diamond geezer

 Saturday, July 30, 2016

Three Lions on a shirt, Jules Rimet still gleaming.
Thirty years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming.

It's fifty years now, fifty years today since the England football team last lifted an international trophy.

And they nearly didn't lift the trophy because, as is well documented, it was famously stolen while on display to the public in central London. Perhaps even more famously it was recovered a week later by a dog called Pickles who found it in a south London hedge. So what I really wanted to know about this fantastic story, obviously, is the whereabouts of that hedge.

Nobody these days would consider displaying the World Cup trophy at a stamp exhibition. But on 19th March 1966 the Jules Rimet went on show at Westminster Central Hall inside a padlocked case under the heading 'The World Cup Proudly Presented By Stanley Gibbons'. Although under guard at all times while the exhibition was open, on Sunday the hall was used for a church service, allowing thieves to slip in and nab it while security staff were on their dinner break. The chairman of the FA received a ransom demand the following day, and went to the police, who organised payment using a suitcase stuffed with fake cash. This was delivered to the rendezvous point in Battersea Park, where the middleman inadvertently got into an unmarked police car, failed to get away, and was arrested. That's the short version anyway. But still no sign of the trophy.

This turned up a week after its disappearance, on Sunday 27th March, outside some flats in Upper Norwood. Inside one of these lived a Thames lighterman called David Corbett, who popped out that afternoon to make a telephone call in the kiosk over the road. He took his four year-old collie, Pickles, who started sniffing around a neighbour's car where a package lay under a bush close to the front wheel. Tearing off some of the newspaper wrapping, Corbett spotted a golden statuette and the names of the cup's first three winners etched on discs underneath. Realising immediately what he'd found, Corbett rang the police, who promptly made him their prime suspect and questioned him into the early hours of the morning. But before long he was cleared, and he and Pickles became celebrities. Pickles was named Dog of the Year, received a year's supply of free petfood, appeared on Blue Peter and starred in a feature film with June Whitfield. And four months later England won that trophy.

David Corbett used his reward money to buy a new house in Lingfield, Surrey, where he still lives and where Pickles is buried. But in early 1966 he lived on Beulah Hill, a lengthy residential road which started out as an ancient ridgetop path. At one end is Crown Point, and at the other is the enormous South London TV mast that isn't the one at Crystal Palace. What's most impressive about Beulah Hill is how the land slopes down on both sides, quite steeply in places, affording excellent views but only in certain gaps between buildings. To the north is central London, with its more famous skyscrapers nicely lined up, and to the south the less elevated skyline of Croydon with the edge of the Downs beyond. You get the best view if you live on one of the upper floors, be that in a modern flat or some older Addamsfamilyesque villa. And Dave resided in one of the latter, but on the ground floor, so no wonder he was good at looking down.

The villa in question is called St Valery, an asymmetric concoction in yellow brick, erected in 1880 on the site of a former inn by local builder Sextus Dyball. The house is up-to-four storeys high, with a fifth floor attic inside a prominent tower, and steeply pitched roofs which make it appear even taller. Typical of Dyball's gothic statement architecture, St Valery has all sorts of external flourishes, and is unsurprisingly Grade II listed. It was built for a successful bookmaker by the name of Robert `Bob' Lee, and would have made a fine home for a large middle class Victorian family. These days of course it's flats, indeed it already was 50 years ago, and the separate chauffeur's quarters in the grounds has been split into another two. But the name is still carved into the turrety gateposts, and the hedge out front is smartly maintained.

Except this isn't the hedge the World Cup was found in, not quite. Dave's testimony makes clear it was found beside a neighbour's car, which could mean another resident of the block, or could mean a house nextdoor. Thankfully the world's press turned up to recreate the discovery and take pictures, so a photograph exists of Pickles posing by a tree trunk at the end of a driveway, with a detached house clearly visible in the background across the road. If you go to Beulah Hill and hunt around it's possible to identify that detached house on a bend very close to St Valery, specifically on the corner with Spurgeon Road. But look back across and the driveway is long gone, replaced by a thick screen of younger trees and undergrowth, which is (for such a historic location) disappointingly featureless.

The precise spot must have been in the front garden of number 50 Beulah Hill, two doors down from St Valery at 54 [old map]. But there is no number 50 any more, indeed all eight villas between St Valery and the top of Harold Road have been demolished and their footprint used to create a new residential road. Around forty townhouses have been squeezed into the resulting void, fairly spaciously because those old villas had big gardens. This cul-de-sac has for some reason been named Ellery Road, which is a shame, because Pickles Close would have been a lot more fun. A row of garages appears to fill what used to be the driveway outside number 50, but a linear strip alongside the main road has been left undeveloped to provide a shield of vegetation, and it's somewhere in this overgrown nomansland that the World Cup was found.

So don't expect to find a plaque on Beulah Hill, indeed don't expect to find anything, other than a thicket of leafy twigs and some littered cans. But rejoice that Pickles sniffed around and found something, the trophy that still defines our national football team fifty years later.

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