London Walks: Bermondsey And Rotherhithe

Two more of Joolz’s Guides London walk videos. This time with a very personal connection to beetleypete!
(Each short film is around fifteen minutes long)

The first is a tour of Bermondsey, the district just immediately south and east of Tower Bridge, on the banks of The Thames. We see how the former leather-making district has becme ‘gentrified’ since the 1980s, but all the historic buildings remain. I was born in Bermondsey, and lived there until I was 15, when my parents moved us away to the suburbs. In my youth, the leather industry was still very much in evidence, and the modern-day food markets and smart delicatessens were traditional street markets, and cheap cafes.

The second film features Rotherhithe, which is a continuation of the walk from Bermondsey, along the riverbank to the east. Once again, we see the preserved history, and how docks and warehouses, where my grandfather and my mother worked during WW2, have now been converted into smart (and very expensive) apartments and restaurants. Joolz continues to the famous riverside pubs The Angel and The Mayflower. I moved back to Rotherhithe in 1985, and lived not far from The Mayflower. In fact, I had my second wedding reception in the upstairs restaurant of the pub, in 1989! It has famous connections with The Pilgrim Fathers, and the founding of America.

If anyone is planning a visit to London, watch to the end of the second video. You will see that you can book Joolz for a personalised tour of London, and contact details are shown. I couldn’t think of anyone better to show you around, except me of course!

Bermondsey: The London Of My Youth

I was born and brought up in a borough of London called Bermondsey. Although it has since been amalgamated into the much larger London borough of Southwark, it still retains its own identity with the people who live there. It is adjacent to the south bank of the River Thames, and close to the iconic Tower Bridge.

In recent years, the area has undergone some ‘regeneration’, and become a relatively fashionable place to live. But during my youth in the 1950s, it was an industrial area of central London, and everyone who lived there came from working class families on low incomes.

Some of the typical local houses I used to walk past as a child.
The empty space is where the house was hit by a bomb, during WW2. You can see the wooden supports holding up another bomb-damaged house on the right.

The busy street market where all my family used to get their shopping.

My Mum worked in the Peek Frean’s biscuit factory, which can be seen in this later photo from the 1960s.

Other local employers included the Pearce Duff Custard and blancmange factory.

The Alaska Fur Factory was later closed, due to the unpopularity of real fur.
It is now converted into smart apartments.

The library I used to go to all the time to borrow books has also closed. It has become a Bhuddist Centre.

The imposing Town Hall, where I once went to participate in a regional quiz. Also closed, and converted into apartments.

There were many popular pubs in the area. This one still stands. The Gregorian Arms was well-known as a venue to watch Drag artists when I was a boy, and my Dad would occasionally sing at the piano there too.

Non-Tourist London: Surrey Docks to Tower Bridge

This is another entry in my series of walks, for those visitors to London who would like to get off the beaten track, yet still immerse themselves in the history of the city. This starts in the area where I originally grew up, and then lived in for a second time, from 1985-1997. Many tourists and visitors enjoy a trip to Tower Bridge. They can look across to The Tower of London, gaze along the river, see City Hall, and the nearby park. But how many venture further east, delving into the working-class past of this part of south London?

This guide to a walk of discovery should provide a nice diversion for the interested traveller, and makes for a nice morning or afternoon, ending at a familiar place that has good transport links, and lots to do once you get there. The dockland area featured in this post has seen a great deal of transformation since my youth, yet the spirit of the past is in every step, and historical sights and buildings are there to be found, along with breathtaking views across the river, to the modern development of Canary Wharf, and some very old districts too. Links will be provided at the end.

Start the journey by taking an underground train to Surrey Quays Station. This is in Zone 2, on the East London Line. Exit the station onto the main road, and opposite, you will see the large retail development, Surrey Quays Shopping Centre. Cross at the traffic lights, and walk north onto Redriff Road. You are now in the place that was once home to the huge Surrey Commercial Docks complex, where ships from all over the world were unloaded. After the relocation of this work to Tilbury, in 1969, the docks were abandoned, until extensively developed by the London Docklands Development Corporation, in the 1980s. Walking on the right-hand side of the road, the first thing of interest that you happen across is the Dockers’ Shelter. Many dock workers had to wait each day to be given a tally, entitling them to a day’s work on the docks. These casual employees would shelter from the weather under this construction. It features a mural, highlighting the history of that trade.

