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My Common by Christopher Martyn

To this day I remain profoundly grateful for a childhood spent in and around the wide open spaces of Plumstead Common, and when I went to the Roan School I got to know and enjoy Blackheath too. For a Londoner this was an exceptionally ‘green’ upbringing. The paths which crisscrossed Plumstead Common were where I rode trike and bike and went roller-skating. ‘The slope’ right opposite our house in St John’s Terrace was a downhill stretch that I rarely attempted. I was never keen to launch myself unrestrained down anything (e.g. playground slides) or over anything (e.g. most of the equipment in the school gym). This failure of nerve gave my PE teacher Dad, Alec Martyn, no pleasure to contemplate. I was an equally reluctant swimmer, again something Dad could not understand as a trophy-winning water-polo player. To think about visits to Plumstead Baths, even from this safe distance in time, still makes me feel queasy.

The Common was where we played football with jumpers for goal-posts. Despite being a teacher - at Charlton Secondary School - and dealing with other people’s children all day, Dad was often willing to come out and referee our impromptu games. He would spend hours with me kicking a ball about or getting in a bit of cricket practice. What a saint. I didn’t totally disappoint him, as I played in goal for the school team in my last year at St Margaret’s. We wore shirts with dark blue and light blue quarters, and the goalie sported a white, high-necked, thick woolen jersey. Home fixtures were played on Winn's Common, the largest flat expanse of Plumstead Common that also had a panoramic view of the Thames less than a mile away. I used to think it was called ‘Winds’ Common; it always seemed blowier there than anywhere else. I have recently revisited this scene of our teams’ few triumphs and many disasters. The pavilion has gone, though the foundations remain, and the pitches are still marked out much as they were in 1955-56. The goal-posts are now permanent and made from tubular steel, but in our day they were temporary and made of wood. We had to lug them – two cross-bars and four uprights - from storage racks by the pavilion and then erect them in situ before we could play. There were about 140 prefabs next to the games pitches, demolished in 1957, so there is now a lot more grass to play on. In Our Common Story: a Celebration of Plumstead Common* there is a map on page 48 showing the position of these temporary post-war dwellings and their proximity to the area’s only feature of archaeological interest, a Bronze Age barrow or burial mound, which the authors of the book claim as proof that people were living on or near the Common 4,000 years ago.

St Margaret's C of E School football team of 1955-56, also mentioned in my piece.

The names are as follows:
Standing L to R: Mr Tom Callard, Brian McCarthy, Victor Crooks, John Stanley, Christopher Martyn, Barry Dormer, Raymond Winchester, John Webster, David Collins, Mr Bernard Van Eyck.
Seated L to R: David Cuffley, James Laden, Brian Semple, Alan Manley, Keith Britter, Neil Stevens, Terry Levett.

Winn's Commons was also where I remember going to see local Scout troops try out their racing ‘cars’ before the big event in the grounds of Goldie Leigh Hospital, the annual Soap Box Derby. The vehicles were a sophisticated development of the traditional trolley which was simply a plank of wood and four pram wheels with a short length of clothes-line to steer it by. The Scouts’ cars used cycle technology with pedals and a chain; they will have been the fruit of hours and hours spent in back yards and sheds by grease monkeys and budding engineers. A paint job plus a distinctive number completed the preparation. I would have given my eye-teeth to ride one of these soap-boxes, but maybe it was better that I didn’t, given my aversion to rapid downhill travel and the nagging suspicion that they had no brakes!

There were plenty of places to explore and trees to climb on the Common. Hide-and-seek was popular because some parts of the land are hollowed out, former gravel pits, and full of useful cover in the form of gorse, hawthorn bushes and tall grass; even the insalubrious gents’ lavatory behind the Globe cinema off Blendon Terrace provided a good hiding-place. Nearby there were other man-made landmarks, like the bandstand and the war memorial. On Remembrance Sunday, before I joined the Cubs, Dad and I would go to the wreath-laying ceremony attended by soldiers and veterans of the Royal Artillery. Just before 11 o’clock there was silence followed on the hour by the distant boom of guns from the parade-ground of the RA garrison on Woolwich Common. Once I had joined the 8th Woolwich (St Margaret’s) I would be in church at that time for a parish Remembrance service that was would be attended by Old Comrades from the First World War. One of their number, the same retired colonel each year it seemed, would stand bow-legged but erect at the chancel steps to read out the names of the ‘fallen’, from the 8th London Howitzer Brigade, Royal Field Artillery. Being posh and officer class, he called his regiment the ‘Uh-tillery’, and I imagine he said ‘clorth’ and ‘orf’ too if he needed his batman to take the cloth off the table.

