The river boat cut through the water at great speed as it made its way to Greenwich Pier, while I gazed in awe at the magnificent buildings standing proudly on the banks of the River Thames; bathed in the glory of a reluctant June sun. Now I’m returning to my roots, to memories of a bygone age when I was a child living in Earleswood Street. There were five of us living in the basement of No.82 – or should I say ‘existing!’
As the boat docked at Greenwich, a feeling of nervous apprehension swept over me and I wondered if I would find all my memories; like the little eel and pie shop that held such a special memory. Or would they all be gone; destroyed by the thousands of bombs that fell during the last war or, maybe developers; who, seeing a way to make a quick buck, had ripped the heart out of Greenwich and its quaint and quirky shops. Just as they have done to so many of our towns.
I made my way along Church Street, my eyes anxiously scanning the street for a familiar landmark – I wanted to know that I still belonged to this place I called home…this place that held vivid memories of a childhood spent mostly underground in a tiny Anderson shelter as bombs rained down on the docks.
Suddenly I saw it! A little eel and pie shop and memories came tumbling out and I recalled how, as a four-year old, I went with my brother and sister to Maze Hill Station where we made a fairy grotto out of moss, sticks and twigs. Gently we would place it onto the pavement then, excitedly, with eager eyes, and begging bowls in our grubby little hands, we waited for an incoming train and, as the passengers filtered onto the street we pleaded with them to ‘spare us a copper.’ When we had enough money we would run to the eel and pie shop and feast on pie and mash covered with a green liquor to ease the hunger in our bellies! But, how do I know this the exact same shop? It looked the same but it could have been built to look old. There was only one way to find out…
My heart was pounding as I went inside; it seemed the same, except it had floor covering instead of the deep layer of sawdust that I remembered. As I placed my order at the wooden counter I looked around for a seat – they were wooden as well, just like in my day, and as I tucked into a delicious meal of pie, mash and green liquor… I became that four-year old child again.
The next day I spent a couple of hours on Blackheath and then took a walk through Greenwich Park where every Sunday, dressed in our best clothes, we accompanied our parents to the park to listen to music. As I stood by the bandstand I thought of those days when a child had a code of conduct, imposed by their parents and if you disobeyed; you were punished. This taught us to respect our elders and I am grateful for that today, because I see so much disrespect everywhere I go. But, I guess, if you are not taught respect, how do you know how to respect?
Later that day I walked along the riverside and looked across the Thames at the Isle of Dogs, but I did not recognise anything. It had changed from docklands to glitzy buildings. My Isle of Dogs had now been named Canary Wharf!
The dome at the entrance to the foot tunnel, which takes you from Greenwich to the island, was still there but so many people were waiting to go across to the other side that I decided to postpone it. I wondered whether the people who work on the Isle of Dogs ever gave a thought to the people who lived and worked on that island during WW2 until it was raised to the ground by German bombers. My father was working on the docks the night that the island was set alight and many of my relatives lived in Manchester Road. Sad, but proud memories of the cockneys that refused to be beaten by the German Luftwaffe. People; who would rather die than let their country be taken over by a foreign power!
Turning away from the river I made my way to the heart of Greenwich and it was then that I became aware of the fact that I had not met any cockneys. In fact, I had not heard an English voice since I arrived (except for the staff at the Mitre Inn). But I brushed it from my mind – after all I had been invited to a launch party celebrating the opening of another section of the Thames Trail Project that evening and I needed to concentrate on that.
As I walked along the darkened streets, I was hopelessly lost and I couldn’t find the address of where the launch was to be held. Desperately I stopped a couple in the street. But they did not understand what I was saying. I spent over an hour asking different people, surely there must be someone who speaks English who can help me find my venue!
Sadly, the truth is that it took me an hour and a half. As I walked into the venue my mind kept asking questions…
Where are the cockneys that walked these streets?
Where are these people?
Where are their descendents? Where have they gone?
To sum up I love Greenwich, it’s a beautiful place, with stunning architecture but it had lost that certain something that made it ‘my home.’ It is like a beautiful woman without a soul.
What I found was a thriving, vibrant Greenwich…but I had lost my ‘roots.’
Photo courtesy of visitgreenwich.org.uk
By Joni Powling