Friday, 5 February 2010

Early meanderings.... Pt2


In the juniors each class was sub-divided and we were assigned a "house". The choice was either Alma, Rockingham, Boston or Scott - ARBS - the initials of Alma Road Boys School. I was assigned to Rockingham House, this turned out to be quite prophetic later in life. We strived to do good work in class and to try and beat the other houses by amassing a bigger tally of quarter, half and full gold stars. Rockingham never won the shield in my time at Alma road and so I never enjoyed the prize for winning - whatever that was.

After a year or so, I progressed into the class of my nemesis Lindley a real brute of a man. He proved to live up to his reputation and was somewhat free with the cane (which was named Doctor Malacca and kept in a cupboard by his desk) and the size ten slipper. He was universally feared and at the same time loathed by everyone in his class. I diligently avoided any eye contact and was always careful to never stand out or to be tardy. Watching in muted fear as he caned my class mates for sneezing or other similar pretexts.

Nevertheless, I was for a short period the main focus of his ire. It was a very uncomfortable position to be in. So much so, that for the first time I started to skip off school. On the second or third day I was spotted by my uncle. He coaxed out of me what the problems were. He got me to promise to return back to school the next day. When I did Mr Lindley seemed almost indifferent to me from that day on and for the rest of my school life at Alma Road. In hindsight, I progressed through the school with little or no attention from him ever again. My mother and father never knew of this little hiccup in my school life. Had they known that I had bunked off school I would have been in serious trouble. It was some thirty years or so later before I found out that my uncle had made it his business to meet up with Mr Lindley. He had left the teacher with no doubt or uncertainty in his mind about the consequences of what was to happen if I was ever subjected to his attentions in the future. The typical slinking reaction of a bully when confronted by someone bigger and stronger!

Some years later he was confronted by one of my classmates who by this time was himself a man. I don't know the detail of what happened. Only that it ended up in the courts. By the time I knew it had been and gone from court. Otherwise I would have quite happily stood as a character witness for bully Lindley! I still loath and detest the man.

I was however, able to "help" him progress his career within the LEA (Local Education Authority) but that is another story for another day.

But again I digress.....

Towards the end of my time in the ARBS juniors I progressed into Mr Parkin's class. He was quite a formidable character who could shout for England whenever the mood took him. He had deadly aim with the chalk and was not averse to launching the board rubber. However, I soon learned to like and respect him. He had a style of teaching that I could identify with. Subjects were broken up with little anecdotal quotes. Some of which I still clearly remember over fifty years later.

The corridor between the class rooms had a long row of fish tanks. There were the usual freshwater fish and a few exotic ones like Japanese fighting fish. I never did see the fish fight even though I watched them at every opportunity. The headmasters office was just along this corridor, the usual school ruffians were to be seen skulking at his door awaiting some sort of summary justice. On the odd occasion, I was sent out of class to the headmasters office. I was there to collect the "punishment book". In the book were recorded the names of the kids and a description of the punishment they had received. Not all canings were put in the punishment book, only the ones where the kids had been more disruptive or daring than usual in their opposition to the austere classroom environment.

It should be remembered that leisure activities for kids were quite sparse at the time. There was a youth club run within the school by my old nemesis Lindley and so there was no way I or any other child would voluntarily go there. There were the scouts meetings held in the same hall we had our school dinners in. However, my main activity was an almost daily visit to the "new" swimming baths on Westgate Green after school. The "old" swimming baths on Main Street were only visited during the winter months when the new baths were closed. I learned to swim and then to dive in from the board's, at the new baths. However I was only brave enough to jump in from the "top block" as it seemed to be too much of a life threatening plunge if done head first. Other activities included helping to pull the heavy roller round the pitch at St Peters cricket club or playing in the remains of the old Wheathill Street Foundry. On occasions I would have a free ride on a barge going up the Don towards Sheffield (but you had to help heave the locks open and closed) On some days if you were lucky you could even get a ride on a barge going back down river to Goole to save the long walk back home.

Later I was to become a Liverpool fan in the days of football legend Bill Shankly. Then, until the present day a Manchester United fan. My early interest in football was at Rotherham United's Millmoor Ground. It was another opportunistic pass time for me. I had discovered a way to get into the ground for free. I did this by going along the canal bank and up onto the old railway line that once upon a time went into the old Westgate station. It was possible (but only if you were small) at one secret point to wriggle into the ground through the fence.

The main source of family entertainment at that time was the old wartime radio. The radio had a long piece of wire out of the back that ran across the yard to a bamboo pole fastened to the outhouse. I sometimes used to sit and twiddle with the knobs. Watching the cursor pass names like Hilversum and Berlin and listening to all the foreign voices from exotic places in Europe. It was better reception at night as stations from much further afield could sometimes be heard.

I came home from school one day to find a couple of men installing an Ariel on the roof. I thought at the time that it might improve the reception of Radio Luxembourg. It seemed to me that in those days, that just about everybody listened in to Radio Luxembourg. Most people found that Luxembourg was always fading in and out and could be quite difficult to listen to at times. However, my dream of improved coverage from Luxembourg was to be short lived, it turned out to be a big H shaped television Ariel that was being fitted.

