Yesterday on my way to collect a customer for a half day tour to Woburn Abbey, I found myself with 15 minutes to spare so I took the opportunity to visit my old childhood park, somewhere I had only visited once in the last ten years and that being seven years ago.
It is only a very small park, not much more than a field with some strong sturdy oaks at one end and a small play-ground with swings, a roundabout and a see-saw. Very basic stuff.
I used to visit this park every day, some days several times a day. It didn’t matter what the season was. A gloriously sunny summer would see countless games of football, Frisbee throwing and sometimes less than successful attempts to fly a kite. Not that I’m not a great kite maker and flyer but that there was usually insufficient space and wind to fly a kite there.
If I had visited today or indeed almost any day in the last 4 months then I would have seen the park in full-on summer mode but as it happened at 8.45am yesterday morning, it was damp and overcast. Almost an October half-term feeling but with none of the excitement of Halloween and Bonfire night to look forward to.
The park was a 15 minute walk from home but in the hot summers of the 80’s it was always a bit of a trek, especially if we went back up the hill to avoid the rather lonely lane through the allotments.
Until I was a teenager I would come here with my grandparents sometimes for a walk out and a bit of fun. At other times I’d come with my mother and brother for some football and a run-around.
To be honest, my mother was a lot of things but bless her, sporty was never one of them so her playing football involved a rather feeble kick that might move the ball a few feet rather than half a park that we were looking for. She was a lot better with Frisbee but again her decision to move more than a footstep meant that more often than not the games were always a stop-start affair.
When I was older I would visit the park with my friends. We were perhaps the last generation able to find fun away from the computer screen (though we did plenty of that) and just invent games with balls, sticks and some imagination.
The park was a great place to ride our bikes. As well as general riding and running we would play variations of polo and also a game best described as ramming where in a self contained area you weren’t allowed to put your foot down or go outside the boundary. Sometimes the only way to win would be to literally ram your opponent and like how a police car has to have a certain amount of skill to bring a car chase to a halt, it was much the same on bikes. Sometimes with a fine sense of balance you could stay upright on your bike longer than your attacker who would wobble and be forced to put their foot on the ground or just as often fall over.
Another game we played was British Bulldog, a game that was always competitive and increasingly violent as we got bigger but that was part of the fun. It is sad these days to see the parks all empty of children unless in prescribed activities playing tennis or cricket or crazy golf. Our crazy golf was a stick and a pebble.
Cricket was also an option but not one we did often. Partially because not everyone knew the rules and those that did had little luck enforcing them on those who thought they were simply cheating. Mostly though because I think few could be bothered to run al around the field in the heat when they were fielders whilst the batsman just stood still and made everyone else suffer.
The area behind the playground now has some expensive and exclusive homes but until my teenage years it was common woodland. A great place for tree-climbing, exploring, hide and seek and also general war-games with our imitation guns and robin hood. A small cabal of us, inspired by the Robin of Sherwood TV series. We became experts at stripping down branches to make swords, smaller sticks would be throw-able daggers and making our own wooden bows and arrows. We all had great fun and our potentially very violent games were always in good-spirit. The thought of actually stabbing someone for real never entered our minds, so unlike some similar aged children today. No-one ever bothered about our guns either. The only people we were looking for was WW2 era Nazi’s who sometimes just happened to take on the form of joggers, walkers and eerily the Luftwaffe used to disguise themselves as flying birds. That’s imagination for you.
Most of all was football. This park was made for football. We used two sturdy oaks as goal posts which was excellent especially when balls bounced in or out off the post. Sometimes the ball would get stuck in the branches but we always got it down.
If there was enough, we would have a full-on football match. By enough people, that meant 2 or 3 people per side. If that were the case we would throw down our coats or jumpers for goalposts and play our match. This was proper football. No rolling around on the ground, no teams based on ages. Barely any fouls and the inevitable arguments of whether a goal was scored if the ball went over the jumpers. It really decided how much the ball went over the jumper, how fast and high it was, whether the game was a close result and the popularity of the scorer and goal-keeper involved.
If there were only two or three of us then we would play 3 and in which meant the first player to score three goals would take a turn in goal. Sometimes some less skilled people would rarely get in goal and find themselves tired out. There were two tactics, either to use skill or brawn to get past your opponent and shoot at goal or for the skinny athletic kids to run round the whole park tiring their opponent out leaving a clear run at goal. I was never one for running the whole pitch, partly because I was on the big side so if someone ran down the pitch I would just wait for them to come back but I was also in the school football team so I’d like to think I had a modicum of skill too.
We’d often walk Ben the beagle in the park and in the dark autumn nights it could be quite invigorating with the darkness, the strong winds knocking the acorns off the oaks and flying branches. Like many other places, several of the oaks blew over in the Great Storm of ’87 and for 20 years afterwards, trees and tree stumps slowly rotted away.
When I was at university I would walk Ben at around 6am every morning before starting on my essays or revision and then go again late in the morning. The lesson here is if you can start your work at 6am, you can get a whole days work done by lunch time and still enjoy the day.
The playground at the park was of course fun when we were younger. Going on the see-saw and roundabout until we got dizzy and having a play on the swings, sometimes my mother would have a go too. It was always sad to leave the playground, after all, who does ever want to stop playing and having fun?
The playground was also the sight of one the most scary incidents of my life when I saw a ghost. It was early one summer morning and I took a path through the park as a short-cut on my bike after finishing the morning paper-round. There I saw a man pushing a swing but the swing had no child in it. He was just pushing an empty swing which was weird enough. Then when I was parallel to him he noticed I was there and looked up and his face was totally white with no features or hair. It looked rather like a very white shop mannequin head. Obviously I rode away as fast as I could down the lonely lane and even let out a scream when I thought he got me but it was just the rubber bag I kept my papers in that had slid round in my haste and started rubbing against my bike tyres.
Despite not really believing me, none of my friends were quick to return there on their own and though I went again the next day during day-time, it was the next summer before I took that same early morning short-cut. I never saw that ghost again and I haven’t changed my opinion at all in the intervening 25 years.
Sadly they are now building lots of houses on the lonely lane opposite the allotments and so though the lane will never be (lonely as a kid / tranquil as an adult), it will be overlooked by houses which I think is rather a shame.
There were no ghosts in the park yesterday or if they were they were only in my memories. No dog walkers, no joggers, no football matches or ramming, no Mama. Just me, the damp early morning dew on the grass, the park and me. And lots of memories of course.
Bordering the park, the allotments have barely changed except for the old WW2 bunker having finally disappeared.