Thursday, 20 April 2017

Navigating Northfleet High Street

If we went shopping in Gravesend my mother always told me that we were going Over-the-Town and usually we took a bus there and back. Shopping in Northfleet meant we were going Down-The-High-Street and invariably we walked. When I was very young, perhaps five, six or seven years old this was quite a trek and my heart would sink at the thought but there was no point in arguing and suggesting a bus ride because I knew we weren’t Made Of Money. We would set off directly after our midday dinner armed with shopping bags, one made of string and that was the one I might be allowed to carry later.
Usually I was already complaining by the time we had walked up Springhead Road and reached The Hill where we might well Run-Into a neighbour returning from the very same mission and this meant stopping for a chat. The chat one day with Grace Bennett was about bananas because Ripleys had them, causing great excitement and her Joan was going to have one on toast for her tea. The thing I remember most vividly about Ripleys is the staff member with hair the colour of Kentish Cobnuts who smiled a great deal, flashing beguiling glimpses of gold teeth. I remember nothing of the bananas except being told that Joan Bennett getting a whole one on her toast meant she was Spoilt-Rotten.

On we walked, past Dr Crawford’s surgery in Granby Place, past Horlocks garage and St Botolph’s Vicarage, behind grey walls and almost but not quite hidden by trees and then to Council Avenue. Here we might very well stop again if we Ran Into Mrs Ditchburn who had a family connection with Ditchburn’s Newsagency and not only that, a famous relative called Ted as well. Ted was goalkeeper for Tottenham Hotspur and much revered by all the boys I knew and most of their fathers. My mother greatly approved of Mrs Ditchburn and so the chat would be an extended one so Little Margery and I could play pretend hopscotch on the paving stones and I would admire her shiny black shoes and wish I had some just the same.

We then had to pass a number of very boring places like the Gas Board Showrooms and the Food Office that had something to do with Cod Liver Oil and free Orange Juice, both of which I treated with great suspicion, before we got to the High Street proper which I always felt started at The Wardona Cinema and there my spirits lifted. In those days most cinemas showed two feature films plus a newsreel and sometimes a cartoon as well and the programme was changed at least twice a week. This meant The Wardona was a busy and exciting place but my mother disapproved of it and thought you might Catch Nits from the seats because it wasn’t very clean so if we went to the cinema at all it was always in Gravesend and usually to The Majestic. I preferred The Wardona, however, because all my classmates and neighbours went to the Saturday Morning Children’s Picture Show and once in a while, though not very often, I was allowed to join them. Oh the excitement of those Saturday mornings hemmed in on all sides by unruly screeching schoolchildren some with pre-schoolers in tow who, surprisingly despite the noise level often fell asleep. For sixpence you got a full three hours of entertainment and came out with a thumping headache and possibly sometimes with nits. Sadly, years later after the expense of a complete upgrade and a Grand Opening featuring stars from a famous TV soap opera, the Wardona closed its doors for good. The Grand Opening had been a highlight in my early teenage life because although we did not at the time own a TV set ourselves, everyone else did and I had actually seen two episodes of The Grove Family Saga at the Bennetts in Buckingham Road, sitting with Joan who was Spoilt-Rotten whilst our mothers spoke in low voices of matters we must not be privy to. So the grand re-opening coming at a time when I felt I was destined to be a famous actress meant that I made sure I was first in line to smile and chat to the young girl who cut the ribbon and made the speeches and who I desperately yearned to emulate and whose name I now completely forget. I even featured in the extreme left corner of the photo that appeared in The Gravesend & Dartford Reporter which was of course totally thrilling.

However, long before the demise of the Wardona I always experienced a frisson of something like excitement when passing this particular area of the High Street because adjacent in the Astoria Dance Hall was Marjorie Shades Dancing School where the especially fortunate girls in my class at school like Helen Gunner and Pearl Banfield went every Wednesday for Tap Dancing and sometimes on Saturday too for Ballet Classes at one and sixpence a time. My mother would not be persuaded about the dance classes even though my cousin Pat from Crayford had been learning Tap for more than two years and now danced better than Ginger Rogers. No matter how good a dancer I was sure I would become I knew we had better things to do with our money.

