Growing Up In The Beechwoods

Directly opposite our back door was the Jermaines house, crammed full of so many kids that I’m still not sure just how many there were, I do know that two of them, Paul and Nigel were the same age as me and my brother Ned, so we spent a lot of time flicking tar at each other, but their other siblings were to numerous to recall and younger too, so they didn’t count.

Next door to the Jermaines heaving, bursting at the seams terrace house lived a witch, or at least that’s what Paul and Nigel told us, “that old women next door is a witch” they’d whisper to us in conspiring voices, “she’s already eaten three of our sisters” and we believed them because she looked like a proper witch, old, haggard and bent almost double, dressed exclusively in black,  her terrace house had a flight of steps leading up to the front door which was sheltered by an open porch, the only one in the street which was, and just to add to the witches house effect the porch had fancy gingerbread-style decorations around it, all painted black.

The witches house was always dark, she never switched any lights on inside even at night, Paul and Nigel told us it was because witches can see in the dark so it must have been true. The poor old cow must have wondered how the hell she had come to live out her meagre existence in a street where all the kids screamed and ran away whenever she came and stood out on her front porch.

Each of the short streets of the Beechwoods ran across the face of the hill, linking Beechwood Crescent to Lumley Avenue which also climbed up the hill to the Lumley allotments. Linking Beechwood Crescent and Lumley Avenue was a succession of parallel identical streets, Beechwood View, Terrace and Mount and finally at the top of the hill Lumley Road, where our cousins lived. Within these four blocks of streets was our whole world, 200 or so identical terrace houses, all with dark, damp cellars, a small front yard, one main bedroom and another in the roofspace, fortunately for the residents the area had been developed shortly after the start of the 20th century so all of the houses had indoor toilets, unlike some of the earlier streets further down into Burley where a toilet block was shared by every six houses, back-to-back houses obviously didn’t have back yards to put outside privy in.

At the end of each of these streets was a corner shop with accommodation above, each corner shop having been occupied by the same family since inception. Our street corner shop was a greengrocers where the women of the neighbourhood would gather for a whole day sometimes, gossiping whilst purchasing a pound of spuds or carrots for their husbands tea, they’d buy their greengroceries there then stroll up the hill to the next street end and purchase their firelighters from the grocers, then onwards to the off licence for a bottle of stout, shopping was so much easier then, the shops were all so small but conveniently placed at your street ends, you never had to walk far for a butchers or a bakers, and yet the women of the neighbourhood, especially on fine days, could go out of the house in the morning with a shopping list of five items and still not have returned home by coming-home-from-school time at 3pm, we knew where they were, we could see them still gossiping at the end of our street having got no further than our greengrocers since this morning, but you didn’t dare interrupt your mum when she was having a good gossip with three other women.

Our greengrocer corner shop owner would spend the first hour or so every day arranging the display of his produce on the pavement outside the shop door, crates of apples and oranges, carrots, potatoes, and when in season Swedes, turnips and parsnips, all turned towards the road so that the housewifes could poke and prod them as they passed before deciding whether or not to splash out on a pound or so of King Edwards today.

It was inside the shop though that I remember most of all, it smelled permanently of root vegetables, a not-unpleasant earthy, rooty smell, tinged occasionally by some fruit that had gone off before he could sell them, which in all honesty wasn’t very often, partly because he didn’t carry much more stock then the average home would nowadays, but mainly because housewifes made a career out of spotting soft apples or potatoes that were “on the turn” so that they could bargain a few pennies off the price.

As a kid the best bit of the shop was the row of large tin boxes that were arranged along the front of the counter, each with a glass lid and in each a different type of biscuit, arrowroot, digestive, custard cream, or best of all, fig rolls. Of course biscuits should have been in the grocers shop and no doubt the “proper” grocer three street-ends away would curse him in bed every night for encroaching on his trade but our greengrocer didn’t seem to care.

Occasionally the greengrocer would leave one of the glass lids off the biscuit barrels and if we noticed then it was incumbent on us kids to stage a raid on the shop to snaffle some biscuits off him, one of us would go and ask our mothers if they wanted an errand running and pester enough so that she’d give us a few pence for some Bisto or a couple of apples, then in the shop the one with the genuine errand would try to keep the shopkeeper distracted enough while the others slowly shuffled over to the open biscuit tin and stood there for a short while before slyly bending their knees with their arms dangling loosely at their sides until contact was made inside the barrel with a biscuit of some description, they’d then slowly stand back to attention and slip the snaffled treats into a trouser pocket, all the while keeping a sweet innocent smile on your face, Nigel Jermaine was the best at doing this and his snaffled fig rolls were the best I’ve ever tasted, we’d run around the corner into the next street to share them out as it would be a disaster to go through the whole snaffling procedure only to be spotted eating biscuits in your own street by your mother, and make no mistake about it, she’d spot you and she’d know straight away that they weren’t her biscuits.

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