One thing that I am really bad at is remembering people’s birthdays and every year it is a certainty that I will offend someone by forgetting to send a card. It is a little strange then that although I haven’t seen him for about thirty-five years I still remember that March 6th was the birthday of my school pal David Newman. Along with Tony Gibbard David was my best pal and we used to spend long days playing and getting into mischief together in Hillmorton, which was the village where we lived.
The house we lived in was built on an old tip and over the back was a big hole perfect for sifting through and finding old junk and behind that was ‘The Bank’, which was a strip of trees and undergrowth that was good for playing jungle war games. A narrow path ran from Sandy Lane to Tony’s garden at no. 37 where two trees, one large and one small, were converted into tree houses and frequently doubled up as a Lancaster bomber and a Spitfire fighter. You certainly had to have a vivid imagination to achieve this childhood fantasy transformation.
What is now Featherbed Lane used to be Sandy Lane, which was an unpaved track and in the adjacent trees was a long abandoned car that in our imagination we converted into a Churchill Tank. Beyond Sandy Lane was the ‘Sand Pit’, which was a bit of a forbidden zone on account of the large number of rats that lived there. Mum didn’t like us going there and with her exaggerated warnings of how they would either dash up your trouser leg and chew your penis off or alternatively take a flying leap and rip your throat out was enough to make you think twice about venturing too far inside. A few years later they built some houses on the sand pit and a lot of them fell down quite soon after because of inadequate foundations in the soft sand.
Further down the road there were some derelict old terraced houses that had been condemned by the Local Authority that we convinced ourselves were haunted, they were knocked down a few years later and some Council flats built there to replace them. We used to go inside and frighten ourselves half to death exploring the empty rooms looking for their secrets.
On the road down to the Locks and the canal there was the site of the old Hillmorton Manor House that lay in ruins surrounded by dense undergrowth of trees and vegetation. This is where Constable Road is now. Around the Manor House the bigger boys in the village had constructed a scramble track (a sort of pre-BMX thing) where we had bike races and pretended to be the Brandon Bees motorcyclists.
This wasn’t my favourite game I have to say because I used to prefer to go down to the canal and mess about on the locks. This is where David lived and his parents allowed us to build a camp in an old outbuilding in the garden. 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 locks for passing canal craft in the hope that we would receive a few pennies for our labours.
School was about three hundred metres away and to get there we had to pass what was euphemistically called the ‘corn field’. There never actually was any corn in it of course it was just a piece of uncultivated land with long grass that was waiting to be developed and it wasn’t long before the Council built a clinic and some houses on it and took away another useful recreation site. At the back of the school was the Elder Forest, which wasn’t a forest at all just an area of overgrown vegetation with a predominance of Elder Trees. That’s all been grubbed up and built on as well of course now.
David and I went to Dunsmore school together but in 1970 I went on top sixth form and David left to go to work. A couple of years later I went to University and David joined the army so naturally we drifted apart and I never saw him again.
Tony Gibbard’s birthday was the 17th May.