My Naval Wedding
Once Shirley and I had decided to tie the marital knot we settled on a date one year from our engagement. Seemed like an eternity at the time, but between sea duty and all the arrangements the happy occasion soon came around. I had just been promoted to CPO and as things were going well with my naval career and finances I was more than ready for this major life change. But it was not to be without its problems which were sometimes to seem almost beyond our control.
The submarine I had been on for a year was now due for a six-month mini-refit in Chatham dockyard and that meant I would be able to spend more time with my new wife. After some discussion we agreed that we would be married in Chatham as that was were our new married quarters would be for the foreseeable future. This meant having to arrange for both our families to travel down from Merseyside for the big day and to arrange suitable accommodation for them all locally.
Shirley’s boss at Woolworth’s head office in Liverpool where she worked as a Computing Supervisor had helpfully arranged a six month transfer for her to the Chatham branch in a staff training role. Her manager, Ron Gillespie, had once served in the Royal Navy himself as a young man during WWII. He saw this as the best practical contribution he could make to the happiness of Shirley and that of a fellow sailor. God bless Ron for his thoughtful kindness. It’s quite true when people say that the Royal Navy is the best club in the world to belong to. Without his help things would have been extremely difficult, in having to travel very long distances just to see each other very briefly at weekends, not to mention the enormous expense for a newlywed couple.
As it was to be a church wedding there was the problem of having my wedding banns read first. I went to see the padre in the barracks at Chatham and, because I was unable to be a regular parishioner at any church, my banns consisted of a notice to be pinned on the ship’s notice board. I tucked the form away in my locker until the day I was due to go on leave and then handed the completed form to Terry, my best man to be.
“Here, Terry, I don’t want the lads to have the opportunity to give me a hard time over this so, when I go on leave tomorrow, just pin this on the board and I’ll take it down when I get back.”
“Not a problem Pedro.” Said Terry, looking at the form I had given him.
My last duty before I left to get married was to play rugby for the boat against the crew of another submarine just leaving its refit. Just as I was about to leave for the match I received a telephone call from the married quarters office, ordering me to go and see the officer in charge. I just had time to nip up there and see him before the match.
“Ah, Chief, come in.” said the young Sub-Lieutenant.
“I gather there are some papers to be signed sir.” I said, reaching for my pen.
“Not exactly, there’s been a slight hitch I’m afraid. It’s your married quarter you see.”
“What do you mean by a slight hitch sir?” I asked.
“Well chief, one of the crew from the Hong Kong Squadron has had to come back to the UK. Now obviously, we can’t expect him to commute to Kowloon each day, so I’m afraid he’s been given your married quarter.”
“OK sir, he’s got mine, where am I going to have a quarter then?” I asked, unprepared for the bombshell to follow.
“That’s just it you see, we don’t have any more married quarters available, you don’t have anywhere to move into.”
“No! I don’t bloody well see at all, what the hell am I supposed to do now?” I exploded. I could just imagine Shirley’s face when I told her we were homeless before we were even married.
“There’s nothing I can do Chief, we have nowhere left. You’ll just have to cancel your wedding I’m afraid.”
“ You better be joking sunshine, I’m getting married the day after tomorrow and now you have the temerity to tell me I haven’t got a house to live in. That’s a load of crap and you know it. What a bloody useless lot you pen-pushing b******* really are” I shouted.
A young sailor in the outer office looked round the door to see what the noise was all about. I glared at him, “You can get your nose out of the door mate, and push off while you’re still happy.” He decided that he suddenly had more important business elsewhere and ran out of the office. The last thing he wanted to see was an angry submariner punching an officer and then having to give evidence at a court martial.
The young officer just sat there red-faced like a little schoolboy and stared at the papers on his desk. Not even bothering to salute I turned on my heel and stormed out of his office, slamming the door so hard on the way out that I heard the portrait of the Queen hit the floor as it was shaken from the wall where it had previously hung. Christ almighty! I had thirty six hours to find somewhere to live or Shirley and I would be returning from our honeymoon and going to separate addresses.