The part of the Common which we thought of as ‘ours’ was the area immediately adjacent to St John’s Terrace. My Granddad played bowls during the summer months on the greens virtually opposite our house; my Dad and my godfather, Vic Mann, very occasionally played tennis on the nearby hard courts; and I loved to hone my putting skills on the nine-hole green which originally was at the top of our road but later re-located to the other side, overlooked by the houses in Heavitree Road. I had my first encounter with stinging nettles in the fenced off area behind St Margaret’s church, just where Bramblebury Road led onto the common. We all wore short trousers in those days - rarely in ‘longs’ before the age of twelve – and so my legs were stung to kingdom come. How the hot tears flowed as I ran back home. Never was an incautious trespasser more appropriately punished!

The photograph of the gentlemen was taken in 1946 or 1947 in front of the pavilion close by St John's Terrace. My Grandad, William Henry Livett, is second left, middle row (or first left, if you think the man to his right is really in the back row!) he's the fairly tall distinguished-looking guy. I believe these were members of the Plumstead Common Bowls Club, but I'm not absolutely sure.

Just beyond the eastern edge of Plumstead Common, across King’s Highway, was Rockliffe Gardens. I loved going there, perhaps the destination of a Sunday afternoon walk with Dad. It was on several levels because it was built on the side of a steep embankment, and each level was connected by crazy-paving paths and steps. I dearly wished we could have a garden like this at home; our back yard was minuscule and utterly featureless. On the top level there were ornamental flower-beds, a rectangular fish-pond with water lilies, and a sequence of rose arches leading to a summerhouse. Down below there was a weeping willow tree standing sentinel beside a more rustic kind of pond. When as a student I worked one summer holiday for Woolwich Borough Council Parks and Gardens I was assigned to duties in Rockliffe Gardens, weeding, cutting off tree suckers and mowing the narrow strips of lawn. It was the best job they gave me in six weeks or more. Only one public garden, in my view, could surpass Rockliffe, and that was the Well Hall Pleasaunce with its Tudor Barn smelling of old wood and wax polish, its enchanting mix of borders, low hedges, walls, paths and archways.

At weekends we would watch cricket games on the pitch in front of the Brown School as a succession of 53, 163 and 180 buses came and went from their Warwick Terrace terminus nearby, the crews walking to a café on the corner of Old Mill Road for refreshment. There were always bowls matches to watch as well. Even now I can hear the plocking sound of wood on wood, and see the players run a few steps down the lane before stopping and shielding their eyes as they look into the late evening sun to find out how near the jack they get. Several days a week during the summer months my Granddad walked up from his home near the bottom of Ancona Road, to our house where his ‘woods’ were kept. Once he was in his eighties he found the slog up the hill increasingly difficult, but then . . a ‘godsend’ as he called it. London Transport introduced the 192 bus route from General Gordon Square to Garland Road via Griffin Road and Waverley Crescent. I am sure that service extended his playing days by several years.

At the top of our road was The Lodge, traditionally the Park Keeper’s house. Adjacent to it was the original stable yard which by the 1950s was used inter alia as a depot for the tractor we saw working every day on the Common, pulling the three-piece gang mower or a trailer full of tree and hedge prunings or whatever, according to the season. The L.C.C. Common Keepers (or ‘Commers’ as we called them) wore brown tweed suits. They were like policemen in some ways. Each one had a unique number punched in the oval metal badge that was stitched the to the front of his brown felt hat. We were generally scared of them or at least wary, because they seemed determined to keep us under the thumb, chasing us off this patch of grass or reprimanding us about that imagined transgression. Adults in authority were like that in those days: always telling you off, threatening to report you, stopping you having fun. The Lodge is a handsome-looking house (see Our Common Story, page 28) with its white-painted upper story and rich reddish-brown brick, so unlike the soft, grubby yellow brick that our house was built of, in common with hundreds of thousands of others in London.

Plumstead Common was and is London’s best kept secret. In sixty years I have met few people who have heard of it, let alone know where it is. I suppose if you had stood at a bus stop in Regent Street in 1960, say, and saw a 53 approaching with ‘Plumstead Common’ displayed on its front, you might have wondered where that was. But then I hadn’t a clue about Wanstead Flats or Dollis Hill. North of the Thames is another country. I am just so glad to have had a share in that best-kept secret.

*This book, published in 2004 by the Plumstead Common Environment Group, is a treasure-house of personal recollections and illustrations which no self-respecting ‘Commoner’ should be without.

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