My Stories: £9 or £10

Stereotypical men are supposed to love a fancy car, preferably a sports car with a loud engine. In this regard my dad is certainly not stereotypical.

Car’s have never been high on my dad’s priority list, they tended to be bought already aged and run from purchase to grave. A vehicle is purely a utility for carrying people and things. Even during the weekly commute the car’s boot would be adorned with a standard set of allotment gardening equipment including a spade, a fork, a watering can and a selection of dirty carrier bags ready for retrieved produce.

One car was an aged Ford Anglia Estate. I can’t remember how old it was, but they ceased production before I was born. I can’t even remember how old I would be when we had it, but suspect that I was somewhere between 8 and 12. I do remember that it was a deep red, burgundy even. At it’s youngest it would have been 10 years old.

Modern vehicles have all sorts of safety features the Ford Anglia didn’t even have seat-belts in the back. The wearing of seat-belts in the front of vehicles only became a legal requirement in the UK in 1983; it wasn’t until 1989 that it was a mandatory requirement for children in the rear of vehicles, the Ford Anglia went to it’s grave long before that. The three of us would sit in the back, we’d even add in a few friends if the need arose. There wasn’t the same sensitivity about the potential danger of accidents.

One day the time came for the Ford Anglia to go to its grave. I’m not sure what the terminal calamity that precipitated its demise was but I suspect that it was related to the expense of getting it through an annual MOT.

The chosen graveyard for our burgundy family bus was a breakers yard which, I think, was in a small village outside Beverley called Weel which also happened to be the location of the local tip.  My memory is of being sat in the car as my dad conducted the business with the breaker. Another memory is that the car was sat on a newly tarmacked road, it’s interesting what your brain stores away even if it’s not accurate. The windows must have been wound down because we could hear the negotiations as they unfolded.

The breakers initial offer was “£9”, for some reason my dad had a glint in his eye and wasn’t going to settle for that, he countered with “£10”. In modern money terms this is roughly the difference between £45 and £50. Backwards and forwards went the offer and counter offer but neither of them were shifting there was still £1 between them. Eventually my dad suggested that they toss a coin for it a truly British way of resolving a conflict.

The look of delight on my dad’s face when he won was priceless – £10 it was.

I don’t remember how we got home, but suspect that a neighbour picked us up because it’s a 3 mile walk from our house, but it wasn’t unheard of us to walk that kind of distance either. It couldn’t have been my mum who picked us up because she didn’t drive until we were older and they weren’t a two car family until after I left home.

I can’t be absolutely sure of all of the pieces of this story, the only bit that I’m reasonably confident about is that the bartering was between £9 and £10.

My Stories: Hornsea Waves

One of the things we would regularly do on a weekend as children was to travel to the seaside.

There are many beautiful seaside location within easy reach of Beverley. Beaches, cliffs and caves. Harbours, promenades and caravan parks. Lighthouses, lifeboats and fishing boats. Rocky beaches, sandy beaches and even a naturist beach.

The nearest place is the small seaside resort of Hornsea.

We would walk on the beach at Hornsea for hours. It wasn’t a place we  would go to for sunbathing, the breeze coming in from the North Sea is more normally biting. The cliffs are made of ancient boulder clay which are being steadily eroded. This erosion means that the beach is a pattern of sand with islands of pebbles extracted from the boulder clay and polished by the waves. Many of the pebbles include fossils so we would spend much of our time walking along looking at the ground, picking up stones and closely examining each one. More often than not we would throw the stones away but sometimes the tell-tale signs of Ammonites would have us bashing stones together in the hope of a ridged swirl revelation. We’d regularly pick up fossilised Gryphaea, not that we would call them that, to us they were Devil’s Toenails. For a period we would walk the beach in search of driftwood, but that’s part of another story.

The coastal erosion means that Hornsea has extensive sea defences providing a split level promenade and an extensive system of groins. Climbing over the groins was part of the adventure. Sometimes we would deliberately go to the seaside when the tides were high and the wind was blustering. On the best days the waves would slam into the sea wall and break over the upper promenade.

