Sunday, 19 February 2017
The Hill, Northfleet
I read somewhere quite recently that The Hill was once famous in the world of transport. This is very hard to believe of course but apparently in the late nineteenth century it was the site of the first electric tramway in Europe to operate on what was known as the Series System. This was something to do with the way the rails were constructed and enabled the current to be more efficient thus reducing operating costs. The route for this endeavour wasn’t terribly long and only ran from The Hill to Huggens College where you got off if you wanted to go to the station. Apparently during the experimental stage local children were given free rides. Sadly the system did not last long and was abandoned in favour of a return to horse drawn vehicles after a year or two.
During my time at St Botolph’s School the whole area still retained a village feel with old fashioned shops giving old fashioned service. Most prominent was Penney, Son & Parker’s who were general grocers and also sold some fruit and vegetables. Many day to day items were sold loose, dried fruit and sugar being twirled into red and blue cones of soft paper. Biscuits were weighed and sold in brown paper bags. We always bought broken biscuits because they were cheaper and to me more exciting as you never quite knew what you were going to get. Occasionally when Old Nan came visiting with my motherless cousin Little Violet she would send us up to buy half a pound of custard creams and we would always eat one each on the way home and strenuously deny the misdeed when she called us Lying Little Buggers. Little Violet’s mother, Poor Phyllis had died in childbirth from the effects of TB which was a condition we were all fearful of. Everyone felt sorry for Little Violet because not only was she motherless but we were told that her father had Buggered Off too. I was sorry for her mostly because she had to live with Old Nan.
Next to Penny, Son & Parkers’ was Eggletons selling newspapers and magazines and jars of bulls eyes and pear drops. From time to time they also sold Liquorice Wood, looking like wood and tasting like liquorice and Locust Beans, tasting like dried figs only worse and full of maggots. Later on they also sold Bubblegum and Sherbert Dabs. Trotts, next door, sold a few electrical items and also did repairs to irons and radios and wasn’t of the slightest interest to any child under twelve, neither was Jennings the butcher on the corner. Apparently they had their own slaughterhouse out the back and that gave Old Nan The Creeps because the place reminded her of Sweeny Todd. When the story was explained to me I was so terrified I point blank refused to go onto the premises at all to ask for ten pennyworth of scrag end and some bones for the dog. Towards the end of the week my mother, running short of cash elected to send me on errands rather than go herself telling me to wait until the shop was empty before going in. I hated that particular chore, most especially as the butcher knew very well we didn’t have a dog.
The circle in front of St Botolph’s church was once the Village Green apparently equipped with a proper Well and Stocks. When I was a child the most enticing place was Harris the Bakers always with a selection of cream buns and doughnuts on display to tempt the palette. I was not nearly as keen on loitering near Horlocks the Undertakers who in 1951 arranged the burial of my father though of necessity I passed by the place each morning on my way to school.
The central point of the old Village Green was the Lychgate to the old church yard and the ancient church where we played frequently after school even though we were repeatedly told not to. Next to the churchyard I remember a row of ancient weatherboarded cottages, one of which had been a shop at one time. Old Ada lived in one of them until her death at the age of ninety and we children were afraid of her and thought she might be a witch. Jennifer Berryman maintained that she saw her once on her doorstep talking to The Devil. It was an alarming idea but as Molly Freeman told me, it had to be remembered that Jennifer was fanciful and once said she had seen two angels in her Gran’s back garden. Nearby was Dr Crawford’s surgery and you consulted him if you were not a patient of Dr Outred who worked out of De Warren House on the London Road. We always went to Dr Outred though later my mother was to maintain that it was him that killed My Poor Father when he failed to notice it was Acute Hepatitis he had and not The Flu. Even so, she did not even then abandon him in favour of Dr Crawford because he had saved my life when I was four and suffering from Pneumonia. He organised this saving of my life by going to the Hospital Pharmacy to get some Penicillin.
I remember only two pubs on the Village Green though there were probably more. The most atmospheric was then and still is The Coach and Horses said to date from the 1500s. From time to time my father would take my mother there to drink Gin & Orange whilst I sat outside minding my brother in his push chair and eating a packet of crisps. When he reached his sixteenth birthday and was eager to introduce me to his very first girlfriend, Christine, we repaired to The Coach and Horses once again only this time we went inside and drank Vodka and Lemonade. On the other side of the road, facing the War Memorial was The Queen’s Head and for several years Kathleen McCarthy’s parents ran the pub. She had red hair and went to the Catholic School and was always held up to me as a paragon of virtue most particularly by my father. Needless to say I did not like her terribly much.
Revisiting the area a year or two ago I was sad to see so many changes but fundamentally traces of the old Village Centre still remain if you have the Will to see them.