Plaque-free : a home catalogue
This somewhat self-indulgent piece of bloggery is an illustrated catalogue of all the places I have called home, complete with pictures. Remarkably none of these buildings as yet bears a plaque recording my residence there, hence the title of this page.
The first home address of which I became conscious is 25 Fowey Rd in the Washwood Heath area of Birmingham. Here’s what it looked like on Google Street View when I went looking for it again in October 2012.
Number 25 is the one on the left in the shade of the tree, and (if you compare it with its neighbour) has clearly been updated somewhat since it was built. When we lived here, all the houses looked the same. Next door lived a French lady who was possibly the first person I can remember unintentionally offending. She asked me why I was off school one day, and I replied that it was “yom kippur”. She misheard this as a quaint English idiom “Mind your own kipper”. Or so she reported to my mother anyway.
A few cute baby photos survive from this period: I select this one because it shows both my sister and myself, in the front garden. In those distant days, dear reader, even little houses like this had gardens both fore and aft.
My next home address was 23 Stratfield Rd. This was a new house, part of a new development (we called them estates in those days) called Garden City on the fringes of Kidlington, near Oxford. We moved here after my father graduated from Oxford and got a teaching job in Banbury. My mother was particularly taken by the fact that the builders, a company called Taylor Woodrow, provided a kind of welcoming kit, including a white flower vase which she kept for many years.
For some reason, this address does not feature on Google Maps, but here is a picture of the house I took during a cycle ride back in 2009 :
The car, and the porch are all modern additions of course, and there is no trace of the burning bush tree which my father planted in front of the house. You can see what it looked like originally from this picture of the houses facing it across the road, which I took back in 1957 or thereabouts.
I took quite a lot of photos with my Brownie 127 in those days, many of them featuring my long suffering sister, holding with some reluctance my pet mouse, or arranging her doll collection, or (in double exposure) shooting herself with my derringer cap gun. There are also many pictures of visitors patiently posing in front of the house since that is where there was generally enough light to take a picture. But I shall spare you those. Instead, here is a nice picture of my parents in the back garden, taken with my far superior Orthographic 116 camera
In 1960 my father got a much better job at Colstons School in Bristol, and we all moved into an entirely different kind of home.
2 St Ronans Ave was part of a late 19th century development consisting of rows of spacious homes, laid out in neat rows with the railway on one side and a steepish hill on another. The streets were all named after novels by Walter Scott (Rokeby Avenue, Waverly Road, Kenilworth avenue etc.), and that is why I am probably one of the dwindling number of people to have read St Ronans Well.
Living here gave me a taste for rambling old inefficient but generously proportioned houses, even if they are in a constant state of needing major repairs. We all blossomed in this house, which had a basement for hobbies, a study for reading and writing great books, a sitting room for watching tv, a huge bedroom for each of us, and even a top floor room let out to occasional students. In this house, consciously or not, we became decidedly middle class. My sister and I processed through “good schools” and won scholarships to Oxford. My mother went back to college and qualified as a teacher; my father wrote unpublishable books; both became founder members of the local liberal jewish congregation. We acquired a telephone, and a tv, if not (for many years) central heating.
Here’s a somewhat stagey shot from 1963 of my mother and me at the front door, for which my father has made both a little clay face and the ornate number. I apologise for the trousers.
Between 1965 and 1968 I commuted between St Ronan’s Avenue and Oxford. At that time, Balliol College was unusual in requiring its undergraduates to move out only in their third year, during which I therefore experimented with a couple of varyingly shady addresses, notably 46 Paradise Square, which (I later learned) was Known To The Police, and 62 St John Street where I rented a commodious top floor room.
My first truly independent address was 76 Westbourne Grove, W2 where I rented a large room after graduating from Oxford, and while looking half heartedly for employment. It looks like this on Streetview:
Behind what is now a blue door is a flight of stairs leading up to a shared flat above the building on the corner, which was then a bank. This was the time that London was officially swinging, and Bayswater being conveniently close to Notting Hill Gate was also officially cool. I didn’t make enough money to sustain this for long, though that mattered less in those distant days than it would now.
Very few photos seem to have survived from this period. But, then (as they say), if you can remember anything from the sixties you were probably not there at all.
October 1970- December 1971
At the start of the 1970s, I resumed academic life as a graduate student with my own address for two years, in the charming village of Stanton St John just outside Oxford. Chris Sheppard found this cottage, and I shared it with him for the first year of my MPhil. We used to commute between here and the Bodleian in his little red Anglia. We rented it from Mr Bagnall, who lived in the big modern house down the street. In my second year there, he installed an indoor toilet to justify putting the rent up. When Chris left, I stayed on in the cottage, sharing it first with Peter Pope, and then with Tim Healey. I became rather fond of village life which still existed then.
Here’s a nice picture of me posing at my front door for the non-existent passing tourists.
And here’s a picture of the same houses, then known as Red Cottages, shortly after they were built in 1897, which I acquired from the village historian, a Mr Nutt. The identify of the lady in white has caused much speculation.
I stayed on here for as long as possible after completing my MPhil, even getting a job at Manor Farm (in those days it grew guernsey cows rather than pick your own strawberries) over the summer. And then, in the autumn, jobless, I moved to Gotham Farm, another bucolic address which is off a well hidden track from a minor road out of Oxford to nowhere in particular, though it did have a sporadic bus service.
The farm belonged to Martin and Christine Peers who deserve credit for letting me live there for free, long enough to realise I’d really rather be somewhere warmer and more academic.
Jan 1972- Dec 1973
My first real academic job, or approximation to one, was as Lecturer in English, at a newly-established University in the equally newly-established country of Malawi. To be honest, I didn’t apply for a job here; I applied for one in Fiji, but whatever remnant of empire was responsible for recruiting to commonwealth universities offered me this one instead. It was tropical, it was a job. I took it.
