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Our Street

Vic Howard


The houses in the street I grew up in have plate glass windows nowadays, and cars stand nose to tail at the kerb, like elephants in a circus ring; but No.17 is different. They still have the old sliding sash windows and a front door that is original:  with a black iron knocker and stained glass side panels. Their privet hedge is neatly trimmed level with the top of the fence, and even that looks just like ours used to do over 60 years ago.

 I remember how the milkman's horse used to eat that hedge. That was before Dad bought the car, of course: a Morris 8. It had to be a Morris 8 because that was the size of car that would fit in the front garden. It could have been an Austin or even  a Ford, but any ten horsepower model would have been too long for the garden. It meant digging out the hedge, of course. How many spiders were made homeless that day, I wonder? At first, we made the fence into a hurdle and put it back in place behind  the car, just as though it was a sheep in a pen. Parking outside the house was frowned upon then, but there were those who did it anyway. For safety's sake, though, they had to put little oil lamps at each end of the car. Nobody ever thought of stealing  the lamps. I suppose they would be antiques today.

 Each evening, when Dad was due home, I would go out and lay out the chocks. These were small, wedge shaped pieces of wood, which we laid in the kerb to make it easier for the car to be driven up onto the pavement. Some people started to leave their  chocks out all the time, which the road sweeper found annoying, as did the local lads, myself included, who found it difficult to play marbles in the gutter. Has anyone seen a road sweeper recently, or seen boys playing marbles along a gutter? It is somehow  symbolic that those chocks were wedge shaped, since their appearance was the thin end of the wedge of the decline in our street.

The gates came in 1950. The houses had been built in 1935 and the fences and gateposts were showing the strain  of being lifted off and on twice a day. We had three gates: two for the car and one for us. Not that you could open ours when the car gates were open, and quite often the car gates would be left open all day. There had been a time when there were flower  borders in the front garden. Now there were two strips of concrete and an oil patch, a gate that we couldn't use and a gaping hole left because it was too much trouble to shut the gates after driving out the car.

 After a year or two there were hardly enough hedges left in the street to give the milkman's horse his snack so it was just as well that the milkman got rid of the horse and used a van instead. I felt sorry for the milkman because the horse had  known the round and came when he was called; the van didn't and had to be driven. It was about that time that the milkman stopped yodelling as he came to the door on Fridays for his money.

 The baker was less fortunate. He didn't have a horse. He was his own horse, pulling his own cart, which looked like a small handsome cab – you have even seen pictures of one. It was about five or six feet high with two large wheels at the  back and two legs at the front. There were two short shafts that jutted out at the front. The baker stood between these shafts, lifted and walked along pulling the cart behind him; what a wonderful smell there was behind the closed doors of that little  cart. I preferred the baker to the milkman because he didn't leave a pile of manure behind him, which I would have to run out to collect with the coal shovel and bucket. There was great competition for that manure. Most people had roses in their back  gardens and ours were among the best in the street, so I must have been quite a champion manure collector once upon a time.

 Of course the baker wasn't the only one to pull his cart. There was the winkle man too, though he pushed his barrow. Mr Truman came every Sunday and stopped on the corner by the telephone pole. He used to have a call that I can't remember now, but  it had something to do with cockles and winkles and how fresh they were. Not that you could hear clearly what he said.  Dad always liked shrimps with his tea on Sundays so I had to be ready to run out to collect them: I was always running to collect something  or other. The words "Victor! Run and collect me … … …" Still ring in my ears.
"'arf a pint o pink ones, please mister".

There were brown shrimps too but I never did find out what the difference was. I quite liked winkles myself, swimming in a sea of vinegar and pepper, but I found shrimps  too fiddly to shell.  You can perhaps imagine us sitting around a bowl of winkles on a Sunday afternoon with a small plate with vinegar and pepper on it and each of us with a winkle in one hand and a pin in the other. Flip off the hat, winkle out the  winkle with the pin, nip off the horrible tail, swirl in the vinegar and pop it into the mouth. Very complicated, and dangerous too if you were to stick the pin in your lip. There were whelks, cockles and some exotic items on the barrow as well, like  scallops and crab, but we seldom had any of these, except maybe the occasional cockles or whelks. Sometimes Dad would have fresh mussels, but they smelled so badly when they were boiled that mother wouldn't allow it very often. I do remember that very  occasionally we had a crab, which meant bringing out the Christmas nut crackers to break the shells of the legs.

 There was plenty of room to play in the street in those days: marbles, tippet, scooters, tricycles, roller skates and space for all sorts of games. The girls often had a skipping rope that went from pavement to pavement. Several girls would skip  in the middle at the same time. Cars were slow moving and few and far between, and when one was sighted the rope would be lowered like a bridge for it to drive across. Hopscotch squares were a common sight drawn on the pavement.

 By the sixties there were too many cars to be able to drive into the front gardens and you couldn't be sure that somebody wouldn't park outside your house and block your entrance. Nobody bothered with oil lamps then and the road sweeper stopped  coming when he couldn't see the kerb any longer. The lads couldn't play marbles any longer either and tippet was forbidden for fear of breaking a windscreen. I didn't mind because I was grown up by that time and had bought a car myself.  The gates rusted  on their hinges and the concrete slabs sprouted weeds. Nobody bothered to replant. Only a few gardens remained with hedges and flowers, like No. l7.

 It was about then that somebody thought of modernising the house fronts by replacing the two sash windows with one large sheet of plate glass, making the street look like a row of shops with lace curtains. They said it put up the value of the house  when you sold it, and houses did start to sell then; some for as much as £4,000. The old folks who had bought the houses new in 1935 for £400 were dying off and the youngsters, like me, wanted to move. Picture windows it had to be if a high price  was to be secured. Not long ago I saw that these same houses were now selling for several hundred thousand pounds.

 I went back recently. There are plate glass windows in all the houses in our street now. Each house has its own "style" making the street look like an architect’s nightmare. Nobody buys bread or milk at the door and there is hardly room for  a delivery van to move between the two rows of parked cars. The winkle man is as dead as the milkman's horse and the roses are not as big as they used to be.

I wonder who lives at No 17.

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