When we moved to Golborne Road we left behind Tom, the cat we had at Priory Grove. Nana had asked if she could keep him as she’d be on her own otherwise. As it turned out this wasn’t the case. Aunty Mick and Uncle Frank gave up their flat further along the road and moved in with her, Nana upstairs and them downstairs.
It wasn’t long before we acquired another cat. It was 1952 and Coronation year. Tensing Norgay, nicknamed Tiger, had been one of the first to scale Mount Everest. One morning Dad found a skinny tabby kitten sheltering in the doorway of his shop. Despite an ad placed in the shop window no-one ever claimed him so we kept him and he became Tiger Tensing. Unfortunately we only had him a short while as he was a sickly little thing and contracted cat flu, against which there was no vaccination sixty years ago. Antibiotics failed to arrest the progress of the disease and he was in dreadful respiratory distress so Mum and Dad made the decision to have him put to sleep. I wasn’t told this at the time, just that he had gone on holiday.
Shortly after this Bobby came into my life and was to remain part of it right through my childhood and teenage years. He was a tabby and white kitten who grew into a large, placid cat. We were best buddies and he’d sleep with me at night, his front paws wrapped round my neck, purring and dribbling (him, not me!) He was a very tolerant cat and endured being dressed up in doll’s clothing, being a patient when I was playing nurses and being pushed around in a pram. He seemed to sense when I was unhappy and would come and cuddle up to me and lick away my tears.
I had joined the Kensington Kitten and Neuter Cat Club which, each year, held a big cat show at the Horticultural Society Hall . Bobby always did well in the domestic classes and one year won a cup for best senior shorthair cat. I was thrilled as I knew he was beautiful and delighted someone else also thought so. I was approached by an American woman who asked if he was for sale as she’d never seen such a homely cat. I took this as a compliment until I arrived home and learnt from my parents that “homely” has a different connotation in American English. I was also interviewed and we had our photo taken but the newspaper clipping was lost over the years.
One time I saw a cat in the garden which seemed to be acting strangely and staggering so I called out for Dad. As we approached the cat we saw that someone had tied tin cans onto its tail and the lower section was very swollen. Dad told me to stand back and threw a towel over the cat to catch it. It was taken straight to the RSPCA as it was in a bad way. The vet examined it and gave a diagnosis that the tail was gangrenous and the infection had spread up the cat’s spinal cord. The only kindness was to put it to sleep.
Once a hedgehog found its way into our backyard. How it arrived is a mystery as the small concrete yard was surrounded by a brick wall about three foot high surmounted by a wire fence. He became very tame and would come running when I called, “Harry, Harry” I was able to hold him and rub his tummy without him curling into a protective ball. Unfortunately we didn’t know that bread and milk was an unsuitable diet and one day found him dead under a bush.
Up Kensal Road was a pet shop. As well as food and toys it also had tanks full of goldfish, tropical, tadpoles and newts including the now protected Great Crested newts. There were also cages with rabbits, puppies and kittens. I was a frequent visitor to see what was new.
When we moved into 19 Golborne Rd I had a bedroom of my own which I proceeded to fill with pets and books. I had a vivarium with a variety of newts in my bedroom. One of the Great Crested newts used to climb out and make its way onto the bed, then trek across my face in the morning. They were fed a diet of fish food and ants’ eggs. One day I noticed one of the Common Newts was missing. I checked the lid. That was secure. I lifted it off and started moving pebbles and grasses to see if it was hiding anywhere. My activity disturbed one of the Great Cresteds. I saw it had something sticking out of its mouth. It was a tail. Carefully holding the newt I pulled the protruding object. It was the missing newt! Now covered in slime and digestive juices it was very dead.
The basement rooms in 19, like those in 21 weren’t habitable but very suitable for my growing menagerie. One of my pets was a rabbit that had either had a broken back at one time or was born with a deformed spine. Although not actually lame, it moved with a strange sideways gait and may have been in some discomfort as it would frequently inflict a painful bite if handled incautiously.
