Just up the road from us was one of the entrances to Richmond Park, the largest of London's Royal Parks. I played my first ever round of golf there, we occasionally went to watch the polo if Prince Charles was playing and it was our favourite picnicking spot.
Especially after a stroll through the Isabella Plantation, absolutely gorgeous in May with the azaleas in full bloom, then perhaps a trip to King Henry’s Mound, which may be of Prehistoric origin, but probably isn’t.
Either way the vantage point is the highest part of Richmond Hill overlooking the Thames Valley and affording a unique vista towards St Paul's Cathedral. It’s one of of eight protected views across London, meaning it has to be completely unobstructed by tall buildings.
I didn’t know such a thing as protected views existed, but one of my neighbours looked after the Richmond Park deer herd and knew absolutely everything about the park.
I did know how the mound got its its name. King Henry the VIII, in his favourite hunting grounds, climbed to the top in 1536 to watch for a signal from the Tower of London that Anne Boleyn had lost her head and that he was free to remarry.
I later read many articles debunking this theory, claiming Henry was many miles away in Wiltshire at the time. Shame as it’s a good story.
With the current levels of air pollution it’s not as easy as it used to be to view St Pauls, only ten miles away as the crow flies, but the overhanging trees are regularly cut back to preserve the view.
Richmond Park is three times the size of New York’s Central Park and certainly felt like it when I ran a circuit of the park three evenings a week after work. Those days are long gone!
I often came across David Bedford, holder of many British records and the World Record holder for 10,000 metres, on training runs and on one occasion I rashly attempted to keep pace with him. My arrival on his shoulder prompted the famous David Bedford ‘kick’ and that surge of acceleration left me floundering. I didn’t attempt it again.
That fitness regime was sport related. Many of my rugby team mates were Internationals with far greater natural talent than myself and maximising fitness became my means of compensation. I’ve never got near those fitness levels ever since.
This athletic superiority wasn’t much use on Sunday mornings when I played football for a local pub team, the Turk’s Head.
The pub, in Winchester Road, East Twickenham, was close toTwickenham Studios and there were photographs on the walls of Ringo Starr supping a pint after shooting a scene for a A Hard Day’s Night.
The area was often used for filming. One of the football team lived in a terraced house in Ailsa Road and all four Beatles were filmed simultaneously entering his house and those of three of his neighbours during Help! The four houses are then magically transformed into one enormous Beatle mansion, but the interior was actually a film set at Twickenham Film Studios.
Our pub football team played against some very odd opponents, such as ‘London Prima Donnas,’ a group of Italian waiters from all over London who made life very difficult for referees with their histrionics and an absolute (misguided) conviction they were good enough to play for Juventus or Inter Milan.
Our own team was very much a ‘pub team,’ being a mixture of mainly lapsed athletes and those with no athletic pretensions whatsoever. Only myself and our right winger had ever played any ‘serious’ football, but on rare occasions the father of one of our players put on his boots if we were short handed. He’d once been a sprightly winger for Everton, but that had been 30 years and thousands of pints of Guinness ago. Even so, playing ‘up front’ he conned numerous referees into awarding us penalty kicks. ‘Street wise’ footballers don’t need to run around very much.
We did have a celebrity following. Eric Sykes, Jimmy Edwards and a man I’d barely heard of, but found hilarious, Cardew (the cad) Robinson were keen supporters. Bill Oddie often frequented a rival local pub but was obviously far too busy to wander down to the Old Deer Park on a Sunday morning.
The folk singer Jake Thackray, who seemed to be ‘on the telly’ as he called it in his broad Yorkshire accent, every week at the time, played in goal for us when not off on tour. Not the best goalie I ever played with, by some distance, but at least he was always keen to play.
One of our players lived on a houseboat. If he’d enjoyed his Saturday night out a bit too much I had to go and try to get him out of bed and find his boots for him. This involved climbing across the decks of other craft to reach his unofficial (free) mooring.
One of the boats belonged to (Sir) Richard Branson, then a relative unknown. I don’t remember a bearded figure appearing on deck to complain about me disturbing his Sunday lie-in, but there were plenty of others who did.
Hippie communes have been an attraction throughout our travels. We would have been almost definitely classed as hippies by anyone who met us in the late 60s. Since then the hair styles have changed and we settled long ago for going out to work for a living, but when we set off in the first of our camper vans many years later it was as free spirits once more, living off our wits and seeking the freedom of the open road.
We’ve visited many hippie settlements, both official and transient communes, throughout the world. Christiania, or Freeland, in Copenhagen is a Danish institution. A massive site occupied by about 1,000 residents we wandered around for hours. It’s been in existence since 1971 and despite several attempts to ‘clean up Copenhagen’ it’s still there. Cannabis is on open sale along with some of the best designed tee shirts I’ve ever seen, but it’s recently reinvented itself behind the Ecology Movement.
In the USA we met hippies virtually everywhere, from San Francisco to Beatty at the edge of Death Valley and on to Bisbee near the Mexican border, it wasn’t hard to find people living ‘off the grid’ from choice.
