Memories of Hextable and Swanley Village from Tony Morrison now resident in USA
A few years ago my daughter and I went on a walk through Hextable and Swanley Village I was in my 50s and had grown up in Hextable, lived there for 16 years, from 1957 to 1973, while my daughter was in her late 20s and had been born and grown up in the US. As we both happened to be visiting family I thought she might be interested in taking an extensive view of where her Dad had spent his formative years.
We walked from Claremont Road, where my parents were living at the time, down to College Road, then along Lower Road and then up over the fields towards Swanley Village. Along the way Sara was unfortunately introduced to stinging nettles, but I used my mad nature skills and pointed out the dock leaves that always take the sting away. I did not realize until a few minutes later that Sara had stored this incident away under the heading “OMG I think Dad grew up as a country bumpkin.” The realization was when we reached the small wood overlooking Hextable and I pointed out the entire view of the village below. At that point she said, kind of marveling at the view, “Dad, how did you ever live here? There’s nothing here, nothing to do. It’s just fields and trees, no shops, no cinema, no Dairy Queen, no skateboard park.”
Fair point about the shops I thought. Although I had noticed that the Post Office on the Crossways, right opposite where I used to live on St. David’s Road, had been extended to a little mini market. I could have done with that when I was young instead of the dimly-lit small front-room-of-a-house shop that I remembered. But there were many and varied shops in the village in the 1960s. No Asda, fewer cars and fewer fridges (we got one when I was 10) meant shopping was done on a daily basis and Hextable had everything except for a bakers. Plus a hardware store for Dad and a beauty salon for Mum thrown in for good measure (no-one thought much about gender stereotyping in those days). Main Road was lined with shops and there was a smaller satellite shopping district up on Top Dartford Road. The proximity came in handy during the awful winter of 1963. I had to do the shopping for my Dad when Mum was in the hospital delivering one of my brothers. The only time in my youth that I remembered negotiating banks of snow along Main Road as big as myself, indeed the only time I remember much of any snow. This was to be good training for later American winters.
I pointed out to Sara that there was actually a lot to do then. Rather lamely I mentioned games like conkers as we had passed the stand of horse chestnut trees where College Road meets the Crossways. The trees that had furnished me with many a double digit conqueror. But I did score some points with my roller derby playing, snowboarding daughter by mentioning that all these childhood games had been banned by the ubiquitous ‘Elf & Safety and the demands of a more coddling age. No more tree
climbing (might fall off), British Bulldog (might fall over), conkers (might fall out – eye that is).
For more organized games there was of course the Rec on Main Road, a piece of land deeded to the village in perpetuity in Victorian times for the enjoyment of the young. Football in winter; cricket in summer. But there were problems due to a massive slope. There was a pitch with goal posts marked out and Hexley Rangers used it for their matches. Our local heroes used all their tactical nous against the opposition by keeping the opposing team’s tricky winger (all teams had a tricky winger in the 60s, well until England won the World Cup without one) right on the touchline so that said tricky fellow ended up essentially trying to dribble up the north face of the Eiger.
We got a New Rec opposite my house on the crossways in the early 1960s after an extension to Top Dartford Road was cut down to the Crossways isolating Home Hill and a poppy field. The poppy field became the New Rec and the Rec became the Old Rec. ‘Elf & Safety was just beginning them and the New Rec’s long slide was built with a special cage on the top so that any child overcome with vertigo from climbing ten steps would not fall off. The top of the cage of course became a launching pad for kids seeing if they could jump off onto the grassy bank below. The Old Rec still had some uses, most notable being the bonfire and fireworks every November 5th. But then it became houses as “perpetuity” only lasted 100 years. You can still admire the slope on Emersons Avenue.
As we were close to the little wood on the hill overlooking Hextable, I offered to show her a little bit of the fun available in 1960s Hextable, a place where some friends and I used to play. In the 1960s Hextable was festooned with abandoned buildings – mostly foundations of greenhouses left to rot when market gardening moved over to the Continent (as the rest of Europe was rather amusingly referred to back then). Panter’s Road now covers the biggest abandoned derelict sites. But a more interesting abandoned building was in the wood. A very small brick cottage with three walls and a chimney still remaining and what looked like a couple of root cellars. I described it in minute detail to Sara, but when we got to the place in the wood it was gone. Sara made some pointed comments on whether it was healthy to live in a dream world. This had happened to me before in Hextable, as I remembered a Co-Op store on Home Hill when I was young, but when I returned to the Village as an adult it was gone. So I poked around the undergrowth and eventually found slabs of brickwork. Somehow the building had been demolished, whether by natural or human forces. A mysterious end fittingly for a mysterious building.