By the time we were deep into the High Street proper I had usually stopped complaining about being tired and the shops themselves became suddenly more interesting. Treadwells the Butcher and Knowles the Baker were sure to be visited followed by Pearsons the Grocer and even Frosts simply to look at radios and electric bar heaters. Frosts was an exciting place because posters on the wall advised that Pianos were For Hire or Available on Hire Purchase. In addition they had Radio Sets & Components of every description and any Overhauls were carried out by Expert Workmen. What could be better than that?

At times we bought a few mint humbugs from Barratts where the old man and his daughter had sold sweets and cigarettes for years and where nearly a decade later he was to refuse to sell me a box of matches because I did not buy cigarettes to go with them and I threatened to report him to the Police Station. He advised me to do my worst but the unhelpful sergeant at the desk told me he didn’t have to sell anything to anyone if he didn’t want to and that was the Law whether I liked it or not. I did not like it so some months after this unpleasant and to my mind most unfair interlude, disguised with sunglasses and a fake American accent, I ventured into Barratts again clutching twopence in my right hand glad to see the old man still there behind the counter. I asked him to weigh me up a quarter of a pound each of humbugs, toffees, sherbert lemons, liquorice allsorts and dolly mixtures which he did. I asked for half an ounce of Hearts of Oak and some Rizla cigarette papers together with twenty Players’ Weights and - oh yes, as an afterthought and so, so casual – a box of matches please. This impressive range of potential purchases was now lined up neatly on the counter before me, Old Barratt looking as Old Nan would say, As-Pleased-As-Bleeding-Punch. I picked up the matches, placed the two pennies on the counter and said I’d changed my mind and I’d just have the matches today thank you before sauntering out into the sunshine of the High Street once more, heart pounding. He followed me only to the doorway which I found surprising, gesticulating and blaspheming . Of course I was much too cowardly to ever risk venturing onto the premises again.

In 1949 a visit to Mrs. Bodycombe’s hardware shop was a must on a Friday for Reckitts Blue for the Monday wash then quite often we Dropped In on Little Nannie Constant in Hamerton Road to make sure she was all right and to drink a cup of tea. In winter it would be nearly dark when we ventured up Station Road again and past the Old Mission Hall where if we were lucky we might hear the Northfleet Silver Band in rehearsal and I could stand for a few minutes transfixed to hear Rossini Overtures and John Philip Sousa Marches, music that mesmerised me. Fifty years later the same melodies at a band concert in Auckland, New Zealand were to conjure up immediate memories of Northfleet on a cold and frosty early evening, the long gone buildings frozen somehow in time and memory.

The High Street back then wasn’t all shops by any means because a number of people actually lived there in brick houses facing the street including Bill Moody who had a Coach business and ran it from his front room and had Been-There- For-Donkey’s-Years. In the years following my father’s death we sometimes took day tours with Moodys’ to places like Brighton and Hastings, The Devil’s Punch Bowl and Whipsnade Zoo. Surprisingly at twelve and thirteen I would more than likely be allowed to choose the trip and the one I remember most clearly was The Devil’s Punch Bowl because of the endless Monica Edwards books I had read. Oh the excitement of driving by the very place where the mythical Thornton Family had their farm and rode their ponies and lived their fascinating lives! For a brief moment I imagined I could simply reach out and touch them.

Homeward bound from High Street shopping meant walking on the river side of the street, dropping into Hardy’s the Drapers and perhaps the huge and forbidding Post Office. Past the photographer where both my brother and I had our first baby photographs taken, each of us five months old, proudly sitting all by ourselves in smocked white silk baby frocks and looking astonishingly alike. The same photographer where I had yet another photo taken at the age of three or four to send to my father in North Africa. Wearing my best blue satin dress I stare at the camera, unsmiling from beneath a newly trimmed for the occasion fringe.

