From the time I was around ten until I left home, every October half-term holiday my parents took us on an annual pilgrimage to London. We stayed with a wonderful couple who sadly never had any children of their own, but lavished kindnesses upon us. Dad had done his ironmongery apprenticeship with Ted and they shared memories of misspent youth which they never shared with us children.
Ted and Amy lived in Cobham, and rather than driving into the city, we caught the train. I have fond memories of the colours of the autumn leaves, the lushness of suburbia as it gave way to the inevitableness of the city. Neat gardens with manicured lawns and herbaceous borders, expensive children’s swing sets, gradually tapering off into pocket-sized yards with uncut grass half concealing old armchairs and rusty bikes, factories with boarded up windows and overflowing bins. Graffiti everywhere, some artistic and beautiful, others the pointless scarring of taggers, ornate curly squiggles, presumably meaningful to someone.
As children we stared wide-eyed at the commuters in their suits and bowler hats, with umbrellas and Times newspapers under their arms. In Bridport men only wore suits to church, and the hat of choice was a cloth cap. Dad wore a cap all the time outdoors and Mum reckoned that’s why he went bald earlier than his father, who never wore a cap, only a trilby.
Each trip to London included some shopping, minimal at first, but increasing in proportion to our teenage requirements as the years went on. There was at least one compulsory museum. I seem to remember liking the Natural History museum. After one particularly culturally rich day spent visiting the Tower, Nelson’s Column, watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace and as many other famous sights as my parents could fit in, we flopped exhausted on to the train, and Dad asked us all what was the best thing we’d seen that day. Nigel’s moment came in Picadilly Circus when he saw a man with no nose.
Our visits also included a lunch out in Soho. We had not heard of cultural diversity in Bridport, thus Soho seemed totally exotic. Perhaps in more ways than we fully understood back then as Mum hurried us on past the fascinating closed doors with red lights and naughty pictures outside. Pity really as I had a lot of questions I would like to have asked, and I’m sure my brothers had even more.
Anyway, we always found a wonderful restaurant that served dishes so completely different from anything we ever ate at home, that we soon forgot our innocent queries. With the blessing of hindsight, I see it must have been a special time for my mother as years later she would remind us of the first time we’d eaten sweet and sour pork or chicken chow mein.
It was also our first introduction to the theatre. THE Theatre, London West End, as opposed to Bridport Amateur Operatic Society’s annual show with the same lady playing the romantic lead every year until she was in her fifties. Each year we went to a different West End show and how I looked forward to those nights. I was allowed to wear the new outfit I’d bought in Oxford Street the day before. One year was Nigel’s Passage of Rites into long trousers. The theatres seemed so big and so glitzy. The shows were spell-binding, particularly the musicals. I don’t believe we had any say in the choice, as it was before the days of family democracy, but we all seemed to enjoy every show we watched.
So I was always sad the next day when we packed our belongings into the car and returned to Bridport for another year. But I’m sure that five miles out of Surrey I was already looking forward to the next half term at school with all the build up to Christmas.