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.

 

SALISBURY ROAD, BEXLEY

The Friday we moved in was distressing.  My mother remarked it was like trying to fit a quart into a pint pot, the garage crammed with excess furniture that wouldn’t fit into the house. The previous owners had left a dirty kitchen with evidence of mice having invaded the cupboards and the whole house needed more than a lick of paint.  I was twenty. My fiancé and I took the day off work to help, assembling the beds just in time for us all to go to sleep. We were all exhausted.

The downstairs bathroom roof leaked (a shabby extension) and my father was anxious to make a start. He had the roof repaired and hired a plumber to strip out the old bath, basin and toilet and replace them with a primrose-coloured shower tray, wash hand basin and toilet. He employed a tiler for the primrose tiles throughout and chose olive green accessories and a cork tiled floor – very modern for the time. (My fiancé and I had our engagement party in this house and everyone remarked on the shower room.)  A carpenter was employed to pine-clad the kitchen/diner and fit new kitchen cupboards. My father decorated the front room in red William Morris print wallpaper and had the floor tiled in a black and white chequerboard that extended into the hall. The back sitting room walls were given a coat of olive green emulsion and antique gold above the picture rail. This was now our television room that had French doors onto the small garden which was about half the size of the one at Parkhurst Road. As there were only three bedrooms I had to share with my sister; my brother having the smallest room. Having no room for a studio, my father had to make do with a table in my parents’ bedroom. There was no money left to redecorate these rooms or the upstairs bathroom and they remained untouched.

Moving to a smaller house was supposed to relieve some of the pressure on the finances but there still wasn’t enough money coming in. To help out, my mother took a catering job at the Airfix factory in Bexley. This entailed buying food and cooking lunches single-handedly for the workers and I marvelled at the way she coped with it all. The factory closed shortly after and so she found another job at the electricity sub-station doing similar work. She also sold Betterwear cleaning products and Avon cosmetics door-to-door in her spare time.

On 20th December 1969 my fiancé and I had our engagement party in this house. I had my hair put up in ringlets before I left work that day, (I was working at Denise’s, a hairdressing salon in Dartford) and I wore a white sleeveless trouser suit with an open lace panel down the side of the trousers, and a long row of red beads swung from my neck. The kitchen diner served as the bar; the Victorian table, from the big dining room in Parkhurst Road, was covered with food and drink. My father, usually a reserved man, threw himself into the action in the front room, dancing with me and my friends to the music I had recorded on a Grundid tape recorder. We had sixty guests crammed into the little house; it was buzzing, we even had people sitting on the stairs. The last guests left at 2am and my fiancé and I collapsed on the sofa.

But after only two years at Salisbury Road my father’s job took another downturn and he realised there was little point in commuting every day only to be told there was no work for him. The train journeys were gruelling, the carriages like cattle trucks. One evening he came home with the story that the train was so packed he was forced to stand up for the whole journey. He picked up his foot to try and find a better position, but the compartment was so crowded he couldn’t find a space in which to put it down!

My father had aspirations of living on the Kent coast, so the house in Salisbury Road was put on the market with the intention of moving to Westgate-on-Sea, his favourite place to take us on a Sunday in the summer. He wanted a new start and thought that selling most of the furniture and heirlooms was the way forward. I found this very upsetting but there was nothing I could do as an antique dealer had been called in to the house one Saturday whilst I was at work. Among the artefacts was the oil painting of Coverdale, Yorkshire. We had always assumed it was painted by J C Ibbotson as this was the name on the gilt frame. My father hated the dark painting and, in a fit of temper one day, threw it in the incinerator. My mother rescued it and hid it in the garage; the frame had shattered but the canvas was intact. Unbeknown to my father, my fiancé and I decided to take it to Sotheby’s to have it valued. We were told it was worth lower to middle hundreds but they couldn’t confirm the artist as there was no signature on the canvas. We attended the auction hoping to go home with some money for my father, but it never achieved the reserve price of £80. We paid four guineas for the privilege and brought it home. When my father found out he was angry. ‘What did you do that for? I knew it wasn’t worth anything!’ That painting, along with other artefacts, was bought by the antique dealer for a pittance that Saturday. I am still expecting to see the painting of Coverdale on the Antiques Roadshow one day.

In September 1971, after putting the rest of the furniture into storage and, as a temporary measure, my parents and my ten-year-old brother moved into an out-of-season holiday flat in Westbrook near Margate.  (I was married by this time and my sister went to live with our aunt and uncle in Orpington to continue her education at Blackfen secondary school.) After six months my parents and brother moved into a two-bedroom flat, with a sea view, on the seventeenth floor of Arlington House, a high-rise block near Margate railway station. There was no garden, not even a balcony. My father’s garden was the sideboard covered with geraniums.

My mother took a job at the Sea-bathing Hospital in Margate but there was very little work for my father. He applied for several jobs, one being a gardener for the council where he was treated like a labourer and handed in his notice. One of the supermarkets employed ticket writers for their promotional posters, so he applied. But he quickly became despondent, having to work in the staff canteen with nowhere to leave his work to dry. The last job he took was at a silk screen printer’s, where he could at least put his skills to good use, but it was badly paid. It was a little ironic that he was so willing for my mother to work, when all those years ago he insisted she give up her nursing career.

 

ST PAUL’S CRAY, KENT

 

I left Salisbury Road in November 1970, got married and went to live in a two bedroom flat above the hairdresser’s where I worked in St Paul’s Cray. It was a busy salon, I was one of the top stylists but I hardly had a minute to breathe on a Saturday. I would have 32 customers to shampoo and set and among those I would sometimes have perms or a wedding booked in. I was never allowed to see the appointments book or take my own bookings!

We wanted somewhere to live and didn’t want to leave it much longer to get married, so we jumped at the chance of this part furnished accommodation, (a cooker and a fridge) on two floors that had been previously occupied by my boss and his wife. (They bought a brand new 4 bed mock Georgian property in Chiselhurst.)The rent was £7.50 a week, well within our budget. We went to Times Furnishing and proudly spent our savings on a Rest Assured, burgundy Dralon three-piece suite, a Sleepeezee double bed and a white bedroom suite and settled into married life.  The seventeen foot living room had a wall of windows with a small balcony onto the shopping parade. The walls were magnolia and, my boss having taken the carpet with him, we laid a beige carpet and hung royal blue velour curtains at the windows. The kitchen was small. Not having a washing machine we had to to use the launderette in the parade of shops.

But I hated the fact that I was always ‘on call’. If I was a few minutes late for work the missus would be on the phone.  I felt as if I had made a big mistake. Matters were worsened when I became pregnant and my employer wouldn’t let us stay there if I was unable to work for him; something in the lease, he said. I had no relatives living nearby to help look after the baby and so we spent most our spare time in the summer of 1971 house-hunting for something we could afford on only my husband’s wage.  We became very disheartened with the flats and houses we viewed in south-east London for around £5000. Most were in run-down streets and badly in need of repair. Then we spotted a brand new estate being built in Sittingbourne and went to put a £50 deposit on a two bedroom mock Georgian end of terrace. I was overjoyed – a brand new house and a baby on the way – but my husband pulled out, saying Sittingbourne was out on a limb. He worked away from home in sales promotion for a supermarket firm, and living in Sittingbourne would have involved driving too many miles. This was a blow but I understood his reasons.

