Memories of Andover

(Written for ARC, the Journal of the Rotary Club of Andover, Oct 1995/6)

Memories of Andover

by Cyril Berry

Part 1

Boyhood in Andover

The Andover that I remember as a boy was a pleasant market town of some 11,000 to 12,000 inhabitants. The highlight of the week was Friday, the market day, when farmers came into town and did their deals in the Corn Exchange, the lower Guildhall. There each corn merchant had his wooden desk, and whatever business was completed was then sealed in the bars of the Angel, the George, the Star and Garter (the Danebury) or like establishments. Village folk, too, came in for the weekly street market (as today) and also to place their grocery orders.

Our family home in the 1920’s was a flat above the showrooms and offices of the Andover (Gas) Lighting and Power Company, whose works and gas holder were in the area south of the Safeway’s roundabout. My Uncle was manager of the Bridge St showroom (now an undertakers) and office, and we occupied a flat on the third floor. The company supplied all the gas for the town’s street and domestic lighting, and strenuously resisted the introduction of electricity. Consequently, I suspect, we were among the last households to get electric light!

Lower High St has much the same format as today, except that the lamp commemorating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, now in front of the Guildhall (its original site) stood much further down the street, and a spot just south of the Guildhall forecourt was occupied by the War Memorial (the only one in the country giving the dates of the Great War as 1914 -1920: Andover men were still fighting in Russia until then). The cenotaph was moved to St Mary’s churchyard in 1956.

The High Street had a band of cobbles four or five feet wide on either side between tarmac and pavement – highly dangerous and slippery in wet weather – and the road had a pronounced humped camber. In the 1920’s and 30’s, as now, cars parked in the middle of the road, but, unlike today, one could be much more casual about locking up. This casualness perhaps extended to setting the handbrake, for, with monotonous regularity, about one car a week would run backwards when unattended and smash the shop windows of Parsons and Hart (now Woolworths).

The year 1929 saw me at Andover Grammar School, and I really enjoyed the next few years. Living as we did so near the river, and with school pals living just across the street, the Anton naturally played a large part in our leisure pursuits. Computers had not been invented and we were perhaps thrown more on our own devices, usually outdoors, than are boys today.

What is now the built-up area by the riverside near Robert Greig’s was then a natural, sloping “beach” and we spent hours fishing there, by the town mill, and round what is now the Cricklade area (although I can’t recall catching much!). We also fished and gathered wild watercress at Shepherds Spring, in those days a bosky riverside walk where the fishing was good (if one kept an eye open for the water-keeper).

At the age of 13 or 14, I even built my own first boat – a canoe- no mean achievement in a flat: my uncle and aunt must have been very forbearing! As I recall, the frames were three-ply, hand sawn with a fret-saw, and 9 foot garden canes were joined to make the stringers. The hull was of waterproofed canvas and, rather to my surprise, the contraption actually worked well. At the same time my pal built a wooden punt, and together we explored the Anton. I think this was the birth of a fascination with things waterborne, which is still with me 12 boats and 63 years later!

Within easy walking distance there were plenty of places for boys to explore, e.g., Harewood Forest at Andover Down and the Ladies Walk, the green footpath along the ridge to the North of Andover, with its panoramic views over the town. It was laid out (reputedly on the track of the old Merkway) and planted with trees to commemorate the wedding of HRH the Prince of Wales with HRH the Princess Alexandra of Denmark on 10 March 1863.

Once we acquired bicycles, of course, the world was our oyster, and from then on, at weekends in the summer, we would take sandwiches and spend long, lazy days diving and swimming in a deep pool in the River Test on the Common Marsh at Stockbridge (Andover’s open-air pool in London Rd did not open until the 1930’s). “Our” pool is still there, quite unchanged, but the part of the Common Marsh nearest Stockbridge is a highly popular place with families nowadays, thanks to the motorcar.

Shops in the 1930’s

One big difference between the Andover of the 1930’s and now, of course, was that there were no supermarkets, either in or out of town, offering the vast array of Continental and foreign foods that we have today. The shopping scene was quite different, with lots of small private or specialist shops. For instance, there were two wet fish or poultry shops within 50 yards of our flat (Clarke’s and Burden’s) and I recall being fairly regularly sent out on Friday evenings for “a pint of fresh winkles”, a weekly tea-time treat! There was a third fish shop in upper High St, kept by a gentleman rejoicing to the name of John Eighteen. Inevitably the Andover crack was that he and his wife slept 36 to a bed.

A few days before Christmas, butchers and poulterers would cover the whole face of their premises with meat and birds and, on “Meat Show Night”, the town band went from one to the other “playing to the meat,” that promise of Yuletide gluttony. It would have given a modern Health Inspector a fit!

There were several ironmongers, notably Lynns, where one could buy almost anything, however unlikely, and Crangs in upper High St. Leading grocers were Shaws (owned by the Carter family), the International Stores, Crofts, and the Cooperative Society. Outfitting shops were Percival Clark, facing the bottom of the High St, and with an up-market men’s outfitters in Bridge St, Parsons and Hart (a large department store where Woolworth’s now is), Ponds and Bucklands in upper High St, and Cordery’s, next to the George, in the Marketplace.

There were also two saddlers and several clockmakers and jewellers: Bramleys at the bottom of George Yard, Cockings in the High St, and Wickendens, behind the Guildhall.

But there are two small shops which I think Andoverians of my generation will remember. The first is that of Misses Mair, two ladies who ran a newsagents just above the Star and Garter hotel. They wore voluminous petticoats, apparently layers of them, of an earlier period, and their shop was an absolute chaos of newspapers and magazines. Yet, and here was the mystery, they could produce any periodical or paper on demand, as I found when I went to buy my “Modern Boy”. It never ceased to amaze me! Next door a relative ran a tobacconists, where we bought our Will’s Woodbines (5 for 2d) purely for experimental purposes (i.e., smoking behind St Mary’s after choir practice).

