“(Catford) the only place in all of London and the south-east set to remain impervious to gentrification” – Lucy Mangan, Journalist (The Guardian)
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 renovation work carried out to it at the time but although it seemed smaller (everything looks smaller as you grow older, especially Wagon Wheel biscuits) 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 there in his Austin A55, registration SWD 774. He hated parking his car on the road because of the blind bend and the steep camber, so steep it meant that the car door would hit the pavement if not opened with caution. He had a parking light which was attached to the drivers window and then attached to a torch battery.
Nan and granddad 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 mezzanine and doubled back towards the front of the house. The living room was quite small but this 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 granddad 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 granddad’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 bakelite telephone and four colour coded 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 granddad 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 tarmacked over now to provide car parking space but there weren’t so many cars then so most people still had proper front gardens with front lawns and flower beds.
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 cylindrical 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, painted canary yellow 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 two-tone 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 concrete wall with sturdy pillars supporting a wooden gate with a small front garden (that’s my mum in the picture in about 1948), the garden was neat and tidy with Victorian ceramic rope edging separating the lawn from the borders but by 1999 that had all gone and the inevitable wheelie bin stood where the lawn used to be.
People 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 only yesterday.
At the back of the house was a garden where granddad had a little plot at the bottom. The soil was dark, almost satanic black and he grew a few vegetables on his patch. There was a rough built wall at the bottom of the garden and directly behind that the River Ravensbourne, a tributary of the Thames, it was only a couple of metres wide but it bubbled and gurgled across pebbles 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. In September 1968 there were heavy rains and the little river became so swollen that it burst its banks and there was a lot of flooding in Catford and nearby Lewisham but I don’t suppose this affected nan and granddad in their first floor flat.
There was a smell about London in those days which I can almost 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.
This is more up-to-date picture of the house that I found on an Estate Agency website:
I thought it looked rather sad; the old cord pull sash windows have been replaced with UPVC but interestingly the house next door has kept the original feature, the half tiled porch has gone and the plastic front door has been brought forward to the building line, the garden wall has gone and the little space behind is now a car parking area.
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 granddad 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 golly 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 I was excused the visits. Then in about 1969 or 1970 nan and granddad 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.
I am glad that I passed by Barmeston Road that day in 1999, I don’t suppose for a moment that I will ever do it again!