Sunday, 20 January 2013

Some South London Memories

Throughout my childhood, a fortnightly visit to New Cross in South East London was obligatory. My grandmother lived at 105 Woodpecker Road, a house that she shared with my aunt and uncle and their children. My grandfather had died in 1944. the year of my birth. My Nan was a dour victorian woman, the sort who gained her only pleasure by constantly grumbling. Auntie Dolly was cheerful and always gave a warm welcome. Her husband Vic, was jolly too, although I always had trouble understanding his strong London accent. This was a large house in a terrace. Two reception rooms, a dining room, a kitchen and three bedrooms. The bathroom was only added in the 1960's. The small back yard had a toilet and a coalshed. Outside the back door was the meat safe; a wooden box with a mesh front to fend off the flies. The tin bath hung on the wall. It was always a gloomy home, even in  bright daylight. Come evening, the 40 watt bulbs would be grudgingly illuminated when it was almost too dark to find the light switch.

There was just one more street between Woodpecker Road and the railway sidings so the clanking of waggons and coaches being shunted was a common sound. Of a Saturday afternoon, the air would be filled with the roar of the crowd at Millwall football ground which was just across the railway.

The woman next door but one was known to be eccentric. She lived alone with Tibbles and when her feline friend failed to come home one day, she went out in search. Around the corner in Chipley Street, a tabby cat lay in the gutter. Carrying the body home, she was sure that a little warmth was all that was needed to bring about a revival.  It was only when the real Tibbles came through the door a couple of hours later, that she realised that the dead cat still roasting in the gas oven was an imposter.

The highlight of these visits was the journey across London. In the early years, we would sometimes take a tram from Victoria. This waited at its' terminus in the middle of Vauxhall Bridge Road. I think this was route 36 and took us along Old Kent Road into New Cross. As a young child, I was always thrilled to sit on the top deck of the swaying and rattling  old car. This was one of the last tram services in London, replaced by buses in 1952, the latter offering little excitement.  Another route involved an ancient relic of the Undergound. Changing trains at Whitechapel we would descend the stairs to the platforms of the East London line. The railway would soon pass under the Thames and it was clear from the moisture running down the station walls that not all was watertight. The ancient train, of only 3 or 4 coaches, had sliding doors - passenger operated. One had to heave on a shiny brass handle and remember to close it behind you. We travelled only 2 or 3 stations to Surrey Docks where we would wait for a single deck bus. I never saw a ship but sensed that masts and funnels were hidden behind the high dock walls. The bus wound it's way through the south London streets crossing the Surrey Canal where a Thames lighter  or two, laden with sawn timber,  would always be seen moored at a woodyard. The canal is now sadly filled in and turned into roadways. Nearby was Folkestone Gardens, now a small park but then a group of forbidding tenement buildings known as "mansions".

As I grew older and bored with family chatter, I would go out exploring the neighbouring streets. This was near to dockland and had suffered wartime bombing. There were a number of cleared sites where houses once stood. Some of these served as used car lots, others were occupied by pre-fabs. My aunt worked at Pecry Haberdashers in Deptford High Street. I seem to remember an open fronted shop, wooden floors and a pneumatic payment system . Each counter was connected to a system of pipes and payments would be sealed into a container which would be propelled by air pressure to the office upstairs. She was the cashier and would receive the money, prepare the receipt and send it back to the counter with any change.  On New Cross Road, the Frank Matcham designed Empire Theatre had not yet been demolished. The last curtain had fallen but the house opened again for a record attempt by a pianist. There was no entry charge but people out of curiosity were looking in to see this man who had already suffered two sleepless nights and by this time had bandaged fingers. Wandering another day, I went in the opposite direction and found that the strangely named Coldblow Lane, dived under the railway line through a narrow tunnel. The other side was an abandoned level crossing and diminutive signal box. The tracks led into what appeared to have been a wagon works. The large sheds and empty yards were open to anyone who cared to wander in. There was no vandalism, no graffiti; they stood as they had on the day that the last worker had left.

My visits to New Cross eventually became less frequent. My Grandmother died, my cousins married, Aunt and Uncle moved to Lewisham and Woodpecker Road was demolished to make way for a new estate.

David Easton

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