Short story based on Bognor lion hunt memories commended in Grow Old Disgracefully competition

Memories of the infamous Bognor lion hunt, involving Billy Butlin’s zoo on the seafront, have been turned into a short story for a Grow Old Disgracefully competition for the over-90s.

Itchenor Sailing Club member John Ford was highly commended by journalist and presenter Nicholas Owen, one of four judges for the charity’s Over 90s Short Story Prize.

John said: “The background to my story is a true one. In July 1933, Father booked two weeks in a converted railway carriage called Tamarisk, somewhere on the sand dunes close to Pagham Harbour. There were four of us, Mother and my younger brother Paddy and the dog Tousic.

“My father was a naval surgeon and our family lived in London at the time of the holiday, when he was working at the Admiralty. I was born at Alverstoke when he had a previous appointment on the medical staff at Haslar.

John Ford's family beach holiday in July 1933 with his parents, younger brother Paddy and dog Tousic

“I cannot claim that this first marine experience was the cause leading to a professional career in the Royal Navy and a life-long interest in sailing.”

John, who lives in Cranleigh, has been racing his Sunbeam class yacht for the past 32 years and has many friends in the Chichester area.

Here is his story, The Lion that Failed to Roar:

Family holidays in the years before WW2 were simple affairs, no EasyJet to carry you to a foreign resort, nor electronic toy to ease child boredom when the rain came down.

John Ford with his younger brother Paddy and dog Tousic

Many UK families chose to spend their annual holiday at the seaside.

In the mid-1930s my parents rented a disused railway carriage, converted into a cabin, sitting isolated in the sand dunes near Pagham Harbour on the south coast.

We children were enjoying the beach pleasures of building sand walls to try to stop the incoming tide, paddling in shallow water while catching the fleeting minnows in a plastic bucket.

It was tea time after a long day in the sun when a policeman knocked urgently at the door, looking anxiously over his shoulder. “A lion has escaped from a visiting circus,” he told us, “so you must stay in the house, lock the door and shut all windows.”

John Ford's family beach holiday in July 1933

This was really scary news for a three-year-old, brought up with children’s book images of fierce lions, while underlaid by a thrill of excitement. Until darkness came, my younger brother and I ran between front and rear windows imminently expecting to find the yellow eyes of a lion staring at us through the glass. There was also the thought that the structure of the building was not that strong, and a hungry lion a very powerful beast.

We were eventually persuaded to go to bed, lying long awake listening for the roar of a lion until sleepy dust closed the eyelids.

Excitement began to evaporate during the following day, nothing moved outside and with all windows barred, the increasing heat in the cabin contributed to a growing sense of restlessness.

Late in the afternoon we saw the same policemen approaching. Standing at the door, he announced that it was now safe for us to come out and resume our holiday.

“But where was the lion found?”

In a rather apologetic response, he explained: “Well no, it has not actually been recaptured because it never escaped in the first place.”

The story had been a phantom invention by the circus owner, circulated to gain publicity for his visiting show.

This experience made us less inclined to believe adult stories but an understanding of reality rather than fairytale was already underway.

The excitement of this childhood adventure has lived clear in the memory through more than 80 years.

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The other judges for the competition were Peter James, Virginia McKenna, Judy Moir and Lauren St John.

Jackie Flaherty, Grow Old Disgracefully trustee, said: “John wrote a wonderful story and it is beautifully written. Nicholas Owen in particular rated his story highly. However, the standard was remarkably high and he was not one of the winners.”