Walthamstow – A brief return visit

Hoe Street

Compliements of Google Maps

Each December my wife and I make the journey from Somerset to North-East London where I used to live. Our destination is Chingford Mount Cemetery to tend my mothers grave but often on our return journey we travel to an excellent Chinese supermarket called See Woo just south of the Blackwall Tunnel to top up on necessary supplies. Our journey is a distance of some 360 miles for the round trip travelling around both the northern and southern stretches of the M25 motorway. Although this distance is more than enough for anyone to drive in one day, fortunately the majority of the journey is via motorways or good standard dual-carriageway which helps make the journey more tolerable.

For a change we decided to vary our route a little from Chingford Mount to Woolwich to allow a brief visit down memory lane. Our little diversion was a straight line to the Crooked Billet, Chingford Road, Hoe Street and Leyton High Road to Leyton Town Hall before re-joining the East Cross route to Blackwall Tunnel.

Being a considerable number of years since we travelled this route, we fully anticipated seeing changes from what we used to know.

Apart from the road layout at the Crooked Billet, what was more noticeable was the standard of drivers or more accurately the lack of it. Now living in an area unused to traffic problems, it does seem that drivers in London seem to adopt a far more aggressive driving style performing the most discourteous of manoeuvres simply to gain a meaningless extra inch of advantage in a queue. I sometimes wonder if what some of these people undertaking what they might consider a “good days” driving would ever realise that a short time earlier and also later that day, I would be driving for some hours on end at a speed off at least 70mph and not crawling they way they are used to? I suppose it’s all a matter of perception. I also cannot help but wonder if some rude drivers ever realised I used to drive emergency vehicles and did, ( and still could), perform some driving manoeuvres they could only dream about.

In the main, the part of our journey from the Crooked Billet to the Bell junction at Forest Road did look more or less as I recall it. The old bus garage which was originally a tram depot had however undergone some transformation. The large garage with it’s rows of London Transport red buses were now replaced with housing and the former offices also appeared to have been converted to housing. It did however all appear to have been tastefully done.

Familiar shops in Hoe Street have certainly changed but given the nature of the retail industry, shop types and facades will always be in a constant state of flux. One of my favourite shops which was double fronted and sold items of electronic equipment had also unfortunately gone. I did note a complete new range of buildings from Browns Road to that well known haunt of the Rose and Crown public house. It was good to see this place was at least still flourishing.

Rounding the bend in Hoe Street by the old Granada cinema did however take me completely by surprise. As the vista towards Hoe Street Station came into view, staring me in the face was the uncompleted concrete profile of what appears to be a high rise block of flats or offices in creation, thrusting upwards above the rooftops. My once so familiar skyline  now completely dominated by what I consider a hideous blot on the landscape. When driving it is not possible to completely absorb everything one sees as concentration on the road and traffic clearly take first priority. It did seem as we drove past this building site that this construction was actually sitting atop of the railway bridge but I could be mistaken about that. When one no longer lives in an area it’s always wise to avoid disparaging remarks out of respects for those that still live there. I cannot help however but think that this construction however high it may finally be will visually do little for the future of Walthamstow.

Although it was sad to see the Granada still boarded up, at least the horrible fly posters that always seem to adorn empty buildings have been removed, for now anyway. I was also surprised to see the large open piazza area at the top of the High Street. The last time I saw Google maps this area was all behind hoardings which I fully expected to see. I know there has been much local controversy about this site but it certainly looks much improved at the moment. However as the site is so large and so empty  save for a few seats and flower tubs around the perimeter, I have the feeling this might only be a temporary arrangement. All of this does however is beg the question of why was the prosperous and modern arcade that once stood on this site demolished in the first place? It was an arcade well used by thousands and which enhanced both visually and commercially this great shopping area.

Most of the remainder of Hoe Street to the Bakers Arms appeared unchanged but again it was sad to see the public house which gave this area it’s name was now a betting shop. As I was waiting at the traffic lights at the Bakers arms I could not help but notice a wide concrete column with a white globe on top standing on the small island where the public toilets had once been. I cannot help but think if there was one public amenity so much used by everybody as well as sometimes being desperately required, why so many public conveniences have been removed across London. Their removal served no practical purposes and literally have inconvenienced many. I sometimes wonder if the toilets are still there underground with some sort of lid being placed over the entrances?

Leyton Baths which I knew so well have now disappeared and again by Leyton Green, growing overnight like a concrete mushroom appears to be another high rise block being built in Capworth Street. How nice it would have been for planners to have learned high rise building and suburban areas simply do not mix.

It was nice to see the old area again even if briefly, but such visits are always tinged with mixed emotions. Change is always an on-going process, most of what I saw was well done. Why on earth do planners have to spoil what is good with a few developments that quite frankly, appear so damn awful?