We were walking along the upper promenade one day when, from what I remember, the wind and the waves were moderately high. Not high enough to break over the very top of the promenade but still giving a moody seascape. I don’t think it can have been too violent, because if it was really wild my actions were downright stupid, but I think I was just being absent minded. Anyway, I was walking along, a little way behind the rest of the family, when I decided that a visit to the lower promenade was in order.

I don’t remember whether I was on my way down, or my way back up. What I do remember is hearing my Mum shout “Graham!” as I was on a walkway connecting the lower and upper promenade. Before I’d even had chance to look up a wave engulfed me.

It was fortunate that I was on the walkway because there was a handrail on the outside which the wave pulled me into and stopped me from being dragged out to sea by the wave.

Somehow, I don’t remember how, I got to the upper promenade and was reunited with the rest of the family. My clothes were absolutely soaked through. Other people walking the promenade had clearly seen the incident too with many of them making comments as we walked back to the car.

It wasn’t until years later that I realised how close I came to being a search incident for the local lifeboat at best, at worst I wouldn’t be here today.

Back at the car I stripped off and sat in the car in someone else’s coat and jumper. I don’t know how old I was, but I was small enough to be encased by an adult jumper.

I still love watching violent waves breaking over cliffs and sea walls, but I’ve not got as close as I did that day.

My Stories: Two Allotments

The allotment is a standard feature of British cities, towns and villages. They can be single small plots of land but more usually are portions of land divided into individual plots. Each plot is big enough to be worked by one person and support a family.

The history of allotments goes back hundreds of years. In more recent history, during the industrial revolution, land would be given over to the labouring poor to enable them to grow food. In 1908 the Small Holdings and Allotment act was written and local authorities were given a duty to provide allotment space. At the end of the First World War further land was provided to returning service men. Numerous statutes in the intervening time has preserved the allotment across the British urban landscape.

Allotments are massively popular and most councils have a waiting list of people wanting one; many of them for years. In 2009 there were reports of waiting lists reaching 40 years.

It’s hard to give a definition of an allotment beyond it being a piece of land. They are wonderfully varied places where the whole spectrum of society come together. They reflect the British temperament for eccentricity and the human desire for space, for creativity and at some level for meaning. The variety of sheds and their contents would be enough to provide study material for a psychologist for many lifetimes. Some of the sheds are little more than tool storage areas but some are veritable home-from-homes.

Once a place for people to supplement their family income with food many allotments are now primarily places of hobby, but a hobby that produces very valuable outcomes.  The fruit, vegetables and flowers that they produce are treasured by those who graft to enable their fruition.

For most of my childhood we had two allotments which we imaginatively named as the top allotment and the bottom allotment.

The top allotment was where Mr Smith would come. That allotment was one of a single row of plots.

The bottom allotment was set in the middle of a far more comprehensive system off Kitchen Lane in Beverley. There are now 130 allotments in that area which seems about right from what I remember. Though it’s one large area there are really two allotment areas, the Kitchen Lane grouping and the Queensgate grouping.

Both allotments used to be on the edge of town, the top allotment still is, but there’s been quite a lot of development around the bottom allotment. I’ve no idea why one was chosen to be top and one bottom other then that seems sensible; the top allotment was roughly north of our house and up a hill; the bottom allotment was roughly south of our house and not up a hill. I don’t think it was anything more scientific than that.

There’s a saying in gardening circles:

One year’s seeding – seven years’ weeding.

When we took possession of the bottom allotment it had experienced at least one year’s seeding and plenty of marestail growing. Marestail is a terrible weed that creates networks of roots shooting all over the place below the depth of a spade.

That first year my Dad set about double-digging the whole plot as a good foundation for future years. Digging over a plot by hand is hard enough, spade-by-spade, row-by-row; double-digging is more than twice the effort. What you do in double-digging is that you dig a row to a spades depth, lifting the soil to a spare patch of soil. You then dig another spade’s depth in the bottom of that row, loosening the soil and adding in manure. You then dig another row moving the soil over the top of the first row, again digging in manure. You then dig over the bottom of the second row adding in more manure. You do this whilst also removing handfuls of weeds and miles of marestail roots. You then repeat until you have finished. I don’t know how long this took, but in my head it took FOREVER!

