Old Trees

In the 19th Century, before our house was built in 1875, Barnes was known as the market garden of London. In the early hours of each morning Hammersmith Bridge was thronged with horse drawn carts on their way to Covent Garden loaded with fresh produce of the season.

When we came to Barnes in the 60’s there were still fruit trees in most of the gardens behind the houses that line the street. In ours there was a pear and an apple tree.

In our neighbour’s garden on the London side were two trees: a Quince and a Mulberry. On the Richmond side there was a fine pear tree.

Our neighbours who owned the house with the mulberry tree, which by then had assumed a semi recumbent position and was about to subside altogether, at which point it was removed, sold up only a few years ago when the house was bought by a Russian with ideas of developing it. He employed a team of Moroccans who proceeded to strip out all the Victorian features and even the Quince tree. When I enquired why they had cut down the Quince the foreman uttered one word only: “Old!” just as he had when I asked him why they had destroyed the stained glass porch over a door leading to the garden. Fortunately the Russian’s Mama, who held the purse strings, came over at some point from Moscow and said , “NOT another rouble!” so he had to sell. I bless Mama, as the house was about to fall down. All the doors along the hall had been ripped out and the Moroccans obviously didn’t know that the house was supported by the two walls either side of the central passage, as is ours, both having been built by a Mr Hockley. The Gods were clearly concerned because it was bought by a wonderful family who have rebuilt the interior in a modern but delightful way. But the Quince tree: ‘Non c’e piu’.

The house on the other side was bought by The Mercer’s for the high Master of St. Paul’s School, whose grounds face us.

The first incumbents were the Pilkingtons, a splendid Rev. Canon, his wife. and daughter. One early morning there was a terrific commotion that woke us. “That Night a fire did break out. You should have Matilda Shout./ You should have heard her Scream and Ball / And throw the windows up and call / To People passing in the Street-/The rapidly increasing heat encouraging her ……”(H. Belloc) Only there was no one passing, but WE heard and I went out onto the balcony . Mrs Pilkington- not yet ennobled – ran towards me shouting,

Fire! Fire!”
‘Have you called the Fire Brigade?
“YES, YES!”
“Have you got fire extinguishers?”
“NO!” she replied.

The fire was in a front ground floor room and when we got there, clutching two of our fire extinguishers it looked rather like peering into the firebox of the steam engine climbing up Beattock in Auden’s Night Mail (Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:/The gradients’s against her, but she’s on time) Everything was red, if not white hot, It was her absent daughter’s room, where her collection of old clothes, as they caught fire and burnt up, floated off in the hot air towards the ceiling. Miss Haversham all over again.

I made Jan stand on the opposite side of the window to me. When I said ‘NOW!” we both broke the window nearest to us with the nozzle of our extinguisher and set them off. We did it simultaneously and emptied the entire contents of both extinguishers into the room. You won’t believe this but it worked: the fire went out! Minutes later the Fire engine which had doubtless galloped across the bridge ”encouraged by the frenzied shouts proceeding from the frenzied crowd” arrived. The Fire Chief told me, “If you hadn’t done what you did, the house would have burnt down. The fire had already got going between the rafters of the main part of the house.”

St Paul’s kindly gave us a bottle of Champagne and the fire extinguisher refills. Sadly the newly appointed High Mistress of St Paul’s has decided to live in medias res so the house is mostly empty or inhabited by passing visitors.

The School gardeners have not made a very interesting garden but they have left the pear tree which is a sight to behold at blossom time .

Our pear tree is no longer extant but the apple tree, thanks to the care and attention of our wonderful woodsman, Jamie Simpson, still stands right in front of the window where we now sit every day and enjoty the garden. After some heavy pruning to save its life it is now sprouting fresh growth and is the haunt of robins, tits, sometimes squadrons of parrots and quite often visited by woodpeckers who inspect the holes and tap away to disturb any unsuspecting insect.

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