Continue along Redriff Road, until you pass Norway Gate on your right. The road name now changes to Salter Road. Take the next right, into Rotherhithe Street, and bear left. On the next bend, you will see an open space, and the entrance to The Surrey Docks Urban farm. This is a valuable local resource, teaching inner-city children about farm animals, and providing a classroom for school trips too. The farm is open seven days a week, and entry is free. Walking along Rotherhithe Street, you will see a mixture of social housing that has been home to generations of south Londoners. As this existed at the time when the docks were still thriving, and was accessed by bridges, some of it is unchanged. The change in the law that enabled tenants to buy and sell their homes has brought many new arrivals, but the feel of the area has changed little since my young days, playing around the dockside. These contrast starkly with the many converted warehouses and luxury wharf-side developments, sold at prices far beyond the reach of ordinary local people.

Coming up on your right is the restored Columbia Wharf. There is a modern Hilton Hotel here, and access to Nelson Dock Pier. This was once a riverboat stop, (and might be still) and it offers great views of the Canary Wharf complex, just across the river. Squeezed in between converted warehouses, you won’t miss the timber-framed black and white facade of the pub The Blacksmith’s Arms, a little further on. This traditional drinking establishment also serves food, (until 15.00) and has an outdoor garden too. The interior is unchanged since the 1930s, and provides a real feel of what a London pub should be. Carrying on, now heading west, you will come to Lavender Pond Nature Reserve, which will be to your left. This small reserve is managed by Southwark Council, and is something of a refuge from the dense housing that surrounds it. The park was also home to the Pumphouse Museum, now sadly closed. The pond was originally used for floating the wood that arrived at the docks, to stop it drying too quickly.

Keep going until the street opens out, near the junction with Salter Road once again. You will see an old bridge across an inlet, and to your right, the modern pub/restaurant called The Old Salt Quay. The upstairs bar and terrace offer uninterrupted views of the river, and across to the district of Wapping, in east London. You can see the river frontage of the famous pub, The Prospect of Whitby, as well as the home base of the River Police. In the distance, to the west, is Tower bridge, and this is an ideal place to stop for a drink and watch the water traffic, or just enjoy the view. After your rest, (or not) continue along the old street. There are some modern housing developments on both sides, as well as the old terraced houses that have been there for decades. Some people also live on houseboats moored alongside, with footbridges giving them access to the land.

You will soon arrive at one of the oldest parts, an area that looks like something unchanged for centuries, even allowing for the modern conversion of the old warehouses. To your right, you will see the tiny pub, The Mayflower. This old building is worth a look, even if you don’t want to eat or drink there, as it is more than 400 years old, and retains many original features. It is a popular tourist destination still, despite its distance from the more visited sites in central London, and some tour groups are actually bussed there, to enjoy the experience. The small jetty overlooking the river at the rear serves as an outdoor space, and can get very crowded in peak season. Opposite the pub, is the church of St Mary The Virgin. This was rebuilt in the early 18th century, but a church has stood here since 1282. It is home to the grave of Christopher Jones. He was the captain of The Mayflower, the ship that took many of the original Pilgrim Fathers to America, in the 17th century. The church is still well-used by the local community, and has many historical connections.

Take the narrow Thames Path as far as Elephant Lane, before turning north, (right) to find the path again. At the junction with Cathay Street, you will see another old pub, The Angel. This riverside pub has some history too, dating back to an original inn in the seventeenth century. The current building was erected in 1830, and is Grade 2 listed. It is a popular pub, serving good food as well as drinks. A narrow outside terrace offers panoramic views along the river. The location also marks the boundary between Rotherhithe, and the adjoining borough, Bermondsey. Turn right, (with your back to The Angel) and you are on Bermondsey Wall East. A short walk will take you to the ruins of the riverside Manor House of Edward III, built in 1353, which will be on your right. An information panel marks the site, which is maintained by English Heritage. At the junction with Cherry Garden Street, turn right to continue along Bermondsey Wall East. On your right, you will see a sign for Cherry Garden Pier. This haunt of my childhood is now a departure point for river cruises, and makes a good spot for photographing the river, The Shard, and Tower Bridge to the west. It is also the site of the grandly-named ‘Bermondsey Beach’, where access to the riverbank reveals sand and stones, and an interesting place to walk, if the tide is out.