The essence of an allotment is it’s soil, without good soil all of your other efforts are worthless. Each year the soil would need to be prepared for the next year’s crops. This meant digging in the Autumn because you didn’t want to dig in the winter. Digging frozen soil is impossible, but it’s also detrimental to the health of the soil.

Autumn soil preparation also meant smoky fires and black potatoes. All of the remains of produce and weeds that managed to survive into the Autumn was piled into one corner of the plot where it was set alight using newspaper that we had brought with us. These fires weren’t roaring, flaming, affairs their purpose was to burn slowly and methodologically through all of the waste material which needed drying our before it would burn. As we dug we would regularly find potatoes that we had missed in the harvesting (I sometimes wondered whether Dad left them deliberately). These would be added to the base of the fire where it was nice and hot, but not flaming. There the potatoes would be left to cook until later in the day when we would pull them out and sit with muddy frozen fingers picking through the scolding potato flesh. We place each piece of potato into our mouths and pant heavily in a vain attempt to cool it down enough to be swallowed.

Spring days were taken up with seeding which would be done from packets that had arrived in the post in a small cardboard box marked with the name of Dobie’s. I can still picture the cardboard box and the green-turquoise packets that it contained. There are many seeds still today that I can name just from their size, shape and colour. Seeds are fascinatingly varied things.

Summer days were taken up with weeding, watering and cropping.

Weeds, what can I say about weeds, if you garden then you know about weeds, if you don’t then you are best left in blissful ignorance.

Watering was all done by watering-can.  Each set of allotments had a free-standing tap. In our case it was a couple of plots over. The tap itself was a push-button contraption connected requiring you to keep the heavy button depressed to keep the water flowing. As a young boy I barely had enough strength to push the tap down let alone keeping it depressed for a whole can full. Thankfully some helpful sole had created a piece of wood with a slot cut out of it, this would be fixed across the tap to keep the button depressed as long as you positioned it correctly. At the bottom of the tap was a large bucket into which a watering-can would fit. You would leave the tap running to fill the bucket, you’d then fill your watering-can from the bucket. The trick was to water fast enough that the bucket never overran. Quite often in the summer the opposite problem occurred as all of the allotment characters queued up to get their fair share of water.

Cropping is an art-form, you have to know what you are looking for and how to treat each plant. Allotments are normally used for a whole variety of produce, we were no exception: strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, black-currants, white-currants, red-currant (immensely sharp), runner-beans, french-beans, broad-beans (that made your teeth squeak), peas, carrots, parsnips, swede, turnips, beetroot, potatoes, savoy-cabbages, red-cabbages, brussels-sprouts (left until after the first frost), onions, shallots, leaks, garlic, courgettes, marrows, squashes, sweetcorn (also cooked in the fire sometimes), cauliflower, broccoli, radish and lettuce. Different crops were grown in the different allotments because the soil was different and so was the sun and shelter, a small plot at home was also used to grow asparagus.

After a fulfilling day in the sun with a car boot full of fruit and vegetables you would get home and it was then that the preparation would start. We were expecting to do our part in getting everything ready to be frozen, dried, stored, jammed, turned into chutney and other preserves. I suspect that I cold still top-and-tail gooseberries while watching the television.

In those days the allotments were a place for the men, if women were there they were helping their husbands. I’m sure that many of them went the allotment to escape to some solitude. I can’t say that I remember many of the characters other than knowing that they were generally a friendly bunch always ready to give some helpful advice. Dad knew many of them by name. I don’t remember there ever being many children though, perhaps that’s because many of the other gardeners were older and their children had long since grown up also. Sometimes we would get bored and go off down the country lanes, but not very often, from what I remember.

Our cars always had some tools in the back ready for a trip to the allotment. My Dad has never been particularly car proud and has run some proper old bangers over the years, but that’s another story for another day.

My Stories: Sitting in the Corner

In my childhood we lived on a road called St. Leonards Road. St, Leonard is apparently the patron saint of prisoners, captives and slaves (amongst other things).

