Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Memories of a lost Mill Hill by Richard Wilkinson

There are many of us who have time on our hands during the current period of lockdown. I should imagine that I am not alone in finding myself going for a stroll to pass the time, we are lucky that Mill Hill still has many nice open spaces. I happened to bump into Roger in Lyndhurst Park the other day, whilst he was walking his dog. We had a brief chat and looking at the old bridge over the disused rail line, I commented that I remembered the joy of standing on the bridge on Bunns Lane as a child, watching as the steam engines went under. My father would lift me up onto the wall and as the engine passed underneath, I'd be engulfed in the steam. It seemed very exciting at the time. It always seems very sad to me that the railway line is abandoned and that Bridge is now bricked up. Roger suggested that as I have some time on their hands, I might like to put together another blog of my reminiscences. 

Mill Hill was a lovely place to grow up in the 1940's and 50's. There was a real sense of local community, people didn't lock doors. Children would play in the street. There were no cars and few other vehicles on the roads, apart from buses and the occasional coal delivery lorry and the such like.  What we now call Arrendene was more widely known as 'The Donkey fields" as the army had used the space for grazing animals used in transportation during the war. It would be hard for anyone born more recently to understand just how important and significant the military was locally. Hendon Aerodrome (now Grahame Park) was an active RAF base and the Inglis Barracks (now Millbrook Park) was the home of the Middlesex Regiment and later the Royal Engineers.  

As a boy, Mill Hill seemed full of people in uniforms, both army and airmen. Having an RAF base nearby was magical, watching planes land and take off was always a good way to while away the time. Sunny Hill Park was a great venue for this. Even more exciting was to watch the annula Hendon Air Show and then see it at the cinema on the Pathe News!

I think every young boy in the area was fascinated by the airfield and the show. Nowadays I'd love to see the first world war biplanes in the air, but back then all we wanted to see were the fast jets. It really was a very spectacular event. Another constant source of fascination was the anti aircraft guns at the back of the Sea Scouts centre on Daws Lane. These lasted well into the 1970's.

Mill Hill smelled very different in that bygone era, especially in Winter. Coal was king.  These days, if we are cold, we simply turn up the heating. My memories of growing up are memories of being cold and gathering around coal fires to warm up in the living room, or around the stove in the kitchen. One of the lessons of the day was that there is a cost to being warm. As kids, we'd be despatched to collect coal from the merchant at Mill Hill East. We had an old pram that we'd load up. You could get the coalman to deliver, but this cost money, so when times were hard, you'd collect it from the depot, for us this was by the gas works in Mill Hill East. If there was a sudden cold spell and you ran out of coal, then you faced a long walk, usually in the rain or snow to get a top up. Coal cost money, so it was only burned when it needed to be burned. Newspapers were used to get the fire going, I am sure that for many, this was the reason that they were bought. Often we'd head out to collect twigs and wood to use as firelighters, sometimes neighbours would pay us a few pennies for this. The fire lighters and coal would be stored in the coal bunker in the garden. When the weather turned cold (and I do mean cold), we'd light the fire. You could tell that it was frosty as the air would smell of coal fires. For me this was one of my favourite smells, it meant you miay actually get to warm up when you got in.

I don't think people really understand the dynamics of being cold and warm anymore. When it was really cold, if we were lucky, mum would make a hot water bottle. This was perhaps the best treat, apart from being given sweets, that we could have. We only had one, so it would be put in your bed for five minutes before you got in, to take off the chill. If you had a cold or the flu, you'd get it for a bit longer with it. Most of the time, when you were cold, you'd simply put on a coat or jumper. There was no TV, we'd listen to the radio or read books. Just as coal cost money and its use was strictly rationed, so was electricity. It was metered. As a small boy, it was a treat to be allowed to put a shilling in the meter. Lights were only to be turned on and off when they were needed. We had a small electric fire 'just in case', but I don't recall it ever being switched on.

If you had got cold on the way home from school and mum was feeling generous, you'd get a drink of Oxo or Bovril. It wasn't so much the taste that you loved, it was the fact that it warmed you up. Bovril was on sale at football grounds long after it had disappeared from our pantries, as we all know it is the only way to warm up. The smell of Bovril when you are frozen is perhaps one of the most reassuring of all.