Datlen’s always put out their Frying-Now notice in the early evening and the smell of freshly fried haddock and chips was so tantalising it brought tears to the eyes. But we always bought our Fish & Chips from Shepherd Street though possibly Datlen’s wet fish might be scanned for suitability if it was a Friday. Very occasionally we might buy a pint of shrimps for tea from Edgeley’s the shellfish shop nearby where they were measured in a pewter mug and firmly wrapped in newspaper then put into the very bottom of the string bag that I might now be allowed to carry, bumping uncomfortably against my legs. Less exciting was the Cooked Meats shop operated by Mr Davies who was the cousin of one of our neighbours and so had to be briefly chatted to if he was reasonably idle. I liked the grocery store with the musty sawdust smell where a Mrs. Lambert who had Been-There-Since-the-Year-Dot sold sterilised milk from Mortlock Dairy in tall glass bottles with interesting red and black stoppers which we never bought because my mother maintained it wasn’t healthy and you might catch things. Aunt Mag told her she was wrong because it was Sterilised which meant it must be good and anyway she had used it herself for years with no ill effect. Mrs Lambert also sold salt in huge lumps that looked like ice which again we never bought because you didn’t know whose hands had been all over it.

Bareham’s the Barber was always busy and that’s where my father usually went for his short back and sides and where he took my brother for his very first grown up haircut just before he started school. Until then my mother trimmed his hair herself but in September 1951 he strode off to Bareham’s hand in hand with the father who was to die within months, like a Big-Boy, the two of them on a trip together Bernard would years later remember no details of no matter how hard he struggled to recall it. Once my mother booked in to the Ladies Department operated by Miss Joyce for a Toni Perm and I was allowed to wait while she had it and look at all the magazines and not make a nuisance of myself. I must have been at least nine or ten because I was certainly a good enough reader to be both shocked and not a little confused by the problem pages of the magazines of the day where writers asked the advice of Aunt Evelyn on such matters as How Much Intimacy To Allow My Fiancè Before Marriage and Why Do I Not Seem To Be Able To Conceive. I knew enough of the facts of life to understand that Conceiving had something to do with Falling-For-a-Baby and that was a topic that must not be discussed even though it could be seen as both a very good or a very bad thing depending upon the circumstances. I was definitely much more puzzled about what Intimacy might mean. As our household was not Made of Money we did not go in for magazines and so I rarely had the opportunity to familiarise myself with the contents. Later Toni Perms were done by my Aunt Martha who had set up a little home business at half a crown a time and you bring your own perm kit only she didn’t charge family. Aunt Martha did not provide magazines.

In those days Northfleet High Street was always a busy place with most of the businesses open until six o`clock – including Spooners the Florists, Rowes the Optician, Hinkley’s Shoes and Fred Waters Gentlemen’s Outfitters from London. Wherever possible, family members were employed by each enterprise with sons and daughters, nephews and nieces stepping behind counters after school and on Saturday mornings. Rayners Hardware, for instance eventually provided employment for the whole family, the three sons Ken, Arnold and Eric and their sister Gwennie and the occasional cousin as well.

Walking home would often be cold, the temperature having dropped at least six or seven degrees since we set out but as it darkened each building we passed took on a warm and welcoming look as lights were switched on and all the pubs began to open – The Edinburgh Castle, The Coopers’Arms, The Railway Tavern and The Marquis of Granby. Pete’s CafĂ© on The Hill looked especially cheerful because as we approached it I knew we had conquered most of the journey. I longed to go inside but we never did, even when we had one of the Aunts or Old Nan with us because it was a place where only men gathered, always with vans and lorries parked outside and Pete himself inside in a fair isle pullover making the endless cups of tea and cutting the sandwiches.

Understandably I would be quite worn out by the time we reached York Road, feet aching more than they should because often I was walking in shoes that didn’t quite fit. But whatever the adverse aspects of those long ago once weekly shopping trips they were full of incident, however trifling that would be totally absent for those retracing our steps in this totally modern and far more impersonal age.

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