On Sunny Corner


My house has a name.  I christened it when I bought it, in December of 1989.  It’s called Sunny Corner.

The house is on a corner.  Most of the time, it’s sunny there–not at night, and not during rain, but you know what I mean.

But my house is not the original Sunny Corner.  That was a little blue house that used to stand on the road out of Dover, leading to Folkestone, in the southeast of England.  When I came upon that house, on a Wednesday in June, 1989, it was accidentally.  My intention had been to walk the path along Shakespeare Cliff; but that summer, the channel works were in full swing, and halfway along toward Folkestone, the path was severed neatly by a sturdy and threatening fence:  below that point, the ad-hoc village which had sprung up to serve the massive construction site looked like a sore on the summer greenery.  I had to turn back.

Where the path joined the Old Folkestone Road was the little blue house, its bow window

Postcard, 1910. Sunny Corner is on the right.

fronting on the street.  Painted high on the front wall, in a gothic script, were the words “Sunny Corner” and below them, “1876-?”  The window was full of bits and pieces of metal–shrapnel–and accompanying hand-written cards identifying them as parts of materiel which had come through the roof of the house during the Battle of Britain.  Taped to the glass was a sign quoting Lady Macduff’s words from act IV of Macbeth:

“For the poor wren

(the most diminutive of birds) will fight,

Her young ones in her nest, against the owl”

(IV, ii, 11-13).

It was while I was examining this display that an elderly man with an enormous dog on a leash approached along the road.  He stopped, noting my interest, and introduced himself:  Ray Pidgeon, the owner of Sunny Corner.   He informed me that he allowed people to visit and go through his house every day except Wednesday, because of its historical value:  during World War II, he and his mother had operated a shop there–the closest shop to the front line during the Battle of Britain.  Now, because of the need to widen the access road to the channel tunnel, the MOT was planning to raze the little blue house, along with others that stood in the path of progress.

It was Wednesday, but he let me in to look over the house anyway.  It was a haunting experience.  The place was spotlessly kept, though a bit shabby.  Memorabilia of a lifetime lined shelves:  more shrapnel, more cards, pictures.  There was an overwhelming sadness there, too.  This nearly 80-year-old man had lived his entire life here, with his mother until her death; he had never married, had no children.  All there was–was this house.  And it was soon to be torn down.  He told me he’d gone the route of the courts, of writing to his MP; half-jokingly he suggested he’d stand outside, with his dog, between his house and the bulldozers when they came.  Surely they’d stop for an old man. He’d even proposed a sort of compromise–that the MOT allow him to live out the remainder of his life at Sunny Corner, and tear it down once he was dead.  But he was up against the Goliath of government machinery, and he knew his chances of coming out ahead, like David, were slim, though he kept up hope.  Inviting

Another well-read book.

strangers in to look over his house and hear his story was one way of fighting.  Another way was to write the history of his house: he’d published a book of his memoirs, called Sunny Corner, England; proceeds from the sale of the book were to be used to fund his legal battles to save his home.  I bought one.  He signed my copy, using his pen name, Ray Langabeer, and I in turn signed his guest book.

I’ve kept Sunny Corner,  England on my desk at home for 21 years now, and I’ve read it several times.  Self-published, it has its eccentricities of punctuation; the narration sometimes rambles, sometimes foreshadows so heavily it’s like getting hit over the head.  But the voice is clear and strong and loving, and more than that, it’s nostalgic:  the voice of a man who feels he’s led a charmed life, despite its setbacks.  He’s lucky in his family, especially his mother, Gertrude Langabeer Pidgeon, a plucky sort of woman who told fortunes from reading cards.  He’s lucky in his friends and neighbors.  He’s lucky in his pets–mostly mongrel stray dogs who chance by.  He’s lucky that his mother’s original lemonade stand, serving the men stationed at the barracks up the road, grew into a little shop that supported them for years.  He’s open to people–though not to love–throughout the stories, just as he was open to me when I appeared at his doorstep.  At the end of his book, though, he writes,

“If the new A20 destroys my home I hope I am not alive to see that day.

“A doctor’s certificate will never state the truth when describing ‘Cause of Death’.

“A few simple words on the gravestone will, though, if they read ‘Died of a broken heart when a new road destroyed the home he loved’ ” (251).

Before I left Sunny Corner, we went out onto the cliff.   Mr. Pidgeon pointed out the old train tunnel, his garden allotment, and a place, scarred deeply into the white chalk between us and the beach below, where a plane had crashed into the cliff during WW II.  The giant dog accompanied us amiably on our tour.

That was in the summer of 1989.  I closed on my own house (older than Mr. Pidgeon’s by about 106 years, and more sprawling, and white, not blue) in December, and, thinking of him, named it Sunny Corner.  I learned the following year,

My piece of the original Sunny Corner

from a letter his niece sent (she had my name and partial address from the guest book) that he had lost his battle with the MOT.  He had ended up in an assisted-care home, where he had died.  She sent me a piece of the blue house, salvaged from the wreckage.

