|Haslemere High Street|
Haslemere (pop. circa. 10 000) is a small but prosperous town, which lies in the extreme south-west corner of the county of Surrey, and midway between London and the south coast. Many of its inhabitants commute to London for work, with Haslemere railways station a major stop on the London-Portsmouth train line. The town is surrounded by hills and undulating countryside.
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- Haslemere: a sense of place
- Haslemere Railway Station: a fortress
- Three hours in Haslemere in 2015
Haslemere: a sense of place
In 1974, aged twelve, I was in the one-room newsagents on the High Pavement in Haslemere, then owned by the kindly couple Rodney and Margaret Raggett. Their son-in-law, Robert Cantan, had become a teacher at Woolmer Hill Secondary School the previous year; and spouting her personal and local gossip in conversation with a customer, Margaret Raggett boasted, “...and he’s head of chemistry up at Woolmer Hill.” The remark struck me as odd because as far as I could see, Mr Cantan was not head of anything, certainly not of the science department, which was led by the eccentric Mr Williams. But there again, there was only one chemistry teacher in the school, so I supposed you could say, in a certain sense, that Mr Cantan was indeed head of chemistry.
But why “up” at Woolmer Hill? In fact, Margaret Raggett used the word perfectly correctly in every sense. “Up” in its base meaning signifies above or higher; and of course Woolmer Hill stood at the top of a very steep hill - so steep indeed that cycling down it was forbidden by Headmaster Anning. In another sense “up” is often used in conversation to refer to places further north, so one went up to Guildford or London; and though Margaret Raggett probably didn’t intend this usage, Woolmer Hill School does lie to the north-west of Haslemere. But “up” can also refer to social elevation, and at Woolmer Hill there was the Upper School building to house the final year pupils. In the eyes of a proud mother-in-law Robert Cantan had indeed gone up in the world by becoming “head” of chemistry up at Woolmer Hill.
Going “up” nevertheless implies a starting point or centre which one goes up from; for Mrs Raggett that centre point was Margaret Raggett, a newsagent on the High Pavement in Haslemere. But on most printed maps of the day Haslemere, lying at the borders of three counties, tended to be found in the corner. Living in Haslemere, I too did not experience the world as it appeared on maps. For me Longdene Road, which led uphill from Haslemere railway station, was the centre of the world in which I lived - at least from the age of seven when my maternal grandparents’ house in Edgware, north London was no more. In Haslemere, I knew the neighbours in my street without exception, but as I moved further away from Longdene Road, my ability to recognise people lessened. Longdene Road had its own mental topography: it is a hill, so one could go either up or down. There were two post boxes, one at the top and one at the bottom of the road - so if you said you were going to post a letter, you’d be asked simply “up” or “down.”
In family language prepositions governed my understanding of the areas around home. Haslemere town centre, about a kilometre away, was conceptualised as a container: we went into town, either through town meadow or along the High Pavement walking past Raggett’s newsagents. If however we went shopping in Wey Hill, it was simply referred to as going down the “other end.” Wey Hill, which we could see from our back windows was considered as under us, so we went down going there. And it was the “other end” because it was a “centre” which was not the town centre. Wey Hill was also seen as lying at the end of a continuum at which Haslemere town centre marked the other end. Beyond the “ends” you were going beyond or out of town. And in this way space was marked out for me as a child.
When I was eleven, in my last year of Chestnut Avenue middle school, Woolmer Hill was unidentified in my mental conception of space. I didn’t know where it was. I knew the Hindhead Road, which the 19 Bus used to take on its way to Farnham. I also knew the junction for Critchmere Hill, so Michael W. was able to tell me that you went down Critchmere Hill and just kept on going until you arrived at Woolmer Hill School. Within days of starting at Woolmer Hill in September 1973, the school and its environs become a clear mental location which you went to or from. For access, there was the route that the 13B Bus took, which I initially used to travel on back and forth. Or you could walk down Woolmer Hill and up Critchmere Hill to catch the 19 Bus into Haslemere - an option chosen by Robert Cantan to avoid the vulgar crush on the 13B which parked only a hundred metres or so from the school. And finally there was the option of walking down to Critchmere Lane and catching the 13A bus from Bordon at the junction with the Liphook Road. New places, mostly roads, made themselves known to me and became familiar.
