The underbelly of London

The underbelly of London on my Dad’s Vespa in the 1960s

Labour-intensive hustle before gentrification

In the early 1960s, my Dad would “explore” the underbelly of London on his Vespa scooter. He used to do his shameless gatecrashings at the dead of night, because he had an advanced sense of adventure and needed very little sleep.

Those were the times before the tsunami of North Sea oil wealth kicked off the infrastructure upgrade, and eventually led to the gentrification of the war scarred and still quite Dickensian group of villages which characterised large areas of London.

Of an age to share his adventurous spirit, I rode pillion to explore with him the alleyways of the Borough, famous historic Thameside pubs, and places like Clink Street, and Cardinal Cap Alley on Bankside.

Late one evening, on our way to the Docklands, my Dad stops to introduce me to a tall, slim, quiet older man with whom apparently he had long ago struck up a friendship. He was the warden of a group of Elizabethan (Elizabeth the First) almshouses. These were situated just to the east of London Bridge.

This dignified companionable, lanky man, who had never travelled, read and collected travelogues. He had bookshelves full. My Father would send him postcards from one of the sixty or so countries he visited on his travels in his work as a professional international conference interpreter.

I do not know for how many years he had been dropping by to greet and take tea late at night with his friend the guardian of Almshouses. But I do know there were several such ‘odd’, and in my Father’s eyes, highly esteemed friends, dotted about his wider world in several continents.

My memories of these streets and dark, oily, cobbled corners are numerous and precious. These living relics from centuries past, I remember them all in black and white! We always explored at night and much of the street lighting was puny by today’s standards.

The unselfconscious atmosphere of an animated island of activity, lifted from the fogs of deep past, was specially true of parts of the East End, and Whitechapel.

The poorly-lit residential streets round Commercial Road were interspersed with blitzed blocks, which had been cleared and left to go to weeds for twenty or thirty years.

My Father would ride the streets of London between about 2 and 5 in the morning, because he said they were at their quietest then. Not so today!

I carry one image seared into my visual memory. As we passed by one of these bombed sites at about 3 in the morning, I saw a couple huddled close to a small fire made from rubbish. They and we stared at each other as we passed slowly by. We seemed most alien to one another in that dingy place at that godforsaken hour.

My most vivid memories are of the Docklands, east of Tower Bridge on the South Bank. They were still extremely busy streets and filled with men at work, exactly in the manner of the faintly amusing old temporary street sign, which used to read: “Danger Men At Work”!

Cheery coarse language, shouted commands, and whistling. You no longer hear such whistle talk, maybe because the art of the two-fingered shrill whistle has died out of use.

A few years later, I would drive in the dead of night in my first secondhand banger on my own or with a friend to revisit one or two of the most memorable places.

Near Shad Thames was an opening which led to steps down to the Thames. It must have been typical of such access points for ferrymen and river traders all along the commercial stretches of the river.

These steps were marked on large scale street maps and had a name like StJohn’s Steps. The magic of this lonely location, which my Father loved and shared with so much pleasure with me, was the extraordinary clear view at water level to the west of Tower Bridge, not far distant.

Tower Bridge fascinated my Dad. He had spotted an iron gate which said “Staff Only No Admittance” on Tower Bridge Approach (north).

To my Dad, and thanks to his boyish enthusiasm and dedicated example, today in my eyes too, any public sign in forbidding capital letters which reads, “Private. Strictly No Entry, Authorised Persons Only” was placed there to be read as “Hey! You! This is your personal invitation. Come right on in!”

One night we parked his Vespa on the pavement, and together, in near darkness (as usual), we opened the gate and descended the external iron steps. At the bottom, he pushed open a door. He greeted the men there and was greeted by them in turn!

They were scummed with coke dust and gleaming with smiles on their glistening faces. These were the Coke Stokers who kept the furnaces of Tower Bridge burning and fired up, for it was necessary there be always a good head of steam to raise and lower Tower Bridge at all hours.

