This morning my grandson Jacob and I went for a walk. He’s six today and always wants to hear stories about when I was little. Like my other grandchildren, Jacob has a morbid fascination in my many childhood mishaps, never tiring of their retelling.
‘Don’t start until we get there,’ he says, as we walk along Croft Road, but it’s hard not to, especially when we get to the top of School Lane.
‘This is where I went to school when I was your age,’ I say.
‘Six?’ he says.
I nod, showing him the sign:
“This lane is used daily by 250 small school children.”
‘Where’s the school?’ he asks.
‘It’s gone. They pulled it down to build houses. The children go to Herne School now – a bit further down the road. Your great grandad built it.’
We walk down School Lane and join Queens Road at the bottom, then turn right, and next left and we are in Huntingdon Road. It all seems changed. There are so many cul-de-sacs with new houses. It’s not until we get to Huntingdon Road, that I feel on familiar ground.
Beaumont, I Huntingdon Road. I’m surprised to find it is still called Beaumont House, as I’m sure mum and dad took the name with them to our next house in London Road. It doesn’t look so very changed, just a little smaller as all childhood places, when revisited, appear to be. I show Jacob the wall where I sat with Trudy Fisher eating what looked like pea pods, until my mum called out: ‘You’re not eating those laburnum pods are you? Because if you do, you’ll die.’ Trudy and I, way too scared to confess, spent a terrifying night in our respective beds, just waiting to die.
We walk along to Trudy’s house. I think it was number 5 – but it could equally have been 4 or 6. There was an alley down the side to her rear garden where she had an outside toilet. We had an inside toilet in our bathroom, and we didn’t use our outside one any more. Trudy’s seemed so much more exciting. We’d go in together, chatting while we did our business… Trudy didn’t have much of a garden, a tiny pocket handkerchief bit out front between the road and her front door, then a scrappy bit of back yard. I remember her dad seeding a small patch once; we weren’t allowed on it for ages. Sometimes Trudy came and played at mine. We had a huge garden as our house was a corner plot. In addition, adjoining the garden, we had a plot big enough for another house which dad used for his building stuff; a bungalow has been built there now. When we did play at Trudy’s, we played indoors. Her big brother used to pull the sofa and chairs forward to make us a tunnel running along by the front window. We’d crawl through, while he terrorised us with threats of spiders or cold wet flannels. Sometimes Trudy and I fell out, and then Trudy would be friends with someone else. I can’t remember the friends name, but she and Trudy would write notes on paper, like ‘YOU STINK’ and hold them up to the window for me to see when I walked passed. Much as kids do nowadays, reading unpleasant messages on social media, I’d emotionally self-harm by continually walking up and down outside to see what they were saying about me.
Jacob and I walk down Figg Lane. ‘We used to call it the bumpy lane,’ I tell him. Not much has changed, still bumpy but seems wider than it used to be. I think they must have cleared the sides and built the new houses further back. It used to be quite muddy with lots of puddles, and stinging nettles growing up either side. Once I got pushed in (or fell) and was covered with a bumpy rash all over my legs and arms.
At the bottom of Figg Lane, Jacob and I turn left and cross the road. This area, now allotments, is where we’d come and play. There didn’t seem to be any problem letting your kids play out of your sight back then. It used to be a wilderness, rough and overgrown. We’d build camps and make bows and arrows out of tall bamboo-like plants with hollow stems. The ground’s quite boggy, perhaps they favoured boggy soil? Adjoining the allotments is Crowborough Crematorium. I find it hard to believe we played so close to the graves and yet I don’t remember any talk of ghosts. Jacob and I stroll around, checking out how old the gravestones are. Many date back to the 1920’s or earlier. We find a grave for two brothers – Eric who died in 1931 aged six months and Raymond who died in 1939 aged 2 years and 4 months. Jacob and I are intrigued by a grave with lots of ribbons tied to a tree – Joseph Harvey Knight, Master of Fordcombe, and further over, the grave of an old lady, her faithful dog guarding her. While we watch, a crow flies down, tormenting the poor dog, but the little dog, loyal to his mistress, doesn’t leave his post.
‘Do you think her dog is buried here?’ asks Jacob.
‘I don’t know,’ I say.
Over the road, I show Jacob where Margaret lived. Margaret was my friend. She was a big girl – late teens or early twenties, but somehow also around my age. I’m not sure if Margaret had any other friends, but my mum would bring me to play with her – she liked my dolls.
We walk back up the bumpy lane and I show Jacob the house that was once Mr Diamond’s shop. I tell him about the day I came home from school and my mum said: ‘You need to go over and see Mr Diamond.’ When I got there, Mr Diamond told me I had won the raffle prize displayed in the shop window; a huge box of chocolates, almost as big as me. The chocolates didn’t last that long (we had a big family) but I kept the pretty picture box for years.
Past Mr Diamonds and we continue back up to school. On the way I realise why everything felt odd on the way down, we’d gone the wrong way. We need to cross Queens Road and walk a few yards up Gladstone Road, before turning left on South Street and coming out further up School Lane. This route is much more familiar. I point out the remains of the old school wall, and the gap in the fence where we used to cross School Lane to take our lessons in the prefabs with lovely Mr Hendry.
On the way back to town, I show Jacob where I used to walk along the top of the grass verges and, despite the trail now being almost non-existent, he follows in my footsteps, but he’s lagging behind.
It’s not until we get to the charity shop, where I pop into get a jigsaw puzzle for my mother-in-law, that Jacob reappears. This morning I posted a happy birthday message to Jacob on Facebook with the words: ‘Every Summer I gather pebbles and seashells for your sandcastles.’ Here’s the jigsaw he left for me to find: