Here and There – Northolt
Northolt? I can almost hear the question being asked. Where’s that? For some Londoners, it is known as the suburb that contains the old RAF Northolt air base, which was converted into an airport for civilian flights. Not commercial flights, but rather flights bringing dignitaries from overseas who didn’t want to be seen, protested against, or threatened as they might be if they were travelling via Heathrow. Otherwise, it is largely unnoticeable, a stop on the Underground’s Central line, geographically between Ealing (of Ealing Film Studios fame) and Ruislip (and the Ruislip Lido) located at the beginning of the green belt around London.
However, I’d like to set the scene in another way, for Northolt as the suburb of my childhood. Northolt comes from the Anglo Saxon, meaning ‘northern neck of land’. The area had settled early, with some indications of a village established by the eighth century, if not before. There is evidence a wooden church was built in the 11th Century, and the Domesday Book of 1086 mentions Northala, as it was named following the Norman Conquest. The property of Geoffrey de Mandeville, the village was large enough to have a priest and some sixty acres of land. The church of St Mary the Virgin sits near the top of the village’s hill. Work on the church’s first stage commenced around 1230, but construction was probably not completed until 1290.
For more details, here’s a quote from Wikipedia:
“It is one of London’s smallest churches, with a nave measuring only 15 yards (14 m) by 8 yards (7.3 m). The church was built around 1290 and was expanded over the following centuries, with the chancel being added in 1521, the spired bell tower being added in the 16th century and a gallery being built at the west end of the church in 1703. Twin buttresses were erected against the west wall around 1718 to alleviate concerns that the church could slip down the hill. The internal beams are original and the bells date from the 17th century. The church was constructed from a variety of materials; the nave incorporates clunch (a type of limestone), flint and ironstone, and the moldings of the doors and windows are made from Reigate stone. Despite its small size, the church has played an important role in the ecclesiastical life of London; from the 13th century to 1873 its Rector served as the Bishop of London. It was the first Anglican parish to appoint a female Rector, the Reverend Pamela Walker.”
There’s more. Not mentioned in the Wikipedia overview are two fine memorial brasses – one from 1452, and another of a family from about 100 years later. Equally intriguing is the ‘Hatchment Board’, marking the tercentenary of the martyrdom of Archbishop William Laud, who was executed in 1645, a victim of the first stage of the civil war in England.
Let’s finish the geography. Close to the church, and similarly positioned at the top of the hill, there had been a Manor House. The original was built in 1300, complete with a moat, the remains of which can be seen at various points around the top of the hill. The house grew through additions, then shrank through neglect, and was largely demolished by 1475. In Victorian times, a large house was built on the other, west, side of the church, a house that my mother dreamt of as the next family home. Only a dream. It wasn’t for sale, and its price would have been well beyond the income of a grammar-school teacher back in the 1960’s!!
Our house was on Fort Road, a semi-detached house across the road from a small bit of wooded land, itself on the edge of an old army supplies camp. Fort Road ran down the southern slope of the same gentle hill where the church stood, and our house was half-way down our side of the hill. At the back, the garden looked out on to Bellevue Park. From the back garden, I could look up across the park, and see the spire of St Mary’s. Closer to home, in fact just beyond our back fence, the park slope was interrupted by a slight depression, a depression that had been caused by a bomb dropped in the Second World War. The house had been lucky to escape any major damage, but there was a large crack at the back, running up though the kitchen wall.
It was a good environment for a young child, the houses in the street occupied by nice middle-class families. Among our sometimes neighbours was a colonial administrator. Sometimes, because for some years he was one of the King’s and then the Queens’s representatives in the Seychelles. Otherwise, apart from that aerodrome, the only other item of note in Northolt was a large factory, not too far from where we lived. It was the manufacturing facility for Hoover, famous in those days for vacuum cleaners, and still the eponymous term for a floor cleaning device, and for the task of vacuuming. [Perhaps I should hoover up some of this irrelevant rubbish!]