Part 2

Memories of Andover: 1930’s

By the time I left the Grammar School in 1934 and went to work as a cub reporter on the Andover Advertiser, the town was slowly beginning to change. The population was still about 12,000 but beginning to rise.

Woolworths opened in 1932 (near where the Midland Bank is now), and Marks and Spencer in 1938. Another newcomer was Burton’s “the Fifty Shillings Tailors”, but supermarkets were still a thing of the future.

A week-long carnival had been instituted in 1924 as an imaginative way of raising, by public subscription, the then vast sum of £16,000. It succeeded, and the Andover Memorial Hospital was opened in 1926. By the 1930’s, the Carnival had become an established local institution, and still continues today, though perhaps in reduced scope.

In 1937 a large slum clearance was undertaken, and many families were rehoused in the town’s first large scale council housing project in the Drove area.

For a small town Andover was extremely well provided for in some ways. TV had not arrived, of course, and the cinema was in its heyday. Andover had three. The Electric (later the Rex) opened in 1911, the Palace (1926) later the Odeon (1930), on the corner of Junction Rd, and the Savoy (1938). I well remember reporting the excitement when, in digging the foundations of the last, a Roman hypocaust was discovered.

We were also well served with accommodation for public functions. They could be held in the upper Guildhall (reputedly the finest dance floor in north Hampshire), the Drill Hall (finally The Country Bumpkin), and Clare Hall (later the Fiesta), which also had roller skating, and the Waverley Hall in the Market Place. Each of these ran weekly dances on Wednesdays and Saturdays, all with live bands (none of your taped discos!).

Andover was still connected to Southampton by the Sprat and Winkle railway line, which joined the main network at Andover Junction. The Town Station stood where the Safeway’s roundabout now is, and Bridge Street traffic was regularly halted by the level crossing gates. Long delays occurred.

But the line was useful for access to Romsey, and pupils coming from there to the Grammar School. And in the mid 1930’s, we lads (having just discovered girls) could leave work at 5.00pm, take the lady of our choice to Southampton by train, have a pre-show drink, enjoy the variety programme at the Palace, catch the train home, and even have change from 10/-.

Andover in the 1930’s was a friendly close knit community and, as I saw it, well served by its Mayor and Borough Council. I found my reporting job stimulating, since it brought me into contact with so many people and activities. Life was never dull! But storm clouds were gathering, and the population was beginning to rise as labour was brought in to build camps, military installations and aerodromes, notably at Barton Stacey, Tidworth, Perham Down and Chilbolton.

Then came the announcement in September 1939…. we were at war.

Like most of my age, I found myself in the Forces, and soon commissioned in the Hampshire Regiment, serving first all over the UK and then, seconded to the King’s African Rifles, in East Africa, Assam and Burma; but that’s another story. Consequently, it was six years (1946) before I returned to Andover on demobilisation, and to Peggy, whom I had married in 1940.

Part 3

To me, returning from six years’ service during World War 2, Andover at first appeared superficially the same, except that the population had risen to 17,000, owing partly to evacuees. I went back into journalism, with the Southern Echo, but in 1949 was offered the Editorship of my old paper, and “occupied the chair” for the next 18 years.

1949 was a seminal year for Andover, incidentally, for it saw the foundation of the Rotary Club (and also of the Round Table). I had the privilege of being the first Rotarian to be inducted after the founder members.

Andover’s population started to contract a little, back to 15,000. About 1953 or 1954 came the first rumblings about “London overspill”, with the G.L.C. plan that some industry and population could be decanted out of London into a number of towns within a convenient distance. Basingstoke and Andover were obvious candidates. The “overspill” scheme at Andover was a joint effort between the Borough Council, the then London County Council and Hampshire County Council. It started in 1960. Houses and roads were built first, the industrial estates at Walworth and Portway were developed, and the northern spine road was constructed from 1965 onwards; the Andover – Southampton railway line had gone, with the last train running in 1964, making Western Avenue possible.

There were wholesale clearances of some areas of the town. West St., with what had been the Rex Cinema (finally a furniture store), the Victoria Arms, a dairy, a builder’s merchants, and shops behind the Guildhall disappeared to make way for the new shopping centre. Other areas - parts of George Yard and Union St – were also demolished to provide space for new car parks adjacent to the inner ring road.

Firms began moving into Andover and occupying the new industrial estates and familiar names like Tesco and Waitrose moved into the new shopping centre, and later Safeways into Bridge St. A new library was included in the fully covered centre.

Cricklade College was born, and the indoor swimming pool and sports complex and a new magistrates’ court were built to the north of the new town centre.

To those of us who were members of the Borough Council, the late sixties and early seventies were a period of intense activity and interest, as the “overspill” development was gradually completed. By 1980 the town had more or less assumed its present pattern, except for the large out-of-town supermarkets and stores just north of the town, on the Newbury Rd. But administratively, in 1974, it had been integrated in Test Valley and had lost its borough status, Mayoralty and own Council, which for me, as a former Mayor, is still a matter for regret, in that I feel the town has lost to a large extent its focal point and figurehead.

Today, I believe, Andover’s population is about 35,000, and it is a very different place from that of my boyhood, but who is to say whether it is better or worse? We old’uns tend to view the past through rose-coloured spectacles, bit nothing stands still, and towns, like other things, change as they reflect altering social mores and conditions. Our Andover can be no exception.