Hugh Robinson


Although I was born in a nursing home in Tottenham, the first four years of my life were spent in an upstairs flat in Fairholt Road, Stoke Newington.

Memories of those years are inevitably indistinct - walks with my mother to either Clissold Park or Finsbury Park, both possessing a small aviary of pheasants and peacocks and the like, and one or the other some fallow deer, occasional contact with the landlord's daughter, Joyce Strike, a few years older than myself; visits from various relatives, most of whom lived in Tottenham, office friends of my mother, and great Aunt Nance, a pillar of St Columba Haggerston, very high church, and smelling of something that was probably a mixture of incense and mothballs; Miss Benger, the local dressmaker, whose pin-trays I always upset; being taken to the cinema by my mother and a friend, a total disaster as I had to be removed screaming; a visit to my mother's parents in Brecon, involving an endless train journey; a pedal car as a Christmas present in which I sat whilst my long-suffering father pushed me around the block, as I could not reach the pedals; and mysterious outings to places like Pinner, which involved a lot of walking and no interesting shop windows to look in. My parents were contemplating a move out of London. Four years of flat-dwelling in N.17 had proved enough and they had their eyes on owning their own house in what was beginning to be known as 'Metro-land', Pinner, Ruislip, Ickenham, Rickmansworth, where new estates were springing up all over the green fields of Middlesex.

I have no idea why my parents eventually chose Richings Park, 'a model estate' fifteen miles from Paddington and three miles inside Buckinghamshire at its southern extremity. Perhaps my father had seen it advertised in the 'Morning Post' which he read, not from political conviction, as he was a life-long liberal, but because its society columns were required reading for the secretary of a court florist's firm Gerard et cie, in New Bond Street.

Richings Park was in the Parish of Iver, and the hamlet of Thorney, which I was to discover many years later was the site of a Viking encampment in the 9th century. The estate had been owned by the Bathurst family I n the 18th century and their mansion stood in acres of parkland with a home-farm adjacent.

The Estate had been acquired after the Great War by two brothers, Eric and Friend Sykes, who decided to transform some of the farmland outside the Park itself into a model housing estate. It was designed as a triangle. The apex touched the main GWR line from Paddington; on the east and south sides were existing country lanes and the west side was one of the estate roads. The interior of the triangle was to be a sports and recreation ground, which, according to a glossy brochure, was to contain tennis courts, cricket and hockey pitches, and a swimming pool. There was to be between two and three hundred houses. Sixty years after, thanks to Green Belt regulations, the estate retains it original layout, a garden city in miniature.

There was to be two parades of shops, a new railway station, and various other amenities, main drainage, electricity, street lighting, gravel soil etc. There were to be eight of nine different types of houses and bungalows, most on a quarter acre plot, or even larger in the case of the more expensive houses. The price range was about £500 to £1500.

My parents paid preliminary visits, by train to West Drayton, and thence by taxi, as the promised station had not yet been built, to spy out the land, and finally decided on an H type house- three bedroomed with lounge, hall, etc in what was to become Wellesley Avenue. They decided to call the house Woodberry, after the Woodbery Downs in Middlesex, where they had done their courting.

We moved in the summer of 1925. I have no recollection of the move itself. My earliest memories are of skylarks signing above the surrounding cornfields, looking out of a bedroom window at my mother's directions to glimpse the Round Tower of Windsor Castle,just visible on the south west skyline, and the noise of trains. We were only half a mile from the railway, and the noise formed a constant background. The roar of the Cornish Riviera Express, belting along at sixty miles per hour; the interminable chugging and clanking of coal trains at night, fifty or more trucks drawn by a 2-8-0 Consol goods locomotive at under twenty miles an hour, and the constant noise of local trains at half-hourly intervals.

We could hear them leave Langley Station and time their arrival at Iver, almost to the second. I was kept awake by goods trains at night and terrified of expresses by day, especially as they thundered through Iver station as my mother and I waited for a train to Slough, our nearest shopping centre, or at that time the most accessible.

Later on I was to become a dedicated train-spotter and spent hours hanging over the station fence, jotting names and numbers down in a notebook and checking them against a GWR book of engines, Kings, Castles, Halls, Stars, Bulldogs, Moguls, Yonks and the inevitable 61 class 2-6-0 tanks that pulled the local trains.

We were among the first residents of Richings Park and watched the estate growing up around us, the building of houses, the gradual opening of shops; Keats the newsagents and tobacconists; Rees the Chemist; Blackman the Fishmonger; Nealing the Greengrocer; Napper the Cobbler. Some essentials had to come from outside the estate, Axell the Baker from Iver village a mile away; Rumble the Coal Merchant, who earned my mother's undying gratitude by keeping the home fires burning with the odd hundredweight during the General Strike; Smith the Butcher from Yiewsley, Harman the Oilman from Slough, whose opening sales pitch was 'Any soaps, sodas, matches or fire-lighters?' a muffin and crumpet man came around complete with bell and tray balanced on his head. In the summer, the Walls Ice Cream man on his tricycle, who provided the residents with a card bearing a blue W to place in their windows should they require a Snofrute for 1d or a vanilla block for 2d, or go mad with a shilling strawberry and vanilla giant block. At Christmas, the Waits came up from West Drayton and played carols in the streets.