School Days

Copyright Keith Foster

One thing I have fortunately been blessed with is a good memory, not necessarily actual dates but I find I easily retain all I read, learn and experience. I only have to either think about a subject or see something that triggers off an ancient memory, to have full and immediate recall of the subject and circumstances behind it. Although everyone says such thoughts are impossible, I can still clearly recall both being both breast-fed and sitting in a babies high chair. Before anyone suggests so, these are not some sort of sexual Freudian thoughts, they are actual memories and very clear ones too.

Although I briefly touched on school life in previous articles, as school days did have such a powerful impact on all of us for the rest of our lives, it seemed worthy of mentioning some of the highlights here.

I arrived in Walthamstow in 1954 having been brought directly from my previous Junior School in Church Road, Leyton. The move was so sudden and unexpected I did not even have time to say goodbye to all my school friends. Remarkably within the last month I managed to trace my best friend from that school but sadly he has a mental block on his school days and does not remember me.

Greenleaf Road Junior School is where I was enrolled the day following my arrival. I think arrangements were made prior to my move to Walthamstow as I appeared to be expected when I arrived there. I recall feeling a little alienated being taken to a class where the teacher and other school children were at that time complete strangers to myself. However children being children it was only took a few days before I had found new friends. I found myself in something of a time warp for my first year at Greenleaf Road. This was not because I was in any way backwards or did not understand subjects, it was simply because they were still teaching everything I had learned a year earlier at Leyton. My teachers seemed impressed with my existing knowledge  and which they still had yet to teach the remainder of their pupils. In the 1950’s each borough, Leyton, Chingford and Walthamstow were independent education authorities in their own right and their teaching curriculum’s did not necessarily flow in tandem with each other.

It was only a few months after my arrival in Walthamstow when out shopping with my mother, I told her I had a pain in the side of my stomach to which she did no more than take me directly to the doctors, shopping bags and all. Although I was unaware of it, my family apparently had a record of appendicitis problems and my mother fortunately knew the symptoms well. Our doctor a gruff but wise man by the name Dr. Belton did not mess around and called an ambulance directly to the surgery. Within the hour I had an emergency operation for a severe case or peritonitis, (ruptured appendix), which kept me in hospital  and confined to bed for six weeks.

Connaught Hospital in Orford Road previously the Old Walthamstow Town Hall is where I was located, I really felt proud when about the second week of my stay I was inundated with dozens of letters and cards on the same day. It would appear that the Headmistress at Greenleaf Road School asked the entire school to write letters to me. Being confined to bed for so long is not easy for a youngster especially as one starts to get better and somewhat fidgety. I recall one day of suddenly being surrounded by an army of nurses during the doctors daily rounds. Even as a child I could sense that something ominous was afoot just by the number of nurses including the ward sister and in the way they positioned themselves around my bed. Before I knew it, four nurses held down each arm and leg as the sister painfully tore a large elasoplast type dressing from the scar on my stomach and then proceeded to cut the stitches off with a pair of scissors. There were a considerable number of stitches as micro-surgery did not exist in those days and I still carry the quite visible scar and stitch marks. My eyes still water at the thought of that day.

The second notable day that I recall during my hospital stay was about a week before I left. Again I was surrounded by several nurses and the ward sister. They told me I had to get out of bed and learn to walk again. This I did not understand as clearly I already knew how to walk, however with the nurses tightly holding each arm as I stood on the floor, my legs simply gave way under me. It is quite remarkable how quickly leg muscles can simply forget walking movements. I felt a little like Douglas Bader as I lurched around the ward trying to drag one leg in front of the other in turn. I was only allowed to exercise for about five minutes but remarkably the next day I found I could walk reasonably normal again but quickly became tired at the effort. Fortunately being a child with the excess of energy one has at that age, I found that my walking was back to normal by the time I left.

I returned to my school the following week to find I had been missed during my long absence and was welcomed by everyone. As normal with schoolchildren there were countless requests to see my scar. With my shirt being pulled out of my trousers top so many times that first day to oblige the scar viewing requests I am certain I must have look like “Just William”.

One of the things I think we all enjoyed at Greenleaf Road was the annual visit by the police road safety unit. This normally occurred during the summer months when it was dry. The entire school would be led into the playground where we would sit in one half. The other half of the playground was converted into a mock street with wooden poles on the ground representing the edges of the pavement.
A black and white striped pedestrian crossing complete with Belisha beacons was also laid out across the dummy road. I like the rest of the boys was agog at the shiny black police car in the playground. It was a Rover with two loudspeakers mounted on the roof. As dated as it would look today, to us boys at that time, it was modern and enthralling, conjuring up thoughts of cops and robbers chases.

Apart from the police in uniform, there were two other members of the team, One was called Safety Sam who would always cross the road in the correct manner. The other was dressed up in a clowns costume and would always make silly mistakes. The police car would make a number of trips along the dummy street with Safety Sam crossing the road observing all the rules of the Highway Code. The climax was when the person dressed in the clowns outfit crossed the road ignoring all the rules only to be apparently knocked down by the speeding police car. Clearly this was very well rehearsed and no one was ever hurt but it did look realistic.

