This post has nothing to do with the theatre; it has nothing to nothing to do with Charles Dickens; it has nothing to with my recent performances of ‘To Begin With’ in America. I have written this post thanks to all of those things.
A remarkable coincidence, which originated in the sub-zero temperatures of Minneapolis, has transported me back to my childhood and brought to the surface a tsunami of memories.
Let me explain:
Jeffrey Hatcher, the writer and director of ‘To Begin With’ shares with me a passion for the works of Ian Fleming and had read a book entitled: ‘The Man Who Saved Britain. A Personal Journey In To The Disturbing World of James Bond, by Simon Winder’.
I have read a great many books about Ian Fleming and James Bond, but this particular tome had passed me by. I assumed it must be by an American author and was pleased when Jeff said that he would lend me his copy.
Unfortunately Jeff’s volume proved elusive (he subsequently remembered that he had previously lent it to another Brit, who had failed to return it), but he promised to order a copy online and send it on to me.
The book duly arrived and I eagerly opened it and almost fell off my chair when I read the title of Winder’s introduction: ‘Eating Old Jamaican at the Tunbridge Wells Odeon’. In his preface Simon explains how, as a ten year old, he was terrified in the Tunbridge Wells cinema watching the voodoo rituals in Live and Let Die, and ultimately realising that there was a glamorous, dangerous, faced-paced, sexy world outside the boundaries of Royal Tunbridge Wells: the world of James Bond
The reason that these few paragraphs had such an influence on me was that I too was ten when ‘Live and Let Die’ was released. I too had been terrified by the voodoo rituals. I too had watched the film at the cinema in Tunbridge Wells (I must take issue with Mr Winder’s memory as the cinema was The Classic, or maybe even the Essoldo at that time: The Odeon came much later as an out of town multiplex).
I couldn’t believe my eyes as Simon went onto describe that his previous cinema outing had been to sit through the Royal Ballet’s film version of ‘The Tales of Beatrix Potter’ – mine too! I began to wonder if I had written a book about James Bond and forgotten all about it, for here was my own childhood laid out on the page before me.
My reaction to this little quirk of fate was amazing, it was as if I peering through a tiny crack in time. The more I looked, the wider the crack became, until remembered images of my life in Royal Tunbridge Wells poured through it and flooded my mind.
The purpose of this post is to share some of those memories. It is not intended to be a history of my childhood, but a walk around the town in which I (and Simon Winder, apparently) grew up.
As this story started there, let’s begin with the cinema:
The cinema stood at the top of Mount Pleasant, on the corner with Church Road. It was a strange nondescript, rather modern looking building, built on an angle. It faced the huge red bricked building that housed the town’s library, town hall, police station and theatre.
To enter the cinema you walked up a few steps to one of a number of doors. As it was on the edge of a large hill the number of steps increased the further to the left you went. There were about six on the far left and only one at the right.
The foyer was spacious and had a rather sticky carpet, as though pop corn and sweets had been trodden in to it for so long that a new surface had been created. The ticket office ran along the left hand side of the foyer, with a small counter selling drinks and snacks to the right. There was a small confectionary shop next door, and it was much cheaper to buy your sweets there, before you saw the film.
When I was growing up there were two screening theatres, which was very grand. Screen One was huge, and this is where the big films (presumably Live and Let Die among them), were shown. Screen Two was a less imposing and more intimate space and was always my favourite.
In later years an upstairs room, which had used to be a small restaurant, was converted into a third screen, and was tiny. In fact Screen Three was so small that there was no room for a traditional projection room at the back – the projector was housed in the roof, and the image reached the screen via a series of mirrors.
The cinema was built over the railway tunnel, through which the commuter trains to and from London passed, and at regular intervals you could feel the building vibrate. You can pay good money these days to have the same effect in an Imax theatre.
Other than the aforementioned Bond and Beatrix Potter films, I distinctly remember seeing Pinocchio there, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Of course there were plenty of other visits as I grew up, but those stay in my mind.
These days there is a large shopping mall in the middle of Tunbridge Wells, but back in the sixties and seventies the town was made up of lots of independent shops catering for the needs of a staunchly traditional and Conservative clientele.
