SEPTEMBER 18th 2020

My mother would’ve been 100 years old today and I would like to pay her this tribute.

Let me tell you about a remarkable lady called Joyce, who overcame suspected polio at age 7, who survived being stabbed at 18, contracted scarlet fever a year later and walked away from being knocked down by a lorry aged 23. During the war she cycled to and from work in the blackout with bombs landing each side of her, laughed in the face of cancer aged 66 and went on to recover from near-death experiences until her death in 2013.

One of her earliest memories was of her aunt dancing her around the room to the Charleston playing on the gramophone. This was the beginning of her love of dancing which led her to take part in a concert for the NAAFI during the war, and in 1946 at the Embassy ballroom in Welling, she met Leslie, my father. After a six-month courtship they were married in December and enjoyed a honeymoon in foggy Brighton.

Like many of her generation her motto was ‘keep calm and carry on’. Rationing meant that when I was born in the winter of 1949 she swallowed her pride and went knocking on doors begging for coal to keep me warm.

1950 saw the dawn of a new era. Leslie’s mother moved down from Leeds to open a boarding house with us in Bexley. This Victorian house was to be our busy home for the next 20 years. She always found time to make my party dresses and knit my boleros and joked that I was better dressed than Princess Anne! My birthday parties were glamorous affairs – a dozen children round the table and a snowman cake, a clock cake and a birthday cake, all made by Mum.

When my grandmother died in 1962 the business took a dive but Joyce turned her hand to other work including cooking in a staff canteen and selling Betterware door-to-door. In amongst all this she cared for me, my sister and brother, and found time to take us out in the school holidays. But although she was always busy she never neglected her appearance, always had her hair done and never left the house without her make-up expertly applied.

My father’s job came to an end which meant moving to a smaller house and finally my parents and brother moved to Margate in 1971 where she worked at the Sea-Bathing hospital, British Home Stores, and various school kitchens, never fazed by all this work. In later years she took on cleaning jobs well into her 80s. When asked by my brother if she should give them up she replied, ‘Oh, do you think so? But what would I do? I’d get bored.’ She was well known for her sense of humour and love of music and brightened up all our lives when trouble lay ahead.

HAPPY 10TH BIRTHDAY Mum. I’m sure you’re having a ball ‘up there’. xxx

A MOST UNUSUAL YEAR

I’m sure that many of us, since the lockdown, have become more aware of the natural beauty that surrounds us. With the reduction in traffic noise it’s been uplifting to sit in the sun-drenched garden and listen to the birdsong. I for one felt it was almost like being on holiday.

But I have not been idle. I have written another novel, the sequel to my rom com Where There’s a Will, which I hope to publish later this year. I found having a daily routine helped to keep me focused on my writing and to block out some of the worry that goes with a pandemic. After breakfast I took a walk around the village, keeping to the social distancing guidelines of course, and came back to enjoy a cup of coffee in the garden. I wrote until lunchtime then continued writing in the afternoon until I broke for an afternoon cuppa whilst watching the daily Coronavirus update. This was followed by a glass of wine in the garden, listening to Mr Blackbird chattering away high up on a chimney pot, while the dinner was cooking.

One of the most entertaining pastimes has been watching the blackbirds foraging for food to feed their young which seems to be a full time job. The male blackbird in particular has been very active, gathering bugs and worms all day to take back to the nest in the laurel. Every time the soil was newly dug the blackbird was there, eager to see what had been unearthed. We followed the blackbirds’ progress daily, wondering when the juveniles would leave home, and came to the conclusion that the bird world has certain similarities to our own! Lately we have noticed the red kite winging its way across the sky; we are delighted because we haven’t seen it since last year. We’ve also enjoyed watching a pair of buzzards occasionally circling high above in the thermals until they disappear into the clouds. Another glorious sight is the swans and geese flying over in formation, squawking happily, the sun catching their wings.

Being prevented from visiting our family and friends has been one of the worst restrictions placed upon us. Our sons and daughters who have planned to get married this year must see some similarities with their grandparents’ weddings  immediately after the Second World War. Hopefully the ones who are getting married later this year will be able to go ahead with her plans, unlike others whose celebrations have had to be watered down or postponed.

Similarities to wartime include the food shortages, fearing for our loved ones and having to make do, but we are now fighting an invisible enemy which, in some respects, is even more difficult to overcome. We find ourselves in limbo waiting for a light at the end of the Coronavirus tunnel, and although our lives may never be the same again, we will look to the future and the New Normal.

Julie Newman

Email: julie3wwn@mypostoffice.co.uk

Facebook author page: http://www.facebook.com/J.A.Newman.author

BIRDS OF A FEATHER

Being forced to live in isolation makes us more aware of the beauty that surrounds us.  Although our freedom is restricted those of us who are lucky enough to have a garden are able to enjoy the wonderful weather whilst watching the wildlife.

Lately we have noticed a pair of blackbirds foraging for food to feed their young. This seems to be a full time job. The male blackbird in particular has been very active, gathering bugs and worms to take back to the nest in the laurel. Every time my husband digs over a patch in the flower bed the blackbird is there, eager to see what’s been unearthed.

I am often awake before sunrise, listening to the dawn chorus; the blackbird’s song being the most prominent. My mother always maintained the blackbirds were the first to get up in the morning and the last to go to bed. I think she was probably right. My father was an early riser – he would make a pot of tea, take one in to my mother then pour himself a cup, take it outside and walk round the garden in his pyjamas and dressing gown. He would check to see which plants had sprouted new growth whilst listening to the birdsong and watching the sunrise. He did this every morning in the spring.

When I was a child I often had a friend to tea in the summer and we’d sit in the garden eating our banana or jam sandwiches and cakes, throwing the last of the crusts to the birds. She didn’t have a garden but at six years old I knew I was very fortunate. My mother felt sorry for her and encouraged her to run home and ask her mum if she could stay for lunch and do the same in the afternoon for tea. In those days our regular visitors were blackbirds, thrushes, starlings, blue tits and sparrows; starlings and sparrows being the most common. It was very rare to see a wood pigeon.  Nowadays it’s rare to see a thrush and even the thuggish starlings are dying out. The pigeons are the new thugs of the birdworld –  forever multiplying and scaring off the smaller birds.

Lately we have noticed the red kite is back, circling above. We are pleased because we haven’t seen it since last year and we miss seeing the buzzards since moving from Cornwall. Another glorious sight is the swans or geese flying over in formation and squawking happily, the sun catching their wings.

We count ourselves very lucky to live in the country, especially at this difficult time of lockdown. It must be terrible for the people who are cooped up in flats with no outdoor space or a balcony, wondering when the restrictions will be lifted.  But whether we live in the town or the country I’m sure we’ll never take our freedom for granted again.

 

GLEBE AVENUE, WATLINGTON

 

Every time we move house, the amount of clutter we accumulate never ceases to amaze me. We had many trips to the dump and the charity shops and began visualising where our furniture would sit in the new house. Our buyer didn’t want our large sliding-door wardrobe in the second bedroom so we had to dismantle it to take it with us.  This was quite a struggle as the men who delivered it and put it together would testify. It was heavy, one door all mirror, rather worrying in case we broke it but we managed. As we didn’t need this wardrobe we hoped to advertise it and sell it in the future.

Having packed frantically over the past fortnight, we got up very early on the morning of  18th February 2015, and packed the remainder of our kitchen utensils, food and other bits and pieces before Plymouth Removals arrived at 8.50 am  with a huge lorry. The three guys marched into the bungalow, raring to go, and remarked that we had done an excellent job of packing – no clutter – making it easier for them. Two of them were very young (I thought) but totally professional. They were full of energy, very quick and ensured the carpets were kept clean with large felts runners. I made them tea and coffee three times but they hardly stopped. As they worked we learned that one of them, Taylor, was only 21, married with one little boy and another on the way! My neighbour came round with a lemon cake she’d made, to take with us; a nice thought. She got quite emotional at the thought of us leaving. Everything was on the lorry by noon. We waved our furniture goodbye and looked forward to seeing the removal lorry at Watlington the next day. The empty rooms echoed as we went around doing last minute hoovering and wet-wiping the skirting boards. The empty bungalow felt very strange and looked huge. I swallowed down the lump in my throat – I remembered entertaining one of my writing groups in the kitchen diner on a sunny day and they all remarked on the view. One member had said, ‘You’ll never leave here, will you Julie?’

Our neighbours in the old farmhouse invited us in for a cup of tea and biscuits. I was going to leave my Parisian kitchen clock behind but she took it and she said she would think of me every time she looked at it. We hugged. Neither of them wanted us to go. Everything in the village was changing. Their neighbour the other side had died and there were new people in that house ripping it apart and refurbishing it.

But time was pressing. We said our goodbyes, promised to keep in touch and left at 1.30pm.

‘Bye-bye Avalon.’

Fortunately it was a dry day for our journey but it was slow. We stopped at Exeter services at 3.30 where we bought sandwiches and tea. Seven and a half hours to get to Littleport – so many 50 MPH restrictions on the motorways.  We’d rung our son-in-law, on the way, to get us some fish and chips. Thank goodness it was waiting for us when we arrived – we were starving. Our son-in-law had been to pick up the keys to our Watlington house but the estate agent was confused when he asked for them that afternoon and wouldn’t give them to him. Luckily our new neighbours in the house next door had been left a set. We knocked at 9.45pm and the man gave us the keys without saying very much, shut the door and turned off the lights. Not a good introduction to our new neighbours!

The porch light had been left on to welcome us. The solid fuel Rayburn was cold – the fire allowed to go out of course, but the central heating had been left on and the house was very warm. There were 3 new home cards: one from my sister, one from our neighbours who we had said goodbye to only hours before and one from the previous owners with a note saying there was a bottle of something cold in the fridge! I went round examining my new home while my husband pumped up the inflatable beds. The rooms looked huge without any furniture; the lounge/diner resembled a ballroom. We made tea and sat on camping chairs and ate some of Carol’s lemon cake. Phew! It had been a long day and there would be a lot to do tomorrow. 11pm bed.  I lay awake, the inflatable bed uncomfortable, and tried to visualise where all the furniture was going. Unlike when we moved into Avalon, tonight we were boiling hot!

At 3.10am we were woken up by an almighty clank – the heating had come back on! It was difficult to get back to sleep. Dogs were barking, birds were tweeting as I watched the new dawn rise.

Day 1 at Glebe Avenue.   I wrote in my diary – ‘A nice sunny morning. It’s got a nice feel to it, this house. I hope we’ll be happy here’.

At 8am Plymouth Removals pulled onto the drive, the guys jumped out and set to work. The garden plants and equipment were first to be unloaded. But they couldn’t get our two wardrobes up the stairs owing to the bulkhead overhang. We had to ask them to leave them in the garage. They left at 11.25. My husband tipped them then our hard work began – unpacking, erecting beds, arranging furniture…

We stopped for a pizza from the freezer for lunch.