Most of my leisure time in those days went into physical playing in those days, which was why the abandoned buildings were so important for play. But there were mental diversions as well. Small transistor radios were all the rage. Apparently, playing music folks wanted to hear was against the law or something and we could only listen to the latest bands on the irritating fading signal of Radio Luxemburg. But then for a brief period in the mid 60s, pirate radio stations set up offshore and you could hear essentially anything and everything 24/7. And Radio London was indeed wonderful. Order was soon restored as there was the view then that you just can’t have folks listening to what they wanted; they should be listening to what the chattering classes deemed was appropriate. Which unfortunately was the likes of Tony Blackburn and the not at all wonderful Radio One.
Music also offered up practical visions of escape. The pirates opened up music from the US, where it seemed like everyone there was always hopping on all kinds of exotic transport to hightail it out of town. The heroes of country, rock and soul songs spent most of their time riding their blues away on a southbound until the train ran out of track, and when it did trying again on their lonesome own. But in Hextable, well we had the 477.
The 477 was a small decidedly un-exotic country route and there was no danger of songs like “Midnight Bus To Chelsfield” ever making it to Ready Steady Go. But it did represent escape. I went to school every day on the 477 from 4 to 10, as I attended a Catholic primary school in Dartford on the Temple Hill Estate. Sadly I never got to the end of the track on the 477 as that was one step on from the school at Henderson Drive. It was also where Joyce Green Hospital was, where I spent a couple of weeks when I was 10 with an acute case of pneumonia.
The ride to the school was great as the view changed constantly from the fields in Hextable, to leafy Wilmington and then to the mean streets of Dartford. Wilmington was of course a nice area – my Mum was always derisive of Mick Jagger’s faux cockney accent (“he grew up in Wilmington, stupid talking like that”). What I subconsciously noticed about Dartford on the bus route was the large number of wide-open spaces through parts of the town – some turned into parking for the shops. I did not realize until after I left that these were due to bombings during WWII. Which is strange as I did know, courtesy of some older inhabitants, that sleepy Hextable had been bombed as well. The big house that was there since Elizabethan times, and was latterly a college, was destroyed. As were homes in Main Road. The yellow-brick shops that are still there replaced cottages where the bombs fell, and the red-brick house after the parade of shops was built after the War replacing a similar house that was bombed.
The 477 also lead to Swanley. Swanley was where services such as doctors and dentists were, and for my family there was the Catholic church. The original wooden one on London road (about where Asda is now) was burned down in 1963. The parish grabbed the chapel of the closed Convalescent Home across the street, renovated it and that is the Church of the Holy Apostles today. The original name of the chapel, St Bartholomew’s, was retained for the primary school that was also built on the site. I remember playing a part in renovating the church (cleaning, etc.), but it was a very small part as, along with my elder brother, I spent most of the time exploring the creepy abandoned Home next to the chapel instead of cleaning. There is a whole hobby called Urban Exploration these days that just explores abandoned buildings. My brother and I were ahead of our time. Swanley was also the transport point for the Big City. It always surprised me how really close to Greater London Hextable is – a mile or two away from its borders. The bright red 21 bus, on which I used to go to secondary school in Sidcup was a visual representation of that. And Swanley station was only 25 minutes away from Central London itself.
Work was important then, as well as play and school. A half-crown pocket money was never going to keep me in the style to which I wanted to become accustomed to after watching on the telly how everybody seemed to be living it up in London. I offered to show Sara one of the places I worked, the Beddington Factory as our walk into Swanley Village down from the wood would go right by it. There was never any problem finding work around Hextable in those days. I started helping on a milk round, then progressed to de-budding chrysanthemums at Woodgers Nursery at Five Wents, pumped petrol at Pat Atteridge’s Garage on Top Dartford Road, worked on the Gibson Brothers farms that surrounded the village, and lastly to the Factory. Of course there was no factory there; it had now been replaced by a little housing estate. In fact all the places and jobs I had worked in the area were now gone. Stonehill Green Farm is now a golf course, you pump your own gas these days, Woodgers Nursery has been restored back to nature, and the last time I saw a milk float was in a 1970s Brit sitcom on YouTube.
