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Monday, October 19, 2020

Pilgrimage to Penge

Penge East no longer seemed like a dream to me now. The first time I returned here as a middle aged man it was as if I was in my own movie; every step carefully measured and every sight and sound visceral. Now revisiting for the third time in as many years, my impressions of Penge are closer to the place it really is now, rather than how I’d imagined it as boy. Yet every time I come back and take in the roads that were my patch, I am still that small kid on a bicycle plotting his way through what are more or less unchanged residential streets. I still felt sharp jolts of memory, flashbacks, deep resonances of those childhood times and the same desperate desire to reconnect with ….something. 

Unlike the last time I visited when I had a fixed purpose – meeting a school friend whom I hadn’t set eyes on for four decades – this time felt like I was running away. I’d bunked off a planned workday and was somehow, guiltily, running home. The first time I came back to Penge I had bunked off college and had a belated rite of passage drink in The Market Tavern on Maple Road whose old street stalls were still in full swing outside. I vividly remember wearing a non-descript green anorak, nervously asking for ‘half a bitter’, and taking as unimposing a seat as I could find: a low stool near the door. It was a busy lunchtime on a market day. 

Maple Road market sadly bit the dust many years ago. Nothing feels busy when I return to Penge now, except my head. Still, there are things that surprise me. Distinct feelings from the past, possibly apocryphal, back-filled memories; memories that my mind has reprocessed in light of all that came after we left. I walked along Station Road from Penge East, self-conscious but less so with each return visit, surreptitiously snapping the odd photo on my mobile. Where were the people, I asked myself, noting the row upon row of terraced houses and an almost ghost like atmosphere. My memories told me that there were always many people on the streets but perhaps this was just a child’s heightened awareness of other kids. Today all the children were in school, but not me. I’d made a point this time of dressing more discretely than my return three years earlier. That boiling hot summer day has seen me arraigned in drainpipe jeans, a colourful Nepalese-made shirt, and a white imitation Moygashel jacket. On this much cooler day another version of the anorak was donned; this time alpine-style red, with regular sized jeans and hiking boots. Hardly inconspicuous among Penge-ites but then, I said to myself, I’m hardly a local really. 

A couple, possibly not much older than me, advanced in my direction. She a wide woman with a walking stick, heavily tattooed; he with assorted carrier bags and sounding like he had ‘issues’. I didn’t want to create the impression of getting out of their way, but a fairly wide pavement was simply not wide enough to enable movement in both directions. I looked right at them and half-smiled; my modest effort at engagement was reciprocated. Clocking Kingswood Hall where, to my disbelief, I’d once won a second hand farm in a raffle and was totally overwhelmed, I looked up behind me and clocked a sign for an old dairy that was presumably long gone even when we lived here, and then did a left into Crampton Road and was reminded of schooldays friends who’d lived there. 

What was the point of doing this again, I asked myself, hitting a deep low within minutes of arriving back. Walking down the High Street in the direction of where we’d lived, I passed my old school, Malcolm Infants, now some kind of academy or other, re-named after a more contemporary obscurity. I located what I’d believed to be the tree where, aged approximately 6 or 7, I had alternated between kissing one of two girls on either side of its trunk, and took a photograph of this imagined shrine to the confident, uncomplicated, young man I might have been.

From across the road I looked at the flat where I had been born and where I’d spent my formative years. I noted that the barber shop signage below looked almost fire-damaged; the words ‘Ossaga’s Unisex Salon’ barely visible compared to just a year earlier. The shop didn’t look open for business.

Born and (partly) bred; High St, Penge 

I decided to return later, still somehow imagining that I could blag my way upstairs to what has since been converted into two flats, on the not too Covid-friendly pretext of needing to reconnect with my birthplace. When I had returned three years earlier I had gone into the dentists over the road and asked if they knew whether their building was once the local doctor’s house/surgery. I’d mentioned being born at Number 81 to their total un-surprise and that a doctor from more or less this location had delivered me. ‘It’s long been a dentists as far as I know,’ the middle-aged receptionist told me. That may well be so, of course. I didn’t tell her that the local GP in the 1960s, Dr Jack Redman, had had his surgery very close to this spot. According to the family legend, the doctor ‘over the road’ had been knocked up at 2 am to save my life. In a fairly common occurrence in those days the umbilical cord was caught around my throat and the midwife couldn’t intervene. It seems I was lucky that the doctor lived so close by. 

