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How I started rambling

August 12, 2013

Although I was born in a Black Country town, I was brought up in what was then a considerable stretch of countryside at Great Barr, a few miles out of West Bromwich. It was across the fields thereabouts that I first began to walk. We lived in a house situated on was still essentially a country lane, winding round in its later stages to cross a railway line and then the brown waters of the River Teme.

 

Someway along the lane was an old wartime ammunition dump, a marvellous and deserted playground of old huts and bunkers, where an adventurous child could disappear for much of a long summer day. Footpaths led across fields that could not have changed much in centuries. I recall them most at harvest time, when sometimes we would help the farmer gather in the crops until well after dusk. The fields around were a source of challenge and adventure, leading up to the raised embankment of the canal, the first boundary to be negotiated in childhood explorations.

 

Years later I acquired an old map showing the district in Victorian times, when it was a vast stretch of countryside, the towns of the Black Country mere extended settlements, not much more than large villages in a setting still essentially rural. When I came to read the novels of D. H. Lawrence I could well understand their settings, that heady mixture of industrial and bucolic.

 

On reflection I had rather a Lawrencian upbringing, for my first school was in the mining village of Hamstead, its buildings right next door to a busy colliery. Many of the pupils were the children of miners, and the great coal buckets passed overhead along thick wires strung between gantries, coal dust blowing down over the school yard.

 

Our headmaster, a fierce man, but not unkind, would tell us that if we didn’t work hard at school we would end up working much, much harder down the mine. As I walked home I would reflect on that, yet within a mile or so I had left all of that industry behind and was out in the fields again. Sometimes, I would see the miners on my walks, for they loved to ramble and many had a fine knowledge of natural history.  In later life I got the chance to go down a working coal mine. I knew that I wouldn’t have lasted a day at such hard labour. My admiration for coal miners is boundless.

 

I wandered freely across this land, as indeed we all did, for the concepts of trespass and public rights of way were unknown to us. I suspect that it was this early conditioning that turned me into the inveterate trespasser of later years for, to quote Sir Leslie Stephen, I have no ‘superstitious reverence’ for absolute rights to property. I grew up in a freer world, perhaps, and the country landowners of this childhood landscape would have had to turn many a blind eye to roaming locals, some ferocious  and tough.

 

Perhaps my favourite childhood walk was across the fields to the canal. The path took off from the bend in the country lane, a broad track at first leading to a near derelict barn and the ruins of a house. I had no idea when the place had fallen into disrepair, but I found its remnants fascinating, seeking out the broken shards of pottery that might be found amid the rubble, and tearing away the several layers of wallpaper that still clung to the tumbling walls. There were bats somewhere in the ruins, and at evening time barn owls hunted over the neighbouring meadows. I scared my fellows with tales of ghosts, of former inhabitants who wailed at the dismal spectacle that had once been their home.

 

My friends believed my stories and certainly, returning that way in the dark, I half-believed them myself. A path led across the fields and in a very little while I seemed to be way out in the countryside, though I suspect the bounds of the territory were much smaller than I have remembered. Not much of a walk brought me to the great embankment, along the top of which ran the canal. I would amble along the towpaths for many miles. In those days there were still narrow boats working its waters, though they were becoming few and far between.

 

Of great interest to me were the high bridges, where the navigators had placed the canal over the river and railway. Traversing the brickwork of these over what seemed to be dizzying heights was a great challenge. I was a fearless climber in the days before I learned discretion. But what I remember most of all was the silence. This landscape might be at the heart of the industrial Midlands, but it was quiet and peaceful. It was that I loved best. It was something to look forward too, at weekends or on days when I bunked off school, my drink and ‘piece’ in an old army knapsack and the thrill of miles of lonely walking ahead. Those boyhood peregrinations set the theme for the rest of my roaming life.

 

But those quiet lands are no more.

A while ago, I decided to see if I could recapture something of the magic of those past days. I parked the car outside my old childhood home and walked once more down the lane. At first the prospects seemed good, the fields opposite the house leading down to the river had survived, offering grazing for horses as they always had.

But at the bend in the lane I was met with an awful sight. The old ammunition dump had vanished completely. In its place, high overhead on huge concrete piers was the motorway, tearing above the fields and over the canal where I had so often rambled, with no sympathy whatsoever for the land beneath, which was now squashed and tamed in its hideous shadow. What had once been an oasis of peace was now noise stained with the heavy rumble of cars and lorries.

 

As if to add insult to this injury, a footpath sign indicated a track running parallel with the motorway, inviting me to follow along a section of the ‘Teme Way’. But, I thought, who would want to? At least along this section where the once charming remnants of rural south Staffordshire and north Warwickshire had been sacrificed for society’s mania for speed and hurry.

 

I cursed the unimaginative bastards who had desecrated the country of my childhood. I hope that there is some suitable and very hot place awaiting them in the furnaces of hell, preferably a corner where their hearing is constantly assaulted by the rush of motor traffic.

 

It was changed almost beyond recognition. Perhaps we should never go back.

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