One day in 1999 I was at work and driving through London and on impulse took a detour to Catford and to Barmerston Road where my grandparents used to live to see the house that I used to visit with my parents when I was a child. It was having a bit of work done to it at the time but it looked almost as I remembered it and the memories came flooding back.
We used to visit Catford two or three times a year. At first we went on the train because dad didn’t learn to drive until about 1963 and then we would drive down in his Austin A40 SWD 774. Nan and grandad didn’t live in all of the house because they only rented the top floor and this meant that there was a curious arrangement of walking through someone else’s home to get to theirs because there was only a single shared front door. I always found this rather odd and can remember feeling shy and self-conscious about walking through an entrance hall that obviously belonged to someone else.
At the top of the stairs there was a door into the living room and the stairs dog-legged through a mezanine and doubled back towards the front of the house. The living room was quite small but this is was the main room of the house where they lived, entertained and had all of their meals. It was always smoky because there was an open fire and grandad used to smoke a couple of packets of embassy cigarettes every day. There was a dining table and chairs and a blue three piece suite with grandad’s chair in front of the fire and with the best view in the room of the television set. In one corner there was a black bakerlite telephone and four volumes of the London telephone directory. Not many people had telephones in the late 1950s and when they answered the phone they always said the number, which was Hither Green 6515. By the fire place there was large empty whisky bottle which grandad used to fill with silver sixpences and this was their savings plan for their holidays to Benidorm in Spain.
There was a side window which looked out over the front gardens of the neighbours (I recall the curiously named Kitty Roper) most of these have been tarmaced over now to provide car parking space but there weren’t so many cars then so most people still had proper front gardens. And there was a door which went to the very back of the house and the small kitchen with old fashioned cupboards and a sink with a gas water heater over it. There was no bathroom in the flat so this is where they had to wash and there was always someone ‘on guard’ when nan was in there doing her daily ablutions!
Back on the stairs there was a WC with a high level cistern on the mezzanine and then a few more steps and a corridor with my grandparents bedroom first and then at the front of the flat a small spare bedroom where I used to sleep and then the best front room, which was only opened up once a year at Christmas. We weren’t really allowed to go in the best room for fear of breaking something precious or rearranging the brightly coloured velour cushions on the grey three-piece suite but when no one was around my sister Lindsay and me used to sneak in there and throw the cushions around and jump on them in some sort of juvenile outburst of defiance.
At the front of the house there was a brick wall and a gate with a small front garden but by 1999 that had gone and the wheelie bin stood where the lawn used to be. They didn’t have wheelie bins in 1959 and most of the rubbish and the waste was taken away by the rag and bone man who used to come along the road once a week on his horse and cart shouting at the top of his voice something I could never make any sense of to alert residents to his approach and I can remember the shout and the clip-clop of the horses hooves on the road surface as though it were yesterday.
At the back of the house was a garden where grandad had a little plot at the bottom. The soil was dark, almost black and he grew a few vegetables on his patch. There was a brick wall at the bottom of the garden and directly behind that the River Ravensbourne, a tributory of the Thames, it was only a couple of metres wide but it bubbled and gurgled across rocks and got faster after it had rained. I used to pick up stones from the garden, lean over the wall, and throw them into the water. There was a smell about London in those days which I can still taste but can’t describe it, it has gone now so it was probably pollution! The name Catford, by the way, is derived from a ford across the river around about here where cattle used to cross when being taken up to Smithfield Market.
Sir Henry Cooper, British heavyweight boxer came from the area and Spike Milligan went to school at Catford Brownhill Boys School and often visited the suburb where his aunt and uncle lived. He always claimed to have lived in Catford and wrote about the area in his books and sketches. Ben Elton the comedian and writer was born in Catford in 1959 and Cat Stevens lived in a flat above a Catford furniture shop in the early sixties
Both nan and grandad used to go work which was quite unusual really. He was a bus conductor on the old London double-decker Routemaster buses operating from the Catford depot on Bromley Road in South London. I can still remember him in his dark blue London Transport uniform with his red conductors badge and his leather satchel slung over his shoulder walking home from work in a jaunty sort of way all along Barmerston Road.
The Catford Garage was originally opened in 1914 and was one of the largest south London depots. It was always associated with the Routemaster and in fact was the last garage in South East London to operate them. The Routemaster was a double-decker bus that was built by Associated Equipment Company from 1954 and introduced by London Transport in 1956 and saw continuous service until 2005.
Nan worked at the Robertson’s jam factory which was on Barmerston Road itself. They used to make Golden Shred marmalade and a range of jams and had an inappropriate gollywog as the company symbol. We used to have golly badges and they are collectors items now but I haven’t got them any more and that’a real shame. In 2006 Robertson’s sold out to Premier Foods and in 2008 the new company announced that it would discontinue the Robertson brand in 2009 in order to focus on its more successful Hartley’s. Robinson’s factory has gone now but the bus garage is still there.
We used to go to Catford throughout the 1960s, once in 1965 I went on holiday there with my friend Tony Gibbard for a week by ourselves. As I got older I didn’t really like going there that much and thankfully I was excused the visits. Then in about 1969 or 1970 nan and grandad left Catford and London and came to live in a flat in Hillmorton near to us and I never visited Barmeston Road again until that unplanned detour thirty years later.
This is me with the Golly badges in about 1959. The dressing gown was bright red!