LANCING AND SOMPTING
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We came to live in South Lancing in 1951, when I was 10 years old, to a little cottage in Alma Street. It had two rooms upstairs and two downstairs with a kitchen added on the side. The toilet and coal shed were across the yard. Visits were best planned in advance, otherwise you found yourself scurrying across in pyjamas on a hard frosty moonlit night or in the midst of a Sussex downpour. The bath was in the kitchen, covered by a board while not in use and the water was heated by a tempramental Ascot which emmitted a load roar and belch of flame when ignited. My father, who was not very mechanical, would have nothing to do with it, but Mum mastered it quite well. By turning the water flow to a minimum while keeping up the gas pressure you could actually get the water to boil as it came out. It took for ages to fill the bath.
Behind the house was a nursery (now built over) and over the other wall was a patch of green called, I think, Headborough Gardens, but to us kids it was just called "The Park". The Park was inhabited by a scruffy gang of tykes about my own age from "The Flats" (Lincoln Court), Roberts Road and lower South Street. When we moved in, they wanted to have nothing to do with me, especially as I did not transfer to South Lancing School, but continued in the same junior school in Worthing. They'd throw pebbles and shout insults at my brothers and me until they found out that we had a set of cricket stumps, a bat and a ball. Then we became instant friends. Officially you weren't supposed to play with a hard ball in The Park, but since the Lancing citizenry avoided the place while we were there, we got away with it until one kid lofted the ball over the pavillion (which we called "The Shed") and, with a mighty crash, through one of the greenhouses in the nursery at the back. No one dared go and ask the nurseryman for it back, so it was tennis ball cricket from then on.
As well as the Park, another favourite playground was "The Beach Green". It is now all flattened into a car park, but the eastern end used to be at a lower level and covered in long grass, ideal for war games and sneaking up on each other. There was a stagnant stream, full of junk and the frame of an old aircraft gun turret which served as a bridge. Further west, near the Mermaid café, was a little green with a cement path going halfway round it. There were some swings and the man who looked after them also had a pedal car which he rented for threepence for as long as no one else wanted it. He and my Dad would disappear into the café and leave my younger brother to peddle up and down to his heart's content.
Every Saturday morning, I had to do my mother's shopping - bread from Mitchell's across from the end of Alma Street, veggies from the greengrocer under the flats but my favourite was the Co-op where the money was catapaulted in little tubs along wires under the ceiling to the cashier who sat in a box near the door. She would make the change and the receipt then fire it back to the shop asistant. There was even one that shot up through the floor to the department (drapery, I think it was) up above.
At the end of the street was a small sweet shop, lit by gaslight and run by two sisters, always dressed in black, named Trevett but whom we called Auntie May and Auntie Bess. My mother used to deposit a supply of ration coupons with them each month so we could squander our hard earned pennies on gobstoppers and lemon sherberts and other such nutrients vital to young boys.
I was fascinated by trains and used to stand by the level crossing watching the man in the signal box heaving mighty levers and punching little knobs that went ding ding. Then he would furiously wind the huge wheel and the gates would swing across the road. People on bicycles would take their lives in their hands to get across before the gates closed and locked into place with a crash. I used to stand as close to the gate as I could to watch the express trains (numbers 60 and 62 and 16) which thundered past with a roar and a gust of air. Sometimes a steam train would come through. If I saw one of those approaching, I would stand on the footbridge. As it passed underneath the whole world would disappear in a dense fog of steam, smoke and black ashes with that characteristic smell loved by old fogies who remember the days of the steam train. There was nothing like it for dulling down an embarrassingly new, bright green High School jacket and starched white shirt.
In 1955, we moved to a bungalow on the Upper Brighton Road, just west of Fircroft. Nothing about it was completely straight. The floor sloped, so you could release a marble at the top corner of the living room and it would run diagonally across the floor, under the bedroom door and end up in the opposite corner. The front wall was not perpendicular, so if released too soon, the heavy front door would close with a mighty bang and beware of your fingers! At that time, there were no houses behind, just a huge cabbage field stretching up to Lancing Clump. Where the Boundstone School now stands was also a cabbage field. We had a large and overgrown garden at the front, and I could lean out of my bedroom window and pick raspberries off the bush which hung over the path to the back door.
My passions at that time were bicycles and model aeroplanes. I was lucky to get a Saturday job at Jack and Doris Rowe's cycle shop in Crabtree Lane. They also sold model 'planes and it was my job to keep track of, and reorder, the balsa wood, the glue and the model kits and to look after the shop while Jack repaired bicycles in the bottom shed. He showed me how to find and mend a puncture in less than five minutes, and to straighten a bent wheel by tightening the proper spokes. I have him to thank for my lifelong love of cycling.
My best friend was called Scott who lived in Tower Road. He was also an aeromodeller. We dismantled the models so that the wings, fuselage and tail would fit into a long cardboard box which we could strap on our backs and on Sunday mornings we would cycle over to a model club which met in a field on the Downs behind Shoreham. Our route took us across the old toll bridge which then carried the A27. At the end of the bridge was a level crossing for the old "Steyning Stinker" train and it was the signalman's job to collect the tolls. Bikes were supposed to pay a penny. If there was no traffic (hard to imagine the A27 with no traffic!!) he would be in his signal box brewing tea and we would hurtle over the bridge, across the tracks and away before he could stop us. However, we weren't so smart because there were not too many cyclists with three foot wooden boxes on there backs and one day he caught us on the way back. He shut the crossing gate and demanded threepence each - one penny for each of our crossings, plus a penny "fine" for not stopping the first time. Take it or leave it. If you don't like it, then go the long way via Steyning or the Norfolk Bridge. We paid!!
Scott and I, despite our young age, were clandestine pipe smokers. We bought the cheapest tobacco and would sit on the south slope of Lancing Clump, that magnificent panorama stretching from the Seven Sisters to the Isle of Wight spread out below us and puff away in companiable silence. When Scott left to join the Fleet Air Arm, we ceremoniously buried his pipe and half a tin of Three Nuns in an Oxo tin in his back garden so his Mum wouldn't find it, the intention being to unearth it when he came home on leave. Trouble is, when he did, we couldn't find it again and abandoned it to provide a puzzling artifact to be discovered by some future civilization which happens to excavate Tower Road.
Well, things moved on. In 1958 we went to live in Worthing and a year later I was off to Aston University in Birmingham. After graduating and a few years with a large chemical company in South Wales, I got itchy feet and with my golf clubs and a change of underwear I boarded the good ship Carmania bound for Montréal which is where I live now. But I come back to Sussex from time to time. I love to walk through modern Lancing and make a detour down Alma Street to look at my old home (now modernised) and see in my minds eye that little gang of grubby faced boys with runny noses peering through the trellis work above the wall of The Park and hear them call "Oi, Mizziz 'Ofton, kin Martin come out to play an' kin we have the cricket stumps".
I wonder where they all are now. Gone to the far corners of the earth like me? Retired? Grandfathers? I remember them with fondness.