This landed us with a massive problem. Time was running out – the baby was due in November and we had to vacate the flat. One Saturday afternoon at the end of September, while I was working my last day in the hairdressers, my husband and a friend emptied the flat and took our furniture in a van to store in my husband’s grandmother’s house in Nunhead, south east London. He came back for me at closing time and told me (now heavily pregnant) to sit in the car. He chucked the keys to the flat in my employer’s trolley, gave him a mouthful of abuse in front of his client, and we made a quick get-away. I was hoping against hope that the boss’s wife wouldn’t go upstairs and check on the flat before we left and find the fridge broken. We couldn’t afford to replace it and I was too frightened to tell them.

We went to live at my in-laws’ Dickensian two bedroom council flat in Camberwell as a temporary measure. The kitchen doubled up as a bathroom – a laminated board pulled down over the bath acted as the kitchen work surface. The water was heated by a gas geyser and took an age to fill the bath. There was a separate toilet and a small living room downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs.

We continued house-hunting but were still disappointed with the properties we could afford.  Then my husband’s grandmother came up with a solution – for us to have her top three rooms in her terraced house in Nunhead and pay half her rent. What a relief! At nine months pregnant I was painting doors and hanging wallpaper until in our bedroom in Camberwell, at 3am one November morning, I went into labour. My husband rushed me to Dulwich maternity hospital where our daughter was born four hours later. She weighed 8lbs 12ozs. Ten days later my husband brought me home to our newly decorated flat in Nunhead. We never returned to the flat in Camberwell as my in-laws were re-housed in a flat overlooking Peckham Rye.

PART 2 OF WESTWOOD

At 3 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon I would be packed off to Sunday school in St John’s church hall, with my mother saying, ‘It’s only for an hour, it’ll do you good.’  At 4 o’clock I would rush home and watch Liberace. Looking back, I can’t think why other than the fact I liked piano music. My mother attended Holy Communion once a month and she was a member of the Mothers’ Union. The the vicar, Mr Everard Evans, had a rather droll voice and I never saw him smile but his wife was very pleasant. She organised wonderful garden parties and fétes at the vicarage. I still remember the smell of bruised grass and ice cream.

One of my earliest memories is of Nanna pushing me round the garden in the wheelbarrow. She would place a sheet of newspaper in it for me to sit on and I would hang onto the sides while she tipped it up and walked briskly down the path. No matter how busy she was she always had time for fun. She was always singing or chatting with my mother as they worked in the kitchen and they would express their opinions on world events. Weekend tea-times in the summer, (boarders excluded) were a celebration of fruit jellies or trifle, cakes and sandwiches, a large pot of tea with its own thermal jacket, a milk jug with a beaded cover and a sugar bowl, all transported on a tea trolley onto the lawn. We would all dress up in our finest and I would sit at my metal desk with a reversible tray whilst Mum, Dad and Nanna sat in deckchairs with canopies.

The large garden was my father’s pride and joy. An herbaceous border, full of colour, at the bottom of the garden kept him busy most weekends. (This was grassed over in later years for a children’s play area.) Halfway down the rhododendron border, on the right-hand side, stood a small rustic summer house without a door and an unfinished crazy paving floor where we children used to play. In the winter our two rabbits were housed in here in their hutches. Right at the bottom of the garden I remember a beautiful rose arch which sadly got blown down in a gale. A path ran all around the garden and in between the rockery that divided the garden into two halves.  In the lawn nearest the house, in a square centre flower bed, stood a statue of a Grecian boy holding a basket of succulents on his head. This flower bed was planted with tulips in the spring and colourful annuals in the summer. A large tulip tree stood to one side of this lawn which provided dappled shade on a hot sunny day. Fruit trees lined each side of the garden: a Victoria plum, two pear trees, a Bramley apple and one eating apple (we never found out the name of this variety that were small, red and green and delicious), an almond and a cherry which the birds got to before we did. My mother picked and bottled some of the William pears for the winter months and others were ripened in the tablecloth drawer. Nanna made wonderful pies with the Bramley apples and I was encouraged to throw the continuous length of peel over my shoulder. When it landed on the floor the initial it represented was meant to be that of the man I would marry. Nanna also read the tea cups.

The boarders often remarked on the beautiful garden and there was one elderly gentleman who liked to walk round the garden with me when I was small.  He had rheumy eyes, used a walking stick and always wore a three-piece suit, a trilby hat and a watch-and-chain in his waistcoat pocket. He had two daughters living near and, young as I was, I couldn’t help wondering why he didn’t live with them. He died at the grand age of eighty-nine after my mother and Nanna had nursed him through dropsy. This gave them added work and created huge amounts of washing. He should’ve been in a nursing home but his daughters never suggested it. I remember drawing and painting at the breakfast table, listening to Mum and Nanna’s conversations whilst they worked in the kitchen – they were none too happy.

There were a few characters that stood out. One man would knock on the breakfast room door late in the evening and ask for, ‘Two Nescaffs, please,’ in a gruff voice, when he brought his girlfriend back from a date. He was a tall, dour-looking man who took numerous attempts to pass his driving test in his old black car with running boards. Nanna and Mum used joke about him and imitate his voice, taking care to restrict this practice to the private confines of the kitchen!

One elderly man who stayed with us for many years was an artist who painted Christmas cards in coloured inks. I used to go up to his room to watch him paint, or play draughts, tic-tac-toe or hangman with him when I came home from school. My father used to have intellectual discussions with him and invite him to listen to classical music in the big dining room one evening a week. Sometimes I would creep in and listen with them and as long as I was quiet I was allowed to stay. The music consisted mainly of works by Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. The first record I remember him buying was a ten inch recording of Beethoven’s fifth symphony with Otto Klemperer as conductor. I still have it. On Sunday mornings my father would play jazz or classical records on his hi-fi, or the boogie-woogie on the piano, whilst enjoying a gin and it and a Senior Service until the lunch was ready.

Living in Parkhurst Road for nearly twenty years we saw numerous changes.  The big house to our right, Fairfield, had been built after the war (the houses from the end of the road down to ours had been bombed). Two brothers who were builders and their sister lived in this house. My mother told me to call them Uncle Ted, Uncle Bob, and Auntie May. They had a daily help and the rooms were grand. French doors led out onto a paved terrace at the back with huge floodlights suspended from the eaves. They would entertain guests out there on summer evenings or in their summer house. I remember going with my parents to a party there. I was fascinated by Fairfield and everyone in it and, before I was old enough to go to school, I would often go round and knock until I was let in by Ivy, their daily help. Once inside I was treated to all sorts of goodies as they had no children. Auntie May was a well-built, jolly Welsh lady and encouraged me to sing How Much is That Doggie in the Window with her. They had a bigger garden than ours with tall trees at the bottom where I used to run about and watch their old gardener Harry pick the mushrooms.

When I was nine these neighbours moved out and went to live in an apartment overlooking Hyde Park.  The next people to move in were Mr and Mrs Osborne and their daughter Audrey.  Mr and Mrs Osborn were elderly and owned a furniture store in Bexleyheath.  Audrey, who was single, liked shopping for expensive things and would often asked me and my sister to accompany her on her shopping trips to the big department stores. We liked being taken out and treated to tea and we sometimes came back with a box of sweets.

