I was in Blackheath, South East London on Wednesday as part of my trip up to nearby Greenwich for a reading of my novel. It became a much postponed family visit to find the houses where my mother, now in her 100th year, used to live and where she hasn’t been for 85 years. It was interesting for me too – not only to see some of my heritage but also to put images to the names of roads I had heard discussed since my childhood.
My mother was a child in Blackheath and lived in a house, No. 9 Vanburgh Park, immediately opposite to the heath, one of the largest areas of common land in London. Her house was in front of the so-called Vanburgh Pits, old gravel pits used in the 18th and early 19th Centuries before being allowed to return to nature becoming famous for its gorse bushes and wild flowers. The heathland was one of the main mustering points for the army in the Napoleonic Wars and it was the site of rebellions too during England’s long turbulent history. The invading Danes were here in 1011 and the Peasants’ Revolt started here in 1381, followed by Cade’s Rebellion in 1450. It was also the location for many royal ceremonials. King Henry IV met the Emperor of Constantinople here in 1400 and King Charles II was welcomed back to London here in 1660 at his restoration to the monarchy. It is now the starting point for the London Marathon.
The heath is more significant to my family history by the arrival here of my grandparents and their small daughter in the early 20th Century. My mother didn’t know what changes to expect 85 years on.
I suppose it was no surprise to find that her house on Vanburgh Park was now the site of a rather expensive block of flats.
This was no act of building developers greed, it was the result of a German V2 bomb on the night of the 19th February 1945 when two people were killed and fifteen other residents were hospitalised. If my mother had still been living there, neither she nor me would be around to reminisce about it today. My mother was at this time living in Richmond supplementing her time as a pioneering journalist on a well-known woman’s magazine with working as a volunteer nurse on a medical mobile unit in Central London during the Blitz. After the war, apparently, the Vanburgh Park bomb rubble was used to fill in part of the Vanburgh gravel pit making this part of of the heath a gentler gradient.
The German rocket may have claimed my mother’s home but further down the street she could see identical residences still, apparently, as she remembered them.
We stopped to look at No. 21 Vanburgh Park where my mother could show us how her home was arranged during the 1920s.
Since then I’ve tracked down a 1908 photograph of No. 5, Vanburgh Park, four doors away from her house at No. 9.
We had better luck later when we went to find her other childhood home, not far away at No. 111 Burnt Ash Hill. My mother and grandmother had often told me about the Monkey Puzzle Tree in the garden and stories of how my mother and her best friend used to dress up as “wild fairies” there.
Amazingly, this time, her house was the only one of the old houses still standing. And, yes, that Monkey Puzzle Tree was still there too.
If I was pleased, it was as nothing compared to my mother’s delight in finding her old home again after 85 years. It was a highly memorable day.
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