10 months ago

This England

This England is the quarterly magazine for all who love our green and pleasant land and are unashamedly proud of their English roots. Published since 1968 the magazine has now become one of England’s best loved magazines and has a readership of over 115,000 people from around the world. As well as being popular in England it outsells all other British heritage magazines in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and is sent to readers in every country of the world. Published in Cheltenham, in the heart of picturesque Gloucestershire, the magazine is edited, printed and despatched direct from England. Subscribe today and celebrate all that is best about England and the English way of life.

I remember reading an

I remember reading an article a little while ago in which the writer recalled some of the sounds that were once familiar in everyday life in England that have now virtually, or completely, disappeared. They included the clattering of the keys on a manual typewriter and the “ping” of the bell as you neared the end of a line, the sounds associated with dialling a number on a rotary telephone including the “click-click-click” of the dial as it returned to the start position (and, of course, the sound of a telephone actually ringing), and the “cha-ching” (Is that an accurate description?) of the cash till in the local shop. Although more difficult to recall as they cannot always be associated with tangible pieces of equipment such as telephones and typewriters, there will also be thousands of phrases that were once spoken but which, as our society and ways of doing things have changed, have fallen into disuse. I am sure that one of these must be, “Are you coming out to play?”, a question I was asked innumerable times after answering a knock on the door of my childhood home in Lancashire and seeing one or two of my schoolfriends standing on the step ready for action. In the England of 2017, do children still go out to play? For me and my friends, those six simple words were a magical incantation like “abracadabra”, “hocus pocus” or “open sesame”, allowing us entry to a land where all sorts of games and adventures could be enjoyed. I suppose I was lucky because behind my house a grassy path, like a green tunnel with high hedgerows on either side, led down to a stile beyond which was a child’s paradise: fields, hills, a small wood complete with gurgling stream, and the occasional empty barn or isolated building where farm machinery or animal feed were stored. There was even — as if Enid Blyton herself had created the surroundings — the tumbledown remains of an old house: haunted, of course. We had all devoured the adventures of the “Famous Five”, “Just William” and Swallows and Amazons, and knew all about Robin Hood and his Merry Men, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and various Wild West heroes from the pages of our weekly comics, so there was a rich mine of treasure to draw on for our games. In 2017, I expect games of Cowboys and Indians, where cap-firing pistols and rifles were opposed by bows and arrows with red suckers on the tips, would have to be renamed. But can you imagine the shout: “Let’s play Cowboys and Native Americans”? No, it would never catch on. When weekends and school holidays allowed we would lose ourselves in that world, often disappearing for whole days at a time. All we needed were a few sandwiches, a bottle of lemonade, a sturdy stick in case we encountered enemies and, when the mood for hunting took us, a net on the end of a long cane and a jam jar to carry home tadpoles from the brook. At one point in its journey through our kingdom, on its way to the great ocean as we imagined, the brook was crossed by a narrow one-sided bridge. This was great for hanging precariously off, launching sticks for racing off…and, which happened on numerous occasions, falling into the water off. If our acrobatics on the bridge didn’t result in us receiving a soaking, our attempts to leap across to the opposite bank in response to a “dare” very often did. We could follow the stream through the wood, where there were trees to climb and dens to construct, before it emerged at the edge of a sloping field and disappeared into a mysterious tunnel. I remember one of our gang, in true Famous Five fashion, bravely entering the black hole on a simple raft he had made. The fearless lad’s name was Glyn whose parents owned a bakery and cake shop in the village and we watched in silence as, propelled by a long pole, he vanished into the darkness. A few moments later there was a great deal of splashing and shouting as he reappeared, punting for all he was worth to escape from the monster he had encountered in the tunnel and which was now pursuing him. Just in time he leapt to safety from the raft, joining us on a grassy mound from where we watched with growing trepidation as a large mysterious shape emerged slowly from the gloom and, as the sunlight suddenly washed over it, a hefty piece of wood floated into view. I cannot remember, once our horror had turned to mirth, whether that particular piece of timber was hauled out of the water and added to our collection of branches, twigs, garden refuse and assorted bits and pieces of rubbish, but as soon as autumn was glimpsed in our wood — a quiet, gentle, philosophical gentleman in russet-coloured clothes — all our efforts were suddenly turned towards gathering material for the great annual event that was Bonfire Night. My family had one of the largest gardens in the road (although I have been back there since and it didn’t seem so very big) so that was where the bonfire was built for friends and neighbours to enjoy. The mums laid on some delicious food — baked potatoes with butter, pea soup, treacle toffee — while the dads took charge of handing out the sparklers, lighting the bonfire, nailing Catherine wheels to wooden posts and carefully putting matches to the touch paper on fireworks. Popular brands were Standard, Brocks and Pain’s with names — roman candle, jack in the box, snowstorm, volcano, golden fountain, traffic light etc. — that hinted at the displays we could expect as they fizzed and wooshed and cascaded their showers of colourful sparks, creating clouds of smoke and an unforgettable firework aroma that drifted over the heads of the excited spectators. Rockets were launched from milk bottles, accompanied by the loudest “Ooohs” and “Aaahs” of the evening as they screamed skyward and exploded into a galaxy of gold, silver, red and blue stars. One of my friends, David Fleming who lived in the same road as me, always attended the Bonfire Night celebrations and invariably brought with him a collection of fireworks that were 10 THIS ENGLAND, Winter, 2017

