It’s late May and my south London garden is glorious at this time of year, full of radiant flowers, euphoric bird song, and even a pair of frogs in my pond. Now that the sun is out I have got around to planting some herbs and lavender, pictured above, in some very special containers.
I have written in previous posts about the fate of the house in which I was born. After our parents’ deaths we were forced, with heavy hearts, to sell it; the buyer posed as a family man who wanted an old house to restore and live in. I felt able to let it go to someone who could rise to its many challenges and raise more children within its lovely Victorian brick walls. How naive we were! The buyer was a property developer who just wanted the land to build something bigger, and my heavy heart was destroyed along with the house. It felt like a third bereavement after the loss of my parents. Brother 2, however, was more pragmatic: on learning of the house’s imminent fate, he salvaged what he could before it was gone forever. With the new owner’s permission, he managed to salvage bits and pieces: fireplaces, cupboards built by our Dad, and various bits of masonry. Some of these had already had a variety of uses in the house.
This ceramic sink was the original downstairs kitchen sink, where Mum or Dad would wash the dishes looking out into the garden. It was replaced with a modern stainless steel sink sometime in the 1960s and moved out into the garden, where Mum used it as a planter. It was in Brother 1’s garden for many years and has now come to mine, where it contains my herb garden of mint, coriander, sage, rosemary and chives.
The original purpose of the container in which I have planted the lavender is less obvious:
None the wiser? Look carefully at the gate and its two gateposts. Each is topped by square stone plinth, empty of statuary. Dad demolished this high wall and built a lower, more child-friendly one after the kids came along. The new gateposts were topped with concrete cones and the old stone ones given a second life in the garden, where Mum grew hydrangeas in them. They have ended up in mine, where I can only hope I am as successful with my plant growing.
You may wonder why the stone plinths were empty; I often have. Our house was in a street of famous Lion houses, but it wasn’t one of them (had it been, the buyer could not have demolished it). It was built slightly later, adjacent to the wall of a Lion house – so we did have one stone lion, atop the post on our side of the alleyway. I was always very fond of this lion and wished we could have taken it away, but at least it has survived the destruction of the house.
Barnes is one of the areas of London famous for these stone lions, which perch proudly on every gable and gatepost of these grand Victorian houses. According to local legend, the builder was named Lyon and ordered 100 stone lions as his trademark, but due to a clerical error he received 1,000, hence their ubiquitous presence.
Our house originally had open fires, of which I have only a vague memory, although I do remember the concrete coal bunkers full of coke, and my treasured drinks cabinet still carries a whiff of coal dust. Central heating was installed when I was a toddler, and a couple of decades later the chimney pots on the roof, long redundant and getting unstable, had to come down. Their new use? You guessed it. My garden now hosts my Mum’s recommissioned pot:
There is a pleasing coda to this story. The house’s buyer demolished it with plans to build a vast monstrosity in its place, maximising his profit from the land. The street is a conservation area, however, so he was not granted planning permission. Instead, he had to build an exact replica of our house, no higher than it was before (though lacking chimney stacks). He gained extra space by digging out Mum’s beloved garden and installing a basement complete with swimming pool – fulfilling, at last, my Dad’s recurring dream of finding a hidden cellar under the house. But if you walk down Laurel Road today you would never notice that our beautiful house is gone. Even if you knew the house well, you would perhaps think the new owner had re-positioned the door, replaced the windows, changed the front garden, but you wouldn’t guess it was a completely new house. Nothing can replace the family home in which I was born, but whenever I do walk down my childhood street, it is easy to pretend it is still there.