Heading into Penge Rec it looked and felt a lot sadder than I remembered. Upkeep was no longer what it had been; resources no doubt more stretched. A place where I’d often gone alone to play still had the look and feel of the old park though. I retraced steps as if retracing key memories, somehow thinking that explanations could be found if, for example, I touched a tree that had stood where I’d played, or where I'd given myself a hernia at the age of 10. I projected on to this space the image of my mother, my brother and me that an old photo has since implanted as a real memory. I could somehow work out where we would have stood for such rare slices of personal history. I am pleased that my father, being the one who took the picture, cannot intrude into that image.

The stone pillar drinking fountain is now a sad relic, but the park benches were still aligned in rows at the High Street entrance. On leaving that way I smiled and said hello to two older ladies chugging on fags; their heavily-lined faces broke into warm smiles and something in me softened as I somehow reconnected with humanity. Walking on I realised that, despite appearances, they could be my age, and were perhaps at Malcolm Infants or Junior school. I am very good at recognising faces though and, not recognising them, promptly dismissed the idea. 

The park-keeper’s house, a detached and mysterious place that I used to marvel at as a boy, is still there, but by the look of the park there is no such person living there anymore. The next door Army Recruitment Centre that I had visited as a boy is now several flats, but an ATC hut around the back connected Penge to a local military heritage, as of course does the First (and Second) World War memorial. I found out later that Penge was apparently the most bombed part of London during WW2. Not a lot of people know that. There had once been a large army parade ground and sheds here storing army vehicles; now there was a modest private housing estate. 

St John’s Church is always closed these days; admission by appointment only (unless on a Sunday, I assume). When I came back a few years ago I’d even rung the advertised number for admittance, but didn’t get an answer. My mind went back to numerous visits to this church as a boy; amazed at its then seeming enormity and dark mystery. I recalled what for my parents (and me) was the embarrassment of me receiving numerous prizes – the result of a day spent at Summer Sunday School - and the occasion when I saw the Reverend Humphrey Newman on his knees, deep in prayer. This was a devotion I’d never witnessed before but that I would personally connect with a year or two after we moved away. I walked up Maple Road again, past the location of the old market pub, now a south-east Asian take-away, and crossed to where I remembered the market itself being. 

This street had once been very alive but now seemed bland. I noted the destruction of the old library, a place of austere learning and churchlike solemnity replaced with a block of flats of some description. The Sally Army building was still in place, outside which I remember an Army band would periodically perform, an unlikely event now. A middle-aged woman in a dressing gown and slippers walked past smoking a joint, then talked to a young guy in a car before making her way onwards. I knew that St John’s School, with its church-like assembly hall, had been razed to the ground many years before, but I marvelled at the trashy, hut-like, classrooms that stood in its stead. I turned on to Croydon Road and sought an escape from the flood of memories by entering a park that I didn’t remember being there when I was a boy.

Winsford Gardens is the site of the ‘Penge Green Gym’ where volunteers ‘workout’ by conducting socially-responsible gardening. On this lunchtime though the local brew crew were in situ, right in its most ornate area. I said a semi-confident 'Hello' and nodded. This brought a kind of acknowledgement but the assembled throng were deep in discourse. I walked around the Gardens, still thinking it had all been an absurd mistake to come back this time. A quiet seating area though enabled me to break out the cheese sandwiches. After a little while a member of the drinking party came past. I stared, defiantly. ‘Hello Sir,’ he said, in a friendly and surprisingly high-pitched voice. ‘Alright,’ I half-gruffly replied, somehow feeling the defensive need to prevent too much of an opening. He wasn’t looking for a conversational opportunity though. His ulterior motive was checking that a location very close by, where he’d presumably stashed something of value, hadn’t been disturbed.