On the corner of Calverley Road and Mount Pleasant, stood Cheeseman’s, a wonderful department store arranged over three floors. It seemed huge to me, but I’m sure that it wasn’t.
There were floors given over to clothes, and to hardware and to electrical goods, and to toys and to sporting equipment. As the shop was in an old building there would never be obvious ways of getting around: there was a staircase tucked in one corner, and a rickety old lift, with those folding metal gates, somewhere else.
In Cheeseman’s every Christmas there would be a Santa’s grotto, and I would wait patiently and excitedly in a queue, until I was ushered into the presence of Father Christmas himself, who gently handed me a small wrapped gift from his sack and asked: ‘what would you like for Christmas?’ My mother would be standing nearby straining her ears for any clues.
There was another department store at the other end of the town, opposite the main rail station, and that was much grander: Weekes. Your position in society was very obvious if you shopped at Weekes – the clothes were more expensive and more fashionable (what era they were fashionable in is open to question: probably at the height of The British Empire). In contrast to the slightly down-at heel- Cheeseman’s, Weekes actually had an escalator running through the centre of the main floors. The only other place I had ever seen an escalator was in London, so to actually have one in our own town was very exciting.
Weekes stood on a junction of four roads, one of which was the High Street. The name ‘High Street’ suggests a bustling town centre, but that was not the case in Tunbridge Wells.
In the 1600s a small settlement had grown up around a natural spring, rich in iron, and the respectable folk had flocked from London to take the waters. Naturally, entrepreneurial types began to cash in on the influx of wealthy visitors. They set up stalls and lodging houses, and so the beginnings of the town grew.
Fashions change, however, and the nobility decided that sea bathing was better for them: Brighton became the new fashionable place in which to be seen. Tunbridge Wells was left to fade and crumble, leaving a few shops straggling away from the site of the Spring. This neglected road had been the High Street.
Tunbridge Wells needed reinventing if it was to survive, and the young architect Decimus Burton, started work on his ‘Calverley Project’ which utilised land at the top of a steep hill, distant from the formally respectable area where Royalty had once gathered.
The new society lived, and shopped at ‘the top of the town’, while the Pantiles (the covered promenade around the spring), became an interesting tourist attraction. The old High Street was neither one thing nor another, just a road linking the two ends of the town.
But, there was one shop in the High Street that we as a family knew well, because it was owned by our neighbour, Mr Goulden: The shop was called Goulden and Curry.
Goulden and Curry was a stationery shop, and at ground level there were lovely glass topped counters, with dark wood cabinets, containing pens and nibs, pencils and sharpeners, rubbers and rulers and tin boxes containing protractors, set squares and compasses. You could buy a slide rule there too: the range varied from very basic to eye-wateringly advanced. I never understood slide rules, but Goulden and Curry specialised in them.
Walk up the stairs and you were in the book department, which spread through a number of small rooms, each connected by two or three steps here and there, up or down.
There was also a small record department, which had racks of classical music LPs. Why was there a classical music department in a stationery store? Simple: John Goulden loved his music, so why not?
The old Goulden and Curry shop is now a Cath Kidston store, but the staircase and upstairs rooms are little changed, if slightly more floral.
I have memories of a few other shops, but I don’t recall their names, sadly. There was a fabulous delicatessen on top of the hill, at Mount Ephraim, where my mother used to shop. Ham and bacon were sliced by a huge spinning circular blade, to the precise thickness that she required. As mum made her way round the shop each order, be it for meat or cheese, was recorded on a paper ticket which was then attached to an overhead string. A system of pulleys pulled all of the tickets to a cashier at the front of the shop.
When the shopping was done all of the little tickets were added together and presumably put on account for the male of the species to settle at the end of the month.
Close to the delicatessen was a yacht chandler. I have no idea why Royal Tunbridge Wells, which is a good hour or so from the coast, needed a chandler but there it was. The entrance to the shop was at street level and there were counters that sold rope and cleats and pulleys and buoys and flags and anything else that the land-locked sailor could in reason want. But, explore further back and you were in for a surprise: The floor dropped away and there were yachts – real yachts – sitting on the ground below, the tops of their masts at eye level. It was here that Dad bought the fireworks for our traditional display in the back garden on November 5th.
