Wednesday, 18 January 2017

York Road Revisited

By the time I was eight years old I was already thoroughly mortified to admit that I lived in York Road, Northfleet. You could say I was an eight year old elitist or simply a snob. This attitude was not helped by a steady diet of Enid Blyton books from the local library where the child characters, when they were not actually rushing about the countryside in horse drawn caravans solving mysteries, dwelled in detached houses with garages alongside. Even before I held a library card I had realized that some children, including local ones, lived a completely different lifestyle to us and our York Road neighbours. The local doctor for instance, who ran his surgery from his home on nearby London Road. De Warren House was a rather grim Victorian building which seemed impossibly tall and grand to me and whilst I was urged to be good and quiet and wait patiently for our turn, the doctor’s children could be clearly heard, and sometimes even seen, being decidedly less good and definitely less quiet. Even as a pre-schooler I envied them their freedom and their rowdy confidence. Life in less salubrious areas of Northfleet was of necessity quite dissimilar, the very communities coming about as they did out of a sudden jolt of economic expansion. In the nineteenth century this thrust forward had led to the speedy creation of suburban London and an unprecedented demand for the supply of building materials to the capital. The long abandoned mines of North West Kent, some of which dated back to medieval times, were admirably positioned to meet this demand. The Thames and Medway Rivers and the rapidly expanding rail network provided an easy route for movement of materials and so the area between Lewisham and Sittingbourne was subjected to massive opencast excavation of chalk for the cement and clay needed for the yellow bricks that built most of Victorian London. So it was that our little corner of Kent was created. Sleepy Thameside fishing villages were abruptly displaced and redesigned for the purposes of industry. Victorian `new towns’ such as the environs of Northfleet High Street and Jeremiah Rosher’s extravagantly named Rosherville began to host rows of hurriedly erected worker cottages. Northfleet’s cherry orchards at Huggins Fields, first planted at the behest of Henry VIII himself were said to have been swept aside during this period of change and this was when the village at The Hill reluctantly became part of a small but well developed township itself uneasily poised between the extremes of that which was urban and that which was rural. And this uncomfortable position still remained when I was growing up in the nineteen forties and fifties when the older people reminisced about collecting watercress at Springhead years before and their own parents gathering cherries where Huggens College Alms Houses now stood. They shook their heads and wondered at the rural idyll seemingly so recently lost. They also spoke of dene holes and told elaborate stories of the ground collapsing beneath them as they played as children, how one child simply disappeared into the earth and was never seen again. The very siting of some of the rows of terraced housing did nothing to ease the underlying feeling of instability, perched as they were at times on narrow ridges of land between the once again abandoned pits, and interconnecting passages beneath. York Road was lined on both sides with identical cottages built in eighteen forty and we lived at number twenty eight for a weekly rent of eight shillings and sixpence. The original colour of the bricks had long turned to an unappealing sludge grey. Each dwelling was of the two and a half rooms up and down variety, the half being the scullery extension into the yard at the rear and the attic directly above it that was too small to act as a bedroom. Downstairs was the room entered directly from the street known as `the front room’, and the kitchen beyond it. Between them was a narrow steep staircase leading to the bedrooms above. In the kitchen was a coal range of the type much admired these days by beautiful young people struggling into their first homes. In other words certainly not a greatly coveted Aga but nevertheless better than nothing and looking a little similar to the untrained eye. Most of the cooking was done on this range, roasts and jacket potatoes cooked in the oven, and of course proper toast at the front grill as long as the fire was right. A gas stove had been installed in the miniscule scullery at the rear not long before the war in an effort to modernise, but this device was only rarely used. The scullery also had a big stone sink and a `copper’ in which the weekly wash was done once a fire had been lit underneath. The wash was churned up and down by hand with a copper stick that was not of course made of copper and later I wondered at the terminology. Big bars of yellow Sunlight soap were used and little bags of `blue’ which apparently and inexplicably kept the sheets white. In the very early years of the war, some houses still had to collect their water from communal taps in the street even though most of the pipe work had been carried out to run water into each scullery and it must have been a great day indeed when the work was finally finished. Even when the thoroughly modern up-to-the-minute gas stove was in use occasionally on a Sunday morning, the scullery was always cold, presumably because of the stone flagged floor and the gap between the bottom of the door and the flags where the wind whistled mournfully through. Once a bat must have somehow accompanied that gusty airstream and hung in the corner above the copper and would not be shifted no matter how hard my mother tried. Eventually my grandmother grabbed it with her bare hands and threw it out of an upstairs window. Bat or no bat, and raging gale notwithstanding, the scullery was where the once weekly bath took place. The aluminium or `tin’ bath was taken from its hook on the outside wall of the scullery, pots of water boiled on the range and everyone in the family took turns to luxuriate in soap suds – often that very same `Sunlight’ that served the family wash. My mother was baffled by those who would extravagantly use `toilet soap’ as an aid to bathing. Between 1940 and 1945 we were a family of just two so the water remained relatively unsoiled. The Smiths of Shepherd Street would have had a greater water pollution problem on bath night, there being nine of them. I now wonder if they were forced to change the water half way through. Our front room was only used at Christmas or when extra special visitors came such as a visiting priest and it was always very cold. For years it served instead of a refrigerator as far as food storage was concerned. Jellies could be set in a mere hour and the butter always remained firm, the milk cold, and leftover meat could be safely left for days. It, and both the bedrooms above each had a fireplace. A fire was always laid in the front room `in case’, but the grates upstairs were permanently empty, the only time they came close to a fire was when someone was ill. I can recall one in the back bedroom when I was four years old and had pneumonia and certainly a cheerful blaze in the front bedroom seven years later a day or two before my father died. The lighting was by gas and little lamps stuck out from the walls of each room, close to the chimney piece, the scullery and attic having no `laid on light’ at all. The gas and electricity was metered and fed with shilling pieces into the meter in the coal cellar. If the gas `ran out’ and you were short of the correct coins then you found a candle, relied on the light of the range fire or sat in the dark. I loved the soft yellowness of the gaslight in winter, and shivered at the exciting shadows it cast across the walls. Electricity on the other hand, burst forth and lit up every corner of each room, even the scullery, and it seemed to me to lack magic. Quite the most inconvenient thing about the house in York Road was the convenience itself, situated as it was in the yard at the back beyond the scullery. Our `lavvy’ had spiders in all corners and of course no light. There was a candle in the corner for those intending to spend more than a minute or so late at night. Torn up newspapers on a length of string hung on a nail on the wall and when they ran out it was either a case of remembering to take a piece with you or suffering the indignity of calling for help. Adjacent to the lavatory, high on the wall, was a meat safe with a mesh door. The only other structure of any significance in our yard throughout my childhood years was the Anderson shelter which later became a shed where my father kept his motorbike. I now recall these details of 28 York Road with melancholy affection but when I lived there I was humiliated and ashamed of each and every aspect of the place longing as I did to escape into the security and protection of the middle classes.

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