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45 John Street, Longbridge Hayes - No More

You would search in vain nowadays for this address, long since demolished. This tiny terraced house stood on a steeply sloping piece of land sandwiched between the A500 and the West Coast mainline railway at Longport, in a small and separate community which was already earmarked for potential demolition by the time I moved there in 1978. It had been reduced to just one side each of two parallel streets, which faced each other over a wide empty space, and a chapel which was no longer used as such. The school, church, pubs and shops had long since disappeared, together with most of the community which had lived there.

The house lacked most basic amenities such as an indoor toilet, hot water, or any kind of bathroom, with the only heating from coal fires, and was extremely small in all proportions, having been built in the early 1860s. I learnt that it had first been “condemned” after the 1914-18 war, and had not had electricity until after World War Two, so it was something of a mystery that it had managed to survive for so long.

With help from a loan from my then-husband’s father, we bought the house in its entirety for either £400 or £800 cash, I can’t remember which as either price seems completely unrealistic even for the 1970s - and considering our next house 3 years later cost £8,800 - but we considered it an absolute bargain all the same. It seemed like a good investment at the time, and for all we knew, structurally sound enough to last until such time as the council would be sounding its death knell.

The front room, small as it was, had a rather attractive black marble fireplace, although it was only ever used for a fire at Christmas, and prone to frequent unwelcome falls of decades-old soot, so the room had a kind of permanent damp chill about it. Our living room was the back room, somewhat larger, the focal point of which was a big fireplace containing a tiled duplex range from the 1920’s, having an oven to one side of the actual grate. I had been brought up in a house with coal fires, and soon became proficient at building the small pyres of newspaper, kindling and little pieces of the fossil fuel we were still using without a moment’s hesitation. A metal shovel covered with a sheet of newspaper would be held up in front to encourage the updraught and bring the tiny flames to life, so the smell of scorching would fill the room, and a moment’s distraction would see the paper itself go up in flames, requiring speedy action.

The coalman delivered every other week, and would leave the sack in the entry, necessitating it being dragged down the yard to the coalhouse, to which visits in the dark, cold and rain would be argued over later in the week. More miserable still were the times when stocks had run low, which meant that an ancient industrial-sized sieve had to be used to scrape together anything from the fragments of coal; it was a filthy and unwelcome job, although largely our own faults, as we had “forgotten” to pay the coalman, one Tony Hancock, and he wisely didn’t offer a credit service.

Much has been written about the nostalgic delights of “real” fires, of their presence lending something more than heat and light to a room; perhaps their need for constant attention or the ever-changing colours in the flames, or maybe they rekindle childhood memories otherwise beyond recall. Sadly, coming downstairs on a bitterly cold winter’s morning was not so romantic, especially if our cat had decided to sleep on the cooling remains of the cinders to enjoy what little warmth was left, and consequently walked ashy white footprints everywhere. I would often have vivid dreams that I had actually already made the fire, and would be genuinely surprised to see the cold and empty grate, with a very grubby cat demanding breakfast.

This room had last been decorated I would guess in the 1950s, with a wallpaper design of huge florid red roses in a style I would probably find quite attractive now, but we painted over it in lurid yellow emulsion which was not quite sufficient to stop the roses blotching through like some sort of skin disease.

Overhead there was a wooden clothes drying rack on a pulley, which was extremely useful in the days before tumble dryers, and in the evenings a gentle steaming from damp washing would perfume the air in a pleasant way.

We had next to no furniture at the time apart from a 1930s sideboard of the kind you couldn’t give away then or now, and a few bits and pieces, so someone gave us a 1960s three piece suite. It was angular in shape with spindly wooden legs, covered in cold red and black textured vinyl, and extremely uncomfortable, and I hated it with a passion, although nowadays I could definitely imagine it in a vintage/retro furniture emporium with a hefty price tag. We were in no position to buy any decent furniture, so we had to make do, and I begged as many crocheted blankets as possible from my mother with which to disguise the hated suite.

Our kitchen was the former scullery of the house, with a red and black quarry tiled floor, and the remains of the chimney breast where the copper wash boiler used to stand, which might have been useful had it remained as there was no hot water save that from a tiny ascot water heater or kettle. There was a deep white ceramic sink, and what I thought at first to be a wooden topped table, until I discovered after some manoeuvering that the whole thing tipped over to reveal a cast iron mangle. The one jarring note of modernity was the brand new gas cooker we bought which cost an eye-watering £149, but the rest of the room had been oblivious to change, with the cold tap often freezing up in winter and ice forming on the inside of the window.

There were two small bedrooms, one of which we painted with a colour which promised to be “powder blue” according to the lid, but turned out to be a grim and cheerless dark blue. Stupidly, we kept painting, thinking it might magically dry to a lighter shade (in the days when paint took forever to dry and smelt of poisonous chemicals). It stubbornly remained the same unpleasant colour, to our dismay. The bedroom window was oddly situated just inches from the floor, but made an excellent vantage point for watching the annual massive bonfire that was held on the spare ground between John Street and Peel Street, its flames illegally given an extra boost with old tyres.

The back bedroom, which we used only for storage, had a highly unorthodox arrangement whereby the door actually overlooked the stairs to the depth of a couple of steps, no landing, so anyone stepping carelessly from the room would find themselves at great risk of falling down the steep narrow stairs; why it was built like this I have no idea, as it would have been especially dangerous in the days when multiple occupation of bedrooms by children was a necessity.

There was also a cellar which someone told me once contained a well, an idea which fascinated me although I could see no trace of it.

Outside, the yard contained the coalhouse (from which some kind person stole all our coal when we went away one weekend), and next to that the outside toilet, illuminated only by a stolen roadworks lamp, so that the already uncongenial surroundings also stunk of paraffin.

The back wall gave onto what appeared to be unkempt wasteland, but was actually a dumping ground for huge pieces of metal, of unknown purpose, from the foundry of Birkett, Billington and Newton. The land was also home to scores of mice, many of which the cat kindly brought dead or alive into the house.

The house came under a compulsory purchase order from the local council in 1981.

We moved out in December of that year.

The place is no more. It is now an industrial estate.

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