When I was boy there were exciting places to explore and play and there was lots of time to do so because parents were not nearly so paranoid about children wandering off to enjoy themselves as they are today. In those days it wasn’t uncommon to go out in the morning and only return home when you were hungry and there certainly weren’t search parties out looking all over the place. It’s a shame that today children are confined to their back gardens or have to be chauffeured back and forth to school by car because there was so much more fun when young lives were not subject to so many safety restrictions.
It wasn’t that our parents were irresponsible or didn’t care about us it’s just that they took a more pragmatic approach to risk. I suppose when you have been brought up in London during the blitz when Hitler’s bombs and V2 rockets were dropping every night and there was always imminent danger of being blown to kingdom come then life in the 1960s almost certainly would have seemed a whole lot more sedate and a lot less dangerous. This didn’t mean that there weren’t hazards of course and as boys we used to like to hang around the dangerous places.
First of all there was the railway line and you don’t get much more dangerous than that. It was relatively easy to get up on the tracks and put half pennies on the line for the trains to squash and expand to the size of a penny in the optimistic hope that this would double the value of the coin and shopkeepers wouldn’t notice. (This never worked by the way).
A couple of miles from home we used to dare each other to walk into the inky blackness of the Kilsby Tunnel but I seem to recall that none of ever got more than a few feet before beating a hasty retreat for daylight and safety. The Kilsby Tunnel is near the village of Kilsby in Northamptonshire on the West Coast Main Line and was designed and engineered by the engineer Robert Stephenson. The tunnel is two thousand two hundred and twenty four metres long and took one thousand two hundred and fifty men nearly two years to build. It was opened in 1838 as a part of the London and Birmingham Railway and is today the eigteenth longest tunnel on the British railway system. We used to think it was cool to play there but I realise now that it was a dumb thing to do.
Sometime in the early sixties the line was electrified and this made it even more dangerous. One day a man from British Rail came to school and addressed morning assembly to warn us about playing on the railway. He looked a lot like Norman Wisdom in both appearance and stature and was a bit like the railway equivilent of the Green Cross Code Man, without the muscles. His name was Driver Watson and he proudly wore his navy blue uniform with red piping and told us that the electricity was so powerful that we would need to wear wellington boots forty-two feet thick if we were to be safe from electrocution if we were to touch the overhead wires. He ended every warning with the phrase ‘Boys (short pause for effect)… You Will Be Electrocuted’ almost as though he was going to arrange it personally. That sounded convincing enough to keep me away from the tracks in future and anyway British Rail started putting up fences so it was difficult to get there anymore.
Running parallel to the railway line was the Oxford Canal that had been commissioned in 1769 and built by the canal builder James Brindley. The canal was an incredibly dangerous place really but of course we didn’t realise that at the time. During the summer we used to wait at top lock and offer to open and close the gates for passing canal craft in the hope that we would receive a few pennies for our labours.
If the canal was dangerous then the locks were doubly so but this didn’t stop us from daring each other to jump from the elevated tow path down about three metres and two and a half metres across to the central section of the double locks. I shudder to think about it now. We used to swim in the canal too and that was a stupid thing to do as well. Not only was the murky water about two metres deep and lurking with danger but it was also full of bacteria and germs especially in the black cloying mud on the bottom that would ooze through your toes so it’s a miracle that we didn’t catch typhoid or something else really, really awful.