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City Road in the 1970s

Randall & Michele share memories of City Road in the '70s.

Randall Thomas with the assistance of Michele Thomas
17 July 2014

My wife, Michele and I moved to 20 City Rd in September 1974 and have lived there ever since. Our neighbour, Geoff Brew, at number 17 arrived shortly before us in April and we believe that he is the person who has lived longest continuously in our (admittedly ill-defined) immediate area – our little “corner” of the Kite. We arrived from the outer reaches of Cambridge – Lansdowne Road out to the west – in search of a place with more character and where the hedges weren’t all perfectly trimmed. When one of Michele’s colleagues at Heffers said that she knew of a house to rent in an area that she herself had found much too run-down we got on our very real bikes and set off to have a look. The narrow streets with their terraced houses exhibiting a surprising amount of variety immediately appealed to us and we moved in shortly afterwards. Run-down it was but with charm and a potential that was to be realised over the next few decades.

The area had just about emerged from the shadow of planning blight. Despite fierce protests much of the area was bulldozed and the Grafton Centre was built between 1981-1983. However, the protests ensured that some of the roads were saved and now form a conservation area.

What survived the planning wars was a rather curious mix. Behind quite a few houses there were old abandoned workshops and storerooms that had not yet been converted into homes – the Old Forge behind number 30 City Road is one example. There was at least one ongoing artisan’s enterprise – Mr Lister’s carpentry and cabinetry workshop with its cobbled courtyard and his wonderful collection of saws and wooden-handled files that I took our children to see years later and before his retirement. And there were a few shops – City Bargains at number 8 and the Pine Shop in the former bakery at number 23.

Some of the houses were owner-occupied and others were divided into flats and rented. Our neighbours varied from teachers and others working either at the University or the “Tech” on East Road to Ken, a gay plumber and his partner Morris who wore a reddish orange wig. Other neighbours worked in the city shops and department stores. There were quite a few elderly widows in the street and regularly one would stand at her opened door and as you passed she would very pleasantly ask you the time – the actual time probably didn’t matter as much as the chance to exchange a few words. Michele remembers there was a delightful woman named Mary who was always friendly who lived at number 46 City Road. A few doors down from us a neighbour carefully tended her garden and each year kindly gave us honesty seeds.

There were only a few children in the area – our neighbour Dona lived with her two young sons, Gavin and Neil and regularly helped us by making pear preserve with fruit from our tree and sharing the benefits. But for the most part at that time it was not an area that attracted young families.

There were, of course, many people in the area whom we hardly knew at all. One was an elderly man named we think was called John, who would push a usually empty wheel barrow through the streets. To us he seemed rather gruff, but those who knew him better found him companionable.

Others lived in the area, went away and came back such as Jock, a Scotsman and decorator who painted our house for decades and continues to enjoy the particular feeling of the Kite.

Although run-down it wasn’t seedy – it had its drunks but they were of the reliable kind. On a Sunday at about 2pm a taxi would regularly pull up to number 28 and the three men who lived there would crawl out of it, after what one imagines was a largely liquid lunch, towards their doorstep in search of a post-prandial snooze.

There were a number of pubs in the area – the one nearest to us was the Free Press and not too long after arriving we walked in but met a frosty reception. There wasn’t a woman in the pub and a string of men and pint glasses scowled at us – it was evident that we were foreigners, i.e. anyone who hadn’t lived within 250 yards of the pub for over 20 years. We didn’t return for a while.

For food shopping everything one needed could be found in Fitzroy Street or, alternatively, at a slightly higher price at John Cook’s delightfully old-fashioned grocery shop in Prospect Row. John would carefully cut four ounces of an excellent Stilton while keeping an eye on the schoolchildren from Parkside tempted by the great variety of sweets which probably kept the business afloat.
For wine, Terence and his daughter Lynne of the eponymous Terence Wines graciously furnished the rising population of non-beer drinkers in the area as habits and as the local population changed.
But in the early seventies it was hardly a prosperous area (our rent was about 60 pounds a month to give some idea of what our landlady could earn from the property). There were very few cars (see the photo from 1975). People walked or rode their bikes. The rented properties weren’t necessarily well-looked after. The interior of our house had black mould behind the wardrobe and in the garden there was a mound of earth that after considerable digging revealed a one-person swing lying on its side. We cleaned it and painted it red and it kept our children pleased for years. The excavations also revealed a section of an attractive large hexagonal white clay drain (see photo), testimony to the market gardens of the Kite that preceded the houses built for the most part in City Road from 1840? To 1880?

What one appreciated was the diversity of the area and, of course, the proximity to the parks and commons and the city. It was a community of sorts but one where there was a great deal of privacy and for many this was not the least of its attractions. Inevitably, over the years the area changed considerably, for better and for worse. Gentrification and rising rents drove Ken and Morris and others out and brought a wealthier more homogeneous population in.

But that’s another story.


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