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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How amazing! How lovely that the visit evoked so many happy memories.
Thanks for reading Sheree. It was a surreal and highly emotional experience.
Thanks for reading. I’m so glad I got to go back inside.
The experience of visiting a childhood home or a family house where you used to spend heaps of time works wonders if you’re angling for a trip down memory lane. It brings fuzzy and disjointed memories into focus. But a house is not static — tiles change, walls come down. If you walk into a house that has been radically altered since you lived in it, those changes may leave you feeling like someone erased you from the picture, especially if you were the one who made those earlier design decisions.
I think in most cases a heavily altered design is what people would be looking at 35 years later. I could not quite believe how largely unchanged the old joint was from top to bottom.
This post made me feel super emotional. I think as we get older we start realising how much times have changed, how many people close to us we have lost, and that we ourselves are not immortal. People and places become memories, and to get to revisit those memories so vividly in the case of this house is just incredible – like you say as close to time travel as you can get. I revisited my grandparents house after my Granny died and was upset to find basically everything had changed!
Your comment about immortality is spot on Hannah. Nothing like a bit of existential dread on a Monday morning to kick off the week ha ha. I’m not sure what I would have preferred. That the house was totally changed, or just the same as it was. Appreciate you reading and leaving your thoughts.
The scariest thing about this post is that you speak of 1987 as if it was ancient history – which I suppose it is to someone as young as you!! I was already in my 30s with three children of my own by then. You’re lucky to be able to have tangible memories… for lots of us those memories are only in our mind’s eye.
I think regardless of how old one is 34 years is a long, long time. Not in the grand scheme of things of course. But in anyone’s life things will have changed immeasurably over such a period. We change as people, we suffer losses and experience all the highs and lows life has to offer. “Ancient history” feels about right I think. How I will feel thirty four years down the road I can only imagine. It’s all about perspective.
Absolutely – just wait and see, is what I say….I think of the 80s as being not long ago, and then I see a TV programme from that era and it does indeed look like ancient history!
Great Post but oh my god the garden !
I wonder what antique delights will be unearthed when, one day, someone eventually sorts it out.
Great post Leighton. Always good to recall happy childhood memories and realize some of them still exist and can be visited. My childhood involved 23 moves across three Canadian provinces in my first 18 years, so I have a lot of nostalgia to revisit. Over the years, I have managed to do that in bits and bites. Keep the memories and nostalgia alive as long as you can. Thanks for sharing. Allan
We moved around a lot during my teenage years, though I’m
Not sure I can count as many 23 locations. Thanks Allan, here’s to nostalgia. *clink*
I love this and all of the old pictures! This seems like it could be a chapter from a book 🙂
Thank you Lyssy. One day, if I ever get on top of all the things I want to do with this site, I’d like to do a book of some sort. Hope you are well, very jealous indeed of how delightfully Christmasey New York is. Really missing all that here in Orthodox Serbia.
You’re an excellent writer and have some great stories, a book is a great idea! So much Christmas cheer in nyc! I’m a little sad we are leaving Thursday for our holiday travels because I’m having the best time with all the decor. I still have 8 more posts 😅🎄❄️
8!!! You’re a busy girl. Take care over there.
I just realized I replaced my tax busy season with a Christmas busy season 😂🎄❄️⛄️
How wonderful to retrace your childhood footsteps Leighton and for that house to have remained virtually the same as you remembered it. I made a point of visiting the outside of my childhood home three years ago and was slightly worried that it would have changed but aside from a new front door and double glazing it was almost the same with the same gates. My Dad had constructed low stone ornamental walls in the front garden and they had stood the test of time and seemed cared for with alpine plants growing over them. I would have been so sad if I’d found the front garden dug up and just used for parking but that hadn’t happened thankfully. Another well written post, hope your week is going well.
Hey Marion, I’m glad that the exterior of your childhood home remains intact. It’s fascinating how these things affect us and the importance, if even subconsciously, that the places of the past hold. Tricky times here in Serbia with no water or heating yesterday in freezing temperatures. Today the water is back, the heating not. Weird to think Christmas is also upon us.
Oh no, hope you have an electric heater or something. Got PCR test back overnight so thankfully no need to quarantine. On Christmas duties queuing half an hour at the post office to send a couple of parcels, then writing cards etc as busy most other days! Keep warm both of you.
How fortunate you were that your uncle still lived there. You might have been denied all the “time travel.” It’s just amazing all the details that come back to us when we visit actual places, so much more than from photos alone. I’m grateful that you were able to revisit memories from when you were 7-8 and that we were able to tag along.
So happy to share this part of my past with you and others Memo. And that concludes all current London content. No more until Sladja and I make it to The UK. As I write, it’s all in the balance. Waiting on visa news, waiting on accommodation news, waiting on Omicron news, waiting on UK government restrictions news. What a world this has become.