Our family were now the proud owners of a Bush television set. I can see it now in my minds eye, a brown Bakelite box with a greenish glow to the tiny screen. I only remember taking a child's interest in the programs available, especially Muffin the Mule, Whirligig, Andy Pandy and the Flowerpot men. 

There were other regular features like the man who produced pots on the potter's wheel. Angel fish, swimming round in a large, dark tank and a windmill that just went round and round. But the radio was still the main focus of entertainment for me. The radio was duly moved to the front room so that it would not disturb anyone watching TV in the kitchen.

Before I could move up into South Grove School or the Grammar school, our family were re-housed and we moved out of the old Alma Road and South Grove school catchment area. Unusual for the time (and in particular for the area where I had previously lived) I had somehow by way of a miracle passed my eleven plus examination. Most of the kids I went to school with eventually went to work either down the pit, in the steel works or on the railway. Though one or two did go into the forces as an alternative. I didn’t know it at the time, but a whole different life was mapped out for me, ultimately leading to a life in academia. But that’s a whole new story and came about much later in life.

When we moved, my old out of school and leisure activities were transformed. The new locality we moved to was very rural, with open fields and woods close by. I soon learned my way round the Wentworth Estates much to the chagrin of Colonel Nutter and his gang of game keepers. At weekends, in the summer holidays or on summer evenings after school I was out exploring in the countryside. I spent many free hours in pursuit of my interest in all kinds of wildlife. In those far off days it was not unusual for kids to go out and collected bird's eggs, However, I only wanted to know where the birds nest's were located. Even in those days, the whereabouts of a birds nest was a secret never to be divulged to anyone who collected eggs. It gave me great pleasure to watch from time to time as the chicks progressed to eventually fledge and leave the nest.

I soon realised that I needed to have a pair of binoculars. I saved hard and bought myself a pair of second-hand Lieberman and Gortz 10 X 50 binoculars. My new interest in wildlife blossomed into my main interest. In those days I was always anti-hunting and if I saw anyone with an air rifle. I would watch them from a distance to see where they hid their gun. Most parents would not let their kids have guns and so I would wander over in the evening and confiscate the gun. I obtained four or five guns this way. I did not think I was stealing, I thought I was doing my bit for anti-poaching and protecting my much loved wildlife.

I can fondly remember (although I did not know it then) as a young man seeing my last free roaming Yorkshire Red Squirrel in the trees near  Scholes village. The joy of seeing my first (somewhat fearsome looking) Little owl perched on a tree branch in almost the same spot but a few years later. I have fond memories of the many times I went fishing in the Wentworth lakes with just a few yards of fishing line tied to a makeshift fishing rod made from a willow branch. Exploring in the ruins of what was left of the buildings that used to be the Squirrel Castle coal mine. The joy of finding three Kestrel chicks (long before the book Kes was written) which had nested in a hole in the ruins.

Climbing to the top of Keppel's column (now closed) and being able to survey from the viewing point at the top, my old and new childhood domain. Sometimes even charging visitors to climb to the top, though it was nothing to do with me. I always was a little entrepreneurial. (This is the very spot where I first met with my partner in life Mag's, she was 9 and I was 12. But we did not meet again for another twenty years or so - but that's another story for another day.) 

You had to be resourceful in those days. Sometimes I would wonder around the estate parkland visiting Hoober Stand or the Doric temple. Sometimes visiting the Fitzwilliam Mausoleum and the odd secretive trip into the walled garden behind Wentworth house. I was often out and about in bad weather.  Including snow, I always loved the snow, because of the animal tracks that were left behind. During prolonged cold spells like in 1963, I remember visiting the Wentworth lakes at Greasborough, just to test the thickness ice. The ice was so thick that year, it would have been possible to walk across the lakes, but I did not have the courage to risk it.

I wasn't aware of it then but many changes in the way the countryside is managed have destroyed much of the wildlife habitat I roamed around. Trees where I knew Tawny Owls nested every year have been felled. Trees which had small groups of bats living in holes have also been felled. Small pools and old streams have long since dried up. Hedgerows have either been removed or are mechanically trimmed far too short for wildlife to find food and shelter within. Skylarks that once were numerous are seldom seen on their old grounds. Lapwings have gone, much the same way. The secretive voles have disappeared from the banks of the long dried up streams.

It's not all doom and gloom for the wildlife habitat. There have been some significant improvements. Some of the pit waste tips have been sculpted and grassed over. My childhood playground was quite a wonderful experience in reality. Full of simple pleasures and yet one that would be lost on the internet children of today. This childhood kindled in me a life long interest in wildlife which is still a passion today. I am a keen bird watcher, a conservation volunteer and observer on wildlife.

Today, I still live in the same area. Every morning from my home on a high vantage point I can look out from my dining room over the fields where I roamed. Now I can watch as the geese and ducks pass overhead. The flurry of golden plover flocks as another winter draws near. The occasional swoop of the sparrow hawk as it come in along the hedgerow and tries to catch birds off the bird table. Visits from the occasional Jay and the constant cooing of Pigeons and Collared Doves.

I marvel now when I see house sparrows that once were so common. The sight of young Starlings in their wonderful etched plumage. Dunnocks that skulk at the bottom of the hedgerow with Wrens and Robins. Most of all, it's the rare but welcome visit from Bullfinches to the bird table that can make my day.


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