I wonder how many people who passed our house in those days thought that I looked like I was in some form incarceration. I suspect that it looked a bit like I’d been sent to the naughty corner; the reality was that I was in one of my favourite places.

This special place was in the corner of our bay window where I sat on a wooden footstool. This simple perch was crafted by my dad as a school project, if I remember correctly, and it lived in the corner for the sole purpose of being my seat. It had turned wooden legs and a woven cord seat. At footstool height it was perfect for the childhood me to sit, peer over the window ledge and take in the sights beyond.

If people wanted to find me, they knew were to look.

We had a smallish garden out of the front of the house, where the bay window overlooked. The garden itself was worth looking out of the window for. My parents were and still are master gardeners and there was always something different to see. I particularly liked the huge daisy like flowers that would sprout high into the sky in the summer.

Beyond the garden was a footpath which, in those days, was quite well used. There were some shops down at the end of St. Leonard’s road which people would walk to for provisions, or fish and chips. The shops are still there, but people now drive there and I don’t think there is a fish and chip shop.

The road outside our house had the added interest of being slightly to one side of the end of a t-junction. I would spend hours counting cars. Some days I would count cars by colour; on others it was cars by manufacturer; on other days I would count who went in which direction. The counting was always in my head, it was a mental game that I played, it would have felt weird to write it down. I would get to learn the routine of some of the cars even though I didn’t know the occupants.

The road that fed into the t-junction was an offshoot of another road which lead up a steep hill. From the top of the steep-hill we would see if we could free wheel our bikes all the way to the bottom around two corners and into the driveway of our house. My dad would play the same game in his car, especially when we were all inside.

To one side of the t-junction were houses, on the side were we were was a field. All of the houses on our street and the surrounding area had been built around the the same time, in the middle of these houses a plot of land had been left undeveloped. This would become our play area and the place where I first learnt the splendour of gazing up into a night sky free of light pollution. It would also become the place where I sent to school, eventually.

Sitting and watching the world go by is one of life’s simple pleasures. It doesn’t cost anything but fires the imagination if you let it. Sometimes the people passing our house were on their way to an adventure in some far off land, perhaps they were pirates. The cars were rocket-ships or hover-boards, two cars together were in a chase. Boys on bikes were up to mischief. The older lady who looked very prim and precise on her sit-up-and-beg bike with its handlebar basket was really a spy.

I still love to sit and watch the world go by, but my imagination is less vivid which feels like a shame.

My Stories: Jet Planes, Helicopters and Army Vehicles

The house where I grew up wasn’t far from the edge of the market town of Beverley. We lived at what was known as the push end called  Molescroft. I’m not sure about it being posh, it was certainly the newer end of that ancient place. There’s been lots of development since those times and the house is no longer as close to the edge of town.

Beverley is surrounded by many villages mostly picturesque and distinctly rural. These are the type of villages that feature on British drama programmes that they hope to sell to an American audience. They have a wonderful set of names too Bishop Burton, Cherry Burton, North Cave, South Cake, Walkington, Tickton as well as the gloriously named Wetwang.

The nearest village to where we lived was probably a quaint rural village at one time but it had mostly been subsumed by a large RAF base built not long before the Second World War.

During the Second World War it had been part of Fighter Command and hosted Spitfires during the Battle of Britain. While we were kids, though, there wasn’t that much flying going on. My understanding, after doing a little research, is that by then it was a maintenance unit with planes flown in for work and flown out when completed. If you stood at the end of our road, which  finished near the top of a small hill, not far from the top allotment, you got a good view of the runway and an even better view of the hangers.

The planes I remember the most were the English Electric Lightening and the Avro Vulcan.

From our view of the runway it was fascinating to watch the Lightening screaming down the runway until a parachute was fired out of the back slowing it down significantly. I often wondered what would happen of the parachute was to break.

I’m not sure how often the Vulcan visited; the one a remember was showing its prowess at a splendid local Air Show and Open Day. I’ve found some pictures from 1974 which are just how I remember it, I’m not sure whether this is the same day as the one a remember, but it’s about the right time. At six, if that’s when it was, this arrow shaped giant was fascinating as it flew over our house and rattled the single paned windows, amazingly agile for such a large aircraft.

