Brighton resident, Peter Batten, writes about another time, another place…
My Uncle John was a man with a dream. Like the Muscovite who I met once with his own small ‘Dacha’, John dreamed of weekends in the country, where he could escape from the pressures of work and London. But John was a man who could make things happen. He brought his dream to life. Like thousands of Londoners from his generation, born in the 1890s and lucky enough to survive World War 1, he bought his own little plot in Essex, on the way to Southend. This was the 1920s; for some hard-working Londoners the future seemed bright.
How did John’s dream begin? In 1909 his father, one of the last independent farriers in South London, died. John, aged 12, was the eldest of three children from a second marriage. The family suddenly became quite poor. John was very disturbed by the loss of his father and, for a time, was out of control. His mother, thanks to some good advice, enrolled him in the newly formed Boy Scouts. This was the first of several moments of good fortune in his life. He was already a keen footballer (he would carry on playing well into his thirties) and now he could join a band. He played the bugle so well that he was asked to play the Last Post at one of many WW1 funerals and was given the engraved instrument as a memento. But, above all, he went camping! The first site he visited was at Horndon-on-the-Hill, in Essex. He was enthralled. The countryside there was relatively unspoilt and it amazed him. One important fact about his generation is often overlooked: that he was a first generation city-dweller.
John’s father, also John, was born in Huntingdonshire and moved to London in his twenties. Is it silly to think that the pull of centuries of living in the countryside was lurking in John’s genes, waiting to drag him back? John was certainly attracted by the Essex countryside. But at first he had no idea how he could return to it. His next piece of good fortune came through Education. He was selected for a new kind of intermediate school intended for those boys and girls who might not be able to go to Grammar Schools, but whose ability was definitely above average. He progressed to the Borough Polytechnic in Southwark. He had inherited his father’s technical skill. While still quite young, he became a foreman in a factory making tin boxes.
In 1920 he married. Then there was more good fortune. He and his wife, Margaret, lodged with a family called Liffen in Cadbury Road, Bermondsey. Mr Liffen and John were similar souls. They both had a spirit of adventure and they both loved the countryside. Soon they had hatched a plan. They would buy two plots of land in Essex and co-operate to build two simple weekend bungalows. Mr Liffen had a son and brothers who could help; John had a brother who soon showed an equal love of the countryside. (Those genes again?) A team was assembled. First a hut was built and soon two bungalows began to take shape. They even learned how to sink two wells. Later gas was piped in. By the end of the 20s the dream was realised. John called his bungalow Cadbury. Now John began to show how much he shared the feelings of my Muscovite acquaintance. He created a garden with beautiful rose bushes, which was screened by a privet hedge that soon grew quite tall. But his real obsession was growing his own vegetables. I grew up in the 1930s looking forward to his weekly visits to our house, when he would arrive by the season bearing tomatoes, cabbages, beetroots, potatoes, all the major vegetables, and his favourites, shallots! Surely it was those genes?
John’s fulfilment of his dream lasted almost to the end of his life, in the 1980s. It survived the compulsory purchase of his original bungalow in the 1950s, to make way for the centre of Basildon New Town. Somehow he managed to negotiate the purchase of a replacement on the hill to the north of his original plot. He only gave it up shortly before he died. Sadly my aunt, Margaret, did not fully share John’s dream. She quite liked a weekend in the country if there were to be visitors and a party atmosphere could be created. But she had no wish to grow vegetables or even mow the lawn. She certainly did not enjoy winter weekends alone with a husband whose main concern was the cultivation of a whole range of vegetables. This led to difficulties. But that is another, sadder, story.