Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

I can't see what's happening to the loft extension at the moment because the original 1930s loft ladder - which threatened to descend without warning and decapitate anyone unwise enough to cross the landing - has been removed and the old trapdoor into the attic has been boarded up.

I can't see what's happening to the loft extension at the moment because the original 1930s loft ladder - which threatened to descend without warning and decapitate anyone unwise enough to cross the landing - has been removed and the old trapdoor into the attic has been boarded up.

The only access at the moment is a hole in the gable wall above the first floor window. The builders, Stuart and Sandy, pop in and out of this like robins in a nesting box, but for me it's a no-go area. I'm scared of heights. My husband generously agrees to ascend the scaffolding with a digital camera while Sandy hovers protectively one rung below.

Husband descends with camera full of images, followed by Sandy, who is clutching a small package he has found tucked away in a dusty corner. In it are a couple of folders of bank statements, a few bills and receipts, two handwritten letters addressed to an S G Webb, and an old picture of our house, which, if it dates from the same period as the bank statements, must have been taken shortly after it was built.

It seems to show our back garden, taken through what were probably French windows. There's a bowling-green lawn neatly edged with bedding plants and roses, and the rear view of the houses whose gardens back onto ours.

What on earth would he think, Mr S G Webb, if he could see his house now? All the houses in our road have been extended almost out of recognition. In ours, the French windows have long since been swept away by a back extension which looks out onto a sub-tropical jungle. There is still a lawn, but instead of a striped rectangle, it is curved, edging its way cautiously beneath the pale-green shuttlecocks of a loquat.

The houses that back onto ours have changed too: one has so many extensions in so many directions that my neighbour Ruth has nicknamed it the Goldfish Bowl.

The bills and receipts in the package are interesting - one for gas, dated May 1938, amounts to £3 14s 9d (three pounds, fourteen shillings and ninepence). But it is the letters that are the most poignant. Headed Williton, Curry Rivel, they are undated, but the envelopes have a Somerset postmark dated August 1939. One begins: "Have just listened to the news. It does not seem as if it will happen before the weekend, so do come down if possible."

It goes on to relate: "The boy went off this morning, quite cheerful." The letter writer - Mrs S G Webb, perhaps? - admits to not being quite so cheerful at what was obviously a railway-station farewell: "I should have howled, so did what I have never done - got a drink at the refreshment room."

Was this a son going off to war? Was it perhaps J S Webb, who according to a certificate tucked inside one of the envelopes, had achieved 1st Class passes in Mechanics I and Graphics & Eng Drwg at Imperial College in March 1939? Was the expensive man's watch - £46, according to the jeweller's receipt - a present for doing so well at university or a keepsake to mark his call-up?

Clapham, Battersea and Wandsworth, like much of London, are still pockmarked with the evidence of bomb damage. One of the many builders who have passed through my life once told me the large concrete humps on Clapham Common, where I taught my children to ride their bikes when they were small, were platforms for anti-aircraft guns defending Battersea Power Station.

In my last house, which was close to Clapham Common, two people are said to have died when it was hit. (Amazingly, it was rebuilt in more or less the same style as its neighbours.)

What happened to the Webbs? According to Ruth, the old man who lived here for many years before we arrived wasn't called Webb. Had a far-sighted S G Webb already moved his family down to Somerset to get them out of London during the war? Did he follow, or did he - as family breadwinner - stay during the Blitz?

It's a humbling thought, as we worry about whether we can afford our loft extension, that 65 years ago someone was sitting in our house worrying whether he was risking his life by living here at all.

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