After this point, riverside access is restricted. I suggest you walk south along either Cherry Garden Street, or Marigold Street, until your reach the busy Jamaica Road. Turn right, and you will see signposts for London Bridge. Stay on the same side of the road, and walk west for a while. There is not much to see, but at the junction with St James Road, opposite, is the imposing St James Church, a Bermondsey landmark, built in 1829. My parents married here, in 1946. Continuing west, you will pass Dockhead and Mill Street, crossing the River Neckinger to your right as you do so. At the junction with Tooley Street, turn right into Shad Thames. This old street is said by some to be the inspiration for the site of ‘Fagin’s Den’, in the novel ‘Oliver Twist’, and you can still imagine the urchins returning to the place, after a hard day stealing. In truth, Dickens’ almost certainly set the scene in Clerkenwell, as this area is some way from the other places mentioned in the book. The restored iron walkways above, crossing between the former warehouse levels, give an accurate idea of what the whole area would have looked like, in the 19th century. Part of this street was once known as Jacob’s Island, and was a notorious area in those days. There is now an art gallery here, named after it.

At the bend in the road, you will see the Art Deco edifice of The Design Museum to the right. This is a great place to visit, and well-worth the entrance fee. It also has a very good cafe/restaurant inside, and a well-stocked gift shop. Once around the bend, the rest of Shad Thames hosts a variety of restaurants and cafes, from the mainstream coffee bars, to the very expensive; like the marvellous Le Pont de la Tour, where we once enjoyed a family meal. You will be under the south side of Tower Bridge, back on the tourist trail, and able to gaze up at this industrial marvel, the best-known landmark of London. It is accessed by steps from the street, and from there, you can decide whether to continue your journey, or make your way home from one of the nearby stations.

I hope that you get the chance to take this walk one day. You will have been steeped in history, able to take some unusual photographs, and have seen a part of London that is very dear to my heart.

http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMDK2P_The_Dockers_Shelter_Redriff_Road_Rotherhithe_London_UK
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surrey_Commercial_Docks
http://www.surreydocksfarm.org.uk/
http://www.blacksmithsarmsrotherhithe.co.uk/
Lavender Pond Nature Park & Reserve
http://www.mayflowerpub.co.uk/
http://www.stmaryrotherhithe.org/
http://russiadock.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/the-angel-public-house.html
http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/Edward-IIIs-Manor-House-Rotherhithe/

This is Bermondsey Beach. The photo just appeared!
https://www.flickr.com/photos/levettday/8183029025
http://www.southwark.anglican.org/parishes/027l
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shad_Thames
https://designmuseum.org/
http://www.lepontdelatour.co.uk/

Bermondsey summers

What is it about memory, that makes us remember summers as being better in our youth? Ask most people about the weather, and they will almost always agree that the summer was better when they were young.

Six weeks of unbroken sun, school holidays spent outside, with perhaps the occasional thundery shower, that helped to clear the air. Given that this might span a time period from 1958, to 1998, it cannot really have any basis in fact. Although I do not have the real statistics to hand, (and cannot be bothered to look them up) I am sure that we didn’t always have fabulous summers, with weeks of Mediterranean heat, and unbroken blue skies. So why is it that this is how I remember them?

Before we moved to Kent, when I was fifteen years old, I spent my summers on the streets of Bermondsey, a South London district, close to the River Thames. There may have been a two-week family holiday, usually to Cornwall, and there were also weekends in Essex, staying at my Nan’s caravan, but mostly, it was ‘playing out’ with mates.

This was sometimes on the still-present bomb sites, derelict areas caused by wartime raids, and often near my Nan’s house, where we played various games on the pavements, and in the roads. We might also venture into Southwark Park, where there was a good play area, with a climbing net over a sandpit, and a large roundabout. In the other direction, the smaller St James’s park boasted an unusual slide, with a closed-in top, resembling a wooden fort.

I might also wander down to the river, where the busy docks were then still working flat out, and look at the huge cargo ships, spinning cranes, and passing river traffic. This might involve slipping past the Dock Police, who were supposed to stop us going in, or just going to Cherry Garden pier, with direct access to the riverside, where we could play at low tide. Once out, we rarely returned home until the agreed deadline; if we needed to pee, we did it up a tree, and we had our pocket money, for any drinks or snacks that we wanted.