I acquired a tortoise from the pet shop. It also lived in the basement and was a source if interest until winter when it withdrew into its shell. We assumed it was hibernating until a foul smell began to permeate the basement and Mum noticed that fluid was oozing out of the tortoise’s shell.
St. Mary’s school had stick insects in one of the classrooms. During school holidays they would come home with me. I would go up the Little Rec with a pair of scissors and cut off twigs from the rose bushes when the park keeper wasn’t looking to feed them. One time one of the young ones shed its exoskeleton and kept it for several months on the mantelpiece.
When we lived at 21 our next door neighbour Bert Cross would “Miaou” when he heard us calling Bobby in for the night. We’d had Bobby a couple of years when we were offered another kitten. This was a pure black boy who became Mum’s cat. In a moment of mischief Mum and Dad decided to call him Bertie much to Bert’s wife’s amusement. He was a lovely cat but like Tiger, contracted cat flu. Fortunately he did survive the infection but it left him with chronically infected sinuses and a distressing habit of sneezing and propelling yallery-greenery strings of snot out of his nose. One of my enduring memories is of finding dried up cat snot on furniture and curtains. He nevertheless lived to a good age and was adopted by one of dad’s customers when we emigrated.
In Hazelwood Crescent, behind Hazelwood Towers, was a mews with stabling for the totters horses and lockups for them to store their carts and goods. I became friendly with one of the totters and, horse mad from a young age, I would hang around after school, waiting for them to return from a day’s rag and bone collecting . I’d help unharness the pony, groom him, feed him and clean his harness. This was six days a week and on Sunday, their day off, I’d be rewarded for my work by being allowed to ride up and down the cobblestone mews for about half an hour. It was bareback riding and consequently I developed a good sense of balance which helped when I started having proper riding lessons.
For my eleventh birthday Mum and Dad agreed to give me riding lessons. I went to a riding school at Fortune Green, run by an Irishman. It was in Ebenezer Mews off Hermitage Lane. There were about twelve stalls. Pat lived in Knebworth where he had another riding school and where the town horses would go for a month’s break in the summer time as it had fields for them to enjoy but would spend a couple of days a week at Ebenezer Mews. To get there I caught the 28 bus from outside Westbourne Park Station. I’d set off on a Saturday in my jodhpurs and boots and be subject to cat calls all the way to the bus stop. “Oi darlin’ yer fergot yer ‘orse” being one of the politer comments but I didn’t care. I was going to spend the day with horses!
There were two young women, Shirley and Hazel, who ran the stables for Pat. Looking back they were woefully underpaid. Hazel got £3 pw for working at least a twelve hour day and even longer during summer when there were lessons during the evenings. It was their love of horses that made them stay. From Ebenezer Mews we would head, in convoy, up West Heath Rod, past Spaniards Inn, of Dick Turpin fame, onto Hampstead Heath. Beginners and nervous riders would have a lead rein attached to their mount’s halter and either Shirley or Hazel would hold it to prevent the pony taking its own line back to the stables.
Once on the heath there were well defined tracks to follow and small jumps that had been put up. The riding school had no arena so all instruction took place along these tracks. Looking back it was pretty basic. You were taught how to mount and once you were able to rise to the trot, stop and turn your pony you were considered safe to be let off the lead. I mastered the trot on my second lesson so was on my own quite early on.
The horses were a mixed lot. My first mount was a little strawberry roan mare called Wendy who was used for beginners. From her I moved onto Bob, a tall, rangy, raw boned bay pony who became a special favourite. Pat’s own horse, Rocket, a fiery chestnut thoroughbred mare had a loose box but all the others only had stalls about eight foot by four foot and these were three deep. The horses and ponies had to be backed out as there wasn’t room to turn them around and led past the horses in the front stalls. It wasn’t uncommon to be kicked as you led your mount out and you soon learnt to either be quick on your feet or to lead from the offside so there was a horse between you and a flying pair of heels!