In his usual infuriating way, I was introduced to them as his “Kiddie”. I was no longer in any vaguest sense of the word a Kiddie. But this time I was too thunderstruck at the scenes I was witnessing to feel bothered.

Huge piles of coke lay seemingly randomly all over the place. I think there was a “pin-up” on one wall. As can be seen in today’s spruced up, open-to-the-paying-public “Tower Bridge Exhibition”, there were gigantic spanners, resting heavy on brackets attached to the stone wall. It would take at least two of these burley stockers to manhandle one spanner.

It saddens me that the modern custodians of such museums of old industrial sites fail to exhibit at least a few square yards of the muck and grime which were the common, ordinary and accepted working environments in the days before Health & Safety necessarily came along to sanitise the world of work.

The men kindly introduced me to their two black cats. They had names, but I unfortunately cannot remember them. They may have been the original “Black Cats In A Coal Cellar”!

In London in the early 1960s, the air was routinely thick with car exhaust, frequently dark blue or sooty black in colour. There were no politically correct clean zones, no face masks, no ear defenders.

Dustcarts would spew clouds of chokingly rank fumes and dust as the men upended their heavy galvanised iron dustbins. In the day,

Pneumatic drills smashed up the tarmac with merry clang at extreme decibels.

Nightwatchmen would ‘live’ in small red and white striped canvas tents by major roadworks, brewing tea in winter on braziers full of glowing coke, or flaming pieces of bituminised wooden road blocks.

As a young schoolboy, I would walk extra slowly past the road workers and their tarmac spreaders. I loved to inhale the sweet sickly smell of the fumes rising from the hissy cylinder gas-fired cauldrons of molten tar macadam.

The surfaces of London’s architecture benefitted from centuries of ingrained black grime from the coal fires of the Industrial Revolution by way of wartime bombed site fires and the general devastation of large-scale neglect.

In this context, I was only surprised at the unclean and inhospitable working conditions of the two Tower Bridge cats. All my worries were allayed when the men told me they fed exclusively on rats.

A few weeks later, with my first car, a very old but serviceable black Austin A40 – a gift from a motor-minded class mate just after leaving secondary school – I repeated the experience.

On this occasion, I took my girlfriend Jane past the forbidding sign and down into the dimly lit private world of the Tower Bridge coke stokers.
We were both aroused, as I often take great pleasure in clearly recalling, by the slow, steamy, well-oiled motions of the supersized Tower Bridge engine room pistons!

