You Can't Go Home Again?
"Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don't freeze up." (Thomas Wolfe)
“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood—– back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame—– back home to places in the country, back home to the old farms and system of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—– back home to the escape of time and memory.” Are these sentiments of Thomas Wolfe expressed in his 1940 book “You Can’t Go Home Again” correct? I had them in mind when I visited in the Laindon area for a month during the summer of last year.
I stayed at the Campanile in Pipps Hill. It looked fine from what one could see on the internet site. It was ideally situated and the price was right. That’s where it ended. It was very down market and I would never recommend it. However, the staff were cheerful and I am not picky. Clean sheets and I am happy. The highlight (if that is the word) was one afternoon when two young women checked into the room next to mine. A steady procession of three or four men, about half an hour apart, followed. Noises best left to the imagination made their way through the none too stout wall. I queried the friendly bartender later and was told, with a grin, “in this business you quickly learn not to ask too many questions.” This was the Campanile which, with a sense of humour and accepting it for what it was, became my home for a month.
My old pal Jim Grindle who used to live in “Hillside” Douglas Road spent a few days with me. Jim currently lives in Formby north of Liverpool. A couple of days after we arrived we went to the May 30 2015 Memory Day at the Laindon public library on the corner of New Century Road. As best I could determine, we were sitting at about the location of the bottom step which led up to the entrance to the old Radion. All gone of course. It took a definite effort to place precisely where I was in regard to the old Laindon. I found that to be true during my entire stay. In addition to Jim and myself, were, among others, my cousin Tony (Lincewood Park Drive, married to Jeanne Archibald from somewhere behind the cop shop opposite the Hiawatha, now retired in Chelmsford), my cousin Ron (Wash Road, married to Sheila Larkin, lived on the corner of St Nicholas Lane and Douglas Road, now retired in Rayleigh), Bruce and Hazel Boyman (Hazel an old classmate from Langdon Hills Primary School and Laindon High Road, now retired in Laindon), Ellen English (a cousin of my old friend Alan Burr of Dry Street, Langdon Hills, classmates through Langdon Hills Primary School, Laindon High Road, and Chelmsford Tech) Fred Llewellyn, Andrea Ash, Chris Ash, and Tony Wood. I also met Nina and Colin Humphrey with whom I had communicated frequently but never met. A delightful couple, they were extremely kind to both Jim Grindle and I. We were without a car and they happily transported us around the Laindon area and generally treated us as guests. By the time I left I thought I had made new friends and hoped that some day they might visit my part of the world and give me an opportunity to return their kindness.
A walk along Laindon High Road was a strange experience. The railway station is still there and largely unchanged but Station Approach has disappeared to be replaced by a one way circular approach containing the usual small arcade of shops. Apparently, few people walk to the trains any longer. Thus the presence of large car parks which have sprung up around the station.The Winston Club remains, a testament to the past. It even seems to have acquired a parking lot on the Northumberland Avenue side. The little hump back bridge over the railway remains but an ugly topping of wire on both sides has been put up presumably to discourage stone or brick dropping on the rail or train beneath. Laindon never was a chocolate box village but now the High Road is ugly and tasteless. Drab houses exist on either side. The Laindon Hotel is gone and work on a large construction area of new residences covering that entire area had come to a complete halt.
Once in a while I came upon something virtually unchanged. On the corner of Durham Road is a real estate agent’s office. It had a fresh coat of paint and perhaps a new window but it was the same building, or at least the front part of it, that was Greens Stores many years ago. Continuing on, nothing recognizable, a few street names from the past but not much else. Radion gone. A new library. The cop shop opposite the Hiawatha gone. Sizer the butcher gone. The District Nurses’ cottage remains but the shops from Pelham’s to Weedon’s are gone. Interestingly, the footpath which led beside Pelham’s and was always called Pelham’s Alley is still there. This was probably an ancient footpath or right of way dating back for centuries. These ancient rights of way are notoriously difficult for developers to eliminate. Lo and behold my old house, 2, King Edward Terrace, is still there. The demographics have changed completely. There used to be children of all ages playing on the green which separated the houses from the High Road. Now all is silent. Eerily so it seemed.
The houses along the terrace have all been altered in small ways. Perhaps a gate, or a low brick fence, or the breezeway enclosed. Testament, no doubt to Mrs Thatcher’s sale of rented council houses to the tenants and the tenants making whatever alterations they wished to what was now their property. Oddly a few of the old houses from long ago remain along the High Road opposite the King Edward estate. LHR is gone and construction on the new housing development underway. The Fortune of War gone and the traffic pattern modified. Altogether a rather sad walk. Of course change is the natural pattern of things. What a shame that the movers and shakers (politicians, developers, architects, etc) could not have done a better job envisioning what was possible aesthetically. If they had set out to build an ugly, down market, depressing High Road they could hardly have done a better job.
