Let Me Take You Down…

“Screams from adoring teenagers and a “mini-riot” made up the fantastic reception BBC Radio 1 DJ Tony Blackburn received when opening the new Strawberry Fields boutique in Rickmansworth on Saturday morning.

Traffic through the town centre was delayed as the DJ made his way to Penn Place. Several times the police cordon around the shop front was broken as frantic teenagers peered closer into the glass window. A small child trampled in the rush and the decorative flowerbeds outside the shop crushed.”

Tempers frayed as limited numbers of fans were allowed into the shop to receive autographed photographs of this quietly spoken doctor’s son from Bournemouth, who himself had to be rescued by police in the scramble.”

He left the premises by a back entrance to make his way to a football engagement.”

(Watford Observer, October 11, 1968)

Tony Blackburn, screams, frantic teenagers, really? Yes really, this was the 1960s.

************

Four years earlier, there had been a gala opening of fourteen shops in Penn Place. The event had even been broadcast in the USA, because William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, had lived and married in Rickmansworth.

I was eight, and my family had just moved to Chorleywood. Mum and Dad both worked, and we would do our weekly shop in Rickmansworth on Saturday morning. At some point, the local grocers Anthony Jackson, just along from Penn Place, was replaced by that brash newcomer Tesco, to my grandma Sallie’s disapproval. I was appointed custodian of the Green Shield Stamps: it was my task to stick the vast roll of stamps Mum acquired at the till into the booklets.

It was quite a relief when they introduced a stamp representing ten of the little blighters.

Then on Saturday 5th October 1968, Strawberry Fields threw open its doors, shamelessly exploiting the huge stock of goodwill accruing to that marvellous song. I wasn’t a cool twelve year old, but I knew straight away it was the best shop in town. When I had finished getting my Saturday morning haircut, I would wait in there soaking up the music, looking longingly at the records and studying the latest charts on the board, while Mum was getting her perm from Mr Louvère, two doors away. My older brother Rob might have done the same as me, although about this time he more or less abandoned barbers’ shops.

I don’t remember actually buying many records there. Rob and I still shared a bedroom, and I was usually also happy to share his records, so I was introduced to bands like Led Zeppelin and King Crimson while I was quite young. We also possessed a reel-to-reel tape machine, which we used to record our favourites, in the early days from pirate radio and Alan Freeman’s Pick of the Pops, and later from Radio 1.

But there’s one record I certainly did buy there. About March 1970, I heard a languid, dreamy song one Sunday morning on Kenny Everett’s radio show. It was called The Prettiest Star by David Bowie, who had made his chart debut the previous year with Space Oddity. (Not to be confused with the brittle, metallic glam-rock version later to appear on Aladdin Sane.). It had a beautiful, wailing guitar part, played – although I didn’t know at the time – by Marc Bolan, soon to break through to huge success with Ride a White Swan.

Next Saturday morning I was in Strawberry Fields asking for the record. Despite the plugs from Kenny Everett, it hadn’t done much, and they didn’t stock it. But they could order it for me, and it would be there by Thursday. So I broke my bus journey home from school in Watford, and stopped off in Rickmansworth to pick it up. When I got home I ran upstairs and put it straight on the record player, with the stacking arm up to make it repeat play indefinitely. According to Wikipedia, it reportedly sold fewer than 800 copies, but I still think it’s beautiful.

Another record I bought there was much less cool, certainly at the time. I had heard Let’s Hang On by the Four Seasons on that radio show where Jimmy Savile (yes, him) played the charts from five, ten and fifteen years ago. The song ambushed me with its cheesy falsetto pop drive and conviction. This was years before the band’s 1970s disco reinvention, decades before Jersey Boys. I found in their imported oldies box and bought it. Rob nearly disowned me.

My other clear memory of Strawberry Fields again relates to David Bowie. In April 1973, Rob, a passionate fan, had pre-ordered Aladdin Sane , illegally discounted, from an upstart mail order advertiser in Melody Maker called Virgin Records.

Release day arrived, but not the LP. Luckily our cousin Jonathan was visiting: we all went to Strawberry Fields to listen to the new album – I can’t remember whether it was in a booth, or sharing headphones. The verdict was positive, and Rob prevailed upon Jonathan to buy a copy there and then – enabling us to listen repeatedly to Bowie’s new masterpiece until our cousin returned home. After that I think there were just a couple of days of anguish until Rob’s own copy arrived.

In 1974 our family moved to Chipperfield, and soon afterwards I left for university. We didn’t visit Strawberry Fields again. The shop moved down to the High Street. Online comments suggest that it lost its cutting edge: also the collapse of Resale Price Maintenance in the 1990s caused fierce price competition in the record industry from chains like W H Smith and Our Price. This made life very difficult for small independent record shops, and at some point unknown to me, years after it opened with such a bang, Strawberry Fields closed its doors with barely a whimper. So ended a tiny but magical chapter of Rickmansworth’s history.

12 thoughts on “Let Me Take You Down…

  1. So where is Penn Place?
    Gosh I remember Green Shield Stamps and sticking thousands of them into a book that expanded as you stuck them in.
    Reel to reel tape machines. My friend had all the Beatles songs on tape and we rerecorded them onto my machine via a microphone. Couldn’t talk as it would have recorded our voices!
    Happy days!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Penn Place is now flats, the other side of Northway from the two storey car park.

      Yeah, my Green Shield Stamp book always seemed to end up with its pages stuck together – I used too much water!

      We treasured a recording made my microphone from TotP 1965 Christmas Special. You can just make out The Hollies singing “I’m Alive” under the clatter of knives and forks, and my Mum saying “Sorry we ever bought this damned tape recorder!” Happy days indeed.

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      1. Somewhat later, another friend and I recorded John Peel’s Festive 50. Teenage Kicks by the Undertones was one of his all time favourites and the friend and I vowed that if one of us ever lost the cassette with the festive 50 on it, we would immediately inform the other so that we could rerecord it. TK still gives me goosebumps.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I am again avoiding barbers’ shops, but this time for different reasons. And, for the record, ‘Let’s Hang On’ is cool. Not for the first time, you were ahead of me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember Strawberry Fields . In the 70s I was an area manager for EMI records calling on retailers in Herts and North London. Every town had an independent record shop usually run by enthusiasts. In Watford I would start my day at Submarine Records by the pond and work my way down the High street taking in Harlequin, the Coop, WH Smith, Boots and Woolworth who all had record departments and The Record Room before heading up the St Albans Rd to Past and Present. They were a treasure trove of both new and second hand vinyl. They got special treatment as they were one of the shops whose sales made up the all important charts. I swapped some samples here for the first New York Dolls album which the multiples wouldn’t stock because the band were in drag on the cover although they did stock Blind Faith featuring a topless 11 year old girl !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your wonderful comment. Wow, that was a cool job! I bet you could tell some great stories – let me know when you start writing *your blog.

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  4. I used to go to a Greek restaurant in Penn Place… after the Old Fullerians swimming club sessions in the old outdoor WBGS pool. Sadly no recollection of any Strawberry Fields though. It was somewhere just above the grey mini in your photo. Excellent mousaka.

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