Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta’s and Pardon’s
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt’s edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep alive our lost Elysium – rural Middlesex again.
Well cut Windsmoor flapping lightly,
Jacqmar scarf of mauve and green
Hiding hair which, Friday nightly,
Delicately drowns in Drene;
Fair Elaine the bobby-soxer,
Fresh-complexioned with Innoxa,
Gains the garden – father’s hobby –
Hangs her Windsmoor in the lobby,
Settles down to sandwich supper and the television screen.
Gentle Brent, I used to know you
Wandering Wembley-wards at will,
Now what change your waters show you
In the meadowlands you fill!
Recollect the elm-trees misty
And the footpaths climbing twisty
Under cedar-shaded palings,
Low laburnum-leaned-on railings,
Out of Northolt on and upward to the heights of Harrow hill.
Parish of enormous hayfields
Perivale stood all alone,
And from Greenford scent of mayfields
Most enticingly was blown
Over market gardens tidy,
Taverns for the bona fide,
Cockney anglers, cockney shooters,
Murray Poshes, Lupin Pooters
Long in Kensal Green and Highgate silent under soot and stone.
John Betjeman was born in Highgate, central London in 1906. London was then a dirty, sprawling city of nearly seven million people. Fogs of polluted, sulpherous air were common, especially in winter and buildings were blackened by smoke from coal fires. London is a city of parks but many people, including young Betjeman perferred to fill their lungs with real country air. As a youth and later a young man, he would travel from Paddington railway station on the Great Western railway to the high-hedged fields, meadows and gently rolling hills of the countryside just west of the city. Here we would spend days walking the footpaths and drinking in the pubs of the surprisingly rural parishes of Northolt, Greenford and Perivale before the rising tide of suburban housing swallowed the meadowlands, hayfields and market gardens in the late 1920’s and ’30’s.
These rural parishes were a mere ten-miles from Marble Arch yet as late as 1925 the road through the centre of Northolt was unmettled with sheep wandered through village centre. The main occupation of the community was to provide London with a ready supply of horse fodder [although by this time the trade was in steep decline] and fresh market-garden vegetables.
There were plenty teashops catering for the passing trade provided by Londoners looking for a day out in the countryside while Sunday School outings brought inner London children to walk in the “scented mayfields”, far away from the soot and grim of Shepherds Bush, Notting Hill and Kensington.
My Grandparents Wesley Hollier Wright and Ada Shelvey were two such children who went on Sunday School outings organised by St. Marks Church in North Kensington. The Great Western Railway delivered them by steam train to Greenford station, where they transferred to a horse-cart for the final leg of the journey.
It was unsurprising then when twenty-five years later, as parents of three small children and living in a small council flat in Oakworth Road, North Kensington they took advantage of the cheap mortgages [25 Pounds down with monthly repayments of 12 Shillings and 9 Pence a week, with a mortgage rate of 2%] available to buy a three-bedroom house on one the new estates sprouting up like mushrooms in the parish of Greenford that held such good memories for them as children. In Middlesex, new estates grew up on land no longer required to grow forage for the capital’s horses and provided housing for half a million people between 1931 and 1938. In the twenty years between 1919 and 1939 the area covered by London increased by an amazing 400%.
There is a family story that on a cold, misty November Sunday in 1933,
my Grandparents took their children by train to see their new house rising up from its foundations. As they stood looking at the barely started construction, a fox scurried out of the swirling mist followed a little while later by the Greenford Hunt halooing and sounding hunting horns. They galloped into view and disappeared into history with a beat of their hooves echoing through the damp ground. Many years later [about 1974], I was sitting in the lounge of the Black Horse pub on Oldfield Lane [by then hemmed in by the Lions Maid ice cream factory on one side of the road and The Wonderloaf bread factory on the other] when I saw three old photographs of men in hunting pink sitting on horseback outside the pub hanging on the wall. The legend said “The Last Greenford Hunt, November 1933”. I grew up in the adjoining west London suburb of Northolt a generation later.
My parents had to cope a similar situation similar to that faced by my Grandparents after the end of the first world war. Housing in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s was difficult to come by. Few houses were being built due to post war stringency and a lack of building materials. My family had been living for several years in a cold, drafty flat in Notting Hill owned by my father’s brother. My mother did not get on with him and wanted to get out.
By 1953, my parents had had enough and decided to buy an affordable house somewhere near my grandparents. They viewed a gloomy looking end-of-terrace property on another misty November day. The street was full of identical suburban houses built in 1936 that disappeared off into the gloom. My mother later told me she had no idea where the nearest shops or school was but they were so fed up with their living conditions, they decided to buy the house anyway. I was born two years later and spent the next nineteen living in Carr Road, Northolt. By then, Metroland was a very different place…