My brother texted – ‘Hope the move went well’.  I couldn’t get a signal anywhere, so I couldn’t reply. I have never had a problem obtaining a mobile phone signal before. Our landline wasn’t connected and so I had to go next door to the neighbours who gave had given us the key the previous evening to ask to use their phone. She shut the two dogs in the living room while I dialled. They barked continuously making it difficult to hear the person on the other end. I felt uncomfortable, especially as I had to go back indoors for another number and try again. I finally got through to someone who could help me and heaved a sigh of relief. Then we couldn’t get the TV to work. The previous owners had had Sky TV; something with which we were unfamiliar.

Our new neighbour from the bungalow next door came to say hello. That was nice. A brief chat with him, he didn’t come in, then back to the unpacking.

The two bar stools we’d ordered for the breakfast bar arrived and my husband put them together. Slowly our new home was taking shape. It felt homely. We walked down to the village shop and bought a frozen chicken pie. The previous owners had left us some oven chips in the freezer so pie and chips was our first meal with a glass of the prosecco that they’d left us, to celebrate. The pie was horrible. I read the packaging –  chicken from Brazil and Thailand! We left it; rather be hungry than ill, just ate the chips and vowed to go food shopping the next day. I looked across at my father’s bust of Beethoven (acquired from my mother before she died) sitting on the bottom half of the dresser – he looked happy in his new home. We decided the top of the dresser didn’t look right in this house so we left it in the garage. More discussion on what furniture to buy. We plugged the TV in but it wouldn’t work. Realised it was the aerial – something else to look into.

Our daughter rang my mobile but I had to go upstairs to receive it. She was very excited for us and amazed at how much we’d achieved. 10.30pm fell into my own bed. Arhhh…

The next day dawned grey. I woke up and wondered where I was. Tried to get water out of the fridge dispenser but failed. The freezer kept making ice; I read in the manual that you could turn it off.

After breakfast we went to John Lewis at Peterborough to order a washing machine and a dishwasher. It was a long journey, 35 miles in heavy traffic; had we realised we would’ve gone to Norwich. Whilst in John Lewis we had carrot and coriander soup for lunch. We came back to Kings Lynn Sainsburys, had tea and cake first then stocked up on groceries and a ceramic frying pan for the induction hob. My brother and our daughter texted on our journey home to ask how we were getting on. Came in and roasted half a chicken and potatoes and cooked some fresh vegetables. We sat opposite each other at our farmhouse table, in front of the French doors, to eat our dinner. Another glass of prosecco, ‘Here’s to us and our new life’. We continued unpacking and finally went to bed exhausted at 11pm.

In the days that followed we hung our pictures and gradually emptied the garage of boxes but there was a distressing amount of furniture still in the garage, mainly two wardrobes and the dismantled one. (Over time we reduced this and managed to get our two cars in the garage.) The shower room had been painted an acid yellow and this was the first to be redecorated with a pale neutral colour, far more in keeping with the beige wall and floor tiles. The study had been used, during the day, for the previous owners’ two dogs while they were at work. Consequently, the carpet was rather smelly and no amount of hoovering helped. We moved the study upstairs to the smallest bedroom, redecorated the downstairs room with Dusted Fondant walls and a Light Nutmeg carpet and turned it into a bedroom. I discarded the dusty Venetian blinds and bought Roman blinds with a faint purple stripe. The flowery bed linen echoed the garden viewed from the window and resembled my bedroom at Parkhurst Road all those years ago. It felt like a warm hug. Our burgundy sofas didn’t really look right against the dark feature wall, which we thought was black, but now realised was a very dark green. But we decided we could live with that and the remaining décor in the rest of the house for a while. There were umpteen boxes of books, mainly belonging to our daughter, for which my husband gradually built a wall of shelves in the second bedroom. We had another bookcase in the living room. The solid fuel Rayburn was another thing to get our heads around, but we gradually got to grips with this hungry monster that demands fuelling twice a day. (This is allowed to go out through the summer months.)

We slowly acquainted ourselves with the area. Kings Lynn retail park, ten minutes away, has a huge Tesco Extra and an equally large Sainsburys, where not only can you buy food but home-ware and clothing. There is a B&Q, The Range, PC World and other retail outlets.  In the other direction Downham Market has a fresh produce market on a Friday and Saturday, a butcher and two supermarkets along with some independent shops. This was a refreshing change as Cornwall has very little in the way of outdoor markets. But we missed Trago Mills, the huge discount store in the Glynn Valley! We needed curtains in the lounge/diner but couldn’t find a suitable shop. However, all the windows had either Venetian blinds or roller blinds so there was no immediate need.

Next I had to find a writers’ group. This proved more difficult than in Cornwall where I had belonged to four at one point. Whilst in Ely library, about 35 minutes by car, I saw an advert for the Ely Writers’ Day and rang the number. The lady sounded cheerful and welcoming and when I attended the day proved to be inspiring. But there were no writers’ groups in the area. Disappointing. I decided to put a notice in our local parish magazine asking for like-minded people to get in touch. Two people replied – a man and a woman. I invited them to a meeting at home and we arranged to meet monthly. But the man eventually decided it wasn’t for him. However, the woman and I became good friends – I found out later that she had moved from Cornwall the week before us!  Since then, I have found a group that meets monthly at Downham Market library and have taken part in two courses of Writing for Radio. These have been very enjoyable and we have attended BBC Radio Norfolk to record our stories. Hopefully, they will broadcast them at a later date.

Wanting to make friends, I decided to visit the monthly pop-up cafe in the village hall one Friday. I was invited to sit with two elderly ladies who were quite friendly and gave me a few ideas on where to buy curtains etc. but I didn’t find anyone my own age. Then one evening I toddled along to the Watlington W.I. I had belonged to the Haddenham branch for a number of years but this one had fewer members. However, I was put on a table with two other women, one being very easy to talk to and we hit it off straight away. We go out regularly for coffee and a chat and as a foursome with our partners for days out; something we never did in Cornwall. I have since made friends with two other local authors and we regularly meet up for tea and cake.

I have mentioned the small development of houses being built at the end of our road. Every time someone moved in we would have a power cut; usually on a Friday.  This was very annoying to say the least. We put it down to an overload on the power supply and hoped it would soon be rectified. Then in July 2015 there was a storm and a massive power cut that knocked out my Outlook email system, something I have never been able to regain. Eventually these power cuts lessened and finally stopped.

When we came to view the house we thought it was in a quiet area. However, a dog in one of the houses opposite now barked continually for no reason, the owner being out at work every day. Neither of us has been used to living on an estate with all the noise that brings and we miss the peace and tranquillity of Rilla Mill. We also miss the wonderful views from our back garden, the buzzards circling above and the walks from our front door.  To take advantage of Hunstanton, our nearest coastal resort, we often have to queue in traffic to get there. In the height of summer it can take us over an hour, whereas Looe was only twenty minutes away from Rilla Mill. The A10 trunk road is very busy, even out of season, something we never took into consideration before we moved. We have learned that there are more houses due to be built in the village and this will only make matters worse. The doctor’s surgery is already over-loaded having patients on their books from twenty surrounding villages and the junior school is under a similar strain.

However, the proximity of family makes up for a great deal of the misgivings. My sister and brother-in-law live the other side of Norwich, a seventy-five minute journey. They were our first visitors.  We provided lunch for them and they thought the house was impressive. Although they had lived in their house nearly three years we had never seen it. This is a single-storey property in the village of Upton, close to the Norfolk Broads.

Our daughter and son-in-law are the closest at Littleport and we often have them to dinner.  My stepson lives in Leicester, a comfortable train ride away for him. My eldest daughter and my granddaughters live near Woburn which is reached by car in under two hours. My brother, being the furthest away, has a flat and his own shop in Margate which is easily reached by train in three hours. And our youngest daughter finds the train journey from York to Watlington less stressful than when we lived in Cornwall. (She has since graduated and now lives in Rickmansworth, doing a PhD.) Previously, all these journeys meant planning a few days away in a B&B, so all in all we manage to see the family far more often.

Our neighbours in Cornwall had put their house on the market shortly after we moved to be closer to her daughter at Northampton.  They told us that the woman who moved into Avalon had the greenhouse removed (she has dogs and was anxious they would cut themselves on the glass) and gave it to the woman in the house adjoining the field at the bottom of the garden.  My husband was sad to hear this after all the hard work that went into putting it together and the enjoyment he gained from growing his own plants.

My husband is in the garden most days, weather permitting, and he was pleased that there was a greenhouse already here. He makes full use of this, growing plants from seeds and cuttings.  We have made improvements, digging out a larger bed for the different species of grasses we brought with us and have since added to these. We dug out an oval bed in the centre for herbaceous plants. My husband has taken out three trees – a plum, an apple and a medlar, all diseased, and/or planted in the wrong places.  The shed has had a coat of grey/green paint and the log store has been improved. There is a raised bed of strawberries that have been very abundant and succulent recently. On the wall of the extension is a young wisteria which has flowered for the first time this year. (2016) We planned to train this over a larger area. In the far corner of the garden was an old sculptured plaque leaning against the fence. I wanted to move this to another part of the garden to try and make a feature but I gave up on the idea as the plaque was in a dilapidated state.  I would like an urn on a plinth in the far corner but these are rather expensive, unless sourced from a reclamation yard or the internet. Leading to this, where there is less light, we plan to have a timber arch with honeysuckle growing up it. In the garden beyond ours, the owner has let their conifers grow to over thirty feet which make the top end of our garden cold and dark. They are unsightly because the lower branches have been thinned causing them to die back. With a bit of luck we hope these will eventually be lowered thus opening up our garden to more light.

The patio was another area for concern, being uneven and too small, but this summer (2016) my husband has re-laid it, made it bigger and a more interesting shape. Having already done this at Avalon, my husband was reluctant to do it by himself – as he gets older he finds manual jobs take him a lot longer – but he took his time and went about it in a methodical way. However, he encountered a problem – he uncovered a manhole under the existing paving slabs! The whole patio had to be lowered to accommodate the manhole within the new paving. It is now a usable space and looks as though it has always been there.

The front garden needs attention: there is a square patch of grass in poor condition and flower borders on three sides. The concrete path is showing signs of wear, puddles when it rains and the gravel drive needs replenishing. Front gardens seem to pose a problem; there are very few examples in the village from which to gain any inspiration. Most houses in Watlington favour our old enemy the gravel, resembling a pebble beach. We don’t want to pave it all, feeling block paving is better suited to urban areas. We don’t want to re-turf it either. I look back at all the houses I have lived in but to no avail. Modern living means there has to be somewhere to park the car but I’m reluctant to make the front garden into a car park. (There is enough room for three cars on the drive anyway.) We often visit open gardens for ideas, but as yet, none are forthcoming.

We don’t know if this will be our last move. Perhaps in the years to come we might find the stairs difficult to climb, who knows? We are already looking at peaceful, non-estate properties, but as we get older we need access to amenities. Also no one can guarantee a good doctor or dentist will be available, or short queues for hospital appointments.  Like the old saying – better the devil you know…

Looking back at the other twelve houses, Parkhurst Road remains my favourite, where I grew up in gentler times with wonderful parents who understood the importance of home.

