Travel Report: Fitzneal Street, London.
Fitzneal Street, London.
With thanks to my dad and Uncle Doug for their help in making this article possible.
I had butterflies in my stomach as I turned off Old Oak Common Lane into Fitzneal Street. Butterflies because, dear god, the street hadn’t changed a bit in over 35 years. In an instant, a wave of memories came flooding back. Of childhood Christmases and Saturday afternoon walks to Queens Park Rangers F.C. Of aunts, uncles, cousins, dearly departed grandparents and cherished cats.
In fact, it was almost impossible for me to believe that this was the summer of 2019 and not the mid 1980s when yours truly was just 7-8 years old. Indeed that red brick wall with the barbed wire on top was still there. The only difference being that it used to be adorned with the letters QPR in fresh white paint.
Some things change then, I remember thinking. And yet … hang on a minute… was it still there after all!?! Walking right up to the bricks, I picked out the faded Q, the P with its missing bottom and the largely topless R. Someone, apparently, continues to reapply the paint, just not as regularly as back in the day.
Fitzneal Street, London.
Crossing the road, I paused outside the wooden gate that leads to two terraced homes. Both front doors nestled snugly under the brick archway. Throughout my entire childhood, my mum’s family, The Powells, lived in the house on the left. She grew up here with her mother Rose, dad Ken and siblings Jackie, Debbie, Rosa and David.
Next door, on the right, lived my dad’s family, The Thomases. Sadly, I never knew my paternal grandfather, William, a Welsh miner who passed away when my dad himself was just 5 years old. What’s more, dad’s older brothers Peter and Doug flew the coop as young men. Hence my dad grew up here with my dear Nanny Tommy, who I wrote about on these pages in my article on Westminster Abbey.
In any case, my mum and dad lived right next door to each other and began dating in 1976. Then came wedding bells in April 1977 before yours truly joined the party in July 1978. Growing up, I spent a lot of time at Fitzneal Street visiting my grandparents, aunts and uncles.
Adventures in London.
As I opened the gate and made my way towards house Thomas, the butterflies were back. Stronger than ever now, because I really had no idea what was going to happen next. Firstly, I wasn’t even sure that my Uncle Doug lived here anymore. He’d moved into the house to live with my nan in the early 1980s following the breakdown of his marriage. And there he remained, living a largely reclusive life in the upstairs corner bedroom away from everything and everyone.
Even if Doug were home, there’d be no guarantee he’d recognise me or let me in. He’d been an eccentric man for as long as I’d known him. Sometimes, over the years, failing to answer the phone when people called. Or indeed ignoring knocks on the front door.
Pulling myself together, I rapped on the door. Within seconds it flashed open and there he was, a thin 80 something man dressed in baggy trousers and a flowery shirt. “Hi Doug it’s Leighton” was all I could manage. After the briefest of pauses he blinked and replied, “Hello Leighton, would you like to come in?”
Fitzneal Street, London.
My heart was thumping as I entered the hallway. If I was surprised by how little Fitzneal Street had changed, I was entirely unprepared for the sight of Nanny Tommy’s old place. It was almost exactly the same, right down to the furniture and fixtures. Everything much older of course, to the point where things were virtually falling to bits.
Doug was calling me into the living room, but I stood transfixed by the front door. The very same door I had passed through countless times as a child. The door between which dad and nan posed for one of my favourite family photos back in 1968. My Great Aunt Ruby took the photograph to celebrate dad’s return from Indefatigable Boarding School. The very military school, don’t you know, that I would attend myself between 1990 and 1994.
In the living room I sat down in an armchair opposite Doug on the main sofa. We negotiated the awkward waters of small talk as I marvelled at the perfectly preserved space in which my nan would serve her famous salmon and cucumber sandwiches. The crusts cut off, just as everybody liked.
There was that same old fireplace, an antique in its own right that could one day be a London museum exhibit. And that familiar painting that hung above it. A farmer and his dog herding sheep into a field, while a young boy gulps water from a stream.
While putting together this article, the family vaults blessed me with an old photo of Doug in the living room. From 1987-1988 I’d say, to hazard a guess. That’s my sister Natalie he’s holding in front of the fireplace and painting.
Unfortunately, 2019 Doug had very little to say for himself. But he listened patiently enough as I gave him the family news. Who was doing what and where. He had no idea, for example, that Natalie now had a daughter. Or that my brother Cory, who he’s never met, was a grown man living in South Korea. Despite this general lack of curiosity, Uncle Doug remained a good host. “Would you like a cup of tea?” he asked me, disappearing into the kitchen. “I can offer you a banana too, if you’d like”.
There were more memories in the kitchen of course. Of nan working on Sunday roasts with the radio on. In my dad’s day Sandy the cat would be mooching around looking for precious scraps. In my youth her feline companion was Shelley, a beautiful albeit elusive tortoise shell cat. Shelley hadn’t worked out in our family home, as I remember. But she fit in well with my nan and life at Fitzneal Street.
I recall vividly an afternoon in the kitchen when Nanny Tommy was babysitting me. I think it would’ve been 1987, as I was singing the chart hits of the day to the poor woman. Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley and When Will I Be Famous? by Bros. “Which one do you like best, nan?” *tumbleweed* “Mm, the first one, would you pass me the milk”.
Fitzneal Street, London.
Tea in hand, I opened the kitchen door and took a stroll in the garden. A very short stroll, due to the fact that it was completely overgrown. Consequently, there was no sign of the stone path that I used to take to reach the fence that separated Nanny Tommy’s garden from Nanny Powell’s. Nor could I see the World War II Anderson shelter that the Thomases once used as a shed. But it must have still been there somewhere under all the greenery.
Back in the day, Nanny Tommy would potter around working on her roses. Imagine my delight when I came across an old photo of myself, mum and Natalie helping nan out with a bit of gardening one afternoon.
Back inside, I poked my head into what used to be the dining room. But now it seemed little more than a forgotten storage space. No sign whatsoever of the big table we all sat at decades ago devouring Nanny Tommy’s magnificent shepherd’s pie.
I told Doug that I needed to use the toilet. But really I just wanted to climb those old stairs again. The wooden hill, as my dad called them. I was hoping to get a glimpse of my nan’s old bedroom and happily I wasn’t disappointed.
It looked just the same, truly a time capsule that had me frozen to the spot for over a minute. I vaguely remember sleeping here myself once as a kid. I can’t piece together the circumstances, but I do recall my nan lying with me for a bit before I drifted off. Reading me an old fairytale, or reciting some rhyme.
It’s weird to think that I was only actually in the house for half an hour that day. I didn’t want to intrude too much on Doug and anyway, I had gotten what I’d come for. It’s such a pity that time travel isn’t a thing. Imagine the fun we would have, even just as dormant observers. The ability to go back and witness the scenes of our childhood through adult eyes. Impossible, and yet I feel that my return to Fitzneal Street was as close to time travel as one can get.
As I stood there in the hallway, bidding Doug farewell, quite possibly for the last time, I could see my nan. She was smiling, a small cardboard box clutched in her outstretched hands. Immediately, young Leighton knew what was in there, without even going to look. It would be a new pair of shoes, almost certainly Clarks, because it was important for a boy to start each school year with a fresh set of shoes. I miss my nan.
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