igger and better than anyone else’s. Of course the rest of us boys and girls were thrilled by the spectacular show his giant sky rockets put on, but I think our enjoyment was tempered by just a twinge of envy. Not that we were surprised by the extravagance of his contributions. After all, this was the lad who had told us when he first joined our gang that he had a playroom in his house! Yes, a playroom! A room specially set aside for play! A ballroom, great hall or gymnasium at number 22 Branch Road would have been less of a surprise. We were astounded. The onset of winter didn’t stop us playing out. Those fields and lanes covered in snow and ice offered different opportunities: snowball fights, the building of snowmen and, on one memorable occasion, the construction at the top of a steep hill of a massive snow boulder. It took several of us a whole day to make and after a few young shoulders had pushed it on its way less than a minute for it to thunder down the slope and smash itself to smithereens on the barbed-wire fence below. That same hill was the most popular local place for sledging and making slides. These activities lasted all afternoon, with the shouts and laughter of warmly wrapped-up children ringing out across the fields until evening fell and all colour faded from the landscape save for the black of the trees and the winding road in the valley below, and the white of the snow. Then, in a world that seemed unnaturally silent, it was home to tea, a cheerful fire and curtains drawn to keep out the night. It was only for the few days before and after Christmas Day that playing with friends was temporarily suspended. Visits to and from relatives took priority, and activities that could be enjoyed indoors: Hide and Seek (if we went to stay at my grandparents’ large farmhouse in the Lake District), Blind Man’s Buff and favourite card and board games. There were also Christmas presents to play with! My sister and I received some wonderful gifts and one year I was thrilled to unwrap a magnificent castle. Constructed of solid wood and complete with a drawbridge and portcullis that could be wound up and down, a dungeon beneath the courtyard and turreted towers at each corner, this knocked into a cocked hat anything that David Fleming ever received. Although for a number of years Father Christmas took undeserved credit for its appearance and quality, I now know that thanks are due to one of my uncles. He could have been a carpenter, plumber, electrician or builder, and his skills surpassed any that the man in the red outfit on the sleigh could ever hope to muster. When I revisited the area a few years ago, I found my childhood home almost unrecognisable. Thankfully, though, the fields and woods behind the house remained just as they were and untouched by the developments that have scarred so much of England during the last 50 years. But where were the children? Where were the boys swinging on a rope above the stream? Where were the girls with their skipping rope stretched across the road or playing hopscotch on a chalked grid on the pavement? Where was the huddle of boys and girls with arms outstretched in the age-old practice of deciding who was going to be “It” in a game of Tag? We used various rhymes to determine this. One of them went something like… Ip dip My blue ship, Sailing on the water Like a cup and saucer — O-U-T spells out! There was also “One potato, two potato, three potato, four…” but to the youngsters of today these chants and the customs associated with them must seem as mysterious and irrelevant as the forgotten language and rituals of an ancient tribe. They have their own language, the language of the internet and social media, where games are played in silence on a screen, communication takes place through a computer keyboard, and, like the big bad wolf in one of the stories recounted in my world, those who would do them harm are always on the lookout for ways to break in. One of the greatest barriers to children playing out has been the increase in traffic during the past decades: it is no longer safe. I was heartened, therefore, to hear about a group, Playing Out Bristol (, which is enjoying tremendous success — both locally and nationwide — not only in creating the conditions (arranging for streets to be closed to traffic etc.) where children can enjoy themselves, but also reviving the whole culture of healthy street activities and games. Whenever I think of those carefree boys and girls and their adventures among the Lancashire hills all those years ago I am always reminded of that lovely film from 1961, Whistle Down the Wind, with Hayley Mills and Alan Bates. We didn’t find an escaped criminal in our barn who we mistook for “gentle Jesus”, but we weren’t so very different. I also recall Blue Remembered Hills, Dennis Potter’s ingenious 1979 television play in which the roles of the children, playing in the Forest of Dean during the Second World War, were taken by adult actors (Helen Mirren, Michael Elphick, Robin Ellis, Collin Welland etc.). Try as I might, thoughts of A. E. Housman’s achingly poignant poem then become impossible to shut out. Into my heart an air that kills From yon far country blows: What are those blue remembered hills, What spires, what farms are those? That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain, The happy highways where I went And cannot come again. TRINITY MIRROR/MIRRORPIX/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO THIS ENGLAND, Winter, 2017 11

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