The other side was a pair of semis. In the one nearest to us lived a family with a grown-up daughter. They kept chickens and I was often invited round to feed them. When they moved away, a family of ex-pats from Kenya moved in with their three-year-old daughter.  They later had a son and another daughter and so a nanny was employed; the mother often liked to spout off that she’d told her intended she would only marry him if she could have servants! She was an active Conservative campaigner and would often invite her cronies to tea. If we knocked, we would be confronted with their nanny telling us, ‘Madam is entertaining,’ which my mother thought was all rather affected!

In the semi the other side lived an elderly collector. When he moved out and into a house he’d had built on his land, Mr and Mrs Berry moved into the semi with their four daughters. The daughter nearest my age was given some of the collector’s artefacts including a microscope with slides of deadly germs and parts of animal and bird tissue, but I wouldn’t touch any of these for fear of contracting some awful disease. They had a Flemish Giant rabbit, a tortoise, guinea pigs, some mice and a glass tank full of terrapins. There was also a fish tank in their living room. Our pets consisted of a big tabby cat called Chippy, two Dutch rabbits called Thumper and Smokey and two budgies, Pop-Eye and Beauty. During my formative years I was often next-door-but-one where we were encouraged to dress-up and make as much mess as we liked, but the Berry girls hardly ever came round to our house – my mother and Nanna being very particular about keeping the house and garden just so. On one occasion, one of the Berry girls came round and instead of playing with my sister at the bottom of the garden they were playing near the house. She got a bit boisterous and ended up falling against a newly installed statue and knocking it off its plinth. It smashed on the concrete path and its head rolled into the flower bed. When her mother came round to settle the dispute she remarked, ‘Well, what do you expect? You shouldn’t have things like that where there’s children!’

We were well served with public transport. The red double-decker bus took us to Bexleyheath, Lewisham or Eltham. The green double-decker took us out to Dartford, Sevenoaks and beyond. Weekdays my father travelled by train from Bexley via the Dartford loop line to Charing Cross. From here he either walked on fine days or took the tube to work in Phoenix Studios. At 6.30pm I would ride my fairy bike or my scooter down to the station to meet him. His smile when he saw me made my heart sing.  I loved going to London with my mother and occasionally we visited my father at work where rows of artists sat at their drawing boards amidst clouds of cigarette smoke. One wintery afternoon my mother thought we had boarded the correct train home only to find ourselves in Sevenoaks! She was very distressed not knowing how or when we would get home. It was dark and the station was deserted. She found a telephone box and rang Nanna to tell her what had happened. She in turn told my mother not to worry and that my baby sister was sitting in her high chair eating rice pudding. We finally arrived home very late in the evening cold and hungry. My mother made doubly sure we boarded the right train on subsequent journeys.

For everyday shopping Bexley village had a good selection of shops. There were two butchers; the co-op, which my mother used, and Kelsey’s who slaughtered their own animals in an abattoir at the back of the shop. My mother often took me along the railway embankment to see the cows and feed the pigs. The co-op grocers’ had counters on both sides of the shop and big displays of goods in the centre. I was mesmerised by the lady with the bacon-slicer when I was very young and one day I turned round to find my mother had gone without me! I had a fear of getting lost after that and stuck to her like glue.  There was another grocer called Pearce’s Stores but my mother never shopped there. She maintained ‘they saw you coming’.  The other shops consisted of two greengrocers, a jewellers, a chemist, a draper, a hardware store that always smelled of paraffin, a big post office and two wet fish shops – Filmer’s and Aldridge’s. One half of Aldridge’s had a fried fish and chip shop and a restaurant at the back. There was also a stationer where we bought our bottles of Quink writing ink and fountain pens, pencils and rubbers and exercise books. Next door to this was a toy shop called the Cosy Nook where my brother bought his Dinky toys. Mr Lloyd ran the sweet shop, next door to Martins bank, where I would spend my pocket money and Nanna would buy her Pontefract cakes and Mitcham mints to eat whilst watching the television in the evenings, her favourite programmes being No Hiding Place and Coronation Street which had only just started to be aired.

My first school, when I was four, was a little two classroom affair at Bridgen. My mother thought I was lonely and needed to mix with other children but I hated it. The children were spiteful and I tried every trick in the book to get out of it, often hiding, hoping that by the time Mum found me it was too late to go. After a year it was decided I should go to St Mary’s in Bourne Road, a walk away, and much friendlier. I came home for lunch and some afternoons Mr Miller the milkman would take me back on his horse and cart. This however made me late and my teacher would say, ‘You really mustn’t wait for Mr Miller, Julie!’ When I was older my friends and I would wander home lunchtimes and fish out tadpoles from the river near the old mill and bring them home in jam jars. I was always late home. I would gulp my dinner down and run back to school with the school bell ringing in the distance.

I failed my 11 plus so my next school was Bexleyheath Secondary School for Girls, a bus ride away. This was a rambling affair with a two story main building and various outbuildings, one of which was a large canteen. 900 girls meant three sittings for lunch. At first I loathed school dinners with a passion and felt as if I would throw up if I took one more mouthful. One of the teachers would stand guard to make sure we ate all our food and I would come out in a sweat hoping to get past her and scrape my dinner into the bin. But over the years I became used to the meals and looked forward to the puddings which were always acceptable.

The only subjects I excelled at were art, history and English. (I hated maths, PE and games but I liked domestic science and needlework.) When I first started secondary school my father bought me an Osmiriod fountain pen and a book on good handwriting and encouraged me to write in Italic. I eventually mastered it and my father was so proud of my handwriting that he used to carry a copy of it in his briefcase.

I hated the old-fashioned brown uniform with red and yellow trim. It cost my parents a lot of money in Playles, the designated shop, and included a blazer, a gabardine raincoat and a brown stripe dress for the summer. I ditched to ‘po’ hat as soon as I could and the heavy pleated skirt, over the knee, was hoisted up at the waistband. Most of the girls adopted this practice and in the summer we were allowed to wear our own creations as long as they were brown stripe.

When I was fifteen I told my father I didn’t have a coat that fitted me and he promptly took me down the village to buy me one in Gadsby’s, a high-class fashion shop. I tried on a few and my father and I decided on a double-breasted dog-tooth check. I loved that coat, it didn’t date, and I wore it until it fell apart. In the late sixties a boutique called The Clothes Peg opened up where I would often spend my wages on a new mini skirt, dress or skinny-rib top, the dresses being no more than £5 each.  There were several hairdressers but the two we used were Valerie Laura, situated in the new parade of shops, and Phyllis Hellier in Bourne Road. My mother and I had our hair done at Valerie Laura’s while Nanna had her hair styled once a fortnight by Phyllis who was old school – finger waves and pin curls. Next to the Co-op was Mr Dalton the barber where my brother, when he was very young, would scream the place down whilst having his hair cut. Poor Mr Dalton – he would stand outside his shop and if he saw us coming he would say, ‘Not today, Mrs Watson!’

The blacksmith’s forge, situated under one of the railway arches, was where my father had our two wrought iron gates made to his own design. These replaced the two wooden gates that had rotted with age.  Just along from the forge was the cobblers’ where we had our shoes mended. A humid but not unpleasant smell of leather pervaded this shop and it was always noisy and busy with racks of shoes in paper bags awaiting collection.

