A field of dreams and memories

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.

View from the playground path

Looking down the park to the weeping willow tree down the hill

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.

A great spot for frisbee and games.  That little hill was a lot bigger for 8 year olds in the summer sun.

A great spot for frisbee and games. That little hill was a lot bigger for 8 year olds in the summer sun.

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.

Natural goal post

Some of the finest sporting moments took place here.

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.

Playground

Happy memories of playing with my mother. Scary memories of the ghost!

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.

The Allotments

Bordering the park, the allotments have barely changed except for the old WW2 bunker having finally disappeared.

 

 

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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15 Responses to A field of dreams and memories

    • Thank-you Rosemarie. I have never seen anything like it before or since and it is such a quiet park in what then was a quiet village, I can’t really imagine someone pushing an empty swing at 6.30am wearing a white mask just on the off-chance they might scare a paperboy.

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  1. You are so lucky your park hasn’t been developed into posh houses or a carpark. We used to have a mini forest bordering a reservoir that we’d play manhunt in – basically hide and seek with two teams where you could sneak back to base a release hostages if you were stealthy enough. I’m not sure if that is British buildog? I believe your ghost story. In fact I got goose bumps reading it, ha!

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    • Yes it is fortunate, sadly all the places round it have now been developed. I’ve moved away from home now and all the parks and green spaces are being built on. 425 houses on fields at the end of the road and all very posh. Oh we had sort of a game like manhunt too. It was all so much fun. British Bulldog is where you have a big field or tennis court and one person is in the middle and everyone else has to run from one end of the field to the other without getting tagged. Anyone who is tagged then joins the person in the middle until there is just one person at the end and potentially a dozen or more in the middle.

      Yes that was a scary ghost moment. I still remember it vividly, it was a he and he wore normal clothes for the time. I always remember thinking how strange it was him pushing the empty swing. He head was looking downwards as it would be if you were caring for a child on the swing and then he looked up and he was as white as a sheet!

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  2. James Lyons says:

    I haven’t read a blog post that while in quite some time, and I gobbled up every bit of it. What a great park. It’s amazing how much one simple place can fill a child’s life. I spent almost every day of my summers on a boat on the Ohio river with my grandparents, mother and siblings. The water was always brown, sometimes we saw things floating in that weren’t so pleasant to look at, but every day I woke up and found out that we were going to the river, I felt like the luckiest kid in the world.

    My grandparents have long since past away, and my mother spends some of her time kayaking with my father, but it was those experiences that bonded me with water, lakes and rivers. How disappointing now it is to see a river overcome by pollution and to think of all those kids who are missing out on filling their childhood with what that river provides.

    Thanks for sharing your long set of memories. Each word was like an adventure.

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    • Hi James, thank-you for your marvellous comment. My Grandfather in particular loved the outdoors and it was always a treat to go out and spend the day with him even if like yours, it wasn’t always the prettiest place. No-one could have as much fun making bonfires out of washed up tractor tyres on the shore.

      It is such a shame when these place go down hill, especially in such a short period of time. I don’t think the decision makers realise just how much fun and how important it is for children to have these experiences.

      I’m so glad that you enjoyed my post!

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  3. Malla Duncan says:

    Nothing more nostalgic than travelling down childhood memories and revisiting those old grounds. Makes me sad sometimes to see the familiar field where we collected tadpoles, or see the old tree where there used to be a swing, and those much repainted gates to my old nursery school. Feel a bit odd – as though life never happened and all that bright possibility might still be grasped at any minute on any sunny day…

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    • That is how I felt too as if it might never have happened at all and if in another 20 years it might not be there at all. I have often wondered about writing a novel set from the perspective of an extremely long lived individual, probably a tree, to see how somewhere changes over the centuries. I just haven’t worked it out!

      I’m sure if it had been sunny on my trip to the park that it would have felt much more familiar.

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  4. Bryce Bateman says:

    Another great piece Stephen, I can remember my children learning to ride their bikes in the park and now my grandchildren are learning in the same place. As for the housing development, yes it is a shame but that is Bushey Heath for you and hopefully should mean that the allotments are now safe which is bonus for Gareth and myself as we spend a lot of time down there and he is turning into a keen Allotmenteer.

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    • Thanks Bryce. It is incredible how the high-street area has changed also in the last few decades. At least the allotments are safe, one last area where it still feels like a village. I always wanted an allotment there when I was little. It’s good to see they are in much better shape than in the 1980’s when many were neglected. Yes Gareth does well there, much better than in my tiny shady vegetable patch in the garden. Sadly Watford Council insist on trying to build over their allotments with obviously ill-thought out plans for a hospital which then mutated into a hospital plus housing and then simply housing onto the allotments by the football ground.

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  5. You took me back to my childhood. Though we are in different continents, our experiences were so similar. Making do with what we had, and getting the maximum enjoyment out of it was our aim in those days. Tiffs were forgotten in a day and parents rarely interfered. Thank you so much for taking me back to those magical days 🙂

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  6. Pingback: Doors open and opportunities knock thanks to blogging. | Stephen Liddell

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