Thursday 28 September 2023


I was born in London (Clapham, actually; South London Hospital for Women & Children, precisely) and lived in Wandsworth until I was five years old. Then – as result of a rather too-longish story for here and now – my family moved to a row of quaint cottages ('Heath Cottages' they were called) in Chislehurst. 

Twelve-point-something-miles from London and at that time (1953) still a rural village with a stables, a market garden, all those sweetly antique facilities (butchers, bakers, fishmongers, ironmongers, grocers and greengrocers, a rather good library, a flea-pit cinema with a corrugated roof in which – if it rained – it was too noisy to hear the film) and – my chief delight – a blacksmith who, whenever I looked in to watch him shoeing horses at his forge, would give me old horse-shoes.

After the dull streets of Wandsworth, Chislehurst was green and idyllic: a cricket ground, woods and ponds (caves, if you dared to go down there) and a local celebrity-tramp, 'Smokey Joe', who lived in the woods in an improvised 'house' made of old blankets and tattered lace curtains! 

The village had a Victorian, 'Tudor-style', arched Water Tower (requiring use of a driver-controlled one-way traffic flow accessed by nothing bigger than a single-decker bus), a village sign depicting Queen Elizabeth I, in 159, knighting Sir Thomas Walsingham IV (patron to Christopher Marlowe) and a cockpit, once used for cock-fights but, mercifully no longer in service!

I was educated at the village Church of England Primary School (dedicated to the original Father Christmas, St Nicholas, whose associated Parish Church contained the earthly remains of the aforementioned Tho. Walsingham); and, having triumphantly failed my 11+ examination, Chislehurst Secondary School for Boys.     

I attended, at various times in my variegated spiritual life, no fewer than four out of the five local churches (two 'high', one 'low' and one Methodist, although not in that order) and I worked in the village at the Local Council Education offices and much later – after many other non-village jobs – sitting at my typewriter as a freelance writer banging out scripts for the BBC. By then, of course, Chislehurst was no longer so much a rural beauty-spot as a dormitory for London commuters, the local blacksmith was now a Barclays Bank and the Post Office an Indian restaurant.

I loved my child life in Chislehurst (certainly more than I did the often emotionally stressful relationships in Heath Cottages), but it was only recently that I found myself nostalgically riffing on the theme of Those Were the Days which prompted me to look up whether there were any such things as transport or tourist posters for Chislehurst. And, yes, there were...

The one at the top of this post is contemporary and produced by The Chislehurst Society featuring the village pond, the cricket ground, the Church of the Annunciation (one of the 'high' ones), the caves, and what looks to be a blissfully happy couple of Chislehurstians.

The earliest Chislehurst poster I came across dates from 1914 and seems to depict what I assume was not an agressive local resident, but an early 'cave-person', suggesting just how well known was the once-believed prehistory of the subterranean labyrinth of Chislehurst Caves. Created for London Transport, this work by Tony Sarg (1880-1942) is obviously inspired by what was at the time a theory (frankly a legend) that the caves likely dated back at least 4,000 to 6,000 years. Unless this unattractive fellow was an ancestor of Smokey Joe. 


From 1922 comes a black-and-white print – of what, presumably, must have originally been a colour poster – presenting the drabbest conception of the rural paradise of my childhood. Nevertheless, it is the work of the highly influential graphic designer and poster artist, Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954). 


So, there's glory for you.The next poster first appeared seven years later in 1929 and is the work of 'CWB', Cecil Walter Bacon (1905-1992) and takes us back to the time of romantic myth with a couple of Druids busily doing whatever Druids would have done in the Caves if they had ever been there to do it! 


I should confess at this juncture that, despite living in Chislehurst into my late 'forties I never visited the Caves: my memories mainly being of the floor-shaking vibrations we experienced from the weekend pop-concerts that thudded deep beneath our living room floor every weekend – oh, yes, and one October when the village became the focus of national attention as a result of Eamon Andrews hosting a not-very-creepy Halloween TV show live from the Caves. Finally, here's a contemporary poster created in 'retro style' (by an uncredited artist) for purchase as a framed wall decoration. Shown is, to the left, the timbered building that, when I was a child, was the local branch of Martin's Bank (impressively embellished, in those days, with the sign of a gilded grasshopper); and, to the right, the popular hostelry, 'The Rambler's Rest' (rumored, back in the day, to have once had a secret way into and out of those enigmatic Caves!) and, on its right-hand side, the end house of Heath Cottages –– just a few doors down from where I lived for so many years.


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