It was late in 1974. My then boyfriend was to attend a course in London and wondered if I’d like to go along for the ride. Since I had only ever been to London on a school trip I jumped at the chance to do a bit of sightseeing. Quite early in the day I found myself on Kensington High Street and came across the iconic Biba department store. That was it, I got no further. The spectacular blend of modern, Art Nouveau and Art Deco with a nod to Pre-Raphaelite and shades of the Moroccan souk for good measure, drew me in. The Hollywood-style surroundings, the like of which I had only ever seen in films, were awesome, lavish, unique; I could go on …and on. It was love at first sight and there I stayed for the rest of the day.
The brainchild of Polish born fashion designer Barbara Hulaniki, Biba had already been in existence for some years when the old Derry & Toms seven storey department store on Kensington High Street became available and, in September 1973, Biba moved in.
‘No-one could fail to be stunned by the sheer scope of the enterprise’ reported the Evening Standard at the time. ‘You’ll feel as if you’ve stepped inside a dream machine.’
‘Like stepping in of the cold reality of the street into fairyland’ said The New Yorker.
Reputed to attract hundreds of thousands of customers a week, the newly located store offered a bewildering choice of clothing, shoes, makeup, house ware, toys, and even groceries which were displayed on the likes of massive baked bean and sardine tins (the latter complete with enormous key), much of the food packaging sporting the store’s logo. Biba was intended as more than a shop – it was sold as a lifestyle. The true Biba devotee even used its branded washing powder. As Alistair Best in Design Magazine said at the time. ‘shopping is almost a fringe activity’.
Everything was larger than life from the over-sized hat stands used to display all manner of fripperies to the magnificently proportioned black and gold mirrored make up counters artfully displaying thousands of tiny pots and palettes. A giant record player, enormous Snoopy doghouse, huge toadstools in the cafe which also boasted a castle and moat, all added to the feeling of being part of a film set. The fantasy was even more evident as I ventured onto the fifth floor and peeped into the Rainbow Room. Reconstructed as a 1930s palm-court style restaurant, resplendent with mirrored walls, it had a lasting impact and remains steadfastly a style of decor for which I have great affection. Having discovered the sixth floor tea rooms and roof gardens (rather less intimidating for an unaccompanied teenager) I remember sitting for a while with refreshment, but I have no idea what I chose. I think it was here that I discovered the delight of people watching, something I still enjoy greatly.
Back on the ground floor I could hardly wait to spend my hard-earned Saturday shop girl wages on those tiny pots of make up and perfumed oils in their distinctive Deco-style glass bottles. They lived on my dressing table long after the contents had been used.
I vowed there and then to return with enough money to buy some of the Biba fashions and, most importantly, a pair of the amazing suede boots. I went home and I began to save. I worked extra hours all through the school holidays and watched my savings grow. Some time late in 1975 I returned to London, so full of excitement, you cannot imagine. I was seventeen when I first encountered Biba, impressionable, headstrong and determined to develop a style distinct from that of many of my peers. I wanted that ‘Biba lifestyle’. The disappointment was crushing – Biba had closed. It’s demise is well documented in the book The Biba Experience but in a nutshell, a combination of financial reasons and board disagreements sounded the death-knell and despite attempts to re-launch, it was over.
Biba, in it’s glorious final form, was so short lived and I feel privileged to have experienced it, to have been there at the right time. The brand name was eventually bought by House of Frazer in 2009 and is still trading though Ms. Hulaniki criticises it for not reflecting the original style of Biba.
Quotes and background information taken from The Biba Experience Alwyn Turner
A friend recently visited, and very much enjoyed, the Beatles Story in Liverpool. It took her right back to growing up in the sixties, she told me. But the person she was with hadn’t derived anything like so much pleasure from the experience, saying that she didn’t like looking back to the past and that we should only look forward. Well, of course we should look forward, but I don’t think we should do this to the exclusion of enjoying the past.
