Bernard Green has already given London Grip readers his memoir of Alf’s Café: here now is his “prequel” about dramatic incidents in Farnham in the 1940s…
At the end of the Second World War, my father Alfred E.Green purchased a large Victorian house at Whiteways Corner in Runfold near Farnham Surrey. He named it The Green Guest House and opened it for the benefit of lorry drivers to have lodgings there.
There were grounds of approximately six acres and originally it must have been a most beautiful and expensive estate. The house was built on the top of a gently sloping hill with pine trees and chestnut trees on either side of the drive. The house was built of red brick with many interesting features like the terra cotta faces which peered down at you from the walls. There were three stories, turrets at the north and south ends between which ran an ornate wrought iron balcony for the benefit of the bedrooms on the first floor. It had a total of twenty-one rooms all with high quality mahogany doors, a wide staircase swept up from the large hall which had a complicated and colourful Victorian tiled floor.
Three corridors ran the length of the building that were ideal for roller skating. The top floor had small rooms for servants who used the rear staircase which continued down into the cellar. The cellar consisted of five rooms one being completely tiled and with heavy marble worktops to be used as a butchers shop. An elevator for food operated from the cellar to the first floor. The central heating boilers had long since failed and in the outhouses there were the remains of an electric generating plant.
I was still at school and I saw an opportunity in the glass electric accumulators which I washed and sold as fish tanks. In those tanks were hundreds of glass tubes that were about fourteen inches long. These made excellent peashooters and I sold all of them at school. In the garden was an overgrown artificial river lined with concrete which sinuously twisted around and past a garden wall and summerhouse. On top of the summerhouse was a large tank that originally supplied the river and fountains. I cleared the wild vegetation hoping to reinstate the river but there was too much to repair. On further investigation I found that there was a deep concrete rainwater reservoir on each corner of the house. A lot of thought had gone into its construction.
At the age of sixteen I started work at the Hogs Back Hotel as a waiter. Shortly after this time my father gave up on his efforts to make the guest house a viable proposition and we all had returned to live at the Toll house and café in Runfold. One night as I cycled home from the hotel, I saw a light in one of the windows of Homefields. I cycled up the drive to see who was there, it was about 10pm. There was no electricity in the house and it looked like the dull light from one of the paraffin lamps that we used for lighting.
I walked through the double mahogany doors into the hall – they were never locked – and then from my bike torch I could see the smoke that filled the ceiling of the 60ft long hall. The ceilings were twelve feet high and the smoke rolled and billowed along the ceiling towards the open front door. It was attractive in a strange way, looking rather like a heavy folding cinema or stage curtain. I did not realize the danger I was in from toxic fumes or a flash explosion inches above my head. The large room at the end of this hallway held all my gymnasium equipment that I had worked hard to collect, heavy coconut mats to practise falls, weights and a punch-bag.
Small flames were licking like cats tongues under the bottom of the close fitting thick mahogany door. I had no idea of the danger I was in, for had they reached the smoke above me it would have exploded and raced down the hall to the now open front door. I wanted to retrieve some of my equipment so I placed my hand on the heavy brass door knob with the intention of opening the door but I burnt my fingers on the very hot brass handle. I decided to retreat and cycled quickly to the Toll house where my mother telephoned the fire brigade. I returned to Homefields and found the fire had entered the hall. The fire had started in the cellar where my father had built wooden apple racks covered in straw to store apples over the winter months. I was always peeling apples for the delicious apple tarts he made for the café.
The firemen were already there but were just standing around. Some were warming their hands from the flames coming out from a window. I was puzzled as to why they made no attempt to tackle the blaze. When I asked, they replied that there was no water. I quickly pointed out the rainwater reservoirs and they set to work but it was too late, the fire had reached the roof which soon fell in, leaving the high chimneys and walls. It looked rather like an ancient Roman ruin in the morning light. The Insurance company assessors worked tirelessly for weeks sieving the debris looking for evidence of arson. A first it was thought that a vagrant had taken shelter and possibly set fire to the apple racks – and maybe even himself! Eventually they gave up.
My part time job was cleaning the bricks for re-use. There were two fine local chaps doing this for my father, Berry Downs and David Smith. It was a very pleasant time working in the open air with these two men, there was constant competition as to the number of bricks cleaned and how many bricks could be picked up when laid in a straight line. Berry could lift fifteen but I could only manage eleven. Another chap nicknamed Yes M’Boy started work later and managed to upset my father, this resulted in him getting seriously hurt but that is in another story ….
My father meanwhile started excavating the excellent building sand from the grounds of the house. On weekends I operated the Ruston Bucyrus machine shovel to load the lorries until a driver got onto the back of his lorry to level out the load. I asked him not to but he persisted. On the next bucket load my foot slipped off the slewing pedal, the huge heavy bucket swept him off his feet. In shock I let my other foot up and the bucket pressed him into the sand until he disappeared. Recovering quickly I lifted the heavy machine bucket. Slowly he raised his head then his body. It left a perfect cast of his shape, face down. It was an ideal moment to pour plaster of Paris into the mould to have a great impression of him but I did not have any. He was not angry but apologized for not listening to me. Shortly after this my father sold the property to Mr Bentley who operated a sandpit until the company called Chambers took over and are still there today.
Before my father died and while I was still talking to him, in an unusual display of openness he told me that he was the one who had set fire to the apple racks! He said he went into the Jolly Farmer Public house in Runfold and bought a drink (which was unusual for he did not frequent pubs). At about 9pm he excused himself saying he was going to the outside toilet. Then crossing the road into the fields on the north side of the A31 he ran behind the hedge to Whiteways corner then crossed over to the house, lit the straw and ran back. Considering those fields were ploughed, he was very fit to run approximately a mile without appearing sweaty or stressed on his return to the pub.
The new Alf’s Café was built from the rubble, steel and timber from Holmfields. The steel trusses in the bakery section were from the Victorian orangery which the Canadian soldiers used as a cinema during the war and in which they fed and entertained me as a child when I should have been at school.