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 fifth of a series of articles, Jean introduces her poem entitled Flourish, which prompts her memories of a thriving Wanstead High Street in years past. Artwork by Terry Law
Back in the old days, we had a wide variety of shops in Wanstead to cater for every need – anything from clothes, shoes, homewares, toys, bicycles, furniture, carpets, plants and building materials, so there was little need to shop elsewhere.
Many people will remember Dunhams the drapers, a lovely old-fashioned shop rather like Grace Brothers. It sold winceyette nighties, floral overalls, slippers, sensible stockings, baby clothes and haberdashery, and the stock was kept in old-fashioned wooden drawers with glass fronts. At the rear of the shop was the curtain department, festooned with all kinds of net curtains and presided over by a charming, chatty chap called Anthony.
Woolworths was a really useful shop catering for all our household needs. They sold good-quality Ladybird childrens’ clothes and, of course, Pic n’ Mix sweets. Other shops we used regularly were Attwoods the grocers – who used to pack our order in a box and my husband would collect it on his way home – Harveys the greengrocers and AJ Dennis the butcher, who made his own burgers.
There was a good garden centre with a huge range of plants, run by a very knowledgeable couple. Next door was a little boutique called Myshella and a tiny shop called Truffles the chocolate shop. The owner would put them in a little box with a hand-tied ribbon bow. Nearby on Woodbine Place was the Wanstead Wool Shop – a very tiny shop with balls of wool stacked up from floor to ceiling, run by two sisters who would climb up a ladder to get the wool from the top shelf.
There were few places to eat back then, apart from the Wimpy Bar and the Alhambra Café on Woodbine Place. I remember when Nice Croissant opened, run by Kerry, our first pavement café in Wanstead selling beautiful French patisserie. Previously, it was Dickens the bakery who were well known for their hot cross buns.
In the 1960s we had a very tiny library on the High Street, in the building which is now Zoology. The new library was built around 1970 and seemed huge and modern by contrast. It had a mural on the wall featuring abstract dancers, created by Mr Woolner, the Head of Art at Wanstead High School.
A unique shop was Lewis Marine, a speedboat shop – in hindsight, an unusual shop for any London suburb, but we didn’t seem to think it strange at the time! Their sign can still be seen at the rear of the old Barclays building. Further along was the chemist’s Matthew and Son, with its striped sunblind and two big vials of liquid on display, one red and one green, and nearby was the Arthur Hands photography studio. One of my friends hinted darkly at strange goings-on in the basement – a dubious ‘club’ or parties, but we never found out if this was true or not!
My favourite was ‘Lady’ boutique, run by two lovely ladies called Rita and Di. They would always say: “Ooh, that really suits you!” “Oh, you’ve really lost weight!” They had chairs by the counter and customers would sit there enjoying a gossip and, sometimes, a Baileys!
by Jean Medcalf
While clearing out my shed some weeks ago,
I found some bulbs.
Stunted, forgotten, past their “plant-by“ date,
Every gardener knows what I mean.
I held them in my hands, weighing, cogitating.
Were they worth the trouble of planting?
Would knife straight stems grow
from curvy shoots?
Give us a chance, the crocuses seemed to plead.
So I did, planted them into pots,
And let the sun do its work.
Some weeks later,
Sunlight and earth makes plants grow straight,
Give everything another chance to see the light,