I walked to the rugby pitches and I was just in the mood for rugby. It was an excuse to legally take out my aggression on some unfortunate player from the opposing side. I got changed in silence and made my way out onto the pitch. I looked around the pitch and picked out the biggest guy I could see in the other half of the pitch. There he was a gorilla in a rugby shirt. I was going to have him as soon as I could get near him. The whistle blew and the ball sailed through the air from the centre toward me. I caught it cleanly and was immediately splattered into the ground by a horde of massive sailors dressed as rugby players. A ruck formed over me and I felt a searing pain in my left leg. I was screaming and as the ruck broke up and play moved on I was left flat in the mud. I looked at my leg and was amazed to see the sock had been torn off of the calf and the side of my leg was already twice its normal size and black, not with mud, but with blood under the skin. Some equally aggressive son-of-a-gun had deliberately stamped on me about four times. I couldn’t move my leg. Oh great, that was all I needed, no house, no feeling in my leg and, unless I was fixed very quickly, no bloody wedding either. I was certain to become flavour of the month with Shirley and her family now.
I was carried from the field on a stretcher and taken to the sick bay in the barracks where my leg was x-rayed. Luckily there were no broken bones and the injury was diagnosed as a torn muscle and severe bruising. It was three hours later that I hobbled from the sick bay, my leg swathed in bandages, and limped my way into a taxi for Chatham railway station to start my leave. I still had the problem of finding somewhere to live and quick. I made a number of frantic phone calls whilst waiting for my train, and, eventually, a mate of mine came to the rescue. He would be shipping out in a week’s time on deployment and offered me the use of his apartment for three months. For the remainder of the week before deployment he unselfishly was prepared to stay in the barracks until shipping out. This three months would give us some breathing space until we were allocated a married quarter. Talk about a friend in need is a friend indeed. I broke the news to Shirley, who was brilliant about the whole thing and assured me that, as long as we were together, she didn’t mind where we lived. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Our wedding day arrived and the rest of the morning went by in a frenzied haze of final preparation. First crisis of the day: I had bought a smart light grey worsted suit for the wedding because I hadn’t really relished the idea of getting married in uniform. Now because of the bandages and swelling on my leg I couldn’t get it into the left pants leg. Plan B offered no other alternative than to have to wear my uniform after all. More time was now wasted in sponging and pressing the said uniform and to feverishly polish up all its other trappings to meet the demands of the occasion. Terry volunteered to polish my uniform shoes and disappeared with them for some time before returning with them positively gleaming. As my best man, Terry had already opted to wear his uniform anyway and so we both made our way to the church suitably booted and spurred. Standing outside the church I recall that Terry was a nervous wreck and that I spent the entire time telling him jokes and trying to calm him down. Surely this was the wrong way round.
Shirley turned up bang on time. She looked absolutely beautiful. It was a white wedding with all the bells and whistles. She and her mother had planned it superbly and the whole service went perfectly. Towards the end, Shirley and I were called forward to the altar rail where the vicar beckoned us to kneel for the blessing. Crisis number two. My leg, encased in bandages wouldn’t bend. I had to be helped down by Shirley and I must have looked like a lame donkey with my left leg stuck straight out to the rear. As I knelt, there was fit of giggling from the congregation behind us. I couldn’t figure out what they found so amusing. It was only later that I found out that Terry, whilst polishing my shoes had also managed to sabotage them. On the left sole he had written in white chalk HE, and on the right, LP. Shirley and I were the only two people in the church who were unable to see my involuntary cry for assistance.
The reception was fantastic and went on into the late evening. Terry soon lost his stage fright and rising to the occasion did an excellent job as best man and as expected said lots of nice things about me and constantly reminded me during his speech what a lucky man I was to be getting such a beautiful and wonderful woman as Shirley for my wife. At least he got that bit right. When congratulatory messages and telegrams were read out by him there was an embarrassing moment for Shirley when the standard submarine service wedding telegram was read out to the gathering. It was customary for Rear Admiral, Flag Officer Submarines, Portsmouth, to send every submariner on the day of his wedding a salutary message in the form of a naval instruction:
TO: CHIEF PETTY OFFICER ERA(SM) ‘PEDRO’ DICKINSON
FROM: REAR ADMIRAL FOSM - PORTSMOUTH
KINDLY INFORM ME OF POSITION, DEPTH AND SPEED AT 0200 HRS ZULU
31st MAY 197O. ALSO PLEASE TO REPORT ON NATURE OF BOTTOM.
