Deep roots

Gravatts-window-cropped-contrastGravatt’s shop window by Sally Medcalf

Wanstead resident Jean Medcalf has published her first poetry book at the age of 89. To Everything There is a Season is a collection of lyrical, spiritual poems about nature. In the fourth of a series of articles, Jean introduces her poem entitled February, which prompts her memories of Nightingale Lane in the 1960s. Background artwork of the old Gravatt’s shop window by Sally Medcalf

February was the month I gave birth to my second child – having just moved into our new home in Wanstead weeks earlier in December 1960! Shopping with a pram and a toddler was tiring, so it was very useful to have small shops nearby on Nightingale Lane.

There was a little grocers run by Arthur and Kath Chumbley, who sold cheese the old-fashioned way – cut with a cheese wire and weighed on the scales – and ham and bacon sliced on a machine. There was Gilbert’s, the greengrocers run by Mr George Gilbert, who used to sit outside on a chair and chat to passers-by. If you had a surplus of apples, pears or plums from your garden, he would buy them from you.

Carver’s circa 1950s.
Photo courtesy of
Kevin Palmer, whose grandfather Charles Reddy Palmer (right) worked at the butcher shop on Nightingale Lane

There was also Carver’s the butcher and a fish-and-chip shop called Capital Fish Bar, which was so popular they often ran out of fish! In the mid-70s, it was called Michael’s and then it became the first Chinese takeaway we had ever seen, which was quite exciting. We even had a small hair salon near the Duke of Edinburgh pub.

The local children used to congregate around Ann’s, the sweet shop, with its shelves of tall glass jars of gobstoppers, sherbet lemons, aniseed twists and rhubarb and custards, all about sixpence a quarter. On the wooden counter were the cheap sweets: flying saucers, pink shrimps, black jacks and fruit salad chews at four for a penny. She also sold blocks of ice cream – the only choice back then was Neapolitan or raspberry ripple.

The other favourite was Gravatt’s, which repaired typewriters and sold toys, run by Mrs Long, a kindly, grey-haired lady in a navy overall. It was rather dark inside as the window was completely crammed with toys: catapults, jigsaws, fuzzy felt, pea shooters, cap-guns, little dolls, puzzles and metal paintboxes for half a crown – several weeks’ worth of pocket money!

The Nightingale pub was run by a landlord called Jock. The corner door of the pub was for off-sales; it led through to a tiny wood-panelled corridor, where there was a jar of arrowroot biscuits, a penny each. The landlord kept white doves in a dovecote in the little garden behind the pub.

There was B. Forster the builder further down, and at the bottom of Elmcroft Avenue was a rag and bone yard with a horse and cart. The horse was called George and the children used to give him apples.

Going up Nightingale Lane, on the right-hand side was a junkyard called Cardy’s run by an elderly chap, and on summer days, he would often close early and hang up a sign to say ‘GONE FISHING’!

Further up, near the top of the road, was S.E. Bamforth, the clock and watch mender, a little, venerable white-haired man with a collarless shirt, who peered over the top of gold-rimmed specs. The shop was tiny – filled with ticking clocks – and very dark, illuminated only by a hissing gaslight.

So, we could get most of our shopping just around the corner. Once a week I would push my heavy pram up Nightingale Lane to the big High Street shops. I will tell you about them next time.

by Jean Medcalf

February: lipchap nipnose dripnose
Frostbite chilblains and boys’ mauve knees;
February: steam breath ice crack hoarfrost
Fern windows leaf rime and falling silent snow.

February: crunchgrass snowcreak stiffmud
Stonesong on iceponds; sheets rigid on the line;
February: hot toast warm slippers muffins
Coalfires scorched legs and pictures in the flames.

February: hotmitts earmuffs greatcoats
Balaclava helmets and warm woolly vests;
February: snowdrops primrose crocus
Blacktwigged almond blossom, pink before the leaf.

February: candlemas purify expiate
Barebranch stripbare nothing to hide;
Daffodils greenspear upthrust through the earth
Trees deciduous decide to bud again.

Jean’s book To Everything There is a Season is available in paperback (£4.75). Visit wnstd.com/jean