Memories of a childhood in Springfield Road
Like my brothers and sister before me, I was born at the Avenue Clinic in Avenue Road near Regents Park. My parents were living in a flat in Charlbert Court, off Allitsen Road, at the time so it was the nearest hospital to their home. With my arrival, however, a family of six in a small flat became untenable. Shortly after my birth, my parents took a lease on a house in Springfield Road. Our home was in one of those Victorian semi-detached town houses so prevalent in London’s older suburbs. It had steps leading up to the front door and a ground floor that was lower than street level but not completely below. My father’s office window, which faced the street, was partially above the front garden. The rooms at the back of this floor were at ground level, so it was what my architect father called a semi-basement.
Next to his office was the kitchen, which was below the front steps and had a window looking out onto a path running down from street level to a gate into the back garden. There was a door into the house from the path too, which would formerly have been the tradesmen’s entrance. As well as the kitchen and office, there was a passage leading to our family playroom and a bathroom. I suppose it would have been quite easy to convert the entire floor into a self-contained flat, but because we only leased the house couldn’t make such structural alterations. That said, we used all four storeys for ourselves.
Despite having a formal lounge and dining room upstairs, and three bedrooms with two more in the attic, the playroom was the hub of our family life. When my brothers and my sister came home from school, it was the room in which we congregated to play, eat and do our homework; a real living room. We had row of old architects’ drawing desks lining one side of the room, courtesy of my father’s former practice, which we used for our school books and personal toys. Against the wall next to the door, there was an upright piano and on the other side, an open fireplace provided warmth in the winter with the anthracite which was stored in a coal cellar behind the kitchen; at other times, we used an old-fashioned paraffin heater. The middle of the playroom was taken up by a worn oak table that had once been in my grandfather’s workshop. He’d been a tailor and its surface was marked by hundreds of tiny pits, apparently from the tracing wheel he used to mark his fabric .
The best thing about the playroom was that it had a door opening out into a walled garden graced with a large lime tree at the far end. There was a bright, yellow swing in the middle of the lawn, which gave us hours of fun when the weather was fine. As far as I can make out, our garden backed onto 26 Clifton Hill, which was where another architect or artist lived. My sister thinks his name was Groag.
A variety of neighbours
London was much more than just a home to me. I loved the city, from the road in which we lived in St John’s Wood to the suburbs around us, as well as central London and the marvellous allure of the Thames. In the late fifties and early sixties, our road had a wonderfully eclectic mix of residents. In those days it wasn’t the prohibitively expensive area it is today. During the war, many families from the East End had been re-housed in London’s northern suburbs by the local councils, a policy which resulted in a diverse mix of folk from every strata of society. St John’s Wood was included and it was in this delightfully varied community that we grew up.
Our immediate neighbours, as in those who lived in the other half of our semi-detached house, were two families from the East End. The top two floors were occupied by the Lowes. Mr Lowe was a dustman (refuse truck driver) and Mrs Lowe was, I think, a cleaning lady, whom we only saw on occasions, but who was as kind as her husband. They called my sister and me ‘lovey’ and ‘pet’ but they were busy people so we didn’t talk to them all that much. They had a son who was a bit of a boy-racer type and most likely scandalised the more genteel residents by painting bright red and orange flames up the side of his car, which was usually parked in front of the house.
Below the Lowes was Mrs Berry, whom my sister and I adored. Berry was short for Beresford, but she was as round, rosy and cheerful as a berry and a kind of surrogate granny to us. She occupied the lower floor, possibly with a husband and family at one time, but she was already a widow when we knew her. If there were children, I don’t remember meeting them. My sister and I used to go for tea with Mrs Berry and I have fond memories of her faded green kitchen furniture and yellowing cream-painted walls. She also had a tortoiseshell cat, whom we unkindly dubbed the ugliest cat in the world. Minty was neither pretty nor friendly, but she was a presence I remember well and I can still see her in my mind’s eye today, lurking among the undergrowth in their somewhat overgrown front garden.
On our other side were the Kays, a British-American couple who were wealthy, a conclusion I drew because they had a smart car and a television, which we didn’t have. On May the 6th, 1960, they invited us to watch the wedding of Princess Margaret to Anthony Armstrong Jones with them. This was a great event in my five-year-old life, more for the fascination of seeing a real TV than of witnessing the wedding.
Further up the road, Dick Bentley, the well-known radio presenter and comedian, had one of the newer houses, outside which he parked his gorgeous classic Bentley. However, what made it even more special was its vivid canary-yellow paintwork. He polished it religiously every weekend and we often chatted to him as we walked past with our dog. Dick Bentley was a kind soul, but perhaps obsessively neat. Here was a man who swept errant leaves off his lawn with a dustpan and brush and kept his privet hedge clipped with perfect precision; my father, being the teasing type, claimed he cut his grass with nail scissors; I, being gullible, believed him.
There were more council tenants in a few of the other old houses beyond Dick Bentley’s, one of which was home to children Tee’s and my age. They had a wonderful dressing up box that we spent many an afternoon sampling. Not to be totally outdone, we occasionally took our mother’s high-heeled shoes and frocks from her cupboard and went clattering up the road to play with them. I suppose we were caught eventually, but all I remember is the delicious fun of our forbidden games and friends.
Springfield Road was also home to the actors, Adrienne Corri and Daniel Massey, until they divorced in 1967. They had a Bassett hound called George, whom everyone knew because he was constantly escaping and taking off on a scent. One of the routine sounds in summer was of George’s name being hollered up and down the road. Despite his errant ways, someone always managed to capture him and take him home; luckily, he was a good-natured soul and amenable to being hauled back by adults and children alike.