The Richings Park Sports Club gradually got under way and the tennis courts and cricket pitch became realities, but not the swimming pool. There was no village hall, but a hall with stage was added to the local pub, the Tower Arms, which became the venue for the newly forming organisations, the Townswomen's Guild, much posher than the W.I. In Iver Village, a branch of the Women's' League of Health and Beauty, at which the housewives practised a primitive form of aerobics, and an amateur dramatic society, the Richings Players, whose first producer was Bill Mead, our next door neighbour, who persuaded my mother into appearing in bit parts in 'Tilly of Bloomsbury' and 'The Sport of Kings', their first two productions.

There was already a church. It had been built originally as a schoolroom for the children of Thorney by the Meaking family of Thorney House and had risen to be a chapel of ease of St Peter's, Iver, known simply as Thorney Chapel. Later a Congregational church was to be built, but Baptists, Methodists and the like had to go to Iver Village and Roman Catholics to Langley or Slough.

The Vicar of Iver at the time of our arrival was the Revd. Mr Cobb. He began to visit his new parishioners on the estate on his bicycle. I was informed by my mother that the first time that he came to call, I left his tyres down. Soon we had a succession of curates, Mr Webb, Mr Pulford, Mr Thorpe, Mr Crowson, Mr Grey-Newton, who had a paralysed arm and rode a motor tricycle, Mr Mears, and Mr. Hines. For most of them it was a second curacy and they moved onto to preferment in a couple of years.

Thorney Chapel seated about fifty people. There was a full round of Sunday services in the Evangelical tradition, an altar cross but no candles, and the north-end position at the Communion. The music was provided by a harmonium played by Mrs Dennis, window of Archdeacon Dennis of the Niger, who was lost at sea during the Great War. She played the harmonium, trained the choir, run the junior Sunday School and rode everywhere on a tricycle, which she eventually gave to my mother when she herself became to infirm to ride it. She set my feet on the path to ordination, via Sunday School and choir, and when I was accepted for theological college, she passed on to me some of her husband's books, stained with tropical use. She is surely among the saints.

I can remember by first winter in Richings Park, making the acquaintance of snow in bulk as I slipped and slithered, cold and miserable, as we walked around the lanes.

I began to make friends, Paul Mead from next door, Maurice Saunders, whose home was at the end of our garden, Dick and Allan Seal from the end of the avenue. There were some girls too, but they tended to be bossy and interfering, and were best left alone.

The question of my education now had to be considered. There was an elementary school in Iver Village, which my parents, influenced perhaps by the thought of their own school days in Tottenham, decided against. There was Richings Park school, a small preparatory day school run by one Captain Fenn in a large house in Richings Park, but this was judged to not quite the thing.

Finally on a personal recommendation, it was decided that I should attend the Limes School, a small mixed kindergarten in Iver Village run by Miss Bright. At the time of mu admission, rising numbers had prompted a move from a private house in the village to the 'Church Institute', next to the Parish Church. The pupils from Richings Park walked in a crocodile the mile to Iver Village led by Mabel Naesmith, Miss Bright's unqualified assistant whose brother, Humphrey, became my friend and ally. The only uniform as far as boys were concerned was a brown school cap with an LS monogram in a shield. Here, I learned to sit still and listen, to read 'the fat cat sat on the mat', to write slowly and painfully on squared paper, to add and subtract, and to recite tables. All these academic pursuits mitigated by P.T. with dumb-bells, which made a very satisfying clunking noise, a little needlework - I made a kettle holder of which my mother was inordinately proud. We were told bible stories and were read to.

I can remember a book called 'The Changeling' which awoke an interest in nature-study. School was mornings only and we walked back in crocodile for lunch. I enjoyed the Limes, as I was biddable and eager to learn, and my only unpleasant memory was the abominable stench of the toilets in the Church Institute, which were calculated to give a sensitive child permanent constipation. No wonder my mother was always threatening the dreaded syrup of figs.

What of my father during these early years? He left the house at 8.15 each morning to catch the 8.27 to Paddington, and was at his desk in New Bond Street before 9.30am. The upper echelons of Richings Park society, the civil servants and stockbrokers caught the 9.04 am to be at work by 10am. He was usually back in the house before 7.30 pm - a long day. In the week before Christmas, he often used to sleep in the office.

