Saturday, 8 March 2008
The Camps and Dens of childhood . . .
This was prompted by something a friend wrote on a forum yesterday, when we were listing 5 things we remembered from childhood. I immediately thought, why didn't I remember that - because I do, and so clearly.
At the back of our house was a wild valley, part of which had once been an old brickworks. Our house had once been where the brickworks manager lived. There was a gravel trackway at the back of our garden which went down to it, though going back to the area now, you would never know it as "they" filled it in and now houses are built on top. I think on local maps it was called Weston Common, but of course we never called it that. A terribly polluted stream ran through it, but we still waded through it, jumped over it, and treated it as a plaything.
I have only to smell crushed bracken to think of the dens we made in the bracken which grew in great profusion in that valley. We would crawl in a few feet, bending the bracken back to make a tunnel, but not breaking it enough so that we lost our "roof". It paid to be very short, as you had to stay on your hunkers when you were in the den, unless you could lay out flat. Here we sat and ate sweets and talked and no-one knew we were there.
We had more substantial den in the gorse thicket in the wilderness part of our garden, to the right of the house. Here, at the edge, was an old gooseberry bush, and some tall Damson trees where the nightingales perched on summer evenings, and kept me awake with their singing when it was hot and sticky and we had to have the little window open at the top of the stairs. I can still remember making that den with my friends, and saying "where there's a will, there's a way" until they must have wanted to kill me!! The gorse was incredibly prickly, and sitting down once you were in there must have required an old square of carpet or cardboard, but I don't actually remember one. It was wonderful when the gorse was in bloom and there was the strong smell of coconut from the gorse blooms. Those were "girl dens".
"Boy dens" were different - bolder, requiring more energy, and as a rule, excavation . . . The male part of our neighbourhood "gang" - only called that because we hung out together not because we were the neighbourhood thugs! - were into digging. I think we were 12 or 13 that year, and still very much in a childhood where we climbed trees, walked for miles, scrumped orchards, and played hide and seek in our wilderness. The boys dug a really splendiferous camp (note different name too) in the clay near the Wall of Death. Oh yes, I should have mentioned that "our" valley had its own topography which we named. The Wall of Death was a small pond which had been excavated for clay for the brickworks. It was a great home for wildlife, even Great Crested Newts, which were, of course, not rare in those days, let alone protected. Anyway, if you ran fast enough around the Wall of Death, centrifugal force kept you out of the water. For people who weren't in our gang - or we wished to torment (I am SO sorry Alison Hams . . .) we didn't let them in on the secret, they ran too slowly and oh dear, got very wet! Anyway, I digress, the boy's camp that summer was brilliant, dug four feet deep into the clay, and roofed over with branches and a bracken roof, it was a wonderful place to hide. Unfortunately, it was the clay which was its undoing, as we had a few wet days and the camp became a square pond with a roof!
Two lads from the other side of the valley, who we nicknamed "Froggie" and "Guess" (we never did know their real names), also dug a camp, which we used to occasionally use - always worried in case we got caught "trespassing".
My favourite place though was "Blossom Camp". It was right down by the stream bank, where there were a profusion of wild cherry trees (what I now know as Geans). In the spring, we would sit there and blossom would fall on us and around us. Once the boys painted themselves up as Indians and, realizing at the end of the day they would get told off if they arrived home covered in poster paint, we lit a fire (only the very best camps had a fireplace! ) in our rock-edged hearth, and heated up stream water in an old paint can, so they could clean off a bit.
We knew every inch of our valley, from the abandoned allotments where strawberries, raspberries and black and red-currants still grew (just the thing for a summer lunch), when the damsons were ripe for scrumping, every apple tree in the abandoned orchard opposite, where a couple of years later, Tricia and Rosie were to keep their first ponies.
We knew instinctively how to peel rush stems as our ancestors did for making candles from the pith, dipped in fat. We made mats to eat off, by weaving the flat strap-like leaves of Bullrushes. We broke open stems of what we called French Rhubarb when we were thirsty, as they stored water in the stems, and this doubled as food too, to munch on when the soft fruit had gone over. You might know it as Japanese Knotweed . . . We picked the Sweet Gale, so fragrant, and had pocketsful of the stuff. In winter we even sucked the icicles off the pussy willow branches. We slid down the very steep cliff (as we called it) by the main pond, oblivious of the fact that if we went too fast we would end up in the pond. The boys made rafts from old barrels and bits of wood and once, when they were sinking in the middle of the main pond, we had to throw them a rope to rescue them - the mud at the bottom of the pond was very clinging and the pond deep enough for drowning in.
We tied plastic bags around our feet, over our shoes, and went wading on "Flamingo Marsh", which was a fascinating place as if you jumped in one area, another area about 10 feet or so away would quiver! We took stems of grass and annoyed the tiny Sundews which grew there, as they would close on the grass tip, thinking it was an insect landing. They were incredibly sticky and sometimes we would put our fingers on them, like putting them on sticky tape.
We never realised we could run so fast until we had a brick fight with the boys one day, in the ruins of the brickworks. I was a lousy shot at the best of times, but one of my bricks found its target and I had a 14 year old boy (you know who you are Keith L) hurtling after me, intent on murder after my brick had hit him above the ear. We could also outrun the billy goat who was tethered down there, and a bit crabbit at the best of times.
But the magic died when we realised that we were growing up, that grubby knees and games of cowboys and indians were losing their appeal, the day we found some girly mags in Froggie and Guess's camp. That spelled the beginning of the end of childhood. But I have only to smell Sweet Gale, or Bracken, and I am taken back over 40 years.