A walk over the bridge to Langdon Hills reveals quite a different picture. Further up the hill a lot of obviously expensive and attractive appearing housing has been built. The fields and waste land that was much of the Berry Lane area has all been built on and the result is very pleasing. Well kept houses in new areas such as Mulberry Gardens and The Badgers prevail. Many of the old street names remain. Prior to living in 2, King Edward Terrace we lived in Raglan Road which no longer exists but appears to have been incorporated into Mulberry Gardens. A walk up Berry Lane (now Great Berry Lane) with my cousin Tony revealed a few old houses remaining. We stopped on the corner of Shakespeare Avenue and asked a woman (gardening in a bikini no less although we both insist strongly that was not the reason we stopped) if this was the house once occupied by the Cannon family. She agreed it was and that except for the addition on the east side, the house was the same. Both Tony and I remember the Cannon lads, Jim and Ken and their younger sister Pat.
Walking down Vowler Road, I stopped and chatted to a middle aged man who was puttering about in his front garden. It was either Stanley Villa or York Villa. (Possibly where the Lockett family lived.) Both large old houses built by Isaac Levy, I believe. He had lived there many years although he was not a native of the area. I asked him if he was aware that a V2 had fallen at the end of Vowler Road in 1944. He had no idea, He was most interested and questioned me at some length as to what I knew about it. He made the comment that he did not think any of his neighbours had any idea about it. Walking on up the Crown Hill I wondered into the gardens of what is now the Harvester. I was surprised that the dramatic views that I remembered as a child were largely gone. The trees had grown to such an extent that the view was now largely obscured. Across the road the cricket field was no more. I do not know how many years it has been since cricket has been played there. Long enough, obviously, for the field to become completely overgrown with forest.
On a different occasion, Tony and I were invited to Paul Gibson’s house in Great Berry Lane. Paul and Tony are old friends and Paul’s family owned Gibson’s greengrocers in the High Road. Paul’s house is a large newly built house more or less opposite where Ferndale Avenue used to be.
Of the surrounding villages and towns I only visited Billericay, Stock, and Chelmsford (where I attended Chelmsford Tech). Billericay High Street is largely unchanged, just busier so it seemed. The Archer Hall, site of many Saturday night hops is gone. The Rising Sun looks as if it is the setting sun. It appeared to be closed and preparing for demolition. The absence of a parking lot must make it virtually impossible for a pub to operate today. Stock has always been a delightful old village. Four pubs and a church. It remains just as I remember it lo those many years ago. The closest to a chocolate box village in south east Essex. Its unchanging character probably owes a lot to its not having the “blessing” of a railway station. If you need to commute to the city then you need to go to Billericay or Chelmsford or Wickford for Liverpool Street. Or Laindon if you wish to get to Fenchurch Street. Chelmsford is a very pleasant surprise to what it was many years ago. The centre is all pedestrian. The roads re-routed. The park which parallels the river has been expanded markedly and is very well maintained. The city is neat, tidy, and seems to exude an air of up market pride in its surroundings. I saw with sadness that my old school, Mid Essex County Technical College on Market Street, was being demolished. To what end I know not.
Traveling up to Fenchurch Street (a journey I used to make every day) felt strange. Gone are the old compartments where passengers sat across from each other in two rows of six. Now the carriages are open with seats in twos or fours facing all directions. Very open. I was amused to see the majority of passengers tapping furiously into their technological gadgets, oblivious to the outside world. Then I thought that perhaps it was not so different. When I travelled into the city those many years ago, men were buried in their Daily Telegraphs while women knitted with furious abandon both equally oblivious to the outside world. Another difference today was the absence of bowler hats. I suppose fashion has changed even for the staid city gents.
Rebelling in my young day was such a naive and innocent undertaking. Daringly, I once purchased a Daily Worker from the newsstand. Opening it up on the train, alongside all the Daily Telegraphs I made sure the Daily Worker title could be seen. The shock on the faces of the Telegraph readers was worth the tuppence the Daily Worker cost. It was as if they were in the same compartment as a leper. Coughs and throat clearings followed by a universal shuffling along the cushioned seat to leave as much room as possible between them and me. It used to be that between Laindon and Upminster was all open farmland, pleasant to travel, with cattle, haystacks, crops in season before the train reached the urban areas that began in Upminster. I was surprised to see that trees had grown in many of the fields along the line, obscuring the views of the farmlands. Or perhaps the lands were not farmed at all any more. Perhaps they were all forested. I simply could not see.