I had no idea of the purpose of these aircraft during those days of the Cold War, for me they were entrancing roaring giant birds. I’d never known real war, I’m not even sure that I even knew about the cold war at that age.

Being close to the North Sea the airfield at Leconfield was also home to RAF Rescue Helicopters; first it was the Westland Wessex followed later by the Westland Sea King Westland Sea Kingwhich looked so much more prepared for the job it was being called to do. They would fly in and out low over our house sometimes hovering in their splendid high-visibility yellow paintwork. We would regularly stand in the back garden and wave to them, sometimes we could see them waving back as they leaned out of the open side.  I would imagine what it would be like if they lowered the rope down and took us for a ride, sadly, they never did.

A few years after the glorious Vulcan acrobatics the airfield changed its use and became the home to the Army School of Mechanical Transport. The Lightening and Vulcan were replaced by Trucks, Tanks and Land Rovers. The flat land around the runway was turned into hills and gullies providing off-road experiences. The roaring noise in the skies became extra vehicles on the local roads. In the army you could learn to drive at 16; seeing these boys who didn’t look much older than myself drive such large vehicles was amazing. The locals soon became adept at knowing how to avoid the delays caused.

On one particular day in 1982 the vehicles streamed out of the base on their way to a ship, the Southern Ocean and war. It was the talk of the school the next day, I missed it completely, in the coming weeks I would learn what war was as the images were shown on our televisions.

My Stories: Mr Smith

Mr Smith was a short wiry man.

He had jet black wire-wool hair and dark olive skin.

I have in my mind that he mostly wore a flat cap, but that bit of my memory is a little fuzzy. He regularly had a cigarette in his hand, not a smart long white cigarette, but a short crumpled roll-up.

The jacket that he wore looked like it was once part of a suit but the trousers never matched. The shirt was always accompanied by a tie but more from tradition than a need for formality. He often wore a jumper under his jacket. The boots were black, but not polished, functional rather than cosmetic.

I knew Mrs Smith and the children by sight, but I don’t remember ever talking to them.

They were occasional visitors to the wide grass verge just along from the top allotment where they dwelt in a bow topped caravan that was painted in faded traditional patterns. The pony that pulled the caravan from location to location was attached to a large weight and a long string. Long enough for it to roam for grass but short enough to keep it from straying onto the road. There were chickens too but only a couple.

The allotment was on top of a small hill at the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds with views over the flat plains towards the coast and the North Sea. On clear evenings you could see the lighthouse at Flamborough Head spinning and flashing it’s unique signal.

While Mr Smith and his family were around treasured produce would very occasionally go missing from the short single row of allotments. I wasn’t aware of anyone complaining though; while the Smiths were around there weren’t any rabbits. The rabbits did far more damage and I assume people saw it as a bit of bartering.

I assume that Mr Smith had a trade but I couldn’t tell you what it was, it would have been something agricultural, but probably not skilled. Mr Smith was a simple man with simple traditional ways.

While we were working on the allotment Mr Smith would sometimes come for a chat and a smoke, our allotment was near to the end were the caravan was stationed. My Dad would chat, I wouldn’t, I was a child and thought Mr Smith was odd with a strange smell and a peculiar accent. I would busy myself putting some more weeds on the fire, or cut another spade full.

One day my Dad was stood talking over the fence to Mr Smith when he looked down at the plants growing their and said:

“Your bananas are growing well”

My Dad turned to look in the direction Mr Smith was facing, somewhat puzzled. We might have lived on the drier side of England, but it certainly wasn’t warm enough to grow bananas.

Having looked my Dad knew what Mr Smith meant, this year he had decided to grow something a bit new, yellow courgettes. They were, at least, the right size and the right colour for bananas, but they tasted very differently.

My Dad chuckled about the bananas for days afterwards.

No, I don’t know whether is name was really Mr Smith, I suspect not, but it’s the name we knew him by.