GOOD LUCK, FAIR WINDS AND FOLLOWING SEAS TO YOU BOTH.
SPLICE THE MAIN BRACE.
Eventually we left for our honeymoon. Again, I had been unable to help with the planning and Shirley and her mum had made all the arrangements. Our wedding night was to be spent at the Hog’s Back Hotel, between Aldershot and Guildford, before we travelled to Cornwall the following day for the remainder of our honeymoon. I do remember that we were both so completely knackered that, I suspect, like many newly weds, we went to bed and simply fell fast asleep.
The following day we made our way to the railway station and set off for Looe in Cornwall. It was a long journey and, at seven that evening we arrived in Liskeard to change trains for the final short leg of the journey. I settled Shirley down, with the luggage, in a waiting room, and set off to find out the time of the next train to Looe. I found a member of staff and made the enquiry.
“The next train to Looe will be at seven fifty three.” He said, pulling a timetable from his jacket pocket.
“Oh great, only half an hour or so to wait then, Thank you.” I said, and began to walk off.
“Tomorrow morning.” He added.
I stopped dead in my tracks and looked at him. He wasn’t joking.
“Is there anywhere we can get a taxi then?” I asked the man.
“There are not many taxis around this rural spot. There’s only one taxi works here on a Sunday and that’s Archie. He’s not here. He took a fare somewhere a little while ago. He could be hours yet.”
I explained to the man that Shirley and I had just got married and he softened.
I’ll tell you what my handsome,” he said in that deep Cornish accent, reminiscent of Long John Silver’s, “You and your young lady step across the road to the inn and have something to eat and drink and, as soon as he comes back I’ll get Archie to come and fetch you both.” I thanked him and following his directions, Shirley and I left the station and went to the local hostelry where we sat down to a welcome drink and some hot Cornish pasty’s.
About an hour later the door opened and an elderly gent, obviously the worse for wear and with a bright red, drinker’s nose, staggered through the door and made his way to the bar. Both Shirley and I chuckled at him as he could hardly stand up straight. He spoke to the landlord who banged his fist on the counter several times until the bar became silent.
“A taxi for Mr and Mrs Dickinson,” He called.
I held up my hand and the landlord saw me. He directed the drunken man to our table. Oh God, he was our taxi driver. We followed him to an ancient old car outside and settled in the rear seat. In the front passenger seat was a woman who, to this day I can only assume was Archie’s wife. She was also drunk. Off we went. Archie seemed to drive everywhere at one hundred miles an hour, using the white line in the centre of the road as a rough guide as to where the car should be going. His wife just sat in the front leering at Shirley and me, hiccupping loudly. The country roads presented a challenge to Archie. They were narrow and winding but, that white line down the middle kept him roughly on course. The journey was punctuated by the occasional glare of headlights as we met oncoming cars. Archie hogged the white line until the last minute and then swerved out of the way, to one side or the other, it didn’t seem to matter to Archie what side, and then, as soon as the car had passed, horn blaring, would throw the car back to the comfort of the white line.
Eventually, with both of us petrified and shaking, we drew up outside the Rock Towers Hotel in Looe. Archie who must have been eighty at least, insisted on carrying our bags up the steep slope to the door before charging me the princely sum of two pounds for the trip. I doubled his money with an equal tip and, glad to be alive, Shirley and I made our way into the hotel.
We had earlier phoned the hotel to let the staff know we would be late and they had made arrangements to provide us with a meal on arrival. It was obvious that Shirley or her mum had let slip it was our honeymoon. The three women on duty spent the whole meal fussing over us, smiling and cooing. They were very kind but we both just wanted to have some peace and quiet. Looking back, it was a perfect example of real old English country hospitality which was still very much in evidence in the rural counties of Cornwall and Devon of the time. Perhaps it is still there today, I would like to think that it is; a beautiful place and beautiful people.
After the meal, we went to reception where we collected our key.
“Now then my dears, we have put your bags in your room, here’s your key. You’ll have to be a bit careful because the door locks are a bit strange. You have to turn the key three times to open and three times to lock it. Security locks, you know.”
I thanked the lady, and we headed off to our room on the first floor. I put the key in the lock and, remembering the instructions, began to turn the key. It was a bit stiff. I turned a little harder and, reluctantly the key began to turn. I had managed one complete revolution when I realised that, although the key was turning, the lock was not. I withdrew it from the door and looked at it. It was grossly malformed, the key now looking like a pig’s tail with a spiral twist to it.