I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about our frequent visits to Orgiva, especially the long established and incredibly well administered commune of Beneficio, but we were also charmed by the rural simplicity of life in the caves around Sacromente in Granada.
In Australia, small settlements like Byron Bay and Nimbin remain long in our memory and so many areas of Morocco are strongholds of an alternative lifestyle. We associate much of our time spent in Essaouira and Chefchaouen with the people we met there living outside society’s norms.
Turning up in London in 1969 we found many ‘hippies,’ many just espousing the fashions and hair styles of the day rather than the creed of ‘peace and love’ and by the time we got to Richmond an ‘interest’ became intertwined with my new job.
I became a frequent visitor to Eel Pie Island, an inhabited island in the middle of the Thames on the outskirts of Twickenham. Opposite the island was a pub on the embankment with a big beer garden which I think was then called the Queens Head, later to be renamed the Barmy Arms.
At that time the island was home to fifty or so houses, mostly no more than shacks and a couple of boatyards, as well as some small businesses and artists' studios. It had nature reserves at either end, both with no access for the public.
There was also a hotel, the legendary 19th century Eel Pie Island Hotel which had eased away from genteel respectability as it became more and more decrepit, became a major jazz and blues venue in the 1950s and a rock venue in the 1960s when it played host to some of the most influential British musicians of that period including The Rolling Stones, The Who, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, The Yardbirds and Rod Stuart.
When I first saw the hotel it was unrecognisable from its rather swish heyday, was virtually derelict and had become the UK's largest hippie commune. In 1969 the abandoned hotel was occupied by a small group of self-styled ‘anarchists’ and idealists seeking to create a commune of politically conscious artists, but there were a few arrivals, many from overseas, whose interests lay in fermenting revolution.
This was an era of considerable social unrest with groups such as The Angry Brigade on the scene. The hotel eventually burnt down, in somewhat mysterious circumstances at which time there were well over 100 people living there.
It wasn’t just a haven for drop outs. The first ever Doctor Who, William Hartnell, lived on Eel Pie Island, as did Nigel Planer, best known for The Young Ones.
The only ‘celebrity resident’ I actually met was Trevor Bayliss, the inventor of the wind up radio amongst many other things who was moving into his house on the day I first came across him and remained there until he died almost fifty years later.
After the hotel burnt down a few of the residents became ‘squatters’ in a row of empty houses in Grosvenor Road, Twickenham. Occupation of unoccupied properties had been common in the area for a while, but the Grosvenor Road squat would gain national recognition as people flocked there from all parts.
Shortly after the first house was occupied, workmen arrived and proceeded to tear up floorboards from the remaining empty houses and board up the doors and windows. The floorboards were replaced gradually, as each new house became ‘squatted’.
The arrival of squatters spotlighted the problem of property developers allowing houses to become derelict. The press gave the squatters much publicity, especially when it became known that building firm Bovis were the owners of most of the properties in and around Grosvenor Road.
As with Eel Pie Island, Grosvenor Road was ‘on my patch’ and I visited on many occasions, often prompted by official concerns over ‘dangerous activism’ but these suspicions soon dissipated.
The squat was generally peaceful and appeared to tick over without anyone plotting to overthrow the established order! Yes, that really was a concern in some quarters at the time.
Each house was run differently, thus blowing the conspiracy of activists theory out of the water, sometimes I was asked to knock on the door, others had a complete ‘open door’ policy.
I may have mentioned my fondness for quirky graffiti elsewhere in this blog – yes, many times, yawn – but I first saw one of the most memorable in Grosvenor Road, ‘CATS LIKE PLAIN CRISPS.’ I’ve speculated on its hidden meanings for years. In vain. Soon after that first sighting a much larger version appeared on the roundabout as traffic entered Richmond, provoking local outrage and promoting a retired military man, I think a Brigadier, to write to The Times. After that the ‘cats’ graffiti turned up all over London.
I’ve seen ‘cats like plain crisps’ duvet covers, shopping bags and tea towels too, all fairly recently, so it’s not just me that’s had it imprinted in memory for fifty years.
Initially the squatters were mostly scruffy young men, almost all were well educated and from distinctly middle class backgrounds choosing to live an alternative lifestyle and resentful of any interference from ‘the State.’
I had long hair, a large moustache and in no way resembled an authority figure which made my job much easier. Official credentials were never required; basically having established these people weren’t plotting sedition I was on their side, especially when, within a few weeks, females, children, whole families arrived and mains services were connected for a loosely linked community of over one hundred.
When Bovis gave twenty of the empty properties to Quadrant, a large non-profit making housing association, to be used for housing homeless families, the perceived risk to the entire fabric of society disappeared and I was finally able to devote my work related attention to other matters.
We’ve lived in a (tiny part of) a mansion in central London, the Cotswolds where Daylesford Organics was our local ‘corner shop’ and several other decidedly ‘swish’ places in England, but for sheer style and glamour the ‘Richmond Years’ take the prize. Our next door neighbours had ‘his and her’ Rolls Royces and an E Type Jag for the weekend. I had an ancient Austin A35 van. That wealth chasm didn’t seem to matter much to either of us and we stayed in touch for many years.