- Published: 11 April 2013 11 April 2013
So there I was on my roller skates, axle deep in mud, down the unmade road of Park Gardens in the garden of no 49 trying to make out what sort of a place my parents had catapulted me into! There was not much to do there for a 'Townie' boy like me but my pretence soon attracted the interest of the local youths, living in the Council Houses opposite.
They had been very deprecating about our new row of bungalows which had replaced woodland and been 'Jerry built' according to them, with single skin walls, metal windows and 'gaps filled with cement bags and plastered over' but the bungalow was chosen for its cheapness and it was all my parents could afford. We were all on the ground floor, of course, myself in the smallest room (not that any of the bedrooms had any heating) and my glass of water would freeze overnight as it was so cold!
I was soon introduced to the school I was to go to; Hawkwell Holt Primary School, with its appallingly-overcrowded classes of 46+pupils; being a mix of country kids, who were short on academic skills, and newly arrived overspill children from the slums of London all approaching adolescence and with no interest in learning at all. A single form teacher attempted to teach every subject (when even as a much young child, we had specialist teachers in Bruce Grove) and he did it badly. He had no classroom presence and we just ran amok. I gave up on the school and started to play truant regularly and nobody even noticed I was not there. My learning deteriorated such that I nearly failed by 11-plus, like everyone else there, but the headmaster saw the spark in me and I was thought to be a marginal case and was invited to an interview, together with a fat girl called Brenda. They gave me the benefit of the doubt when they met me and off I went to the brand new Rayleigh Sweyne Grammar Technical School to be dressed in my black jacket as fat Brenda failed to impress and went to the Secondary Modern dressed in very un-cool red, but more of my secondary school days later.
By now the girls started to look like girls with their bodies developing a little differently and were becoming to look interesting but I was very tall and skinny and ill-dressed and not sure what to make of them. Even my bird-egg-down-the-neck’ trick did not impress them anymore and there were no more newts to try as an alternative. A red-haired girl with bright green eyes and super-soft skin enchanted me with her smile and made me sad even just to look at her but she was not interested in me, even when I tied her pigtails to the bus rails to show I liked her as she sat in front of me! I think that she reminded me of the girl I used to try and corner for ‘kiss chase’ in Napier Road and liked me until I said her favourite yellow and brown dress made her look like a lovely banana and she cried and would not come out again. There was still food rationing in London in the aftermath of the war and I had intended that as a compliment but girls never understand, do they? There were two girls at school, who liked me, a blond and a brunette, but I had to choose between them and failed to do so and so I lost them both! Puberty had crept up on me and I later found out that I could no longer wear my socks for a week when one of them said kindly but mysteriously, “David, your feet, a bit!”. After an hour or two, the penny dropped!
At least I had something in common with these local yobs. Smelly socks were fine with them, and I knew a thing or two about birds and their nests and my height was a huge asset so we could go bird-nesting together and my collection of eggs soon grew by leaps and bounds. They had another hobby too, taking of corvid chicks as pets, with pet magpies a favourite but also jays, which were very common, and crows would be good too, if we could climb the high trees. We spent hours trying to make them talk. It was surprising how tame the chicks became but I was quite a celebrity when I found an abandoned Little Owl chick and tamed it but it did not last very long. The older brothers had air rifles but I was as yet too young but we walked with them as they hunted. My friend’s older brother impressed me greatly with his marksmanship and his best shot came when he was deep in conversation with a friend and walking along when a particularly loud robin started up on a fence top. Pestered by us, he raised his rifle at his hip and dropped that poor bird with a single .177 shot without aiming and then carried on as if it was not a fluke!
Our hobbies then extended to fishing, with the nearby Hockley sand pit being a favourite venue where my best swim delivered small lively Crucian Carp and the occasional Tench for variety. The summers sitting around that pit were magic memories as i rode my bicycle to and fro, with fishing rod tied to my cross bar and my tackle in the saddle bags. There were plentiful water voles at dusk but also hoard of gnats, of course, but I was made of stronger stuff and could cope with them. On occasions, for more variety, we used to cycle to Hawkwell Pits (an ex brickworks) where there were larger Crucian Carp but less of them and I was so pleased when I caught one weighing 12ozs that I took it home in my bicycle handle bar basket wrapped in wet rags. I kept it in an aquarium on top of the coal bunker outside and it lived for ages before dying in this most unsatisfactory environment.
I had become very interested in fish and fish ponds and I was helping my father try to make this very clay surfaced garden into something less hostile. The builders had removed all of the topsoil and sold it off and so it was hard clay that my dad tried to improve by growing root vegetables. He wanted my help in return for pocket money but I was more interested in us having a pond. In those days, there were no liners and so it was all concrete mixing and shuttering after lots of digging and finding somewhere to dispose of all of the clay. Luckily the clay was so impervious that cracks and leaks in the concrete did not matter very much so we kept digging and made a good square pond and then built up the margins in a trapezium shape to enlarge the pond and provide shelves for marginal weeds to thrive. I thus learnt a lot about flora as well as fauna, with lots of visits to ponds to collect natural plants such as water lilies, flags and irises and oxygenating plants such as Hornwort.