Another smell that reminds me of those days are autumnal bonfires. As soon as leaves started falling, everyone would light bonfires. As children, we'd be fascinated by these. There were no green bins back then. The down side of all of this buring was the smog. London was notorious for this. Late Autumn/early winter was smog season.  I can remember being sent out to get some coal from the bunker in 1952 and getting lost in the garden, unable to see more than a foot in any direction, I can remember being completely disorientated and terrified. The rest of the family thought it was hilarious. For years, when I was sent for coal, there would be a joke about sending the search party out if I wasn't back in five minutes. People really did get lost in the fog. One local, making his way back from the Royal Engineer pub after a swift pint after work, got lost for three hours, found himself back at the pub for last orders. That was his story anyway and it was one my dad would often tell with a twinkle in his eye.

Another thing we loved was fishing. Young boys knew every piece of water in the locality. You would start off with a small net and a jam jar catching tiddlers and tadpoles in Angel Pond at the top of Milespit Hill. The tadpoles would be taken home and kept in bowls, where we'd watch with fascination as they grew arms and legs and the tails disappeared. When I was eight or nine, after much nagging, I persuaded my mum to let me make a small pond out of some tarpaulin. This was at the bottom of the garden, as far from the house as possible. I filled it with water and collected a fine array of  tadpoles. I was horrified to see that the local bird population found that it was a very tasty array of snacks. In those days, we'd see Sparrows, Blackbirds, Starlings and Tits in the garden. If we were lucky, we'd see a Thrush. There was lovely Irish lady next door who would put bread out and get very cross as the Starlings guzzled it all. 

We graduated from Angel Pond to Moat Mount (there's some great images of Scratch Wood, Moat Mount and Mill Hill here here). My mum didn't like me going up there, as there had been a murder there during the war and she thought it dangerous. There was also spots on Scratchwoods and Mill Hill Golf course that had water with fish in, although you would get chased off the golf course straight away. We always resented the fact that we were never allowed to go fishing anywhere that there was actually something decent to catch.

As we grew up, and we got more serious about the fishing. There were some lovely carp in Darlands lake. Another place we loved was the big pond on Stanmore common, that reputedly had a large Pike, although we never saw sight nor sound of it. We'd also sneak in to the grounds of Mill Hill School and try and fish their lake, but invariably get caught and turfed out.

One of the things we didn't really do at all was holidays. I have vivid memories of mum and dad telling us we were going on a holiday to the seaside. Sandwiches were made, possibly even flasks of tea. We made our way to Mill Hill Broadway Station and boarded a train heading south. This was the first time I'd ever been on a train. I must have been about six. It was exciting. The train was packed, we found a compartment with a couple of seats. Chidlren were expected to sit on adults knees or on the floor. We were told that it was a very special train and it was going to the seaside. The journey seemed to take hours. Eventually we arrived at Southend on sea. I was given a shilling to enjoy myself. It seemed like a lot of money. We went to the pier, we played on the machines, where you could put a farthing in and if you were lucky a few coins would fall down. I soon learned to watch for people who had put all their cash in and where there were farthings overhanging. I loved Southend. The sun shined and everyone seemed so happy. As a treat, we had a bag of chips. All too quickly, we had to make our way back to the train and return to Mill Hill. Whilst the journey there had taken hours, I fell asleep on the way back and we seemed to arrive back in Mill Hill in a jiffy. The sun was just going down as we made our way home. Back then, there were no shops open in Mill Hill Broadway after 5pm and none at all on a Sunday. At the time it was the latest I'd ever been out and about in Mill Hill Broadway. I'd only seen it when the shops were open. It was like a ghost town. You just don't see Mill Hill Broadway like that ever these days. I think that day had been the happiest of my life and to this day, I've always had a love of Southend. I took my grandchildren there when they were smaller and they too loved the pier and the slot machines, much to my daughter in law's horror!

My final reminiscence is about something that has gone terribly out of fashion. That is smoking. When I was growing up, everyone smoked. When people visited, the first thing they would do would be to light up. This fascinated me. When I was about five I acquired a set of Players cigarette cards at a jumble sale. These were in an old battered tobacco tin and were my pride and joy.

