Holiday Activities

Mike Neighbour

Free to roam

It is the beginning of the summer holidays and in this neck of the suburban woods the streets are quiet. Where are all the children who last week were in our local schools? Yes, they regularly accompany their mums around the supermarkets, but so far all I have seen is one pair of nine year olds kicking a ball from one side of the road to the other and one or two gaggles of children walking along to the corner shop and back again. And this in a residential area with sufficient children to serve a large primary school. Times have certainly changed, and while many of today’s children are occupied indoors, even when the weather is warm, our childhood holidays seemed to be far more adventurous. Not once do I remember being bored.  But that was in the forties and fifties.  Our mothers would encourage us to be outside as much as possible: “You don’t want to be inside on a day like this.”

We lived on a housing estate in St Albans, unfinished from before the war.  From 1947, as soon as building permits could be issued, there seemed to be a constant activity of house construction around us. We would watch, converse with the builders, and be mesmerised by the rotating chug of the mixer spewing quantities of cement like coarse grey custard.  Once they had gone home we ventured onto the sites to play with broken materials and explore the inside spaces which would soon become kitchens and living rooms. We would hang on the scaffolding like chimps and lean against the ladders pretending to smoke those fags we saw our dads consume. In those days sites were rarely fenced in. The biggest benefit of all was our access to clay. Clay made marbles, formed in the palms of our small hands, dried in the sun on the concrete path, then painted ochre, umber, green and violet, straight from our paint box. They were used and traded just like the glass ones, but they were more personal; each one different in size and, slightly imperfect to make our games more enjoyable.

Bikes were all the rage, as now. Before two-wheelers could be afforded there were proper tricycles, and before that Triang mini trikes. Whatever the wheels, they got us places. The places seemed at that age to be far away, but from an adult perspective I suppose it was not all that far. So far as I know we never told our parents where we were off to, because we generally didn’t know ourselves until we had met up with our friends. As long as we were back for lunch or tea our parents imagined we were safe and learning to be independent.  Each week in the summer we would arrange an afternoon out with another family and walk to one of the local parks or “recs”. It was great fun and one of the few times we did things with our parents. A bottle of diluted Sky orangeade was prepared, a few sandwiches, home-made sponge cake and an apple from the garden; all packed in a straw-plaited carry bag. Inevitably I added a small ball and then carried my cricket bat. The only time we returned to the picnic spot on those lovely sunny days was when it was time to eat.  Exhausting our energies with ball and bat, dispatching it to the boundary, long off, cover point and other positions which were a mystery to me, I, “Peter May” for the afternoon, was rarely out, and between the tea interval and third session there was time to play on the fixed equipment; swings, roundabout, horse and cone. If we had been very good we were allowed an ice cream or lolly on the way back. There were probably ten shops along the Hatfield Road displaying the Walls or Lyons Maid sign, where there were freezers to plunge our hot hands into.  Where there is now a huge housing estate there were, when I was a child, a series of large and small reed-fringed ponds. Three of us would sometimes go there, armed with nets, jars and notebooks. We might explore separately, or together, sometimes calling to each other, the others rarely responding to our calls. We might, on occasions, cross to the other side of town, to the huge lakes at Verulamium Park. On our way we might call at friends’ homes and they might, if they felt like it, join us. Even today children can be seen along the river Ver with jam jars of sticklebacks, but it is a much more rare sight. Then, you would have to pick your spot, depending on who else had arrived before you. The morning might be finished with an ice cream from the van nearby.  Even during the winter there were adventures away from home. News soon spread that the lake at Verulamium Park was frozen and that people were skating. Apart from the warning, “Be careful”, mum appeared to show no more serious concern. We travelled to town on the 330 green bus and found the front seats empty. A small cove at the end of the gangway, we had discovered, was warm from the engine. Buses were unheated then. We placed our gloved hands on the warm vibrating metal.  Arriving at the whitened park it suddenly dawned on us that in order to skate you had to have skates and we had none. Although the council had placed No Skating signs, it seemed that a large number of people were ignoring them and having great fun, so we joined them; walking, slipping and sprawling where in the summer months we had watched swans, coots and model boats floating on the rippling, sparkling and slightly green and pungent water. After snowball throwing for a while, we made our frost-bitten way home, but found the front seats of the bus already occupied. So we blew gently on our hands to warm them into submission.  

The town centre always attracted us. There was a routine. On Saturdays there was the market, and the library. From a very early age I can remember changing my books at the van. Then I graduated to the main library and spent many happy hours among the words and pictures of our language.  Outside again I drew out my list and struggled home with goods bought from the big shops or from the market – and my books for the week. It wasn’t a chore but a way to pleasantly pass the time and find out how goods were bought and sold.  Wednesdays in school holidays meant cattle market day, and I would be there early to see the vans arriving, watch the animals being penned, marked, sold and then re-vanned again. I stood and listened to the auctions, not understanding a word, but fascinated by gesticulation and the banter of conversation.  Because our parents had only the vaguest idea where we had been on all of these occasions there was a genuine and interested conversation once we had arrived home and while we all sat down to lunch or tea together.

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