Style & Spending: The Way I Was: Off to the country with a label round my neck: Michael Aspel tells Nicholas Roe about his wartime evacuation to Somerset when he was eight years old

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The Independent Online
I WAS about eight, and my brother Alan, who's with me, must have been five. Such sweet innocence, such a trusting smile. It was wartime, and by this stage we had been torn from our family in south London and evacuated to Somerset.

They did it very cunningly. We were living in Wandsworth - my mother still lives there, in the same flat - and they didn't tell us we were going, they just 'practised'.

Several times they took us down to the station, then back to school. We thought it was all a bit of fun. But one day we went off with labels round our necks and gas-masks, and everybody stood in their doorways and watched us go, and gave us packets of nuts and raisins and things, and instead of going home again, they put us on a train. I assume my mother cried her eyes out at home.

The journey, of course, was a lot of fun, with fighting and carrying on, and I suppose we assumed it was still a rehearsal for something that might happen one day. But then we got to Chard and were herded into the town hall, which seemed vast and quite dark. It all began to turn a bit nasty.

People came along and took kids away in twos and threes; they took my brother and sister, then it wasn't much fun any more. I can't recall what we said: I think I assumed I'd be seeing them later that night. Eventually a fellow came for me, too, and put me in a car.

Then the most extraordinary thing of all happened. He drove to a row of cottages, and opened the door of one. There was nobody there. He put me inside, put my bits and pieces beside me and drove off, leaving me standing looking at this room. I had plenty of time to get the detail of it: brown leather and cloth, clock ticking, gas lamps, pictures of women in long white dresses, quite a different smell from my home, with the leather and the polish and all that. It was their smell, not ours.

I just stood there for what seemed a long time, then this woman came in. She seemed enormous. I must have understood by then, because I said: 'I'm the new evacuee.' Later that evening, when it got dark, that's when I felt at my lowest. I didn't know where my brother and sister were, or where my parents were - I didn't even know where I was. I remember saying: 'I want my mum.' Very Dickensian. Then she got an air-rifle out. Well, that certainly cheered me up a bit, something to muck about with. Then I went to bed.

I was there for four- and-a-half years. In some ways I had an extremely good war, once the aching stopped. I saw my mother a couple of times, and I spent my days in the fields being Hopalong Cassidy with the air-rifle, helping with the hay-making, fighting the local kids who hated us. I made friends with the American troops who were camped nearby, running errands for them, fixing them up with girlfriends . . .

In 1944, when I was 11, I won a scholarship to a boarding school, which had itself been evacuated to Hampshire. So I went back to Waterloo from Somerset - and instead of going home, I got on another train.

The school was quite nice, but when I went home at half-term, I said to my mother: 'No, I can't go back, I can't go away any more.'

And I never went back.

(Photograph omitted)

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