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A Green Childhood in 1940s London

Waterwheel on the River Wandle, Merton Abbey, Surrey UK

No, this is not Hobbiton!
but Merton in SouthWest London,
close to where I was born.

My mother & her parents had lived in the Merton Park garden suburb for several years when Mum was married in the historic St.MARY's CHURCH. By the time I was born she & my father had bought a house in a tree-lined street in Tooting, only a bus ride away.

My childhood was somewhat less than peaceful, since I was old enough when WW2 began to be able to understand, & read about, what was happening. Both home & school environments were dominated by the war, & it's after effects. In such a context I had to to come to terms with death, as well as life, and the frailties of human nature, when I was very young.
So I found it very difficult to trust people, or to feel secure.
Only in the world of nature did I find comfort, especially if I could be alone with it. People, even my Grandfather & Mother, both of whom loved the natural world, and who were responsible for my early exposure to it's healing powers, seemed intrusive. Whenever I found myself in a green space, I would hide as far from people as I could possibly get.

The few impressions I retained of peacetime were of encompassing greeness. Some of my earliest memories are of watching the leaves as my pram was wheeled through tree-lined streets, or parked beneath the lilac tree in our small garden in Tooting. I could just walk on the summer day when Mum and Dad took me on their tandem bicycle to Belmont, on Banstead Downs. I travelled on a cushion strapped to the crossbar, in front of Dad! But what I remember most clearly, with constant delight, is staggering through flowering grasses and wildflowers as high as my head. I was so small I didn't need to shrink!

Another place which made a very deep impression on me was Hilly Fields, and I was delighted to find a webpage which described this historic reserve in the very year my Mother took me there - 1941.
Click this picture for further information about Hilly Fields and it's current status.Meadow at Hilly Fields
I only recall going there once, and don't know why we went so far for a picnic. But I do remember the profusion of wildflowers. There were Lady's Slippers, Purple Vetch, Red Clover, Buttercups, and Ox-eye Daisies. And clouds of butterflies, especially the tiny blue ones, and Red Admirals. My mother explained carefully that we shouldn't pick the flowers, but leave them so the butterflies could drink the nectar & lay their eggs on the leaves.

I was occasionally taken to the round pond on Tooting Bec Common, to sail my red toy yacht, but I much preferred, & usually dragged my accompanying adult to the larger & wilder main pond. I also remember picnicking in the shade of the hawthorns near the running track.
Tooting Common - A journey through Tooting's Greenery
A favourite shorter walk was up to the Tennis Courts and green at the top of our street, where there was an anti-aircraft gun emplacement in the early 1940s, and then onto "The Rec" with it's formal rosebeds & paths winding their way through lawns. For some reason I don't remember this area being used for allotments.

In 1942 Grandpa retired, and my maternal grandparents moved to Carshalton to be close to their son, who was a keen and intelligent gardener. (My uncle, a Master Builder, was required to stay and work in London throughout the war, working on essential services.) They bought a house in the same attractive cul-de-sac, which had it's own minature village green. The location was extremely green, with huge gardens at both front and rear of each house, and the vacant land behind was divided into allotments.
(See GRANDPA'S VICTORY GARDEN for more about what they did there)

Grandpa was an inspirational gardener and committed conservationist. He had a key to THE WATERMEADS Reserve, and on our frequent family visits he would take me there, if he wasn't busy working in and showing me the secrets of his own lovely garden. For a small child a more magical environment than The Watermeads is hard to imagine! A larger picture is found below the River Graveney picture linked further down this page.
Another place which captured my imagination was nearby RAVENSBURY PARK.

An elderberry tree in full bloom shades a path leading to the River Wandle
When we were bombed out in July 1944 we had to live with my grandparents in Carshalton until our house could be rebuilt.
Until his death in April 1945, Grandpa often took me to the hidden wild places which had then became accessible becuase of the war, as well as to the local large formal parks & gardens.
Grandpa understood just how essential it was for a child to be able to explore these places alone, and would keep a discreet distance while I imagined myself living in the wildwood. Another distinct advantage of being bombed out and living with Gran and Grandpa, (from my point of view) was that I was now considered old enough, and the area 'nice' enough, for me to be allowed to play in the street and on nearby vacant land. And the fact that my Grandfather was already terminally ill, and my mother in very poor health, meant that supervision was sketchy at best. It was easy to disappear to the nearby banks of the RIVER WANDLE and then to find my way to Wilderness IslandWilderness Island. Often, if everyone was busy, or just in a good mood, I would get permission to 'go fishing'. They thought I was with the neighbours' children, but I always went by myself. As long as I wasn't too late for meals, nobody worried about me - they had much greater concerns. Occasionally I would bring home tadpoles, or a disgruntled stickleback, in my jam-jar, but more often I would simply watch the many fascinating creatures to be found in the clear shallow water, laying on my stomach on the bank. This stretch of the Wandle was comparatively unpolluted even then.
Further downstream, once the river reached the industrial areas, the pollution was shocking. It's wonderful to see that all this has now been cleaned up, and the natural environment of the river restored.
Even school was green here - the playgrounds at my first school were typical of the L.C.C. with high walls and bitumen surfaces, more like a prison! Here there were real playing fields, with acres of grass, fences you could see through, and TREES!