My mood didn’t lift as I exited and walked past the absurd enormity of Ancaster Garage (or rather of the huge, imposing, office tower above it), the place where my father had once purchased a new Vauxhall Chevette (I’d preferred the old Austin 1100). I headed past what had been The Robin Hood pub (razed), noted Sherborne Court, and headed down Elmer’s End Rd, thinking vaguely of the daily bus journey I used to take to West Wickham, specifically to get to a hated grammar school that I’d only spent a year at. Walking past coffee shops and cafes, I remembered the fairly fast road under the railway bridge, and spotted these mementoes.

On this occasion though I only got only as far as Beckenham Cemetery, a huge place that I had no previous memory of. I wanted to find some inner peace but had, perhaps ironically, not chosen the best place to do so. I didn’t realise at the time that South Norwood Country Park was right next door. At this convenient, but now corporatised location, care of the Crematoria & Memorial Group (see signage above), both cremations and burials are easily available. 

One of the former was actually underway when I walked in, under strict social distancing rules of course. The cemetery is a bizarre mix of collapsing Victorian headstones, absurdly ostentatious family tombs, more tastefully simple epitaphs, and tragic memorials to recent, young deaths. One such was a 20-something boxer, ‘Nico’, whose shrine is adorned with his gloves and a mass of loving messages from family and friends. I couldn’t avoid thinking about my mother’s burial just a few years back and what I’d tried to say at her funeral service about the circumstances that had led to her suicide. I thought about the fact that we buried her separately from my father, in stark contrast to the tasteful item (see below) proffered at the Funeral Directors, which was handily located directly opposite the cemetery gates.

The train from Birkbeck station, Beckenham, took me straight to Crystal Palace Park. The urban farm is in the same space where there had been a zoo of sorts before. Although Covid has made it inaccessible for the foreseeable future, it was beautiful to see llamas, goats and sheep together in one place. I stared, and stared and stared; transfixed. The experience connected with the donkey I’d seen there as a small boy. I have clearly missed my vocation. Perhaps if we hadn’t moved away in 1976, I might have flunked my ‘O’ levels and dropped out of the snotty, up-itself, Langley Park Grammar School for Boys, and become a zoo attendant in Crystal Palace Park, although I’d much rather be a herder in the urban farm that replaced it.

I don’t know what ever happened to the life-size Tyrannosaurus Rex but there were still a few of the bare stone mid-Victorian originals dinosaurs left and some new, less interesting, additions. Walking around the lake and emerging where Guy the Gorilla hangs out, my mood was up. I was relieved to see that the toilets were still there, working, and free. The community building next door looked funky, though not as funky as the long vanished ‘Adventure Playground’ where as a small boy I’d summoned up the courage to climb a high platform and fly on a rope and tyre across a virtual forest, and where you could get your face painted by long-haired men and women wearing very colourful, free-flowing, clothing.

Walking down the High Street again, but still avoiding getting close to our old home, I detoured down St John’s Road and went through Queen Adelaide flats. I’d done this walk once before in my adulthood as a matter of facing down old, personal, demons. I think I’d always felt uncomfortable there as that’s where the tough kids hung out, but it was one particular memory that I knew I was still, even now, trying to face down. Back in the day I’d been lippy to a local hard nut when he teased my elder brother and it was my brother who got kicked hard in the shins for it. Perhaps there was a relationship to the private horror that occupied our High Street flat, but I will never forget that my Mum, out of character and ignoring our pleas to do otherwise, stormed right round there, determined to have it out with the lad’s mother. She returned, still visibly angry at my brother’s bruised leg. We though were relieved to hear that nobody had answered the door.

I passed a shop on Penge Lane that had once been 'The Bottle and Basket' off-license, where the somehow refined and ‘different’ owner sold an extensive selection of ales and, probably, wines. I now realise that what I saw as his sophisticated ‘difference’ was probably his Jewishness. Incredible street art now adorns the sides of the old brick bridge on Bycroft Street between Parish Lane and Penge Lane.