The most enduring memory, whether false or not, is of good weather that enabled us to play, however and whenever we wanted. We played cricket, with pieces of wood, and any ball we could find. Football of course, with old boxes for goalposts, and if there were not enough of us to make up teams, then it was up against a wall, or one in goal, with the ‘three goals and in’ rule applying. We would always assume the identity of the star players of the day, and would argue, until allowed to keep our choice. The playmates were generally neighbours, and any other kids who just happened to be hanging about, as we rarely ventured outside our world, the small borough that was Bermondsey.

Being boys (there were rarely girls, except sisters who had to be looked after) we liked to play at war. Although the Second World War was fresh to us, and we still had the evidence in the bomb-sites, we did not restrict ourselves. We also liked to pretend to be knights in armour, using all sorts of adapted implements and household items to simulate medieval attire. We would go to the local ‘shop that sold everything’, and buy garden canes, one long, and many short. They were affordable with our small amounts of pocket money, and with some old string obtained from anywhere, they magically transformed into bows and arrows. With these, we could be the English archers at Agincourt (we had all seen Henry V), or just as easily become fierce Apache warriors, opposing the U.S. Cavalry.

Toy guns, discussed at length in another post, would be prized in these conflicts, and those not lucky enough to have one made do with suitably shaped pieces of wood or metal. At times, there could be as many as thirty of us on each side; one group defending an area, the other attacking with screams and whoops. These battles were not without their casualties. Stones and bricks were often thrown, and the large numbers of flying ‘arrows’ also caused eye injuries. Even if you survived the skirmish, you could be sure of scraped knees, scuffed shoes, and torn clothing. Nobody got an ambulance though, or a trip to the hospital. You went home, to get Germolene on your scrapes, and a telling off for spoiling your clothes. Before getting out again, as soon as possible, to rejoin the fray.

I can still feel the heat, even now. The pavements felt uncomfortably hot when you sat down. Dogs dozed outside houses, grumpy if approached. Ants were everywhere, and sometimes, huge numbers of winged ants would emerge, their desire to fly off sparked by the increasing temperature. You were always thirsty. The parks had water fountains, operated by pushing a plunger, and then you had to try to drink from it, craning your head awkwardly. Older fountains had large metal cups, attached by chains. They were probably unhygienic, but the water always tasted fresh from them.

If all else failed, you would knock on any door, and ask for a drink of water, from a complete stranger. It was never denied, as it was a very different world then. If you had money, you could buy a drink, or better still, an Ice Pole or a Jubbly. Ice Poles were long tubes of frozen, flavoured water, encased in a polythene shell. You bit off the top, and pushed the pole up as you ate it. Jubblies were even better, but cost 3d. They resembled a pyramid, and were really frozen solid. They contained a tasty orange ice, and were in a waxy cardboard container. Peeling off one corner, the Jubbly would appear, and could be slid in and out, as required. Even in the full heat of summer, they would last a long time, and were a great refreshment.

When I moved to the new maisonette in Bermondsey, aged eight, we had communal gardens. These became my new playground. With the other kids from the flats, of all ages, we would play in the wartime air-raid shelters, on the older estate opposite. As we had a ground and first floor, we would leap from the stairwell halfway up, pretending to be parachutists at Arnhem. With earth and grass to include in our games, we would dig out tiny trenches, and place our toy soldiers in them. We even poured water into them, to simulate the mud we had seen in the films. A good game like this could involve up to six kids, with a few hundred toy soldiers, in an impressive trench network that we kept going for days, if not weeks, on end.

When I got a bike, a whole new world of summer play opened up for me. We would cruise around in large numbers, pretending to be fighter planes, attacking each other with loud machine-gun noises, covering a good few miles each day. Other times, we would ‘obtain’ broom handles, and stage elaborate jousting contests, slavishly following all the rules, just as we had seen in the films. Pedalling rapidly towards each other, we fearlessly clashed our broom handle ‘lances’; if someone fell off their bike, the other boy would get off also, and continue the contest with wooden swords. And it was still hot, always hot.

This was pretty much how it carried on, until I became too old for play, and started to read, or listen to music in my bedroom instead. By the time we moved to Kent, I had stopped noticing the heat of the summers, but I vividly remember the open doors, to let in air, and the sound of the younger kids, out playing until past 9pm, enjoying the warmth.

Nothing will persuade me that those summers are a myth, or just a rose-tinted memory.

