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TRCH The Da Vinci Code

The Oral History Report Captures the Living Memories Behind the Promenade, Home to Nottingham’s Most Colourful Houses

17 November 21 words: Lizzy O’Riordan
photos: Chris Matthews

First classed as listed buildings in the eighties, the Promenade is home to some of Nottingham’s oldest and most colourful houses. We chat to Dan Lucas and Laura Summers about The Oral History Report - the book capturing the living memories behind this historic neighbourhood...

If you’ve ever been at the edge of St Ann’s and the city centre, then you’ve probably seen the Promenade - a row of brightly coloured houses that sit next to Victoria Park. My family always call them Balamory houses because of the colour, but they’re also some of the oldest in Nottingham. Dating back to the 1845 Enclosure Act, they’re built on former agricultural land that was released to build houses and factories.

Now, Nottingham City Council own sixteen of the homes in the area and are responsible for their upkeep. I talk to Dan Lucas, strategy officer at Nottingham City Homes, who tells me that they came into the Council’s hands to preserve the history of St Ann’s. In 2019 NCH completed a refurbishment of these sixteen properties and quickly realised that there was an interesting story to be told about the area. “We wanted to tell a broader story of the homes, and the people who lived and had lived in them,” Dan says.

Nottingham City Homes applied for a bid from the National Lottery Heritage fund, and from here The Promenade Heritage Project was created. In 2020 local historian Chris Matthews put together The Heritage Report which explores the history of the Promenade, alongside Robin Hood Terrace and Campbell Grove. Then, in 2021 a second book was published, telling the stories of the residents both past and present. This book, a joint effort from Chris Matthews and Laura Summers, is The Oral History Report.

“Chris did design work and project budget management, and my job was to be in charge of community engagement,” says Laura, when I ask about her role in the project. “We had envisioned an element of going door to door, and people inviting us in to tell their story,” Dan adds - but due to COVID, this was impossible. The interviews were largely pre-arranged and conducted by a set of volunteers, who had been given oral history training from East Midlands Oral History Archive. Laura tells me that they ended up doing the bulk of the interviews via Zoom but notes that people were eager to be interviewed in person. “The first one I did was with Joyce White who is a 95-year-old,” Laura tells me. “I was there for three hours talking.”

The report is full of stories about community, which seems to be tight knit in the area. The gardens in the Promenade all face onto the street, and neighbours would stand at each other’s fences to talk over lockdown. In one interview, Alan Phelan describes how people knock on each other’s doors to invite them out, joking that he’s forty-three and hasn’t been invited to come play since he was ten. It seems that this has always been the way; Glyn Jenkins, who was born at number nine in 1950, remembers sharing a bathtub with the other kids on the Promenade. Likewise, Joyce White recalls a tiny school being run from her front room during the Second World War.

The other topic that keeps reoccurring is how much everyone loves the green space, with many residents describing Victoria Park as like a second garden to them. One of my favourite stories in the book is from Glyn, who describes the park as a ‘magic place’ where he grew up playing games.

We realised no one quite knows when they were painted. It seems like one person painted it a nice colour, and everyone did the same

Out of curiosity, I ask Laura and Dan about the colour of the houses. “We realised no one quite knows when they were painted,” Laura says. “It seems like one person painted it a nice colour, and everyone did the same. When they were done up by the council for the General Improvement Act, they were all just browns and things like that.” It seems to have happened at some point in the nineties - in the book Francis Dore tells the story of painting number fifteen a bright orange one afternoon, armed with a crate of beer to help the day along. “It seems like quite a modern thing in the history of the houses,” Dan says.

We start to talk about personal connections to the project. Dan says that he didn’t really know the area well, but Laura has a strong connection to St Ann’s. “I grew up in the seventies council homes, when St Ann’s was full of houses like the Promenade and Campbell grove, but they were all swept away in the so-called slum clearances,” Laura says. “I was aware that the area was particularly important because they were one of the few houses remaining of old St Ann’s. I knew they were beautiful, and I knew they had a good community, but I didn’t realise how important they were.”

Both Dan and Laura seem eager to iterate the significance of these houses, which were made into listed properties in the eighties for their architectural significance. “They have a group listing, which means it’s integral to the look that they’re all listed together,” Dan tells me. “They would typically just list a couple of houses as examples, but obviously the decision here was to do the whole lot.”

When you open the first page of the Oral History Report, there’s a foreword that describes the project as collecting memories for posterity, which I think sounds very quaint and Victorian. At the end of my conversation with Dan and Laura, I ask what they hope the project will achieve. “For people to know that the buildings are important in the history of Nottingham,” Laura says. But not only that, adds Dan. I’m hoping people will be inspired to research the story of their own house. People think that they’re not important, but that’s not true because everyone’s story is interesting. How fascinating would it be if you could hear the voices of some of these people listed from 150 years ago? Now, we’ve got these recordings from people today, so in a hundred years’ time, they’ll be able to hear us.”

Both The Heritage Report and The Oral History Report can be found online for free. Nottingham City Homes are especially grateful for the support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and to National Lottery players for making this project feasible.

thepromenadeheritageproject.org

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