Sunday, 20 January 2013

On being ten with two shillings and sixpence to spend on an adventure

By Andrew Simpson

When you only have 2/6d [12p] pocket money where you can have an adventure away from home and still have something left for sweets is an important consideration when you are 10. 

Now I was an urban child born in south east London and my adventures were circumscribed by the sheer size of London.  Not for me the lonely walk along a country lane, or a journey through an enchanted wood hard by a babbling brook.  Apart from our back garden, trees, vast expanses of grass and water was by and large offered up by the local parks and the river.

But the Thames was a working river, which made it fascinating but dangerous and a place where great stretches were out of bounds.  Likewise the parks were where grownups had sought to curtail your fun by flower beds, and signs warning you to keep off the grass.

But that is perhaps a little harsh on the park authorities.  For some time after it was opened as Telegraph Hill Park in 1895 a small section of the lower park had been given over to a play area, including a hollowed out tree truck which became in succession the conning tower of a submarine, a tank and the gate of an old castle.

Later in the great freeze of 1962-63 the park benches became toboggans to be pulled with great difficulty up the hill only to be turned around and ridden down the same icy incline.

And there were of course still plenty of bombsites but by the 1950s most had been cleared, flattened and boarded off.  Although there was the old bombed out church around the corner whose crypt had survived and this became an assembly point for groups of children armed with candles to explore the labyrinth of passages below.

Which I suppose is the point that most of our adventures didn’t require much money and like children all over it was up to you to make the adventure from what you could find.  So David growing up in Chorlton played in the old brick works along with what was left of the clay pits and a dark and encountering the  sinister figure of Duffy who guarded the place.

He remembered “the Clay Pits” which were “situated to the immediate east of Longford Park, just the other side of the interrupted Rye Bank Road - it was a series of mounds and gulleys, the left over from previous workings of the old brick works factory with its tall chimney.

It was a forbidden play place and it was guarded by an almost mythical man named Duffy.  With another 9 year old boy, I recall daring ourselves to go into this derelict building one day and even crawling under the tunnel - through rubble to a place where I could look up inside the chimney and see the small hole of daylight at the top.

On re-emerging we continued to play until - that knowledge of being watched - made its presence felt - and we looked around to see a man who I think was called Duffy staring at us, stood on a small wall about 12 yards away. Scared witless we fled the scene, and although not chased, the memory of Duffy, the clay pits, and the old building, has played a part in several nightmares since that day!”

On the other hand London offered a huge network of buses, trains and the Underground and for 2/6d you could travel to the edges of the city and beyond.

Personally I never saw the point in sitting on the Circle Line of the Underground and constantly looping past the same 27 stations, alternating between daylight and the noisy and smelly tunnels.  Even if the game of guessing which station people got off could be fun.

No, for me it was the booking hall of Queens Road railway station on a Saturday morning and the promise of a bright new adventure.

Sometimes you struck gold and got to the end of a line, all open fields, posh houses and sunshine.  And sometimes you ended up in a drab nondescript mix of streets old timber yards and as often as not a canal which with that wonderful sense of timing of such disasters was always accompanied by rain.

Never ever believe anyone who tells you that summers were always dry sunny and hot when they were young, because they could never have paid one shilling return to travel to South Bermondsey Railway Station and try to find a bright spot in the warren of streets which snaked under the railway line.

Some childhood memories and adventures are best left in the past.

Pictures; from the collection of Andrew Simpson & Cynthia Wigley

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