 

UPDATE on the garden:

My husband has made a wooden arch and we bought a honeysuckle and a jasmine to trail up it. This is now established and makes the garden look bigger as the eye is led through to the urn. I spotted this at one of our garden centres whilst having coffee with a friend. It was ideal! I took my husband back to see it, he agreed it was just right and we brought it home. I use different plants in it depending on the season. Last year we planted a large bright yellow begonia that brightened up that dark part of the garden. The overly tall conifers are still there. We are still hoping that the owners will reduce them by at least twenty feet. The raised bed of strawberries has been removed to make way for more plants. The front garden is still posing a problem but we have reduced the amount of poor grass by creating a large flower bed and adding some shrubs. This year we plan to improve the remaining grass, skim the path with concrete and top up the gravel drive.

Where to next?

Julie Ann Newman. 2020.

 

RILLA MILL, CORNWALL

AVALON, RILLA MILL.

It felt very strange leaving my eighteen-year-old daughter behind and driving the three-hundred miles to Cornwall. I felt as if I was abandoning her but it was her choice. The lonely journey from Cambridgeshire to Cornwall was mostly motorway and very tiring and I breathed a sigh of relief on entering the front door. As I had only stayed briefly before it didn’t feel like mine, but the large clean and tidy, light-filled bungalow was refreshing after the confined, cluttered space of the cabin. My husband welcomed me with a cup of tea and we sat discussing our plans for the house while the dinner was cooking. So nice to have someone cook for me for a change!

The huge kitchen diner was crying out for a farmhouse-style table and chairs, and a dresser, which we intended to have made to our own specification at an independent manufacturer in Callington.  The curtains to fit the wall of windows in the lounge would’ve been extremely expensive had it not been for Trago Mills, a discount store I became well-acquainted with, where we found a heavily-patterned tapestry material and had them made. The modern but cheap fire surround left a lot to be desired so we planned to have the fireplace reopened and a wood-burner installed.

Every newly- plastered wall was painted magnolia, which meant a blank canvas and very little immediate decorating to do, but we began to explore paint colours to make it our own.  As already mentioned, we had a large master bedroom with an en-suite and French doors onto the garden. These posed a problem in as much that the small window to one side meant a peculiar arrangement of curtains. I had bought two pairs of full-length voile curtains from John Lewis in Cambridge before my final move and I had to shorten one panel to fit this tiny window. These curtains let in the early morning light but did not keep out the cold. However, we never replaced them. The further three double bedrooms – the largest of which was used by our daughter when she came home – we planned to decorate at our leisure. The smallest, with its view of the pretty front garden, was turned into the study. This window was longer than all the others, a non-standard measurement, so I bought some blue striped material and made the curtains myself on my ancient Singer hand sewing machine.  In the other two bedrooms we hung the curtains we had brought with us from our house in Haddenham. The en-suite had no window and the bathroom had frosted ones to the side of the house making curtains or blinds unnecessary. The en-suite, bathroom and cloakroom all had modern white suites, but we didn’t need three lavatories so we used the cloakroom to house the ironing board and such things; the one room missing being a utility room.

We began to redesign the garden which still had a distressing amount of gravel.  Our next-door neighbour, in the old farmhouse, used some of this for her paths and the floor of her greenhouse. Having exposed the earth we got to grips with the planning and planting, drawing the plan on graph paper, but first we had to redesign the unimaginative patio.  My husband re-laid this in a more interesting design, with a bed for herbs near the house, and joined it immediately to the step from the bedroom doors instead of it being a boring slab on its own.

We knew if we lowered the hedge running along the bottom of the small garden, we could take advantage of the view. This was one of the first outdoor jobs which revealed the hills, green fields and hedgerows. To sit on the elevated decking in the sun, with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, with the cows and sheep grazing on the hillsides and the buzzards circling overhead, was a delight.  To the side of our bungalow the overbearing trees and hedges were trimmed, exposing another different view towards Bodmin Moor and Caradon Hill.

My husband dug up the old grass turf and levelled the ground. We sowed some grass seed and tied strings, threaded with tin foil, across to prevent the birds eating it. He was a bit dubious whether this would work (we didn’t want to splash out on turf) but after a year it had grown into a thick green lawn.

Under the elevated decking we found some paving slabs and some grey bricks. These were up-cycled to make the path down the side of the garden between us and our neighbours in the old farmhouse. Also amongst the debris underneath the decking were some concrete blocks and slate slabs which would come in useful when we eventually re-designed the fireplace. Everything we found in the garden we up-cycled, either in the garden or in the bungalow.

We found a builder who was willing to open up the original fireplace but we didn’t know what the plaster board was concealing. There was no photo and none of the neighbours could remember ever seeing it! Nevertheless we went ahead. The demolition made a terrible mess; bricks and dust filled the room, but it revealed a less than attractive very small fireplace that had obviously been thrown together. (Apparently a builder had built this bungalow for himself and his wife in 1975.) We asked our builder to rip it out, make good and create a mantelpiece using a piece of granite five feet long by nine inches square obtained from the local quarry. The slate slabs we’d found in the garden were used for the hearth, and we had a wood-burning stove installed. We painted the inside of the fireplace burgundy red. When all this was completed it looked very cosy. Watching the flickering flames on a chilly autumn evening was better than watching the television!

Whilst on a journey to Plymouth one day, my husband noticed a sign outside a house – ‘Greenhouse. Free to good home!’ He came back and pondered how he could collect this and erect it in our garden. Fortunately the man in the farmhouse next door was willing to give him a hand and the two of them dismantled the greenhouse and brought it home. My husband was like a dog with two tails – he’d always wanted a greenhouse and this one was in very good condition. The only problem was how to fit it all back together! It was like a giant jig-saw puzzle without any instructions. But our neighbour was very patient and together they figured it out the following day.

The decking was rickety and needed to be secured.  When my husband finally completed it and painted the balustrade grey-green it looked like an advert in a house and garden magazine. My husband painted our picnic table to match and made a cold frame out of some discarded wood and painted this the same colour. We explored the local garden centres for plants and gradually the garden began to take shape. Immediately in front of the decking we created a bed for unusual grasses. The seed heads, swaying in the breeze with the sunlight catching them, were beautiful to watch.

Our daughter finally moved in with us. She had missed the deadline for being accepted at university because she had been undecided whether to continue her education or get a job. This resulted in her taking a year out and trying to find a job in Cornwall.  It’s a dispiriting business going to the job centre weekly only to be told to ‘keep looking’. There aren’t many job vacancies for young people without any experience, particularly in this part of the country. After much searching she found a part-time job working in a café in Launceston but she was put-upon and hated every minute. She gave it up but never found another; instead she enrolled on a local Spanish language course which she loved. In the meantime she applied to several universities and was accepted at Sheffield to start in September 2009. This was a relief as I wanted her to be happy, but as every mother knows, it’s an anxious time when her child flees the nest.

Cornwall lost its appeal for me during this time as I associated it with all sorts of problems. My husband couldn’t find work either – something he never took into account before we moved. Miles away from what I knew I became depressed until I spotted an advert for a creative writing course in the window of Upton Cross stores. Engrossed in this new project with like-minded people, I found an outlet for my creativity and forgot the problems. I joined a writing group in Liskeard library and found another weekly one that critiqued members’ work and thoroughly enjoyed every minute. A new door had opened.

Whilst living on his own my husband had found some country walks from our front door and we often took ourselves off for an hour down narrow lanes and up steep hills. We barely saw a car. The beautiful Lynher valley with hilly walks through the woods, buzzards circling high above, squirrels and very often the sound of a woodpecker high up in the trees, were a joy. The Lynher River snaked through the woods, crossed by the two ancient  bridges, Starabridge a 14th century packhorse bridge, and Plushabridge where we often stopped to play Pooh Sticks.  On the road towards Doublebois, (pronounced Double Boys by the locals) Siblyback Lake is a reservoir used mainly for water sports where, at the end of an hour’s walk, we were rewarded with a cup of tea or coffee in the cafe.  Cardinham Woods, close to National Trust Lanhydrock, was another beauty spot which we frequented. In the winter after a brisk walk, we were greeted with a roaring fire and comfy chairs in the tea room.  In the warmer months, sitting outdoors was a pleasure and, amongst the woodland, bar-b-q bays allowed people to cook their own food.

Further afield were the Eden Project and The Lost Gardens of Heligan made famous by Tim Smit. Heligan was my favourite with the fully restored Victorian gardens which had been neglected and forgotten after the First World War, the many gardeners having been called up. It was rediscovered in 1992 and over the years Tim Smit and his team have fully restored the vast wooded areas, the jungle and Italian gardens. I loved the large Edwardian greenhouse filled with plants. The Eden Project, created out of a disused chalk quarry near St Austell, is said to be one of the wonders of the modern world. The huge tropical ‘biomes’  like giant bubbles nestling in the hillsides, house plants from around the world. We were lucky enough to see it being built whilst on holiday in 2001 and have been back several times to watch its progress.

To make friends, we joined the short-mat bowls club at the village hall but found this a bit tame after the outdoor bowls we had been used to in Cambridgeshire! All the members were over seventy-five and I longed to find friends my own age. This led to me to becoming involved in our local theatre. Sterts Theatre on the Moor is an outdoor amphitheatre with a canopy, enabling the audience to enjoy the plays and productions in all weathers. In the summer of 2009 my daughter and I were in Gonamena, a community play written by local playwright Simon Parker, based on the mining community in the 1800s. We were in the chorus and I found the songs, specially written for Gonamena by Simon Dobson, very moving. We became volunteers allowing us to see other productions free of charge. The atmosphere on a warm summer’s evening, with the fairy lights strung along the path to the theatre, is wonderful. After taking tickets we would buy a coffee from the café or an ice cream from the kiosk and sit watching a production. In subsequent years I sang and danced my way through many in-house productions of different musicals, including Fiddler on the Roof which had rave reviews in the local press.

I also joined Sterts choir in the autumn of 2009. I couldn’t read music but the director and choir members were very encouraging and I enjoyed singing at various venues leading up to Christmas. This was another hobby added to my interests since moving to Cornwall: theatre, creative writing, singing, and short-mat bowls – I was very rarely sitting indoors with nothing to do.

But my daughter was less inspired; she never found her niche in Cornwall and I was relieved when we took her to Sheffield for her three-year university course in History and Spanish in September 2009. She settled in immediately and made plenty of friends; one of them she already knew from Impington which made the transition much easier.

We have been National Trust members for years.  Lanhydrock and Cotehele were the properties closest to us and we were fairly well acquainted with these as we had visited them often on holiday.  One day we had the idea of volunteering at Cotehele and signed up to work there on Sundays – my husband at the mill and me as a room guide in the house. Unlike years before when I couldn’t work for Ely Cathedral because my daughter was a baby, I now had plenty of time to devote to volunteering and enjoyed learning about the history of the house and the Edgcumbe family. The room guides were treated to home-made soup at lunchtime, brought up to the staff- room from the restaurant, and we had a break in the afternoon for a cup of tea, but they frowned upon us sitting down whilst ‘on duty’ so my legs and feet felt like lead at the end of the day. My husband stood all day down at the mill, often freezing cold with no refreshment provided. We only did it for a year.

