Categories
Learning

Early Learning

I have never liked having my photograph taken – still don’t – but do make an effort to keep existing pictures (well, ones I approve). Early, black and white, ones were taken of me when I was sent to Oxford House School, Lexden Road, Colchester at the age of three. A Montessori preparatory school, it was (and still is) a parents’ dream. There I am, standing gauche and skinny in my summer school uniform in my garden at Number 47 North Hill – a child of the 1960s, with sixteenth century gargoyles behind me and the remains of a Roman villa underfoot.

I’d long wanted to learn to read and write – I grew up surrounded by books and with parents who read daily; to me, to each other and to themselves. My books had pictures, why didn’t theirs? What were those patterns on the page and how could they hold attention for hour after hour? My father patiently wrote out words for me to copy. Early attempts at writing my name onto items around the house led to indelible accidents with biro ink – my father’s brown leather wallet had my blue name writ large. Forever.

I copied beautifully and clearly and through the looking glass. A left-hander, I automatically and instinctively wrote from right to left with reverse lettering. My writing made perfect sense to me; and to others when held up for scrutiny in a mirror. In an attempt to convince me to conform (my parents had failed to persuade me to write ‘the right way round’) and to channel my constant questioning, it was decided that school would be ‘a good thing’. A short search provided the name of a suitable institution which was also walking distance from home, from Number 47.

The pink and white gingham dress, the white ankle socks, the regulation shoes, the boater, the beret and the grey blazer were all purchased. My photographs were duly taken and I was sent to school. I did not like it. Not at all. This through no fault of the school or its teachers. I just didn’t like school. In fact, this continued for the next thirteen years – until it was post-compulsory. At best, I learned to tolerate it; at worst, I learned how to write my own sick notes.

Every morning, while attending Oxford House, I went through my rapidly-established ritual. I had the same breakfast, or would eat nothing. I had to be walked, hand-in-hand, by my father from front door to school gate, or would not move. Measles were a cause for celebration. My godmother came to pick me up from school in her pink bubble car and deposited me in front of my exasperated mother in the garden at Number 47. She shook her head, I smiled; confident of a categorical argument won without a fight.

The school uniform remains almost identical at Oxford House today. After some years away from Colchester, and in a neatly ironic way, I returned to Lexden Road as a teacher. Every morning I watched the little children in their ever-so-slightly-large-to-grow-into uniforms, hand-in-hand with parents or nannies, walking into the school building. And I knew that if I’d had children of my own, that’s exactly where they’d have been and that’s exactly the uniform they’d have been wearing. And I’d have been as sure as were my parents that I was doing it the right way round.

Categories
Living

The Number 10 (Number 47.1)

My name is Jane. I was born in Lexden Road Maternity Home on the tenth day of the tenth month at five in the morning. I cherish the hope that the bottle of Guinness my mother received that day on the NHS went some way to giving her feelings of joy at my arrival. In any case, my parents had been told to expect a boy. Blue it was. A name was chosen. Then a girl arrived. Me. Blue suited me. The name didn’t. A cool, calm chat was had. My father knew a good Jane. I was named for her.

They wanted a name beginning with J, the tenth letter of the alphabet. They wanted ten letters to my name. Choice was, as you can imagine, quite limited. (Remember, these were the happy days before makey-uppy names and the celebrity cult). Middle names were out of the question (deemed unnecessary in, what would become, an increasingly rare consensus of parental opinion). My father went down to the Registrar’s Office on 11 October and I officially came into existence and came home.

Subsequently, my baptism was a straightforward affair – decisions were taken with ease. My mother had fallen out with the vicar of St Peter’s Church at the top of North Hill. He’d refused to marry my parents there four years earlier as my mother was not of that parish. For her, that church and that vicar simply ceased to exist. We went back to my mother’s parish, where Gran and Grandad still lived and ran the grocery store. We went to West Bergholt on the fifteenth day of the first month of the following year where I was baptised by the Rev Colin Douglas, assisted by my three godparents (two women and one man, as tradition then dictated).

My father, 42 at the time of my birth, declared that one child was enough. I spent the first three years of my life thinking so, too. I was the first girl born into the family and the first blonde and was the centre of attention. Where my older, male, cousins would be told off; I could do no wrong. We had all, foolishly, reckoned without my mother; 25 at the time of my birth. She decided that a second child was a good thing and, after a decent interval, promptly fell pregnant.

On the tenth day of the eleventh month, three years and one month after my arrival, the midwife came to Number 47 and set out her stall in the front bedroom overlooking North Hill. My mother had taken herself in there when the labour pains started, while my father called the doctor. Once the midwife was there, my father and I were sent off to do our thing, while my mother did hers. We returned in time for my sister’s delivery. When Alys came into the world my father and I were perched side-by-side, holding hands, on the edge of the bed in the adjoining room.