Aged eleven, I bought my first record in the music shop in the high street – an EP of The Temperance Seven – and I became a regular customer in later years. After falling in love with the film Genghis Khan in 1966 I bought the soundtrack in this shop. The Beatles’ LP With the Beatles and a number of their singles also came from here.

At the end of Parkhurst Road, opposite St John’s Church, was a small pretty park called Parkhurst Gardens. Further on was Upton road which led to Riverdale and on to the woods.  I was always told not to venture in there on my own but I made friends at secondary school with two girls who lived in Upton Road and we spent many a happy hour roaming about the woods and along the stream.

A short walk along Bourne Road to Hall Place (where it was thought the Black Prince spent his honeymoon) was my favourite place to spend a Sunday morning with my father. The house was not open to the public but the vast gardens consisted of huge herbaceous borders and intricate topiary, a fish pond and a sunken garden and a little ice cream kiosk. There was a bridge across the river where we could gain access to the rockeries.

But in November 1962 life at Parkhurst Road was all about to change. Nanna had a stroke, and after two weeks in Joyce Green hospital, she passed away. She was 67.  I was thirteen, my sister was six and although my brother was only eighteen months old he still maintains that he remembers the day we heard the devastating news. We continued to accommodate the boarders but this meant more work for my mother. One solution was to turn the largest bedroom in to bed-sit where the guests could look after themselves. Nanna’s bedroom, redecorated only a few years before she died, became mine. I was reluctant to move into it at first but I soon fell in love with the room and, in particular, its bay window overlooking the garden.  Wallpaper with a large rambling rose pattern and a white Louis XIV bedroom suite graced the room and a large Indian rug took up most of the floor. In the bay stood a Singer treadle sewing machine bought for Nanna when she was a young woman. I enjoyed using it and found the motion of the treadle very comforting but my mother couldn’t grasp the synchronisation technique.

When I was sixteen, one Saturday while I was at work, our old tabby cat Chippy was put down. He had kidney failure.  My mother said it was lunchtime when the vet came. He laid Chippy down on the garden path to administer the injection and took him away. Afterwards, none of the family could eat their dinner, they were too upset, even my father who didn’t particularly like cats. I missed having Chippy around and to fill the gap I thought I would like a dog and began looking at different breeds.  My father was none too happy about this, believing a dog would dig up his garden, but he didn’t dash my hopes completely. One Sunday afternoon, we were all enjoying a drive around the Kent countryside when we spotted a sign saying ‘Puppies for Sale,’ at a farm near Hildenborough. I asked my father to pull into the farmyard and we all piled out of the car. The puppies had all been sold but there was a basket full of kittens. We took the black and white one home and called her Pym.  The following year she had a litter so we kept one of the kittens, a very fluffy tabby and white we called Smudge.  She also had a litter of kittens. We managed to find homes for them all except a black male which my father took to and named Jet. He was two years old when he disappeared – it seems he walked out of our lives and took our luck with him.

My parents decided to give the kitchen a face-lift and bought two new wall cupboards with sliding glass doors to replace the old cabinet. My father bought a Wedgwood willow pattern dinner and tea service from John Lewis, Oxford Street and proudly displayed it in these two cupboards. One night there was a tremendous crash – one of the cupboards had fallen off the wall and smashed half the crockery. He was very upset.

A Sadia water heater had replaced the coal-fired boiler in the conservatory but it soon became apparent that it cost too much to run. One quarter my father was shocked when he had an electricity bill for £33 so he decided to have gas central heating installed. He was delighted with it but soon realised this too was a luxury he couldn’t afford. Money was tight; with the advent of Letraset my father’s job had been taking a steady downturn with lettering artists becoming obsolete. Sadly, in April 1969, we left Parkhurst Road and downsized to a Mock Tudor three bedroom semi in Salisbury Road near Bexley railway station. I was 20.

 

 

WESTWOOD, PARKHURST ROAD, BEXLEY

I was eleven months old when we moved into Westwood. It was built in 1880. Its first occupants were a married couple, their daughter and a maid (1881 census). Originally, none of the houses in Parkhurst Road had numbers, only names, and each one was individual in style. Westwood was a detached, double-fronted house with a bay window to the right on the ground floor and three large double sash windows and a single bathroom window to rest of the front elevation. The welcoming porch was flanked by a pillar each side. The panelled black front door, with two leaded bubble-glass windows, was furnished with a large brass door knocker and letter box which my mother kept in immaculate condition with Brasso. The quarry tiled floor was regularly treated with Cardinal Red polish. All the outside doors were painted black and all the window frames and sills were white.

Viewed from the road, the front garden was laid to lawn and divided by a crazy-paved path (which my parents laid when I was a baby). Large pink hydrangeas graced the flower beds under the windows. There were two white wooden gates in the rugged brick wall; the one in the centre led to the front door and one to the left led to the back by way of a tarmac path. Tall lime trees stood majestically above the clipped privet hedge that followed the lines of the brick wall. These trees were trimmed every October and the cuttings transported in a wheelbarrow along the road to the tennis club for their annual bonfire on November 5th.

On entering the front door, the wide stairs stood to the left of the large square hall with three doors leading off. The door to the left opened onto the big dining room, so named because the boarders took their meals in there. The door immediately to the right opened onto my parents’ bedroom with the bay window onto the front garden. A partition of white sliding panel doors, with fanlights above, divided this bedroom from the small lounge which also had its own door from the hall. I only once saw these panel doors open when my mother was confined to bed after losing a premature baby in 1954. Leaving the doors open meant she could join in with the Christmas festivities.

Our first television, a Pye standard model with a fourteen-inch screen, stood in the corner of the small lounge next to the tiled fireplace. This television had been installed for the Queen’s Coronation in 1953. Apparently I watched the occasion all day. I was only four years old so I don’t remember much about it but I do remember regularly looking at the commemorative book I was given. I also had a money box in the form of the coronation crown. Also in this room were a chunky three-piece suite, a sideboard and a glass cabinet.

To the left of this television the French doors in the corner led down a step to the substantial conservatory with a quarry tiled floor. A coal-fired boiler stood to one side which provided the hot water for the whole house.  To the right-hand side stood the staging and I remember watching my father make all this himself, sawing every piece of wood by hand. This was used for pots of plants such as geraniums and double begonias prior to planting out. The pram and pushchair, children’s bikes and dolls’ prams were also kept in here. The covered sideway (which led from the conservatory to the front garden) housed my mother’s bicycle and the garden tools. I also remember sitting for my father in the conservatory whilst he painted my portrait when I was six.

As mentioned, to the left of the hall was the big dining room where the paying guests took their meals at a large oak table beneath the window. The rest of the room was furnished with chunky armchairs and a settee, an ornately carved dark oak sideboard, a black upright piano, a cocktail cabinet and a desk. My father’s hi-fi stood on a small table between the desk and the tiled fireplace. An oil painting of Coverdale, Yorkshire in a heavy gilt frame hung above the fireplace and two ornate mirrors, one each side in the recesses. A grandfather clock stood to the left of the window. My mother used to adjust the time with the heavy weights and pendulum within the aperture, which I thought very dark and scary, but when my brother was small he used to climb inside and hide! The walls in this room were papered in a wide burgundy stripe and a large Indian carpet graced the floor. There were no fitted carpets in the house.

