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.