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Open Features: Sid's Patch

...The playground was officially opened a few days ago. It has, of course, been unofficially open throughout the entire works project. Every evening, once the workmen had gone, boys scaled the high metal fencing or squirmed under it, or they climbed on top of the equipment store and took a flying leap. Then they larked about. On one occasion they got the cement mixer going and made a play of man-handling each other into its mouth...

The new playground compels Sid to delve back in memory to the 1920s, when he and his mates were enjoying themselves on the Brick Heaps, their self-created play area.

To read more of Jacqueline Finesilver’s wonderful articles about Sid and his memories please click on http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=jacqueline+finesilver

For the past six or seven weeks I have been busy supervising some building work. Right across the street from my house a gang of men have been constructing a children's play area. Now it's completed the site offers local children an array of tough and attractive equipment on which to bounce and climb and spring, swing and balance and dangle. Every structure is bedded into damage-limitation surfaces. It's impressive.

The playground was officially opened a few days ago. It has, of course, been unofficially open throughout the entire works project. Every evening, once the workmen had gone, boys scaled the high metal fencing or squirmed under it, or they climbed on top of the equipment store and took a flying leap. Then they larked about. On one occasion they got the cement mixer going and made a play of man-handling each other into its mouth. On hot evenings they opened the spigot on the big water tank and enthusiastically sloshed water at each other. When a small crane was left out overnight they swarmed all over it and tried their best to set it in motion. For some of those boys it must have a bit of an anti-climax when the project was completed.

Going back in my memory to about 1920, I can vividly recall one of my favourite places to go: the Brick Heaps. After the war many dwellings in London were condemned as overcrowded and insanitary. They were to be pulled down and 'homes fit for heroes' were to be built in their stead. It didn't take much effort to pull the rotten things down. But then the heaps of brick and rubble were left to stand untouched for quite some time. This was the case with the houses of Trafalgar Street in Hammersmith; they were condemned, reduced to heaps and closed off by hoardings.

But behind the hoardings the Brick Heaps were quickly colonised. First our older brothers set to and, with their bare hands and a shovel or two, cleared themselves a sports arena. It was about a quarter of a football pitch in size. The matches played there between street teams might last a week or more, off and on.

We younger ones took over what was left of the territory. And what we did was to set up barricades and dug-outs, stockpile lumps of brick, get ourselves dustbin lid shields and go to war. Trafalgar Street, named for a great battle, was now the site of great inter-street brick fights.

Since the older lads and young men had the monopoly on football in the Brick Heaps we smaller boys had to look elsewhere for a kick around. It was no use going to the park - no football was allowed there (and no climbing either!). We were always getting chased out by the 'parkies'. So we had to find places in the streets or along the towpath, kicking a ball of tight rolled newspaper bound in twine. Sometimes in the evenings or on Sundays we would climb a wall or two and make use of an empty workshop yard.


I can see that that playground across the way has been provided with good structures for climbing and swinging on. As small boys, my mates and I looked forward to the day we would be old enough to go to the Salvation Army Hall. They had climbing ropes and a vaulting horse. The sounds of the brass band would accompany our exertions. Until that day came though, we could find other things to climb and swing on. There were always the lamp posts, of course. Every lamp post had a metal bar which projected which from beneath the glass shade so that ladders could be propped against it. But we would sling a length of washing line up and over the bar and whirl around, kicking against the post.

There was one particular lamp post though, which was reserved for single combat. Boys would meet up there to exchange insults and punches. This was where I and my staunch enemy, Rusty, used to confront each other. (Rusty attended a school for 'delicate' children. Delicate? Him? Huh! ) On one occasion we met up as we were carrying home the results of our woodwork classes; he managed to knock my palm stand all crooked and I managed to splinter his bookends.

I note that one thing they haven't provided over in that new playground is a mud slide. That's where we were well off in Hammersmith. Plenty of mud to be had. We'd scavenge along the shore at low tide, picking up driftwood for the kitchen range, and enjoy a good slither and squelch. Even our local posh people gathered driftwood; we would see them rowing about in their little dinghies and pausing to haul choice pieces aboard. But squelching for wood was better.

There was another sort of fuel gathering. Early in the morning small kids with box carts and old prams would race up to the West Middlesex Water Works.This was about half a mile or so upriver from where we lived. We would get to the Works and wait for the stokers to emerge. These men would wheel barrows of ‘old stuff’ from the cleared furnaces and tip it out in the yard. We kids would quickly stake out a patch of clinker and busily rake through it, sorting what could be burned in the kitchen range.

One morning, being dissatisfied with the pickings, I looked speculatively at the shiny black 'new stuff', the fresh coal which was piled high behind curved spiked railings. It wasn’t long before I was climbing those railings. As it turned out, one of those spikes got stuck in my arm and I had to take myself off to the Cottage Hospital. I've still got the scar. They were very nice, the nurses there. They always took care of my wounds, bandaging an arm or a leg or a head. ‘Poor little boy’ they would say and give me tea and biscuits.

One evening, when the playground-to-be over the road was near completion, I watched a couple of boys as they scaled the fencing and set about building up a mound of soil and planks. They got it just to their liking and then one of them backed off, took a run up, and did a neat back flip. For a while these two gymnasts practised flips and somersaults. It was good entertainment for me. Then they casually gate-vaulted the barrier fence and sauntered off. I haven't seen them since. A couple of days later the workmen began laying out an arrangement of sandy paths and earthy mounds. Now little kids on snazzy bikes are racing around them.

I got a bike when I was about thirteen or so. I bought it off an older brother for £1, paid in many instalments. Once I had my own bike I could begin crashing into things on it - into the back of a taxi and into a MacDougall’s Flour van, a milk cart.... I think I had six different front wheels on that bike.

There are always some kids who look for the unconventional way to do something. There's one I've observed across the way; he ignores all the climbing frames but he climbs everything else and often ends up standing aloft, poised on the rim of the basketball net. I recall the attraction of climbing where you're not supposed to. I remember, for instance, how a few of us would occasionally go downriver to some wharves belonging to Manbre's sugar refinery. Here were moored barges loaded with sacks of raw sugar. It was not easy getting aboard them. High water could be dangerous as the barges rose and fell and moved together and apart. Low tide meant quite an effort was required to get from down on the mud to up on the deck. And the cargo was watched over by fierce boatmen. Only once do I recall coming away with a lump of the sugar. All black and gritty it was, with bits of stick in it. Horrible. But the sugar wasn't the real object of our efforts. We just liked climbing on or over or into things. And if we bagged a trophy – a chunk of inedible sugar, a sour plum, a worm-eaten windfall - well, that just showed we'd been places and done things .

I stand and look at this well-designed, well-built play area across the road. Everything laid out so nicely. Everything bright and new. I wonder if many of the boys who visited it when it was a building site are still visiting it now.

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