Preston people: The Althams of Crunnells Green House
In 1961, Richard (Dick) James Livingstone and Rowena Jeanne Altham moved to Crunnells Green House, Preston - a large, detached house on the corner of Crunnells Green Lane and School Lane. They lived there until December 1999. They are shown below with their three sons circa 1964
Dick was the only son of Harry CBE, DSO, MC and Winifred Altham. Harry was a renowned luminary in the world of cricket, rubbing shoulders with the likes of E W Swanton and John Arlott and writing books such as The History of Cricket. Wisden said of him, ‘among the best known personalities in the world of cricket’. Harry had been a major in the 60th Rifles during WWI and then taught at Winchester College for thirty years. Rowena (as she prefers to be known these days) was the oldest daughter of Sir Francis Spencer Portal and Rowena Selby. Sir Francis was a captain in the Welsh Guards, High Sheriff of Hampshire (1963) and the owner of a 300-year-old paper mill in North Hampshire. The couple’s engagement and marriage at Winchester Cathedral in 1957 was noted in The Tatler.
Dick played cricket for Hertfordshire in the Minor Counties Championship and a couple of matches for Oxford University. He was also a Vice President of Preston Cricket Club (c1967) and a President of the club between 1970 and 1982 at least, writing the Forward to the club’s 1882 - 1982 history. ‘Business commitments ...limited his playing appearances’ - he was with ICI, Welwyn when the family moved to Preston. Nevertheless, Dick was also a Chairman of the Preston Trust and involved in charity work, receiving the CBE for ‘services to young people and to Book Aid’ in 2000.
Dick and Rowena chatting with former England cricket captain Colin Cowdrey during the June 1982 centenary match between Preston CC and the MCC. They held a barbecue for 150 people in their garden in the evening.
On arriving at Preston in 1961...
Rowena: Between the garden and the lane was a solid thicket with nightingales and rats. Due to the latter the thicket had to go, so farewell nightingales too. On the other side of the lane were mature elm trees which all died with 'elm disease'. On the other side of the property was a field which we hoped to buy but lost it to Mr and Mrs Richard Bizzy who built a charming home and then sold it to Mr and Mrs Cook, who exchanged properties with Mr and Mrs Hayhurst. Mr Hayhurst gained permission to pull it down and build the current house next to Crunnells Green House. I have always understood that 'Crunnells Green' is really Cromwell's Green. (Ed. This was also commented on by Reginald Hine in his History of Hitchin, although he probably confused Crunnells Geen with Preston Green) During World War II, Crunnells Green House was where the Land Army girls lived. (Ed. This was interesting information. My mother was a land-girl at nearby Lady Grove Farm during this time and I am intrigued that perhaps she had lodged at Crunnells Green House.) Lutyens did not sign the Crunnells Green House plans, so the building was not ‘listed’. This is very likely because the inside was not up to his standards. The downstairs fireplaces were out of proportion to the size of the rooms and the alcoves in the middle room had a few old shelves tucked into them. An architect from Baldock redesigned it and thought that the ceiling was too high for the width of the wall and put a curtain rail around the walls, papering above and painting below. The house was cold with open fire places. Any heat in a room with no fire in the grate went straight up the chimney! Central heating downstairs was our first priority. The kitchen had two ovens, a table and a dresser. The sink was through a door to the scullery or utility room and the larder was through another door off that. Storage for plates and cutlery was in a 'pantry' off the hall. There was a drying line for the laundry outside. I still own a field at Preston. A deeply-buried six-feet-wide gas pipe crosses it.
