WHITEBRIDGES: Urban Paradise

Belinda Bennett’s account of growing up in Honiton - republished by popular demand.

WITH its concrete bridges, the River Gissage, railway embankment and community spirit, one of Honiton’s biggest residential estates provokes some happy and humorous memories.

WHEN the detached, brick-built shed harboured too many spiders to double up as a wendyhouse, a wider world beckoned.

As soon as my legs were long enough to climb the garden gate, I was off - my mother in hot pursuit, waving a wooden spoon, as I ran around the block.

I only got as far as the flats, but that was enough. My little eyes had been prised wide open by the sight of paradise.

In the environs beyond our front door was an adventure playground, but there were no swings or slides in the urban sprawl that is Whitebridges.

In what was then one of Honiton’s biggest concrete encroachments of the countryside, I spied something much more interesting - a river!

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It wasn’t long before I joined my peers, paddling in the waters of the Gissage, catching minnows and making dens along the riverbank.

Long, hot summers were spent in the space beyond the fence; we climbed the barricade wearing swimming costumes and clutching towels.

Areas of stone were our beaches and the steep, grassed bank our garden.

Dark tunnels were only there to be explored - one heading off towards Targets, the other leading to another realm that was Bowling Green Playing Field.

I can’t remember when I grew out of paddling in the Gissage. Maybe, it was the terrifying moment I lifted a stone and encountered a catfish!

Whitebridges had it all - the river, the railway and its periodic crazes.

Marbles proved to be one of the biggest fads. A grassed area was turned into a wasteland of hard mud by our feverish attempts to win back the coloured glass balls we’d sold each other.

Where else in Honiton could you find all this and so much more?

Twice a day, we had the spectacle of Frankie Walden passing through the heart of the estate. He was driving his cows to the milking shed, and not looking overly concerned as the beasts trampled gardens en-route. Prize-winning gardeners Mr and Mrs Busby must have been so pleased they were off the main road!

Our other great character was Ernie Tucker. He and his wife sold sweets from a tin in their house just above Whitebridges, in Littletown Road.

Up the road, round the corner and under the railway bridge was The Little Shop. Sherbet-filled, rice paper Flying Saucers and coconut tobacco were never very far away!

Fascinating as it was, the railway was never going to make a train spotter out of me.

My recurring fear was that an engine would come off the track and demolish the flats below. Would the fallout of rubble reach our house?

For years, I went to bed worrying about it and woke up worrying about it. My only comfort was that a fully trained first aider lived all but one door away!

Sometimes, late night coal wagons would break down and I used to watch railway workers walking up and down the track with torches.

With the railway embankment seemingly colliding with the skyline, it was an eerie sight.

As a precocious teenager, I was full of hi-jinx. I once creaked open my bedroom window and blasted out a three-minute warning for a nuclear attack as a neighbour was pegging washing on the line. I can still see the expression on her face!

In the days before every house had a telephone, the estate’s phone box was a hive of activity. The breezeblock wall outside was like a sofa.

If the payphone rang and you were passing, you answered it and then fetched the person the caller wanted.

In the evenings, queues formed and there was a lot of clockwatching, animated huffing and puffing and tapping on the glass.

Whitebridges was the best of places to grow up. It had everything.

And the highlight of it all... The one-off occurrence of a midnight disturbance in the street outside my bedroom window!

A neighbour came home from the pub to discover a note from police.

I’m not going to say what the note was about, but it provoked a mighty fracas.

Doors were being knocked, accusations were flying and ‘999’ probably being dialled across the estate.

In the middle of the commotion, one of Whitebridges’ most respected residents opened his front door.

Wearing a white vest and boxer shorts, he shouted: “Do you mind! All this noise is ruining my sex life!”

His wife suddenly appeared in the background, with curlers in her hair and gracing a polyester dressing gown. She clipped him round the ear and slammed the door!

Curtain-twitching from the first sound of trouble, I shrieked: “Blimey, Mum, this is better than the telly!”

Although fewer in numbers, today there’s a new generation of kids on the block.

Lucky beggars!