Our nearest seaside resort was Looe on the south coast. We would park the car at Hannafore on the west side and walk down over the bridge to the east side of the town. There is a local saying – The west is the money side, the east the sunny side.  The town itself has numerous shops, pubs and restaurants and of course, the obligatory fish and chip shops. Eating a bag of chips while sitting on the quayside, regardless of the weather, was a regular treat, but we had to watch out for the scavenging seagulls – I saw one woman have her food snatched directly out of her mouth! Visitors don’t realise how bad the seagulls are – some even feed them regardless of the many warning notices along the beach and quayside. The flat beach is safe for families and while I watched them, I often regretted not having my eldest daughter and my granddaughters nearer. But on a fine day in the winter it was a pleasure to have it to ourselves, walking on the sandy beach when the tide was out. Sometimes we would walk through to Plaidy beach and hike back up the hill.

Padstow on the north coast has a quaint harbour and little streets, but not much in the way of fish and chip shops or tea rooms. Rick Stein opened a take-away fish and chip shop on the site of the old railway station but we found one down a back street that was far cheaper and their fish and chips delicious. We would see visitors sitting on the pavement eating their posh Rick Stein fish and chips, but it didn’t look any better than ours! We would often take a pleasant walk to the beach or have a game of crazy golf reached by some steep steps opposite the harbour. There is a café up there where we sometimes stopped for coffee or afternoon tea. The view from  up there is beautiful (mentioned in BAY OF SECRETS)  the resort of Rock on the opposite side of the Camel Estuary, and further round towards the harbour the eye is led out to sea with the old railway bridge in the distance. Hiring a bike and cycling the Camel Trail, which was originally the railway line before Dr Beeching closed it, is another way of passing an afternoon.  Further along the coast is Mawgan Porth where we spent a couple of holidays in the early 2000s. This is my favourite beach in the whole of the West Country. It’s a haven for surfers (although we don’t) and when the tide’s out you can roam for miles amongst the rock pools. From Mawgan Porth you can walk along the coast path to Carnewas where there is a National Trust tea room and outdoor seating with a view towards the lighthouse at Trevose Head.

Living in Cornwall had its attributes but we lived three-hundred miles away from family and, apart from my stepchildren, they rarely came to stay, seemingly reluctant to do the journey.  When we went to see them we had to book into a B&B as none of them had room to put us up. My eldest daughter and my granddaughters only came to Cornwall once as my eldest granddaughter has learning difficulties and terrible anxiety. This made visiting very stressful.  By this time my elderly mother had become unable to travel and required a lot of care. I felt guilty for not being there and leaving my brother to deal with the majority of the problems. My sister, living in Norfolk, was also too far away to offer much help. My mother’s funeral in 2013 brought home to me that family is more important than the location in which one lives. Our youngest daughter hated the long train journey from Sheffield to Cornwall. So we began to make plans to move back to East Anglia, a more accessible part of the country for all.

We put Avalon on the market in April 2014 and began tentatively looking for a suitable property. But we hadn’t realised the house prices in and around Ely had risen whereas the ones in the West Country had stayed more or less the same. We began looking further afield in Suffolk and Essex and took a holiday cottage to view some areas, but we couldn’t come up with a solution. The trouble was, we needed to be accessible to all the family and to find somewhere central was proving difficult. The ideal would’ve been to live in the London area but that was out of the question – too busy and too expensive.

Whist he was staying with my step-daughter and her husband in Littleport near Ely, my husband viewed a house in Watlington near Kings Lynn. We hadn’t intended to live that far north but the house was attractive and the village had a post office/general store and a railway station. It even had a fish and chip shop. My husband rang me in Cornwall and waxed lyrical about the house. By now it was October and while my husband was away I’d had to show a lady around Avalon. She brought her father back for another viewing and put in an offer straight away, so we felt we had to get a move on. My husband came back and stressed we should view the Watlington house together, so we took a holiday cottage in Feltwell and went to view the house the following week.

We liked this three-bedroom detached house in a quiet road.  There was a small development being built at the end of the road but we didn’t see this as a problem. The day we viewed it the weather was pleasant and bright and from outside it looked as if the house had been well cared for.  There was a double gravel driveway, a double garage and a small front garden laid to lawn. The owner opened the front door and a waft of warm air greeted us from the Rayburn in the kitchen. The two guys were very friendly and they told me to treat the house as my own and take my time looking around while my husband remained chatting downstairs.

There had been an extension added four years earlier. This consisted of a shower room, a utility room and a study. The double garage, accessed from the back lobby, had an automatic door.  The kitchen had been recently modernised with white units, charcoal grey work tops and a breakfast bar with black and chrome bar stools, a fan oven with an induction hob, a grey American style fridge/freezer and of course, the Rayburn which was British Racing Green. The walls were light olive and the tiled splash back bottle green and white squares. A large clock with Roman numerals hung above the Rayburn.

The large lounge/diner had a white Georgian fireplace, something I loved, and French doors onto the garden. Wood-block flooring ran throughout apart from the beige tiles in the kitchen, shower room and utility. The feature wall in the living room was almost black. Their sofas and chairs were white leather and a glass-top dining table and tubular steel chairs stood in front of the French doors, all far more contemporary than our furniture.

Upstairs the three bedrooms were decorated very tastefully with feature walls and there was a bathroom with a bath and a shower enclosure. I came downstairs to the kitchen where the owner made us a cup of tea. He boiled a kettle on a tea towel resting on the induction hob to demonstrate how safe the induction was. I had never seen this done before. He invited me to sit on one of the bar stools while he continued chatting to us about how efficient the house was to run and how to operate the solid fuel Rayburn. A real salesman!

Outside, the garden was a manageable size, the grass had been newly mowed and the birds were singing in the trees. I went round the property twice. I felt I could live there.

Result! We came away after two hours intending to put in an offer the very next day. This we did and it was accepted. I was looking forward to moving into our new home.

But there was a delay in moving. The woman who was buying Avalon had asked her solicitor a lot of questions for which we had no answers. One worry was that our builder hadn’t obtained proper planning guidelines when he re-tiled the roof. The sale seemed to drag on and on without any news. Then the people we were buying Glebe Avenue from had a delay on the house they were buying in Peterborough; some legality about the steps up to the front door. There were phone calls and emails back and forth including did we want to buy the American fridge/freezer that was too big for their new house? We said yes as it was a good price and being our own f/freezer was integrated, as were our other appliances, it would’ve meant buying one anyway. We also bought the two sliding-door wardrobes that were screwed to the walls as it would’ve been a nuisance for the two guys to dismantle them.

We didn’t know if or when we were moving. To take my mind off the waiting, in November I took the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) competition challenge which I completed and gained a certificate. Christmas came and went without much celebration. We spent the whole holiday on our own, our daughter having made many friends spent Christmas in Sheffield. However, we finally got around the problems and on 18th February 2015 we moved into 1 Glebe Avenue.

 

 

NORTH STREET WICKEN

This bungalow was a good size – three bedrooms, a bathroom, a decent sized kitchen, a dining room and a living room which had been built on as a later addition. This room was cold because it was only single brick construction with French doors. However there was plenty of room for all our furniture. The back garden, laid to lawn, had no plants but looked out over fields where horses grazed. There was a garage and a shed which was very useful for storage and a good sized drive. We rented this bungalow for six months and continued to look for our ideal property in Cornwall.

There were no shops in Wicken only a small farm shop selling their own meat, eggs and vegetables; our nearest shops and supermarkets were in Ely.  Wicken Fen, owned by the National Trust, was a short walk from our front door and we regularly made use of this. One particular walk took about forty-five minutes along reed-edged lodes and rivers; very enjoyable on a sunny day.

To help pay the rent and to stop us dipping into our savings, we both found part-time jobs: my husband with an estate agent, assisting clients to view properties in the area, and me with a cleaning agency which entailed cleaning private houses whilst the owners were at work.  Both these jobs were out of our comfort zone. Every morning I had to take our daughter to Sutton to catch the school bus, which meant an early start, and I had to pick her up in the evening.

And so our lives were held in limbo, waiting for that special property to turn up.

More searching on the internet revealed five possible properties in south-east Cornwall; I was determined that if I was to live in Cornwall, miles from my family and everything I knew, I needed a house that I could fall in love with. We made appointments to view all of the properties over one weekend. At the last minute we noticed a refurbished four- bedroom bungalow that had just come on the market in a village called Rilla Mill in a part of south east Cornwall we didn’t know at all. I thought the name sounded romantic so we phoned the estate agent in Launceston to make an appointment to view.

May Bank Holiday weekend, we left our daughter with a friend and went to stay with one of my writer friends who had moved from Haddenham to Ivybridge in Devon the previous year. Anne was very excited at the prospect of us living closer and this proved an ideal base from which to explore. Every evening over supper, in her conservatory which looked out onto a pretty but steep garden, she asked for an update on our house-hunting.

Most of the houses were disappointing i.e. small bedrooms, not enough living space, old-fashioned kitchens etc. and I was becoming despondent. The last one we viewed was the refurbished bungalow in Rilla Mill which was approached down a narrow lane with views towards Bodmin Moor and I started to take an interest. Avalon was charming; opening the black and white lych-gate onto the front garden was like walking into a fairy tale. Carved into the wooden beams of this were the words – ‘For the Good Times’ – and the date, 1975. The facade of the bungalow was rendered white with new double-glazed windows and black windowsills. The garage had a pretty pointed window and a mock-Tudor gable. There were two well-established hydrangeas in the front garden, a tall skimmia hedge that blocked out the road, a large rhododendron and a very tall conifer. But the rest of the front garden had been covered in gravel including what had once been a pond which stood in the centre of the grass (you couldn’t call it a lawn).

The estate agent led us through the porch with a glazed front door and into the empty bungalow which was all new inside, light and airy with sand-coloured carpets throughout. The large kitchen/diner had cream up-to-the-minute built-in units housing integrated appliances, beech worktops and a wood-effect laminate floor. French doors led into the big square lounge with a fireplace and more French windows onto the decking. An interesting feature in the master bedroom was the French windows opening onto the patio and I imagined the doors flung open on a sunny morning and cups of tea in bed. This bedroom had a good sized en-suite with cream tiles but no window. There were three further bedrooms at the front of the bungalow, the smallest of which I hoped to make into my study with its view onto the front garden. A large bathroom and a separate WC completed the rooms. The bungalow felt welcoming, as if it had been waiting for us.

Apart from the recently-laid unimaginative square patio, the back garden had grass and even more gravel. The couple who had bought the bungalow to refurbish and sell on, obviously thought gravel was the way to go. The decking had been hastily erected but I could tell, with a bit of TLC, it could be a very attractive feature and, being elevated, it would allow views across the countryside if we lowered the boundary hedge. There were also some tall trees to one side of the garden casting long shadows across the garden, but I imagined we could resolve these problems if we bought the property. After a further viewing that weekend we put in an offer.

