Coombe Farm memories

This is part of a series of occasional posts about events and memories from my past. One day they may find their way into a book or other creative form.

In the late 1960s, my family’s world changed. The engineering factory where my dad worked as a machinist suddenly closed down, leaving him and his colleagues unemployed. Thankfully he managed to find another job as a handyman at Coombe Farm, a large residential home for people with disabilities run by what was then the Spastics Society (now Scope). The only problem? The new job was 60 miles away from where we lived. Fortunately my mum, who’d become a teacher, was able to find a new job in the same area too.

And so me, my older brother and our parents relocated from Newhaven in Sussex to the outskirts of Croydon. Croydon was already busy redesigning itself with high rise buildings and concrete, infamously at one time even puffing itself as the ‘mini-Manhattan of south London’.

Glamorous central Croydon in the 1970s (image source: Croydon Local Studies Library)

I’m not sure of the exact year, but I guess I would have been about six or seven. It all seemed very exciting at the time, although undoubtedly less so for my parents. I can still remember sitting high up in the cab of the removal lorry during what seemed like an endless expedition to our new urban world.

A postcard of Coombe Farm – I’m guessing from the early 1970s – with some of the residents enjoying its grounds

Coombe Farm was an old, much-extended farmhouse now converted into residential use, mainly for people with cerebral palsy. My dad’s new job came with tied family accommodation. In my young and easily confused mind I’d pictured a building with a rope tied tightly around the outside. However, it turned out to be an ageing wooden thatched cottage without any ropes in sight.

While it might have looked quaint on the outside, it was small, much smaller than the bungalow we’d left behind. My brother and I shared the larger bedroom and my parents the cupboard-sized one. But as a child it was a good place to live, set in its own grounds on the edge of the Shirley Hills, a woodland playground with plenty of opportunities for exploration and adventure.

Me just about holding our cat, alongside Bill from Coombe Farm, and my dad outside the thatched cottage where we lived

I spent a lot of time in and around Coombe Farm, after school, at weekends and during school holidays. I remember it as a bustling and friendly place, with various onsite facilities including a workshop and swimming pool. The residents made everything from small baskets to ceramics to pottery and artwork. It opened my eyes to a world I’d never known before, particularly the skill and talent of the residents with cerebral palsy who painted with their feet. While many residents lived on wards, married couples had their own private accommodation in separate buildings and lived largely autonomous lives.

There was a small printing press in a room at one end of the workshop. I remember helping my dad operate it, learning how to work the ink with a roller (or more usually to transfer most of the ink onto my fingers) and set the metal type, a big step up from my rubbery John Bull printing kit. The press was often kept busy printing stationery such as letterheads and business cards for local people and businesses.

Coombe Farm also had its own coach and driver and ran regular excursions for the residents, from visits to the theatre to trips to the seaside. When I was older, I often found myself volunteered into helping push the wheelchairs of some of the less able residents.

The wedding of two residents of Coombe Farm, with the coach visible in the background

There was also a regular movie night. I remember enjoying the sense of occasion and the opportunity to see films, such as Scott of the Antarctic, in full glorious colour on the big screen courtesy of a 16mm projector. A far better experience than watching movies on our second hand black and white TV at home.

A big annual fete was held in the grounds of the farm, a typical British affair of tombolas and bric-a-brac and a white elephant stall and hook-a-duck and raffles and rides and local celebrities. And bunting – plenty of bunting of course. Ronnie Corbett came to open the fete one year. He lived nearby and like many other celebrities was actively, if quietly, involved in charitable work.

I ran the ‘find the key’ stall several years running: people had to pick a key out of a pile of identical-looking latch keys and if they were lucky it would unlock a plastic display case from which they could choose a prize. There was also usually a ‘grand performance’ of some kind as the highlight of the day – although the only one that’s stuck in my mind is a Western-themed cowboy shoot-out featuring lots of firing of blank pistols and over-acting. I remember collecting up used cartridges afterwards, although some were still live so me and my brother threw them onto a bonfire that evening for a bit of excitement.

I helped look after a couple of rabbits in their hutches and runs at the back of the farm buildings (at least until a fox senselessly killed one of them), supervised by their official owner, Philip. He spent much of his time enjoying the freedom and independence provided courtesy of his Invacar, which he was kind enough to let me manoeuvre briefly and badly within the grounds of the farm.

An early 1970s Invacar, a small single-seater electric vehicle designed to enable disabled people to help regain their independence (image source: Wikimedia Commons)

I remember helping my dad and brother construct a solardome – from laying the concrete foundations to helping identify, lay out and assemble the parts. Well, I say ‘helping’, but I suspect I slowed the whole process down. The solardome was a wonderful centrepiece for the nearby raised beds that my dad had already constructed, designed at just the right height for wheelchair users to garden independently. The dome was like nothing else I’d seen, a startling modern design of aluminium and glass – particularly compared with the old, decrepit wooden and mildewed greenhouses around the back of the farm.

The ‘grand’ opening of the Coombe Farm solardome (I believe that’s Jean Garwood with us, one of the founders of the Spastics Society). The solardome was assembled by my dad with great, er, ‘assistance’ from myself and my brother (that’s me standing in the middle, dressed as snappily as ever – clearly we’d all dressed up in our Sunday best for such a momentous occasion)

After my parents’ divorce later in the 1970s, I lost contact with my dad – mainly the result of a personal choice. Their divorce was not a pleasant experience. It was only after his death that my brother and I found various notes amongst his belongings, including the postcard of Coombe Farm I’ve used in this post. We discovered my dad had objected strongly to the sale of the Farm and the impact of its sale on the residents. He was equally unconvinced by Scope reframing itself as an advocacy and campaigning charity. I guess the closure of Coombe Farm as a home for disabled people, somewhere he had dedicated so much time and care, and the dispersal of the community he’d known so well, also represented the closure of an important chapter of his own life.

My dad moved away from Croydon after my parents’ divorce and returned to Sussex, continuing his work with the disabled (as indeed did my mum – I’ll keep my memories of her work, including at the old St Mary’s Hospital School for Children in Carshalton, for another post). Temperamental and imperfect as he was in our family life, there’s no doubt my dad’s dedication and humour greatly enriched the lives of many of those he worked with and helped.

I remember many of those earlier, happier childhood days fondly. But then I’ve always preferred to dwell on the good times, not the bad. It’s something of a family trait.

My dad at Osborne House, Hastings, where he worked later in life (he’s in the back row, 5th from the right of the photo with glasses, white shirt and, of course, a tie!)

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