|Posted on October 21, 2016 at 3:55 AM|
My Semi-Suburban Country Childhood
Although I was brought up in a relatively new suburban area called Woodthorpe about four miles from the centre of Nottingham, I felt as if I lived in the country. The road in front of our house was a terracotta clay track with grassy verges and convenient humps – ideal when cycling or roller-skating – and there was a deep crater at the bottom of the road, which was euphemistically called ‘Coningsby Gardens East’* (there was no West). After a downpour it filled with red, cloudy water to a depth that covered the tops of your Wellingtons, when you floated your boat on it.
Opposite our house was a piece of lush, green wasteground covered in wild flowers and a large, fallen tree trunk called ‘The Log’, used as a meeting place for the groups of children, who arranged to play there. When this land eventually began to be used for building houses by a local property developer, we used the foundations of the new buildings as playgrounds. Planks of wood balanced across low walls provided splendid make-shift see-saws and we devised games based on hopscotch, which utilised the different, mapped-out rooms of the house-to-be.
Behind our house, across Melbury Road, there were the rolling, grassy hills of Breckhill (Hilly) Fields. Here was the ideal place to build dens, play cowboys and Indians, arrange sports and races, collect wild berries, toboggan down the snow-covered, steep tracks or feed the horses kept in one part of the fields.
I knew the two girls, who used to help look after the horses. Rosamund, the youngest, said that I could ride them if I wanted to, as she knew I was an animal lover. I rode one large chestnut horse and thinking I had mastered that in half an hour, I decided to try cantering bareback, circus-style on a smaller, black horse and, yes, I fell off and broke my arm badly at the elbow.
Breckhill Fields stretched out like a country all of its own, changing its customs with the turn of time. In winter (my favourite season) after a heavy snowfall, everyone from roundabout would emerge wrapped in woolly hats, scarves and gloves pulling their sledges, which ranged from tin trays to the most sophisticated pine toboggans. The man next door, Mr Fenn, made me a sledge – a simple, wooden affair with a rope handle but to me it was lovely. I used to conscientiously wax the metal runners made from piping with a candle and it really did speed down the numerous slopes including the notorious ‘Death Track’. This was the longest, steepest and most dangerous track, as it ended in a line of trees and a cut-off tree trunk, so you had to be very careful to swerve out of the way, if you could not stop. One boy died from head injuries after he failed to stop and that is how the run got its name.
Autumn brought a crop of delicious wild blackberries, raspberries and elderberries. I used to go picking with my own small gardening trug and kept going back for refills, returning home with hands and lips stained magenta, having eaten nearly as much as I collected. Mr Fenn also had a substantial collection of damson trees, from which he gave us baskets of fruit to be made into deep purple jam.
In summer the wild flowers flourished as on meadowland and I was a keen naturalist. I owned books on birds, animals, insects and wildflowers and when not being a Red Indian in a wigwam (I always took the Indian’s side), I would wonder at and try to identify the profusion of wildlife around me.
I loved animals and for my eighth birthday my father bought me a beautiful, soft-grey Chinchilla rabbit, which we chose from a stall on the old, open Nottingham Market on Huntingdon Street. Hoppy was the rabbit that came up and nudged my hand as if to say ‘Please choose me.’ He had the run of the garden and the house, but sometimes would set off on adventures and was once seen hot-pawing it up to Breckhill Fields, doing daring zig-zags and leaps to chase off the ensuing dog from down the road. We rescued him and he was none the worse for his ‘dicing with death’. (Read Hoppy's full story on ‘Talking Paint’ @ http://viviensteels.webs.com/mypetsplace.htm)
Now the area is quite built up. Gone is the wasteground and ‘The Log’ and Breckhill Fields, my early experience of the countryside, is smothered with houses and called ‘Long Acre’.
© Vivien Steels
A smaller, much-edited version of this article appeared in the Basford Bystander 177 - August/September 2016
* Just as a point of interest, Coningsby Gardens East was originally part of the land on which Swinehouse Farm and its orchard, which contained damson trees, formerly existed. Swinehouse Farm is mentioned by D H Lawrence in his book ‘Sons and Lovers’. In the book he (Paul Morel) walks down from Mapperley Plains (at the top of Breckhill Fields) to see Miriam Leivers at the farm and she taught in West Bridgford, Nottingham.
Below is a black and white picture postcard photograph from ARNOLD – in old picture postcards by Ken Negus (‘YESTERDAY’S NOTTINGHAMSHIRE’ series no: 14 - 1991). It was taken at about 1900 with the photographers back to Mapperley Plains with Breckhill Road to the left out of the picture. Long Acre approximates to the footpath as does Coningsby Gardens East and Coningsby Road, the hedge being the boundary of Melbury Road. This area was know as Breckhill (Hilly) Fields. You can make out the farm below to the left, which would approximate to the bottom of Coningsby Gardens East.