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Perfect spot for climbing

Memory Lane | August Issue


Forget sheer cliffs and exposed peaks, it's the bombed out buildings of Notting Hill that were ripe climbing territory for 1940s wartime youngster, Basil Jacques

How irresistible these shells of buildings were. There was one on the top of Ladbroke Hill that had an special attraction to me as an eight year old. And another on the corner of Ladbroke Grove and Lansdowne Crescent.

The large house on the top of Ladbroke Hill was my favourite. It stood maybe five storeys high with no roof and only vestigial stairs up one side. I'm not sure whether it was bombed out or just burned. There were no floors and only stubs of burnt joists sticking out from the walls. The fireplaces were all seemingly intact, some with lovely marble as the mantle. Some of the plaster had burnt off, but, here and there were areas of lovely wall coverings that must have been silk. Not stuck down but rather bound to wooden frames.

Wild life abounded on these sites; mice, rats, cats, but I don't remember any foxes. I believe they didn't start to appear in town until the early 60s.

The garden area was full of overgrown shrubs and trees, and, in the season, covered in fire weed. Birds of all sorts gathered; owls, starlings, and especially pigeons, who loved the fire places. 

One particular climb stand out about all others. In the second floor front fireplace was a pigeon's nest. I just had to go up and see it. The technique was to start in the lowest fireplace and climb up onto the mantle shelf. This enabled one to reach the picture rail with finger tips. You then pulled yourself up till you could reach the burnt stub of a joist sticking out of the wall. You hooked your leg over a neighbouring stub and clambered onto the joist. Then, repeat in the next fireplace until you reached the level you wanted to climb to.

I had just reached the second floor and was peering into the grate to see the three young chicks, when I heard a shout from below... 

'What the hell are you doing?'. A policeman was standing below.

'Looking at the pigeons nest, I'll climb down'.

'No you don't! Stay exactly where you are!'

Soon the fire brigade arrived and put up a long ladder and a fireman climbed up to me. Unceremoniously, I was picked up, tucked under his arm and carried back down. 

'Where do you live?'

'Elgin Crescent,' I replied.

With that, my ear was gripped, I was lifted to tip-toe and frog marched down the hill to Elgin Crescent. The policeman rapped on our basement flat door and Mother answered. 

'Is this yours?' he asked, and I was handed over with a strong warning as to the danger of playing on bombed sites.

The mind boggles at the risks we took but I was fearless, or more likely had no way of imagining what the dangers were. We climbed all over West London and developed wonderful physical skills. We were as light as feathers, our trousers never stayed up - we had no waists.

BASIL JACQUES


This story was from August Issue issue. Subscribe Now