From the hall, along the passage and down a step was the breakfast room where we ate our meals and listened to the wireless (I remember the Suez crisis being mentioned on the news and on Saturdays we listened to Two-Way Family Favourites). This was a pleasant room with French doors onto the back garden. My mother chose the wallpaper for this room – big white peonies on a grey background – which gained a lot of admiration from visitors.  There were book cases both sides of the red brick fireplace with cupboards beneath and each side of the hearth stood a wing armchair. I liked to watch my mother lay and light the fire, often holding a large sheet of newspaper to it to get a ‘good draw’. She was always frightened the paper would catch fire but it never did. But once I remember Nanna breaking up an old basket and throwing pieces on the fire until she realised it was taking too long and threw the rest of it on. This set the chimney alight and caused much excitement up and down the street when the fire brigade arrived! They trudged their big water hoses through the house, much to Nanna’s distress, but she made tea for them all afterwards.

The kitchen was approached by a step down from the breakfast room where, with my mother’s help, Nanna produced the delicious meals.  The cooking appliances were a grey enamel gas stove and the original coal-fired range. My mother used to bath me in front of this when I was a baby and Nanna baked her own bread in it. The pale yellow walls meant this room was always sunny and cheerful even on the dullest of days. The floor was covered in blue lino. Fitted white cupboards, made by a carpenter, with red Formica worktops ran along one wall. There was a deep sink and wooden draining board by the window. A free-standing cabinet with blue doors housed the crockery. The washing was done in an Ada washing machine with an agitator in the tub and a wringer on the top. In  later years this was traded in for a labour-saving Hoover twin-tub. The huge loads would take all day Monday to wash and rinse and hang on two washing lines that stretched down the garden. Along from the kitchen door and down the sideway was the door to the outside lavatory.

Shand Kydd wallpaper by John Minton graced the hall and landing. This had Grecian male and female heads on a dark blue background. Nanna did most of the paper-hanging but because of the long drop from the upstairs landing a decorator was employed for this task. A rich dark red carpet, secured with brass stair rods, ran up the thirteen wide stairs that led to the first landing with two bedrooms and a separate lavatory. The room facing the stairs was Nanna’s bedroom. The top half of this white door had a frosted window etched with a heron standing in reeds. This was a lovely light room with a bay window overlooking the beautiful 160 foot back garden. Next door to this room was another bedroom which was originally used for guests, later mine. Four more stairs led to the top landing and three further bedrooms.  The tiny bathroom was squeezed in between the two front bedrooms with only enough room for the bath and a wash basin. The door had two frosted glass panels. It seems bizarre now but on a Friday night (bath night) we shared this bathroom with the boarders. If they wanted a bath they had to book a slot.  We used a bowl placed in the kitchen sink for strip washes and general ablutions. In the early years, apart from Nanna’s room, the upstairs was devoted to paying guests.

               Life at Parkhurst Road was busy; people coming and going at all times of the day, most of the boarders staying long term. When I was very young I used to toddle along to the big dining room and spy through the keyhole at them all eating their soup, totally fascinated by the different ways in which they lifted their spoons to their mouths and broke their bread rolls.  There was a gong on the hall table to call the guests for meals. I loved the sound it made and I was frequently told off for banging it at all the wrong times of the day.

When I was three years old it was decided I should have my own bedroom rather than a cot in my parents’ room. My window overlooked the back garden partly obscured by a large sycamore tree. Rosebud patterned wallpaper was hung by Nanna. My mother made the heavy pink curtains and bedspread by hand. This fabric was also used for the curtain on the kidney dressing table that my mother finished off in situ one night whilst I was asleep. A whitewood wardrobe, bookcase and bedside table were purchased locally which my father painted white. On the wardrobe door he painted a flourish of multi-coloured flowers in oils. The chest of drawers and the little bedside table received a similar treatment.

I often had nightmares when I was small. I would wake up in the middle of the night wanting reassurance and, as Nanna’s bedroom was next door to mine, I would try and muster enough courage to go and rattle her door-knob until she let me in. (Nanna kept her door locked at night.) This sometimes took ages if she was sleeping on her ‘good’ ear and I would be shivering with cold but too frightened to venture downstairs to my parents’ bedroom in the dark.

When I was seven my sister was born and five years later my brother came along. The growing family meant rearranging the sleeping accommodation but by this time the number of boarders had diminished.  The biggest upstairs bedroom on the top landing was turned into a bed-sit – a kitchen with a table and chairs at one end, a sitting area in the centre and two beds at the other end. This was rented by professional people, usually teachers.

As I write this, I am sitting at my desk in my upstairs study, remembering the room that was turned into my father’s studio and overlooked the back garden. This room had a unique smell of ink, paint and graphite. He would sit at his drawing board in the evenings, with only the angle-poise lamp and his radio for company, drawing and filling in script for adverts to go into newspapers, magazines and on packaging. This entailed many different styles of lettering for all the big names such as BOAC airlines, Cutex cosmetics, Harrison Gibson furniture stores and food companies such as Birds Eye and Mac Fisheries. His desk was a trestle table beneath the window loaded with pots of paintbrushes and pencils and a big jam jar of water for rinsing his brushes. He used a small piece of crazy-paving to rub his pencil lead to a very sharp point and a dart to transfer the letters, by way of a piece of tracing paper, onto a sheet of white card before filling in with black Indian ink.  This required a very steady hand. I would stand very still and watch him; so engrossed was he that he often forgot I was there. An easel also stood in this room and usually displayed a still life oil painting on which he was currently working in his spare time.

I was fascinated but scared of the cellar with wooden steps that led down to a cold concrete floor. This cellar was divided up into rooms: a food cellar containing shelves full of packets and tins, a marble slab for butter and perishable foodstuffs, and two meat safes. Apparently, under the floor of this food cellar was an underground well that kept it cool. There was a coal cellar and one for coke; the hatches for these were situated in the sideway, through which the coalmen would empty their sacks. The main cellar ran underneath the big dining room and contained step-ladders and cupboards full of tools, old wallpaper and paint, and always smelt damp and musty. The small cellar, directly in front of the steps, housed the meters. I fell down the cellar steps when I was two years old but luckily my mother caught me in the ‘splits’ at the bottom. If I followed them down there, my mother or Nanna would rush up the steps saying, ‘the bogey men are coming’, and pretend to turn off the light. I used to shout, ‘Don’t leave me, don’t leave me!’ and run up the steps.  No wonder I had nightmares!

The best things about my childhood were Christmas and birthdays. My father had a magic touch for making everything special and I truly believed in Father Christmas until I was nine. A real fir tree stood in the corner of the big dining room decorated with glass baubles and tinsel and multi-coloured fairy lights that reflected in the double sash window. My father would play carols on his hi-fi on Christmas Eve and the neighbours would pop in for drinks and exchange presents.  I would lie awake for hours waiting for Father Christmas to deliver my sack full of presents and as soon as he’d been I had to open them. But no matter what time it was, even in the dark early hours, my father would get up with me and join in the fun.

