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Backwords: Freedom Of The Great Outdoors

…I realise now how immensely grateful I should be that my early years were not hemmed in by terraced houses, cobbled streets and satanic mills…

Mike Shaw has the happiest of happy memories of spending his boyhood in a rural setting.

Being brought up in a rural area was a privilege I took for granted.

I realise now how immensely grateful I should be that my early years were not hemmed in by terraced houses, cobbled streets and satanic mills.

It was the freedom of rural life that was our outstanding asset on the hillside slopes of the upper Colne Valley.

Freedom to play in green fields instead of the industrial town’s back street substitutes.

So that during the long summer holidays we could start our day’s cricket at nine o’clock and carry on, with breaks for dinner and tea, until the sun dipped behind the Standedge hills at around nine o’clock at night.

Freedom so that, when we wanted a change from cricket, we could cool off by splashing around in the secluded mill pond after a session on a rope swing or walking to the mighty rocks at Shooter’s Nab.

Or, in one of the fields just out of sight of our houses but within shouting distance for our parents, we could pitch our tents and enjoy the novelty of diving into a sleeping bag instead of a mundane single bed.

Haymaking for us youngsters was a treat not a chore, as we were rewarded with cooling ginger beer from big stone bottles for raking up the harvest ready to be loaded on to the horse-drawn cart.

When summer slowly gave way to autumn, we had horse chestnut trees aplenty from which to collect our conkers in the undying belief that one day we would own the king to which all others paid homage.

Cricket surrendered to soccer, reluctantly in our case because we were a bit short on numbers for meaningful games of football, although there was no shortage of pitches even if the wingers sometimes struggled in the long grass.

And in the run-up to November Fifth we had all the natural timber we needed for our bonfire, right on the doorstep, without the firewood worries of our urban counterparts.

Winter, it is true, did bring a few problems in the years when we had snow of greater depth and longer duration than we seem to get today.

But, to offset struggling across the valley to the little school at West Slaithwaite, we had the freedom of a made-to-measure sledging track nearly a couple of hundred yards long, just over the garden fence.

If the frosts were hard and persistent, the same dams in whose summer waters we had frolicked provided us with a safe surface for our hopscotch on ice and other improvisations.

Even gathering holly - we never dreamed of buying it from a shop - turned into a minor adventure as we struggled to reach the boughs weighed down with berries which inevitably seemed always to be near the top of the tree.

In the lengthening, warmer days of spring, we could look forward happily to resuming our evenings outdoors.

To traditional pastimes enjoyed by our parents, and possibly our grandparents, before us.

Such as whips and tops, marbles, tree houses and underground dens dug deep below the patch of greenery we called the croft just beyond our group of houses.

Not to mention the unforgettable day when out came the cricket bats, balls and stumps ready for the first tentative practice of the season when the valley began to turn green again.

Such were the year-round freedoms unknown to our urban cousins who, I discovered on a brief stay in Manchester, had the dubious compensations of living within walking distance of a cinema and Belle Vue pleasure gardens.


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