We all knew that one day we would have to sit what was known as the 11 plus exam at our final year in junior school. This was the method that was supposed to determine those pupils bright enough to go to Grammar School and higher education, with the remainder going to a secondary modern school. The simple truth was there were insufficient grammar schools to accommodate large numbers of bright pupils so the system was designed to ensure that great numbers did not pass. Many parents who were wise would ensure prior to the exam, their children studied up on the relevant subjects. I do not recall receiving any special preparatory teaching for the exam at junior school.

I sat my 11 plus exam at the Sir George Monoux Grammar School. This I found  a daunting place to go to. All the teachers wore gowns, something I had never seen before and somehow to myself as a ten-year old, the entire place seemed aloof and snobbish. I did not pass the 11 plus exam, I am reluctant to say I failed as the process was to ensure that only given numbers of pupils filled the limited places at a grammar school. It’s also worth noting that this is the only exam I did not pass in my entire life. As my career progressed I passed all necessary exams and tests. In some ways I am glad I did not pass as Grammar school pupils were required to wear smart uniforms,  which was something well beyond my mothers limited pocket. Although all schools had their own uniform, in keeping with most children at my secondary school, I never once wore one. Duffle coats with wooden peg button and accompanying  duffle bags slung over the shoulder were all the rage at the time and in a way, they made a type of uniform in their own right. Such clothes could be bought cheaply on the market stalls in the High Street.

I expect the inside of a schoolboys pockets are the same everywhere and in some ways not dissimilar to the inside of a ladies handbag on those rare occasions I have been permitted to look into one.  There were bits and pieces for everything, just in case, including scraps of string, a penknife and probably a compass. Some boys proudly sported scout type penknives with the obligatory spike for getting schoolboys out of horses hooves. Every child had a penknife as indeed did most male adults including many females. Thoughts of using a penknife to inflicts a wound on someone else simply did not cross ones mind. They were purely functional items and mainly used for sharpening pencils. How times have changed.

So I entered my secondary school with the grand title of William McGuffie Secondary Modern School but also nicknamed locally as “Scruffy McGuffie”. Like my school mates who also came with me from Greenleaf Road Junior School, we all entered the playground for the first time with a little trepidation not knowing quite what to expect. We knew that the cane was used in this school for punishment and somehow I had advanced visions of school teachers wandering the playground lashing out at any miscreant in sight. There was a number of teachers already waiting in the playground as I entered and to my immediate relief, not a cane in sight. It became clear in reflection that the additional teachers were there to pull new school entrants to one side for induction into the school, as well as protecting newcomers from any school bullies. A number of these did exist like any school but fortunately they were few in number. I do not know if the school had a motto but if it did, I always felt it should be the word “Supersto”  which is Latin for survive.

As one grows into adulthood, there comes a point where an individuals age does not make too much difference to relationships. However to a school child, age is everything, possibly as one has not lived too many of them at that stage. Older schoolchildren in different grades were almost like gods to us in our first year and to schoolchildren, age definitely creates a hen pecking order. I suppose the time one spends at a secondary school is also the period when the most dramatic changes happen to a person. One enters as a child and leaves as an adult albeit a young one. It is a four-year period when puberty sets in, voices break and as a boy, one starts to become attracted to our female school mates more physical attractions than we had previously noticed. After puberty, although we still continue to age and grow, an adult is still recognisable as the same person they were years earlier. However with a child, they undergo a complete transformation in short period of time emerging as completely different and sometimes unrecognisable person to when they first entered school. I sometimes liken it to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly.

I found most teachers at the school were quite good in their subjects, it all depended on the individual pupils willingness and attentiveness to learn.

Each morning used to start with Assembly in the lower hall where a few songs were sung, a prayer recited and the headmaster delivered his mini-lecture of the day. I am not certain if this format still exists due to the more modern cultural and religious diversity of pupils today. All the pupils sat on the floor when the headmaster gave his daily address. He did however used to splutter a bit and anyone sitting at the front beneath him would be aware of the fallout from his spluttering. This was one reason the back of the hall was considered a prime position but like of not, someone had to be at the front. As the headmasters address continued, it was possible to see a semi-circle of floor space appearing in front of him as pupils gradually eased away from him. I also recall one morning as the first hymn of the assembly began, a teacher who played an upright piano in accompaniment to the hymn was continuously hitting wrong notes. In the end the teacher struck a loud chord which stopped everyone in their tracks and stood up as he opened the top of the piano. Reaching down into the bowels of the instrument, the teacher removed three beer bottles, one by one, much to the howls of laughter of us all,  except the headmaster who remained stern-faced. The bottles were clearly left there from the night before by a night school that also used the premises. One thing I always remember seeing annually through the windows of the assembly hall was large numbers of policemen returning to the police station further down the road. However these policemen were all dressed in different period costumes of police dress over the ages. Some even looked like the original Peelers outfits. Where they were coming from, or why is something I never found out.