I’m excited by the prospect of said friend’s forthcoming birthday celebration in a tepee complete with hippy headbands and sixties music (definitely blasting ourselves into our past- more of this in a later post). I’m looking forward to watching my mature student son graduate in September, and to several planned social occasions and I’m enjoying watching my grandchildren grow in to the wonderful little people they are. All these things are joys but the longer term future, particularly in terms of health, is the unknown so I really don’t want to consider that. Of course the past isn’t a place where we should dwell, but isn’t re-living the happy moments in our lives surely one of life’s greatest pleasures? I like to think that life is about making memories that can be enjoyed when I am too old to make new ones. It is past experience, along with the books we read, the music we listen to, the clothes we wear that shape our identity and make us who we are. I believe that my past is an important part of me.
Our conversation got me thinking about my own growing up years and wondering how much of the ‘then’ me is evident in the ‘now’ version. I was fifteen years old when I climbed out of a caravan window, followed by the friend who had accompanied us on holiday. It was a little before six in the morning and we couldn’t use the door because we’d have had to pass through the dining area where my parents were asleep on the fold-down bed. For the sixth or seventh consecutive summer my family were in Tenby, holidaying in the pastel pink and blue caravan loaned to us for the last two weeks in August by one of my father’s colleagues. Tenby was the place to be seen that summer; anyone who was anyone was there. In truth, ‘anyone’ comprised mainly the previous year’s sixth form boys now located at various universities around the country, hanging around the beach by day, working in the bars and restaurants at night and by fortuitous coincidence (and to the chagrin of our school friends) we were there too.
In our ankle length, embroidered dresses purchased in the Birmingham Bull Ring’s Indian Bazaar, our long hair, plaited when wet to produce masses of pre-Raphaelite waves, we glided (often bare-foot) around the narrow streets, in and out of shops heavily fragranced with incense, ducking below coruscating glass mobiles hanging like stalactites from every ceiling and making friends with the left-over sixties hippies who worked there, and Anne, owner of one of these exciting places, who told fascinating stories of pop festivals and the icons she had met. We promised ourselves that as soon as we could leave home, this was where we would be, and Anne was the epitome of who we would be.
Had we even heard of the Isle of Wight festival before then? Probably not, but heedless of the fact that we would need tickets and rather more cash that we had, and anxious to turn in to reality the sounds hitherto experienced only on twelve inch vinyl – Jimi Hendrix, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and others whose names, so important in 1972, now escape me, we descended from that caravan window and made our way out of Tenby with a vague notion of hitch-hiking our way to Southampton. Our intentions were solid, no question – at that moment we’d meant to go. Maybe no-one stopped for us or perhaps we just lost our nerve. I expect we were each as apprehensive as the other but neither one of us would have wanted to lose face and admit the fact. It’s a long time ago; some memories are crystal, others hazy, faded with the passing of years but this morning, sitting here remembering, I wonder how much of that girl is still evident in who I am today. It’s hard to define oneself, but I think there’s still a little bit of the hippy left in me, a little bit of the person who pushes the boundaries. But I’m also the mother who would be horrified if any of my children admitted to hitchhiking (please, if you are reading this, don’t tell me) and who would voice concern at the potential horrors of walking barefoot where ‘you could pick up anything’.
Yesterday evening a friend and I were reminiscing about people we had both known during the 1970s (even though we had not known each other at that point). His wife commented that we both had a good memory of the time, saying that her own recall of those years was unclear. I was interested to hear her say that she doesn’t really look back, which is where I began this post. I’m not sure that there is a right or wrong here. What do you think?
“We are the sum total of our experiences. Those experiences – be they positive or negative – make us the person we are, at any given point in our lives. And, like a flowing river, those same experiences, and those yet to come, continue to influence and reshape the person we are, and the person we become. None of us are the same as we were yesterday, nor will be tomorrow.” (BJ Neblett)
This is a house that was once called Cartref. Some fifty years ago, in the kitchen of this house, I must surely have asked a question. I suppose at the time the forthcoming answer provided some measure of satisfaction, but since I have no recall of either the exact question or its response, I cannot say. With some certainty, however, I can tell you that answer would not have been the truth.
