Crawley in the mid-1960s: not such a bad place, after all!

Black and white photo of a young man wearing glasses and a high neck jumper.
The author in 1965 (© CC BY-SA 4.0 – David Stoker)

I recently returned to Crawley for the first time in more than a decade, to attend the cremation service for an old friend, Don Nunn. At the ceremony I met several other friends from my school days and afterwards we had the chance to reminisce at the Heathy Farm pub about growing up in the town during the mid-1960s.

Don and his brother, Jim, were part of a group of friends that used to meet up at ‘The Fox’ pub opposite Three Bridges Station on Saturday nights. In those days it was not at all ‘Snooty’, just a normal friendly pub. After closing time, five or six of us would adjourn to my parents’ house in Northgate and play low/medium stakes card games, into the early hours of the morning. Three-card Brag and Pontoon (Vingt-Un) were our usual games of choice, although we also sometimes played Nine-card Brag or Shoot Pontoon both of which might result in winning a kitty. At the end of a session, we might add a little levity to the proceedings by playing a hand or two of One-card Brag, where players held a single card on their foreheads so that they could see all the other players cards but not their own, and then place their bets.

Colour photograph of a green car.
An Austin A40 Devon (© CC BY-SA 4.0 – Vauxford). Don’s car was black.

Don had an old Austin A40 Devon which he nicknamed ‘Jumbo’ and which he would sometimes fill with friends to take to pubs in the surrounding countryside. I half-remember a trip to a pub near Forest Row that fermented its own scrumpy cider. This was ‘The Hatch Inn’ at Coleman’s Hatch. They had an unofficial ‘four-pint’ club for anyone who could drink four pints and remain standing. I drank two pints and the rest of the evening is a blank. I was eventually deposited home, well after midnight by my friends, semi-comatose and with a torn shirt.

Several of my friends had motor scooters and so I suppose we were technically ‘mods’, although the whole ‘mods and rockers’ phenomenon of the mid-1960s was something of a ‘moral panic’ concocted by the press. I was at Brighton with my scooter at Whitsun 1964 and saw none of the ‘so called’ riots and violence that were so luridly reported in the newspapers. At this time, we were still too young to drink alcohol at the Fox and so we would meet up at a youth club at Pound Hill and proceed to the ‘Cowdray Arms’ on the Balcombe Road, where the landlord of the time was not too scrupulous about checking our ages. This arrangement went well for a while until I won the jackpot on their one-armed bandit, much to the annoyance of the regulars. Thereafter we were banned, although by then we were old enough to go to ‘the Fox’.

Colour picture of a red scooter
A Maicoletta scooter (© public domain).
Colour picture of a white car.
A BMW Isetta 300 (bubble car) (© cc-by-sa/2.0 -Steve Glover). My one was bright red!

My Vespa 125cc (1959 vintage) had previously been driven around London by my cousin’s husband who had never bothered with details such as a licence, insurance, or road tax. When it broke down, he left it under a tarpaulin in his garden for a couple of years. My father bought it for me and arranged for it to be repaired as a sixteenth birthday present in 1964. It lasted me a couple of years but was underpowered when compared to most of my friends who had Lambretta 150cc or 175cc machines. I therefore invested in a series of even larger second-hand German-built scooters including a TWN ‘Contessa’ 200cc and a Maico ‘Maicoletta’ 250cc. These looked and felt more like tanks than the sleek Italian scooters. Ultimately, I moved on to a second-hand ‘Isetta’ bubble car, which had been built at the old railway works at Brighton. This rarely achieved more than 25 mph although even this would be breaking the speed limit where I now live. These rather eccentric modes of transport did not do a lot for my street credibility.

Ken Williams, another of my school friends who was at the recent ceremony, reminded me about the ‘Mojo Rhythm and Blues Club’ that met in the Northgate Community Centre every Friday evening. The organiser certainly had his finger on the pulse of the London R&B scene and booked many acts which would later become nationally and even internationally famous. Thus, ‘The Who’ came several times and likewise ‘The Steampacket’ (including Long John Baldry, Rod Stewart, Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger). Another regular group appearing at Northgate was ‘the Graham Bond Organisation’ (including Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker both of whom were later to be part of ‘Cream’). There were many other acts but after sixty years I no longer remember the names of them. Unfortunately, the guy who organised these sessions was killed in a car crash soon afterwards.

Being close to London meant that it was relatively easy to get to see music acts. Thus, Ken and I went to see Chuck Berry perform at the ABC cinema in Croydon in May 1964. The warm-up acts included the veteran rock and roll singer, Carl Perkins, and ‘The Animals’, who were then an up-and-coming group from Newcastle. Later that year I saw Howlin’ Wolf and several other blues singers at the American Blues Festival at the Fairfield Halls. In 1965 I went to Bunjies Folk Cellar in Soho where a relatively unknown American singer, Paul Simon, was performing. He had just recorded a solo L.P. and he stayed behind for a couple of hours after his magical performance chatting to members of the audience. At the Thomas Bennett School several sixth-form pupils organised a coach party to go and see Bob Dylan perform at the Albert Hall in May 1965. He was superb: he sat with just guitar and harmonica and very little talking between songs, with the audience spellbound. This was one of his last concerts before he introduced the famous electric guitars.

During 1966 and 1967 our group of friends based around Three Bridges and Pound Hill began to disperse. Some went to university, others obtained jobs, sometimes a distance away from Crawley. I spent a year working at Horsham and Crawley libraries before leaving to go to college. By the summer of 1970 I had moved away from Crawley, never to return except for fleeting visits to see my parents. I was determined to find pastures new, to find somewhere a little more exciting, with a bit of history. We were the post war generation of baby boomers who had missed out on the excitement and hardships experienced by our parents. However, as my school friend, Alan Hedge, observed to me after the ceremony, ‘perhaps Crawley was not such a bad place to live.’ In retrospect I can see that he was right, and maybe the 1960s was quite a good time to be a teenager.

David Stoker

November 2023

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