It is the close detail of everyday life that is of greatest fascination in the history of an area

Click to follow
The Independent Online
It is now 11 years since we moved into our farmhouse, but I still know lamentably little about its history. A visiting dowser once sat in the kitchen over a cup of coffee and, after consulting his pendulum, asked whether the building had gone up in 1681. I replied that it was entirely possible, but I had no way of verifying it.

Over the years scraps of information have come to light. For example, in 1936 an entire second storey was removed, because the weight of the stone was causing the walls to bulge. To this day the house is held together with tie-rods, with crossed bars and nuts at either end.

We also know that there were more buildings in and around the farmyard, and that two cottages once stood in the corner of the wood just above us. But when did they disappear? Inside the house, why is the wall between sitting room and parlour 6ft thick? And why are some doorways only 5ft 6in high? Were people really that small in those days?

Many such questions came to mind when I hit on a copy of Northcourt Avenue, a 70-page history of a pleasant residential road in Reading's southern suburbs. The pamphlet is obviously of greatest interest to residents, but it is so well researched and produced that it may goad other householders into discovering more about their homes.

The author is Penny Kemp, a history teacher who came to the Avenue only in 1988, and so felt "rather presumptuous" in tackling the booklet. She put a tremendous amount of unpaid work into the project, but, like everyone who became involved, she felt it was beneficial to the community, as it helped people to get to know their neighbours better.

Her on-site contributors included distinguished artists who gave their services free, providing attractive line drawings not only of the houses, but also of the birds and animals in the gardens.

It is sobering to find that the Avenue - which is now engulfed in the sprawl of Reading - did not exist until early this century. The ground its houses now cover was then farmland belonging to the Palmer family (in partnership with whom Thomas Huntley famously made biscuits). In 1904 builders bought the land and speculation ran riot. The Twenties brought a particular rush of new dwellings, many with splendid names: Stepaside, El Ferden, Gorphwysfa, Locarno.

Today Northcourt Avenue is a long way from open country. You have to drive through two miles of solid houses, and then cross the M4, before you come to any fields.

The street gains interest from its proximity toReading University and Leighton Park School. And Peter May, captain of the England cricket team, was brought up at No 95; Margaret Thatcher once went to a christening party in the garden of No 42.

Yet it is the close details of everyday existence, the fluctuating fortunes of the families who built or bought the houses, that provide the greatest fascination. The Avenue contains only 120 households, but more than 300 copies of the booklet have already been sold. A similar record of the nearby village of Sonning has gone through three editions. Local estate agents have been among the keenest buyers, reckoning that a bit of history increases the value of any property.

If so much can be found out about a street that has existed for less than a century, why do I know so little about my own house, which is at least three times as old? Perhaps I have not dug deeply enough in the local record office. Maybe I should question more old-timers in the village. Mrs Kemp and her helpers have inspired me to have a go.

`Northcourt Avenue: its History and People' (pounds 9 inc p&p), available from Penny Kemp, 66 Northcourt Avenue, Reading RG2 7HQ