London Reflections

Harry Watson
13 min readAug 16, 2020

There grows in the North Country a certain kind of youth of whom it may be said that he is born to be a Londoner.
Arnold Bennett

I have few regrets in life. One is not shaking my father’s hand and embracing my mother as I said goodbye to them when leaving my home in the northeast of England to live in London.

My plan was to offer that sign of appreciation. My thanks to them both, for what they had done for me in my first seventeen years. Yet, as the train pulled into Durham station on that warm Saturday morning in early July 1974, I suddenly felt such gestures to be awkward and embarrassing. Instead, it was a case of hurried goodbyes, a promise to write often (my parents didn’t have a telephone), a wave and a search for a seat.

As I journeyed south, I had mixed feelings. Nervous at moving to the ‘big’ city of London. Excitement at striking out on my own. Sadness at leaving my family and friends behind.

I arrived in Kings Cross to a storm of people. Waves of disgorged passengers broke on the shore of the concourse where a populous returning tide flowed in search of their train. Negotiating the multitude, I gazed with trepidation at a tube map wiring diagram. Naively I decided to forgo the colour coded challenge and walk to my intended destination. Leinster Gardens, just off the Bayswater Road. My new ‘home’, a civil service hostel, awaited.

My naivety lasted all of two hundred yards of the Euston road. Even with my minimal knowledge of London, I knew the time to reach the Bayswater area with a hefty suitcase to be excessive. I, therefore, returned to Kings Cross to brave the underground.

The chaos of Kings Cross mainline station seemed nothing to that which met my eye on the Underground concourse. As a football supporter, I had many experiences of large crowds. I had experienced an FA Cup final at Wembley amongst 100,000 people yet before my eyes seemed a morass of humanity. A noisy Brownian Motion of people.

Despite the cacophony and crowd, the enchanting concourse still caught my eye. Unchanged since the late 1800s with much ornate wood panelling and wooden ticket kiosks. The Kings Cross fire burned all this away. Its replacement safer yet utilitarian plastic and metal.

Plucking up my courage, I plunged into the crowd. Ticket bought, I found my way to the correct tube line and eventually arrived at Queensway station. Once there it was to join again a bustling throng waiting for a lift to the surface. I emerged onto the street akin to a cork from a bottle realising that London was a far busier place than anywhere I’d experienced in my then shortish life. At least it wasn’t a long walk to Leinster Gardens.

On arrival at the Hostel, a four-storey Victorian Townhouse, the austere face of a woman in her late fifties greeted me. After the curtest of welcomes, the woman then made a peremptory request for my first month’s rent for bed and board. I handed over what I thought a princely sum. It would not seem much these days. However, in 1974 it constituted half of my monthly take-home pay.

The woman, who turned out to be the ‘Housemother’, then ran through a list of what one could and could not do. The ratio of what one could do against what one could not do being around 1 to 10. Even what one could do were such things as, “Change your sheets once a week”. Most of the, ‘could not do’ involved girls and my visitation rights (there weren’t any). I later discovered that the ‘Housemother’ had recently been chief warder at Holloway women’s prison. She adopted the same approach in this new role.

My briefing over, the ‘Housemother’, instructed a ‘Housemaid’, (Rule number 1: Hands off the ‘Housemaids’) to see me to my room. Fifteen square feet that I was to share with three other young men for something like the next six months.

There was a pecking order in the Hostel when it came to room allocation. All new arrivals were placed into either a four or three-man room (the Hostel was all male). This was to make sure newcomers, most were from quite a way outside London, made friends. If someone stayed a year or so, they qualified for a two-person room. If you really behaved, after about three years your reward was a room for yourself. Very few sought that honour preferring to leave after about six to nine months to enter the world of private renting. From what I saw in my time in the Hostel, those that stayed longer seemed institutionalised. Exhibiting some quite eccentric habits.

One of my new roommates, Geoff, arrived soon after I entered my new bedroom/ lounge/ living room. He was from Derbyshire, and he told me that the other new arrivals were due soon. Once we had unpacked our stuff, Geoff suggested we visit a nearby pub, ‘The Prince Alfred’, for a beer. Never one to sit around moping, I readily agreed.

As we opened the front door of the Hostel to leave, we bumped into a burly Scotsman called Ian. We soon discovered he was the third of the roommates. Ian wanted to unpack and sort a couple of things out, rather than join us for a beer.

So, Geoff and I made our way to the ‘Prince Alfred’ at the bottom of Queensway. It was while walking to the pub that I first noticed one aspect of ‘liberated’ London. It was clear that girls in London were indeed liberated, as several we passed were clearly braless. I confess it was a challenge for me to avoid walking into lampposts, parked cars etc. as it was a sight I had not seen in the colder environs of the northeast. Unlike now, the girls in Newcastle of the 1970s wore clothes on a night out. My recollection is that most wore more layers than Scott in his attempt at the South Pole!

