After 13 years in Epsom’s South Street, in 2004 we moved. There were two principal reasons for this. First, we were more than short of space: my father, 90-year old Ron, was esconced in what used to be our sitting room (we used to call it a lounge back in Colebook Close), leaving us a very small dining room for all our relaxation and entertainment. And second, the noise from the Queen’s Head across the road had become intolerable, a battle we’d fought but apparently were not allowed to win.
The selling of Ron’s house in Worthing – happily to one of our daughters, Sasha – released funds to hunt for somewhere larger. We were open to a wide area, from Sussex turning right to Dorset, the only constraint being that I could commute to UCL in time to give a lecture at 9am. We viewed a number of properties concealed behind estate agents’ adverts. It was another daughter, Miranda, who happened upon the house we eventually bought on the internet. Annette and I drove by to gaze down 56 steps through an abandoned garden to view a semi-detached house with all the character of one detached, cottage-like and beckoning. We put in an offer immediately. Annette and Miranda arranged to look it over and were enthused. I put in an offer. The estate agent, however, insisted that I too inspect it before committing, so I did. We were fortunate that a buyer had pulled out and that the vendors, with whom we remain in touch, were keen to clinch the deal. Done; and very much to their credit the estate agents, Wadsworths, were not only helpful but donated a bottle of champaign for us to toast our good fortune. We hadarrived in Mickleham.
The move itself was not quite the stress-inducing life event that Brown and Harris might have predicted; but it was heavy physical labour nevertheless. Our overriding challenge will be anticipated by any academic born before, say, 1960, books: we had thousands of them (our daughters had counted 6,000 not so long before the move). The removal firm, however, was excellent, and I wish I could remember their name. They conveyed the numerous and surprisingly solid bits and pieces we had accumulated, predictably exceeding our estimate by a factor of … Halting with pleasant obstinancy half way up a sharp incline, thereby blocking any traffic up or down the hill that was to become so familiar to us, they delieverd our ‘bits and pieces’ via our right-of-way through our new neighbour’s garden.
Along with our bits and pieces came my father, Ron. The removal firm handled his wheelchair and him with great respect and sensitivity. ‘Do I need a parachute?’ he repeated several times as he was hoisted into his and our new home.
I suppose we had heard of Mickleham before we bought our way into it, and we had certainly by-passed it a thousand times back and forth to the south-coast to visit my parents at Worthing, but we knew little about it. Although we knew nothing of it at the time, the track leading to our new home had some history to it. In 1789 Sir Charles Talbot had made over a parcel of land to the parish of Mickleham for a poor house. Since 1601, as a result of the declining fortunes of the Church, courtesy of Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries, parishes had been charged with a responsibility to provide relief for the local poor. The means to do so came from a levy on the better-off and was distributed by overseers as either outdoor or indoor relief. According to local historian Ronald Sheppard, outdoor relief sufficed until 1789 when a poor house was judged essential. Poor houses were austerely functional, designed to stigmatise and deter. The one half way up our hillside track was apparently an elongated, stark two-story building containing eight dwellings. As if to anticipate our current neoliberal era, however, it was soon put about that the inhabitants were taking advantage. Furthermore, after the Napoleonic War the numbers of ‘needy poor’ rose nationally, leading to the passing of a new Poor Law Act in 1834. Individual parishes lost their responsibilities in favour of ‘unions’ of neighbouring parishes, leaving Mickleham’s high and dry. In 1838 a proposal was made to convert the poor house into an almshouse, but it came to nothing. Another Talbot stepped into the breach, this time Sir George, who in 1845 supplied the means for the reconstruction of a now-dilapidated building; an almshouse was erected. A fire in 1864 levelled this to the ground. Sheppard defines this as a blessing in disguise: the eight sets of rooms Annette and I drive by daily are apparently a significant improvement on their predecessors.Nestling besides the almshouse is the King William IV pub. Built in 1830, it offers wondrous views over to Norbury Park. Our new home, finally, was a former National School founded in 1843 and converted into dwellings in 1900. At the time of writing, a dozen years after our move, we remain delighted at our choice.