In the mid Sixties I found myself living just up the road from Winston Churchill. 14 Hyde Park Gate was a genteel boarding house for girls like me far from home and anxious mothers. As I was 17 and my parents not even in phone contact, living in Aden (now the Yemen), it was probably perfectly sensible. Number 14 was run by a dragon called Miss Watkin who clocked us in and clocked us out, making a note of where we were when out and making sure we were back by 11 in the evening. We weren’t given a key so any return late at night was greeted by a grumpy, ghostly figure – Miss Watkin in long dressing gown and hairnet. In the mornings she made sure we left wearing gloves – leather in winter, cotton in summer.
Hyde Park Gate is a cul-de-sac just South of Kensington Gardens. The Churchills lived in a large, brick house almost at the end, different in style from the stucco buildings in the rest of the road. A small gathering of journalists often lurked outside, their ranks swelling with rumours of illness or interesting visitors. Nosey parkers Miss Watkin called them.
Miss Watkin had firm views on everything – appropriate clothes, appropriate food, appropriate language and, above all, manners. She’d been born sometime before the First World War which was when the rot set in. Nothing had ever been the same; standards had gone on slipping everywhere but never in her house. I’ve no idea if she owned it, probably not. More governess than heiress, she cocooned herself (and all of us) in an Edwardian bubble. When we stayed in for dinner, we washed up afterwards. I didn’t know washing up could be so complicated. Everything had to be done in a certain order which I’ve long since forgotten. But I remember knives couldn’t be immersed in water, just gently sponged and rinsed under the tap. Glasses had to be dried with a special tea towel and absolutely never touched by fingers when putting away.
I shared a room with a couple of other girls. Two of us were doing courses, the third was a debutante. She was one of the saddest people I’ve ever known. She came from the kind of family whose daughters had always done the Season but was now basically broke. There was no money for her mother to come and live in London and escort her to teas, drinks parties and balls so she tagged along with another family. She hated every moment of it, particularly the balls, and spent most of her time hiding in the loo till it was time to come home. It seemed a dreadful waste of her family’s dwindling resources. They thought they were giving her a wonderful opportunity and she didn’t dare tell them how miserable it made her. She wasn’t the brightest and never quite got the hang of anything. The washing-up rules were completely beyond her (some sympathy there) and, cruelly, all the rest of us rather relished her confusion over the simplest tasks from washing her hair to answering the phone. During the daytime she was often the only one in to pick up the solitary, shared phone in the hall and the resulting messages were seldom exactly what the caller intended. When she finished the Season she went off to do a flower-arranging course somewhere near Windsor and disappeared from our lives.
The death of Sir Winston was a great excitement for us. We knew he was ill (he had a stroke and died a couple of weeks later) and the street had been bursting with people waiting for news. A day or so after he died I was coming back in the evening, walking through Hyde Park Corner when police arrived and stopped all the traffic. A small cortege of three cars went right across the grassed island in the middle of the roundabout and under Wellington Arch. There were only a few of us who happened to be passing and stopped to stare. A policeman told us it was Sir Winston’s coffin on its way to lie in state in Westminster. He’d never seen the arch opened for cars before. And I’ve never seen it opened since.
Everybody, it seemed, went to the lying-in-state in Westminster Hall. Our group queued for over four hours starting the other side of Lambeth Bridge. I wore my new pink, yes pink, sheepskin coat. A fact I remember clearly as a pigeon dropped a large splat on the shoulder which I never managed entirely to get out. Inside the hall it was eerily quiet and very dark. A carpet had been spread either side of the coffin to muffle the sound of the mourners filing past. Avoiding the queue altogether was a bunch of Westminster schoolboys allowed through a side door to look down on the historic scene. Among them one David Neuberger, but it was well into the next decade before we met and later married.