I am guilty of having had a long and extremely passionate love affair. It has been all consuming, and there hasn't been a day in the last forty years when I have not thought of my love. My love affair started in July of 1961. No, I am not referring to the love affair I have had with my wife for the past 42 years. This one began a year earlier and has continued to this day. It has survived separation and has only matured and grown stronger. Like my love affair with my wife there are some aspects that I understand and others that mystify me to this day. This love affair began as the Pan American 707 that brought me to England dropped below the clouds and I first saw the patchwork quilt of fields below me. As if by magic the clouds parted, and in the bright sunlight that appeared, as far as I could see the landscape was green, all different shades of green, the most lush, vivid greens I had ever seen. It was the most beautiful tableau this boy from Texas had ever seen. I was used to seeing nothing but varying shades of brown from about mid June through fall. This was different. This was absolutely mesmerizing. I could not take my eyes off it.
We circled the area at a fairly low altitude for perhaps twenty minutes before landing, giving me a long look at the country that was to be my home for the next two years. I was already excited and looking forward to seeing more of this place that had captivated me body and soul so quickly. Upon landing we were herded into the RAF Mildenhall Terminal in true military fashion to receive a briefing and collect our baggage. I got my bags and attended the briefing, though I don't remember being very interested in what they had to say which were mostly negative things about the food and people. I remember thinking, this is not our home, and we have to adjust to their ways, not the other way around. However, mostly I just wanted to get going and see some more of this interesting place. After what seemed forever we were finally loaded on a bus that was to take us to our various bases. In my case this was RAF Upper Heyford.
My love affair had already begun by the time we started the rather long but very interesting trip to Upper Heyford. I was filled with wonder as we passed through villages with ancient churches and manor houses as well as shops and homes. There were stone cottages with thatched roofs and half-timbered Tudor blocks of shops in the towns. In the countryside there were houses and barns of honey colored stone and fields with no barbed wire fences, only tall hedges and stone walls dividing them. After a few hours we stopped to eat lunch and I was advised by a young English woman returning with her husband for his second tour of duty to try the "fish and chips" and a cup of tea, as the coffee was apparently pretty bad. As I learned later it was truly awful, however it is one of the things that has improved in the ensuing years. I owe her a debt of gratitude as the food was delicious and the tea so much to my liking that I had three cups. Even now forty years later fish and chips are one of my favorites, right after steak and kidney pie. We returned to the road, after about an hour-long stop and once again I was filled with wonder at this place I found myself in. At every twist and turn in the road I was even more captivated by the beauty and diversity of the scenery before me. The busy market squares with the multi-colored stalls, the quaint butcher's shops that have been family run for two centuries and more according to their signs. The green grocers with their vegetables and fruits spilling over into bins outside the shop, confectioners with brightly colored sweets in the windows were right out of the movies. The auto dealers with the sports cars certainly caught a boy's fancy. The Pub signs were everywhere. The brightly colored signs were in complete contrast to the muted colors of the buildings. Many were humorous, and all were interesting with ingenious designs. Later I would learn the stories behind some of the signs, and how they came about. Even the phone kiosks and the post boxes were something new and fascinating. This was a new experience and absolutely fascinating to a young man of 20. And now as a mature man of 61 the affair has only grown stronger and more intense. Yes, after 40 years this love affair is stronger than ever, and like me it has matured. It encompasses many things that I couldn't even imagine all those years ago. I can remember the first meal, and that first cup of tea. It was the first tea I had ever had, but not the last.
We were told to be careful in town or we would be cheated out of our money because the English coinage was so complicated. I can say I was never taken advantage of as far as I know. I can assure you I am no math whiz and within a couple of weeks I knew the coins and had no trouble using them. I remember being upset with the negative attitude of many of my fellow servicemen, and some of the high ranking command staff had towards the English and England. It was a wonderful opportunity that was given to us to see a place with a lot of history and some terrific people and so many didn't take advantage of it.
I remember the first trip to Oxford. It was in September and several of us went to the St. Giles Fair. This was much different than the fairs I had seen as a child in Texas. It had a more intimate feel to it; the people were friendly and seemed to truly care if you had a good time, which I did. I did, all except for one thing. The other servicemen asked me what I missed most from home, and being a typical young American I said "hamburgers." They pointed to a shop that was where the Oxfam Bookstore is now located I believe. So off I went to "Wimpy's" for a hamburger, or so I thought. What I wound up with was indescribable and didn't even closely represent a real hamburger. This was the first bad food I had in England and thank goodness the last for some time. I later found out that this was a kind of initiation that was given to every serviceman on his first trip to Oxford. I soon learned of a few places to get a snack and some good "Chinese" food was to be had upstairs on George Street. I believe it is still there although I doubt that you can eat a full meal today for a half-crown. I loved the beautiful old buildings making up the University and found it wonderful to wander around in the Covered Market. Sausage and chips was a particular treat at Brown's. One of the places that servicemen tended to congregate was at The New Inn located across from the Town Hall. The last time I was there for a pint it was The Bulldog.
Most of the servicemen from Upper Heyford spent their time in Oxford, as the transportation to there was better than to Banbury. I met a girl at the base that roomed with a couple who lived in Banbury. He was at the base and we met at the enlisted club. I only dated her a couple of times and then I too started to frequent Oxford. On January 2nd 1962 my Police Squadron had a late Christmas Party. One of the other policemen had invited an American nurse that worked at the Horton. We asked him to see if she could bring some more friends. It was one of those nurses that became my wife and best friend. This was also the beginning of my real association with Banbury.
Mike and Dawn Griffis on their wedding day
The first date we had after the party was about a week later. I met her outside the cinema next to the Whateley Hall Hotel and we saw the film "The Guns of Navarrone." After the film we went for fish and chips, and then followed this with a pint at "The Bear" next door. Sadly, both places are now gone, replaced by the precinct. Only the cinema remains. Close to the Bear was a real old-time ironmonger, and I have always been a tool nut, although in those days I seldom had any spare cash to make purchases. It had crooked stairways, and creaky wooden floors leading to little nooks and crannies with many old hand tools I remembered from my grandfather's toolbox. The store has now been modernized and is in the precinct. It is very nice and well stocked, but doesn't have the charm of the old store. Change is not always good.
At this time, Dawn my future wife rented a flat on the Oxford Road that she shared with two other nurses. I would come to town on my days off and we would go to the pictures, and ate at "The Grill" on the Oxford Road, they had the best mixed grill I have ever eaten. On occasion we went to the "Grand Cinema" in Broad Street, and ate fish and chips across the street and some espresso coffee in another shop I believe was next door.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of all that I love and miss when I am not in England. I am fascinated with the ancient churches, buildings, castles and the history surrounding them in the towns and villages.
It is a shame that most of the bases are now closed, for they enabled so many American servicemen to have their first observation of this wonderful place called England. It changed my life forever, and for the better I might add. I chose England as my adopted home, and like the parent of an adopted child it didn't just happen but came about by a very real sense of feeling as if I belonged. It was as if I had always been meant to be there.