I returned to reception where I presented the key to the male owner of the hotel. He looked at me.
“Oh dear, that’s the only key we have for your room.” He said with a sad look. “I’ll have to try and straighten it out for you now.” And with that he disappeared into the kitchen. I waited at reception and, suddenly, I was startled by a loud banging. Shirley came dashing downstairs to see what was happening and we both peered through the partially open kitchen door. We could see the hotel owner inside. He had our room key, firmly grasped in a pair of large pliers, over a high flame on the gas cooker and was pounding it back into shape with a large hammer. Shirley and I looked at each other and laughed. What a start to married life.
At last the key was straightened, some oil applied to the door lock and we were able, finally, to get into our room. We fell on the bed exhausted. It was a nice room but strangely designed. The bathroom was through a door in the wall opposite the bottom of the bed and it ran the full width of the room. It was particularly narrow. The bath and shower were against one wall and there was just enough room between them and the opposite wall to walk, sideways, along their length. The toilet was at the other end of the bathroom and would allow anyone seated upon it just enough room to get their knees between the toilet itself and the opposite wall. We fell into bed, determined to have our wedding night, even though it was twenty four hours late. Above the head of the bed was a set of controls for the radio, alarm clock, lights and an intercom to reception for room service. I managed to fiddle with all the switches and finding some romantic music on the radio, opened the complimentary bottle of chilled champagne provided, and we settled down for a romantic night. Some time later we fell asleep now truly exhausted.
I was awoken the next morning by a strange buzzing noise. I slowly came round and realised it was coming from the panel above the bed. I must have accidentally set the alarm while I was tuning the radio and playing with the lights. I looked at the clock, it was six thirty. I pressed various buttons at random while Shirley looked on, still half asleep. Eventually the noise stopped and I was turning over to go back to sleep when a voice came out of the speaker above my head.
“Good morning Mr and Mrs Dickinson. Will you be taking breakfast?”
I looked at Shirley who sleepily shook her head. I searched the control panel and found the button marked ‘Intercom’.
“No thank you.” I said into the panel.
“In that case Mr Dickinson, perhaps you could turn off the intercom. It’s been on all night you see.”
I again looked at Shirley who was pulling the duvet over her head. I could see that her face was a deep shade of crimson.
“Thank you.” I said, and turned off the offending intercom. Oh God, what else could go wrong?
I was in urgent need for a call of nature. I got out of bed and, naked, staggered half asleep into the bathroom. It’s always a delicate moment for a newly wed. Do you leave the door open or do you shut it and lock it. I took the middle of the road decision. I went into the bathroom and shut the door but left it unlocked. I had been sitting there contemplating the start of our married life for a few minutes when a noise brought me back to full consciousness. I could hear people talking, and they weren’t far away. I looked to my left and realised that I was sitting on a toilet that had been strategically placed next to a full length, floor to ceiling window, and, what was more it was clear and not frosted glass and the curtains were still wide open. Below me I could see the early risers taking their morning constitutionals along the seafront promenade below. What was worse they could see me just as clearly. One elderly lady even smiled and waved. I actually bloody waved back. I threw the curtains across the window, and decided someone had it in for me. What had I done to deserve this? What was more, if this was my kind of luck, what had Shirley done to deserve me. I went back into the bedroom and warned my better half about the window.
If I had expected any kind of sympathy from my new wife I was very much mistaken, she was now rolling around in bed laughing her pretty head off.
Luckily, there were no more serious mishaps on our honeymoon. The weather was wonderful and we happily came towards the end of our first week of married life together. Today, all these years on, we are still happy together despite the Royal Navy’s earlier attempts to scuttle our marriage with its policy of negative inflexibility.
Eventually the Navy decided, after much harassment from me, to find a house for us. There were still no married quarters available so a private house was rented and the keys handed over to Shirley and me. It was a gorgeous three-bedroom 17th century cottage set in the middle of the Kent orchards country about 10 miles from Chatham. Kent is not called ‘The Garden of England’ for nothing. This is a truly beautiful part of the world. It was quite a way from the nearest village, but we didn’t mind, this was idyllic, and we were finally alone at last.