This was a little premature as our daughter had another year at Impington College, but it was too good an opportunity to miss. My husband decided to live in Avalon by himself while I lived with our daughter in Cambridgeshire until she finished her A-levels. (More of that later).

We started to make plans. We went to Multiyork to buy new covers for our sofas and armchair. We had bought this furniture in 1994 and the pale covers were showing signs of wear. I spotted some burgundy material and fell in love with it so we ordered the covers with the idea that we would put them on once the furniture was in Avalon.

The purchase complete, in August 2007 we left our daughter with her friend in Cambridge and drove down to Cornwall. On a cloudy drizzly day we entered the estate agent’s in Launceston and were given the keys along with a red gerbera in a vase with a welcome card; a nice touch. When we entered the bungalow it looked even bigger than I remembered. After unpacking our bare essentials, we made a pot of tea and ate the cake we’d bought on the way.  As we sat in the echoing space of the kitchen/diner we began to plan what sort of furniture to buy – a country pine dresser, table and chairs perhaps.

Closer inspection revealed the disappointing level of workmanship – all the doors needed rubbing down and repainting, some needed re-hanging. This was something we had overlooked at the time of viewing. The fireplace was a cheap imitation with a fan heater; the original fireplace having been boarded up. Through the window we could see the grass was a foot high and it was obvious the people who had refurbished the bungalow hadn’t been back for some time.

Our first meal was sausages and mash and a bottle of Pino Grigio to celebrate, whilst listening to Classic FM. We began to relax. It had been a tiring day, what with the six-hour journey and acquainting ourselves with the surrounding area in the drizzle.

We ‘camped’ for nine days with the minimum of comforts – an inflatable bed, a kettle, a tea pot and two cups, two plates, two canvas chairs and a radio. We were freezing!

The weather improved the next day. Our neighbours in the bungalow next door welcomed us with a cup of tea and ‘If you need to borrow the mower, just shout!’  They had two grown-up children still living at home. The mother worked at a local residential home for the elderly; the father for The British Red Cross. We asked who had lived in our bungalow before it was refurbished and they made us laugh with tales of Old Jim who had lived there with his brother and his wife, but when they had died Old Jim lived on his own. Apparently he had been quite a character; he used to get through the fence and sit in his pyjamas in their kitchen, waiting for his cup of tea! He had recently been moved to an old people’s home.

Next door the other side, our neighbours in the old farmhouse were very friendly. They had lived there for ten years and advised on the best places to go for shopping and walks, where to buy logs (for the log burner we planned to have installed) and general requisites.

The extremely rural village had only one  narrow winding though road which had a very steep hill, no shops, one pub, a church and a social club. At the bottom of the hill was a bridge over the river Lynher where the road rose up sharply again towards Upton Cross. This village had a Post Office and general store and a school with a small public library. A short drive from Rilla Mill took us up to the village of Minions on the moor where sheep and ponies grazed on the short grass and furze.  Looking down from here the view was amazing – little villages nestling amongst moorland, ancient stone circles, patchwork fields and hills as far as the horizon, history stretching back centuries. Ruined engine houses and mine shafts littered the moorland now bathed in tranquil peace; difficult to imagine the noise that must have been created by the mining industry of the nineteenth century.  Everywhere was quiet; hardly any traffic, birds singing in the trees. It felt welcoming, intimate somehow and I looked forward to moving into Avalon permanently.

One of my husband’s concerns was the wet weather. Living on the edge of the moor meant the weather changed rapidly. One minute it would be bright sunshine, the next the clouds would gather and down would come the rain. Then just as quickly it would change to bright sunshine again. It was possible to watch the weather coming in from the west but I found this rather refreshing to what we’d had in the fens.

After nine days we returned to Wicken and made preparations for our final move.

 

 

THE CABIN, MEPAL, CAMBRIDGESHIRE

 

My daughter had a friend whose mother had had a new wood cabin erected in their front garden. This was originally intended for her grandfather but he died before he could take up residence. This left a redundant cabin piled up with his old furniture. My daughter was very close to these friends and often stayed for weekends with them. Mother and daughter lived continually in a muddle in the main three bedroom house with four cats. There was rarely anywhere to sit – every chair piled up with clothes or books.  Housework was ignored and the sink was always piled high with dirty dishes but they were very kind, friendly people and regular church-goers.

The mother developed breast cancer and this eventually spread to her liver. She moved into the cabin to make it easier for the Macmillan Nurses to attend to her.  This was a very distressing time: her stay was short and her only daughter orphaned. Before the cancer became too invasive and the mother was still able to communicate, we agreed for me and my daughter to come and live in the cabin and for me to look after both girls and take charge of running the two properties until my daughter finished her A-levels.

In the September we handed the keys back to the owners of North Street and I waved goodbye to my husband – he was off to Cornwall. All our furniture was on the removal lorry on its way to Avalon where he would be overseeing the move the next day.

When my daughter and I moved into the properties in Mepal we found the atmosphere morbid. I had to sleep in the bed in which the mother had died and I had none of my own possessions with me, only my clothes which I had to find room for in the second-hand furniture. I was cooking for the three of us, looking after the house and the cabin and feeding the cats. I was also still cleaning the three houses for the agency.

My daughter had her own room in the house while I lived in the cabin. I managed to make some improvements, tidying away some of the clutter. There was one L-shaped living area furnished with an old settee, a new pine dresser, table and chairs. But the rest of the space was taken up with old chests of drawers and cabinets and generally cramped.  The only clear floor space was immediately in front of the settee where I laid a hearth rug taken from our house. I had a history of back problems and this was the only place I could use for my floor exercises every night before I went to bed.

The two bedrooms were cluttered with boxes and carrier bags full of stuff.  The wet room, fitted out with a shower, basin and toilet for the disabled, was adequate. The kitchen was small but nicely fitted with a built-in electric cooker and a fridge, no washing machine – I had to use the rusty one in the lean-to adjoining the house. I would hang out the washing whilst trying to find a space amongst the tall weeds in the garden which hadn’t had much attention for years.

After a couple of months my daughter moved into the cabin with me as her friend often stayed at the vicar’s house for weeks on end, ( he was a friend of the family) and my daughter didn’t like sleeping in the house on her own. There was a very basic gas boiler in the cabin that provided the hot water and heating. I got to grips with how it all worked but sometimes the boiler wouldn’t ignite. One night we were woken up to an alarm going off.  It was freezing cold; we had to get up and get dressed and wait for the fire brigade outside in case they couldn’t find us. We were told (on the phone) not to touch anything so we couldn’t even make a hot drink. At 2am the fire officers came and checked the cabin but thankfully found nothing untoward. They fitted more efficient smoke detectors that never needed their batteries changed and told us to be vigilant; keeping our mobile phones next to the bed during the night. On another occasion, I had been down to Cornwall and came back to a freezing cold cabin – 11 degrees C – the boiler had gone out.

The rambling front and back gardens were very overgrown and the services to the cabin hadn’t been installed properly. When it rained the drains blocked up and we couldn’t use the toilet in the cabin. This meant struggling over the debris on the stairs in the house to use the less than cheerful bathroom, or use the toilet in the lean-to which was little more than an outside privy with cobwebs and spiders. When my husband rang to tell me of the pretty walks he’d been on, I would complain bitterly about our living conditions, but of course, living three hundred miles away, there was very little he could do. He told me how difficult it had been for him to put the new covers on our sofas and armchair on his own but I had little sympathy!

My daughter and I went to stay with my husband in Avalon for the October half term. We took a flight from Stansted to Newquay and my husband picked us up from the airport. I thought it would be easier and quicker than driving but there was so much waiting around in the airports that, by the time we’d added it up it, would’ve been quicker and cheaper to drive but I wasn’t familiar with the route.

Avalon felt like a holiday home, as if it belonged to somebody else, and I found it difficult to settle. There were still a lot of jobs to do and things to buy, and not being familiar with the area it was all quite frustrating. None of the stores had what we wanted and I felt we hadn’t achieved a very much by the end of the week. But it was refreshing to have our own space and our own things around us and our sofas dressed in their new burgundy covers looked great. We enjoyed the coastline and the various country walks that week but having no friends in Cornwall our daughter felt out of place and couldn’t wait to get back to college.

I drove our daughter down to Cornwall for the Christmas holidays. It was a tiring five-and-a-half hour journey but at the end of it I had a feeling of accomplishment. We put the Christmas tree up in the lounge and hung the tapestry curtains, floor to ceiling along one wall, that we’d ordered at half term. I stood back to admire the cosy room – it was slowly becoming home.

Before we left the cabin to take up permanent residence in Cornwall, my daughter asked if we could take in a Spanish exchange student to stay for the February half term. I was reluctant at first – it wasn’t my property – but she pestered me until I gave in. My daughter slept back in the main house while he slept in the box room in the cabin. This room was very cramped but he never complained. His stay involved a lot of ferrying back and forth to Impington college as the Spanish students were taken to London and places of interest, returning at odd hours. I cooked for all of us but was surprised to find our Spanish student didn’t like tomatoes! Of course, he found our meals very different from back home and often asked what it was he was eating. We enjoyed having him; he slotted in and was no trouble. We encouraged him to speak English and in turn we learned a bit of Spanish. He enjoyed his stay and looked forward to my daughter’s return exchange. When it was time for him to leave, he asked me for my gravy recipe, gravy being something he’d never come across before!  He bought a bumper pack of potato crisps to take back for his brother and stuffed them into his luggage; apparently Walker’s crisps were not available in Spain. But I don’t know what he must have thought to his accommodation! I had visions of him going home with many a story to tell.

Our daughter was averse to moving to Cornwall, miles away from her friends, and during the school holidays she stayed with one or other of them while I drove down to Cornwall to stay with my husband. He occasionally came up to stay with us in the cabin but couldn’t wait to get home. This arrangement lasted until our daughter passed her A-levels. I finally moved into Avalon permanently in June 2008 and left our daughter staying with a friend in Cambridge for the summer

MINSTER ROAD, ROYSTON.

The day I viewed the available room in this semi-detached house, in a quiet road, I knew I would be happy there. Carol, the house owner,  put me at ease immediately. She was a divorced woman ten years my junior and being an ambulance driver meant she was out a lot of the time which suited me. The rent was £30 a month. Although she didn’t want any money for the utility bills I insisted on paying for the telephone as I was using it for work. This proved to be an admiral arrangement.

1 Minster Road was a quiet and tranquil place to return to at the end of the day. I had my own blue and white bedroom with a double bed, an ottoman for storing my hairdressing products, a dressing table and a bedside table. Carol was very house-proud. She had designated a shelf in the fridge and one half of a cupboard for my food and said I could use anything in the red and white kitchen as long as I kept it clean.  The lounge/diner was comfortable. The three piece suite and the sculptured carpet were beige and there was a smoke glass dining table and tubular steel chairs. The bathroom was all pink and so was the downstairs loo.

