My grandparents lived at 40 Sandown Road in Brislington, roughly halfway between Ken Bleathman’s corner shop at the top and the legendary Tarr’s ice cream shop at the bottom. It was a two up, two down terraced house where I went after primary school until my mum collected me from her work and where I spent Saturdays. What was odd about it was not so much that neither the front bedroom or the front room downstairs were never – and I mean never – used but that there was no bathroom. It gets worse, though. I never thought it was in any way unusual. How can it not have occurred to me that this was not, well, normal?
Alfred, from Sweden via Norway and Nellie from Somerset were quiet, private, humble people. Alfred didn’t socialise with anyone, ever. They seemed to have few, if any friends. Alfred tinkered with his car at the garage he rented on Upper Sandhurst Road and Nellie worked in the dairy just up from the Sandringham Inn, by Sampsons the newsagent and a barbershop. Apart from that, they remained within their four walls, mainly in the back room which consisted of three elderly chairs, a coal fire, the only heating in the house, and a large settee which was used to store months worth of old newspapers. No one ever sat on it. And in the corner, by the back window, sat a small crackling and fizzing black and white television which was always on, at least when there were programmes on, which was mainly evenings.
I must have been a very naive child and indeed adult not to spot any of this. I had not been in many houses during my life at the time, but all the others, including ours, had bathrooms. I swear it never dawned on me how Alfred and Nellie managed with washing. Later, I found out they did all their washing in the kitchen, at the end of which was an outdoor toilet, covered with an ersatz temporary out house that contained all manner of household cleaning equipment that never seemed to be used.
Even when I stayed temporarily at their house – and I can’t remember why or when, but I was in my mid teenage years – and slept in their front bedroom, which was spotlessly clean, albeit with a not-lived-in slightly musty smell, the lack of a bathroom was lost on me. The large double bed sank into the middle as you slept in it and one morning, I had a revelation. Underneath the bed was a small, porcelain bath, or rather a sink without any taps. It quickly dawned on me that it had not been used in recent times and probably not ever, especially given there was no water supply upstairs. When I wanted to wash, I would go to the kitchen and ask Nellie if I could do so, at which point she would leave and join Alfred in the back room. My overwhelming memories were of the biting cold any time other than in the summer and the difficulty is carrying out my ablutions without turning the floor into a small lake. But I did wash as best I could and so, I imagine, did Alfred and Nellie.
There was a reason they lived in a house with no bathroom and an outside toilet and rarely, if ever, went out. They were relatively poor and couldn’t afford such luxuries. Many decades later and I wonder whether that was why they rarely, if ever, had visitors, because they did not want to let on to neighbours just how basic their lives were? Or maybe, like their errant grandson, they just didn’t like visitors? Indeed, Alfred often referred to his neighbours as “common”, as if we were from the aspirational middle classes and a bit better than everyone else. Or maybe he was just a very proud man?
None of this is to say they had a bad life, they didn’t. They didn’t seem to aspire to have more and were quite happy with the little lives they had. Home was where their hearts were, even if they didn’t have a bathroom. I enjoyed being there, especially on Saturday afternoons when we watched the ITV Seven (horse racing) introduced by John Rickman, Rugby League on the BBC with Eddie Waring and finally, to top off a great afternoon, Wrestling with Kent Walton from somewhere like Batley Town Hall and pikelets cooked on a fork over an open coal fire.
Their lives were certainly a lot simpler than ours today and, I suggest, quite a lot happier, too.