Tag Archives: London

Every Picture Tells A Story – 50, Barmeston Road, Catford

“(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 1995 I was at work and driving through London and on impulse took a detour to Catford and to Barmeston Road where my grandparents used to live to see the house that I used to visit with my parents when I was a boy.

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 chocolate 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 clipped to the drivers window and then attached to a torch battery. I think it was the law to have a parking light in those days.

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.  As I grew older 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.

Benidorm c1960

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 lovely 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 a vibrant 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 I used to sneak in there and throw the cushions around and jump on them in some sort of juvenile outburst of defiance.

Catford 1949

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 pictures above probably somewhere between 1946 and 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 the 1950s and most of the rubbish was either burnt on the fire or 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.

Rag and Bone Man

At the back of the house was a garden which belonged to the owners but 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 yards wide and quite shallow but it bubbled and gurgled across pebbles and got faster and more dramatic 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:

barmeston road

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’s 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 badges in about 1959.  The dressing gown was bright red.

I am glad that I passed by Barmeston Road that day in 1995, I don’t suppose for a moment that I will ever do it again!

A Life in a Year – 26th June, The Annual School Outing

In the 1960s one of the highlights of the school year was going away for the day on the annual school outing.

When I was at junior school at the Hillmorton County school this was usually a simple affair with a trip and a picnic to somewhere fairly close by.  Dovedale in Derbyshire was about the furthest the teachers would venture to take us but it was more usual to stay within the county of Warwickshire and trips would inevitably be to Warwick Castle or Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon.

I can certainly remember going to Stratford-upon-Avon for the day and visiting Shakespeare’s House on Henley Street in the town centre, Anne Hathaway’s House in Shottery and Mary Arden’s House in nearby Wilmcote.

One special trip from the Hillmorton School was an outing to London and a visit to the Science Museum in South Kensington in about 1964.  I had been to London several times of course because my grandparents lived in Catford and we used to visit and stay there regularly.

The Science Museum opened on 26th June 1909 and ever since my first visit it has always been one of my favourites.  I liked Stephenson’s Rocket and the replica coal mine, a sort of early interactive experience where we stepped into a dark world of a Welsh mine.  The exhibit may not be there anymore because since all the country’s pits closed in the 1980s you can go down real ones instead.  But my real favourite, and I agree that this is not especially exciting, was an exhibit that explained ploughing and tilling and was in a glass case with three tractors and three different types of plough and when you turned a handle then the whole thing moved and explained the sequence of farming. I was delighted to see that that particular exhibit was actually still there forty years later when I last visited the museum in 2002.

The junior school annual outing was generally a well behaved affair that can’t have been too stressful for the teachers and we would obediently form organised lines and follow them like sheep from place to place as we went through the day.

This was not the case however with school trips at secondary school when the day was a perfect opportunity for mischief and mayhem.

The day started with a lot of pushing and shoving waiting for the coach to arrive because, a bit like the classroom, it was essential to get the back seat and be as far away from the teachers, who inevitably sat at the front, as possible.  When I say coach what I really mean of course is the most ancient and worn out vehicle in the fleet partly because the school would have paid the lowest price possible but mostly because the coach operating company was not going to provide its best vehicles for a bunch of unruly school kids.

On account of the age of the bus and the worn out state of the engine it would take a couple of hours to get to London including a fifteen minute stop at a service station to let the engine cool down and give us an opportunity to run around the car park and for no reason other than we could, to cross the bridge to the other side of the M1.

After we had arrived in the capital we would go to the Tower of London, or Buckingham Palace or to some other sites as part of the formal part of the day.  Once we met the MP for Rugby, William Price, who took us on a tour of the Houses of Parliament.  In the House of Lords he carefully explained that it was absolutely forbidden for a commoner to sit on the red leather chairs so we then spent a few minutes trying to force other kids into the seats in the hope that someone would have their heads chopped off.

After that it was time for lunch so we would parade off to Hyde Park or somewhere similar and eat our sandwiches.  Most of us used to carry our sandwiches and our raincoats in a duffle bag, which was a sort of draw string canvas bag which no self respecting school kid would be seen dead with these days.  They were about forty centimetres deep with soft sides and a rigid round bottom, they were lined with plastic that used to split and break off and around the top were some brass rings where the cord passed through and was tightened to close it.  Even though our sandwiches were in airtight Tupperware dishes they always tasted of chlorine because these were the same bags that we used to take our swimming trunks and towels to the baths for our weekly lessons and it was impossible to get rid of the smell especially after you had left them in there over the weekend.

After lunch it was free time and this was the opportunity to let our hair down. Out of sight of the teachers the first thing we did was to take off our caps and maroon blazers and roll them up into our duffle bags and then we made for the city centre.  Sensible kids did more sightseeing or a bit of shopping but I always hung around with the boys who wanted to misbehave and do silly things.  On one trip I remember that we wasted a whole afternoon by buying a ticket on the underground circle line to the next stop and then going all the way round, again, just because we could and it felt as though we were doing something wrong.

On another occasion, when I was about fifteen, one of my friends, Paul Connor, who was more sexually advanced than most of us, arranged for us to go to Soho because he had heard that it was possible to see live sex shows. He was confident that the way to do this was to go to a dirty book shop and just hang around and then someone would come and ask us if we wanted to go through to the back room.  We did this and we didn’t have to hang about too long at all (probably no more than a few seconds) before a man came and asked us what we were doing there (we were only fifteen and probably had no more than ten shillings each to spend) and Paul told him we wanted to go into the back room.  He told us to follow him and he took us down a corridor and opened the door at the end and ushered us all through – back onto the street!

At five o’clock or thereabouts we had to return to the rendezvous point for the trip home. Someone was always late or worse, lost, which meant thirty minutes of adrenalin filled panic for the teachers but eventually everyone turned up, sometimes accompanied by a police officer and by the time everyone was accounted for it was back on the bus to eat the last of the chlorine sandwiches on the way home.  

school-trips-and-feeling-homesick

Every Picture Tells A Story – Barmeston Road, Catford

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.

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