Although nowadays many children are either driven to school or accompanied by an adult, it was normal practice for children to walk to school on their own. The shortest route for myself was along Hoe Street although other longer routes were available. Some of the shops or premises stick in my mind on my Hoe Street walk. Adjacent to the Granada cinema was the entrance to Hatherley Mews which was under an archway formed by homes above the shops. This really was a Mews at the time in the real sense of the word. Shire horses were still stabled in the Mews and used by the Holdstock Bakeries to pull their carts at a time when bread was still delivered to homes like milk. A few of the old stable buildings were converted into small garage workshops, but it was the horses I liked to watch. Their keeper would allow me to feed them a few sugar lumps if I remembered to bring some. If you forgot the sugar lumps, the horses would soon let you know as they learned to recognise individuals and they never forgot they were due for a sugary reward. George White undertakers was another premise I remember. As you passed the premises it was possible to see skilled carpenters making new coffins which they did in the front of the premise. Coffins were still made out of solid wood at that time and the carpenters used to take pride in their work planing and finishing their latest creation. It’s a pity in a way their pride and joy would only be publicly seen for a short time before it was buried forever.

Just before the Granada complex was the school uniform supplier named Henry Taylor which had quite a large shop frontage. Google maps show this site is now occupied by a HSBC bank but the original building is now demolished. The uniforms of several schools were display on dressed dummies in the window including my own. Each uniform was in pristine condition without a mark on it. It seemed strange each day seeing the uniform that I was never destined to wear due to its cost. Sometimes I would travel via Erskine Road to my school and go to a news agent/sweet shop located in the buildings directly opposite Melville Road. There also used to be a public house on the corner of Gainsford Road but all appear to have been converted to housing. The sweet shop sold two of my favourite sweets which were also cheap to buy. One was called flying saucers designed to look like an alien spaceship and which contained sherbet on the inside. The other sweet was sticks of what was known as Spanish Wood, the like of which I have not seen for many a year. These were long twigs of real wood which released a delicious liquorice flavour when sucked. The flavour would last for hours and even when the wood was finally reduced to shreds the flavour still permeated the remains.

Everyone was required to go to school sports once a week whatever the weather. It was a journey undertaken in an old double-decker bus. The sports field was located on the North Circular Road and the map shows part of the sports field still exists next to what is now a Sainsburys supermarket. The grim small concrete building that was an excuse for the changing rooms is however gone. I must say that building is one little piece of history that will not be missed. Dressing only in shorts, singlet and plimsolls whatever the sport and weather did little to enthrall the finer sporting instincts in me. Some pupils of more affluent parents wore football boots but the sports teacher could never apparently see the inequality of a football game played by some of the team wearing football boots and the others wearing plimsolls. There simply was no match. The other problem with plimsolls was kicking the football. These were not the lightweight footballs of today, but more the original heavy balls made completely of leather. Anyone kicking such a ball in plimsolls risked at least a stubbed toe if not worse. I remember once heading one of these footballs, this is easy to remember as I never headed another one again. The force was something like a pile driver hitting the top of the head. I could almost swear I came away a few inches shorter. Cross country running took place in the summer except there was no country to run in. We used the streets instead in what was the forerunner of jogging today. Chingford Road – Westward Road and finally back to the North Circular Road. The hot showers in the changing room in reality were at best tepid bordering on the cold side. The shower area was dark and dingy with a peculiar smell of stale air permanently pervading the place. It was not a long shower born out of necessity and everyone was in and out as quickly as possible. I think the North Circular Road outside the changing rooms was the only road in the borough to have no speed limit. The lamp posts displayed the traditional black diagonal line on a white circular disc and the black line was studded with reflecting cats eyes. Today we call it the national speed limit sign but I am not certain if it was the name used in the 1950’s. In those days there was no upper speed limit on unrestricted roads so it would have been legal for a car to drive at 150 mph on that stretch of the North circular Road. Car technology however was not what it is today and most drivers thought they were going fast if they could achieve 50 mph.

I was in my third year at secondary school when homework was introduced, up until that time homework was unknown. When I arrived with my first homework, my mother took one look at it and told me to immediately put it away. It was my mothers point of view, (with which I do not agree), that as she had never done homework as a child, her children were not going to do it either. She firmly believed that school was for learning which finished the moment one walked out of the school gates. My mother even wrote a letter to the headmaster making her views clear than neither I nor my brother and sister should do homework. A few days later I opened the door of our house in response to a knock only for my mouth to drop open as the shape of my headmaster filled the doorway. To me it was as if God was paying a visit to our house. The headmaster debated with my mother for over an hour the benefits of homework but she stood firm and defiant. No homework under any circumstances. The headmaster finally left and myself and my siblings were the only pupils in the entire school excused homework. Even when teachers reprimanded other pupils for not doing their homework on time, never a word was said to any of my family. I am sure there are laws nowadays that would compel parents to ensure children do homework, but all this was in a different era than today.