Where do I come from? Haslemere is a town I was neither born in, nor where I live now. Yet, as the sole location of my childhood, it remains the place about which I have the greatest intimate knowledge of geography and the fullest chest of memory. I am from Haslemere, even though I now hardly know anyone who lives there today. Haslemere is, to use the German word, my Heimat, a place towards which I have a strong feeling of belonging, and a deep-rooted fondness. But could I ever live there again with every street replete with childhood memory? Should one be attracted to return to the locations of nostalgia?
Nostalgia, a yearning which verges on sickness, has two axes: time and place. Time is ephemeral; we live in it, experience events that occur in it, and then the moment in time passes and all that remains is a memory, selective, subjective and fragile. We can yearn for a time in the past and a situation occurring in it, but we can never return to it; it is gone for ever. Places, in contrast, tend to remain. Yes, buildings can be renovated or even demolished and the land itself can be landscaped, like the Little Chef cafe on the A3 Highway a few hundred metres from Woolmer Hill School that disappeared under the Hindhead road tunnel in the 2000s, but that is unusual. In 2015 I can watch a video on YouTube featuring Woolmer Hill School, and despite the repaintings, renewals and rebrandings, I can recognise the same buildings and corridors. Places are fickle; they allow themselves to be possessed by others without a fight. In 1978 I could have wandered around Woolmer Hill School and have recognised scores of people, teachers and pupils, and have been recognised by them. Today, I could still go there but I would know nobody and nobody would know me. I would be merely an impostor.
Haslemere Railway Station: a fortress
Haslemere, where I spent my childhood and adolescence, is not large with a little over ten thousand residents. Growing up in a non-car owning household in the 1970s meant that major shopping expeditions, excursions, and going to college all started and ended at Haslemere Railway Station. Family visitors arrived and departed through the station. Occasionally, we might take the bus to the neighbouring towns of Farnham, Midhurst or Petworth, but the London, Guildford, Portsmouth train route was the main channel of escape and return.
Heavy use by commuters, its three-track facility and being equidistant between Guildford and Havant means that nearly every train stops at the station, both then and now. There is nothing architecturally beautiful about the station: a turn of the century station-house, three lines and two platforms, joined until 2008 by a single wooden footbridge. Arriving in 2009, the visitor would see that the essential geography of the station is fundamentally unchanged; the old buildings are still standing, even if different coloured paint covers the beams. The psychology of the station, though, is utterly transformed.
In the 1970s the station was the property of British Rail. The men who worked there dressed in shabby blue uniforms and we knew them all; a job with British Rail was low paid but it was for life. In theory if you wanted to go onto the platform to meet or say good-bye to granny you needed to put a penny into a machine for a platform ticket, but it was much easier to tell one of the men in shabby uniforms what you wanted to do; and generally they would only be too pleased to do you a favour. I suppose the train spotters who stood at the end of the platforms recording the registration numbers of passing trains bought platform tickets; they weren't threatened with arrest under anti-terrorist legislation in those days.
Then came privatisation in 1993. The men in shabby blue uniforms either got new ones, or more likely they lost their jobs. Ticket control was done on trains and you could walk freely in and out of the station. Fare dodging became easier, but the losses were presumably covered by the reduced salary bill. And that is how things stood for a decade and a half.
I arrived in Haslemere Station in 2009 after not having visited the station for some time, but this time only to change trains. There was an impressive new footbridge with a lift, though through habit I used the old wooden one, still smelling of the tar on the steps. But what was new was the realisation that I was totally imprisoned. Around the station was a two-to-three metre steel fence consisting of connected metal stakes with splayed spikes on the top. At the ends of the platforms a fence topped with barbed wire ran along either side of the tracks. Electronic gates overseen by a single operator allowed entry and exit to the platforms, all of which was surveyed by several CCTV cameras. And every few minutes a recorded voice sounded over the nearly empty platforms ordering passengers not to leave bags unattended in the station. (Strangely you can leave them unattended on the trains in the luggage racks!)