Diamond was a piebald Shetland pony and a favourite of everyone. She had learnt to beg for treats and consequently was quite spoilt. She could deliver quite a nip if she didn’t get a sugar cube. I’d become quite a proficient rider with a strong seat so was often put on Jumbo, a small grey pony with a nasty habit of bucking off his riders. I was to carry a whip and give him a “smart one” every time he tried to duck his head and up with his heels. One ride he tried fifty six times to get me off and eventually gave up in disgust when I was on him although he wasn’t above putting in a sly one with anyone else. There was also Blaze, black with the eponymous white streak down his face. After Bob was moved permanently to Knebworth he was replaced by Lady. Lady was a skewbald of about 15hh with a very large head for her build and a bad habit of biting when being groomed. For some reason she and I got on well and I became one of her regular riders. Another of my favourites was Blarney, a very big, grey Irish Hunter type. Because of his size he was mostly used for adult riders but he was one of my charges when it came to unsaddling between rides, grooming and feeding. If I was lucky I would occasionally be allowed to ride him.
Rides were for an hour and each animal was expected to do three consecutive outings then have an hour off with bridle removed and girth loosened for lunch. We unpaid helpers would be at the stables from 9am until at least 6pm and, if we were lucky, might get an occasional free ride if there was a mount going spare. As well as taking care of the ponies when they returned and making sure they didn’t need a drink we were expected to muck out the stalls, fill hay nets, make up feeds according to the charts on the office wall and clean tack. We were also despatched at intervals to buy bacon butties and flasks of tea for Hazel and Shirley as there were no facilities at the mews. I don’t know what toilet arrangements they had as there were no conveniences. I rather suspect a quiet corner of one of the back stalls might have served the purpose.
Another of Dad’s customers gave me a baby pigeon that he’d found. It was still very young and lacking flight feathers so I hand reared it and gave it “flying lessons” by letting it perch on my hand and quickly raising it up and down so it had to flap its wings to maintain its balance. This unorthodox approach seemed to work and soon it was flying independently around my bedroom and gaily pooping on unprotected surfaces. Eventually the time came for its solo flight. I opened my bedroom window and put out my hand. It took flight and disappeared in the direction of the Seventh Feathers never to be seen again.
After I’d passed the Eleven Plus I attended the Sacred Heart High School for Girls at Hammersmith. One day I found a baby thrush in the grounds and brought it home to hand rear using very similar techniques to that with the pigeon. I called it Pippa. When it was time to release it I again opened the window. It flew in a small circuit and back indoors again. Each day the circuit grew larger until finally it too didn’t return. Next summer however, one day I was sitting in my room with the window open and a thrush landed on the windowsill, sat for a moment, looked around, gave one loud and beautiful song then flew away. This happened for four successive summers. I like to think this was her way of thanking me for caring for her.
Our last Golborne Road cat was Gunga Din. He had been rescued by the PDSA after having been badly mistreated by his previous owners. He was only a very young kitten and must have suffered a great deal as he was very traumatised and had an uncertain temperament, turning on you suddenly and biting hard. He was a beautiful red tabby longhaired cat. The vet thought he was probably a purebred Persian but of course he had no papers. He was a big cat and , as I had Bobby and Mum had Bertie, became Dad’s special boy. Dad had a fondness for the writings of Rudyard Kipling and would frequently quote chunks of his poetry hence the cat’s name. He was a strong character and ruled the two older cats with an iron paw although he was never aggressive with them.
One evening we were sitting down to dinner. Mum had cooked steak, chips and fried onions, Dad’s favourite meal. We were just about to sit down when there was a red flash across the table. Dad looked down at his plate to see his steak had disappeared and Gunga was in the corner busily bolting down his prize!
He was the only one of our cats to come to New Zealand with us as Bobby was sixteen, Bertie thirteen and both too old to travel that distance then survive the six week quarantine period that was then in force. Gunga arrived in fine fettle having spent much of the boat trip in one of the sailor’s cabins. He was flown down from Wellington where he was quarantined to Christchurch where we had settled and marked his arrival in typical form by taking off and going missing for over a month. He was eventually located in a suburb on the way back to the airport. Had he taken one look and decided it wasn’t for him? Who knows? I only wish I’d done the same thing. I could have been spared so much pain and unhappiness if I’d listened to my instincts and caught the first plane back home again. He lived for another eight years and quietly died in his sleep.