On the approach to one Christmas the school arranged  an educational cultural afternoon. This was the only time I ever recall being subjected to culture while at school. The dais in the assembly hall was relocated to a different position on which a string quartet and a rather rotund male baritone were positioned. It was the first time I had seen musical instruments live and the singer wore a bow tie and tails. Again except for films starring Fred Astaire or Cary Grant, this was an outfit that most pupils had never seen before. No one quite knew what to expect or even that the baritone was a singer, I think we all assumed that he was an announcer of some kind. The performance commenced and the man suddenly burst out into the song Figaro from the opera The Marriage of Figaro. Within seconds, the entire school burst out into uncontrollable spontaneous laughter. It was not planned it really was spontaneous. In reflection I expect it just appeared so strange and alien to anything that pupils had experienced before and as such was completely comical. The Headmaster however was furious and leapt onto the dais threatening severe punishment to anyone who continued laughing. This in some ways was a hollow threat in the short-term as everyone had great difficulty in stopping laughing. When we finally managed to calm down, the performance restarted. Most of us spent the remainder of the time with our hands clamped over our mouths trying to stop ourselves from further laughter at what we all perceived at the time to be a comedy act. What the string quartet and the baritone singer thought of our school afterwards I never heard. By strange contrast, my musical tastes have mellowed over the years and I have a large collection of classical music. To me it seems so timeless as well as being pleasant on the ear. Heavy Metal music I never understood and I found myself cringing at the sound of it. I am glad it was a relatively short-lived musical era.

My last year at school also saw a school holiday to Interlaken in Switzerland. I think the cost was £30 which was a considerable amount of money at the time. How my mother managed to save that money I shall never know but she clearly scrimped and saved on her low wages in her determination to see me go. The school issued some weeks in advance of the journey a detailed itinerary in the shape of a small booklet produced on the schools Gestetner duplicating machine. This I read over and over again until I literally knew every word and the places we would visit by heart. Travel was by rail all the way there. First to Dover for the ferry and then onto a French sleeper train to Berne where we switched to the Swiss railway system. I was that excited I did not sleep throughout the journey. Both the French and even more so the Swiss trains seemed to glide smoothly over the rails. This was in stark contrast to the side to side buffeting experienced on British Rail. It was also strange to experience the more human side of teachers on the trip, some who were normally quite stern in the classroom. We travelled to many local places and saw many sights. One evening we went to a casino. This however was not to gamble but to see an evening show also held at the same location. More importantly, it was also my first experience of learning first hand of different cultures and their way of life. Ever since that visit I have always learnt how to say Good Morning, Afternoon or Evening as well as Goodbye, Thank You and Please in the language of the country I am visiting. I find it not only impresses people but also commands their respect. Learning a few words of local dialect is simple but can pay great dividends. One dialect I have learned reasonably well over the years is Illongo from the Philippine Visayas region. Sometimes it amuses me when shopping to overhear loud conversations between two Filipino women who are completely unaware I can understand every word they are saying. I did return home from Switzerland with a small cuckoo clock and man/woman weather station as presents for my mother. I still have them today.

I certainly had mixed feelings when I finally left school at the Christmas of 1960, it was like the ending of an era. In many ways I was glad to have left but it also meant the end of my daily association with school friends. I often wonder if the 11 plus exam really made any difference at all? Now that I have retired I know that I had a very successful career. I also know that education did not cease as I walked through the school gates for the last time, it is in fact a lifelong process. Many of my school mates are spread across the four corners of the globe which was seemingly impossible at the time. I too have travelled reasonably widely not only in Europe but to Asia, the Orient and Australia. When I was at school, international travel was only for the rich and a flight to the other side of the world would take days with overnight stops in hotels. But the world shrank, the last vestiges of Empire vanished and attitudes changed, not always for the better. As for my old school William McGuffie, that was sadly demolished to make way for a social housing development. This means I will never have the opportunity for a nostalgic visit  to wander around those not so hallowed halls again.

Walthamstow Memories 2

Granada Cinema, Walthamstow, in 1989

Granada Cinema, Walthamstow, in 1989 - © Copyright John Leeming and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

For a young growing lad, it would be difficult to describe Walthamstow in the 1950/60’s as the cultural or entertainment centre of the world. Apart from a large number of cinemas either located in Walthamstow or the surrounding areas, something of an entertainment vacuum pervaded this large area of outer north-east London. A number of local public houses did sponsor some decent folk music clubs which I was to discover in later life, but until I was legally old enough to go to these venues, a ghostly dearth of silence descended over the area during the evenings. A large neo-gothic building called the Assembly Hall adjacent to the Town Hall frequently hosted dances at weekends but to a schoolboy this cost money which my 3d (three old pence) a week pocket-money did not permit access to.