There then occurred a local crisis for the local boys, when development plans were approved to fill in Hockley Sand Pit and build a cluster of houses on the site and the bulldozers were starting to fill in the pond, with it contracting daily. It was an ill-fated exercise as the resulting houses subsided and had to be demolished years later but for now it was a big problem. Nobody seemed to be concerned about the fate of the population of Rudd and Carp apart from us boys and even then my pals did not know what to do about it. Having had the experience of bringing home that 12oz Crucian Carp that time, I had the inspirational idea of saving the Crucian Carp at least and so went back day after day catching them and, wetting them with wet rags, transported them by bike to Hawkwell and over the weeks I saved hundreds of them in all! My friends joined in to start with but then I was left alone to finish the job before the encroaching bull-dozers won the day. That started a love affair with this lovely species that prevails until the present day. When they take the bait, the bite is firm and true and, when caught, and lifted out of the water, they stick their fins out proudly and look the part, glistening golden in the sun. Best of all, when being transported they croak like frogs, which is reassuring on a long bike ride! Their biology is also fascinating; as they are even more tolerant of lack of oxygen than the legendary Tench and will survive ponds drying out by sheltering in the moist mud and even avoiding being frozen as their blood contains a type of natural antifreeze. The genes of this native creature have been threatened by interbreeding with hybridisation with released pet goldfish and the larger Common and Mirror Carp (from China and Germany) are much more popular. However, these beauties frequented the small muddy ponds of Essex used for watering livestock and horses where no other species would. Much later in life, I restocked a lake in my woods in Horsford, Norfolk, with thousands of pure bred Crucians as a tribute to this noble species.
Both my father, Fred, and my mother, Grace, Broad enjoyed their fishing and so this formed the basis of a low cost series of holidays we enjoyed on the Norfolk Broads. They started with us together as a family in cottages remote from the water at Horsey Corner, Seaholme and Seadene, from which we could walk to the beach at Horsey Gap and the broads at Waxham Cut. We managed to borrow an old reed-cutters boat to row onto Horsey Mere at one stage and fished for Rudd before prospects improved a little in subsequent years and we booked a riverside Chalet in Brundall and then for several years a houseboat on Bridge Broad in Wroxham. For these latter holidays, it was just my parents and I as my sister Freda had other priorities and plans.
Hockley still had its village green (opposite my appallingly-painful and rough Dentist’s surgery) and an annual summer fete and, after one such painful appointment, I wandered over and spent my only coin on the ‘Bowl for a Pig Contest’. I did not think I did very well and, to this day, I still reckon that the helper had miscounted my score, but my parents got the call to announce the outcome. The good news was that I had won; the bad news was that this year the prize was not a pig (which seemed good news to us, for heavens knows where we would have put it). It was to be a dozen Rhode Island Red Chickens. Now, by this time, by Dad had a small chicken run and so I eagerly cycled up to Rayleigh Railway Station a few days later and collected a flat cheeping box of ten (not twelve) chicks (not chickens) and I kept them until they became point-of-lay before selling them, ample Stockholm Tar being needed on them to save them pecking each other in the cramped conditions!
There was soon a very welcome development when we also took delivery of a Boxer pup, a male pedigree specimen with the rather grand kennel name of “Red Flash of Hawkwell” which we promptly named “Bonzo” after the Traditional Jazz band of the time, “The Bonzo Dog Doodah Band”. Many years later when at University at Brighton, I saw them perform in the Aquarium hall there and many years later than that, I was chatting up a lady and telling her about my old dog when she revealed that her father was the leader of the band! Bonzo was huge by today’s breed standards and very slobbery and lived outside in a kennel with a chain. In good weather he would jump up and sit on top his sharp kennel roof within reach of passing children and was a favourite of them. We had a retained fire service with volunteers called to arms with a siren (kept after the war) and Bonzo would purse his huge ‘chops’ in a perfect “O” shape and howl in harmony until we threw water at him. I loved that dog and used to take him for walks across Hawkwell Playing Fields when the rest of the family had lost interest in him, collecting mushrooms and spending hours with him on my own.
By my early teens, I was already 6ft 5ins tall (my current height) and so dwarfed my friends and the girls even more so and so I missed out on the whole adolescent girlfriend thing and had to redouble my efforts later in life to make up for lost time! My dog walk often took me past St Clements Hall orphanage at the time of the evening when it was the girls turn to line up naked in front of a large window to be washed and it was hard to avoid spying on them out of curiosity to see how girls’ bodies were developing in my absence! Sadly, poor Bonzo took sick and our delay in involving a vet meant that by the time we had found out what was wrong with him, it was too late, he had been given the wrong sort of bone by an affectionate child and it had lodged inside him. All of the walks I had been giving him to try and buck him up had made him worse and one day he expired on the kitchen mat, where we had laid him, a final gush of horrible bile from his mouth soiling the carpet. Dad was at work as usual and I dragged the poor dog outside, and dug a huge hole where his kennel had been and buried him on that rug, lead, collar and all, with tears streaming down my face. I loved that dog! My parents later on bought a yappy little bitch called Judy but I have always preferred good sized male dogs and she had no attraction to me. Apart from anything else, I would look silly walking a little dog and, being huge, I find little dogs are often like little people, with an inferiority complex and a chip on their shoulder.
There was then a development that then changed my life and propelled me into a new world. My friends were now of an age when they could ride motor cycles (one of them dying soon afterwards in a related accident) but my eyes were on an old Reliant Van that my Dad was ready to discard for a newer model. He was fed up with the spark plugs oiling up all the time but that turned out to be because he was driving it too carefully and it reacted very well to being driven at speed. I swapped him £4 (which was all I had) and my trusty but rusty bike and it was mine. There was another non-running similar van in Hawkwell that I bought cheaply and, between the two, I was able to keep one on the road. Being less than 8cwt it could be driven on a provisional license and so I was away! Thus was to start a whole new chapter in my life that involved my time and truancy at Rayleigh Sweyne Secondary school, Southend pier and amusement arcades, markets, clubs and my eventual departure from living in Hawkwell, but that as they say, is another story!