The Smallest House in Great Britain

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This tiny, quirky, bright red house is wedged into the walls of Conwy in North Wales. It’s been a tourist attraction for as long as I can remember and I went into it many years ago when my children were small. On this occasion, I was there with grandchildren who decided they didn’t want to go in (there was a queue) but went up to inspect it so they could see just how small it is.

I have vague recollections of how poky and gloomy it was inside the two small rooms – one up, one down. It was built in the 16th century. In 1900 it was occupied by a tenant, a 6ft. 3in, tall fisherman, who eventually had to move out ( perhaps he kept banging his head on the ceiling?!). It’s still owned by the same family and is open in the summer season as a tourist attraction.

There is always a lady in traditional Welsh costume on duty to take the entry fee and sell a small selection of souvenirs.

The freedom bug

I’ve been a motorhomer or 20 years. I love the freedom, flexibility and sheer joy of being on the road. I wouldn’t swap van trips for package holidays, and I reckon it all started when I was sat on the back seat of my dad’s black Ford Anglia. Here’s how.

We were following our brand new Connaught Cruiser caravan which was being towed from the deConnaught Cruiseraler’s in Ilford to a campsite near the Essex coast. It was 1950, I was 5 years old and completely innocent – I had no idea that the “freedom” bug would bite me hard as soon as we started taking holidays in that caravan. A magical exploration of seaside and countryside opened up. There were sand pies, Punch and Judy shows, dens to be made in undergrowth, and a stream to be paddled and fished in. Then there were the birds, butterflies and wild flowers to spot and tick off in “I-Spy” books, and long grasses to lie in watching bugs and insects of all kinds at close quarters.

The freedom bug that bit me continued to nibble away contently. In my 20’s, as a young mum, we took our 6 month old son on his first camping holiday in France. This was the 1970’s and there was a horrified reaction from family and friends to taking a baby abroad, let alone go camping with him. “You can’t do that!” they said. Fortunately, I’d married someone who was quite happy to go along with my passion for the freedom, fresh air and flexibility that camping offers. He’d never had holidays like it and he’s probably just a tad more enthusiastic about the freedom and flexibility thing than I am, having not grown up with it and coming to it later in life, so to speak.

We graduated from holidays in hired tents to owning our own but for years there had been a background yearning, a constant inner gnawing at us by the freedom bug, to have our own motorcaravan. In the 1980’s we nurtured a pipe dream of taking the children to the United States, hiring an RV and having the holiday of a lifetime; the dream dissipated when we did the sums. Practically, this wasn’t going to work as we simply couldn’t afford it. But the open road still beckoned along with the attraction of having a home on wheels.

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To the manor born

Hazelwood - I was born here!I was born in a castle – a real castle with lots of history steeped into its walls and surroundings, and a mention in the Domesday Book. The castle is Hazlewood Castle near Tadcaster in Yorkshire. It was owned by barons and dukes for 900 years, and in 1461 a battle in the Wars of the Roses took place on the adjacent moor. It has priest holes and underground passages, and its own chapel. It is now a rather classy country hotel but it retains most of its original features.

Between 1939 and 1953 the castle was requisitioned as a maternity hospital and my mum was booked in to Hazlewood for my birth in September 1945. She left heavily blitzed London for Yorkshire and going north must have felt like going to a foreign land for her; she was a Londoner through and through.

Her stories about the castle as a maternity home included a description of the large Norman Hall as the lying-in ward, where the expectant mums stayed. Babies were born in a separate, adjacent room where Queen Victoria is supposed to have once stayed. It has a huge stone fireplace with ornate chimney breast and is now used as the room where weddings take place.

 The Norman Hall used as the lying-in ward.      The impressive birthing room

During the time that Hazlewood was used as a maternity home, over 2,500 babies were born there. I’ve made a couple of nostalgic visits which brought my mum’s stories to life. Especially moving was to stand in that grand room where I was born.

My dad travelled from London to see me as a new-born. The bus dropped him off at the end of the castle drive and he walked for what seemed nearly a mile between huge rhododendron bushes. When he arrived, the matron told all the ladies in the ward to smarten themselves up as the King had come to visit. Then in walked my dad! It was a story that used to come out at family gatherings, as did the fact that there were not enough cots for all the babies, so a bed was made for me in a large drawer.

In the courtyard

Camberwell Beauty

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Reading Patrick Barkham’s book The Butterfly Isles I was transported back to south London, where I grew up. I’d reached the chapter on urban butterflies where he describes Coldharbour Lane and the bus station at Camberwell Green. Immediately I was once again 9 years old, with my mum, sitting on the top deck of a red London bus on my way to my dancing class at Kennington Oval.