On a Saturday morning in May 2015, the unexpected warmth of the early morning, pre-summer sunshine tempted me into the garden with a cup of coffee, a newspaper and the intention of catching up on the post-election rhetoric. Flicking through the pages, I would likely not have stopped to read the article which proclaimed that Bob had been poaching for seventy years, had it not been for the fact that my keenly honed skill of scan-reading picked up on a single word in the opening paragraph: Wickwar.
Sitting equidistant between the market towns of Chipping Sodbury and Wootton-under-Edge, Wickwar had been a moderately successful town in medieval times, with many of its inhabitants employed in the cloth trade. Centuries later it was a small, but thriving, village when, in 1888, the local brewery installed its own hydroelectric generator, allowing the village to make use of the excess. Wickwar had enjoyed short-lived fame as its High Street became one of the first in the country to enjoy electric lighting, even ahead of Bristol. But it was for a different reason that I knew of this small South Gloucestershire village. It had been home to my maternal grandparents, the village in which my mother grew up, and the place that I regularly visited during the school holidays each year.
My grandparents’ cottage was located in West End, about a mile from the village centre, on the western edge of Wickwar. It was forty years since I had visited. The newspaper article told me that Bob Tovey had been poaching to help feed his family since he was a small boy in the 1940s. Any surplus was passed on to others in the village. In the days before welfare benefits and food banks provided a cushion for the needy, widespread rural poverty had meant a hand-to-mouth existence and for some, poaching was essential to survival. Whilst protective of game birds, a few enlightened landowners realised the mutual benefits of allowing locals to snare rabbits and other small creatures on their estates. But many betrayed the trust of their benefactors; greed proliferated and gang violence was rife so, more often than not, the law was invoked – fines, imprisonment and, historically, even hanging for the worst offenders. Fortunately for Bob, his own punishment had fallen short of the latter!
For several days, recollections of time spent in Wickwar interrupted my conscious thought: the early morning crowing of the cockerel, making rose-petal perfume in my grandparents’ garden, and walks in the Deanery with my grandmother, Kitty, where we would tiptoe quietly to peer at the dormice asleep in their nests of bark and grass, or search at the river’s edge for signs of water voles, now sadly, Britain’s fastest declining mammal. I was the little townie who could recognise sheep’s sorrel, harebells and stichwort, and we would pause to pick tiny wood violets, wild primrose, and whole bunches of cowslips, their delicate flowering clusters atop stems standing tall above the crinkly green leaves that sprouted at ground level. Oh, the horror of realising, decades later, that I had contributed to their sad decline.
Apparently, as adults, we are particularly drawn to those places that were part of our lives from the age of five to twelve. Memories of this time are amongst our most vivid and this generally has less to do with people than neighbourhood. For some there is a need for understanding, closure and healing, for others a desire to recapture and reflect. Whatever my own motivation, something niggled away and so it was that one sunny morning last summer, I found myself driving southbound on the M5 to revisit an almost-forgotten piece of my past and wondering what tangible remains I might find familiar.
In a curious dichotomy, though little has changed, much is different. The village is, in essence, linear with the centre comprising a wide main street with narrow burgage plots. Sitting on the route of the Old Saltway which runs from Droitwich to Chipping Sodbury, on the edge of the Costwold escarpment, the area is designated one of historical interest. Astonishingly, this small village is home to almost seventy listed buildings, many built from the grey stone local to the area, though some of the 18th century, rendered and stuccoed houses are now painted in pastel tones.
The flat fronted homes, with their doors opening directly onto the pavement, look, at first glance, exactly as they did so long ago, but no longer do the elderly women of multi-generational families sit outside on straight-backed chairs, exchanging greetings with passers-by. Not a single person strolls along what used to be a bustling high street. I can see no butcher, baker or newsagent and the drapery-cum-toy store which was actually the front room of Mrs Handel’s house is long gone. A cafe now stands where a brown-coated Mr Marsden presided over the highly polished counter of his general store into which I would accompany Kitty and wait patiently whilst she read out her shopping list, item by item, as Mr Marsden’s wife reached for each from the shelf.