The boarders mostly went home or elsewhere for the Christmas holidays. Nanna would make the Christmas puddings about six weeks in advance and get me to stir the mixture and make a wish. Silver charms and threepenny bits were wrapped in tissue paper and added to the mixture before steaming the puddings in basins covered with muslin. The kitchen would be full of steam with condensation running down the walls. My mother had the gentler task of making the Christmas cake, rough-iced with a Father Christmas, a sleigh and a snowman standing in the ‘snow’ finished with a decorative frill round the edge. Our delicious Christmas dinner consisted of a turkey or capon with all the trimmings, Christmas pudding and rum sauce for afters. But I wasn’t very interested in food when I was small. All I wanted was to play with my new toys or box of watercolours.

Birthday parties were my mother’s department. As my birthday is in January she would make a snowman cake for the centre-piece (which was rarely cut on the day), a clock cake and a traditional birthday cake with candles. On my fifth birthday there were twelve children round the table in the big dining room, the food consisting of rabbits in green jelly (pear halves for the bodies, cloves for the eyes and almonds for the ears) and fish paste, egg, and cream cheese sandwiches. After tea and after the party games we all sat on the floor to watch some Charlie Chaplin films provided by our neighbour Uncle Ted’s projector. When it was time to go home and the Doctor’s son was given a slice of birthday cake to take home, he shouted, ‘Oi! What about the snowman cake, then?’ When my mother went to see Dr. Riddle a few weeks later, he said, ‘I’m so sorry, Mrs Watson, I must apologise for my son!’

To be continued next Wednesday.

LIFE AT 37 BRIXHAM ROAD

I started life on a cold January night in the front bedroom of a three-bedroom semi in Welling, Kent.  My mother’s story was that on the night of my birth, while the doctor was looking out of the window, I made my jet-propelled appearance at 10pm narrowly hitting my head on the bed-post. I was three weeks early. My father was hoping my mother would ‘hang on’ for two more hours so I could be born on his thirtieth birthday!

My parents married on 7 December 1946 at St Michael’s Church in Welling. Like so many at that time, their post-war wedding was a modest affair owing to rationing.  My mother saved her clothing coupons to buy her wedding dress and she made her own wedding cake. She had no help from her widowed mother. Immediately after the wedding breakfast, my father whispered to my mother, ‘Let’s leave them to it, Joyce,’ and they slipped away in a taxi to Brighton for their honeymoon. They returned a week later to begin married life living with my maternal grandmother who proved to be a very cantankerous woman.  Being newly-weds my parents wanted their privacy but when they closed their bedroom door my grandmother would shout up the stairs, ‘I know you’re talking about me!’ So my mother went in search of alternative accommodation.  She found a flat which wasn’t much more than a bed-sit but they made do until they put a deposit down on a house in Brixham Road.

Before the war my father had been working at the head office of Burton’s Tailoring in Leeds which he hated because it didn’t allow him to express his creative talent. Hoping to rectify this, he attended night school to learn the art of lettering in which he excelled. During the war he was posted to France and Holland with The Royal Engineers and whilst serving in the army he made friends with a man who owned an advertising studio in London’s West End. He offered my father a job when they returned to England. He jumped at the chance, became a commercial artist, and lodged with the boss and his wife in Welling.

My mother and father, Joyce and Leslie, met at the Embassy Ballroom in Welling. He was tall and dark with a Yorkshire accent and she was petite and pretty with fair hair in a page-boy style. She played hard to get at first, making excuses when he asked what she was doing for the rest of the week. However my father was persistent and asked if he could walk her home, to which she replied, ‘Yes, all right.’ Being new to the area (my father had come back from the war and lodged with a friend he’d made whilst abroad and who had given him a job) he didn’t know his way around. Consequently after taking Joyce home, she had to walk Leslie back to his digs. He then walked her home again. When she asked if she should accompany him once more back to his lodgings he replied, ‘That’s very kind, but I think I know my way now, thank you. ’ After three months he asked her to marry him. She accepted. At the time my mother was a student nurse working at Bexley Mental Hospital and about to take her final exams but my father persuaded her to give up her career to become a housewife. In those days it was frowned upon if the man was not the sole provider – he was deemed unable to support his wife, even if working was her choice. Years later, she regretted not taking her finals and giving up a profession she could’ve returned to when we children were older.

Consequently, until I came along, there was very little to keep my mother busy. She was bored with the daily routine of shopping and cooking and, having recently moved into the three bedroom house with few possessions, there was a limit to how much housework she could do. She missed the company of her work colleagues but my father, who was slowly making a name for himself, was adamant that he was the sole provider.

Rationing was in operation until 1953 and, like most women of her era, my mother thought nothing of queuing for an hour to get a decent cut of meat. If word got out that there was rabbit at the butcher’s there would be a stampede. But there was a lifeline – Leslie’s mother worked in a grocers’ shop in Leeds and these food parcels were very welcome!

Nothing fazed my mother. She even went knocking on doors begging for coal to keep me warm during my first winter. The little conservatory became my bathroom as it was warmer in there with the sun streaming in. Once a week my mother wheeled me in the pram to the welfare clinic to have me weighed and to buy orange juice and other provisions (I still have the little booklet with my records entered) where she met and made friends with other young mothers and slowly forgot about her nursing life.

By the time I was eleven months old we had moved from Brixham Road so I only know what my parents have told me about this house plus a few photographs. Apparently the little house enjoyed some experimental décor including a stencilled frieze of hearts around the kitchen wall and red gingham curtains at the window. My father, who was fast becoming a keen gardener, spent most of his weekends knocking the back garden into shape, planting fruit trees for the future and annuals for summer colour.

Life at Brixham Road was ticking along nicely until Leslie’s mother decided to sell her house in Leeds and move down south. She persuaded my father to sell 37 Brixham Road, combine the proceeds from both their houses and purchase a five bedroom detached house with the intention of running it as a guest house. At first, my father was reluctant to leave the house and garden, to which he had devoted so much love and attention, for us to share a house with his mother and a lot of paying guests. But being a very persuasive and capable woman, Nanna got her own way and so we came to be the proud owners of ‘Westwood’.

NEW HORIZONS AND MIXED BLESSINGS

Well, what a mixed bag! I decided it was time to exchange my old desktop computer for a new model. My old one was 13 years old and ready to give up the ghost at any minute and  I was getting worried that one day it would crash all together and I would lose everything. So with a heavy heart I said goodbye to my dear old workhorse that had  been with me throughout my writing journey and welcomed my new all-in-one desktop.

It’s like exchanging a Ford for a Ferrari. Streamlined and shiny. BUT here’s the rub. I was advised to change my browser. And why not? I hear you say. Without giving it another thought, Hey Presto it was done but little did I realise I would lose all my favourites where all my passwords were stored! I have spent the best part of this week tearing my hair out and struggling to drag my passwords up from the depths of my subconscious. I am surprising myself. Bit by bit I am gaining ground with just one password that I cannot for the life of me remember and didn’t write  down anywhere. Hopefully, this too will be resolved in the next few days.

On the plus side, my new computer has a bigger screen, is quiet and starts up instantly. It’s just a matter of old dog, new tricks.

SOUP GLORIOUS SOUP

There’s nothing quite like a bowl of warming soup on a cold day, and for me, it never ceases to bring back memories.

