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A Victorian Christmas
My Victorian grandmother
The school holidays at Christmas were always a real treat when I visited my grandmother in London. For an only child growing up in provincial England of the 1960s, the thought of a trip to London always held a continuing fascination.
The lure of London
Plymouth, the seaside city where I lived, was one of those more forgotten about places during the winter when no one would feel the urge to dash to the coast. Although it was a large city, it didn’t have the vast selection of year-round attractions that London had on offer.
My father hated London and never once accompanied us: ‘Going up to the smoke this Christmas are you?’ he would ask my mother.
My grandmother wasn’t just an ordinary grandmother; she was German and a real Victorian, born in the small town of Possneck in Thüringen, Saxony in 1888. She would always organise the sort of traditional German Christmas that you could never forget. There would be delicacies such as stollen cake and lebkuchen heart shaped biscuits - festive fare you would never find down in Devon in the 1960s.
The thought of Christmas at grandma’s made the tedious train journey worthwhile for both mother and me. Grandma was always willing to pay for our tickets but mother was often too proud. Sometimes when she couldn’t afford the train tickets our mode of transport would be a Royal Blue coach to Victoria station taking eleven hours, which stopped just about everywhere in Southern England long before the days of the M4 motorway.
First stop would be Exeter where the coach would stay for an hour and we would buy Wimpy hamburgers for lunch - that was years before anyone in England had even heard of McDonald’s.
Then it was on to places like Axminster, Yeovil, Taunton, Winchester and Basingstoke. The distinctive Navy blue and cream coloured Royal Blue coaches were enjoying their heyday in the mid 60s and carried one and a half million passengers a year.
It’s crazy to contemplate now but no one thought eleven hours was such a long journey in those days in order to travel the 183 miles from Plymouth to London - a trip that now takes three and a half hours by road. It was exciting for a child under ten years of age such as me to look out for one of the famous white horses of Wiltshire etched in the chalk hills of southern England. As the coach wound its way through quaint thatched villages with weird sounding names like Itchen Abbas it was a learning experience in itself. Perhaps it was trips like these that gave me that initial zest for travel and my mother was always a wealth of information on just about anywhere en route.
Arriving at the terminus in Victoria, there was still an hour to be spent on the London Underground before we eventually arrived in Greenford where grandma lived. I loved the rumble and smell of the underground and the fact that a great deal of it was not actually underground; Sudbury Hill Station, on the Piccadilly line is right out in suburbia, nowhere near the bustling metropolis.
Grandma’s house in Whitton Avenue was always warm and welcoming, if a little cluttered. She had a strict set of house rules that I would be wise not to break. As soon as we arrived she would examine the soles of the slippers we had brought because she feared we would rub the pile off her carpets if the soles were not completely smooth.
‘Well, Lulu!’ she would exclaim to my mother whenever she disapproved, in an accent that had never faded since she first came to England in 1912. She was kind and generous but severe and Teutonic and if my footwear did not meet with her exact specifications she would shake her head in disapproval and say: ‘Well, Lulu, we must buy the child some new slippers or she will bobble all my carpets!’
In her opinion, children were to be seen and not heard so it was best to bear this in mind. You always had to be on your best behaviour; no kicking your feet under the table; no elbows on the table and definitely no rocking your chair back and forth. Kids today would rebel. God forbid if there was some food that you didn’t like. ‘Well, Lulu, you must make the child finish her food’. The only way round it was to roll obnoxious things like Brussels sprouts under the table when grandma wasn’t looking.
Grandma was always concerned that I would wet the bed although I can’t remember ever doing so throughout my childhood. She would insist that a rubber sheet was placed on top of the mattress. ‘Well child, your mother must put this rubber on the bed in case you make wee-wee in the night.’ She would continue to say this until I was well into my teens.
She had some strange ways and ideas but I was proud to have a grandmother who was more than just that little bit different from everyone else's; she would tell me tales of her Victorian childhood where she grew up as one of seven children. I remember her saying that her school had electric lighting installed long before it became commonplace in England.
She would teach me the words to Christmas carols in German and this gave me a keen insight into the fact that there were different cultures and ways of living other than what I was used to in Devon.
She would have a traditional Christmas fir tree with real candles which would worry my mother no end. Christmas dinner would be sumptuous to say the least. I would see my uncle’s family and my cousins so our Christmas vacation to London was always filled with exciting events. Being an only child and spending time with cousins who were Londoners was the next best thing to having siblings.
My mother, grandmother and me could visit London’s wealth of museums however inclement the weather and still have time for festive shopping at Swan and Edgar and to visit Santa at Selfridge's in Oxford Street before catching the underground back to grandma’s house.
We saw the newly-built Post Office Tower and visited its amazing revolving restaurant at the very top. We had enjoyable shopping trips and days out in the parks and open spaces of London, admiring all the statues and places of interest.
The London Zoo at Regents Park was where we viewed the newly-built elephant house and the famous ‘Chimpanzees’ Tea party.’ And a day out discovering the delights of Battersea fun fair was amazing. There was the water splash, the cave of the four winds and a splendid carousel.
Other memorable days were spent at places of educational importance such as The London Planetarium, or Madame Tussuads and historical sites such as the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. A boat trip along the Thames would make a day out with grandma complete. Awesome sights at the British Museum included ancient artefacts from Egypt and the treasures of Tutankhamen were on display. Seeing the vast dinosaur skeletons at the Natural History Museum also made an impact on my young and impressionable mind.
Upon reflection I think I was extremely privileged to do all this, seeing as I was not from a very affluent background. Curiously there was one place in London which I never visited and that was The Victoria and Albert Museum; I often wondered why but perhaps it was because I didn’t need to go there - after all I had my very own Victorian grandmother!
The museums of London
A great guide to London
My Victorian grandmother 1888 - 1983
Typical German Gingerbread house
© 2015 Stella Kaye