Travelling to the west-end of London was also a difficult option. Apart from the question of non-existent money for the fare, transport links into London were very poor of an evening. The only two realistic choices were by bus or train. The bus journey would take one via Tottenham, Holloway and so on and would take an eternity to arrive. This journey would also face one with the daunting prospect of returning the same way. After a night on the town, the lengthy return bus journey home could only be described as something of a passion killer.

At this era of time, the Victoria Line did not exist leaving only two other options for travel into central London. Either a long wait at Hoe Street Station for a steam train to arrive belching steam, smoke and fumes all over ones clothes, followed by a journey in a normally unheated carriage into Liverpool Street Station or, another bus ride to Leyton Station to catch the Central Line into London. Whatever the choice, all were a wee bit impracticable one way or another for travel into London during the evening.

It was almost as if unknown strategic planners had decided that the population did not need to travel far in the evening and it was their sacred duty to stop such a mass exodus by all means possible. These same mythological planners also managed to work out ingenious methods of ensuring that all public transport back to Walthamstow ceased before the end of  any of the West End shows. I take my hat off to these unknown planners as the exceeded in their task well.

A few church based youth clubs existed which were useful if one wanted to play a game of badminton, however some of these suffered from the drawback of also requiring church membership to use the facilities. Even the High Street, busy and bustling during the daytime, became something of a ghost town during the evening. The most exciting thing I can remember occurring in the High Street was the opening of a Wimpy Bar in the parade of shops that replaced the old Palace Theatre when it was demolished. It was hardly the sort of place one could hang out with friends all night and I recall the price of a Wimpy hamburger was always exactly 5 shillings, (25 pence in today’s money). These were not the double or triple hamburgers of today with lots of fillings or relishes, these were simple small hamburgers in a bun with a few fried onions and a dash of tomato ketchup if required.

All in all, the youth of Walthamstow were poorly catered for if at all during the 50/60’s. I suppose it was obtaining by first motorcycle in 1961 that enabled me to escape the dreary humdrum and non-existent mundane nightlife of Walthamstow.

Numbers of motorcyclist cafes sprung up on the outskirts of north-east London, the Bee-Hive in Woodford I recall the most, where tales of doing the fabled ton, (100 mph), down the Epping New Road used to abound. Outside conversation in the car park or more precisely, the bike park would often be interrupted by the noise of a fellow motorcyclist screaming past the establishment. This would soon be followed with the smell of Castrol R wafting across the area followed by nods of approval from the motorbike gurus of the day. Castrol R was a more expensive than usual vegetable based engine oil that was supposedly better suited to high revving engines. It certainly had a distinctive smell and to use it in your motorbike was something of a status symbol. Other motorcycle cafes were located at Charlie Brown’s round-a-bout and on the North Circular Road. Charlie Browns was buried years ago under the concrete of the M11 when it was built. This was a brief era which signalled the transition from the age of the Teddy Boy and prior to the advent of scooters and the Mods and Rockers age.

The cinemas in Walthamstow briefly mentioned earlier ranged from what could be best described as the local flea-pit type through to the middling with the Creme de la creme being the Granada in Hoe Street. I always got the impression that I was entering a mid eastern potentates palace when I entered the Granada. Ornate columns and furnishings abounded everywhere and the seating was plush and comfortable. With some other cinemas one could feel the springs in the seat digging into ones behind  after a short time.

My first experiences of the Granada were the Saturday morning pictures for kids. I think the cost was then 3d and it tended to be more of a social service than a profit-making exercise. The programs always had the same format starting with a few cartoons. Cartoons were a rare luxury then and not the voluminous computer animated material which is churned out today. There was always a cowboy film with the likes of Roy Rogers, Tom Mix or Lash Larue. Whatever the story line of the film, the characters were always stereo-cast. The “Baddies” always dressed in mandatory black clothing, had moustaches and hung around in the local saloon which was normally owned by the Chief Baddie. The Goodies on the other hand were always clean-cut, shaven, did not drink and wore light immaculately ironed clothes. The penultimate finale to all the films always ended up with a horseback chase with the Goodies in the form of a posse chasing the Baddies. The chase always started with immortal lines that went something like “Ok Boys, After them.”. As the film shots switched between both the Goodies and Baddies all the children in the audience would either boo or cheer. The hero always seemed to ride off into the sunset which struck me as being rather peculiar. How many of us would wait until morning before embarking on such a journey?

I recall once at the Granada they were screening a film called “Smiley” as their main feature film for the week. It was the story of a young freckle-faced Australian lad who was always getting into mischief and trouble. As I left the cinema one Saturday morning with my younger brother, we were approached by the manager. It turned out the my brother was the splitting image of the main character in the film and they wanted him to assist in a promotion for them. In all fairness the manager did come to our home to seek my mothers approval and at the end of the week, my brother, (Smiley), was presented with a brand new bike on stage. I also recall I never got a ride on it though.