Given the high price of rail tickets (the highest in Europe), I suppose making the would-be fare dodgers pay does indeed fund all that steel and electronics. And in a practical sense, the ticket-carrying traveller is little impeded by the fences and surveillance. In fact today in Britain such things are completely normal, but I hadn't seen them yet in Haslemere. In the mid 1970s, however, I would never have imagined that our railway station would be encased in security metal fencing watched over by cameras; such things, I thought, were only experienced in the vicinity of the Berlin Wall.
Three hours in Haslemere: March 2015
On Wednesday 11 March 2015, a cold, blustery, but sunny morning, I undertook a three hour excursion to Haslemere, my home town in which I had lived from the age of one in 1963 until I semi-permanently left the town in 1980 as a university student. My journey back would be an emotional one for I had not set foot in Haslemere itself since the sale of my parental home in 2006, the year after my father's death. The following day, Thursday 12 March 2015, would be my mother's funeral.
From the YMCA hostel in Guildford, where I was staying, it was a mere stone's throw to the railway station. A ticket for £6.70 allowed me an away-day return to Haslemere, the town which I was now visiting for the first time, rather than returning home to. The train sped through the countryside, and the twenty kilometres or so was covered in a matter of minutes.
Before setting off, I had been very much in two minds about making the journey. Pulling me towards Haslemere was a desire to go home, rather like the pressure that propels the dementia sufferer to stubbornly seek out a past that he will never find. Though Haslemere was home no longer, I could still wander the streets with total familiarity, and allow my mind to float back to memories of childhood and youth. I hoped the visit would it be an act of catharsis reconciling me to the loss of my childhood home and Heimat. Yet might this journey be merely a sentimental excess, and the pointless dragging up of memories which could play no part in my current life? Both points of view had weight, but on this occasion the allure of nostalgia trumped everything else.
Arriving at Haslemere railway station, I felt little had changed. In the middle of the morning the barriers controlling passengers entering and leaving the station were open, and I sailed through undisturbed. The small newsagents once run by Les Hailey in the station yard had vanished, and the cafe and shop run by Joyce and Harry Burchett at the bottom of Longdene Road until sometime in the 1980s was, of course, no more. Then, for the first time in nine years, I crossed the main road and made my way up Longdene Road, my heart pounding, with almost the fear that I was now going to somewhere which I no longer had the right to, rather like the former pupil trespassing on the grounds of his old school.
Yet I was hit by a sense of timelessness. Thirty-five years had passed since Longdene Road was my real, as opposed to only my parental, home. Nine years had elapsed since I was last here. But here I was again walking up my street once more as if I were going home. But now I was the only member left from my childhood family of four who could make that nostalgic journey: my parents were both dead, and so was my only sister, four years younger than me, who had succumbed to cancer six years previously.
In a semi-daze of familiarity and alienation, I approached our former home. But first to hit me was our neighbour's house, once occupied by a childless couple who had been close family friends since 1964. They mainly lived in London and visited Haslemere only during some weekends and at holiday times, yet we had been close. We knew them as “uncle” and “aunt.” No Christmas passed without our visiting each other’s houses. In our childhood they took my sister and me on excursions to summer fetes and to the coast. Summer evenings were often spent on their terrace. At the sale of our own family home in 2006, though elderly, they had still partly been living in the Longdene Road house. Yet on that day it only took a glance through the front window, and a glimpse of the new curtains and modern settee, to know that they lived there no more, even if the rest of the property remained tatty and largely unchanged from its 1960s and 1970s renovations. And a little online research later informed me that the wife had died in 2012 and the house had changed hands for the first time in thirty years in 2014.