When the Richings Park Residents' Association was formed, Father joined and before long found himself in the office of secretary, which after ten years gained him a presentation electric clock. The Secretary was also the custodian of 'the estate ladder' much in demand from members decorating their houses, pruning their trees, or rescuing errant tennis balls from gutters. The great interest in my father's life was his garden, which began as a quarter acre of former cornfield liberally decorated with brick-bats. Richings Park is in the middle of the Thames Valley gravel beds laid down in the Ice Age, and we were surrounded by gravel workings. By digging down about three feet, every resident could have his own gravel pit, very useful for gravel paths. It made for appalling stony soil which had to be raked and raked before any cultivation was possible. All father's spare time was devoted to getting the garden into shape, with the occasional help of a jobbing gardener for a few hours a week. On an occasional Saturday morning, he would take a wheelbarrow, a good old fashioned wooden one, up to Slade Farm at the end of Old Slade Lane, and there pay Farmer Reeves a couple of bob for a barrow load of manure. I was allowed to ride on the barrow there, but obviously had to walk back. As a change, we would go into the park and come back with a barrow load of leaf mould. Eventually the garden took shape, vegetables at the bottom, some fruit trees, a summer house and a wooden swing. As far as I was concerned, the important feature was the lawn, twenty yards long and proportionately side, just right for cricket, which began to take a greater part of my spare time (and my father's when he could be lured away from the vegetables to bowl to me) Most of the rows I got into concerned broken down plants and footprints on newly sown seedbeds, in pursuit of cricket balls.

Richings Park was beginning to take its final shape by about 1930. The two roads parallel to Wellesley Avenue were completed apart from a small worked-out gravel pit, which flooded and house a colony of newts. The Syke brothers, in an attempt to achieve immortality, named one Syke Ings and the other Syke Cluan. The names were supposed to have an Anglo-Saxon origin, but the residents considered them heuristic and daft and when a spur of Syke Cluan was named Syke Mains, before many months it was referred to as Syke Drains and before long was renamed St James. Two further closes at the end of Old Slade Lane became Poynings and Ridings, and that was that. Vacant plots in the other roads were built on, to the delight of boys who risked their necks exploring half-built houses. A very avant garde house with flat roof and sun trap windows in Wellesley Avenue was promptly named the Gaol, a name still used by the early settlers that remain.

Thorney Chapel was enlarged and provided with vestries, chairs instead of pews, and a small chamber organ. During the summer holidays, a group of theological students would descend on us for a 'campaign', special services, all manner of fun and games on the recreation ground, courtesy of the Sports Club, squashes and magic lantern shows, all of which helped to build up the lift of the Church, especially among the young people.

But other amenities were on the way. The formation of the LPTB led to a bus service to Uxbridge, and wonderful to relate, a cinema, the Plaza was built next to the station. It opened, I think, in 1931 or 1932 with an American version of Peter Pan and ran until 1939 when it became a furniture repository for bombed out or evacuated families. It never re-opened after the war, and was finally demolished to make room for a block of flats. The programmes changed twice a week, with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday. Occasionally a block-buster like King Kong or Lives of a Bengal Lancer ran for a whole week. Prices ran from 9d to 2/3d. There was a Compton organ, played by Doric Hawkswood, our church organist. The Manager, in a dinner jacket, greeted the patrons. There was a café upstairs which also served as a branch of the County Library, staffed by volunteers, and where the Roman Catholic heard mass on Sundays. The Plaza was not as posh as the Adelphi in Slough, let alone the Odeon, Regal or Savoy in Uxbridge, or even the Marlborough in Yiewsley, but it was our cinema and when it closed, all Richings Park grieved. In those years, homework permitting, my knowledge of the cinema was extensive and peculiar. Jack Hulbert, Will Hay, Astaire and Rogers, Deanna Durbin, with whom I fell madly in love at the age of sixteen, and a variety of Tarzans. I was not allowed to see Bela Lugosi as Dracula, to my great disgust, but managed to see Boris Karloff as Frankenstein. On Saturday morning there was a children's' matinee - Buck Jones and Tom Mix, lots of cartoons and an interminable aeronautical cliffhanger called Tail-spin Tommy. More sophisticated tastes saw Bette Davis, Norma Shearer, Charles Boyer and Ronald Coleman and a host of Hollywood luminaries.

The even tenor of my way was interrupted in September 1927 by the birth of sister Kathleen and the arrival at Woodberry of Tommy, an African grey parrot, banished from my father's office for verbal hooliganism. He remained a feature of Richings Park life for the next forty years, as he sat in his cage in the front porch and exchanged the time of day with passers-by. He was greatly coveted by Mme Oda Slobodskaya, the soprano, a formidable Russian lady, who never failed to have a word with Tommy on her way to the station.

In 1929 I changed schools. There was plenty of choice of private schools for parents who didn't fancy Iver Elementary, or the Tonman Mosely School in Slough, with the chance of a scholarship to a grammar school in Slough or Windsor. For the girls, there was Halidon House in Slough or St Bernard's Convent in Langley. For the boys, Tower House in Slough or Windsor House were popular but my parents chose Uxbridge High School, later to become Frays College, where I stayed for the next nine years.

By this time, Richings Park school had changed both premises and headmaster, and was now runn by Mr W O Betts, known as Wob, and his sister. Miss Bright retired and the Limes was sold to Miss Kidwell who renamed the school, Linton House and moved it to Richings Park. My sister became a pupil there before going onto to Slough Girls Grammar School.