Evacuee Betty recalls wartime days in north Norfolk

When Betty Coomber set off for West Runton to escape the threat of wartime bombs to her home town of Gravesend in 1939, she embarked on an adventure of a lifetime filled with happiness and heartache.

When Betty Coomber set off for West Runton to escape the threat of wartime bombs to her home town of Gravesend in 1939, she embarked on an adventure of a lifetime filled with happiness and heartache.

And exactly 70 years later, the retired teacher last week retraced the steps she took as an 11-year-old, when she visited the village hairdressers where she spent the most "idyllic" six months of her year-long stint as an evacuee.

Now 81, Betty, whose daughter Angela Clear is a teacher at Gresham's Pre Preparatory School at Holt, remembers being filled with trepidation on hearing that she and her older sister Queenie were to be sent to Norfolk.

"It was on September 3, the day that war broke out," she said. "And for my parents to have agreed to send us away, the propaganda must have incredible."

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After travelling to Great Yarmouth by paddle steamer with dozens of other evacuees, the sisters spent the night at the racecourse at North Denes.

"We were supposed to be staying in the jockeys' changing rooms, but, after the pregnant ladies arrived, we ended up sleeping in the stables and we were cock-a-hoop about that as our stable was the one belonging to that year's Derby winner, Blue Peter," Betty remembered.

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The following morning the girls travelled by coach to West Runton, where they were lined up at local pub the Village Inn, to be assigned temporary homes by an evacuation officer.

They were sent to stay with Mr and Mrs Smith, who ran a barbers cum hairdresser in the ground floor of their Cromer Road home.

"We were very happy there," Betty said. "We went to school in the village hall in the mornings, cleaned the teachers' houses in the afternoons and the rest of the time, we just thoroughly enjoyed West Runton. I remember sledging down the golf course, peeking in the Links Hotel windows at the people in evening dress, and I even learned to milk a cow."

After spending a blissful couple of months with the Smiths, the sisters were sent to live with another local woman, whose husband was away at war.

"It was an awful time, and I remember sitting crying on Queenie's lap and her saying to me, 'Mummy said I'm to be your mummy now', Betty said.

Four months later, Queenie returned to Gravesend, while Betty was put on a train to Norwich.

"I was supposed to be going to Diss Grammar School, but I ended up being abandoned on Norwich station and, not knowing what to do, I locked myself in the loo in floods of tears," she remembered.

The youngster was rescued and put on the train by a kind passer-by and, after a happy six months at Diss, she returned to Gravesend.

"I went straight from the station to an air raid shelter," Betty said. "But I'm afraid war was exciting for me - even when we heard doodlebugs coming down while we were taking our exams and had an unexploded incendiary bomb in the roof of our house."

Betty, who is now Betty Martin, went on to train as a teacher, and spent 25 years working in Gravesend schools. But she never forgot her time at West Runton and, over the years, brought husband Geoff and children Angela and Philip back for a number of family holidays, even booking an appointment at the hairdressers where she stayed in 1939.

Angela, whose husband David is a teacher at Beeston Hall School, moved to Beeston Regis six years ago.

"It is just out of this world now that my daughter is here as I can come back and enjoy it all over again," Betty said.

She spent last weekend reminiscing in West Runton, also visiting Holt and attending a concert featuring 1940s music at St Peter's Church, Sheringham.

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