Anyone who grew up in south London (or has passed through on occasion) should be familiar with the distinctive wire fences that line the front of social housing blocks; they are very unusual in design, yet somehow manage to be completely suited to their environment. And yet, you could be forgiven for missing them as they enclose the kind of rough-looking council estates you probably walk past hurriedly without glancing up at – lest ye be dragged in and set upon by the local neighbourhood chavs, then mugged and knifed before being left for dead behind some bins.
Just because they generally adorn the perimeter of imposing council estates, does not make them in any less charming. And if my tone sounds scornful, it is not intended – far from it – as I grew up in areas such as this and consider them my home. Built in the late 18th and early 19th century, these tenement buildings are actually splendid in their own way and imbue a certain sense of character, harking back to a period in time when things were done differently and standards were high.
Anyway, why am I talking about railings?
Because you might be surprised to discover that these fences are forgotten artefacts from World War II; old battlefield stretchers that were erected in place of actual fences as temporary measure after the end of the war – but have remained in place ever since! There are no signs up to commemorate these combat heirlooms, and gradually – sadly – they are beginning to disappear as councils strip out and replace the old.
They can be found in Peckham, Camberwell, Brixton, Walworth, Deptford and East Dulwich, and there is an excellent website that has been set up to educate people of their existence and help promote their upkeep and preservation: https://www.stretcherrailings.com
I had actually been told about this forgotten history by an old man at a bus stop, back when I was a teenager – but I just assumed he was either senile or a paedophile (possibly, both!), so disregarded everything he said. Sometimes relying on word-of-mouth is not enough…
These unofficial and secret war memorials survive as relics from a time when people “did their bit” – out of a sense of duty for a cause they believed in. Although this sense of pride did not extend to putting up adequate and sensible fencing – they undoubtedly made a brave sacrifice, which enables us to live the decadent, lazy lives we lead today.
So get off your fucking smartphone, take those earphones out of your sodding lug holes and open your bastard eyes; history is important and it’s all around you in the most unexpected of places. Pay attention to the things around you and appreciate them. Never forget.