I had only been in Laindon a few days when Jim Grindle and I joined a group headed by Ken Porter and Nina and Colin Humphrey on a walk that started in the old Recreation Ground at the foot of New Avenue off Berry Lane. Strange, the Rec. was flatter than I remembered it. I thought it sloped uphill a lot more. We followed, with six or eight others who had joined the walk, out of the corner of the Rec. along a footpath, across Berry Lane, on down other trails that I could not find again to some impressive views over the Thames, to the old Dunton plotlands settlement. I must confess I found the model recreation of a plotland bungalow rather unconvincing. I did not live in the Plotlands but there were many similarly extremely modest bungalows in the vicinity. Our bungalow in Raglan Road was one such example. I thought the model was far too grand (relatively speaking). On another occasion, Ken Porter, with Nina and Colin Humphrey took me into St Nicholas to show me around. I think Ken’s title is Warden at St Nicholas. More importantly, Ken had kindly researched where my cousin John Davies was buried and showed me his grave. John was in the BAOR and was killed in an accident while still in training.
I met with Ray Farmer, an old friend from our days of table tennis, tennis, and Saturday night hops. Ray is the son of Syd Farmer who had a lock on the taxi business out of Laindon station. For lunch we went to one of our old haunts, The Prince of Wales in Wash Road. It looked just the same. The few houses across the street appeared to be the same. The open fields in the direction of Great Burstead were unchanged. Inside it was all changed. The Saloon Bar had been eliminated and combined into one large open bar and restaurant area. The barmaid was not a Milly or Susie from Wickford or Basildon but an Olga from Bulgaria! Things had really changed.
One day I went to visit my old primary school, Langdon Hills. I attended there from 1939 to 1945. The same front railings and gates remain. The building looks exactly the same as I remember it. Walking around what used to the playground at the back, I could see the large, free standing lunch room was gone. Alan Burr’s mother worked in the lunch room. The five or six Morrison shelters which had been installed around the perimeter of the playground were gone. We spent considerable time in those shelters. Instead several portable type annexes occupied much of the old playground area. I had already determined that the entrance to the school was locked but, seeing a man come out of one of the annexes, I introduced myself, explained I had been a student there seventy years earlier, and asked if it would be possible to go inside and take a look around. A quick phone call and he took me inside to the same headmaster’s office (a place one never wished to be as a student!) and introduced me to the current Head. It was then I discovered it was no longer a primary school but an establishment for “troubled youth”. That was why the place was so securely locked. The current Head explained that he could not let me wander alone but he would be glad to accompany me. Which he kindly did.
It was exactly the same. Almost. Mr.Taylor’s room, where I received three of the best in front of the entire class (plus a bonus fourth for anticipating by bending my legs a little). I cannot even remember what crime I had committed. The boys cloak room where I was dragged unconscious after running in front of a batsman just as he was attempting a six to leg was just the same. What was worse than the injuries to nose and face was hearing my mother wonder how on earth she was going to get all the blood out of my clothes. The very high ceilings with high windows that opened with long ropes were still there. The central hall, used mainly for hymn singing as I remember looked a lot smaller. Everything looked as if it could use a coat and some TLC but it remained exactly as it was seventy years ago.
A visit to my old haunts in the city proved to be revealing. Of course all signs of bomb damage was gone. That was to be expected. Stepney East seems to have disappeared and Limehouse has taken its place. I suppose if East Horndon can become West Horndon while the earth remains constant on its axis there is no reason why one station cannot disappear and another miraculously take its place. The roads in the city remain unchanged although some of the traffic patterns have changed. Refreshingly, Leadenhall Market remains exactly as I remember it and I enjoyed a beer and lunch in one of its pubs. I cannot make up my mind about some of the new buildings. Aptly called the Gherkin, Can of Ham, Cheesegrater, Salt Cellar, Walkie Talkie, they all tend to make me think the architects must have all been smoking something. Something strong!! But what do I know? I do wonder how history will view them in fifty or a hundred years time. Or will they be torn down by then. Bowler hats seemed to be in short supply although the umbrella seemed to be as ubiquitous as ever.
So is it true, as Thomas Wolfe contends that “You Can’t Go Home Again?” Wolfe seems to argue that once you grow up and have your own life, even if you physically return to your childhood house, you can’t return to that place of innocence and safety— its never “home” as it once was because you are a different person. I think Wolfe is largely correct. However, there is always something that leaps out from the past as unchanged. A pub. A street name. A school. A church. But broadly speaking that past world exists only as an occasional echo. Nonetheless there is one place where that past world of long ago continues on, unchanged, vibrant in its innocence. That place is in the mind. There it will always be alive and real.
Editor:- The houses Stanley Villa and York Villa in Vowler Road were built by the builder Frederick Ager along with others named after his children – Hilda Villa. Norman Villa and Eva Villa. Frederick Ager lived in ‘Ingleside’, Vowler Road.