We move into a new house in Wakefield - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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We move into a new house in Wakefield

Before 1939 was out Dad, now a fully qualified prison officer, was posted back to Wakefield Prison and the family moved, 'flitted' as it was known in those days, from Lancashire to Yorkshire. Our new home was a brand-new, rented, semi-detached house on Cotton Street, a cul-de-sac off Denby Dale Road, the main road out of Wakefield towards the west.
Above: Our house was on the corner on the left. The LMS railway was, and still is, on two levels but in the 1940s there was a wooden fence supposedly to keep train-spotting kids off the tracks.
On our side of Cotton Street there were three large, pre-war houses at the Denby Dale Road end and then six pairs of brand new, semi-detached houses. The street ended at a wooden fence beyond which was the embankment which carried the four tracks of the London Midland and Scottish (LMS) railway. Our house was No 29, the left hand half of the final semi which was hard up against the railway embankment from which it was separated by the fence. The street was unfinished when we moved in; the roadway and pavements were laid out but had very rough earthen surfaces. I assume the builders had been called up on the outbreak of war and left their work unfinished. The street surfaces are not in much better condition today.

Above: Cotton Street in 2004
On the opposite side of Cotton Street there was a terrace of mature, gloomy, town houses, each of which had a wrought iron gate and a low fence enclosing a tiny front garden. Shortly after we moved in, Council workers came around and removed all those iron gates and railings. I was still only 4 years old so I had no understanding of why they were cutting the railings down, but I do remember going outside onto the street to watch with interest. The same thing happened at properties all over the city. Apparently, the iron was to be melted down and then re-used to help the war effort, but it seems that was probably more of a Government initiative to bolster citizens' morale than a genuine requirement for second hand iron. In 2015 you can still see the sawn-off tops of railings in front of many of the old houses along Denby Dale Road and even along the ginnel on one side of Wakefield's beautiful cathedral in the city centre. Nothing, it seems, was sacred.

We were the last family to move into the new houses. All the semis had pebble-dashed outside walls and appeared very modern and attractive - a vast improvement on our two houses in Salford and Manchester. Every week Mum or Dad went to an office in King Street in Wakefield city centre to pay the rent. I have no idea how much the rent was but shortly after the end of the war Dad bought our house from the landlord for the princely sum of £560.

From our front gate to the front door we had a long, narrow path which neatly bisected our extensive front garden into two long strips. The front door opened into a hallway with the staircase to the upper floor straight ahead. The kitchen and bathroom with toilet were off to the left; it was the first time I was able to have a proper bath rather than crouching in a tin tub filled with hot water from a kettle and a hose from the cold tap over the sink. At the end of the hallway was the living room which we called the ‘front room’ in spite of the fact that it was at the back of the house. It had a door leading directly out to the back garden. Because that door was far from draught-proof, we used to draw the thick, full-length curtains across on cold days as well as every night to conserve heat. The curtains were thick enough to serve as blackouts during the dark hours.

The bedroom I shared with my baby sister was at the front of the house on roughly the same level as the railway tracks so I had a splendid view of the passing LMS trains. In our first few months, over the winter of 1939-40, all four of us had to get used to the noise of the lengthy freight and passenger trains passing the house every few minutes, night and day. Most of the freight trains had a long rake of loose-coupled wagons so, when the train slowed down, there was a continuous clattering noise as all the wagons closed up on each other. There was a different sort of clattering as the links between the wagons extended to their full length again when the train started accelerating away.

From our very first day my parents told me that I could, if I wished, sit on top of the fence to watch the trains go by but I was forbidden to jump down onto the railway side. Mind you, that rule didn't stop certain adults, under cover of darkness, from clambering over the fence carrying coal scuttles or sacks to collect the large pieces of coal that 'accidentally' fell from locomotive tenders. I knew that happened because I would sometimes creep over to my bedroom window when I was supposed to be asleep in bed and poke my head through the heavy curtains to watch the trains passing. I had to make sure that I didn't compromise the wartime blackout regulations and that also ensured that those collecting the coal didn't see me spying on them. Coal for domestic use was strictly rationed and in very short supply during the war. When I offered to go and collect some of the coal pieces, Dad warned me not to do it. He said, "Never mind what other people are doing, it's stealing".

My parents' bedroom at the rear of the house looked over the backs of the houses on Avondale Street and also had a view of the famous viaduct known locally as The 99 Arches which carried the tracks of the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) from Sandal right into Wakefield Westgate station. The 99 Arches are still there and still very much in use, but there is some dispute about the exact number of arches: it depends, apparently, on which one at the Sandal end is counted as the first and which at the Westgate end is deemed to be the last of the 99. Bridge number 58, which carries the railway high over Thornes Lane, became very familiar to me once I started school because I had to walk under it on my way to and from my infants' school.

Of course, the LNER is long gone: the railway is now the Leeds Spur of the East Coast Main Line and, at the time of writing in 2015, there are trains to and from London Kings Cross every half hour throughout the day, with additional ones in the morning and evening rush hours. The fastest train, when I last checked, covers the 176 miles from Wakefield to Kings Cross non-stop in 1 hour 54 minutes. Who needs HS2?

Later in 2017, as I was proof-reading this page, a local friend, a fellow train-spotter from decades ago, asked me if I had ever wondered why these days two long-distance trains never cross the 99 Arches at the same time. I confessed that I hadn’t noticed that. He told me that the whole length of the 99 Arches viaduct was no longer safe to carry two trains at once, due to wear and tear and lack of proper maintenance. My friend told me that as soon as the High Speed 2 (HS2) trains start operations in a few years from now, the 99 Arches will be barred for all but a few local trains serving small towns between Wakefield, Doncaster and Sheffield.

Later still -  23 June 2018. Today, following the demise of  Virgin Trains on the East Coast, the LNER name and route was today resurrected and is now being run in effect as a nationalised railway.

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