I headed down Green Lane to get to The Pawleyne Arms, being one of only two surviving pubs that I remember being aware of as a boy, fascinated as I was with what forbidden pleasures went on inside. I already had my mask on in preparation. Nervously remembering the eyeballing I’d got in here the last time I’d stopped by – the whole reason I was determined to give it another shot this time -  I hadn’t expected to walk in on a veritable party. I was invited to sit down by the barmaid who was taking the orders but without the protection of the Perspex screen behind which the pub manager was ensconced pouring the beer. ‘We don’t have any single tables free, I’m afraid,’ she said. ‘Is that alright,’ she enquired, having probably got the measure of me straight away. But this time was different. I parked in one of the few available empty chairs. The juke box (or rather Spotify) was blaring out ‘50s rock n roll classics to an audience that at first glance fitted that description too. A big, bevied-up, guy started talking to me at the large communal table where social distancing was only a possibility, that is if you didn’t have to lean in to actually hear what was being said to you. Addressing the call and response singing contest taking place across the pub between two good humoured groups of men, the big guy informed me that ‘They’ve just closed the local looney bin.’ The scary thing though, he added, is that 'these guys are all our age.' I looked around and, aside from an older gentleman sporting a white Mac, collar and tie, and a flower in his lapel, this was pretty much a pub of 50-somethings, and they were all getting hammered. 

My first pint of Guinness was kicking in fast. Del Shannon (‘Runaway’), Dion (‘The Wanderer’), ‘Windmills of My Mind’, Elvis… all was bliss. A second Guinness was brought to me. When Tony Bennett sang ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco,’ I thought I would cry. ‘I left my heart in Penge High Street,’ someone sang, but this wasn’t a number for the would-be karaoke singers. In fact there was a marked drop in volume as the punters drank in the exquisite quality of the song and of the performance. Or so it seemed. ‘They don’t write ‘em like this anymore,’ I said, once again trying to engage a taciturn guy who’d sat down near me. He smiled and slowly but surely began to engage. Despite his initial reticence, he began talking to me about his life. A year older than me, born and bred in Penge, he’d kept coming back. He’d worked in Israel with the army, he said, but preferred the Bedouin; decent people who you could trust, he said. He’d worked all over Europe too, Switzerland included. I never did find out what he did in these places. ‘I keep coming back though,’ he repeated. In the meantime the musical standard had dropped. Peter Frampton was unfortunately coming alive again, as he’d first done the year I’d left Penge.

I told him that I was born and brought up here too. This didn’t surprise him, though he twice insisted that I must be either Italian or Jewish. ‘Not as far as I know,’ I said. He denied, without prompting, that he was a drinker but also volunteered that he’d ‘had a few issues today’. Constantly on his feet, very restless, he was either smoking roll-ups outside, or planning to. He seemed to want to confess something. ‘I made mistakes,’ he said. ‘I was in Borstal. I can defend myself, but I want to practise what’s in my heart.’ He told me of a local gangster who comes in from time to time. 'This gangster said to me “I know you’re a nice guy”. That’s respect,' he said before disappearing once again. With an empty glass but a sense that I needed to move on, I headed on out. My new friend greeted me as I went out through the in-door. He stroked the lapels of my alpine-style anorak. ‘Keep strong,’ I said to him, before deciding, finally, to check out the former family home.

Ossaga's, the Afro-Caribbean barbers, was, I was pleased to discover, open for business and, as I took this picture of the wall outside, a friendly guy came out and encouraged me to move their mobile sign for a better shot. Probably happens all the time. In fact there’s great street art all over Penge

Two pints down on a fairly empty stomach I rang the door bells to the flats above and ended up chatting on the street to three young Romanian guys, having eventually located the one who actually rents the flat. His friend works as a barman in a West End nightclub, or rather he did. ‘I was born up there,’ I said, pointing to the flats above. ‘I know to you it’s probably just convenience to live here, but would you let me take a look at my birthplace?’ What the hell was I expecting, the same bed in the same bedroom? He told me that the landlord had told him not to let anyone in at this time. He offered to call him though, if I'd like to talk to him. I should have said yes. However I felt like I had already imposed on these guys quite a bit already. We shook hands. They’re young, but I’m not I thought afterwards.