Eventually, we got to the pub, and my next introduction to London was the prices as I foolishly offered to buy the drinks. At the time, a pint of beer in the northeast was thirteen pence; in London, I discovered it was eighteen. Not a lot by modern standards, but such an increase did set me back at the time. I would love to write that it curbed my drinking for the next few months. Alas no, it just meant I economised in other ways like not eating. Or walking to places, rather than taking a bus or tube.

After a couple of pints, Geoff and I wandered back to the Hostel where we found the last roommate, Keith, who was from Yorkshire, had joined Ian.

There we were. Four lads from the north. Of a similar age. Living away from home for the first time. So, not surprisingly, we got on — especially given our shared interest in beer.

To celebrate our arrival that evening, we decided we would try another hostelry, the nearby Leinster Arms that stands on the corner of Leinster Terrace and Leinster Mews. I visited the pub last year. It hasn’t changed much at all. Before the pub, however, we thought it best to fill up on whatever food was available as ‘dinner’ in the Hostel.

Well, I have never been a lover of fish, and the thought of fish in a pie or cake has always left me cold and slightly nauseous. I was therefore not overly impressed that tea consisted of lukewarm fish cakes that were a repulsive mouldy yellow on the outside while distinctly grey on the inside. I managed one mouthful, and that was enough. Geoff did not even get that far, merely cutting his open did for him. Ian being a Scotsman and a big lad (he played rugby for London Scottish) used to a diet of white pudding, and haggis ate his with relish. He went on to consume mine and Geoff’s while the fourth member of our new club struggled manfully to get through half of his. By the end of it, he seemed to have turned a similar colour to the fish cake itself.

Dinner done, we ambled off to the pub that was to become our ‘local’ for the first of many evenings of beer, discussion, and laughter. I won’t pretend we did not have a bit of homesickness between us in those early days in London, but we saw each other through it.

My job was as an Assistant Scientific Officer in a Government Forensic Laboratory, in Cornwall House, on the south side of Waterloo Bridge. Once I became more familiar with London, my journey started with a ten-minute walk from the Hostel to Bayswater tube station. Then, Circle Line tube to Embankment and finally another ten-minute walk across Hungerford Bridge to Cornwall House.

In those days Hungerford Bridge was a narrow footbridge. Dating from Victorian times, it spanned the Thames on one side of the railway lines that run to Charing Cross station. The replacement to that bridge is now two wide modern walkways that sandwich the railway lines.

Cornwall house is still there but does not bear that name. Kings College took over the building and repurposed it as a seat of learning.

I digress. Let’s get back to a Monday in early July 1974. My first day at the Lab.

Leaving Embankment station and not yet knowing my best route, I turned left to walk through Victoria Embankment Gardens with the intent of crossing to the south of the Thames via Waterloo Bridge.

The end of the Gardens borders the back of the Savoy Hotel. It was there I saw ahead of me three recumbent figures. Once called ‘Gentlemen of the oad’, they lay peacefully asleep on the grass in their careworn ‘daywear’ of jackets and trousers. Given the warmth of the season, there was no need for an extra covering.

I drew nearer and the sun, sitting just over the OXO tower, caught the morning dew that covered the slumbering figures. A gossamer blanket bejewelled with gold and silver light. Although out of context, these lines from Yeats came to mind.

“But, I being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

And softly, I did tread as I passed those gentlemen.

On that first working day, with my mind full of the opportunity ahead, my thoughts turned to what dreams had these men once had?

Over the years, such thoughts occasionally return to me and especially when I do my annual London Walk for the Big Issue. There but for the grace of God.

Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park were only a walk of a few minutes from the Hostel. In those early months in London, they became many things to me. My breakfast room, my playground, my chill-out zone, and my ever-convenient late-night short cut.

Most Saturday nights, my fellow roommates and I ended up in some club or disco in the heart of London. We would start the evening on the lookout for young tourists who may welcome a recommendation to an atmospheric venue. Their thank you was invariably paying our entry fee and even buying us a drink. After a polite interval, we then left them to enjoy their evening while we drank, danced, and romanced (with girls, not with each other) into the small hours.

Rising the next day in time for a Hostel breakfast of lumpy porridge, rubber eggs, gristly dried up bacon, limp toast, and watery grey coffee was not an appetising thought. Instead, we would surface around mid-morning. Feeling frayed around the edges, we’d saunter to a small shop on the Bayswater Road to see what might be on offer to invigorate ourselves.

Given limited finances, breakfast was often a packet of Bovril crisps (replenishing salt lost during the previous night’s revelries) and an orange (offering Vitamin C). We were always keen to follow a healthy diet. We usually consumed these, alfresco, sitting by the Pete Pan statue alongside the Long Water that adjoins the Serpentine in Kensington Gardens. As we ate, we watched the world go by, basking in the revitalising rays of the warm morning sun.

On those Sunday mornings when it rained, we took shelter under convenient trees as we tucked into our breakfast ‘feast’. It’s strange, but I don’t recall many rainy Sundays. Failing memory, no doubt, rather than the fantastic summer of 1974.

