The Folks Who Lived on the Hill

In which The Author reminisces about
his childhood home

Last weekend, on my mother’s birthday, we were looking at old photographs of our garden – in particular, the garden party when Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer, back in 1981.
Tonight, on the way home from the station, I walked along the street where I grew up, and I started thinking back to when we were young. Maybe the sight of the old photos sparked an urge to revisit my childhood – I don’t know. But I’d like to try and put down some random thoughts about the place where I grew up. It’s nothing to get excited about. There’s no punchline for once. Sorry …
When we were growing up we lived in one of a pair of semi-detached houses, nothing remarkable to look at, but somehow out of character with their surroundings (see also ‘A Little Economy‘). Try and picture the layout if you can.
At one end of the street was our school – a substantial Victorian structure. The high stone walls, imposing wooden gates, and narrow stone steps leading to classrooms overlooking the tarmac playground betray the purpose of the building, as surely as if the word SCHOOL was painted in large letters on the road outside. (Nowadays it is, of course, along with yellow zigzags and cross-hatchings as traffic calming measures. There was little need for them in the valleys of the early 1970s.)
If you started walking towards our house from the school, you found yourself walking along a fairly typical Valleys terrace – the sort of street you picture in your mind’s eye whenever anybody mentions South Wales. Another long terrace led off to the left, into a grid of narrow streets, unmade back lanes and ‘trips’ – rough little short cuts from one place to another, which seem to be peculiar to the Valleys. At the corner where these two streets met, ours became a fairly steep hill, and the character of the houses changed completely.
On the left, the terrace consisted of half a dozen houses, but with a difference. At the end of the terrace, a small gated alleyway at right-angles to the road led to two or three front doors, a curious arrangement which seems to exist to this day. That alleyway seems to have marked an subconscious boundary between ‘our’ world and the rest of the street. It’s odd, but apart from Richard, Philip and Caroline (who lived up the hill, and were classmates of mine), all our friends and neighbours seemed to live below this notional cut-off point.
Between the alleyway and our house was Miss Rees’ house. Miss Rees was a retired schoolteacher, in her seventies when we were growing up, with a well-deserved reputation for iron discipline in and out of school. My mother still recalls how she and her friends would be castigated for not wearing their tams – the beret-like hats which formed part of the school uniform – even if Miss Rees saw them in town after school.
The house, rather amusingly described as a ‘Cottage’, was in fact a grand detached building in a substantial and well-tended garden, with a brick shed, a lily pond and a rather disturbing white stone statue which Miss Rees had christened ‘Puck’. The Shakespearean reference was lost on us at an early age. Miss Rees had been an English teacher, and no doubt thought that Robin Goodfellow would make a suitable inhabitant for her garden.
Miss Rees had never married, but shared her house for some years with Miss Evans. (She passed away when we were very young, and I hardly remember her.) Miss Rees used to potter in the garden, tending her roses and shrubs, but one of our neighbours used to look after the bulk of the work. I don’t think I set foot inside her house until I was a teenager, but of course we often had to go into the grounds – delivering Christmas cards, as a general rule, but mainly to retrieve stray footballs and frisbees. I still remember unhooking the rusty iron chain that held the side gate closed, and the creaking of the stiff hinges as we tried to enter surreptitiously on our rescue missions.
Partly because of Miss Rees’s fearsome reputation, we were keen to spend as little time in her garden as possible. I suppose our glimpses of Puck from our bedroom window, gleaming in the moonlight, made the forbidden journey seem even more hazardous. Thinking back, if one didn’t know Miss Rees, the whole place must have seemed like Miss Havisham’s house, with its high walls and impenetrable gates, and the solitary, seldom-seen spinster brooding within its mysterious environs.
Our house and our next-door neighbours’ house (downhill) were pretty much symmetrical, except that they had a garage on what must have once been a patch of empty land. These two houses, and their imposing neighbour, had somehow grown up below a fairly traditional Valleys terrace; to me it seems odd now, yet at the time I thought nothing of it.
Opposite us, three large bungalows stood on raised foundations behind low block walls; their front doors were set well back from the road, each one reached by a low flights of paved steps. Below them, a high wall and two iron gates enclosed a large area of land which had once been a private estate. When we were growing up, our neighbours had built a couple of garages on part of the site; we used the rest of it in our games of Commandos and Cowboys and Indians.
On the other side of our neighbours’ garage, there stood a level street of six cottages, leading onto a patch of waste ground. This little private (unadopted by the local authority) terrace, Gadlys Uchaf, stuck out at an angle from the hill; there were no houses below it, just a short descent to a level crossing and disused signal box.