I lived in Northolt from a very early age (I was only a few months old when we moved to Fort Road), until my early teens. So, what do I remember about my childhood there? Sadly, not much! Like most people, my early memories largely comprise a series of events, often prompted by family stories or photographs, loosely linked together. Walking to the bottom of our road, then going further down a short path, takes you to the Great Western Canal. I do have memories of that canal, mostly of times when I went fishing, a solitary and peaceful pursuit, only marred by the need to keep an eye out for the inspector, who required anyone fishing in the canal to purchase a licence. A particularly vivid recollection is of taking Judy, our cocker spaniel, for a walk down by the canal, and getting dozens of burrs embedded in her coat. Mum was furious, and I had to sit and carefully get them out – carefully, because every time I pulled too hard, Judy yelped, and sometimes snarled!! That day was particularly noteworthy because Judy was a placid dog; all that snarling was burnt into my memory.
For my parents a key event during my early years was the 1948 Olympics. So soon after the war, and with rationing still in place, there was no building frenzy to establish an athletes’ village, along with new stadiums, swimming and diving pools and a velodrome. Everything had to be based on what was there (indeed, in the case of many of the facilities needed, the Olympic Committee had to rely on the fairly old facilities left reasonably undamaged after the blitz and years of bombing). Athletes were quartered in schools, and the Greek and Lebanese teams stayed at Greenford Grammar School, where dad was the physics teacher.
Two moments from that time, on the same day, are still clear in my mind. First, we went with the two teams to the London Zoo, and were taken to the back of the Elephant House to meet the inhabitants face to face! I don’t remember very much about that, except for the amazing moment when one of the keepers took out one of those small five-note mouth organs, (a tiny harmonica), and offered it to one of the elephants, who promptly took it with his (or her??) trunk and played some notes!! Second, had I been paying much attention I might have noticed my mum was getting rather frazzled. I didn’t, but I do remember returning to the school and seeing a series of brown paper carrier bags just inside the front door of the school: they contained the sandwiches and fruit for the day! Although the London Olympics must have played a big part in my parents’ lives, that’s all I can recall. I am sure I was taken to some events, especially any involving the Greek or Lebanese teams, but I don’t remember any of them. I do know that dad was presented with a silver cigarette box as a thank you for his role as a host for the two teams.
There was one other incident at the time, of which my memories are more than a little clouded by subsequent events. At one point, I was left by myself in a room in the school. The door was closed, and I was too small to reach up and open it. I sat in a corner, and gradually began to feel that the walls were closing in on me. I must have cried, shouted, screamed, I don’t know what. However, that sensation of being a tiny thing in a huge room with the walls coming together around me became the basis of a nightmare that was to return, from time to time for many years. It became tangled up with my fear of dying. Like many children, once I got my head around the fact that I would die, I regularly and frequently got upset. Night-times were often unpleasant, and must have been a real challenge for mum, who would come to see why I was crying but was unable to console me: an atheist , she wasn’t going to come up with some religious mumbo-jumbo to help me! All over when I was eight.
My ability to remember my past changes greatly from the age of nearly 5 years old, in August 1949 to be specific. That was when I first went to school. The first stage of my education was just one year long, attending the ‘village school’, close to the church at the top of the hill. I could get there by going out through the back gate of our garden, up through Bellevue Park, through the churchyard, and down into the church hall. The school itself was what today might be called a ‘prep’ year school, for children aged 4-6 years old. We were all in one class, with one teacher, and I seem to recall there were about twenty of us.
On my first day, mum and I went up the hill, through the churchyard, and down into the school. I was shown where to hang my jacket, and I think I had a school bag, too. The teacher took me to my seat, and my mother, no doubt breathing a sigh of relief, disappeared. I thought it was all very enjoyable. After about half an hour, and while the teacher was distracted, I was quite happy but decided that was enough for the day. I left the classroom, grabbed my jacket and bag, and went home! Sadly, when I arrived at our house, mum wasn’t there, but I wasn’t worried. I sat on the front doorstep and waited patiently. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I can still recall she wasn’t too pleased when she found me waiting. I do remember being told that the next day I would stay there until the end of the school day.