The bit of blue mortar also reposes on my desk, next to the book.  Progress, I think when I look at the two things , at times almost seems criminal.  And I think of Ray Pidgeon every time I write my address.

Postscript:

In looking up Ray Pidgeon, Ray Langabeer, and Sunny Corner, England online, I found a couple of interesting things.

1.  Ray Pidgeon’s self-published book, Sunny Corner, England, can be purchased these days at Amazon UK.

2.  The Dover District Council now has a development called Sunny Corner, billed as “housing with support,”  built very close to where the original little blue house stood.  The specs indicate that dogs (and cats) are welcome.

Further:

I feel the same way about my Sunny Corner.  The cellar may flood, the furnace may quit, the roof may leak…but it’s mine.

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15 Comments

  1. Trisha Owens

    Loved this charming story, and I agree with you about loving your old house, as I love mine, even despite it’s many defects.

    Like

  2. Karen

    So lovely – and when our houses fail us, as they inevitably do, it’s wonderful to be able to fall back on a story such as this one. Thanks for sharing it, Anne.

    Like

  3. Fred Irons

    Very moving story. Made me miss our old home that we did so much to resurrect.

    Like

  4. Ray Little

    So I felt about my farm, but time marches on

    Like

  5. Linda

    Anne, I live in Canada and have a copy of Ray’s book as he is a distant relative. I found his story fascinating as he was letting me know about relatives that I only knew on my family chart as names and dates. He brought it all alive.
    I would appreciate any information you can send on him. If you are still in touch with his niece I would appreciate hearing from her. My e-mail address is langacobb@sympatico.ca
    I loved your story too!
    Cheers, Linda

    Like

  6. A beautifully captured experience. That tiny piece of Ray’s house…oh, my. A souvenir of the heart.

    Like

  7. aaron baker

    i live up aycliffe all my life and i love it its a little part no one likes to leave and there a care home now up aycliffe called sunny corner so it loverly

    Like

  8. Carole Whelan

    Very touching story, thank you for that. Odd, I know a person, also named Oleson, who also uses “Sunny Corner” for his place. It is such a sweet name, full of good thoughts and hope. Home is everything to some of us, but we cannot keep things the same or hold on to everything forever. It is a beautiful tribute that dogs and cats are allowed at the new “Sunny Corner “, though somewhat bitter-sweet, like life.

    Like

  9. Ian Norton

    I recently joined this historical group on Facebook I really enjoy looking at the old photos. Having lived in Dover for 40 years I have slowly watched its demise. One thing you Can’t take away is the history of the town. Your thoughts on your visit to the house are really nice and ill certainly be tracking down the book.

    Like

    • Thanks. It’s a sweet book. It’s hard to believe that visit was nearly 25 years ago!

      Like

  10. Matt

    Anne –

    I am writing to you from Columbus, Ohio. I just very recently came across your story and wanted to share my story, similar to yours.

    I had the opportunity of meeting Mr. Pidgeon in July of 1990. I was between my junior and senior year at Ohio State and was studying that summer at Oxford. Our class schedule was twice a day from Monday through Friday. We had a three-day weekend coming up with a Monday holiday, and I’ll confess that I cut classes the preceding Friday so that I could make it a four day weekend.

    Very early that Friday morning, I took the first train out of Oxford and headed straight for Dover. I chose Dover chiefly because I wanted to see the white cliffs, and in particular, the Shakespeare Cliffs, having been inspired by a phenomenal performance of King Lear the prior weekend at Stratford. After arriving in Dover and getting checked in at my B&B, I spent the rest of the morning and the early afternoon touring Dover Castle. I then proceeded to look for the Shakespeare Cliffs. As I was heading in that direction (and nearly getting attacked by a couple of seagulls), I came across Mr. Pidgeon’s home, and the exterior was just as you described it. I too had to stop and take a closer look. It was at that point that I met Mr. Pidgeon whereupon he proceeded to show me his house, share his personal story, and share the history of his house and its role in WWII (incidentally, I was there while the 50th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation was being commemorated). I walked away that afternoon with an autographed copy of his book, which I still have, along with a very fond memory from that Summer.

    I had often wondered what became of Mr. Pidgeon, so thank you for sharing your story. I hope you enjoyed mine.

    Like

    • Matt, it’s sad to think about the things that are lost in the name of progress.

      On the other hand, it’s also good to think that a man who left no children, and whose home and business, in which he invested so much of his life, is gone–should be remembered by the far-flung people who hold onto his book.

      Thanks for telling your story.

      Like

    • Linda

      Hi Matt,
      Were you at Sunny Corners in 1990 or 1980 as I thought Mr Pigeon had left the house by 1990??
      He is a distant relative of mine. I bought a copy of his book on -bay a few years ago and was very happy to have that branch of the family come alive.
      I appreciated your story. Such a lovely coincidence to meet him -and then get a book.
      Like you, I would love to know what happened to him. My understanding was that the house was to be torn down for a motorway to pass through. Development!!??
      Cheers, Linda

      Like

      • Matt

        Hello Linda –

        I was there in July 1990. As of that point, he was still there and the house still standing.

        Matt.

        Like

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