Auntie Polly’s House, part 1
Growing up in Kent in the 1960s, our visits to Wales were few and far between until the M2 was opened and we got a reliable car. Even then, the drive took 8 hours and we only went once a year in the summer. There were three things we looked forward to on those long drives: crossing the Severn Bridge as we entered Wales, our first glimpse of the mountains and our first glimpse of a pit head wheel.
Auntie Polly was the last surviving sibling of my paternal grandfather and she lived alone in an end-of terrace house, next door to the Penygraig Rugby Club and opposite the Naval Colliery. A hair net over her thin grey hair served to hold her roll of curls in place. She wore an old-fashioned crepe belted dress, thick brown stockings, and brown lace-up leather shoes. Over her dress she usually wore a flowery wraparound overall that tied at the waist. I didn’t know anyone else who was that old-fashioned and I thought she was ancient, but she was only about seventy-three.
On arriving at her house, we opened the iron gate and climbed the stone steps to the front door. When my Dad was still alive we went through the side gate to be back door, but after he died when I was a teenager, we thought we’d better go to the front door and ring the bell. As children, she greeted us with a smile that lit up her whole face as she took our faces in her hands and kissed our cheeks. She would always say something in Welsh and then speak to us in English.
We always went to Auntie Polly’s for tea and she always served her home made apple pie, or “apple tart” as she called it. She had a very old wooden rolling pin which was worn away and, to my mother’s disgust, had never been washed. She told me it had belonged to her mother. I inherited it many years later, but it disintegrated in my hands and had to be thrown away but I’m sure that the secret to Aunty Polly’s melt-in-the-mouth pastry lay in that manky old piece of wood.
Auntie Polly’s house was unlike any house I knew. The front hallway was dark and the walls were painted brown on anaglypta wallpaper. A single light hung from the ceiling and a black Bakelite telephone stood on the hall table. We passed two closed doors before reaching the back room where we were entertained. In this room were a few chairs, a large table covered with a thick green coarse velvet cloth, a couple of cabinets on which were a television and a radio. At one end of the room was a good sized original Victorian fireplace with the usual fireside companions and a pair of Staffordshire dogs on the mantelpiece and a mirrored overmantel. This room led to another room which I think she called the scullery. It had a two or three armchairs, a low table and a fireplace complete with cooking range, pots and a copper kettle. The ‘modern’ part of Auntie Polly’s house lay through the back door. Taking up what was once part of the back garden was a white-washed lean-to. Spacious and very bright, due to the translucent corrugated plastic roof, this was Auntie Polly’s kitchen. There was a sink with a single cold tap (this was the only running water in the entire house), a modern gas stove, a free-standing kitchen cabinet and a formica-covered table with a couple of chairs. The floor was covered with linoleum. This crude, modern addition to the home was where Auntie Polly cooked. A door to the outside led to a back garden with steps leading up to the lawn, an old coal shed and the chilly outdoor spider-infested toilet.
Such were my childhood memories of Auntie Pollie’s house. Of Auntie Pollie herself, I knew very little. She spoke Welsh, sent me ten shillings every Christmas, (but didn’t do birthdays) and always said “oh dear” when we offered to help her clear away the tea things. I wonder what that “oh dear” really meant. I was always told she was a tall woman but by the time I was a teenager she wasn’t as tall as me, yet in the old photos, she towers above everyone, incuding her father and brothers. I do remember thinking she had big feet though.
She didn’t have much to say, and we didn’t have much to say to her, but what a mine of information she could have been if we had but known what to ask her. As it turned out, her house had a lot to tell us.