There was an eclectic selection. Oneof my favourite was the Hereford bull card. This magnificent fellow seemed far more impressive than any of the local bulls we'd see in the various farms around Mill Hill. To this day, if I hear the word Hereford, I think Bull. It just shows what an impression such things can make. Sadly such cards were banned by the Govt in 1940, as they were seen as wasteful. After rationing was lifted, we could by sweet cigarettes. I guess these are what we now call gateway drugs. 

Smoking had its own hierarchy. Posh ladies would smoke with cigarette holders, to stop their fingers going yellow. The less well off favoured hand rolled tobacco, the flashy fellow who lived in the posh house in Parkside owned a Jag and smoked cigars. My dad always called him 'the spiv'. Old men  smoked pipes, which fascinated me. Ted down the  road who'd been in the Navy smoked Capstan full strength. Having bought my tin of cards, I became fascinated with tobacco tins and started to acquire a collection of such things. In 1958, I suddenly fell out of love with smoking. I was too young to smoke, but had had a few puffs with the older boys in the park, they would egg on the younger kids and snigger as we choked on the smoke. I would probably have started, but my uncle became ill and died of lung cancer. Mum told me that it was caused by his heavy smoking. At the time, there was little talk of the risks of smoking, so I have often wondered whether she'd just said that to put me off. It certainly worked. He'd been a war hero and was a great man. Seeing him stricken and laid low, gasping for breath made a huge impression on me. I vowed never to smoke. I later swapped the cigarette cards for a bicycle pump. A truly awful investment, as they would now be worth several hundred pounds. Perhaps the saddest aspect of his passing was that he was a keen allotment holder, with a plot at Lawrence Street. I used to help him out with digging and pruning. When food was scarce, he would have rhubarb, loganberries, raspeberries and  gooseberries. He grew vegetables as well, but I remember the fruits as they were always a proper treat, especially when there was still rationing. He taught me much about nature, how ladybirds eat greenfly, how you plough sideways, not up and down, so the topsoil isn't washed away. How you save your potato peelings and make compost. How you plant flowers to attract bees.

Mum always said that my Uncle kept the allotments going and having recently read up on the history, this may well be true. Sadly, we lived on the other side of Mill Hill, so we couldn't keep the plot. Clearing out his small shed was one of the saddest days of my life. We found all manner of strange things, he would often sit in the shed and read. One of the things which stuck with me was a pile of half read books with page markers. I can remember him telling me that if he thought a book was heading for a sad ending, he'd put it down, he'd seen enough heartbreak in the war. He once told me about how, when he'd been in France in the second world war, he'd found himself in a recenltly liberated barn, exhausted, having been separated from his unit. Falling asleep on a haystack, he was awoken by a French farmer. The farmer thought he was a German and was keeping him at bay with a pitchfork. Realising that the farmer didn't like Germans, he used his schoolboy french to say "Anglais Monsieur" and showing his badge. The farmer put down the pitchfork and signalled for him to follow him. He was taken to the farmhouse and given a slap up meal, with a glass of the finest cognac. The farmer told him that  he'd buried the cognac when the Germans had invaded and was saving it for the first soldier to liberate him. He gave the bottle to my Uncle, which was most welcome. He'd kept it safe until VE day, telling me he wanted to savour it properly. He kept the empty bottle in the shed. Mum told me to throw it away, but I've still got it.

When I was growing up, Mill Hill was full of people who had served in the forces, such stories were ten a penny in Mill Hills pubs and clubs. That generation is now all gone. Perhaps that is what I miss most.


Richard Wilkinson is a long time Mill Hill resident. Guest blogs are always welcome at The Barnet Eye. Richard also runs the https://millhillbroadway.org/ website which provides information about Mill Hill's shops and services for locals and visitors to the area.


Unknown said...

I moved to Mill Hill in 1953 and worked in Mill Hill until 2002 so I have always has strong connections with there. We lived in Wise Lane in the 1950s and 1960s and growing up in Mill Hill then was wonderful. I was keen on watching trains and I did this at The Broadway station and on Lilley Lane bridge. My social life was around the Union Church scouts and youth club in The Broadway.
Happy days

Jon Marsh

Not very able seaman said...

Sea Cadet Corp, not scouts TS Paladin was our Unit name.

Not very able seaman said...

Sea Cadet Corp, not scouts TS Paladin was our Unit name happy days

Unknown said...

T.S.Barrossa when i attended🙂