Last night, I went to sleep with every intent to go to Manchester this morning. As I fell asleep on the sofa whilst watching TV, I got woken up by my Dad, humming his way to a cup of tea. After staring at the wall for an undetermined amount of time (you know when you just wake up and stare – is that just me? I feel like I need time to get my eyes adjusted to the new day), I made my way into the kitchen.
Stood in front of me was a very well-dressed man. Beige trousers, purple shirt, grin on his face. He looked content as he blithely rifled through tens of pictures, scattered newspaper clippings and other primary artifacts. It was the happiest I had seen my Dad in a while. Before exchanging greetings, he wanted to know what I was doing today. I mumbled back that I was going to Manchester, I’d be back later tonight if I was to come back today and I didn’t want any dinner. His face dropped slightly; he explained that he was going to “take a hike to The Dump”, was going to “chat probably complete and utter bollocks” to NARPO and later go for a carvery at The Whore’s Bed.
In layman’s terms – my father was giving a talk to retired police officers at the site of the Fauld Explosion, just outside of Hanbury. Afterwards, they were going to go for a bite to eat at The Boar’s Head in Sudbury.
Let me give a bit of context to this situation. My great-grandfather – my Dad’s grandfather – Joseph Cooper, was blown up in the biggest explosion this country has ever known, on November 27th 1944. Growing up in Hanbury, Dad used to play with his pals in the crater that it left. Generations after him did the same thing until the Ministry of Defence decided that, actually, it was a bit dangerous for people to do this as there were unexploded bombs still within the site of the explosion – you see, the gypsum mines at Fauld had been harbouring RAF and US air force explosives since 1937, and only a third had gone off when the explosion happened. Pretty scary to think that a few kids could have tripped up on one and the same thing could have happened all over again, even scarier to think that no precautions were put into place until 40-odd years after the whole thing had happened.
As a child, Dad would always take me and my younger sister to the site. We’d traipse across muddy fields (the ground around the site will never be dry), eventually running, when possible, to see who’d get to the dump first (so called ‘the dump’ as they dumped bombs there – I like simple explanations).
When there, we’d listen to stories that Dad had learned about Fauld, tales that had been passed down through family and friends who were either around there at the time and/or had family members involved. He’d point out things in the crater, such as the remains of the old farmhouse and the place that the alabaster crucifix used to stand. Later on he’d try to scare us, repeating ditties that had earlier been made up about the witchcraft associated with the place. His knowledge and interest in the Fauld explosion grew – as we grew up, ours started to weaken. Instead bagsying front seat in Dad’s Landrover on a Saturday morning, we were getting ready to go into town with our friends. Instead of shouting out the names of birds of the countryside on our way there, Dad looking smug at the power of imparting his knowledge, we were gossiping with our friends on the bus on our way into Lichfield. Instead of learning a vital part of my own family history, I was sitting in McDonalds. The last time I had visited Fauld was when I was 13.
I stared at the collection my Dad had on the table. He indicated that there was more on his laptop, and that he was going to put on a powerpoint show for the first time. He was excited.
My plans for the day were put aside. I went back to Fauld. I listened to my Dad give an amazingly detailed talk in front of about 15 attentive, inspired listeners. Every question somebody asked was answered with no hesitation, and no chance of bullshit being anywhere near the answer.
A woman called Ida Roberts also attended the talk. She was on her way back from Uttoxeter on the bus at the time of the explosion, although heard no sound. The only indication that she had that there was an explosion was that it was raining soil – Hanbury was covered in sludge. Pieces of gypsum from the mines had gone up into the air and crashed through people’s houses. Her house was destroyed and thus uninhabitable, later having to be demolished. She was 17. Her mother was ill and that was her only reason for being in Uttoxeter at the time – to fetch supplies – but if she had been in the laundry house, where she worked, she would have almost certainly been dead. After talking to Ida over a cup of tea, she asked how I knew Graham (my dad). I explained that I was his daughter, and had attended the talk out of interest. Ida smiled and went on to explain that she was my late grandmother’s best friend – they had pipe dreams of being nurses together – and that my great-grandmother had done a tremendous amount in the post-explosion operation and deserved a medal for all that she had done. She interrupted the talk to tell the story of how, after the bodies were recovered from the site of the explosion (many died of poisoning from nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide, their bodies not even marked – as such was the case with my great-grandfather), my great-grandmother washed all of the bodies. This involved firstly a hose-pipe to get the sludge off them, and then carefully cleaning them ready for their families to see them. One of these bodies belonged to her husband.
It’s slightly eerie, yet completely fascinating to hear somebody talk about a member of your family that passed away with no chance of you getting to know them- someone that’s in your blood, in your genes, yet you never knew them. I am going to go and see Ida again soon.
We carried on from the talk and walked to the site of the explosion. I’ll stop typing now, as I think the pictures explain it perfectly – a delightfully mysterious place, full of beautiful flora and fauna. Excuse the cows – they were too tame not to take photos of.