My heart did beat with the same exquisite archeologist’s excitement

A paste diamanté broach, abalone, a big and a small Southbourne beach shell, a Guy Fawkes nite rocket cone, an aluminum (sic) cocktail stick, a fractured quartz crystal, a Psion Organiser motherboard, and all these are supporting cast to a precious shard of circa Victorian china with partial inscription.
62 years ago, two friends used to delve into a Victorian rubbish heap. This communal midden was only about two yards long by one yard wide. I never revisited it again. But I still keep its precise location in my head.
We discovered it on a field edge just over the hedge from a freshwater spring beside a farm labourer’s thatched cottage vegetable garden. This freshwater spring served the households in two cottages across from my parents cottage. It was one of six or seven thatched cottages which are shown on the map in the Domesday Book completed in 1086AD.
It is in a hamlet whose signposted name “Sedrup” is suffixed by the intriguing word “Only”. It is at the end of a winding single track lane, marked as a No Through Road where it branches off the A-road at a historic coaching inn.
The Lane, as we affectionately referred to it, is this No Through Road. It was where a flock of sheep were driven the half mile from the farm at the top to the grazing pasture of the lower farm. It used to be bordered by bountiful hazel bushes that filled the cottage wives’ wicker baskets in the autumn. It ends at a large, roughly oval open green, with the thatched dwellings scattered around it.
That green space, removed from traffic, much munched by comfortably bulky milking cows, used to be Commonland. The cottagers had the right to graze their donkey, horse or goats on it. We’d been told a donkey used to live in the barn portion of our own cottage. I remember the beaten earth floor and the faint smell of hay. In the early 1950’s my parents converted it into living space. The architect for the plans was my father’s brother, an FRIBA.
In the 1960’s, the farmer put up a barbed wire fence. The cows were thus prevented from accidentally wandering into the garden, an occasion for high drama. And the small boys and girls of this sleepy hamlet found they were cut off from the delights of insect-filled flowering grasses.
My Father petitioned and lost a well-argued claim to have this ancient Right Of Commons preserved. I still have the judgement document. It disappointed him greatly.
There is no vehicular way beyond the small collection of cottages. But a long straight Bridle path bordered by arable lands leads away towards views of the distant Chiltern Hills.
Fantastic adventures on this path! Discovery of sun-smelted cornfields, and mad March hares, incredible coloured butterflies, wonderful complicated hedge tangles, and cornflowers, crickets, small limestone fossils. My own voice and I, chatting to one another, and singing songs out loud, as loud as I pleased, singing out loud to the four winds!
In one of the thatches, with yardthick mud and wattle walls, I spent some of my earliest and most formative years. There was no electricity, no gas, and no running water. We drew water up in galvanised buckets from our garden well. My parents bought the pair of cottages in 1936.
Electricity arrived in early 1960. Mains gas and running water had still not been laid when I came to sell the cottages in 1982 in the year of my Father’s death.
My older pal, next door neighbour Graham, and I would search by hand for pretty pieces of broken crockery in the Victorian midden. Among these we found many fragments of blue Willow Pattern, a few mysterious mauve pieces whose colour deeply moved my boyish mind.

We unearthed broken stems of old white clay tobacco pipes, and decorative opaline glass shards.

But what we were both concentrated on unearthing was Gold! A very few broken plates, cups and saucers bore gold leaf trim. These and the other windfall were our currency and our Treasure Trove.
The name my ‘Splendid’ Graham friend and I gave to this old midden was “The Gold Field”.
We boxed our finds. We kept them close. I came across my hoard recently in an old SMA baby milk powder tin. It had remained close through at least six home relocations over six decades.
Until the day of Heike Jenkin’s art workshop “Recreating Reality” on December 10th 2016, in Southbourne-on-Sea, I had not set eyes on the inscribed fragment (pictured) for 62 years.
As I glued it in place on my canvas, my heart did beat with the same exquisite archeologist’s excitement of that young boy so very many brilliant summers gone by
~ Love is present EveryNow

*The rest is history*

* The rest is history *
I just saw Mr. Peter Kornfeld, aka “Korny”, in my old school magazine. I had not set eyes on the image of this redoutable man for over half a hundred years. Korny was my Latin master and Fourth Form master in 1959, the year I arrived at boarding school.
At the end of that year, Korny took me into his Latin classroom. The one at the bottom left of the quadrangle block, with the giant immovable Wellingtonia outside, sometimes targeted for knife throwing. Mr. Tipping’s Physics lab was next room up. The massive and tuneless Break Bell was rung vigorously by hand just outside.
Suddenly, awkwardly, I and he were all alone. With unusual delicacy he began to break his bad news.
It had been noted that my early rapid academic progress and promise (I had arrived freshly “crammed” from a Chelsea Prep School) had stuttered, stopped and gone into reverse. Of course I knew all this. After all, my Preparatory school was boys only. They had not prep’d me for girls.
In grave and alarmingly uncharacteristic kindly tones, he explained that I would have to do the whole year again. It meant covering the same ground, and my group, my friends, would go on up to Group Five and higher things without me.
I could see I needed to help Korny out in his difficult mission.
I summoned up a superhuman degree of self-control over my facial expression and I stamped down hard on my body language.
Korny was descended from illustrious Roman gladiators. They ate lion for breakfast. His was not a shoulder to cry on.
Korny was relieved. I walked out into the fresh air and allowed my tense face to relax.
I was frankly overjoyed. Who was it in Group Three, who would now be in my Group Four? Why, it was the amazing Christine !