One of my strongest memories of Tunbridge Wells is an olfactory one. Walking along Monson Road, in the centre of town, you would pass a coffee shop, and in the window there was a machine constantly roasting and grinding coffee beans: oh, what a wonderful smell that was!
Also in Monson Road, nearly opposite the coffee shop, were the swimming baths. Every Saturday morning, before breakfast, dad would take us with rolled up towels, to the Monson Baths, which were housed in a splendid Victorian building.
The changing cubicles were along each side of the pool and the whole building was tiled, meaning that the screams and shouts from all of the swimmers echoed loudly. There was always a plaster from someone’s grazed knee, floating in the chlorine filled water. I seem to remember that the roof was glass, so that there was natural light, but I may be wrong in that.
There was a diving board at one end and I remember standing on it one Saturday morning, desperate to dive, but so scared too. I shivered with cold and fear. Dad was in the pool getting more and more impatient with me, as were the many bathers who queued up waiting to execute a perfect swallow dive.
Eventually it was time for us to leave and it was now or never – so I dived. I imagine I landed flat on my stomach, driving the wind out of me and sending up a huge splash. My shout of pain must have sounded impressive as it echoed from the tiles: It was a good lesson in conquering fear.
In those days you didn’t just swim for as long as you liked, there was a strict time limit and after the allotted time (half an hour, forty five minutes, maybe?) an announcement was made and everybody with red wrist bands had to get out, and the next group, wearing green, were allowed in.
After the great dive, I was allowed to buy a chocolate bar – a Mars Bar I think, as a reward for my extreme bravery. I had to pay for it in ‘new money’ – 2 ½ pence (equivalent to 6d). It was my first lesson in decimalisation, thus dating the momentous day to 1970, when I was six years old.
The town boasted another swimming pool, the Woodsgate Open Air Pool in Pembury. Woodsgate had a curling slide which launched you into the water, which was so exciting. A visit to Woodsgate was rare and the pool was demolished and the ground built on when I was still young.
Tunbridge Wells boasted then, and still does, an expanse of wonderful common land on which children could play. The Common was laid out for the Victorian gentry to stroll, and there were many wide avenues criss-crossing it. There were areas of woodland, and areas of open space, including two ‘cricket pitches’. One was an actual cricket pitch: The Upper Cricket Ground, where the Linden Park Cricket Club played, whilst the other, was just a large grass expanse called The Lower Cricket Ground.
The Lower Cricket Ground was hardly ever used for anything, but one year there was a huge funfair there, and a festival featuring the massed bands of the Royal Marines. I assume the country was celebrating something or other, but I don’t remember what: my main memory is of the perfectly white helmets of the band, in perfectly straight rows.
Next to the Upper Cricket Ground were The Wellington Rocks, an outcrop of sandstone that was perfect for climbing on. The soft rock had been worn away by generations of feet, and there were hand and foot holes which meant that would-be Sir Edmund Hillary’s could climb to the highest point with ease (although a six-year old who had been paralysed by fear on the Monson diving board would rather have left the business of climbing to the older children.)
In between the rocks were wonderful crevices, through which only a child could squeeze, making it perfect hide-and-seek terrain.
Many a Sunday afternoon was spent on the rocks, as the adults sat on rugs and enjoyed a picnic, safe in the knowledge that their children were having great adventures just a few yards away.
I could go on and on. Even as I have been writing, more and more of my childhood has come flooding back to me, but I think that’s enough to be going on with. I hope that by reading this some of your own memories might have surfaced.
Life changes at a rapid pace: The Classic Cinema has lain empty and crumbling for many years. Cheeseman’s was bulldozed when the shopping mall was built. It has been replaced by a series of modern, bland, shops that can be found in any shopping centre in any town in England.
Weekes changed into Hoopers, but is still in the same building, and the escalator is still there. The fashions are still indeterminate.
The Monson Baths are gone, and there is a single-story outdoor pursuits shop in its place, whilst the aroma of roasting coffee beans no longer wafts along Monson Road.
But in Tunbridge Wells in 2015 there are still children of six, and they will have their own memories of home, and hopefully will look back on these years with as much fondness I have done today.