All domestic water had to be hand-pumped from a 40 foot well. The outside toilet was a flimsy affair and soon blew away in some strong winds. As for the drainage, they had no idea where the contents went as the previous owner had declared it was ďa mystery.Ē But Graham and Linda solved the mystery when they found the pigs next door were wallowing in it. They used Elsan toilets for a long time.

Graham had his own vehicle repair business in the shed that he called Bridge Garage. Buried behind the shed the Deans discovered a cache of food, probably forgotten black market goods hidden by Henry Slater in World War 2. It was Henry who opened the Bridge Cafť during the war, in an annexe behind the cottage. Linda kept it on. The Deans added another petrol pump and a little kiosk to the side of the cottage where you could buy sweets and cigarettes as well as pay for your petrol. They also obtained permission to build a proper garage, and on the domestic front they fitted a deep well pump.

With the addition of two self-drive hire cars to the garage side, things were just getting going when the Suez crisis in 1956 led to a slump in oil and petrol rationing. Business did not look good until Graham had the bright idea to join the latest trend and breed minks for the fur trade. He started with six minks and finished up with a hundred kept in cages behind the garage. Feeding and killing them was another matter. They ate scraps that Graham collected in his ex-post office van from various butchers, slaughterhouses and food factories that took him as far as Shepton Mallett. The minks were killed in a box fed with carbon monoxide from a car exhaust, skinned, and the skins sold to the Hudson Bay Company in London for £20-£30 apiece.

That was fine but sometimes the animals escaped and usually went next door to the Kingís Head, to the annoyance of Cecil Newton. Graham found it best to use raw liver to tempt them back. Once, when Graham was off round the pub after a fugitive mink with a handful of liver, he startled a motorcyclist at the pumps waiting to be served. The customer was horrified to see the garage proprietorís hand dripping blood! Graham hastily explained that he couldnít serve until he had caught an animal that was loose. The motorcyclist just had to wait and ponder on the mysterious ways of country folk.

With the end of the petrol crisis things began to look up. After a while Linda gave up the cafť and concentrated on the seasonal B&B, using the annexe as their living area. That left 3 bedrooms for letting and a lounge for guests in the cottage. Sometimes motorists stranded in the night would knock them up for petrol, which they didnít appreciate, so they would leave a gallon can filled ready. Regulars knew to take the can and leave the money, but one time some soldiers took the can, left some money but came back and took that too, so that was the end of that.

Helping out in a crisis is part of village life and Grahamís skills and tools made him invaluable. Freeing a cow with its head stuck between some iron bars is a hard task at the best of times, but in the middle of a field on a dark and cold, snowy winterís night it has to be almost heroic. However, towing his oxyacetylene welding gear and cutters behind the farmerís pick-up across the snow-covered field, Graham reached the poor cow. Using the pick-ups headlights to see by, he managed to cut through the bars as Francis Crossman, the farmer, held the animal. Once free the cow was none the worse for its ordeal.

By the big freeze of the winter of 1962/63, the Deans were getting their domestic water from Clump Farm and the pipe that served Bridge Cottage was buried in the structure of the bridge. The water pipe froze that bad winter and Graham and Linda were without water for several weeks, so Mr Stratton, the farmer, supplied them with water in churns.

In 1971 a new phase in the life of the Dean family started. They moved out of Chitterne to Deptford, but they still owned Bridge Cottage and the garage. It was business as usual at the garage for Graham but the cottage and petrol pump were let to a series of tenants. Their first tenant was Ron Clarke, his French wife and their much-loved cat. One day a passing car struck this cat and it dashed off and hid in one of the storm drain outlets in the little field opposite the cottage. Graham tried to get the cat out, but failed. Ron rescued it when he returned from work but it died. Graham saw him rush off late in the evening that same day, and on asking Mrs Clarke where he had gone, was told that he was taking the catís body to a taxidermist as they were getting the cat stuffed. Sure enough, Graham soon saw the finished stuffed cat, but it never looked right to him and Linda thought its eyes were all wrong!

There were very few dull moments in those days, but every era ends. In 1996 Bridge Cottage was sold and in 2000 Graham closed his business at Bridge Garage.