Last train to Bexley

I warn anyone attempting this post, that it is over 3,000 words, and will require endurance. It may best be consumed in bite-size chunks. I appreciate that I could have split this into a series, but I have chosen not to.

This is not the first time that I have moved from London, to a place in the country. The main difference, is that this time, it was my own choice to do so. Forty-six years ago, in 1967, my parents made the choice for me, and I was far from happy about it.

Bexley is now part of Greater London. It is a borough to the South-East of the Capital, bordering the county of Kent. It was only 14 miles from where I lived at the time, in Bermondsey, just South of Tower Bridge. As far as I was concerned, it might as well have been 1400 miles away.

Like everyone I knew then, we lived in a Council-owned property, for which we paid rent, and could never own. For us, this was a nice maisonette, a flat, but with an upstairs, and a small balcony off the living room. It was recently built, eight years earlier, and we were among the first families to live there. I had a short walk to school, and lived very close to all my friends, and to most of my family, at least on my maternal side. My father was doing quite well at the time, working in the burgeoning music industry; but he felt ashamed of being a tenant, and wanted to own his own house. He wanted a garden, bigger rooms, and a suburban location, well away from the working class area where he had grown up. He wanted to join the Freemasons, and to feel proud to entertain business colleagues in his nice home. One day, they arrived back from the estate agent, and told me that we were moving to Old Bexley. I didn’t get a say in the matter. I was only fifteen, and still at school.

I didn’t know hardly anyone who bought their own house in those days; it wasn’t something people like us did then. I was told that we would have a three bedroom semi-detached house, with a long garden, garage, and separate dining room. It also had an extension, acting as a sun room at the rear. The house was built in the 1930’s, so solid and respectable; none of your 1960’s rubbish, according to my dad. I would be able to stay on at my school, they assured me. I would just have to get two trains each way, and then a bus, to be able to do so. For my dad, travelling around the country with his job, using a company car, his start location was immaterial. As for my mum, she would get a job locally, or failing that, commute by train to her job in the City. She was a bookkeeper, so would easily find employment. All she wanted, was to be able to have a pet dog, something not allowed where we lived in the flats. As long as she could get her pet, she was prepared to move anywhere. The house was going to cost just under £5,000. This seemed an incredible amount of money to me then, as I didn’t really know about deposits and mortgages. What I did know, was that you could buy a decent new car for less than £500, so ten times that for a house seemed like a lot to me. (Strangely enough, that same equation holds good today…)

I was taken to see Old Bexley, also called Bexley Village. It was in Kent, so had no postal district on the road signs, something of a novelty in itself. The High Street had a period feel, unchanged since the 1930’s, like a scene from a pre-war film. There were a couple of Banks, the Estate Agent’s premises, and a shop that just sold sweets and cigarettes. There was a small Grocer, and a Florist, located near the Station, so handy for forgotten birthdays, or last-minute neglected anniversaries. The main Pub was the King’s Head, proud Tory watering hole, and meeting place for the local Round Table of Businessman. There was a picture of the local M.P. above the bar. His name was Edward Heath, and three years later, he would become the Prime Minister. St John’s Church was at the end of the High Street, and we were next right, first left. It was a ten-minute walk to the station, at a leisurely pace.

I was also shown the nearby districts of Sidcup, Welling, Bexleyheath, Albany Park, and Blackfen. They all looked the same; streets of mock-Tudor dwellings, punctuated by small rows of shops. Today, they are all part of the huge London Borough; in those days, they had their own identities, and class distinctions. Bexley Village was by far the most prestigious place around, I was reliably informed by my parents.  Over the last twenty years, the whole area has become associated with working-class Londoners moving South, lowering the tone, and cheapening the reputation. The far right became established there, and neo-facists met in the King’s Head, replacing cigar-puffing Rotarians. Football fans lived there, and arranged to meet in gangs, to travel back to the clubs they supported, and cause trouble with opposition supporters.

In 1967, we were the only low-class newcomers there. We stood out like sore thumbs, in a sea of civil servants, hat-wearing commuters, and office girls heading off to jobs in the centre of London. The smart uniforms of the local school children, with piping on their lapels, and pleated skirts for the girls, contrasted greatly with what I was turned out in. Our neighbours were firmly upper middle class on one side, to their relief, the side that was not attached to our semi. Coming late to parenthood, they had two children, younger than me, who were both prone to tantrums, and sullen moods. They would nod a hello, and wave over the garden fence, but did not invite us in. On the other side, there was a policeman, with his wife and much younger children. As he was from Yorkshire, he avoided stereotyping of class, but his job, low paid as it was, still afforded him the respectability of officialdom. I didn’t just feel out of place, I was out of place, in every way imaginable.