In the terraced gardens that once belonged to the long-demolished Poole Court I encounter several large round brick-built structures with pointed grid roofs in the meadow which align with the tunnel that emerges just beyond the village. Until this moment I had forgotten their very existence. A small child, I would stand on tip-toe and lean over the wall hoping to feel the vibration of the trains passing beneath, whilst I watched the steam billow through these air-shafts. At the top of the hill stands the 12th Century Holy Trinity Church with its sinister looking gargoyles clinging to the parapets and staring down as they have done for centuries. Inscriptions on the tombstones repeat names over and over – interconnected family networks that go back generations. Just as my own children did not, and my grandchildren now don’t, the child I was had never quite understood the adults’ obsession with ‘views’. Today, as I look towards North Nibley, at the monument erected to honour local man, William Tyndale, for his English translation of the bible, I am gratified that we come to appreciate them. The church, with which I have so many links, is much smaller than it had once seemed. Here my parents were married and I was Christened; my cousin and I were bridesmaids to our uncle, and family members were buried. I sit for several minutes and reflect, enjoying the absolute silence. How rare this luxury.
From the church, I follow the lane that runs parallel to the Wickwar Ridge which stretches across South Gloucestershire, and wonder if much will have changed. Little, it seems, as I pass by the meadows and vast areas of grassland; past the brambles that so often had supplied the juicy contents of the pies that followed our Sunday roast, past ancient hedgerows which follow the natural topography of the land, past dense thickets that still create little woodland spinneys, once so perfect for games of hide and seek. And then, past the waist-high, dry-stone wall that still meanders alongside the lane leading to my grandparent’s cottage.
The hedgerow grows taller and wilder than I remember and the cottage, at the end of a gravel driveway may still be glimpsed from the lane. It had been called Cartref – no number, no road name, just Cartref, West End, Wickwar. An internet search had revealed no such address, though Google Earth confirmed that the building was still in existence. I had addressed my envelope with a description of the cottage’s location, indicating its proximity to the landmark Clock Cottages. Explaining that it had been my grandparent’s home for almost sixty years, I asked the owner if I might visit. A response had arrived by return: she would be delighted to oblige.
The large garden seems little changed. It was here that Kitty’s organic vegetables were grown and free range eggs were collected long before such labels were fashionable. No weekly trips to Tesco, no on-line ordering from a choice of forty yogurts. Had we even heard of yogurt? The milkman called daily and milk was just that – no skimmed or other varieties -and if we wanted it thick and creamy to accompany those blackberry pies, we took a jug to the farm along the lane, the risks of raw milk unknown to us.
Each morning, on his way to work, my grandfather would roll a small boulder into place to hold open the wide metal gate at the end of the drive, and in the evening the process would be reversed. The boulder was always referred to as ‘The stone’ and, according to my mother, had been there when she too was a child. I’m certain that it is the same one as I see now, and at that moment Something stirs in my memory.
By most people’s standards, Kitty’s Sunday tea-time fruitcakes were unexceptional, but in our family they were legendary, if only for the fact that what little fruit they contained, always sank to form no more than a sprinkling on the bottom of said cake. I had often helped to bake the cakes, though this consisted of little more than an ineffective stir and a lick of the spoon. The day I recall was unusual in that two fruitcakes were now cooling on the marble slab in the pantry. I had never before seen them in duplicate. Kitty brought one to the table. Opening the drawer at the end of the kitchen table, she took out greaseproof paper and scissors and proceeded to wrap one of the cakes. Securing it firmly with string, she told me to go and place it behind the stone.
I asked her why and she replied:
“It’s for the rabbit.”
A serious child, I was not given to airy-fairy ideas of humanised animals. Most certainly I would have protested that rabbits did not eat fruitcake. Maybe I laughed and would have asked a further question, perhaps several, but on this point recall fails, as it does with Kitty’s response. What is indisputable, however, is that it would have lacked veracity. I know for sure that she would not have wanted my grandfather to be aware of her illicit barter.
Bob Tovey says that poaching was a way of life; that men were hunters long before they became office workers or lorry drivers. I brush my fingers lightly across the stone. That fruitcake had indeed been for the rabbit.