In The Wake Of Nick The Barber (5 October 1973)
The other morning I had to kick my heels in Bletchley town for a couple of hours, so I went to see the ruins. Not that there are any decayed, ivy-clad towers in that quarter of the new city.
But I think you will agree that when some buildings are part-way down while others are still only part-way up and some have disappeared altogether without anything taking their places, the general effect is as ruinous as anything the old Ministry of Works ever tried to salvage for posterity.
I had to start from part-way down Duncombe Street – about where that small place so convenient for men used to be, but which has long since vanished. Truth to tell, it deserved to be knocked down, but not without a better one first being provided somewhere in the vicinity.
From that vantage point I viewed the barren waste of what used to be the cattle market and its field – barren, that is, except for big new buildings going up along the Oliver Road side in the hope that the old market field will become a supermarket field and that a perpetual chime of cash registers will replace the once-a-week clang of the old mart bell.
From Duncombe Street itself, I regretted the disappearance of “Nick” the barber, just as later in my stroll I regretted the disappearance of Reg Pacey and “Jed” Crook from Queensway. I used to walk into their shops for a short back and sides and get one without fuss. In fact, they got so used to me they didn’t even ask what I wanted.
I am blessed with a good crop of hair. This I attribute to keeping it fairly short, but otherwise not bothering with it – like a spare patch of grass. Today there are hair stylists. From the look of today’s young men I gather the chief call is for ornamental bushes.
A few more steps took me to the flyover. Instantly I felt more at home, for right where the new Prince’s Way and Queensway half-meet there was a king-sized hole in the road. Because of the traffic I dared not go over to see how deep it was or what might be going on down there, if anything, but I was suitably impressed by the decorations.
I was also much reassured, for every old resident knows that Bletchley is not itself unless it has at least one good-sized hole in a road. Right now it is in pretty good health.
After noting the hole in the road, the Park Hotel (closed at that hour); the bank in which I have had 2s (10p now, I believe) for the past ten years; the building formerly wholly occupied by Johnson and Co., which now has accountants’ offices on the first floor; and the Working Men’s Club, I came to a full stop.
The way ahead was roped off, apparently to prevent me from falling not merely into hundreds of square yards of shallow hole but also into a much deeper hole within that hole. All this used to be the stall market, Greenways Café, fish and chips, a Chocolate Box, dry cleaning and Cowley and Wilson country.
Nor could I go further by means of the carriage way, for that now had a ramshackle Berlin Wall across it, and like the Berliners I couldn’t rightly tell whether I was outside or in.
In the hinterland across the way, however, I had been pleased to espy the well-known name of Greenways – apparently in a new building, but still faithful to me. To that I now wended a rugged way through excavation left-overs and the like and had a cup of tea with a lady staff-member who had lived in Bletchley longer than I, which was a pleasure.
Rising beyond was an immense edifice which a large notice board proudly proclaimed to be the Brunel building. I wondered what that brilliant father and son would have thought of it.
However, here was I, looking right up at it and experiencing the sensation I had experienced only once before in Bletchley – at the opening of the Mellish Court flats. A kind of inverted vertigo in which, instead of falling from the top I felt the top to be falling on me, crane and all. In the stock phrase of American films, I got the hell out of it.
My ambition, however, was to get back into Queensway on the right side of the barricades and this I began to achieve when I realised I was in the old back lane which I have been told used to run from Fenny to St. Mary’s Church before the railway was built.
On my left soared the Brunel affair, but on my right, on what used to be the back gardens of houses converted into shops, including the Gazette shop, stood new premises devoted mainly, it seemed, to selling other premises and backing horses. Then I recognised the side of the big bank which used to be a corner sub-branch, and after walking alongside another barricade I reached the elegance not to say the majesty of Queensway.
I pursued my intention of walking along that side of the road as far as the Central Gardens approach – now approaching more roads than gardens, but with a brand new loo hidden away somewhere – and returning along the other side.
With such memories, I made my way back to my starting point, but this time by way of Oliver Road. And guess what I found in that road. You are right – a hole right across it.
To get round it walkers were directed through the headstone carver’s yard – a nice touch, I thought for poor old has-beens like myself. Still, as an old army pal used to say:
“Better a has-been than a never-was”.