I wasn’t sure about going to The Crooked Billet this time, but a third Guinness (all had been at the definitely not London pub price of £3.05 a pint) beckoned. The place was dead save two young guys and a young barman playing Johnny Cash via his phone. A middle-aged guy who didn't fit my profile of the Billet, walked in. He told the lads of his relationship difficulties with a barrister girlfriend. ‘You must have it made, bro,’ one said. The Doors followed via Spotify before, at my encouragement, the conversation turned duller, to owner-occupied property. Turned out the middle-aged bloke was the owner of one of the old alms houses opposite that had long since been sold off (Watermen’s Square). We then discussed what pubs, other than The Billet and The Pawleyne Arms, were ‘original’ (my word). More than I'd imagined, it seems, although I'd conspicuously avoided the Farrow & Ball ubiquitously grey-painted gastro pubs I'd noted around town.

The truth of course is that my sense of what is 'original' to Penge is just circa 1964-76. The Crooked Billet has a hall out the back used, in normal times, for gigs, the lads said. This was the site of a coaching house it seems, but otherwise The Crooked Billet is mostly late-19th century with some modern frontage. Its location is older though, and the pub has long lent its name to the junction outside which once hosted a fine subterranean toilets. Polished porcelain and brass, with a black and white tiled floor. As a boy I thought that the caretaker lived in his frosted glass office downstairs in the Gents. Perhaps he had a bed or maybe it was just a sofa that he had in there for comfort as he listened to the football on a Saturday afternoon. I'd thought that he had the best job in the world. Too late for that career change though. 


Nature Strikes Back said...

It's never too late for a career change to toilet cleaning...

Uncalm Italian said...

Like they say you can never go back - but you did!
Probably best that you didn't get access to the flat - and I hope you sanitised your hands after all that shaking hands on the doorstep!
I agree that it is never too late to take up a toilet cleaning career... ;)
Great blog post - so well described that I will never have to visit Penge myself LOL! xxx

Neil Partrick said...

Ha ha. The Penge Tourist Board will be disappointed. (It is a thing but not of the official kind). You may be right about access to the flat though. I once thought about trying to buy it but that way lies madness.

Neil Partrick said...

You're right. The most socially useful job in the world.

Chad P said...

One of my favorite posts. I felt like I was back in a pub drinking beer with you. Now I need to visit!

Neil Partrick said...

Thanks Chad P. I know that the Pawleyne Arms will be more than happy to oblige, and at those prices who could refuse? Looking forward to a London meet up with you one day.

Anonymous said...

There but for fortune went you not I. P

romandaysromanways said...

Thank you for such a deeply vivid and fascinating description of roots and memories intertwining with present experience. You made Penge, past and present, come alive! Thank you for posting. So glad the doctor across the way was there for you! David M

Neil Partrick said...

Thanks so much David M for your appreciation and kind comments. Really pleased you enjoyed it.

Al said...

That's one of of the best pieces nostalgic reporting I've ever read as I do know the manor, mate, well. Have I missed something, but what was your {internal} brief for this trip? No mention of Crystal Palace Park - I'm sure you must have fond memories....?


Neil Partrick said...

Thanks a lot Alan, it’s really appreciated that you enjoyed it so much.The internal brief, as it were, was probably to reclaim a semi lost childhood, take back the power from the man. Although at the time, as I say, it felt more like a running away to the past. We hope to be getting access to north east London again from the new year, so I’ll probably be reclaiming/running back more often. Crystal Palace Park is in there but not in name as such, as are a few of the memories of park. I spent a bit less time there on this trip though. Thanks so much again Alan.