I have always liked soup. When I was little, either on holiday or out for the day, that’s all I wanted to eat, even on a warm day. At home I used to love to spy on our paying guests through the keyhole of the dining room, eating their soup and breaking their bread rolls. I was fascinated by the way they elegantly supped from their soup spoons. It seemed to me the height of etiquette.

One elderly lady who stayed with us, a Mrs Fazackerly, was very particular and held her soup spoon with her little finger poised while she directed the spoon away from her, never towards her, to spoon her soup. I would watch as she put the spoon to her lips to take some of the soup then empty the remains back into her soup plate and repeat the process. I never understood why she did this but I was mesmerized.

My father worked in London’s west end and sometimes my mother would take me out for the day to meet him and have lunch, usually in one of the big department stores like Selfridges or Derry & Toms. Of course, I always chose the soup no matter what flavour it was, but if it turned out to be consommé clear or cream of tomato, all the better. I would sit in the restaurant trying to emulate Mrs Fazackerly, all the while feeling very grown-up.

During the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney decided to scrap the soup-eating scene when Snow White makes soup for the dwarfs. I didn’t know about this until I saw the ‘special features’ on a recent DVD. This is my very favourite childhood film and I would’ve been even more enamoured with it had this scene been allowed to remain!

Recently, when I volunteered for the National Trust, we were treated to the soup of the day during our lunch break. I would eagerly look forward to the soup and to find out what flavour it was, their curried parsnip being my favourite. We would all sit around the table in the staff room and I would surreptitiously watch the other volunteers to see how they ate their soup.

To this day, whenever I’m in a restaurant, I like to observe the way people tackle their soup. I’m yet to find someone who gives a performance like Mrs Fazackerly.

 

THE VOLUNTEER

 

You’re in the white bedroom, the one with the squint in the corner. Through this cross-shaped aperture, you’ve been told, the Lady of the house used to watch the people coming and going in the Great Hall below. As you peer down you can see the English Civil War armour adorning the white walls and the enormous oak table set with pewter goblets and plates. In the huge stone hearth the glowing logs smoulder and shift. A hint of wood smoke drifts up towards you.

On the other side of the bedroom lies an ante room. The diamond-paned windows open onto the little chapel below, where, in her later years, the infirm Lady of the house would join in with the family services. In the corner of the chapel a faceless wrought-iron clock ticks away the seconds, as it has for centuries. The green floor tiles buffed pale and thin from thousands of feet, await tomorrow’s onslaught. The smell of old timbers surrounds you.

The fabric of the house creaks and shifts as the last few visitors leave by way of the main stairs. Ancient floorboards settle back and yawn, thankful for the rest. Huge wall tapestries, depicting the stories from Greek mythology, await another layer of dust and the darkness to settle on them. You wonder what they’re hiding. There’s evidence of a secret door but you’re not allowed to touch.

As you look through the squint once more, below in the Great Hall, two volunteers chat to each other until it’s time to leave. Your mind begins to wander; it’s been a long day. You could do with a cup of tea – your break was hours ago and your legs ache, the hands on your watch stationary.

The four-poster bed draped in heavy red hangings looks inviting. You imagine slipping under the covers and wonder if anyone would notice.

The room grows colder, darker. Quieter.

Somewhere above you a door slams. You hear a whisper but you’re not sure from where. You’ve been told about this but you didn’t believe it. Until now.

You’re meant to check for any stray visitors before you leave but you’re frozen to the spot, heart thumping. You sense someone or something has entered the room but you’re frightened to look.

‘Still here, Brenda? I could’ve locked you in for the night!’

It’s the house manager.

HELL IN A POCKET

Cornwall 1918

Ada quickly wiped her floury hands on her apron and took the official-looking letter from the postman and placed it on the mantle shelf where it sat menacingly waiting for its reader to give life to the words.  She went back to her baking, but despite the warmth of the scullery a chill ran through her veins. She stuffed the letter in her apron pocket. She would read it later when they were all together.

*

Jack leant against the hay cart and took out his chunk of bread and cheese and a raw onion, salt on his cuff to dip in. Cutting up his food with his pocket knife he surveyed his eighty acres of God’s earth bathed in autumn sunlight. It had been a wet harvest at Highcroft Farm but they’d managed to salvage a lot of the hay. He’d had his doubts at first – women working the land – but he’d been amazed at how the land army girls threw themselves into their work. He thanked the Good Lord for without them he didn’t know what would’ve happened; what with the government making huge demands on his output, and Charlie and the other lads away fighting for king and country. He fell to wondering what it was like for them at the Western Front. If the newspapers were anything to go by it was hell on earth, but here, intense peace – buzzards circling high up in the thermals, sheep and cows grazing on the hillside while the river Lynher flowed calmly below. The contrast tugged at him.

The jingling harness jogged Jack out of his reverie. Most of his horses had been shipped over to France but Dale and Clyde, his two remaining heavy horses, snorted and dug their hooves into the rich earth while they waited to resume their work. They could feel it too, he could tell.

*

Edith stopped feeding the pigs and leant on the railing. She had been working since daybreak and now the smell of the pig food was beginning to turn her stomach.  At times like these her thoughts turned to Charlie.

It had been a warm May evening when he suggested they walk to the west meadow to watch the setting sun. Edith had been glad to change out of her unbecoming land service smock and gaiters and into her one-and-only frock she’d brought with her, just in case. Charlie’s face had lit up at the sight of her in the pure white dress that complimented her glowing complexion and red hair, but Ada had scoffed, ‘Huh, too fitty for these parts!’

Charlie had whisked Edith outside and kissed on her the cheek. ‘Take no notice o’ ma. Bark’s worse ‘en her bite.’

Taking Edith by the hand Charlie had led her through the five-bar gate and up the narrow lane to where the sun was beginning to slip behind the hill. Edith had been stunned by the streaks of pink, purple and orange in the sky when Charlie had gently turned her face to his and kissed her. She didn’t know how many times she’d relived this moment – the sight of the orange glow on his corn-coloured hair, his loving smile. She could almost weep with the beauty of it. And the time when she felt his strong body, skin against skin. She’d never felt anything so wonderful. And how handsome he looked in his khaki; she felt the envy of every girl on the platform as he dragged her through the crush of people towards the waiting train full of young men bound for France and Belgium. Pushing down the window he   bent to kiss her goodbye. ‘We’m get wed soon as I come back!’ Ignoring the urgent whistles, they held hands as long as possible but the train gathered speed and wrenched them apart. Waving frantically she kept eye contact with him until the train snaked into the distance and he was gone.

Betty came bounding up to her like a playful puppy. ‘Hey, wassup? You look like you’ve lost a pound and found a penny. Come on, let’s get these piggies fed then it’s off the milking shed.’ She looked closer at her friend. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘Oh,’ sighed Edith, ‘I don’t know. It’s just…nothing to do but work, work, work. When was the last time we had an afternoon off? It’s worse than working in munitions.’

‘Now then, don’t start all that again. You were the one that dragged me down the recruiting office, remember? You who wanted to be out in the countryside instead of being cooped up in some stuffy factory turning our faces yellow, and…’ she grinned, ‘you’d never have met ‘You-know-who’ if you’d stayed in London!’

