Any Old Iron

Roger has a question that is not only slightly off my manor, but also a bit ahead of my time. So here’s hoping someone here remembers this…

“Years ago (and I mean years ago!) there used to be one of those villa-type houses along Shooters Hill Road (on the London-bound (Blackheath) side), that used to have a collection of traction engines and old cars (including a Riley RM if I remember correctly) filling its front garden. It was always a head-turner for me, because they were exactly the kind of thing that fascinated me.

I suppose it was a bit like Onslow’s garden out of Keeping Up Appearances, but with a bit more class.

And then they all disappeared :(

It was kind of cool to think that SE London could have had its own “Fred Dibnah” type character, and I”ve always wondered where they all went: even after all the time that has passed (we’re probably talking about the ’80s at the latest, for when they went) I’d still be interested to know if anyone else remembers them, and knows anything more about them.”

Whatever happened to tat in people’s front gardens? I’m not talking a bust-out mattress, broken IKEA chest of drawers and a kiddies wheel-less tricycle here, but stuff that people have consciously saved, either because it could come in useful some day, or because they think it is beautiful and they want to display it to the world.

As a kid I used to love spotting this kind of thing (there used to be a Russian tank on a used car dealers forecourt along the Romford Road I used to look out for when we visited relatives) which is why I’m surprised I have no recollection whatsoever of this bizarre sight, but it sounds so very odd that I bet someone will.

I guess it’s all to do with property prices being so high, but you just don’t see this kind of thing any more – Steptoe & Son in people’s front gardens. Nowadays the best you’ll get is a tedious caravan under a bit of grey tarp, and even that’s never of the old-fashioned Gypsy variety. This curious magpiedom, which amounted, almost, to Outsider Art in some cases, has all just quietly gone away, and no one saw it go. I’m guessing it was around the time when Greenwich lost the vast majority of her junk antique shops too. 

There are some people who will be delighted to see the neighbourhood cleaned up, but I, for one, mourn the passing of individual expression by everyday, average folk rather than ‘artists’ (however much that might have amounted to public nuisance in some eyes). I mourn those characters who made life that little bit more interesting (I had an uncle,  exactly such a character, who was just brilliant, as was his ‘unusual’ garden…). And I mourn that I will never get the opportunity to see a collection of steam engines and old cars on the front lawn of a smart villa in Blackheath.

11 Comments to “Any Old Iron”

  1. Dazza says:

    It seems odd to be talking about the ‘Gentrification’ of somewhere like Greenwich/Blackheath, but I fear that’s exactly what’s happening to these old places/Characters.
    Priced out of their homes after years of collecting and the new owners not wanting ‘that sort of thing’ around here. I think that’s completely missing the point of moving somewhere like Greenwich with it’s quirky little shops, industrial past and history.
    But that’s Progress for you……. allegedly!

  2. Sarah says:

    I remember the engines in the front garden in Shooters Hill Road. I also remember hearing that the house was lived in by members of the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band.

  3. Richard says:

    Sorry Dazza the reason for moving to Greenwich for lots of people is that its pretty cheap (relatively) and its close to Canary Wharf.

  4. 58frankh says:

    If Dazza thinks Greenwich would be better if lots of front gardens were cluttered up with old cars and half-rebuilt traction engines he’s on a different planet to the rest of us.

  5. scared of chives says:

    White poodle shit used to be common – but I’m gald that’s not around anymore.

  6. Benedict says:

    @SoC…your funny, I too used to think that all the white dog doo was from Poodles but apparently it was all the chalk added to their food, so it could have been any dog doing dog doo….
    My old neighbour always had two Bristols in the front garden….

  7. Toria says:

    58frankh presumably wants all the individuality and quirkiness that most of us love about Greenwich stamped out. You don’t live in that hulking great giant 60s comprehensive school-style yuppie fishtank that blocks the view out of my kitchen, do you? I bet you love it and all the other glass and metal boxes they’re going to wreck the area round the Creek with. :(

  8. Stephen says:

    Those properties are known as “Tea Caddy houses” I do remember seeing various machines, as TGP says it must have been ages ago.

  9. caroline says:

    Val (I had better not give his full name) was a family friend who lived in a villa
    in Shooter’s Hill Road (32) rather than one of the Tea Caddy Houses. He was a lecturer in fine art at St. Martin’s School of Art and his hobbies were collecting Steam Traction Engines and old Alvis cars which he kept in working order, if not ‘spruced up’ in his front garden. He used to drive the traction engine to steam rallies and had another one or two of them he kept in Wales. Val was a batchelor and so let students share his large house, including the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band which comprised former students. The cars and traction engine were presumably sold when he died as the house was sold at that time. Val was a shy, kind and interesting person and a ‘true gentleman’ if a little eccentric, and was greatly missed on his demise, in the late 70′s/early 80′s.

  10. RogerW says:

    Thank you so much, Caroline, for responding to this, and providing as much answer to my question as I could ever have hoped for.
    It’s even better to learn there’s a link with the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band. I used to like them (going right back to the days of ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’) and I actually got to see them – at long last – in 2009. Still as mad as ever!
    Thanks again!

  11. Somwhere in my vast archive of b&w negatives I have photos I took in about 1972 of the traction engine etc & will make a point of scanning them for upload.