A couple of steps further and I was standing outside our former family home. I must confess that I had already seen it on Google Street View so there were no big surprises. Still no garage, but a new drive ran onto the old plinth, where a large rickety wooden shed had once stood. Thomas the Tank Engine branded toys were arranged on the window-ledge of the front room. The back garden retained its three levels with a fierce bank running to the lowest level, but now a wooden fence ran along the length of the lawn. A child's toys lay scattered in the garden. My mother would have been pleased that our old home continued to be a family house, rather than become a conversion into flats as had happened to the other part of our semi in the 1970s. This, here before me, was so clearly the same house which I had grown up in. And though in a deeply emotional sense I had come home, nobody living there today - if indeed there was anyone in at that time - would know me. Why should they? I had no rights there, of course. Though part of me wanted to stand, stare and reflect, practical common sense told me not to, and I trundled on up Longdene Road.
As I made my way onto Courts Hill Road, higher up the side of the valley, the houses became detached and richer. And again little had changed. Drives and the narrow road were crammed with large expensive cars, and a few extensions had been built, but otherwise all was how I remembered it. The changes were cosmetic, and, despite the obvious affluence, there was a tattiness–the dirty windows and unkempt gardens and front paths. Just before the junction with Courts Mount Road stood Haughton House with its two 1960s extensions, elongating the building in both directions along the road. Here had been my grandmother's sheltered accommodation from sometime after the sale of her London home in 1969 till her late re-marriage in 1977, five years before her death. Grandmother’s former ground-floor flat, consisting of a bed-sitting room and kitchenette, had new windows, but was now unoccupied.
Turning left, I made my way down Courts Mount Road, unchanged like everywhere else except for the extensions, big cars, and cut-down hedges. Then something hit me, utterly unexpectedly. I crossed the steep street Sandrock and took the path across the common land on the other side of the road. Immediately to the right of me was a steep bank, now heavily overgrown. In the early 1970s, in my childhood, the sandy soil had been been exposed. Kids could then slide or roll from top to bottom, and the roots of several trees had created small caves and steps to help us climb. It had been a fun destination, where kids could mess around on the high sandy bank. And there, suddenly, tears came to my eyes as I recalled my mother forty-five years or so earlier waiting for me at the bottom of the bank, telling me to be careful and, if possible, not to dirty my clothes too much–yet vicariously enjoying my excitement. It seemed now as if children no longer played on the bank.
Drying my eyes, I carried on till I reached the High Pavement, which ran two or three metres above and next to Lower Street, but with shops and houses on one side. Until the late 1970s the Raggett family had run a small newsagents half way along the High Pavement. They had lived on the premises, but had a separate front door behind a small porch set back on the right of the shop. I stood looking at the building which, despite having been turned into a domestic house years earlier, still looked exactly like a converted shop. What struck me was the grubby dust-covered building. Much of Haslemere, a rich town in one the richest commuter counties around London, just looked grimey in places. The wealth of the area was clearly private and concentrated; affluence was far from universal, even in Haslemere.
Within a couple of minutes I had reached the centre of the town and stood at the top of the High Street. Woolworths, in which I had spent so much of my pocket money in my childhood, had gone some years earlier, and, since my childhood, smaller shops had changed hands and functions, But try as I might I could find no major change in the town. Protected architecture has an enduring quality.
I made my way down the High Street to Darnley’s, the cafe at the Grayswood end of the town, situated in a row of shops set back from the road, just before the Georgian Hotel. Forty-five years ago a cafe occupied the same premises, but then it was called The Forge. And it was here that my grandmother had taken her morning or afternoon coffee. The waitress would put down the cup and then two large glass jugs appeared, one with coffee, the other with hot milk. Granny always requested ‘half and half,’ before opening her handbag and taking out a tiny mock gold-plated container with a shiny emerald green lid. Two saccharine tablets – Granny, not a diabetic, always claimed they tasted better than sugar – were dropped into her coffee. Maybe I don’t frequent enough cafes, but having one’s coffee cup filled in this way struck me as rare. And when, in 2015, I was offered my coffee in Darnley’s just like this, I thought I had entered a time warp.