We stopped at the Lamb in Swanley Village, which has morphed from a beer house for farm labourers in the 60s into a delightful country pub. Pubs were (and are) totally lacking in Hextable. The charter for the village had something in it about not building pubs. The belief of the chattering classes that they know best what other people should be doing has many deep roots in English history. In the summer my Dad would walk up Puddledock Lane to the Ship with his growing family as he could have a beer and the kids could play outside in the great family play area. Wonderful view too. You could look at the trees that marked out the back of Rowhill Road in the distance and glimpse some of the gorgeous houses on Rowhill through them.
The original plan for the walk saw us walking down Highlands Hill across to New Barn road and then down through the Avenue of Limes then back up to Claremont Road. But we ran out of time, so it was a cut back through Highlands Hill farm and then down Victoria Hill Road. At the corner with Main Road I pointed out the couple of old houses (the ones with names above the front door lintels) which I remember being totally flooded in my earliest memory of Hextable – about 1960. I believe the flood was to do with drainage issues caused by new houses being built across the street on Egerton Avenue. Certainly it was nothing to do with the nearest river, the Darenth, the most laughably small river that ever was. But whatever the cause it never happened again.
Shame about the Avenue Of Limes as this is my favorite place in the entire Village. The avenue was formed by two rows of statuesque linden trees (or limes using an alternate English name). They formed an approach to the Elizabethan country place called Hextable House (or Hackstaple as it was back in the 1600s) which was kept up over the centuries. The big house was long gone but the Avenue remained in all its glory in the 60s. A tranquil unchanging oasis untouched by the ever-changing landscape around it, where houses, a comprehensive school and an entire children’s park were built. But nothing remains untouched forever. Disease and the Gale of 1987 have destroyed about half of the Avenue since my day, although the trees have been re-planted so it will live on. I wanted to show Sara the entrance at New Barn Lane as this is the unspoilt part of the Avenue and how it looked in the 60s. But maybe it was just as well as in this case the past is better than the present.
Cutting back up Rollo Road on the way back to my parents, I mentioned briefly to Sara, as my last history lesson of the day, that she was looking at the first real houses for folks in Hextable, as opposed to the few villas built for the rich in late Victorian times. It is strange to think that in the land of wide-ranging history where I grew up, both Hextable and Swanley were founded back in late Victorian times. While in the relative newcomer to world history, the USA, I live in a town that was first settled back in 1698. If it wasn’t for Anglo-Saxon Swanley Village, history would have been thin on the ground down my way in the 60s. And that’s where the walk ended.
The walk did get me thinking about Hextable and more than just the landscape. For me Hextable was in hindsight one of the better places to grow up: rural, yet close to local towns and London. It was quiet and relatively untroubled. Of course there were tragedies – couple of kids I knew died through accidents (one electrocuted, one during a rugby game) and one of the shop assistants in the Village committed suicide. And occasionally world events impinged on the Village – the biggest was when a Village kid (I did not know him at all) was imprisoned in Turkey for smuggling hash in 1970. The one regret I have is that I did not make many friends in the Village that lasted beyond
childhood games. My social life was mostly outside the Village as I went to schools in Dartford and Sidcup. But I remained friends with guys like Richard Jameson who went to the same schools as me, and renewed some friendships later on in life, such as with Rob O’Connor (his Dad owned the Village pharmacy) when we both found ourselves attending different colleges in Brighton.
Copyright Tony Morrison
Just read Tony Morrison's story about growing up in Hextable. Brought back many happy memories. I grew up there from 1962 to late 70s remember all the land marks mentioned. The small woods he mentioned was I believe called the copse. Yes it was high up and you could see all of Hextable and if you turned around you could see Swanley village. My friend's dad was owner of Simpson's butchers which was across the street from the villages' other pub.Yes the Lamb in those days was strictly a beer pub. Had the best real ale for miles. Good memories. Thank you.