PC 165 Growing up in Bath

I was born in Bath in October 1946 whilst my Royal Naval father worked at the local Admiralty Department, before he went off to join HMS Birmingham in a sea-going engineering role. We lived in the top flat of No 13 Marlborough Buildings; my grandparents lived around the corner, as it were, in the Royal Crescent.

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Outside No 13 in October 2019

 

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Outside No 15 Royal Crescent in 1951

My parents divorced in 1950 and we went to live in what would have been the old servants’ quarters under the roof of my grandparents’ house, No 15 Royal Crescent. The crescent had been built to accommodate the loads of Georgian tourists who came to sample the spa waters down in the City centre; the facades were all the same, the internal design and rear elevations completely different!! With my grandparents and their three dogs on the second floor, us in the attic, complete with goldfish on the shelf by the back stairs and my mother making bespoke hats for the ladies of the City, it was a secure existence.

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The back stairs to the attic flat (2019)

To the east of the Royal Crescent lies Julian Road; to the north was the home of Hermitage House a school for 5-8 year old boys and 5-14 year old girls. It was run by a Miss Bobers and sadly my only memories are of observing an eclipse of the sun and of learning one’s ‘Times’ tables by rote: ‘One four is four, two fours are eight, three fours ….. etc’. It’s a wonder I went on to do A Level Mathematics and an Engineering Degree!

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The home of Hermitage House school in the 1950s

My brother and cousin had attended a nursery school on The Paragon in the city, run by a ‘Captain Olsen’.

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How times change the way we perceive things! Looking at this group from 1951 you could make all sort of judgements, what is now acceptable and what’s not!!

Without doubt, it was a privileged upbringing, but the stigma of divorce cuts across the social class and it can’t have been easy for my mother. My step-grandfather, Thomas Tizzard (‘Uncle Tommy’ to us boys), was a well-known consultant ophthalmic surgeon who had his consulting room on the ground floor of No 15, across the hall from a room which doubled up as a dining room for family and a waiting room for patients. On the first floor was a wonderfully ornate ‘salon’, with parquet flooring, an Adam plastered ceiling and fireplace, and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. It was here that my grandmother Grace (neé Corbett, whose father had been born in Recife, Brazil) staged her quarterly concerts, raising thousands of pounds for local charities. The room was big enough for her two grand pianos and 100 guests!

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She was an extremely accomplished pianist, even if her constant practising of ‘The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ by GF Handel drove a six year old boy mad! Today their house has been incorporated into The Royal Crescent Hotel, whose main entrance is No 16. As a very generous birthday treat last month, we stayed a couple of nights; our room was in the No 15 ‘part’ and was Uncle Tommy’s old Consulting Room!

PC 165 7 Tommy's Consulting Room

Down the hill, at the bottom of Marlborough Buildings, is Victoria Park, with its obelisk in memory of the famous monarch for all to see.

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In the summer months of my childhood, an ice-cream van run by Giovanni, an Italian who had been interned during the war, would do a roaring trade.

I put my hand into the dirty pocket of my grey shorts and am reassured by the touch of my threepenny piece (see note 1), along with a piece of string and my penknife; enough for my favourite ice-cream! I queue. My turn!  I get the coin out of my pocket, reach up on tiptoe as high as I can and put it on the aluminium shelf. “A Vanilla block and wafer please?” He reaches into the ‘fridge, picks up a block, adds two wafers and hands it to me. “Thank you” I mutter hurriedly as I feel myself salivating.

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I turn away, carefully unwrap one side of the block, place one wafer on top of the ice-cream, turn it over and remove the remaining paper, replacing it with the other wafer. At last! Holding my ice-cream carefully between thumb and forefinger, I lift it to my open mouth. I smell it, inhale the dusty wafer crumbs, and take my first bite. Now I am happy.”

On Milsom Street there was a restaurant called Fortes (The site is now occupied by Waterstones!) where my grandmother often went for morning coffee. One of the waiters, a rotund dark-haired chap called Sam, always smiled when he brought the Bath Buns, an essential snack to have with a coffee. As a seven year old I wasn’t allowed to drink coffee (see note 2) but the buns were a real treat.

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They are made from milk-based yeast dough with crushed sugar on top. One variant included enclosing a lump of sugar in the bun, the lump retaining its shape if not its hardness; yum yum!

Discussions about which school and where were not in my compass but I felt dumped and abandoned when, in September 1955 and shortly before my mother remarried, I was placed, aged 8, in St Christopher’s School, up on North Road to the south of the city.

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The old St Christopher’s School, now occupied by King Edward’s

I was allowed out to go to the wedding, but my only concern was to obtain a letter excusing me from eating Macaroni Cheese (disgusting, particularly cold as you had to present an empty plate.)

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At my mother’s wedding, after three weeks at St Christopher’s

Any pleasant memories of my two years at St Christopher’s are completely submerged by an event that runs like a vein of shame through my life; never far from the surface, hidden under the ‘Stiff Upper Lip Caruthers’ code that prevailed, occasionally close enough to pick at. In the ground-floor loo block I was forced to masturbate an adult until they came. Who was he? I’ve blocked this! Did I report it? ‘Stiff Upper Lip Caruthers’. But I can’t get rid of the image! Disgusting!!

I left to go to another boarding school near Wells in Somerset, and then progressed to yet another boarding school; my parents remained 100 miles away, when ‘Exeats’ were twice a term for a half day, and ‘Half Term’ a mere two days. So I felt an affinity to Sandi Toksvig, Anglo-Dane and recently co-presenter on Channel 4’s The Great British Bake Off, when she says that her boarding school experience established an ache of loneliness that has never truly left her;  “proper emotional abuse of a child”.  I spent 10 years in boarding schools until, in 1965, I entered another institution, The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, for Officer Training; I served Her Majesty for 20 years. But sometimes I wonder, ‘What if …..?”.

Grace died in 1974 aged 83, by which time my life was happening away from Bath. But it still feels like home, wandering around this warm, honey-coloured, gracious city, good memories or bad.

Richard 14th November 2019

Note 1: The Three penny piece (known as threepence, thruppence or thruppenny bit) was a twelve sided coin first minted in 1547. It was worth one 80th of a pound (ie four made a shilling and twenty shillings a pound sterling!!)

Note 2: Coffee in England in the 1950s was coloured, flavoured water, and there was nothing like the huge variety available today. It was probably produced on a Kona machine and allowed to sit, brewing (ie becoming more disgusting) as the pot sat on the hot plate. During our Alaska trip in 2015 I was reminded of the fact that today American coffee is similar to that available in 1950s Britain. When I asked for a double espresso in some café south of Fairbanks, the waitress, with her hand on the Kona handle, said “Oh! You want fancy coffee!”.

3 thoughts on “PC 165 Growing up in Bath

  1. Very interesting Richard. Bath is a lovely City. I hope you are continuing your Bikram as usual.
    Sorry I missed your birthday, I hope you had a good one. Best wishes to you and Selina.

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  2. Loved this one.  Going back to the now hotel must have been a voyage of discovery. I bet if you polled 100 people asking where Giovanni came from, 100% would say Italy. Love the photo of you at your Ma’s wedding, I wore the Dulwich Prep uniform to my brother’s wedding which I had similarly just joined.  But really, why?  I’m sure I didn’t want to wear a uniform… I didn’t ever masturbate an elder boy though!  I hope that wasn’t an occurrence which happened regularly. Love to you both, Eddie 

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