Memories of Sir Robert Grimston - from The Guardian(April 13, 2010)
The Conservative party fête was held at Chitterne Lodge by kind permission of Mrs Payne. As our MP, Mr Grimston, got up to speak, he put down his bowler hat, not on the table beside him which was draped with the union flag but on the chair behind him. He spoke about the need to support Mr Churchill in the struggle that lay ahead. Mr Grimston had been our MP since 1931. He had a thin moustache and a general air of severity. As he warmed to his theme, I noticed a small boy, smaller than I was myself, about four years old perhaps, crawling through the flowerbeds immediately behind Mr Grimston's chair, which was right at the edge of the sunlit lawn. The small boy took hold of the bowler hat with one hand, then got a firmer grip on it with both hands and rather slowly, almost ceremoniously, put it on his head so that it came down over his ears. It was impossible for any adult to reach him without crashing through Mrs Payne's flowerbeds. I do not know in what direction Mr Grimston's remarks were now turning, possibly the perils of socialism, but like the rest of his audience, I was gripped by what the small boy would do next. To our vast disappointment, at that moment a woman in a flowery dress risked her high heels on the rosebed and dragged the small boy away, snatching the hat from his head and replacing it on the chair. This is my earliest political memory: the sun-dappled lawn, the small boy and the bowler hat. It is my only memory of Mr, later Sir Robert, Grimston, who continued to represent Westbury until 1964, rising to become deputy speaker and later Lord Grimston of Westbury.
was not much in evidence in Chitterne. When Churchill finally got back
in, in 1951, the group captain who lived at the Grange stuck a union
flag pennant on the bonnet of his car and drove through the village
honking his horn. This was thought to be going too far. It was Groupie,
too, who, during the fuel shortages of 1947, complained to my father
about "the damned miners starving us of coal". But his was, I like to
think, a minority voice. (Pictured above a Liberal Party fete in Warminster in 1951 - the party was headed locally by Avenue headmaster Harold Dewey, who was a native of Chitterne)
The Westbury division began then and still begins in our village. As you come over Salisbury Plain from Stonehenge and down Shrewton Hill, you cross the constituency boundary. Samuel Pepys rode down the hill with his wife and family on the evening of 11 June 1668, having lost his way on the downs, and "with great difficulty come about 10 at night to a little inn, where we were fain to go into a room where a pedlar was in bed, and made him rise; and there wife and I lay, and in a truckle-bed Betty Turner and Willet". The servant here referred to only by her surname was the delectable Deb Willet, whom Pepys was later that year to be caught fondling by Mrs Pepys in a manner so intimate that he recorded it in the diary in the cod-Italian which he used for sexual encounters. The diary does not record how the commercial traveller felt about being turfed out. But Pepys was so grateful for his rescue from this trackless wilderness that he roared with laughter at the landlord's jokes about the henpecked sailors at Bristol. The next morning the Pepyses discovered that the beds they had thought good were in fact lousy. The great diarist was still so nervous about the wild country that he was relieved when the landlord of the White Hart volunteered to lead them the whole way across the constituency into Somerset.
Yet Pepys referred to this remote, almost inaccessible place as a "town". Nor was he misled in the darkness. Chitterne, like other downland villages, had once been much larger. As late as the mid-19th century the population had been 800, as opposed to no more than 250 in my childhood. Yet even in the 1950s, the village possessed a primary school, a racing stable, two firms of builders, a blacksmith, two shops, a village policeman in his tied police cottage on the Green, Mr Withers's fleet of two elderly buses, Graham Dean's garage, which he diversified into a mink farm during the Suez petrol shortage, not to mention the White Hart where the Pepyses stayed, and a post office next to the Baptist chapel. The last two were both operated by the amazing Frank Maidment, the "Bishop of Salisbury Plain", who preached the gospel and delivered the bread to even remoter villages for 75 years.
All gone now of course. I remember the White Hart closing after 300 years when I was in my teens, leaving only the King's Head in business next to where the garage/mink farm had been. There used to be six dairy farms, none now, though the milkman still calls. The number of farmworkers has gone down from 29 to four. The population has recovered a little after a couple of the abandoned farmyards were turned into pleasant little housing estates for commuters to Warminster and Salisbury. The bells of All Saints church may still ring on Sundays, but, like so many other villages, Chitterne is a quieter place than it used to be, just as pretty as it always was, but a little frozen. I am sure there are plenty of homeworkers tapping away on their Macs. But the hum of the keyboard does not quite have the same resonance as the clang of Alf Burt's hammer shoeing the steeplechasers of my youth.
As far back as 1893, the village schoolmaster Mr Brown recorded that "all the brightest boys look forward to getting away to the towns at the very first opportunity". How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Trowbridge? The four smallish towns that dominate the constituency – Warminster, Westbury, Bradford-on-Avon (now ceded under boundary changes to the new Chippenham seat) and Trowbridge, surprisingly the county town rather than Salisbury, all have delectable old centres – tall churches built on wool money, flint-and-brick cottages and superb classical mansions in Bath stone. The sheep still share the downland with the tanks (the army has been training on the plain since before the Great War), but the fine big mills are all converted into heritage centres or Poundstretchers.
Warminster, our nearest town, looks on the surface much as it did 50 years ago. The Old Bell and the Bath Arms still stare across the Market Place at each other, and the stationers Coates and Parker still publishes the Warminster Journal , which was the first place I scraped into print, with a rather over-dramatic account of the Mendip farmers point-to-point. Down the hill below the golf course still stands the imposing Portway House where I used to go to have electric shocks for my flat feet. Yet, as in all town centres nowadays, there are charity shops where there used to be grocers and greengrocers, and most places need a lick of paint. Half the premises in these towns seem to be given over to raising money for Alzheimer's sufferers and half the suburbs given over to homes for them. You begin to wonder whether short-term memory is somehow a casualty of modernity.
Politically, you might think that nothing much had changed in these parts. Ever since 1945, the Tory MP's majority has usually hovered somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000. The present incumbent, Andrew Murrison, is a former surgeon-commander in the navy who served in the first Gulf war and then, remarkably, after being elected went out to serve again as a Territorial in the Iraq war – no lounging by moat or duck-house for him.
Yet there is a significant underlying change here, as elsewhere in Wiltshire and much of southern England. Where once the runner-up was always Labour, today he or she is invariably Liberal (or now Lib Dem). In many ways, the revival of the Liberals is a return to an older tradition in Wessex, where nonconformist chapels abound. In the lowland parts of Wiltshire and Berkshire, where weaving has been the staple industry since the middle ages, you can trace the dissenting streak back to the Lollards.
But the immediate cause is the fading of Labour in the southern county constituencies of England. It is not so hard to explain. South-West Wiltshire, as the new constituency is called, is largely post-industrial, but Labour still is not quite. For the past half century, the party has been vainly struggling to extricate itself from the dominance of the trade unions – from Hugh Gaitskell's struggle to junk clause IV, through Harold Wilson's failure with In Place of Strife, to Tony Blair's efforts to free the party of financial dependence on the unions. Now after the scandal of the millionaire donors, Labour is back where it started, reliant on the unions and knee-deep in sleaze as well. Pepys, whose later career was dogged by accusations of "cash for influence", would have sympathised.
Considering that Sir Robert Grimston was our MP for more than 30 years very few seem to recall him. My uncle Jim, who was a paid up member of the Communist Party during the 1940s, was reputedly able to run rings around him at election meetings - SD