3 July 2006
Acomb: the place where dreams are made. Well, mine were. All my dreams were about escaping from the place.
I’ve had a rather negative view of Acomb for many years, probably since I left home at sixteen. It’s difficult to appreciate properly the place where you grew up. But as I was born a few streets away from Acomb Green, and used to know the place well, I’ve been meaning to return to this area since I started to take these photos of York. As it turned out, it was a surprisingly pleasant wander.
The photos on this page were taken on the evening of 3 July 2006. This one, left, shows the late 19th century cast iron milestone on York Road in Acomb.
Near the green is this cattle trough, which was close to some benches which were a favourite haunt of ours in our teens. I was always rather struck by it (but only in the vague way adolescents are in anything inanimate). Even in the 1980s, though it’s oh so long ago, there seemed little need for a cattle trough in these parts.
The inscription says "Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association", and I thought that instead of rambling on self-indulgently I should find some proper information for you, dear reader. And I quote: "The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association was an association set up in London by Samuel Gurney an MP and philanthropist and Edward Thomas Wakefield, a barrister in 1859 to provide free drinking water. Originally called the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association it changed its name to include cattle troughs in 1867, to also support animal welfare.” This comes from a page on the marvellous Wikipedia.
The path across Acomb Green, towards these steps (left), is so familiar. When I was small, we used to go this way to go shopping in Acomb. My mother used to talk about going "into the village". Acomb was of course once a village, hence its village green. But even by the 1970s it was a suburb, and today you can’t really tell where York ends and Acomb begins.
Nicely placed at this side of the green is the tiny Friends Meeting House, which I’m pleased to see is still in use and looking smarter than I remember it. Pevsner tells me it was originally built for the Primitive Methodists, in 1846, and converted to this Quaker meeting house in 1912.
The steps by the Meeting House looking back down onto Acomb Green. These steps evoke more childhood memories than the ordinary path across the green – probably because children usually go up and down steps by jumping or skipping down them, whereas adults don’t find them so interesting.
It’s all fairly unchanged here on Acomb Green – though there are perhaps more weeds in the paving. The most obvious additions in the last few decades are the signs banning the drinking of alcohol here. And the dog dirt bins.
Some things change, while others stay the same, intended to be permanent reminders. Acomb’s war memorial is here, in a garden at the top end of the green, fenced off and planted with trees and shrubs. We used to sit here as teenagers, in the evenings. (Now I’d think of sitting on a war memorial as not very respectful.) And at the time I don’t remember noticing the cross above our heads, with its dove – though around this time a few of us were beginning to get politically aware, and joining CND, and some of us were wandering around with a dove of peace embroidered on the back of a smelly old afghan coat.
Checking up on the factual details, I see that the memorial was originally erected around 1920, then altered after the Second World War to include the additional names shown on the open book (photo, above left). Even more recently, it has been restored, and also given a Grade II listing (in 1997).
Acomb Green is really big, I realise, certainly compared to Clifton Green, which I pass more often these days. Both are triangular spaces between converging roads, but on Acomb Green people play football and there’s a children’s playground, and people sitting around admiring the view.
I remember this place after dark, twenty or more years ago, when, as teenagers, we used to sit on the swings and the children’s roundabout and hang about doing nothing much, until the time we had to go home. During this evening’s visit I noticed that the old traditions continue, though apparently in different locations. Numerous young people were seen (and heard) hanging about in groups sitting on walls and doing nothing in particular.
Perhaps my clearest memory of childhood walks through Acomb – this pokey narrow alleyway which leads from the road at the side of the green.
At the other end of it is Front Street, with the library, post office, chemist and newsagent. I’m wondering if the surface of this alley has been altered, as I think I remember some kind of cobbles here, rather than tarmac – but what I do remember most is the sound it made as you ran along it between these high walls. There was perhaps a pipe or sewer underneath, but certainly something made it rather echoing and the sound was rather satisfying as you stomped along. Unfortunately, as I was wearing trainers on this visit, it didn’t work the same as those Clarks shoes used to in stirring up a racket. And now I’m a thirty-something, I’m obviously far too mature and sensible to go stomping along an alleyway deliberately trying to be noisy.
At the end of the alley, approaching Front Street, there’s a dog leg bend, next to some nice old cottages called Chapel Row.
So called because they’re at the back of this old chapel. This must be the Wesleyan Chapel of 1879 mentioned in my Pevsner guide. I can’t remember whether it was still in use as a place of worship when I lived here, but it isn’t one now. Yet it survives, as so many of these nonconformist chapels do. Perhaps their plain and high-ceilinged interiors are relatively easy to convert to other uses – this one is a carpet warehouse.