When we returned to Tooting I was a couple of years older, and had a baby sister, so I had a great deal more freedom than before we had been bombed out. Provided that I told people where I was going, and I was back by an appointed time, no-one bothered about me much. And once out the door, I wasn't too particular about sticking to my official destination!
The place had changed considerably because of the bombs. Our house was now the last one in the terrace, the others having been damaged beyond repair by 'our' bomb. The same bomb had destroyed all the houses between our street and the next, and all those across the main road opposite. One of my first discoveries was that you could get to the RIVER GRAVENEY, a tributary of the Wandle, because of the gap. As you can see from the photo, it was, and is now, completely enclosed and built up, with no easy public access. But for a number of years it was possible to climb down an iron ladder and explore.
I had to return to my old primary school for about a year and a half, a walk of almost a mile if you took the most direct route, past the tennis courts, and then the College, with it's wonderful flowering cherries in early summmer, and the weeping willow hanging over the fence almost down to the ground.
But if you went the long way round, you could go through "The Rec.", and then stop at several small bomb sites on the way. These sites were smothered in unrestrained greenery all through the summer - not just weeds, but plants and trees from the original gardens, which had somehow recovered, and were thriving. They became my very own "secret gardens" and I spent much longer than I should have in them, when I was supposed to be going to school.

Then, of course, there was the wonderland of TOOTING BEC COMMON which has always been a haven for the naturalist. I had no camera, and never could draw anything recognisable, but I was happy just to climb a tree, or sit under a bush, and watch quietly, sometimes for hours. One of my favourite spots was the beech grove by the Park Cafe. I often collected beechmast in the autumn, and made it into jewellery, and I still recall my wonder and delight when I found a huge beefsteak fungus growing on one of the trees.
Thirty years later, during a brief return from Australia, I had the privilege of taking my youngest daughter to this spot, where she sat as quietly as I had, and we saw several squirrels, as well as many species of bird.
There's a lot to see in wild Tooting! - and that's just the places closest to me. I didn't get as far as the other side of Tooting, as it was much further from home, and nearby possibilities and discoveries seemed inexhaustible.

sycamore moth caterpillar

Even the street trees had their fascination in those days, before the advent of DDT. The colourful caterpillars of the Sycamore Moth could be found in season on the tree outside our house, after it had recovered from the bomb blast which had had stripped the leaves, but once insecticides came into regular household use, they disappeared.

When I was able to venture further from home on my own, I tended to go South rather than West, and so I discovered and spent time wandering the huge expanse of MITCHAM COMMON.
After I started High School in Streatham, I discovered STREATHAM COMMON and THE ROOKERY. But the best and wildest places were Tooting Common, and, when we visited Grandma in Carshalton, Wilderness Island, to which I escaped as soon, if not before, as was polite.

In many ways the effects of the war, and various family problems, meant that my early childhood was very traumatic.

But "In this green world birds, trees, are hands - I am loved all day!"

Nature nurtured me when people were prevented from doing so. She also began a process of wonderful informal education which has continued throughout my life.

People who do not know London may be surprised to learn just how much open space there has always been in this huge city. In spite of heavy pollution from human & industrial waste, somehow trees, shrubs & open grassy areas survived. Common Land has been protected; the various Royal parks cover a huge acreage. The ancient Inns of Court also have historic green preserves. In Georgian times many of the well-known residential Squares were developed as part of extensive building programmes. The necessity for recreational space was recognised by many Victorian reformers as industrialisation increased, & housing estates ate up the countryside. Many more parks and recreation grounds were established, and Garden Suburbs were planned, where streets were planted with trees & all the houses had gardens. One of the earliest, at Merton Park near Wimbledon, was built by John Innes, a property developer now principally remembered for compost, and his contributions to horticulture.
So to all the visionaries, social, and environmental pioneers, both past and present, acknowledged or unknown, whose work has contributed to this, I am deeply grateful.


London is the world's first city to declare itself a NATIONAL PARK

Learn why WAR CHILD is my favourite charity

At the HISTORY PLACE, read more, but much less green, memories of my childhood in

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