‘I know but I haven’t heard anything since his censored letter two weeks ago. There’s something wrong, Betty. I can feel it.’

Betty draped an arm round Edith. ‘Cheer up. He’ll be fine. He’s a savvy lad.’

Jack trudged into the milking shed and smiled at the sight of Edith getting on with her work. He could see why Charlie was taken with her. ‘A’right  there, maid?’

‘Not bad, Jack.’

Betty darted him a look. ‘I think she needs a rest.’

Jack ignored her remark. No rest on a farm till all the work was done. They knew that. But come to think on it, Edith look a bit wisht.  It was hardly surprising; a woman’s place was in the home, like Ada, looking after the chickens, making bread, butter and cheese, not doing men’s work on the land.

Young Davey came sauntering into the shed with three dead rabbits slung over his shoulder.

‘Ah, you’m bin busy,’ said Jack. ‘Put ‘em down and give us hand, will ee?’

Davey set to work with his father, tying the cattle up in their stalls ready for milking.  Jack wondered how long it would be before his youngest was joining his brother in the trenches. He hoped for all their sakes that the war would soon come to an end.

*

At 5 o’clock, Ada dished up five platefuls of rich rabbit stew and set them on the table. Jack, ravenous as always, got stuck in straight away. Davey followed suit. It did Ada’s heart good to see her husband and son tucking into her food. But there was one missing.

Missing…

Betty came rushing in through the door and plonked herself at the table. ‘Mm, this looks good.’

But Edith dragged her heels and stood staring at the brown congealed mess on her plate.

Ada glared at her. ‘Not hungry?’

Edith shook her head and ran outside.

‘Been a bit off colour all day,’ said Betty, ’I’ll go find her.’

‘Her’s not cut out for farm work’, said Ada, ‘more suited to hob-nobbin’ with her fancy London friends.’

‘Let the maid be, Ada,’ said Jack. ‘Her work’s well enough.’

Outside, Betty found Edith hanging over the privy.

‘Oh, Edith. Whatever is it?’

Edith wiped her mouth and looked in the direction of the house. ‘Don’t you dare say anything.’

‘Oh, no! You’re not…’

Edith nodded. ‘Swear, swear on your mother’s life.’

‘Of course. But what will you do?’

‘Wait till Charlie comes home, of course. Then we’ll get married.’

‘Oh Edith.’

‘Stop saying that. It’ll be alright. And if not… I’ve been saving up. I should have enough to rent a little place on the Bayswater Road. I can’t go home. The shame would kill my parents.’

‘But how will you manage? You could stay here – surely they’ll understand.’

‘I doubt it. Jack’s alright but it’s her. If looks could kill…’ she brightened. ‘Anyway, Charlie’s coming home and everything will be alright. You’ll see.’

*

He could feel the wind stinging the gaping wound in his back. It had taken him all day to crawl on his belly under heavy shelling and gunfire, heaving himself over slaughtered bodies of men and horses half buried in thick black muddy shell holes. But he was buggered if he was going to lie down and die. He could see Edith’s face before him as he slithered towards the Red Cross flag fluttering in the distance. Not long now.

*

In the evenings, Edith and Betty reminisced about the good times they’d had in London before the war.

‘What about Marie Lloyd as Burlington Bertie,’ said Betty, ‘and this one,’ she burst into song. “The man I love is up in the gallery, the man I love is waiting there for me…”

‘Oh, Betty, I do miss all that. The best they can come up with here is St Martin’s fayre or a dance at the village hall.  I’d give anything for a dance at the Palais dressed up in our finery…’

‘…yeah, and the warm lemonade,’ giggled Betty.

‘Mm, you’ve got a point there. Cornish cider’s much better. Come on, let’s see if there’s any going.’

They crept downstairs and into the parlour to find Ada in her rocking chair, clicking her knitting needles, in the glow from the oil lamp. As the two girls slid silently into the cool pantry, Edith absently put a hand on her belly.

‘You’ll have to tell ‘em soon, you know,’ said Betty, ‘you’re starting to show,’

‘Shhh! She’ll hear you,’ hissed Edith.

‘What’s that?’ shouted Ada, ‘tell un what?’

‘Now you’ve done it,’ breathed Edith.

Betty mouthed, ‘Sorry’.

The two of them emerged from the pantry like naughty children. Standing firm side by side, Betty squeezed Edith’s hand.

‘Well?’ said Ada.

In a tiny voice Edith said, ‘I’m expecting Charlie’s baby.’

Ada dropped her knitting. ‘You’m mistaken, maid. I brought my Charlie up proper.’

‘It’s true,’ said Betty, ‘Edith’s been so worried…’

‘God have mercy.’ Ada’s knitting fell on the floor as she began pacing the floor.

‘Anyway,’ said Edith, ‘Charlie wants to marry me. It’ll all come right. You’ll see.’

But Ada’s face crumpled. She bent over and clutched her pocket.

‘What is it,’ asked Edith, ‘are you ill?’

Ada looked sideways at her, ‘I should’ve told ee afore…’

‘What? Told me what?’

‘Seems we’m both been keepin’ secrets.’ Ada pulled the crumpled letter from her pocket. ‘Here.’

Edith snatched it and began to read; her heart hammered and her eyes stung with tears.

Jack was hovering in the doorway, mud-caked boots, sleeves rolled up. ’Wass that you got?’

They all looked at one another.

‘It’s a letter from Charlie’s NCO,’ Edith glared at Ada. ‘She’s been hiding it for weeks.’

‘Wass it say then?’

Edith handed the letter to Jack and turned on Ada. ‘Why didn’t you tell us? What if he’s badly wounded somewhere and they can’t find him?’ She slumped on the nearest chair and Betty put a protective arm round her.

‘Now then, don’t go thinkin’ the worst when us don’t know,’ said Jack. ‘We’m just have to hope for the best. Tell Davey in the mornin’; I’ll not wake him now. The lad’s worked flat out all day.’

*

Edith woke in the night fearful of the pains that were advancing. She thought of Charlie in the trenches and the pain he had surely endured. She must be brave, she must. He would be so proud of her.

Betty was at her side. ‘Don’t worry Edith. I’ll get help.’

‘No! Don’t leave me. I’m scared. The pain’s awful. Feels like my whole body’s going to split wide open.’

‘I’m sure every woman feels like that. How long has the baby been coming?’

‘I don’t know. It woke me up. I was dreaming – Charlie was here.’ Another pain ripped through her body and she clutched Betty’s nightdress. ‘Help me Betty!’

Betty went to fetch a flannel and a basin of water but by the time she came back Edith was in a stupor. Betty ran to Ada and Jack’s room. ‘Quick! Do something! It’s Edith, the baby’s coming!’

Ada took one look at Edith and ran to fetch Jack. ‘You’m better come, no time to get midwife. Can’t be much different to calfin’ cows, all said ‘n done.’

Jack was in two minds – childbirth was women’s business – but when he saw Edith he knew he had to act quickly. He rolled up his sleeves and got to work. Ada mopped his brow while Betty stood in silent horror at the blood-soaked sheets. Utterly exhausted, Edith felt herself slipping away as her son slid into the world. With eyes shining she reached for Charlie’s hand and together they walked into the light.