After the bustle of moving in, I got my bike out, and cycled around the area, hoping to familiarise myself. The present day motorway, that becomes the M2 to Dover, was then a normal main road, and even current through routes like North Cray Road, were then unadopted tracks, leading to farms, and riding stables. There was nothing to interest me there, and the only place where any young people congregated, was the sheltered bus stop at the end of the village. As a fifteen year old Bermondsey boy, uprooted from all I knew and loved, I thought that I was in Hell itself. But that was only the beginning, and much worse was to come.

I soon started the commute to school. Arriving at Bexley Station, I was amazed at the crowd cramming the platform. When the train arrived, they surged forward, squeezing into a train carriage already full to bursting with other travellers, from the coastal regions of Kent. I did just one stop, then had to get off, to await the stopping train that called into Sidcup station, and would take me to my destination of New Cross. This was a test of endurance, as the train grew ever more crowded with each subsequent halt. More and more commuters filled every inch of space, and when I finally arrived at my stop, I found it almost impossible to get off. I then had to wait for a bus, which would sit in the rush hour traffic towards Central London, until finally arriving at the end of the street where my school was located. By then, I was already exhausted, with the whole day before me. I had to get up at least ninety minutes earlier than I ever had before, and the whole thing seemed incredible to me, and I could not imagine having to do this for five days a week, every week. Fortunately, the return journey was outside the rush hour, and considerably more civilised.

Once home, I was still in Bexley of course. No popping round to see a cousin, or school friend in the evening. No chance of hanging around after school with mates, perhaps going to the Wimpy Bar, or looking around the shops locally. They could not come around my flat to listen to the latest records either, or to discuss our favourite groups or singers. There were still only two channels on TV then, so I would normally retreat to my room, to listen to music on the record player, and get on with my homework. My mum would not be home until after 6pm, and my dad would probably be away for work until the weekend. I felt as if I had been punished, they felt that they had given me the earth. When I eventually went to bed, I would lay there dreading the next day’s long train journey, with the carriages full of newspaper folding commuters, who all seemed to have to constantly blow their noses. I would worry about the prospect of trying to avoid the eyes of the younger women, in their fashionable mini-skirts, as they caught me me looking at their legs, or better still up their dresses, as they sat awkwardly on the train seats. I actually longed to be in school, for the companionship, and the familiar surroundings.

Then came the weekends.

My dad would arrive home, from wherever he had been, promoting this or that group, or a new record release. He was determined to almost re-build his new pride and joy, and he would start with a complete landscaping of the back garden. There were also plans to install a greenhouse, a shed, and an aviary, for ornamental birds. Part of the lawn would have to go, to make room for a fish-pond, and the area of fruit trees to the back, would be levelled out, so as to be more manageable. He was a very handy, and skilled man, who could set his mind to almost any task, and manage to carry it out. And I was to be his reluctant labourer. This was the price I must pay for being able to live in this paradise that I saw as a prison. I was repeatedly informed, that as an only child, it would all eventually be mine anyway, so any work I did now, would be rewarded by future ownership of this valuable and desirable residence. In my mind, I plotted to sell it immediately that happened, if only to get my own back.

Saturday mornings  in London had been a time of great relaxation for me. Getting up late, after a long week at school, followed by a late breakfast, or early lunch, and reading my comics or magazines. I would then go to meet a friend or friends, in Walworth Road, or East Street Market; perhaps finishing the day with a trip to the cinema, at nearby Elephant and Castle. This was all to be a memory. I now had to work for my dad, and there was no harder taskmaster since the building of The Pyramids. For what seemed forever, but was actually a few months, I laboured every weekend; mostly filling wheelbarrows with earth or shingle, then trundling them from the street level, up the steep driveway, and then through a small alley, to the garden at the rear. This may not sound a lot, but I assure you that it was. I was blessed with an inquiring mind, and a sociable personality, and hour upon hour of being a mindless drudge left me sullen, resentful, and unhappier than I was already.

