It was quite strange in the late 1980s being uprooted from Cambridge in the middle of the night and being taken to London to go into foster care. I watched from the car and tried not to cry – even in the dark London scared me.
But fear gave way to surprise when I saw that we had arrived in an attractive part of London and were passing Alexandra Palace, which to all us teenagers was known as ‘Ally Pally’. The car struggled up the steep hill and turned right into a driveway.
First I saw the tiny gatehouse and the ‘Red Cross’ notice, then out of the night loomed a big mansion. I fell in love at my first sight of this glorious building and wondered who had lived there in the past. I was welcomed by two social workers as I took in the entrance hall and the dominating staircase, though no doubt it was not as big as I remember. If this were my house I would never leave, I thought. I fell asleep to the sound of trees rustling in the wind and the far-off hoot of an owl. It was serene.
I spent almost a year living there; it became not just the place I stayed but my home. It was a happy children’s home with wonderful staff and lots of mischief. I remember Loretta the cook, a lovely matronly lady with a welcoming cuddle who made me macaroni cheese specially and had a stash of jelly that I would eat raw. I would sit by the kitchen door talking to her for hours on end.
After a while I was moved to the dorm at the side of the building, the part with the big room underneath, which was our common room. The huge social room was cosy with its view out onto the garden and what seemed like a never-ending carpet of grass. I recall a couple of small steps in that room up to a secret office. We played many a prank on the staff in here, the usual buckets of water balanced on the door etc., though when I look back now it was all very ‘famous five’ only more modern and missing the dog! The things we put that poor house through – and it still forgave us.
The grounds became a place to let off steam and many a time we would try to explore ‘the woods’ behind it. We could not get into them properly but it was all very adventurous, especially when we discovered a pond. The trees in the front became guardians of my shoes because I hid them on numerous occasions which I thought was a clever way to get out of school. In fact, Grove Lodge became so special to me that the day I was told that I was moving to ‘Coppetts’ further up the Hill, I refused to go until I was bought a pet rat. The rat arrived and I still refused to go so a social worker had to pack my bags for me. I cried and cried and would go back to visit at least once a day.
Imagine a building being a foster parent, well that’s what Grove Lodge used to be to us. It seems the building was made to shelter those in need, from its use during the war to the children’s home that it became – a smiling, warm, noisy and busy place, bursting at the seams with laughter and mischievousness. Grove Lodge to me in my teenage years was a house with big cuddly arms – a house with a heart. The tall ceilings, wide stairs and huge rooms that I got used to there made me appreciate old buildings for the rest of my life.