With the job came my first proper flat and my first car, and indeed my first personal servant unless you count Oxford scouts. The flat was on the ground floor of a modern block, just over the road from the Kamuzu Stadium, on the Makata road. Here it is on Google Maps in 2012, not much changed:
I lived here for an eventful year, coming to terms with the strangeness of being a mzungu, and an academic to boot. A beautiful Mauritian girl moved in with me, which helped. After a year the University moved to Zomba, and so therefore did we. This photo shows the huge University lorry which came to move us:
Our new home was much more traditional. In fact, I dont even think it had an address. It was one of a small number of European Bungalows built along the Old Naisi Road in the days when the Colonial Government occupied Zomba. With independence, the government had moved to somewhere else, leaving behind some rather fine antique housing stock for expats like me and my fellow academics to snap up.
From the garden of our bungalow (which had all sorts of fruit trees) you could see Lake Chirwa on a clear day. There was a village built of mud huts within walking distance and wild pigs in the surrounding gardens. I learned how to to drive around the Zomba plateau at dangerous speeds so as to get to the Zomba Gymkhana Club in time for the ham sandwich which Lilette was inexplicably craving. Our first child, Belinda, was born here.
We delayed as long as possible the business of finding a post-Malawian residence, by visiting friends and families on an extended European tour, but eventually in early 1974 we had to settle down in a rented modern house in Harefields in the unfashionably far North of Oxford. It looked like this:
This was our first family home. Belinda learned to walk first up and then down the stairs (of which there were many) and we joined baby-sitting circles and started doing things like sunday outings to Cutteslowe Park. In April I got a job at the University’s computing service: not a very demanding one, but it paid the rent, and left me ample time to think about other things. In those distant days, if you wanted to get a loan to buy your own home, you needed to earn enough to be able to pay some proportion of the cost up front, and mortgage companies imposed all manner of additional conditions and restrictions. But we wanted to stop paying the landlord’s mortgage, and start paying our own, and so I invested a lot of effort into calculation and argument with banks, which eventually paid off.
We became property owners courtesy of the Halifax Building Society in 1977. We paid 7000 pounds for 18 Plantation Rd, a little house St Johns College had decided it wasn’t worth their while keeping since it had become a squat, one of its exterior walls was bowed, and it needed modernisation. We hired a local builder called Mr Wastie to set about rectifying the most pressing defects (a huge bolt was fixed into the bowed wall, the nice wooden partitions upstairs were covered by boring but comparatively fireproof plaster board, we installed a bathroom with a real bath in it, and so on: total cost about 6000 pounds I think). And thus we moved into Central North Oxford, on the fringes of Jericho. Its front looked much the same then as it does now:
We lived here long enough to undertake various other home improvements, like installing central heating (of a sort), enlarging the kitchen, and adding a balcony at the back. After all, this was the 1980s when mortgage debt was a thing. Here’s a view of the back of the house at the start of the update process:
When we finally decided we had outgrown the house, Belinda and Sarah were given the opportunity to redecorate our bedroom wall, as you can see here:
And so, fresh new mortgage in hand (I think we borrowed 35K at first), we moved decisively up the property ladder and into proper North Oxford, or Walton Manor at least. Our new address 110 Southmoor Rd was a magnificent four storey victorian mansion, in need of considerable repair, which we duly gave it.
.We lived here for thirty years, I have just realised. Belinda and Sarah and (in due course) Elizabeth grew up in this house and the community around it, as I suppose did we. It was a very pleasant place to live, with shops just up the road, five minutes walk to Port Meadow, an easy stroll along the canal to the railway station, and lots of space for all of us. My sister lived just down the road, and I could walk into work at OUCS in 10 minutes or less. We took in a steady flow of student lodgers to help keep the mortgage under some degree of control, but somehow borrowing money to do more repair work on the house was never a problem: this being the start of a time in which property values in Oxford progressed from absurd to beyond ridiculous.
To celebrate our third year in the house, my mother designed and embroidered this rather nice sampler :
Feb 2012 —
Eventually, and against my heart, my head decided it was time to cash in the investment we were currently occupying and move into a smaller house. Belinda, Sarah, and Elizabeth had all left town and were embarking on their own residential adventures; I had retired and had a fat pension fund to live off. We settled on a little three bedroom house at 111 Victoria Rd, in the far far North of Summertown, just where it turns into Cutteslowe.
This involved several traumatic experiences, not least dismantling our life in Walton Manor in order to pack it into a gazillion boxes. We also had to build bookshelves everywhere, make efforts to remove artex ceilings, and so forth. It has a beautiful backgarden, with apple trees and nice places to sit and contemplate the passing of time. In the winter we ran away for several weeks, ostensibly to allow another fine Oxford builder to knock the house into a better shape, but actually to visit various places beginning with B (Bordeaux, Birmingham, Barcelona, Bologna, Bottingham, Bristol…)
Dec 2014 —
A couple of years later, we bought a second home, in France, since that seems to be what capital-rich Brits do these days. Our French home is in an isolated French hamlet called La Vergne, near the village of Bussiere Dunoise, in the departement of La Creuse, in the Limousin region, where houses are absurdly cheap and public transport is sparse, to put it mildly.
It’s too early to say a lot about this house yet but we spent most of the summer of 2015 there and did not regret it. There’s a lake at the bottom of the garden, and a disused railway line. The nearest village has a butcher, a baker, a superette, a pharmacy, a church, and a bar that does reasonable lunch. There is much unspoiled countryside, with hills and streams and byways. Nothing much ever happens there and the wifi is unreliable.