Crunnells Green House and garden in the 1990s
A Preston Woman’s Institute Paris jaunt
Air travel for all in 1961 was a very new concept. Patricia Seebholm with Audrey Geidt discovered it was possible to spend a day in Paris from Luton for only £9 a head. Very few of the village residents had ever been up in a plane, so why not give them the experience! A flurry of activity and excitement followed - obtaining passports and French franks. "What is it like to fly?" someone asked. “Like going much too fast over a hump-backed bridge when your stomach gets left behind!" Not a bad description of flying at that period, sick bags were standard for every passenger.Luton check in time was 06:30 for the first departure of the day. Then, for only £9, we had the return flight between Luton and Bauvais, coach from Bauvais to Paris and a guided bus tour around the centre of Paris with sundry stops, a simple, well-presented three-course lunch - small omelettes on salad, chicken with french fries and peas, cheese and biscuits followed by an ice cream. A member from Langley had never seen an omelette before and was afraid to eat it. After lunch we were released for two hours in the centre of Paris to explore or shop. We then returned to Bauvais airport by bus full of chatter about the experiences. Aubrey Geidt had a damaged hand through some mishap in a shop and was anxious to get back to her own Doctor. But expectantly awaiting the flight call, we were informed that there was to be an indefinite delay - our plane had done a second trip and gone sick so was undergoing repairs. There followed no food and a four-hour delay. The plane eventually arrived with the poor air hostesses on their knees with exhaustion. On arrival at Luton, most of the village greeted the plane fearing the worst had happened to their wives. There was no repeat of this jaunt - the organisers said the responsibility was too great.
St Martin’s Church organ
St Martin’s organ, kindly photographed by Philip Leaver
There were several changes of vicars, however one of them wanted to change the little pipe organ for an electronic organ. Stewart McConville (the Church Warden) was unwell, I didn’t know the answer, but Canon Caesar from the Chapel Royal was an organist and an old friend of the family and so I consulted him. He asked me to provide a really good lunch and he would invite his old friend Noel Mander (the organ-builder who rebuilt the organ at St Paul's Cathedral, London) for a drive to the country with this as a focus. Their decision was unanimous: “It is very good Eagle Chamber organ perfect for a village because a piano player could provide the music. Secondly, it was already over 100 years old and, repaired, would possibly continue to serve another seventy-five or more years - whereas the life of anything electronic is short and then repair parts are unobtainable and the village would have to raise funds to replace it. But, why not have some Bourdon pipes added for more volume to the sound? This was done, in Cambridge, with Canon Caesar playing for a celebration village concert. Canon Caesar, PHC , the village school and various musicians in the village performed, interspersed with congregational singing. A happy result! While narrating this saga to a friend, another organ scholar, I discovered she had been at PHC and played the organ when it was pumped by hand ! She said the boy would get fed-up if there were too many verses to a hymn and give up so with a groan the sound ended!
In preparation for a possible nuclear strike in the 1960s.....
(Note: This is likely a reference to the Civil Defence Dispersal Scheme) In the 1960s, the 'Cold War' was an anxiety so the Women's Voluntary Service called for volunteers in Preston (which had been selected as an evacuation centre) to train for an emergency dispersal of Londoners due to an atomic bomb threat. This involved setting up a field kitchen to feed 1,000 people - information I have mercifully never had to use. There were several courses. I attended the one on feeding 2000 people by cooking on an open fire. We had to construct the fire ourselves from 200 bricks and were given dimensions - all very precise. Catering quantities; organising a potato peeling work force; everything was covered. Cooked food was kept warm in hay; washing up water drained through hay to remove any fat which was then burned. PHC was something important. However, Dick's work changed and we were sent to live for two years in France. I quickly realised that cooking rabbit stew and spuds for 2000 critical Londoners was not my strong point.
Rowena’s gallery of Preston people
A study of Sam Smith who ran the village shop
A charcoal sketch of a young girl who lived at Chequers Lane, identity unknown. It was likely drawn between 1985 and 1999
Above, Mrs Helen Sharp who lived at Poynders End and, right, Harry Boxall of Lower Crunnells Green
Dancing on Preston Green in 1971
Dick and Rowena left Preston at the end of 1999, hoping that a move would help an illness which was manifesting itself. The couple divorced soon afterwards and Dick died in the Peterborough area in the summer of 2005. At the time of writing, Rowena was living in Cambridgeshire.