The bus route took us past a huge colourful mosaic of a Camberwell Beauty butterfly, set high up on the front of the Samuel Jones & Co factory, which produced gummed paper shapes. I was fascinated by this butterfly, ever after wanting to see one. I never managed to do so in the UK. They are very rare visitors and I had to wait until 1982 before I saw several for real in Sweden. That was memorable – I still recall how I couldn’t quite believe my eyes!

The Camberwell Beauty has stayed with me as being rather special. My mum bought me a gummed paper shape puzzle of this butterfly with a cardboard shape to base the pieces on. I still have it. It’s a childhood memento that I wouldn’t part with.

What I was interested to discover from Barkham’s book is that Coldharbour Lane ( not an especially nice place these days), was once known as Cool Arbour Lane, where there were green meadows and willow trees, a rural habitat suitable for this butterfly and its caterpillars.

 

An old fashioned butcher’s shop

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On holiday in France a few years ago I was fascinated to discover a real old-fashioned butcher’s shop in the city of Chartres. I’m a butcher’s daughter, coming from a family of master butchers. I didn’t follow the family trade and I rarely eat meat these days, so no chance of being a chip off the old block there (pun intended!).

Nonetheless, when I saw this shop I had to take a closer look as it appeared to be remarkably like the shop my Grandpa had in Croydon, south London, in the early 1900s.

It was. Taking a closer look I noticed there was a cash desk, with a cashier who handled payment for the purchases; the butcher didn’t handle money at all. I was rather taken by the dog inside the shop, hoping for some scraps! Forget Health & Safety regs there – this was life as it used to be.

The proprietor, Monsieur Pinson – an elegant man in his 80s – was serving customers. The shop was crowded and trade was brisk. That’s me in the photo, talking to the elderly gentleman who was going to buy his weekend joint. He said that the shop was the only one of its kind in the city, and it was the best too. He also wondered how long it would remain open as the proprietor was getting on a bit.

Sure enough, the next time we visited Chartres, the shop was closed and shuttered, but appeared to be untouched and unchanged. I wonder what had happened to it?

My Grandpa’s shop in Croydon no longer exists, but I do have this old sepia-toned photo. Grandpa's butcher's shop

The shop front is open – cold in winter no doubt, but maybe an effective way of keeping the meat cool and fresh. My Grandma sits at the back of the shop in the cash desk kiosk. Her job was to take payments and keep the books. My Grandpa stands on the right, sporting a magnificent moustache and a long white apron. Two employees stand behind the open counter, and my Dad – the butcher’s boy in striped apron and flat cap – stands near my Grandpa.

My Dad must have been around 7 or 8, meaning that this photo was taken just before, or during WW1 (1914-18). As a butcher’s boy, when he was a bit older, he used to deliver orders using a bicycle with a large basket on the front. He went on to train as a master butcher, managing several different shops in south London.

Dad & staff Old Kent Rd shop

That’s him with the pencil behind his ear in the Old Kent Road shop in the 1960s.

Clueless at Cluedo

Granddaughter recently had a birthday. One of her presents was the board game Cluedo, and she insisted we play. So far so good. I’d not played it for many years and had forgotten what the rules were etc. All I remembered was that I’d not liked it very much.

Nothing had changed; it was just as I recalled – for me, rather boring. A bit like an Agatha Christie murder, the characters are gathered in a posh country mansion and their host is murdered. The aim is to find out who is the killer, where in the house the murder took place and what the murder weapon is.

Was it a candlestick, a pistol, a knife? (there are several weapons). Did the murder take place in the dining room, or the library, or the kitchen? And who did it – Colonel Mustard,  a scarlet lady ( was she Rose or somesuch name?), or the Rev. Olive – again, there are several protagonists. It all started to go over my head when we had to show the cards we were dealt with to one of the players, then mark off details on our own personal grid score card in order to deduce who dunnit. By then I didn’t care, and was completely clueless.

Far too logical for me. I wanted to know why the host had been murdered. What was the motivation? Who, out of all the characters, might have wanted him out of the way. What were their secrets? Was the host blackmailing one of them? Was there an inheritance involved? etc. etc. etc…. I was off on my own fantasy about what might have provoked the murder and failed miserably to fill in the grid score card and work out who dunnit, where they diddit and what weapon was used.

My right brain wanted to play but only my left brain was required for this game.

As far as I was concerned, the perpetrator could just as well have been Lenny the Lion in the toilet, with a pair of scissors!

Remember you’re a Womble

Daughter to one of her team at work: “Remember you’re a role model”

Team member (completely mishearing): “What do you mean – Remember you’re a Womble?!”

Cue for laughter in the office – The Wombles were furry children’s TV characters in the 1970s, who went around picking up rubbish and helped keep public parks and open spaces tidy. They were also into recycling, so were way ahead of their time, and their message of taking care of the environment was seen regularly by the children who watched the show. Those children and now in their 40s, so hopefully some of the Wombles philosophy has rubbed off and stayed with them, ready to be passed on to their own children.