This piece is part of our 2021 Community Flash series, showcasing new writing by the Wandsworth Carers Centre Writers Group. You can read more about the background to this project in our introduction to this series, find out more about Wandsworth Carers Centre on their website, and find them on Twitter @CarerWandeworth.
My visits to “Little Poland” in Penley, North Wales
After the war, in August 1946, detachments of the Polish Resettlement Corps arrived from Italy, with former Polish Army field hospitals in tow. One of the hospitals made its home in an empty hospital camp, which had previously been a large American Army Hospital located near the village of Penley, on the border of England and North Wales in an area known as Maelor. It became known as the Penley Polish Hospital No.3.
Penley became a cheerful camp consisting of brilliant white barracks of different sizes with tidy lawns and shrubs in between them. The barracks were linked up by footpaths with neat borders of colourful flowers. It was even referred to by the BBC as the “Polish Wonderland” and to the Poles it was known as “Little Poland”. The hospital wards were located to one side in the large barracks, and the staff with their families were housed in small barracks a short distance from the hospital proper.
The camp had its own chapel, nursery, social club with a full-size snooker table, shop, canteen, theatre and a well-equipped cinema with authentic cinema seats. The same Polish cultural and religious traditions were observed as in other Polish camps that were scattered around Great Britain.
My husband and I made frequent trips to Penley to visit my two sons and their families. We both lived and worked at another Polish field hospital around six miles away, where I was a ward-sister, and my husband was an administrator in the general office. Whenever we had a day off, we would cycle to Penley to spend time with the family. I would bake a cake to take with us and made sure I had sweets for the children. On arrival, we were always welcomed by a group of excited children running towards us, and it gave me great pleasure to see the smiling faces of my three grandchildren amongst them.
I particularly enjoyed the children’s company and, on a nice day, I would sit in a chair outside one of the barracks with my grandchildren and their friends sitting on the grass around me. I would give the children sweets to pass around and would tell them fairy tales, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, or Snow White, but sometimes I would make up my own stories. I would also talk about my life in Poland before the war and the charity work I was involved in, as well as how I used to heal injured animals. The children would listen in silence and, when I finished, they would bombard me with questions. These sessions brought back fond memories of my own childhood during happier times in Poland before the war.
Sometimes, in late summer, I would go with the children to the nearby woods, where we would forage for wild mushrooms and blackberries. We would sing traditional Polish songs along the way. An abundance of wild camomile grew in the pastures surrounding the camp and the children helped me to pick this special herb, which I would then dry out and use for medicinal purposes. The children particularly enjoyed the occasional picnic I managed to organise for them. We spent many happy moments together surrounded by nature, and the children would later tell their parents about their adventures.
Penley Polish Hospital and camp eventually closed down and the family moved away, but my memories of it lived on. I always felt grateful for the special experiences that I had with the children, and frequently reminisced about them in later life.