Time was getting on. Not wanting to return to Haslemere Railway Station the way I had come, I set off along West Street, stopping to buy some take-away food at the supermarket that had once been Somerfields. I still took a delight eating in the street, something my mother had disapproved of. Munching a steak pie, I headed up Chestnut Avenue to the site of the Junior School I had attended 1969-73. In 2015 one part of the building was a nursery, and everything else of the former school looked so much smaller than how I remembered at the age of seven, when my mother had taken me there for the first time. The boys’ playground in front of the school had become a car park. I crossed the tarmac and headed into what had once been the girls playground. A fenced-off area ran along the side of the school building, behind which heavily supervised kindergarten kids were now playing. From there I saw the windows of my third-year classroom, once presided over by the eccentric and sadistic Mr Clark, whose bizarre antics are engraved on my mind–even though I personally suffered little at his hands. I did not know then, but seven months later, my former teacher John Clark, aged eighty, would be sentenced to two decades in prison for sexual offences committed against young boys. Justice took a long time in coming.
So there were bad memories from the past, too. And I could spend for ever, meandering around the town, reflecting on the past, but I had to limit my time in Haslemere. I could not wander everywhere rekindling memories and raking up past experiences. On that day I was like a ghost walking among those who were moving with some practical purpose. Yes, I would have liked to visit the Recreation Ground, the family destination on many a summer’s day - or Wey Hill, the other centre of the town where we usually shopped. And, of course, I was drawn to Woolmer Hill, the part of the town where I had spent my early teenage years at school. But it would have been too much walking, too tiring and an excess of nostalgia. I belonged in Haslemere no longer and I needed to leave to live my life in the present, not the past.
My stroll back to the railway station retraced my daily way home from primary school. From the town fire station, I used the footpath to Town Meadow, the path running beside the small stream which my schoolmate Gavin and I had found so alluring for play. The main changes to the stream and path, such as the canalisation of the stream behind two parallel breeze block walls, or the tarmacing of the path, had all happened in my own childhood. Everything there just looked shabbier and was covered in more moss. The old telephone exchange, rendered obsolete by technical development, still stood, apparently abandoned. How could it be that in the centre of Haslemere, with house prices that reached the sky, brownfield land was left unused?
My last surprise was on Lower Street, just before Haslemere Station. A long lay-by, which earlier had provided the stop for the 268 Guildford bus, no longer displayed a ‘bus stop’ sign, probably because the smaller and less frequent busses could be accommodated in the station yard. Yet, parked in the lay-by, seemingly broken down, was an elderly double-decker bus. Was that the vehicle used in 2015 to transport some of those not fortunate enough to own their own cars? My visit had taught me that inequality in Haslemere was rampant, almost certainly diminishing the town’s unity as a community. And here was further evidence. Of course, inequality had also disfigured the town in the 1970s, the pompous London commuters and the the dwellers on High Lane Estate, yet a larger civic-minded middle had held the town together through a multitude of of societies and clubs. So in the 1970s the extremes seemed not so extreme. But how deep was the change? In 2015 one only had to strip away the house extensions, four-wheel drives and electronic gadgets to see that so little had changed, socially it no doubt had, but in appearance hardly at all. Haslemere was essentially the same in 2015, as it had been in, say, the boiling summer of 1976 four decades earlier. And that led to a sense of betrayal: how could Haslemere remain unaltered when my family had either died, or, in my case, when I had left the town?
Once again the control gates at Haslemere Station were open. This time I used the new footbridge, instead of the old. I was just in time for a fast train to take me back to Guildford. Gazing out of the train window, as Haslemere was left behind, I thought I might have regretted my three-hour visit, but I didn’t. The nostalgia sufferer wants to return to a place and I had done that, but it is really an earlier time he seeks–and, of course, outside the realms of memory, that is impossible. I understood that.