The piano holds a special place in my affections. It was because of this instrument that, as a boy of ten or eleven, I first met Margaret Mills.
A slight, well-spoken former school teacher then in her early fifties, Margaret gave lessons at her bungalow in Wincoat Drive, near Cemetery Corner, where she lived with her elderly, almost bedridden father, Herbert, who had lost a lung to a gas attack in the Great War. I was not a natural pianist, as my long-suffering parents can testify, but over the next few years, Margaret – who had trained at the Royal College of Music – somehow got me through several piano examinations. More importantly, she introduced me to the world of gardening.
I had long been curious about Margaret’s garden. Her bungalow, number 11, ‘Albinia’, was situated on the south side of Wincoat Drive, behind low fencing, a screen of thick laurel, and an almond tree that every spring, was full of blossom. It was not so much the row of standard roses planted just inside the front gate that caught my eye, but the tunnel of wisteria to the left of the building. Its curved shape entirely concealed the garden beyond. What lay there was a complete mystery. My curiosity might have remained unsatisfied had Margaret not asked one morning after my lesson, whether I would like to do some gardening once a week in return for a bit of pocket-money, as she needed the help. Looking back on it, she must have been desperate. I knew even less about plants than I did about music and was slightly built for a lad my age. I was also painfully lacking in confidence. But I did not want to disappoint her by saying ‘no’, and saying ‘yes’ would mean that I would finally get to see that garden.
Wider than it was long, Margaret’s rear garden was constructed around a central rectangular lawn. To the left, leading from the curved tunnel of wisteria I’d glimpsed from the gate, was a straight path, bordered either side with shrubs and perennials, which ended at a small concrete tool shed. In the centre of the garden towards the rear fence, stood a large walnut tree, which Margaret’s father had planted when he had moved to Wincoat Drive in the 1920s.
Editor’s Note : Margaret’s family probably moved to Benfleet in the plotland explosion of the 1920s when the large farming estates were sold for building plots following the demise of the agricultural way of life, due to plummeting wheat prices. The area on which Wincoat Drive was built, was originally part of the Jarvis Hall Estate, bought by the land speculator Robert Varty in 1894, which he chopped into building plots and named ‘Kents Hill Estate’ in the 1920s. See maps below. For those interested in the history of Kents Hill, please see my article on here – ‘Kents Hill Road – From Rural Idyll to Modern Suburb’.
Bounding the right-hand side of the property was a long beech hedge and a raised concrete path dubbed Hadrian’s Wall on account of the fact that it stood above the adjacent beds. For a young lad unaccustomed to anything more than a lawn and a very small hydrangea, this large well-stocked garden was nothing short of a revelation.
My first outing as Margaret’s assistant was distinctly unpromising. Despite her clear instructions on how to dead-head roses, I nervously looked to Margaret for confirmation before making every cut, much to the amusement of her father, Herbert, who watched me from his wheelchair in the summer house. Margaret, too, immediately began to doubt the wisdom of employing me, as she later confessed. It was not just my indecision that was a drawback; I’d looked much bigger to her in the music room. Despite this inauspicious beginning, Margaret quickly discovered that her early misgivings were unwarranted. Before long, while other boys my age were playing football, I was spending whole weeks of my summer holiday at Wincoat Drive. On one memorable occasion, in hot conditions, we laid a slab path between the tool shed and Hadrian’s Wall. Once finished Margaret christened it the Appian Way. It was exhausting work, but I couldn’t have been happier. Margaret, too, was pleased to have found someone who not only shared her love of plants, but was solid and reliable. She encouraged my enthusiasm for the outdoors, and one glorious summer’s day, she took me on a day-trip to Little Baddow, near Chelmsford. While she painted the local landscape – she loved to work with watercolours and eventually became rather proficient – I wandered the banks of the local stream, mesmerized by the crack willows and the shafts of light through the trees.
We continued to work together for the next six or seven years. even in winter Margaret would find me something useful to do, like shovelling coal from the bunker attached to the side of the house, or cracking almonds and walnuts with the vice attached to the work bench in her garage. Unlike shovelling coal, cracking nuts was cold work, as the garage was unheated. It was great fun all the same, as the shells frequently exploded like shrapnel, and would ping loudly off the walls.
Following her father’s death, Margaret was forced to sell ‘Albinia’ to a developer in order to provide for her old age. Two detached houses now occupy the plot on which it once stood. She moved to a smaller bungalow at the top of Norwood Drive, which gave her a view of the fields on the south side of Essex Way. There she continued to tend her new garden, at first with my help, but later – after I had gone to university – with the assistance of others.
But it is those early years at Wincoat Drive that I look back on with most fondness and gratitude. Margaret instilled in me a love of plants that I’ve never lost. Today I have a garden of my own, (See pictures below) which my wife and I have painstakingly created from scratch. Margaret would have loved it, I’m sure, but she was infirm by the time we moved to Norfolk, and died in her early nineties in January 2017.
Editor’s Note: Andrew, whom I have known since the late 1970s, when he also gardened for me at Manor Cottage, came across a cache of photographs in Margaret’s garden shed, and sent digital copies to me to accompany the article. Here is what he said in the accompanying email:
‘These were rescued from the bonfire, as Margaret and I carried out a spring clean on the shed. Herbert Mills rarely spoke about the war, for good reason given his injuries, and these photos were kept in the garden shed. We came across them, plus Herbert’s service issue copy of the Gospel of St. Luke, which is small enough to fit in a breast pocket. Margaret did not want them, and knew that her father would not want them either, so she decided to get rid of them. I begged her to let me have them, as I couldn’t bear the thought of destroying even relatively trivial pieces of historical evidence like this’.
Editor’s Note: Andrew has worked for many years as an historical researcher on the History of Parliament, firstly as editor of the Early Stuart House of Commons and House of Lords sections, latterly as Editor of the Elizabethan House of Lords project.
‘At the same time, she let me have a couple of her old water colours that were also in the shed, and which she had decided were not good enough for display. Years later, she visited me in Hertford, when she saw both pictures framed and hanging on the wall. To my surprise, she asked who had painted them. I told her that she had. At first she denied it, having no recollection of ever seeing them before, but then I related the tale [of the shed]. Conceding defeat, she replied, ‘Well, I must have got worse since then’.’
Editor: My thanks to my colleague Eileen Gamble, for researching the maps and estate plans.