Carol had a border collie called Tess. I wasn’t used to dogs but Carol was very strict with her and she was very well-behaved. Carol would take her to her mother’s at 6.30 a.m. (Carol’s parents had a farm) go to work and come back with Tess after dinner in the evening. On Sundays they were both at the farm all day. Sometimes, mid-week, Carol and I would take it in turns to cook a meal and share a bottle of wine when we would tell each other what was happening in our personal lives and share a laugh and a joke.

My daughter remained living with her father ( he insisted) but I was close enough to keep an eye on things, Royston being only three miles from Melbourn. I was also thankful that I was able to continue running my mobile hairdressing business as most of my clients were in the Royston area or surrounding villages.   As a substitute for my personal happiness, and to keep myself busy in the evenings, I enrolled on a hairdressing refresher course at the Cambridge Regional College, joined a photographic club in Melbourn, a tap dancing class in Royston and went to the gym. This left weekends free for socialising when I would either go and stay with my friend in Eastbourne or go to my mother’s.

One dark morning in October 1987 I woke up to howling winds and the sound of dustbins and tin cans being blown down the road. I was alone in the house; Carol had already taken Tess to her mother’s. The power cut meant I had to have a cold wash and no hot drink before I left the house. I had no means of communication ( this was before the days of mobile phones) and I didn’t know what was going on. Some of the roads were impassable because of felled trees and it remained dark all day. Some of my clients had gas so I could boil water on their cookers for shampooing but one client had no alternative form of power and I had to rinse her perm in cold water!  This turned out to be the tail end of Hurricane Hilda which, the day before, weatherman Michael Fish had predicted would not affect Britain. The following weekend I went to Margate to see my mother. Northdown Park looked like a war zone with most of the trees reduced to splinters.

I enjoyed living at Minster Road but I realised there was something missing in my life so I put an advert in the personal column of the Cambridge Evening news. I had fifteen replies to my box number and I met five of the potential partners but I didn’t have anything in common with any of them. Then one day I had a late reply. This resulted in my meeting a divorced man with two children – a boy of fifteen and a girl of seven. I was 39 by this time and he had just had his fortieth birthday. We started dating and after a few months he invited me on holiday with him and the children to Guernsey as a trial run. This was a success and I moved in with him immediately afterwards.

 

 

ALDRETH ROAD, HADDENHAM, CAMBRIDGESHIRE

 

It’s strange to think I lived in Aldreth Road as long as I lived in Parkhurst Road – nearly twenty years – but those more recent seem a lot shorter.  As we get older time seems to shrink; a year flashes by and before you know it it’s Christmas again.

This detached house was only two years old when I moved in; four bedrooms and an en-suite to the master which was a novelty for me. There was a large double-aspect living room, a dining room, a fitted kitchen in dark wood, a utility room, a large family bathroom, a study and a downstairs loo. I moved in with very few of my own possessions and had no particular affinity with the house. The décor was very plain with pale walls, not a scrap of wallpaper anywhere. The carpet throughout the ground floor, the stairs and landing was a mushroom pink, the chunky three-piece-suite had a beige and black pattern; the coffee tables teak. The dining suite and dresser were pine. The bathrooms had ivory-coloured suites and pale tiles. The master bedroom had fitted beige wardrobes and a peach-coloured carpet.

The front garden had a curved gravel drive big enough for five cars and a double garage.    My new partner was a keen gardener and had designed the one-hundred-foot back garden from scratch with an interestingly shaped lawn. Trees and shrubs were in their infancy but it was obvious the garden was going to be a picture when they matured. Perennials such as day lilies, viburnam and ceanothus were planted in the borders.  Five tiny twigs of silver birch, planted in the lawn, later diminished to two, but over time these grew into beautiful tall trees that rustled in the wind and caught the light. But the best thing about this house was the view. There were cornfields at the bottom of the garden with an unrestricted view out over the fens towards Peterborough. In August it was a pleasure to sit in our garden and watch the red combine harvester gathering in the golden corn. The wide skies stretched forever and the sunsets were amazing. I took many a photograph.

I threw myself into family life. Although I was still working, travelling backwards and forwards to the Royston area to my customers, I looked after the children and cooked every evening when I came home. After three months this started to take its toll – I was nodding off at the wheel on the homeward journey. My husband-to-be had a good job and kept asking me to give up work so I gave in and became a housewife. This felt alien to me – I had worked as a hairdresser most of my adult life – but I did begin to enjoy some free time. Haddenham had a busy high street with plenty of shops, a gallery and a very active drama group.

On my fortieth birthday, in 1989, I married my second husband in Ely register office. It was a small affair, just the two of us and two witnesses. We told all the family afterwards.

In June 1990, in The Rosie maternity hospital, my second daughter was born, eighteen years after my first. I was 41. This was so much easier than the first time round. My husband was a great help, a ‘new man’. He insisted I use terry nappies so he steeped them in a bucket and rinsed them out, ready for the washing machine, before he went to work every morning. This was a novelty – my ex-husband had very little to do with our daughter when she was growing up.

After six weeks our little girl had her own bedroom. This meant all four bedrooms were occupied – a busy household. I thoroughly enjoyed being a full-time mother; we attended the local mother and toddler group and later, playgroups where we made plenty of friends. I was now in my early forties. Although most of the other mothers were younger than me, I also made some friends in my own age group and started a club for older mums called Late-Starters.

My husband’s other two children left home in 1993. His son went to live with a friend in Leicester and his daughter went to live with her mother. This meant the three of us were rattling around in the big detached house but we remained living there because it was close to my husband’s workplace at Soham. We were also close enough to the rest of the family that they could visit on a regular basis and I enjoyed entertaining with plenty of room, something I’d never had before. We could also visit them without the need to stay over. My mother and brother in Margate were about two and a half hours away and my married sister and her family lived near Norwich, a journey of an hour and a half. My husband’s parents lived in Basildon. My eldest daughter got married in 1996 and lived near Luton.  I became a grandmother in 1999 to a very premature baby girl. My eight-year-old daughter was delighted to be an auntie and ran into the school playground telling all her friends. But this was a worrying time for us all and I drove over to Luton and Dunstable hospital regularly to see my daughter and the baby, something I couldn’t have done had we lived further away.

My husband had always wanted to learn how to paint and I had always enjoyed art so we both enrolled on an adult education course on watercolour painting. We turned the smallest bedroom, now vacant, into a hobbies room and practised our newly acquired skills. After a couple of years we became confident enough to join the Ely Art Society and entered our work in their summer exhibitions.

Our nearest town was the City of Ely with its magnificent cathedral, and having always been interested in history I attended a course to become a Blue Badge guide. I fell in love with Ely; the Cathedral, Oliver Cromwell’s house and the museum, and I looked forward to putting my knowledge to the test. But my husband didn’t want me working weekends which is the busiest time for any tourist attraction. I honoured his wishes but remain enthralled with the cathedral to this day.

When our daughter started primary school I had too much time on my hands and began to look for hobbies. I took up calligraphy and when I had mastered it, (something my father would’ve liked to see) I went to the local primary school to offer my services as a handwriting coach. The headmaster jumped at the chance of improving the children’s handwriting so I prepared my own lessons and took half a dozen year six children at a time. This was very enjoyable and the results rewarding. This led to my job as a learning support assistant, helping the less-capable children with general subjects.

I was still looking for something creative to fill my time, so I enrolled at the local art group in the Arkenstall centre on Monday mornings to further develop my drawing and painting skills. Our tutor was a working artist/illustrator and I thoroughly enjoyed all the different forms of drawing and painting. We had a programme at the beginning of each term and sometimes had live models to draw when we all felt like ‘real’ artists.

I joined the Ely Photographic club and entered the club competitions on specific subjects, some of which entailed the local landscape. I looked forward to the specialist visitors’ remarks on my photographs, some of which were very encouraging. Most of the members favoured slide transparencies so I bought a second-hand projector and began to experiment. Some of these photos were used for our painting inspiration.

I also began to write. One of my friends in the village was a writer and she encouraged me to enrol in the Ely Writers’ Group which helped to develop my skills.

My husband and I joined the City of Ely indoor bowls club in 1999, something else we had always wanted to explore. He joined an evening league and became quite proficient, while I joined a morning league which was more relaxed.  Our daughter, now eleven, also joined the cadets which meant our Sunday mornings were spent at the bowls club; my husband often helping the instructor. Our daughter had an aptitude for the game and won many trophies. Haddenham had an outdoor bowls green where we decided to try our hand one summer. On a sunny day with the view over the fen, I found outdoor bowls very enjoyable, but not so on a cold, wet day!

One day in May 1999 I had a hankering to see my old house at Parkhurst Road, so I dropped my daughter off at school and drove down to Bexley. My husband had said I could do it comfortably during school time, but I made provision for my daughter to go to tea with one of her friends so I didn’t have to rush back.

It was a beautiful sunny day and I enjoyed the easy motorway drive which took me one and a half hours. I turned off at the Black Prince interchange, (which I remembered being just a crossroads with traffic lights!) parked in the hotel car park and walked along Bourne Road to my old primary school. This was now a business centre with the old canteen turned into workshops.  It was a strange feeling to walk into the playground that felt a lot smaller than I remembered. Although I didn’t particularly like school, memories abounded: skipping games, hand-stands against the wall, playing ball, kiss-chase…

I walked back to the car and drove to Knoll Road. The garages, one of which my father used to garage his Anglia, had been replaced by a smart row of houses.  I felt an incredible homecoming as I walked towards Parkhurst Road, remembering my father teaching me to ride my fairy bike and images of roller-skating down Upton Road.  As I approached Westwood a lump lodged in my throat. I stood for some time taking it all in. Part of the wall had been knocked down to make way for car-parking. The front door was now red and the trees and shrubs were overgrown but the wrought iron gates were still there.  I put my hand on the wall and felt an incredible emotion. Should I walk up to the front door and knock? I was unsure. Then a young woman and her little girl came walking towards me. There was a questioning look on the mother’s face so I told her I used to live in Westwood forty years ago. She was fascinated and told me the lady who now owned Westwood had a gift shop in the village; she was there today if I cared to go and talk to her! I thanked her and sat on a bench in Parkhurst Gardens to eat my lunch, remembering playing with my friends and later walking with a boyfriend. As I passed St John’s church I noticed the road itself was now red tarmac with marked car-parking bays. My excitement mounting, I walked down to the village to find the gift shop. The other shops had changed hands, of course, but the lay-out of the village looked much the same as it always had and this pleased me.

I found the gift shop, where Kelsey’s butchers’ used to be, and stood outside wondering what, if anything, I would say to the owner. However, my mind was made up for me – there was a notice on the door – Back in 5 Minutes – so I walked up the station approach with the sounds of passenger doors slamming  and the memory of my father walking towards me. Again, everything looked so much smaller than I remembered.

The notice now removed, I entered the gift shop to a tinkling bell. The owner was busy with a customer so I waited until she made her purchase and left. I approached the counter, told the lady who I was and that I lived in her house forty years ago. Her face lit up. ‘Oh! Come through and I’ll put the kettle on!’