It was not just a life of alcohol and girls in those first few months. We did take some time out to keep ourselves in shape. Invariably this took the form of a football match in Hyde Park with others from the Hostel. Games were chaotic with little attention paid to the rules and with teams of up to twenty aside. Within seconds of play starting, and with all tactics and strategy abandoned, the game would degenerate into forty or so young men chasing the ball around like a swarm of demented bees — each player striving in some vain hope of getting the ball under control. To then dribble, George Best like, through the morass of other players and to score.

It never happened, and like the Eton wall game, in which participants haven’t scored a goal in decades, our matches ended after hours of play with the score 0:0. The physical collapse of some players bringing games to an end. That, and the realisation by others that the pubs were open!

I cannot imagine what the other clientele thought when we players, descended upon the Leinster Arms. A ragbag of unkempt, unwashed, and unruly young men in much need of refreshment.

As you can imagine, being young and away from home for the first time, I met with some ‘interesting’ situations of which this one sticks in my memory.

After a month or so in London, Ian and I agreed to go halves on a cheap motorbike. On those nights out where we needed to travel a distance, we would take turns ’driving’. On this occasion, it was Ian’s turn to ‘drive’.

Our route back to the Hostel took us up Constitution Hill and not far up the hill the bike began to fishtail. Ian bellowed, “JUMP”, and I did. Alcohol cushioned my fall to the pavement.

Ian soon controlled the bike, of which the back tyre had blown, and then walked it to rest against the wall of Buckingham Palace Gardens.

It was the small hours of the morning. There was nothing we could do in terms of repair. We, therefore, decided to walk back to the front of Buckingham Palace. We planned to ask a police officer on duty if his colleagues would keep an eye on the bike until we could get back later that morning.

As we approached the Palace gates, we could see a police officer inside and called out to attract his attention. He turned in our direction, but he stayed silent and did not approach. Confused, we rattled the gates. Still no movement or word. Then we realised we were still wearing our helmets. In the police officer’s mind, we might be a couple of IRA men (this was in the middle of their campaign) or other evil doers about some mischief. We removed the helmets, and it had the desired effect with the police officer moving closer.

We made our request, and he smiled, replying, “it will be the best-guarded bike in London”.

Reassured, we made our weary way back to the Hostel.

Later that morning, we were back at the bike and had barely knelt to start work when a voice of authority came from behind us.

“Excuse me, lads, just checking that’s your bike”. Ian and I turned to see a smiling copper sitting in the passenger seat of a police car. The officer of earlier was true to his word.

We were able to satisfy the question. On leaving us to it, the officer mentioned with a laugh the shock we had given his colleague, “You two gave him a proper turn, you did. He thought his time was up”.

I met the girl who was to become my first wife at a darts match. I played in the men’s hostel team and Kym in the ladies Hostel team. In mid-September ’74 the Ladies, whose Hostel was on Queensgate, south of Hyde Park issued a challenge to the men. Challenge accepted the two sides agreed that losers of games bought winners a drink. Yes, dear reader, I bought the alcohol that night as I lost my game against Kym. She and I then dated. Three months later saw us engaged. Just over a year from the first meeting, married. We were both nineteen. Too much, too young, you might say.

Being a gentleman, I always walked Kym, ‘home’ to her Hostel after we had been out. That usually meant I’d miss the last tube back to Bayswater, the nearest station to my abode. I sometimes caught the night bus, but often I’d walk.

Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens close at night, so my walk took me all around the perimeter back to Leinster Gardens. In the early days, I did that long walk. Then, I came to realise that the police patrols in the park and gardens at night were rare and thus limited risk existed of arrest for ‘trespass’.

What I had not realised was how many others frequented the park at night. I imagined a stroll through its dark interior to the melodious song of night birds, the gentle rustling of leaves on trees and the distant hum of circling traffic. It was not so. What I heard as I nervously traversed the park was the ‘melody’ of couples cavorting in the act of ‘love’ along with the rustle of tramps sleeping restlessly under blankets of paper. Not to mention the sotto voce of people engaged in illicit drug-taking. In some ways, the park seemed more occupied at night than during daylight hours as its visitors partook of their nocturnal pleasures.

It didn’t stop me taking the short cut though!

I do not pretend that I spent much time in reflective contemplation in my first months in London. On occasion, I had time alone in Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. I enjoyed watching the park mellow from polished golden summer into ruddy amber autumn. Then harden to the muted blue and grey of winter. The trees’ lustrous plumage fading to gauzy fragility. Parched leaves clinging vainly to the branches of life. To fall wind-torn to earth.

The short life lived at barely eighteen years of age does not take long to reflect upon. However, I did take these more peaceful moments to let the mind wander onto things that might lie ahead of me. It’s too long ago to recall those wanderings. This was before my now daily journal.

It is for the best that time fades the memory on our youthful aspirations. Self-protection against recollection of promise unfulfilled. The man I now am is the child of that eighteen-year-old. I wonder what he might think of what he became.

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Harry Watson

In the Renaissance period of my post-career life …