The cinemas that were on the lower end of the scale appeared to suffer similar fates when VHS tapes and video shops led to the decline of this form of entertainment. First they would suffer from falling audiences and become rapidly dilapidated. Introducing adult sex films often followed before their eventual closure.

One such cinema I recall  was located on the corner of Hoe Street and Forest Road opposite the Bell Public House, I believe it may have originally gone under the name of The Empire. Due to the natural sweep of the road at this point, the pavement immediately outside this cinema was wide. Unfortunately this additional pavement area proved to be a bit of a set back to patrons visiting the cinema on a Sunday evening. This was also the spot the local Salvation Army chose to hold their open air service. I can recall on many occasions watching a film only for the soundtrack to be drowned out by what sounded like the massed bands of the Salvation Army playing outside. The noise from tambourines, tubas, trumpets, the big bass drum let alone the vocal accompaniment flooded through the cinema much to the annoyance of the patrons. While I do support the Salvation Army, I do think they could have been a little more circumspect in both their timing and location.

The Empire also had a reputation for introducing something novel during film performances to liven up the atmosphere. Although the intentions were well meant, they were ideas that had a habit of going disastrously wrong. One such occasion  I recall was during the showing of a horror film. The cinema staff had rigged a wire line around the outside aisles and during the showing of the film, a skeleton with a few internal lights  and dangling from the wire suddenly came out of a side door of the stage. I think the intention was for the skeleton to raise a few screams of terror as it made a circuit of the cinema before disappearing back though another door on the opposite side of the stage. Unfortunately the staff had not seen the possibility of local lads in the audience sticking a foot out into the aisle and bringing the entire contraption to a halt. I recall this rather stupid looking skeleton just hanging in the side aisle for the remainder of the performance. More people in the audience died from laughing that from a fit of terror.

The Carlton cinema that was located on the corner of the High Street and the former Colebrook Road also suffered terminal decline before it was transformed into a local supermarket store and then eventually demolished to make way for the new shopping arcade. I always remember the Carlton as a functional cinema rather that one in the luxury bracket. It was clear this cinema was struggling financially when the already meagre staff were further reduced. Towards the end, the manager would sit in the ticket box and sell you your ticket and then run out a side door as you approached the doors of the cinema, tear your ticket in half before directing you to your seat.

Although I have not lived in Walthamstow for over 20 years now, its nice to be able to use advances in technology  like Google Street maps to take a virtual walk around the place. This however can be both a positive and negative experience. Many of the original cinema buildings still exist but unless you have either personal knowledge or are fortunate enough to see old photographs, frequently few external clues remain as to their former existence or glory. I find it sad and hard to believe that the Creme de la creme that was the admirable Granada complex has become little more than a dilapidated billboard for posters.

For some reason whenever I see sad sights like this a verse from a long forgotten song or poem always crosses my mind. “I have walked this way before, I may never walk this way again.”

Walthamstow Memories

 I suppose as the years fly by with the passage of time and the gap between our youth and the present lengthens even further, the sense of nostalgia within most of us grows stronger. A feeling of not necessarily returning to the “Good Old Days” which sometimes were not always that good in reality, but enjoying if we could, a short vacation back to times where we probably felt more comfortable with a society that we understood. For myself, Walthamstow in north-east London is where I spent my youth from the age of seven onwards. There was nothing really remarkable about post-war Walthamstow, in many ways it was probably similar to many other areas of London at the time. To me however, it was home.

We lived close to the High Street and its famous street market. A row of grand Georgian terraced houses lined what everyone called the top end of the market near Hoe Street. These houses abutted the ruined steel skeleton of a building on the Hoe Street junction, probably a shop, that I was told suffered war damage. The other end of the terrace ended with a North Thames Gas Board showroom where we also paid our gas bills. The houses and Gas Board have long since gone to be replaced by a Post Office and shopping arcade which in turn have since been demolished. I always remember accompanying my mother when she went to the gas showroom to pay her bill. The moment one entered the building, a feeling of overpowering hallowed silence that would do a cathedral proud swept over one. Although there were no signs that I can recall with the word silence displayed anywhere, I always had a sense of foreboding that if I made the slightest noise, “I was for it”. The payment section was in a dimly lit sub-basement and my mother would produce her gas bill wide enough to do a broadsheet newspaper proud. The information contained on the bill I never understood, I don’t think anyone else did either. It was always printed in difficult to read faint blue ink which reminded me of hieroglyphics. My mother always found paying the bill a somewhat intimidating process.

The payment till was not your average shop till with pop-up price flags, it was a monstrous leviathan of a machine festooned with  push buttons. The cashier pushed so many of these buttons that she appeared to be typing. The bill was placed on tray on the side of the machine which then burst into life with the whirling and clanking of internal gears rumbling inside. A final dull thud cut part of the bill off  before stamping the word PAID in even fainter ink on the remaining remnant.