She and her husband had lived in Westwood for twelve years and were thinking of moving in two years’ time. When she announced how much she would sell it for my jaw dropped. My father would’ve been very surprised, I’m sure.

Apparently the people who bought the house from us in 1969 had made some changes – the conservatory had been used as a playgroup with a row of pegs for the children’s coats and the quarry tiled floor replaced with black and white tiles. The kitchen and breakfast room were now one big open-plan space.  I was delighted to hear that my bedroom was now her daughter’s room and that the small lounge was still used as their television room. There had been other improvements and the large bedroom we had turned into a bed-sit for teachers was now used for students.

As for the garden the tulip tree was still there but sadly the Grecian statue had disappeared. The previous owner had been a model railway enthusiast – a track ran all around the garden. The gift shop owner realised there had once been a garden-lover in the house – I told her that was my father. She said she’d tried to resurrect some of the features and asked for my address so she could send me some photos of the garden. It had been an amazing experience.

I walked out of the shop and back towards the car. Gadsby’s ladies fashion shop was now an antiques establishment. Lots of little bistros graced the high street but it remained the same in essence. Driving home I felt as though I was leaving an old friend behind.

Like a homing pigeon I went back again with my twelve-year-old daughter in the summer of 2002. I felt very proud when I showed her my home and the surrounding area. We left the car and walked all around the village, had tea in a cafe and walked in the woods. She fell in love with it all and when it was time to go home, she said, ‘Bye-bye, Bexley.’

In 2005 I had another craving for a Bexley fix. This time I planned to stay overnight and booked into a B&B in Parkhurst Road opposite the tennis courts. On the Saturday afternoon I walked along to see Westwood. I had to look twice; I thought I had the wrong house, its creamy white facade glared at me.  It was the only house with a brick wall and railings, more suited to a grand country residence. Double wrought iron gates allowed cars to drive into the front garden, now a gravel parking area. The original front door and brass furniture remained, the door once again painted black. Westwood did not look happy in its new skin and I was reluctant to go up to the front door and knock for fear of what I might find inside.

My brother had agreed to drive up from Margate and meet me in the evening so I walked round the village in the afternoon trying to find a place for us to eat. My brother‘s tastes are very traditional and I didn’t hold out much hope. I walked back to the B&B. It was so strange to be staying in this guest house when I was brought up in one a few yards away. There was no lounge in which to relax so I had to sit in my stuffy little room which overlooked a very uninspiring back garden; just a patch of grass and some tall trees.

At 5 pm my brother arrived. We hugged and I took him along to show him what the new owners had done to Westwood. He stood shaking his head, taking it all in. We walked up to the front door and knocked but I was half hoping they wouldn’t answer. They didn’t.

As I couldn’t find any ‘normal’ places to eat my brother drove us to Bexleyheath. I hadn’t visited the town since I left the area in 1970 and I had quite a shock. The whole length of the Broadway was now pedestrianised. The clock tower stood looking very sorry for itself in the middle of a square with a fountain and a TK Maxx building behind, apparently nicknamed Stallag 19! The ABC cinema was now an Asda supermarket and all the department stores had disappeared along with the co-op store where I did my apprenticeship. There still weren’t many eateries to choose from so we plumped for a Pizza Hut and ordered our meal. We reminisced about the past but the establishment was noisy and not conducive to discussion. Bexleyheath, we concluded, had lost its soul.

My brother dropped me off at the guest house and drove home at 11pm. I went up to my room with a cramped en-suite (extortionate fee for the amount of space) and wrote my diary. It was a very warm night so I opened the window but was unable to sleep for the constant hum of traffic from the A2.

Breakfast was served in the conservatory which went some way towards making up for the less-than-perfect experience so far. I paid my bill, checked out and walked to Hall Place via the fly-over but there was no escaping the constant hum of traffic. At 10a.m. I was the first to enter the gardens. The grounds were still immaculate but my memories were shrouded by the constant traffic noise. I explored the house, now a Tourist Information Office and museum. I spoke to one of the women on duty who told me that Bexley Hospital, where my mother trained as a nurse during the war, was now a housing estate.

After coffee and a scone in the cafe I walked back to the B&B and decided to have one last look at Parkhurst Road. I knocked but there was no one in. I don’t think the house wanted me to look inside.

***

My husband’s ambition when he retired was to move to the West Country and so family holidays were mostly spent in Cornwall. We visited many different areas and found the undulating landscape and rugged coastline a refreshing change from the fens which my husband disliked. When he was forced to take redundancy in 2005 we started hunting for a suitable place to live, this being far easier now with the internet, and searched Right Move endlessly.

Our daughter was now in her last year of secondary school taking her GCSEs. She was an academic student and enjoyed English and History, but her ambition was to become an actor. She had been bitten by the bug at an early age, joined two local drama groups and acted in numerous plays.

We put our house on the market In January 2006 and had an offer almost immediately. Thinking we had a sale, we booked a holiday cottage in Cornwall and took our daughter out of school for a week. We took her to an open day at St Austell College; the idea being that if we moved to Cornwall she could study drama there. Until we found a suitable property we decided she could live-in with another family. We viewed a different property every day but we didn’t like any of them.

In February half term we went back down to Cornwall but still couldn’t find the right property. The ones we liked were out of our price range – the house prices in Cornwall a lot higher than East Anglia. Everything was up in the air and our future insecure.

Our buyers wanted to put an extension on the back of our house but it turned out there was a covenant forbidding anyone to build out any further than six feet.  Our buyers pulled out. The housing market slowed. In June we still hadn’t found a buyer – everyone that viewed wanted to build an extension. I could understand why; the house was crying out for someone to build a garden room to make the most of the view.

In August we changed estate agents. More viewings were booked but no one wanted our house. In September, we booked another holiday cottage and took our daughter to Cornwall to start her drama course at St Austell College. Until we finally sold the house she would have to lodge with a foster family. The college gave us a list of possible families but it was incredibly difficult to find one that was on the college bus route and one where we felt comfortable leaving her. In the end we found an elderly woman who lived alone in a dilapidated Victorian terrace in Tywardreath. She didn’t have much money but seemed caring and understanding.

After her first day our daughter was in tears. The other students were not on her wavelength and the course wasn’t what she’d hoped for. We told her to give it a chance and see the week out, but the house where she was staying was Dickensian and the woman didn’t give her enough to eat. She didn’t even own a kettle; she had to boil water in a saucepan. Our daughter was miserable, and at the thought of leaving her there we were distraught. At the end of the week we apologised to everyone concerned and brought her home.

The following two weeks were taken up with much discussion on how to get around the problem. We had an interview with the Connexions people who advised our daughter not to waste her GCSEs on a tin-pot job, but to continue her education. We were told, in any case, it was very difficult for sixteen-year-olds to get work.  I took her to Long Road in Cambridge but the college felt too big and impersonal.  After that I took her to Impington Sixth Form College, Cambridge where she’d been offered a place previously and the principle welcomed her with open arms.  Our daughter was going to study History, English, Drama and Media Studies; all the subjects she loved. She was jumping for joy and I was relieved; it felt so right.

During this time we had more viewings then lowered the price of our house. This led to more trips to Cornwall and more disappointments until we finally had a buyer in the following January.

Not having found a suitable property, we moved into a rented bungalow in Wicken in April, and continued house-hunting.

 

 

BEER AND WINE HOMES, NUNHEAD GREEN.

April 1976. After four and a half years of living in a shared house, having our own front door was bliss. These seven Grade II listed almshouses on the north side of Nunhead Green were full of character with Gothic doorways and mullioned windows. Behind the low brick wall with double wrought iron gates was a communal lawn divided by a wide path that led through a central archway to the backs of the houses. A flowering cherry tree in each lawn completed the impressive frontage.

After living in three rooms it was a joy to have so much space.  The front door opened onto the hall, the stairs immediately in front on the right. The door to the left opened onto the front room. This was essentially a through room, divided by solid white folding doors into the dining area at the back which also had its own door from the hall. The kitchen, all newly fitted out with white cupboards and a stainless steel sink unit, had its own door to the side onto a paved area. The garden had a tiny lawn with a bin store in the centre and a back gate in the boundary wall. Upstairs were two bedrooms, one double and a single, and a bathroom which felt like the height of luxury after having to make a special journey for our ablutions! But after sharing our bedroom for four and a half years, we had to bribe our daughter to sleep on her own. Night after night we would tell her that we were only the other side of the wall but this didn’t pacify her. It didn’t help when my mother-in-law let her sleep in her bed at the weekends. I don’t think my other would’ve been so lenient!

We had gas central heating (such a novelty!) and Marley tiles laid throughout the ground floor. All the rooms had been painted and papered with standard council wallpapers which we gradually changed. I thoroughly enjoyed creating the colour schemes and choosing the carpets. Taking inspiration from the Bexley houses, we decided on a royal blue fitted carpet for the through room and this looked wonderful against our burgundy three-piece suite. We papered the chimney breast in a red stripe and I hung one of the ornate mirrors from my family home above the antique Georgian fire surround (the fireplace had been boarded up) that my husband found on a building site. He rubbed it down and painted it white and we installed our Windsor gas fire in the hearth. We painted the other three walls white which made the room look bigger. I chose white brocade for the full-length curtains with pinch-pleated heading suspended from a brass rail. I had these made in the fabric shop in Rye Lane.  In the dining area we chose a delicately patterned blue and white paper and curtains with a larger blue pattern.  A bottle green twist-pile carpet ran the length of the hall, stairs and landing. The beige shag-pile carpet in our front bedroom (very fashionable at the time) flattened underfoot so a special rake was used to bring up the pile, more like tending a lawn. I quite liked the wallpaper in our bedroom which was beige and lilac and decided to keep it.  As our daughter’s single bedroom had been decorated with pink patterned wallpaper (how did they know?) we decided to leave it and chose a darker pink velvet pile carpet to co-ordinate. We also installed a cream telephone in the hall, the first we’d ever owned, and I felt that, although the house wasn’t ours, at last we were making progress.

Having time on my hands (I was between jobs) I went to the library in Gordon Road, found a book in the local history section and began to read up on the history of Nunhead Green. I learned that these almshouses had been built in 1852 by the Metropolitan Beer and Wine Trade Society to house the retired workers from the breweries, the inhabitants referred to as inmates. The green itself was named after Elizabeth Barton, the Mad Nun of Kent. Her name was linked with Sir Thomas More when King Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon and made himself head of the church in England. Apparently Elizabeth Barton was beheaded for her beliefs. I had always loved history and this intrigued me. Instead of railing against living in Nunhead, I began to romanticize about it and tried to imagine what life must’ve been like when these houses were built. The pictures in the book were of open countryside with very few buildings, an entirely different landscape to the one I knew.

Nunhead Green was in close proximity to Peckham and New Cross but it felt like a little oasis untouched by time with its own selection of shops and pubs.  When my parents came to visit, my father was impressed by our choice of décor and this pleased me. But later however, when I spoke to my mother on the telephone, she said he was disappointed that the house was still in Nunhead! He would’ve preferred us to live in a more salubrious area.

I tried, in our first year, to make the garden as pretty as possible with some colourful bedding plants. In subsequent years I planted roses and perennials but there was very little privacy with only a chain link fence both sides that the council had erected. Our neighbours gradually extended the height of these fences with wooden trellis panels. My father was a great help and suggested things for me to plant and said he was looking forward to planting a Japanese maple (Acer) in our garden. At the front, each house had a flower bed under the window. I planted bright pink azaleas in ours.

A few weeks after we moved in, we learned that there were going to be two-storey flats with balconies built on the waste ground at the back. (This land had originally been used for garden parties by the licensed victuallers.) During the heat-wave of 1976 the builders set to work with their cassette players blaring out to I Feel Love by Donna Summer, whilst I tried to sunbathe in our little patio garden. When these flats were completed it meant the people living there could look down into our garden. Our neighbours began erecting trellis above the wall that divided our gardens from the thoroughfare. We did the same and trained some roses over it, but it wasn’t very successful; prying eyes could still look down from the balconies and I felt as if we were on show.

Soot, our black cat, was another problem – he didn’t take too kindly to his new home. Although I had kept him indoors for a week he kept wandering back to the old house, now empty (my husband’s grandmother had been rehoused). Luckily I still had a key but Soot would venture into the boarded-up derelict houses that backed onto Banstead Street and become marooned. He would peer through the upstairs window at me and meow as if to say, ‘Help! Come and get me!’ but there was no way through. He would eventually find his way out and run into our old back yard. I would grab him and stuff him into a shopping bag and zip it up, hoping he wouldn’t escape while I crossed the busy main road. Although he was docile indoors he was fiercely territorial outside. If any other cat ventured into our garden he would see them off. The fights were terrifying, often Soot being the victor and the enemy limping off with his tail between his legs. But Soot’s war wounds often resulted in abscesses, hence many trips to the vet and a lighter pocket until, by watching Mr Lomax (who was on first name terms with Soot), I learned how to treat these abscesses myself.

One day I noticed our new royal blue carpet was shrinking away from the skirting board. I promptly had the carpet fitter back only for him to tell me the floor was wet underneath – the heating pipes were leaking. The carpet had to be removed and the floor dug up. I was devastated. The council eventually compensated us. This money was supposed to go towards a new carpet but we cheekily spent it on a reproduction mahogany dining table and chairs from Johnson’s Depositories in Lewisham and got the carpet fitter to re-stretch the carpet back into position. But it was never the same.

My father never did plant the Japanese maple. One Sunday in April 1977 he walked out of the flat in Margate and never came back. He had been suffering from depression for years but I didn’t know to what extent. The police found him in the harbour; he was rushed to hospital but he never regained consciousness.  This was a very distressing time for us all but I took it very badly. It saddened me further that I was miles away from my mother, my sister and brother. I begrudged my in-laws popping in unannounced at any time of the day, when I knew my father would never visit me again. He had taken a keen interest in our house and it upset me to think of all the improvements he would never see.

We were in our late twenties by this time and all the other inhabitants in the block were middle-aged or older. The neighbours on one side were childless, very particular and never spoke to us. They barricaded themselves in with more trellis between our garden and theirs so I thought it would be nice to train a yellow climbing rose up the trellis on our side. I found an ideal specimen – ‘Golden Slumbers’. One day in the hot summer of 1978, I was sitting in the garden with my back to the trellis when I heard, Snip! Snip! The woman next door had cut down my rose! I promptly went and knocked on her front door only to have my ear bent about how it was her trellis and what did I think I was doing? She ranted about the firework parties we had for our daughter on the communal front lawn as if the whole frontage of the almshouses belonged to her alone. Needless to say this left a nasty taste in the mouth.

About once every two months we would drive down to Margate on a Sunday to see my mother and brother (my sister was at university) and take our daughter to the beach or to Dreamland. After my father died my mother was given a new council house but I found it depressing to see her reduced to working all hours in the hotel and catering trade. A sad turn of events after the life she’d enjoyed in Bexley.

 

 

BEECHWOOD AVENUE, MELBOURN, CAMBRIDGESHIRE

 

In 1982 my husband was promoted to Senior Planner for the supermarket chain he worked for and we began in earnest looking for a house to buy. His new job was based at the head office in Cheshunt and it was taking him two hours to get to work through London every day. So with this in mind we began searching for houses in Cambridgeshire, hoping his journey to work would take him less than half the time.

We had many journeys up to Cambridgeshire but couldn’t find a house we liked; most had very small bedrooms. Then one day Jim, one of my husband’s colleagues who lived in a village called Melbourn, was out walking with his wife when they noticed a semi-detached house for sale they thought would be ideal for us. One Saturday, while I was working in a hair salon in Peckham, my husband went to view it and telephoned me later to say he’d found the perfect house. We went up the next day and immediately put in an offer. Once the contracts had been exchanged we drove up to Melbourn several times to redecorate the house before moving in. Often Jim and his wife Jean would give us dinner before we drove back home to Nunhead, exhausted but happy.

In April 1983 we moved in. This estate had been built around 1970 but our house had never had central heating installed. Towards the end of our first year there we found a brilliant heating engineer and, after our experience with our last house, we made sure there were no problems with the under floor pipes! There was no garage either, although there was adequate space for one. There was a thirty foot open-plan front garden with a beautiful copper beech tree, a driveway big enough for four cars, and a fifty foot back garden. Both front and back gardens had lawns with flower borders. Downstairs was an open-plan lounge/dining room and a small kitchen. The floor to ceiling windows flooded the living area with light. Upstairs there were two good sized bedrooms, a small bedroom and a bathroom.

To the left of our house stood a three bedroom detached adjacent to an orchard which was part of the manor in the next road. Only a high chain link fence separated their back garden from the edge of the orchard and as we only had a low fence we were able to enjoy the beautiful trees loaded in pink blossom in the spring. In the semi next door to ours lived a young couple with their three-year old daughter and, on the day we moved in, the woman knocked with a tray of tea and biscuits and introduced herself. What a difference to my previous neighbour! When I explored the village, armed with my shopping basket, I felt almost as if I was back in Bexley. People cheerily said ‘Good morning’ instead of frowning or looking the other way. There were two butchers, one who slaughtered his own meat, two small supermarkets, a greengrocer, a gift shop, a hairdresser and a music and video rental shop.  At the crossroads stood a lovely medieval church, the font dating from Saxon times. Melbourn Village College and the social club both stood on an open space called The Moor.

But our eleven-year old daughter didn’t want to leave Nunhead, her grandparents and her friends. On the morning of our move, there were tears as she said goodbye on the phone to her granny, but on her first day at her new school, Melbourn primary, she came out smiling broadly with two children on each arm. I was so relieved.

Soot was now a big nine-year-old cat full of character. I was expecting him to go wandering off to find his way home to Nunhead but he settled into his retirement home without a fuss. Jean, who had two cats of her own, came round to meet Soot one day and remarked what a beautiful cat he was and he positively basked in her admiration. But Soot was truly my daughter’s cat; she would do her homework on the living room floor and Soot would sit on her papers and nuzzle her hair, begging her to take notice of him. An old ginger cat called Scoopy lived in the detached house next door and, knowing how territorial Soot had been, I was waiting for the fights to start. But Soot seemed to respect his elder and would sit in our garden waiting for Scoopy to appear. Years later, when Scoopy died and was buried in their garden, Soot would go and sit on his grave.

I had time on my hands that first summer. I was out of work so I began to make improvements to our outside space. When I wasn’t gardening I basked in the sun and the pleasant surroundings. We got on well with our neighbours in the detached house and we would sometimes share a barbeque at the weekend. Our daughter made friends in the village and often went for a sleepover or into Cambridge on a Saturday with them. Life was quite relaxed. But as July arrived we started to get covered in annoying miniscule insects that wriggled and made us itch. We couldn’t sit in the garden until the sun went down when they retreated. I hadn’t experienced anything like this before so I asked my neighbour what they were. ‘Thunder-bugs, storm flies or thrips, depending on where you come from. They live in the corn. They’ll go once they start harvesting,’ she said. Cambridgeshire is a very agricultural county and we were surrounded by cornfields! The thunder-bugs got into everything; there wasn’t a picture on our walls without little black dots inside. If I kept the windows open the windowsills would be covered in them. Fortunately it didn’t last. By August they had gone.

The striped seats on our dining chairs were showing signs of wear so I bought some foam from Royston market and some burgundy velvet material to match the three-piece suite and re-covered the seats myself.

We bought a dark mahogany cabinet and a hi-fi unit in a reproduction outlet in Buntingford to match the dining suite, but the only thing that let it all down was the old sand-coloured carpet. We hired a shampoo machine but it didn’t make much of an impression on it. One day I was upstairs when I heard water emptying onto the kitchen floor. I came down to investigate. I was paddling. I hadn’t fitted the outlet pipe properly on the washing machine. (Not wanting to wait to use the washing machine when we moved in, I had plumbed it in myself.)  We had intended to replace the carpet but we didn’t let on to the insurance company, who paid the claim without a quibble, and we promptly went to Allied Carpets and bought a beautiful silver-green one. Our burgundy suite had been used in so many different colour-ways, and to think, when we bought it, I had worried about a workable colour scheme.

Our nearest shopping centres were Cambridge and Stevenage, the university city of Cambridge being my favourite. I loved to walk through the college ‘backs’, particularly in springtime when the crocuses were out. The greens were kept immaculate, tourists and students alike would punt along the river Cam and this all added to the feel-good factor.  There was a daily market in the city centre selling local produce where I would happily wile away a couple of hours and the shops and stores like John Lewis were a world away from the ones in Peckham. The Cambridge Corn Exchange was a wonderful venue for music concerts and shows; all in all a big improvement on what I had been used to.

We had family to stay on alternate weekends: my sister, now married with her own little daughter, my mother and her new partner, my brother and of course, my husband’s parents who loved coming to stay. They often took our daughter back with them in the school holidays or at weekends and life in general was ticking along nicely.

Although we had no money problems I still needed my own income so I started a mobile hairdressing business in 1985. (Prior to this I had been working part time in Saffron Walden which was a long journey and I hated driving home on dark nights.) With the aid of a two-year business loan from the bank I bought a two-year-old Vauxhall Nova and began to enjoy my independence. Our daughter was now a less-needy teenager attending Melbourn Village College and was able to let herself in after school. I worked four full days a week, with Wednesdays and weekends off.

However I was becoming very discontented with my marriage. In June 1987 I moved out to share a house in Hampshire with a former boyfriend who had recently returned from Australia. This proved to be a temporary arrangement and after a very distressing few months, he went back to Australia and I managed to find a house to share with a professional woman in Royston, three miles from the marital home, enabling me to keep an eye on my daughter who continued to live with her father.

Another distressing event, that same year, was when we lost Soot. He developed cancer of the liver and we had to have him put down.  He was thirteen years old. It goes without saying how this upset us all but especially my daughter. She had grown up with Soot. We buried him on the rockery and as far as I know he is still there.