I visited Witton Gilbert a few years ago, at the time of the Joakim Milder concert of Prefab Sprout music at the Sage in Gateshead. At that time, the famous McAloon Garage and bungalow had been reduced by local demolition order to an empty patch of land, scattered in rubble, with concrete footings tracing out the foundations of the filling station. In the overgrown scrub behind the site, a cherry tree still stood.
As we were poking around the site, looking I suppose for some improbable relic or other, Tommy Fuller from the next door house came out, curious to see if we were surveying it for purchase. Tommy, erstwhile village milkman, knew the family well of course, and his children had often played with Paddy and Martin. In later years, Martin placed bottles of champagne on his doorstep at some significant anniversary. Witton Gilbert isn’t a rural idyll, far from it, but there is a sense of community there, and people know each other. When Paddy wrote “Where the Heart Is”, it’s probably not fanciful to imagine he had the village in mind. It’s the kind of red brick working class village where the smell of coal fires no doubt hung heavy in the leaden winter skies of the 1970s. I knew similar places well in my own childhood.
Indeed, at one point the land had certainly belonged to the Coal Board, because that part of Front Street was built slap bang on top of the old colliery drift mine. One of Paddy’s earliest memories relates to the site.
“I suppose one of the earliest things is that I remember… we built our house, because we moved there when I was about four or five and I actually remember my dad who at the time was a school teacher and he had a tiny petrol station – it was one pump and a tiny cabin that was the office – and I remember him actually building the house, you know, getting the bricks and putting them up… I remember helping him in the way you do when you’re a kid, which is not to help at all.”
Fraser Reynolds, local councillor recalls the same period, when Paddy’s father was taking over the filling station:
“It was 1959 and he was teaching me maths at Langley Park Secondary Modern School. That was his final year there, because he’d just bought a garage in Witton Gilbert and was leaving at the end of term. He was a lovely bloke, very astute. Hey, do you know what he did? For that final term at school he got us all together in class and came up with a special project to design and make the signage for his new garage.”
Gavin Carr Winship – now resident in the US – wrote a piece about the filling station for his defunct home page:
I grew up in a little village called WITTON GILBERT.
Witton Gilbert was one of those English villages that the Romans had missed, the Vikings had bypassed and the Normans had renamed for the hell of it.
There was a couple of churches severely outnumbered by the pubs. Somewhere in the village a large war memorial exists, which over the last two decades has been picking itself up and moving around to various locations.
At the bottom of the village in large blue and yellow letters was the word McAloon’s. It was attached to the roof of a petrol station and across the street on the other side of the A691 trunk road was a similar architectural wonder. The man in charge of the garages was Tommy McAloon. Tommy had a sense of humour that helped him keep his sanity while having myself my friend George drop breakable things, spill oily things and generally, though not intentionally, punish the customers for bringing their cars to the garage.
Marty and Paddy helped their father at the garage, usually not screwing things up as much as we did. Although changing tyres and pumping gas seemed like the family business, when the garage shut down at night and the chocolate bars and cigarettes were taken to the safe secure place (wherever they were taken by Tommy), there were strange things going on over the road inside the gas station.
Loud banging and drumming noises, singing and guitar riffs not usually associated with fixing flat tyres could be heard. Thin grey haired men walking their frightened whippets and greyhounds speeded up and hurried past on their way to the Glendenning Arms off-license window. The next day the chocolate came out again and the process was repeated.
The chocolate was sacred. It had been in the McAloon family since World War one. It was usually covered with a cloth to keep the sun off it (sun in England?).
The garage survived many shocks such as “the forged five pound notes”, “who put the oil in the vicar’s radiator” etc., and eventually changed hands some time after I moved to the US. I guess all the practice and the frightened dogs were worth while as they do make good music. I was back in Witton Gilbert about 3 years ago and Bill (the man with the dog) understands now.
As an aside, there may have been a grain of truth in the idea the chocolate had been a long term family heirloom. Tommy’s father had left employment in the pits to become a confectioner in the village.
The petrol – at one time a “Fina” franchise – was an important sideline, but the business was significantly built around tyres. Apart from Paddy and Martin, who helped with the pumps when they weren’t at school, the only other employee was Big Billy Salmon (no relation to Michael Salmon) who, according to George Thompson, another local councillor, would “sit out front under the canopy with a huge tyre iron in each hand and he would wield these like some kind of Viking weapon, ripping old carcasses off wheels and squeezing new tyres on.”
The second site was almost directly across the road. The building was divided into three areas – as you looked at it from the front, the left hand bit was the largest, and this was just a big empty space inside which the lads used as their rehearsal space. The middle section was where the stock of small auto parts was stocked, spark plugs, oil, and so on. The right hand bit was the office where the till was situated. George remembered that the takings used to pass through the cash register in the main garage, but apparently it was somewhat unreliable and was always breaking down.
“When that happened, Billy or one of the lads had to run across the road to the other site and use the till over there. That building was never permanently occupied, nobody actually worked there. Of course the brothers were always in there until late at night practising their music.
“One thing does stick in my memory after all this time, and that was Paddy and his dress sense. It didn’t matter if it was rain or shine, he always seemed to be wearing the same long trench coat topped off with a bright blue French beret.”
Paddy continued to work at the garage for a considerable period of time.
“I sort of worked a bit in a garage over the summer, and was happy to do that. Well, happy insofar as I was writing songs. And he insisted I went to college… so he just phoned up at the last minute to this local college in Newcastle where I lived. And I kind of got in at the last minute, you know… I just wanted to write, so I finished it, I got my degree. And I went back to the garage and he kind of looked at me. By this time actually, he was very ill and couldn’t look after the place himself. So the fight had kind of gone out of him. And I think he just felt, ‘I’ve done my duty by my son, I’ve insisted he got an education, and if he wants to sit around here that’s his problem’. And I did that for four years. I did that really for two, three, four, five years.”
By around 1984, with Prefab Sprout’s career about to take off, and under the shadow of continuing health problems for Paddy’s father, the family moved to Leadgate, close to where his mother worked. And the chapter of the McAloon Service Station closed, with the site eventually being sold.
The final owner ran the place for a while but then upped sticks and emigrated to New Zealand, leaving the buildings in deteriorating condition with the weather taking its toll on the main garage premises. After a while the empty bungalow was trashed, set on fire a couple of times, and in the end the garage structure became so dangerous and unsafe that there was no choice but to pull it down. The bungalow too was demolished.
The ownership of the garage remains unclear, though the over the road portion was sold for redevelopment. It probably still belongs to the New Zealander. I confess to being intrigued – possibly the ultimate Prefab Sprout collectible?
With grateful thanks to Peter Whitfield and Gavin Carr Winship