I could only attend the village school for a year. A year older, I had to transfer to Northolt Primary School. I don’t remember much about my year there, mainly because I was happy learning to read and doing sums! After another year, I transferred again, and became a pupil at Barantyne, a new primary school and about a mile away from our house. I knew how to get to school, and so set off alone the first morning. I was nearly six years old, and in those days most students, even young ones, walked to school alone. My journey took me up Fort Road; past Pauline Ball’s house (we will return to her soon); along to Court Farm Road, and then down the other side of the hill past Andrew Parson’s house; across the brook (more like a sewer, actually); across Mandeville Road at the pedestrian crossing (even then a major road); up Eastcote Lane and into Islip Manor Park; and finally into the lane up to the school.
That daily walk took me past some important places and people. First, Pauline Ball, who lived just up the road. I liked Pauline, and she was in my class at school (as was Cynthia, Celia, and Jill, another nice girl who lived close to the school and to whose house I often went on my way home, where I was given a drink and a cake!!). Oh, OK, back to Pauline Ball. The real reason I liked Pauline (apart from the fact that she was a girl, and that on the whole I seemed to like girls more than boys) was because she had a television set, with doors that covered over the screen when not in use. So intriguing! We didn’t have a television, and I tried to find any and every reason to call in and watch something (opportunities were few and far between as it happened). The lure of the television was strong. One day, on what basis I cannot remember, I decided to run away from home. I knew exactly what to do. I packed my tiny suitcase with my pajamas and my pet toy, a knitted rabbit, and walked up the road to Pauline Ball’s house. They seemed happy to see me, gave me some dinner, and, having watched television for a while, then said it was time for me to go home. I knew what to do next. I thanked them and went back down to my own house. Mum didn’t say a thing.
Next, Andrew Parsons, nicknamed ‘Parsnips’: a funny boy with a never-ending dribbling nose, constantly being teased at school, but he had a stupendous model railway layout in his house. His father worked for what was then the Great Western Railway, and he had built the layout. I was addicted, fascinated with trains, train spotting, and model railways. Andrew and I became friends, and we both shared an interest in ornithology, too.
At the bottom of Court Farm Road, and just to the right of the brook I jumped over every morning, was the Northolt Library, a squat two-storey building that looked more like a house than anything else. Once enrolled in the library, I received three library tickets, small cardboard holders into which the card for a book could be inserted and held by the library. I was entitled to take out three books a day. It was the beginning of a lifelong love. The routine was simple: every Friday night I would take out three books and spend Saturday lying on my stomach on my bed, head over the edge, reading. Saturday evening back to the library, return those three, and get out three more for Sunday. Monday night return those three and get three more to keep me going until Friday night, and then the cycle repeated. Alright, not every Saturday and Sunday was taken up with reading. There were three competing alternatives. Some days Parsnips and I would go engine spotting, collecting the number of steam engines, and crossing them off in collectors’ books, (and, for a while, we even did the same thing at London Airport, collecting plane registrations). We also went bird watching, and so every so often we spend the day at the reservoirs, close to the airport.
The third distraction was the ‘I Spy’ books. It is hard to explain the impact of the I Spy books on many children like me. I suppose they share some of the characteristics of Pokémon Go!! Each book was a list of items that you had to go and find, and then provide some information that related to what you had ‘spotted’. Each time you completed a book, you sent it in to “Big Chief” and, if you had the correct information, you were sent a feather (a feather in your cap!!) and a certificate of commendation. Some saw it as a group exercise, but I was determinedly an individual. The rewards were recognition, getting you out (out of the house, a feature much loved by many parents) and collecting ( habit I have never lost).
I have been back to Northolt a few times since I moved to Australia, dragging a wife and children along to see ‘the sights’. The result was always the same: almost everything had shrunk. The church, the village school, the primary school, even the walk to school, they were all smaller. That brook by the local library was a pathetic dribble. As for that house in Fort Road, it seemed tiny. Each time I look up at the window of my bedroom, above the front door, I marvel at how small that window had become. The only item that struck me with its size was the old oak tree on the Common: that was huge Tempus fugit, sure. However, no-one had added the equally important phrase res adepto minor [things get smaller]. No, I didn’t remember the Latin, but, for sure, the things of childhood do look smaller when you go back.