Looking at it now, the road seems almost to have been cut out from the land on either side – the waste ground on either side of the hill is fairly level, before dropping away steeply to the disused tramroad below. (Maybe the tramroad, and the railway line which supplanted it, were built in a cutting. It’s funny, but I’ve never even thought about it until I started writing this …)
On the other side of the level crossing the houses resumed, leading to a fairly self-contained hamlet where some more friends lived – Keith E. and his brothers and sister. They lived right on the corner below the crossing gates; here, the houses curved sharply into a short terrace on either side, giving way to a huge factory which occupied both sides of the road. At the beginning and end of the day our hill would be packed with cars while people made their way to or from work. Throughout the day, our games of football on the street would have to pause while lorries made their way along the narrow street towards the factory. Apart from those occasional interruptions, we could play for hours on the hill without seeing a vehicle.
Our real neighbours were mainly confined to our biggish houses, the bungalows opposite, and the little row of cottages.
I’m going to start with the big house at the top of the hill; Caroline’s house was technically ‘next door’, but only as far as the Post Office were concerned. The Laurels was a huge house, even bigger than Miss Rees’, with a high wall and high trees shielding it from the road. We never had much to do with the people who lived there. They were a very private family, and I sometimes wonder whether they were members of some religious denomination that discourages mixing in the wider community. The only time I can ever remember them getting involved with the happenings in the street, was when some younger kids were poisoned by the laburnum trees that overhung the road from their front garden. By the time I was in my late teens, the house had been sold and converted into a private nursing home. At the time, they were rare and something of a novelty. Now, of course, they’re everywhere.
In the highest of the three bungalows lived another quite religious family – but with one very unusual member, who only came to prominence once he moved to a new home not far away. A retired miner named Nicholas Evans discovered a remarkable gift for painting, using bits of rag wound round his fingers to carve his ghostly figures out from a blue-black base. His works of art – grim, bitter depictions of the thankless toil underground – became world famous. We often used to see Nick’s daughter Rhoda in the garden when we were young.
Next to the Evanses lived Alan and Barbara and their son Kevin. Barbara was a teacher, and Alan worked in one of the local factories – not on the production line, of course, but in one of the offices. Kevin was about a year or two older than me, but was never allowed out to play with our gang. Barbara’s mother also lived with them until she died – a fairly common arrangement in those days, as I recall. Nowadays they’d have built a ‘granny flat’ for the purpose, but when we were young, three generations would quite happily share a bungalow. I often used to think how great it would be to have Mams on call 24/7, rather than having to wait for her to come to call. I’ve no idea what Kevin is doing now. I haven’t seen him for over twenty years.
The third bungalow, opposite ours, was owned by Norman and Sylvia – possibly the most mismatched couple (on paper) that I’ve ever known. He was a coal merchant; she was a teacher. Their son Mark is a year or two older than me, and the last time I saw him was when I was working at the Polytechnic of Wales, back in about 1990. In spite of the seeming difference in lifestyle and background, Norman and Sylvia are still married, and as far as I know they still live in the bungalow – but Norman is very badly afflicted with arthritis. It’s a terrible, undeserved fate for such a fit, hard-working man.
Next door were Pat and Les – a rather eccentric couple who lived with Pat’s elderly mother. Les worked in the mines, and he and my father drove to Aberfan on that terrible morning in 1966, when I was just about seven months old, to help in the rescue effort after the tip engulfed the school. Les was a keen gardener, and built a greenhouse from corrugated PVC sheets in his garden. They also had a dog, a collie cross named Kim, who used to use our garden wall as a shortcut to the street. They had a son, who was also called Keith, but he was grown up (by our standards) and we saw him only occasionally. He was a keen cricketer, as I remember, and I seem to recall that he played for Glamorgan a few times.
Eschewing his garage for some reason, Les usually parked his car in the lee of the high wall opposite; he would always be the first of our neighbours to change it whenever the new registration plates came out in August. Pat’s mother, Mrs Workman, was pretty much housebound as I recall, and died while we were quite young.
When I bought my house, ten years ago, I was fitting a new lock to the front door when Pat walked past and said hello. I didn’t recognise her at first – I hadn’t seen her for over a decade. I was amazed to learn that, until very recently, they still lived in the same house.
A few months ago Mother told me that their house was on the market. It’s been sold now, and there are new people living there. It’s another link with my childhood that’s been severed forever.
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