Archive for Childhood

Behind the Wall

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on October 26, 2008 by telescoper

This photograph was taken in front of the little house in Benwell Village that I grew up in during the sixties. I’m on the left and my older brother Jeffrey is on the right. I don’t know when it was taken, but I was obviously just a young ‘un and it may actually have been before I started school. The house, as you can see, was quite small – basically two rooms on either side of each floor (each with one window) and with a kitchen at the back of the ground floor and a small bathroom upstairs. There was a similar house next door (of which you can see a part) and together these two were called “The Cottages”.

I wasn’t actually born in Benwell, which lies to the West of Newcastle upon Tyne, but in Walker which is to the East. However, we moved there when I was very young and all my earliest memories are from Benwell. Its name, incidentally, is derived from Hadrian’s Wall which ran from Wallsend (near to Walker) through the area covered by the modern city (which is built on the site where there has been a large town since mediaeval times), and west towards Carlisle. The whole area is littered with ruined forts, temples and mile stations and occasional pieces of the wall itself can be found between peoples’ gardens or next to modern roads; good examples include the fort at Condercum and the nearby temple which was right next to the wall itself. Benwell lies just to the south of the wall, hence its name which is a corruption of “Bynnewalle” meaning “behind the wall” and the oldest historical record of Benwell is from the 11th century, before the Norman conquest.

Our house was a strange place to grow up in primarily because of its location. Immediately behind The Cottages was Pendower School (Infants and Juniors) which I attended between the ages of 5 and 11. My trip to School in those days was about twenty yards, which made it quite difficult to think of excuses for being late. The other kids entered through the official gates on Pendower Way to the North or from Benwell Village itself to the West; I just had to turn left at the end of the garden and walk around the Cottages and I was there in the playground.

Pendower School was an austere, rather ugly,  building of Dickensian aspect but it was very well run by the Headmaster, Mr Brown, and had several very good teachers. I particularly remember Mrs Locke, Miss Stobbs and Mr Martin; the latter was a dapper fellow with a military moustache who was particularly good at drawing and painting as well as being hot on mental arithmetic, which we did every morning in class between 9 and 9.30 during my last year at Junior School. You know the sort of thing: “If it takes ten men three hours to fill a swimming pool with water using two buckets each, how long would it take two men each with one bucket?” This was Britain pre-decimalisation too, so we had to do mental arithmetic not only with pounds shillings and pence but also hundredweights, stones, pounds and ounces, gallons quarts and pints, rods poles and perches. Those were the days. Mr Brown the Headmaster didn’t take any classes but he insisted that we all did music and at assembly and during lunch he frequently played us classical music from an old gramophone. He particularly liked Purcell.

The School I attended (which had both boys and girls in it) shared its building with a school for older girls, but they were strictly separated from the youngsters, both inside and in the playground. There mustn’t have been enough space for the girls’ school so there were some outbuildings in the form of wooden huts at the edge of the playground, just to the right of The Cottages (from the viewpoint of the photograph). These were evidently for art lessons. I never went inside and was too small to look in through the windows, but they didn’t have very good drains and often the ground outside them was covered with brightly coloured mud resulting from botched attempts to dispose of paint that had ended up blocking up the pipes. The road our bikes are on in the picture was a sort of access road to allow deliveries to be made to these huts, but there were big metal gates (to the left) that were usually locked preventing access most of the time making this bit of road a good place to learn how to ride a bike, although I still hadn’t graduated from a tricycle when this picture was taken, for reasons that will become obvious later.

In front of The Cottages (i.e. behind the photographer’s position in the first picture) was a small wood called “The Spinney” which was enclosed on all sides by walls. In the slightly older picture to the right, which was taken from the garden looking south, you can see a little of the wood and some sheds that were later removed when the road was widened. This one was taken on my birthday, I think, but I don’t know which year it was.

Originally the two cottages were intended to house people who worked in a grand house at the south end of the Spinney which had been destroyed by fire some time before we moved in. The ruins of the house were still there for some time and they were the source of considerable fascination for me until eventually the council demolished what was left, carted the debris away and landscaped it over. That’s probably just as well as it was undoubtedly a dangerous place for a small child to be wandering about on his own.

The Spinney was probably about 100 yards square. The Cottages were in the northwest corner facing south, with Pendower School forming the rest of the northern edge, Benwell Lane to the south, where the entrance to the big house used to be, and Ferguson’s Lane as it passed through Benwell Village (past Block’s garage and the Hawthorn Inn) to the west. To the east was the former residence of the Bishop of Newcastle, another grand house called Benwell Towers, which, when I lived in Benwell, was being used a base for the Mine Rescue Unit, a specialist emergency service for the many coal mines that still operated in the area. Just a few years later all the mines were finished and Benwell Towers was flogged off to become a tacky nightclub. Since the house was supposed to have been haunted, the nightclub took the name of the ghost: The Silver Lady. This was all after we had moved away from the area.

So you will see that I lived in an unusual place when I was little: on the edge of the School playground, with my own private wood to play in, and with a haunted house only about 100 yards away!

On the far left of the original picture, which was taken facing north, you can see that there was a high wall running down the western side of the garden of our house. This carried on down the side of the house to the back where it formed the wall surrounding our back yard. There was both a door and a coalhole the size of a window in this wall, the one leading into the yard and the other to allow coal to be delivered directly from the street outside (Ferguson’s Lane) into the coalhouse, the place where it was stored. Coal provided the only heating in the house, including the hot water which was heated by a boiler behind the fires downstairs. There was no heating in the bedrooms at all and during the winter it was quite normal for there to be ice on the inside of our bedroom windows.

The backyard was also where our toilet was situated. Outside toilets (“netties”) are definitely a thing of the past but they weren’t at all unusual when and where I lived. There were only two problems with ours. One that there was no electric light so if you had to go at night it was necessary to take a paraffin lamp. The smell of paraffin always brings a memory of that back to me. I often think that if Marcel Proust had my background, A La Recherche de Temps Perdu wouldn’t have been full of that boring stuff about cakes. The other problem was the rats which frequented the area. The toilet door didn’t go all the way to the ground; there was a gap of an inch or so through which rats would sometimes poke their noses while you were on the bog, presumably attracted by the light. We kept a shovel in the loo to fetch down on the intruding rodents if they appeared. I never hit one, although I tried quite a few times. With the prospect of a rat appearing at any minute you didn’t hang around to do your business and were unlikely to need a laxative.

We had few of the comforts that people take for granted these days but my family wasn’t any worse off than any of those whose kids went to the same school as me. We always had enough food (as you can tell from the photograph), so we never thought of ourselves as being particularly poor. But it is true to say that our living conditions were pretty basic. We didn’t own the house, which I think was owned by the City Council (who also owned the Spinney), but our rent was very cheap because of the state it was in.

I go back to Newcastle from time to time, usually at Christmas. During one such visit I had the opportunity to pass through Benwell and look at where I used to live. Benwell is a grim place these days, devastated by crime and social disorder, which is depressing because I have such happy memories of the place. Even more traumatically, from a personal point of view, I realised that The Cottages, The Spinney and even Pendower School have all completely vanished.

The buildings were demolished and the little bit of woodland I used to play in ploughed up to make way for a new housing estate. The only thing that remains is a small piece of our wall, where the coalhole used to be, and behind which, forty years ago, a small boy sat, shovel in hand, hoping the rats would stay away.