So, there I was. No local friends or family, imprisoned by distance from anything, and now slaving at the Gulag of dad’s reconstruction. What to do? I had to get away. I started to ‘stop over’ after school. This took many forms, whether sleeping over at a friend’s house, or having to endure a night at my Nan’s. Whatever I chose, it soon became a better prospect than the alternative. Dad wasn’t happy, as he had lost a worker, and he wanted someone to sit with mum when he went out, or left for the week’s work. Our relationship, shaky at best since I became a teenager, began to spiral downwards, and was soon damaged beyond repair. I no longer liked the man that I had once looked up to, loved, and admired. For him, his worst fears were confirmed. His only son and heir had become a shiftless, workshy pseudo-intellectual, who had forgotten his roots, and abandoned his family. He was very wrong, of course. I wanted to get back to those roots, and to re-embrace the family and the area that he had arbitrarily removed me from. I was in some bizarre Kafkaesque situation, where my dad had become judge and jury, and pronounced sentence, based on my dislike of garden re-modelling.

If he couldn’t have his apprentice, he would have results another way. He informed me that I had to get at least four A levels, and apply for entry into a decent university. (“Not one of those rubbish ones, up North”) In return, he would sort me out a car, and driving lessons, and support me to stay on at school, until I was 18. He would also allow me to stop over in London more often, as long as it was all properly arranged, with a friend’s family, or my own relatives. Staying over in London did not really turn out as I had hoped. I was at the whim of others, minding my P’s and Q’s, and unable to work properly, read quietly, and access all my books and personal things. I had to return to the chore of commuting, and quiet evenings in Bexley, watching my mum watch TV. At least, that was, until I had that car. Cars seemed to represent freedom then. As a non-driving teen, it never entered your head to think about running costs, insurance, breakdowns, or even passing your test. You just presumed that you would pass, and that the car would always start. As for the costs, that would be down to mum and dad; after all, they wanted me to have a car, so presumably would finance it.

Then I got a girlfriend. She lived back in Bermondsey of course; she was already working, and was a full year older than me. The nightmare that was travelling to Bexley, had just got a lot worse. I would go round to see her one night in the week, after school. Staying as late as possible, I then had to run all the way to the station at New Cross, desperate to get the last train, the 11.37. If I thought that there was any chance that I might miss it, I would run the extra two miles to Lewisham, and pick up a train on a different line instead. I was doing the equivalent of a 19 hour day, and only getting five hours sleep. At weekends, I would stop at a friend’s house, so that we could do the usual Saturday night out, but I had to be home for Sunday lunch, and to show that my massive amounts of homework were being completed, as agreed.

In 1969, I finally passed my driving test, on the second try, and got to use the car. It had been in the garage for almost a year, a stationary incentive for my studies. My first solo trip was straight to London. I circled Hyde Park Corner, cruised Leicester Square, and ended the day at my girlfriend’s place, showing off the new motor. This was where I belonged, I firmly believed, and the car would be my escape module, firing me away from the dying planet that was Bexley. I also decided to abandon my studies, and leave school without taking the four A levels that were consuming all my time and thoughts. My dad could hardly look at me as I broke the news, but persuasion from mum made him arrange a job for me later, in a very small part of the record industry, where he still worked.

By now, my dad was consumed with extra-marital affairs, and fears that his job would soon disappear. I was off his radar, and he had well and truly written me off, as he secretly contrived his own escape. Mum soldiered on, determined to continue to provide a home, head in the sand, and drawing on all her traditional values. Six years later, and the dream was over. I was working as a taxi driver, and never at home. Dad was always ‘out’, no questions asked, and when I did bump onto him, we didn’t speak. One day, returning from a long commute to her job in West London, mum saw her own house for sale, advertised in the same estate agent’s window where they had first seen it, nine years earlier. She would not take legal advice, and allowed it to be sold, for a bargain price.

Bexley had not only gone sour for me, from the start; it had also turned out not to be the Shangri-La that my parents had desired either. Strains in the family unit, distance from the support of relatives and friends, and never quite fitting in, had proved too much, for all of us. Only mum regretted the loss of the home, and the end of it all. I still regretted the beginning. Right or wrong, I blamed this move for all that had changed in my life, and vowed never to reside in the countryside again. Who can say what might have been different, if we had never moved? It is all too long ago, to speculate on how we might have all turned out differently. Well, thirty-seven years later, and here I am again, back in the countryside, where I once swore that I would never dwell.

It is a different place to Bexley, but still a different place.