Vision of Britain: Suburban idyll in house of the rising son

In his keynote Mansion House speech in April, John Major described the Britain he would like to see 50 years from now. It would, he said, 'still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers, and - as George Orwell said - old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist. . . Britain will survive unamendable in all essentials'. In the first of a series of articles on John Major's Vision of Britain, Alex Renton visits the invincible green suburb where the Prime Minister grew up.

IT IS a very ordinary bungalow: squat, four-square and unadorned, and it sits modestly in an unassuming terrace of two-storey Victorian houses. One day a plaque will grace the walls of 260 Longfellow Road, Worcester Park. For the moment, the birthplace of Worcester Park's most famous son - to be frank, the south London suburb's only famous son - is marked only in the minds of ageing neighbours who remember 'nice' Tom and Gwen Major-Ball and their 'very nice' youngest son, John.

Tom and Yvonne Canter bought the five-room bungalow from the Major-Balls in 1955 for pounds 2,150 and are now trying to sell it. They are asking pounds 90,000. It has a 120ft garden, which the couple say is now too big for them. But you wonder whether the Canters would do well to hang on to the bungalow, until it is compulsorily purchased for the nation.

For this could be George Washington's cabin, or the little wooden shack - now preserved under a neo-classical temple - in Gori, Georgia, where Stalin was born. The Prime Minister lived in 260 Longfellow Road until he was 12 - and politicians will plunder their childhood for an ideology. Worcester Park nurtured this Prime Minister as Grantham did the last.

Invincible and green (that's the grassland around the sewage works at the top of Longfellow Road), Worcester Park is about as suburban as you can get. It is a suburb of a suburb - Sutton. Anti-suburban snobbery surfaced here early on. In 1896 - some 30 years after the Victorian developers moved in - H G Wells lived in The Avenue, a hundred yards from Longfellow Road. In his novel Ann Veronica, Wells described a thinly- disguised Worcester Park. 'Morningside Park was a suburb that had not altogether, as people say, 'come off' . . . a bright fungoid growth of little red and white roughcast villas, with meretricious gables and very brassy window blinds . . .'

Wells would find little real change today, and just as much to mock. Modest Longfellow Road does not have the grandeur of The Avenue, with its detached villas, but it teeters on the cusp of gentility. The terraced cottages sprout false porches, carriage lamps and hanging baskets. There is a smattering of house names - 'Parsley Cottage', 'Foxbury' and no fewer than four 'Rose Cottages'. Other houses display their numbers in brass or on blue enamel.

And you do not suppose John Major would find much change, either. On a muggy summer's day, the Longfellow Road children, a few days into their holidays, fill the street with noise. They are playing football in the playground, or tearing round Tilbury's Yard - a somnolent motorcoach business - on mountain bikes. Little John Major used to play in the yard, familiar in a thorn-brown patterned pullover: he was, it is said, the child the others sent to ask if they could have their ball back.

A surprising number of neighbours remember the Major-Balls. Opposite is a 64-year-old gentleman, who declines to give his name, but who says he used to have quite a lot of the concrete garden gnomes and animals that Tom Major-Ball cast and painted in the back-garden of number 260. 'It hasn't changed a bit, in the time I've been here. The same sort of people, quite nice, quite reserved,' he says.

Phyllis and Harry Scott, both 85, remember watching the Coronation ceremony on the Major-Ball's television, one of the first in the neighbourhood. He is a retired french-polisher, once in the merchant navy; their son, a bus driver, lives next door, and on their mantelpiece is a photograph of their grandson, who has just got a degree in engineering. 'It's a very happy neighbourhood, with ever such good neighbours,' Mrs Scott says. 'There's no trouble, no vandalism. They've got that in Sutton and Cheam village . . . But not here.'

They are Conservative voters. 'They've been very good to us - we're both cripples, you see,' Mrs Scott says. There is an electric hoist to help them up the stairs.

Long-term residents such as the Scotts mix well with the young, first- time home buyers. There is a young solicitor, a policeman, and a central heating engineer.

Gary Myles-Middlehurst, 28, is working his H-reg Ford Orion up to a high polish - he is on a day off from his job as an electrical engineer in the City. Originally from Merseyside, he came here when he married four years ago. Their two-bedroom house cost pounds 77,000, though you would not get that for it now.

But he is not thinking of selling. 'I moved here because it's a lot like up North, friendly, and everyone's prepared to help each other. Not like if you lived closer to the City.'

Mr Myles-Middlehurst plays rugby with his neighbours at Raynes Park, they go to Chessington World of Adventures, sometimes, for a day out. 'It's a good place. We're very fortunate in Worcester Park,' he says.

The Surrey Comet tells of child drug dealers up the road in Malden Manor, the Sutton Herald of joy-riders in Carshalton. But there's little news of Worcester Park - pounds 100 in cash missing from a furniture shop, that is all.

Central Road, at the bottom of Longfellow, is as healthy and busy a shopping street as you could hope to see in Britain in 1993. Three banks, lots of small businesses, an undertaker, four estate agents (though there were seven a few years ago), and only a few boarded up shopfronts.

'We wouldn't have been here 37 years if we didn't like it,' says Tom Canter. Put to it, the Canters cannot think of any disadvantages to Worcester Park, apart from the Liberal Democrat council. 'I know we're not living on the horrible Roundshaw Estate - they put all the riff-raff there - but we don't actually know anybody unemployed. There were two up the road, but they're back in work,' Yvonne Canter says. 'We hate to say this, but we just don't seem to get any crime here. Touch wood.'

Worcester Park is the sort of place that people stay. And perhaps the Major-Balls would have, too. But in 1955, Major's Garden Ornaments got into trouble - the loyal former neighbours blame the big department stores that took too long to settle Mr Major-Ball's bills. The family had to sell up.

The Major-Balls left Worcester Park. The two rooms - all they could afford - in Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, are less than 10 miles away, but a world apart. John Major, aged 12, was torn from his placid, green suburb and had to grow up.

(Photograph omitted)

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