There were, of course, many other folk both ordinary and extraordinary living in our road, but any fame and curiosity value they might have had was eclipsed when Paul McCartney bought a house in St John’s Wood in 1965. The purchase was a major talking point; we were amazed that such a star should move into our area, but since it was a mere stone’s throw from the EMI recording studios, perhaps it wasn’t so surprising.
Life in St John’s Wood
Our lives in London revolved around our home and its immediate neighbourhoods and we rarely needed to go further for our basic requirements. My sister and I went to primary school at the Catholic Convent school of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart in St Edmund’s Terrace off Avenue Road, very close to the clinic where we were born. I was there until the year before we moved from Springfield Road. Our brothers went to Northridge House in Hampstead until they left to be boarders at my father’s old school in Surrey, following which we had students from the Royal College of Music lodging with us. They only stayed during the term time while my brothers were away but they added colour as well as music to our lives.
As for services, the milkman delivered every day. He drove an electric milk float and the sound of rattling bottles still evokes memories of London when I hear them. We also had ‘the French onion man’ coming by regularly. Whether he really was Breton as his dress suggested, I don’t remember, but he had the traditional beret, stripey shirt and he carried the strings of onions on his bicycle. Of course, coal was also delivered once a year from a big flat-bed truck. It was stacked up in black hessian-type sacks so the delivery men could carry them on their backs and pour the contents into our coal cellar through a small below the front steps. And then there was the ice man, who provided chunks of ice for those who didn’t have fridges. We did, but my mother had an old-fashioned ice-cream churn and she liked to buy ice from him to fill it. Being allowed to turn the handle on the churn was a special thrill for me.
At the end of Springfield Road, we could cross Abbey Road to a row of shops that had almost everything we needed. The most important of these was Brown’s the grocer’s. Pushing open the door with its clanging bell was to enter a world of wonderful aromas. I can still smell the scents of cheese, coffee and spices that met us, and see the grocer himself in his brown cotton dust coat that matched his name. I loved watching him cut the cheese with an old-fashioned wire cutter, weigh it on traditional scales with their circular weights and wrap it in brown paper before popping it in my mother’s string bag; there was no plastic packaging then. He wrapped bread the same way but in thinner tissue and the care with which he folded the ends neatly was a deft skill resulting from years of practice. The shop itself was as brown as its owner and its beautifully fashioned counter was crafted from wood as were the shelves that rose to the ceiling.
Next door but one, I think, was Pargeter’s, a poultry butcher who had chickens and rabbits hanging from hooks on a rail with cups under their faces to catch the drips. I didn’t enjoy seeing our Sunday roasts in quite so raw a form but the meat was undoubtedly fresh. A greengrocer, whose name I can’t remember, was on the other side of Pargeter’s, and like Brown’s, all the vegetables were weighed on old-fashioned scales and wrapped in paper, mostly old newspapers. Then on the corner was the pub where my eldest brother had his very first legal drink at the age of eighteen. The row also included a chemist that had a machine outside from which my sister and I could buy tights. It must have been installed around 1966 and for us this was an exciting development. Putting coins in a slot and receiving a tiny box with a pair of tights inside was tantamount to magic. The only other shops I recall were a newsagent’s and my mother’s hairdresser. Every Friday, as many working women did at the time, she went for a wash, cut and set and to have a manicure. During the school holidays, I had to go with her and was bored stiff as I waited for her rolled curls to dry under the huge cylindrical dryers. It seemed to take an eternity.
On Saturday mornings, we tended to go further afield to Kilburn High Road or to the Church Street market off Edgware Road. I liked listening to the barrow boys and stallholders ribbing each other while my mother shopped. These trips would often be followed by drinks either at Lyon’s Coffee House or a similar café close to the market. I’d be allowed to have hot milk with a dash of coffee, which was a huge treat. Going to the Marylebone library on Saturday afternoons was another joy. Having been an avid reader since I could first open a book, the lending library, which I think was in a part of the town hall, was a favourite place. I borrowed treasures like Orlando the Marmalade Cat, Ferdinand and The Little White Horse from its well-stocked children’s section.
On Sundays we went to church. Being Catholics, our parish church was Our Lady at Lisson Grove, close to Lord’s Cricket Ground. However, our parish priest was a young, energetic man my parents disapproved of slightly. I’m not sure if it was because he was too modern in his style, or because he smoked and rode a motorbike. Whatever the reason, we often tried different parishes, and frequently went to one of my parents’ favourites: St James’s in Spanish Place close to the heart of the West End. After church, we’d sometimes go for a drive down to the river and around the docklands. Sundays in London in the early sixties were quiet, unlike today, and it was possible to drive along the river to St Katherine’s Dock without seeing anyone other than local residents. The peace of the city at rest touched my child’s soul; the silent docks and the majesty of the Thames with its mudflats and wheeling gulls captivated me. I loved it all.
We lived in Springfield Road until 1967 when I was twelve. Up until that time, the annual rents charged by the landowners, the Eyre Estate, had been very low, but for new leases, the price increased dramatically. I’m sure now it was a coincidence, but I remember someone, probably my teasing father, saying it was all Paul McCartney’s fault for making St John’s Wood so desirable and fashionable, a reason which stuck in my childish mind. For years, I was convinced he was to blame for the loss of our London home. This aside, the fact remained that my parents could no longer afford to live in St John’s Wood and ultimately they made decision to move away from London altogether. For me, the years we lived in Springfield Road defined our childhood; they were happy years that I remember with deep affection. In hindsight, though, I’m glad we moved completely away, as the rich diversity of the area’s residents probably diminished as the property prices rose. I wonder if it’s anywhere near as colourful now as it was then, and I feel blessed to have lived there at that time.