From that day to this, I have believed that midwives are special. This is where it started. The midwife checked all was well with mother and baby, wiped my sister off, wrapped her up, came into the bedroom next door and put my baby sister into my arms. My father reported that, for one of the only times in my life, I was speechless – until I came out with the word ‘wonderful’. The midwife then involved me, as far as was safe, in preparing my sister for this world. She thought she could encourage me to become a nurse. I thought for a while that I might do this if I had to grow up (Peter Pan and the Lost Boys were my earliest role models), but I was already sold on being a cowboy.

This time, my parents knew they were having a girl and my mother had chosen her name based on a medieval French history book she was reading whilst pregnant. By then, my father knew better than to have his own opinions on the matter. In any case, the name suited us all very well and my sister most of all. It begins with the first letter of the alphabet and gives ten letters to the full name. What’s not to like?

Many years have passed since then, and we’ve come through a great deal, but much remains the same. My sister is still wonderful and now has two wonderful daughters of her own. I still have a cowboy thing, I still have a Peter Pan thing and I still believe there’s something special about The Number 10.

Categories
Living

Number 47

My name is Jane. I began at Number 47. It’s where I was conceived and spent the first five years of my life, though I was not born there. I was born at the Lexden Road Maternity Home. That is also where my mother (and some of the best people I know) came into this world. After some nights spent there, where the new mothers were given Guinness to build up their strength, my mother took me home to where she and my father had started their married life four years earlier.

Number 47 is a sixteenth-century house, already divided into a downstairs office with a split-level apartment upstairs by the time I arrived. We lived ‘over the shop’, as downstairs was my father’s drawing office. My earliest memory is of hiding under his drawing board and watching the legs of all the passers-by, until someone rumbled me and then it was all faces, not legs. I started running off at an early age. (There’s a little more about that, here)

When we lived there, no-one wanted older property; everyone wanted new places filled with new stuff. We had gargoyles, wall paintings and mismatched antiques. Others had fitted carpets, three-piece suites and wallpaper. That’s just how it was. Before my parents moved in, another newly-married couple had lived there briefly. They moved out because of the door thing. The woman saw a door that wasn’t there, but had been centuries before. It got to her, she said they had to leave and they did. So, we were there and we co-existed with the door thing quite happily.

The door thing also meant that doors occasionally opened and closed without being visibly touched. My parents were pragmatic about this; if we were happy and the house was happy there was nothing broke to fix. They were right, of course. You can’t live in the centre of ‘Britain’s Oldest Recorded Town’ without some story or other attaching itself to the property. An added bonus was that you never felt alone in any room in the house, especially the living room where we had the door that wasn’t there.

The only time history got in the way was in the garden. The house had been built on the site of a very large Roman villa (as had most of the top half of North Hill). As a result, my father, a man of few words and very rare expletives (the exact opposite of my mother, but that’s another story) would appear borderline garrulous and profane when digging. Shards of pottery, coins, tiles, and all manner of ancient refuse conspired to make gardening a chore.

I loved it there and felt at home. There was a sense of belonging that went beyond the tangible, the practical and the everyday. On my mother’s side of the family we go back for generations in that town. Number 47 was simply a five-minute walk from where some of my ancestors had arrived and settled as Flemish Protestant refugees in the sixteenth century. That same Dutch Quarter had, three hundred years later, also been home to my great-great-great grandmother. At the age of fifteen she left her family to marry a German soldier at Colchester Garrison and start a new life in South Africa. She came back, we always do. We run off, we come back.

Since we all left Number 47, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to revisit two times. The first was when it was on the market for sale in 2006. I posed as a potential buyer and the estate agent was ecstatic – it was (and still is) a difficult property to market (its design, its location and the fact that it’s Grade II listed mean that there’s very little you can do to the property). I was shown round, while the agent spoke nonsense, and a lot of it. So little had changed in the house that I was quite taken aback. I spent longest in the room where my sister was born, it felt good in there (especially as the agent left me alone while he took a call).

The second time I visited was this year. The front door was open, well actually it was off, so I went in. I met the man who bought it in 2006 – he and his family have only now put together the money to renovate the house. We had a long chat over a cup of tea, as you do. Then he asked me about the door thing, said he found it a bit odd but not troubling. I agreed, but for me it was never odd – I’d known no different growing up there. The door thing is a North Hill thing, too – at least two other buildings, to my knowledge, have it.

That comforts me, a sense of community and continuity in a time of increasingly swift change. Number 47 is still my home.