Hoping you’re getting some good news, starting with the heat. Sorry to hear that the London content is at a temporary halt. I’ve been enjoying all the personal connections. BTW I had to look up Anderson Shelters as I had no idea. So I learned some interesting history today as well.
Very tender and beautiful post. I think, especially at this time of year when we turn more in the spirit of the season to family and friends and start looking back at memories with them, we realize just how important those moments are. I’m so glad that the house was there, just as it had been. And I’m glad you and your uncle could reconnect, if only for that moment. That may be one of those important moments for him down the road. Most of all, I’m so glad you shared this story. It puts me in mind to call those I haven’t talked to in a while and to show Tessa pictures of her family and tell stories about them to her. Merry Christmas to you and yours from me and mine 🙂
Lovely message Meg, you actually had Sladja aww-ing. Merry Christmas to you to for when it comes around. This will be my last post for 2021. I’m in need of a writing break and a general rest as we shape up for what will hopefully be 6 months in The UK.
A well deserved break before such a great adventure. Looking foward to seeing what 2022 has in store for you 🙂
What a wonderful walk down memory lane! I so enjoyed this read, all the beautiful stories of your childhood. Kind of sad that your uncle had lost touch with family members. I hope it was a meaningful visit for him as well. You are fortunate that he was still living there and not much had changed. My childhood home and neighborhood has changed more than I would have imagined, and no one I know lives there anymore. Thanks for this one!
Thank you Ruth, I think the situation you describe regarding your childhood home is how it is for many people. I’m so lucky to have been able to wander into that time capsule building.
What a blast from the past. How fun to reminisce about some of your childhood memories and to even have some old pictures. That’s awesome that your Uncle Doug was home and invited you in.
Thanks for reading!
Super well written post Leighton. The home I grew up in no longer exits and I (and almost all family) no longer live in that city. I’ve driven by its location a few times when visiting and had thoughts and recollections similar to yours. Will this home pass to the younger generation, maybe yourself? I think you’d be a great owner who’d give the house a lot of tender care.
Thanks for the kind words John. Unfortunately, after my Uncle passes, the house will fall back into the hands of the local council. It will most likely be renovated and assigned to a local family. Glad I got to see it as it was one last time.
My words only reflect my feelings. It is very fortunate then that you were able to see the house again. The photos you added really bring the home and your family’s story to life for the rest of us. This is an outstanding post and one of your best in my view!
Many thanks John.
Another personal and intimate post, Leighton. Not only did I find your brief visit with Doug both awkward and poignant, but I was also moved by the effort you took to collect all of the old photographs from your childhood…some even preceding it! It really is true that, as we get older and sometimes move far away from home, coming back can be a strange, yet comforting experience as we reflect on our roots and see where we continue from here in life. Glad you shared this with us today!
Thanks Rebecca. When my Nan passed a lot of those old photos fell into my dad’s hands. They’d been lying around in boxes for years, but recently he scanned a bunch of them and voila, I was able to use a few for these articles. Hope you are well and embracing the run up to Christmas.
Such a heartwarming story, full of nostalgia, a mix of sadness and joy… this is so relevant to this time of the year. Thank you so much for sharing!
Thank you Nic. Sadly it will be another Christmas away from home and family for me. But then, with a bit of luck, a series of reunions from January.
I’m sorry to hear that, but let’s hope you can be reunited with them in January and that 2022 would be a better year 🙂
Very heartwarming and remembering family who have moved on into another time. It was wonderful that you visited your Uncle and saw him . Have wonderful Christmas and let’s have a much better time in 2022.
Thank you so much Anita for reading and leaving such a nice comment. I wish you the best for the Christmas and yes, 2022 must be a better year!
Wow! So beautifully written! Yes, our childhood memories make us realise those valuable times which we have passed were so sweet. Loved reading your article. Thanks for sharing 💕🎉👍😊
Thanks for reading Priti, and for leaving such a lovely comment. Merry Christmas!
It’s my pleasure 💓🤗Merry Christmas to you and your family. God bless you 😊🤗🎉
What a lovely post. I remember your post about Westminster Abbey and Nanny Tommy, I was quite touched by it. You write beautifully about your family history. The house on Fitzneal St is a beauty- that fireplace!
Thank you for your lovely words! And for remembering the Westminster Abbey connection. Appreciate your readership Helen.
I absolutely loved reading this. London is my most favourite city in the whole wide world. I travel from Scotland to London to get cancer treatment at the royal free hospital. We make sure we do something ‘nice’ Make memories. London saves my soul. keeps me alive in more ways than one. Thank you ever so much for sharing such a personal story. I really enjoyed it. Take care
Hey Lizbeth, so glad you found this article, it’s one of my favourites. I’m sorry to read you are going through a tough time, but delighted to hear that London plays such an important part in your treatment, both in and out of hospital. It is a special city and one that I immensely enjoy exploring whenever I return ‘home’, every 2-3 years. Take care.