For a small boy, going to the street market was something of an adventure, the market stalls seemed to go on forever with crowds of people thronging everywhere. At my age, my head reached about waist height of adults making my event horizon limited through the milling crowds. Walking was not an option, it was more of a leg tiring shuffle all the way. The stall holders were real showmen as they called out or demonstrated their goods and wares, many were such good performers they could easily have appeared in vaudeville. The names of many have faded from my mind over the years, but their antics have not. Many of the traders were Jewish but with deep cockney accents. All of them gave more than good value and received more than their fair share of trade in return. I recall one trader that sold fresh-cut flowers. He would take one bunch at a time from a box with one hand and place them in an ever-growing floral display in the other hand containing at least eight bunches. He would shout out as he did so, “Dares Won, dares two” cockney vernacular for there is one, two etc. When he finished he would call out Who wants these and state some ridiculously low price. If there were no takers, he would make a show of smashing the lot to pieces against the side of his stall. He certainly knew what he was doing as the crowds would rapidly buy these huge bunches of flowers to stop him destroying them.

Another Jewish trader had a flat open stall full of bolts of cloth by the dozen. Crowds of women always hovered around this stall in the same way they seem to congregate around handbag stalls. Making clothes at home was still popular as well as a necessity for some time after the war. The cloth on the stall was good quality and always cheap compared to elsewhere. If a lady wanted say five yards of cloth, the stall holder would unravel the particular bolt and held it on edge between the fingertips of his outstretched arms. He did not bother with rulers or tape measures as he took the distance between his fingertips to be a yard of measurement. Again this trader called out aloud the traditional Dares Won, Dares two, (yards), until he completed the order, then he would go on to shout out, “and there is another one, two, three yards for luck. Judging by the amount of business he did, this trader certainly knew what he was doing.

Possibly the most amazing stunt I ever saw was by two traders who sold china-ware on a bombsite that was situated  in Willow Walk behind shops. These two would sell complete eight piece dinner services including a large meat dish. As one trader called out prices Dutch auction style where the price gets lower each time the trader announced it, his partner would stack the entire dinner service in an intricate butterfly style using the meat dish as a base. When he was ready, the trader would throw the entire dinner service into the air and catch it still stacked in exactly the same way as it fell back down. I never once saw any of the china get broken.

Probably the most fascinating stall for young children was located outside Manzes Eel and Pie shop. Here they sold live eels which slivered around in metal trays on the stall and were graded by price and size. When a customer ordered live eels, the trader would wield an evil-looking knife and chop off the head of the eel on a wooden chopping block. Two deft flicks of the wrist later and the eel was sliced up the belly and gutted before being chopped into sections. What kept us kids agog was the way the sections of eel would still continue to wriggle in unison even though the eel was no longer part of this world. I often wonder were we really such bloodthirsty little tykes or is this just the type of thing that fascinates all kids?

My last favourite shop was an ice cream parlour names Rossi’s. It was such a welcome place to be taken on a hot summers day by our mother and the ice cream was out of this world. The Rossi’s menu included ice cream sodas, banana boats and much more. The supreme item on the menu was a Knickerbockerglory. My mother could never afford to buy one and we used to look enviously at the children of more affluent parents as they relished this utopia of ice cream concoctions.

My mother belonged to a Christmas club run by a butchers in the High Street. Each week she would put a few shillings into the club so that when Christmas came, we could enjoy a chicken for our Christmas dinner. It seems hard to believe now with the abundance of chickens in supermarkets or take away food establishments that we should save up for a chicken instead of a turkey for Christmas. However, for quite a few years after the war, chicken was considered a luxury and there were very few of them to be bought during the year. The price of turkey was prohibitive and I never tasted turkey until I was about 14 years old. Chicken was a once a year only treat. My mother would bring the chicken home a few days before Christmas as it was deeply frozen and needed to thaw. Again this was something of a novelty for us children as no one had fridges at that time let alone freezers. To touch something that was ice-cold and hard was a new experience and when our mother was not watching, we all used to secretly prod it to see if the chicken was thawing out.

One game that all children universally play is the game of tag or “it” as we called it. This is where one child chases another group of children in an attempt to touch them and if they succeed, it is then the turn of the child who was touched to chase the others. After school we used to go to a housing estate named Priory Court. The buildings here were groups of apartment blocks with long internal corridors each with a number of lifts, (elevators), located on each floor. This was in the days prior to the push button age and lifts were still a rarity. The lifts also added an exciting new dimension to the game as not only did we run up and down the corridors as we chased each other but we also used the lifts too. Needless to say the games were short-lived as residents soon came out to complain about the noise we were making. It was then a case of moving on to the next apartment block.

There are so many memories that come flooding back about my childhood in Walthamstow that to add them here would be to make this article too unwieldy. The above however are indelibly etched in my mind.

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