This must be one of the ugliest roads in London yet it harbours some of the most beautiful artists’ studios in the world. When I was born in 1953 my parents lived at no 89 for a while. This was not a beautiful house but a lodging place for displaced Poles. Lots of them – up to five families, I think, over 3 or four floors. I don’t know exactly and I certainly don’t remember. There was a family called the Sadowskis I think who had a son in a wheelchair- one of the many victims of polio at the time; they went to South Africa as soon as they could but not before they had imprinted themselves on my very young mind.
Then my parents moved to Battersea for a while because it was cheaper; here they had half a room divided by a blanket so that two families could have some privacy. My father was still a student supporting my mother, me, and helping two grandmothers. Not an easy time. I can’t remember this at all, and only know the address was 5 Home Road, which doesn’t exist anymore. When I needed to find the church where I had been baptised my father spent quite a long time poring over the A to Z trying to work out which church it was because he couldn’t remember. (The church of the Salesian Fathers, as it happens)
And then they were given a break. Their friend, Pan Sypel, with whom they played bridge, and who was much more prosperous and canny, had bought no 43 Talgarth Road. Right bang in the middle between West Kensington and Barons Court stations.
Again, not a pretty house, but divided into four reasonable sized flats. Pan Sypel offered the basement to my parents. This meant that my mother could go to work because she was near a tube station. She was a waitress at the Polish Hearth – Ognisko Polskie, where she had met my father on her 21st birthday and where they had had their wedding reception. (Mine too, as it happens).
We lived in this basement until I was about four. My mother suffered from asthma because of the damp and the dust. I remember two or three things about that flat. One was being in the garden – absolutely tiny, backing onto the tube lines- and falling out of a deck chair and off the little wall. I was fine until I looked in the mirror. Blood and dirt pouring down my face – together with tears. I don’t think I had hurt myself very much but the sight was frightening. I haven’t liked deck chairs since!
Then I had scarlet fever. I was quite ill and lying in my parents’ bed. Pink penicillin and bright orange Lucozade were the only things I could imbibe. One day I had a visitor. The man from the upstairs flat. Not a nice man. Big, greasy and over friendly. Tried to show me something I didn’t need to see and told me to keep it a secret. So I did. Classic situation. But I didn’t think about it for another forty years. One day I was at the doctor’s with my father. He was going to give me a lift home. Suddenly we saw Mr B from upstairs and my father said, “Let’s give him a lift home too.” Immediately it all came rushing back to me. I said no, I’d rather not get in the car with him. And my father twigged immediately. Why – did he do something to you? Even after forty years he guessed that I found him too creepy. Anyway Mr B had to make his own way home and I haven’t seen him since.
Mrs B on the other hand was lovely. She had been a ballet dancer and offered to teach me the rudiments. Not very successfully I’m afraid, but I loved the lessons with her. Best of all, however, she and Mr B offered to exchange their ground floor flat with our basement, so that my mother’s asthma had a chance to go away. The first floor was lighter, drier and generally in somewhat better condition. The furniture was heavy Victorian but I loved it. Whenever I see the sorts of pieces that we used to have there I feel a certain nostalgia. The chairs were high backed and very ornate.
My father lived in that flat for about another 6 years. My mother left when I was 6 or 7 when she won the jackpot on the football pools – but that’s another story. Meanwhile Talgarth Road still had houses on both sides of the road. I remember when they knocked down all the houses on the other side to make room for a dual carriageway. The first box junction in London I believe. But that may not be true. It was great fun watching them paint the yellow grid.
28th April 1961 (Yes, I had to look it up) The whole street stood outside, to watch Yuri Gagarin enter space. This memory is quite vague, but I remember thinking that by the time I was 28 space travel would be the order of the day! How wrong I was.
The street itself was ugly apart from the studio end. But the milkman came with a horse and cart and so did the coalman. There were still trolley buses for a while, I seem to remember. But the one thing I always coveted was to have an orange Volkswagen Dormobile. One was parked for years a few doors down. It was old and dirty but promised so much freedom to travel. From a very young age I knew that was what I wanted to do, independently. Never happened of course, despite eventually passing my driving test, and now I think I would like a Winnebago- more creature comforts!
Talking of independence I had my first taste of it in Talgarth Road. When I was about 5 – I think I had just started school and learning English, my father decided I was old enough to go to a shop by myself. There was a baker on the corner – West Kensington side, and he sent me to buy a loaf of bread and a bun. The bread cost tuppence 3 farthings and the sugar bun a penny. I had to bring the goods and the change from sixpence. I remember feeling terrified as I set off but my parents were watching me all the way there and back. It was very exciting and I suppose I must have had a great sense of achievement. But it can’t have lasted because I don’t remember going shopping solo again until I was in Senior school.
There were two more flats in no 43. Above us lived a lady called Pani Halina Godlewska who was extremely glamorous – she used to work in Daquise in South Kensington and she lived with her gentleman friend pan Tadeusz Mindak. Maybe he was just a lodger – who knows. And up above on the top floor there was a tiny flat where Pani Szumowska lived. She may have been Pani Godlewska’s mother – I don’t know. What I do remember is that she occasionally let my grandmother stay there when she came down for holidays from Penley Hospital where she worked. And there she slept on a chaise longue – I thought this was the most delightful piece of furniture I had ever seen – curled at one end, leather covered, brass buttoned at the sides. It retained its privacy as a bedroom with beautiful tripartite oriental wooden screens. I just loved going up there to pretend and make believe. My grandmother would draw me pictures and teach me to read and write Polish. I didn’t like that very much but she also played lots of word games with me which stood me in good stead as a teacher and mother.
But today I looked up 43 Talgarth Road on the internet. It is now a care home for people with mental health needs, which CQC has deemed Good in all areas in its last inspection. It makes me glad that my childhood home, which was not full of happy memories, is now a shelter and a home to people who can benefit from it.