DAYS IN THE PARK

The smell of lupins always takes me back to the park of my childhood, where I spent many happy hours. Few people where we lived had gardens, and the only grass available for playing on was in the local park. My brother and I were lucky because we lived near a big one with facilities for all ages.

Long before we were old enough to go there on our own, we were taken by our mother and eventually initiated into the delights of the children’s sand garden, a railed-offarea with a large sand pit where we’d build sand casdes with borrowed buckets and spades. Many parks had these pits, although nowadays they’d be considered most unhygienic. Having no water for the moat could be frustrating, and I remember some small boys providing their own naturally in the time-honoured way when the attendant either wasn’t looking or was dozing in her chair.

All around this area grew lupins in great profusion. Even today, I only have to catch a whiff of lupin perfume in my garden to be transported back to those days, As we grew up, the park became a second home to my brother and me during the summer months.Armed with our’butties’, we’d spend the whole day there. Ifit rained, we played in the numerous shelters, and seldom went home before tea time.

Drinks were no problem on hot days, for in the centre of the park stood a large iron drinking fountain gushing forth cold water. A big metal cup was attached to this by a chain, and the overflow from the tap ran into a container for dogs to drink from, and splashed all over your feet as you drank your fill of deliciously cool water. Mother strictly forbade us to drink from the iron cup for fear of germs, but that only seemed to make it more exciting to do so.

There was a large boating lake in the park, with an island in the middle where ducks and all kinds of assorted wildlife lived. How I used to envy the children who fell into it, either while fishing on the edge or feeding the ducks.The lake wasn’t deep, and help was soon at hand on such occasions when one of the park-keepers, upon hearing their screams, would come running to rescue them. How I longed to fall in the lake. It wasn’t the wetting I wanted, but the attention these fallers received as they were carried to the boat house, wrapped in blankets, and given hot cocoa to drink. How do I know? I used to watch with envy through the boat house window.

Believe it or not it’s actually very difficult to fall into a lake fully-clothed on purpose. I know because I’ve tried it! Looking back, though, I was probably a bit inhibited by the fear that nobody would notice me if I did, and I’d have to climb out myself.

Father came into his own every Tuesday night during the summer and autumn, using the park in his own devious way to escape mother’s watchful eye.

“Shall I take them off your hands for a couple of hours, Nora?” he’d ask with amazing regularity at 6.30pm.“I could do with a bit of a walk. I’ll take them to the park and sit and read my paper in the fresh air while they play.”

Father wasn’t allowed to sit on the front door step or hang around street corners with the other men. Mother had her standards, and father was kept strictly up to them, or so she thought.

Permission given, the three of us would set off — into the park by the front gate and out again by the back gate, across the main road, down a lane and into the local running and cycling stadium.We soon realised that it wasn’t the cycling and running that mother would object to, but the gambling on the outcome of the races that took place there.

“Why are those men waving to each other?” I remember asking one day.

“I don’t know, love – perhaps they know each other” was his answer.

My brother and I soon found out that they were tic-tacking to each other about the odds on the different teams.

We enjoyed ourselves there, racing about and generally being a nuisance to everybody. Father could always be blackmailed into buying us an ice-cream, with threats of wanting to go home, now.

We were never bored. On a summer evening there were always the courting couples to torment.“Go on-kiss her!” we’d shout from a hiding place nearby,just as some young man was actually about to try. He’d jump out of his skin! We probably put some chaps off kissing in the open air for life.

Sometimes, one of us would enquire in a loud voice: “Got a new girlfriend?You didn’t have her last week!” and see how she reacted.We thought they were all very soppy.

At weekends the cafe catered for the more affluent who wanted to eat out. Peering through its windows, we used to envy the lucky children who sat with their parents, tucking into delicious-looking sandwiches, scones, cakes, ice-creams andjellies, all washed down with tea for the adults and pop for the children, served by waitresses in smart black and white uniforms, If a park-keeper spotted us, he’d blow his whistle and chase us off. If the favoured children looked in our direction we stuck out our tongues at them before fleeing back to our den.There we’d eat our own bread and marg doorsteps and talk about what we’d order if we ever got to go into the cafe.Alas, we never did!

In summer, Saturday nights were concert nights. I had my first taste of Shakespeare, Gilbert & Sullivan, ballet and music hall around the park bandstand. On Sunday afternoons it would be the turn of the brass bands, whose rousing music could be heard all over the park.

Talent competitions were held there, too, and we had endless fun laughing at the chaps who stood on the stage, hoping to be ‘discovered’, as they clasped their hands together singing about having the wings of a dove.They usually tried to ignore our shouts of:“What would you do with them if you did – fly?”

Tree-pruning at the end of the year provided wood for our bonfires. Often the circus and the fair paid visits around that time of year.

If we were really lucky, when winter finally came the lake froze and there was skating on it .We just enjoyed sliding around on the ice.

Nowadays,more people have proper gardens of their own and take holidays, so perhaps parks are not so necessary any more – but I for one hope they will always be

Lenore Baker