Or rather, was a carpet warehouse. More recently, the subject of planning applications to convert it into – you’ve guessed it – flats. Which means I’ve just had to take a detour to the City of York Council website to read about it. The planning application seems to involve a conversion, leaving the frontage intact (though presumably with the "Ebor Carpets" signage removed).
And over the road – little Acomb Library. Still looking like it did in the 1970s. Inside it will be different, of course – with computers next to the books. I could write a whole page just about this place. I remember small red plastic chairs in the children’s section, and the Beatrix Potter books that had a distinctive smell to their shiny pages.
On dark winter nights we used to go here in the car, and I remember how welcoming the library always seemed, with its bright lights. And the long wooden drawers that held the tickets for the books, in those pre-computer days. Later, how exciting it was, at fourteen, to get an adult ticket.
I expected to find Front Street massively changed, possibly full of estate agents and tanning studios where useful shops used to be. But it’s quite cheering to see that there are still some proper shops selling useful things. Though the butchers shop I remember (above, left) has recently closed – next to the rather bright frontage of the more recent Booze Buster, which also seems to be empty. Front Street still has a chemist and a post office, right next to each other, just like they used to be (above right). Post Offices are becoming rare in these parts, so it’s nice to have spotted one. Just up the road, the newsagent is still there too.
Ah, the Church Hall, which reminded me of many discos here in the 1980s. I recall spending as much time hanging around on these steps outside as we spent inside.
If I remember rightly there was a young guy at those discos who used to dress up like Gary Numan. This was easier to accomplish than dressing up like Adam Ant, and meant you were less likely to get laughed at. Though I have to confess I’ve never tested that theory. (Suddenly has embarrassing memory of being photographed in back garden wearing Adam Ant-esque outfit and determines to seek out and destroy all evidence in family photo collection.)
I was sitting on the steps of the Church Hall changing my camera batteries when I noticed these cottages opposite, apparently recently refurbished. Looking at the numbers, I realised that one of these cottages was where my mother lived in the late 1950s, not long after she’d come to York, and that she and my dad lived here when they were first married. It was only when I spoke to my mum while putting this page together that I discovered that my sister Kay, who died in 2001, was born in the first floor room of the cottage on the right.
While giddily wandering around the delights of Front Street, and trying to avoid an enormous purple bus that kept trying to run me over, I noticed this rather elegant-looking gentlemen’s hairdressers, complete with traditional-style barber’s pole. I do like this smart cream paintwork and black lettering. If only all shop fronts could be so handsome. This is a Conservation Area, after all. (As I’ve just discovered, from the City of York Council website. Yes, I do spend a lot of time there, don’t I).
Just along, at the end of this row of buildings, this decorated brickwork I remember well, on the gable end of a large house, apparently built for someone important, with the initials JB – spelt out in blue brick.
Below it, in the alleyway that runs up to the church, some graffiti. It appears to be promoting the benefits of Customer Relationship Management.
Back up the alley that leads to the church, and back on the road running alongside the green, I was pleased to see that the pubs are still here and haven’t changed their names to something stupid. The Britannia Inn – which everyone called The Brit – I remember fondly only from its smell as you walked by its door – it always smelt beery and smokey and old, like a proper pub. A kind of mixed with Sunday dinner comfortable kind of smell. I don’t recall going in here. The Sun – I’ve not noticed how it smells, though I did go in it once or twice. I only remember one visit vividly – when my sister and I went in one Christmas Day, as I wanted some cigarettes and no shops were open. The bar was busy with chaps drinking beer and we were looked at strangely – perhaps they thought we should have been at home cooking the dinner.
On the hill, just along from The Brit, and next to the gateway to St Stephen’s Church, is the old church school, erected in 1848. It was converted to a private dwelling in the 1980s, and I remember passing it during the time it was being converted, and feeling a bit sad about the change. I thought I remembered children here, playing in the playground, but on further reflection that doesn’t seem likely. It is a Victorian school, and I’m not quite that old. Though I’m beginning to feel like it, going up and down this hill.
Another former school – one of the handsomest buildings in Acomb. One of the board schools built by the architect Brierley. Many of the schools he designed are still used for their original purpose a century or more after they were built. Though no longer a school, this building has, thankfully, been retained for the community, and was looking splendid in the evening sunlight. It now houses the Gateway Centre, which is, the sign says, "a place for people to connect".
And finally on this very long page, a mention of this rather less handsome but still obviously useful building. This used to be the Regent Cinema, decades back when my mum arrived in Acomb in the 1940s. Like Clifton’s cinema, it was long ago converted to other uses. I was rather glad that one of the shops it houses is a Co-op, with a fridge full of cold drinks, as this walk took place on one of the hottest evenings of the year, and I’d been wandering about Acomb in the searing heat for hours.