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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Taking the Kids Camping...

What the government, with such little imagination, refer to as 'Early May Bank Holiday' in England was a bit special back in 1995. It was special in general because it was the first and only time since this bank holiday was instigated that it didn't take place on the first Monday in May. This was due to the proclamation by the government, that they had decided we all should celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of V.E. day, but that to save them the trouble of giving the nation an extra bank holiday, they would be moving the existing holiday back a week to May 8th.

For me, it was special, because that was the weekend I decided to introduce my two eldest children to camping.


The two weekends before, we'd taken them out shopping, for general camping equipment, plus we had to buy them rucksacks and walking boots.

Finding rucksacks for a 6 year old and a 7 year old that actually served the required purpose was difficult, since most of the ones for kids of that age were designed to carry not much more than P.E. kit and a ninja turtles luchbox, but we managed to find two reasonably small sacks at our local camping supplies shop that despite being very limited in capacity, still had all the devices for attaching equipment with straps. We tried them on the kids while we were in the shop, and they looked massive on them, but that seemed to be part of the appeal for them, so we bought them.

We almost gave up on finding walking boots: it seems that walking boots for children only exist in the most expensive brands, and since they'd hardly use them at all before they grew out of them, I was a little reluctant to spend almost twice as much on a pair of boots for each of them than I'd spent on my own earlier that year. We'd just about resigned ourselves to letting them make do with sturdy trainers instead, when we spotted some reasonably priced leather trekking boots in children's sizes as a one off line in a discount shop in town.

We decided that we'd visit the Lake District. We already had a family rail card; using that would provide a 33% discount on my train fare, and in those days, the kids went for a flat fare of £1.

The night before we left they were excited and wanted to pack their own rucksacks, but we decided to let them put in their clothes, their mugs and their cutlery, and told them to leave the rest to their mother and I.

The morning after, we were all up early. My own backpack looked a little daunting. The few clothes I was taking, along with a single pair of light trainers didn't pose a problem, but the four man dome tent, my sleeping bag and roller mat, and all the rest of the camping equipment either contained within or fastened outside with straps, made me wonder how the hell I was going to manage to walk with it. I tried it on though, and once I'd hoisted it high on my back and fastened the shoulder straps (a little too) tightly, it didn't seem so bad.

The kids wanted to put their own packs on even before they'd got dressed but we managed to persuade them to have their breakfast and then dress themselves before they bothered.

Each of their sacks carried their clothes, a change of shoes and their personal equipment like cutlery, a white enameled tin plate and a tin mug (camping is so much more exciting when you eat and drink from tin utensils.) In addition, they each had a sleeping bag strapped to the bottom of their sacks and a rubber sleeping mat, rolled up and fastened under the top flap of their rucksack. 

My seven year old daughter was the first to don her rucksack. She seemed to struggle a little at first, until we'd tightened her straps, and told her about the importance of carrying it high and not hanging down in the small of her back.

My son, who was six at the time was very small, even for six, and I worried how he'd cope. But he seemed to have a point to prove and wanted to outdo his sister, so he helped as we hoisted his sack onto his back, then braced himself as we pulled the straps tight. He then stood up straight.... and promptly fell over backwards.

After some distribution of loads, I ended up setting out with a sleeping back attached to either side of my pack, as well as having my own hanging underneath, and with what little room was left inside my pack, crammed with most of my son's equipment, and a few items of my daughter's.

I strained under the weight as we left the house. My wife asked if I was sure that I could manage. I wasn't sure I could, but I wasn't going to call off the trip, so I'd just have to.

So with what we thought was everything we needed, we set out. It turned out that there were two things we'd left behind: my camera, (so all the pictures in the rest of this post have been lifted from Google Maps,) and my hat, but more of that later.

Saturday May 6

Hull to Windermere and the ferry at Bowness...

The way to the Lake District from where I live in Hull requires us to cross the entire country from East to West. It involves two train journeys of about two hours each, with a change in the middle at Manchester. Piccadilly railway station in Manchester is a large station, and sod's law states that the platform we arrived on from Hull, was as far away as it possibly could be from the platform we needed for the train to Windermere. 

I thought there'd be plenty of time to change trains, but that didn't take into account the time taken to strap everyone into their packs, then unburden them again when they wanted the toilet. This was before the days of the travelator at Piccadilly, and the lifts were out of order too, so we ended up running to our platform, the kids racing ahead in front, while I followed behind as best as I could, being burdened with my load and carrying a smaller rucksack in each hand.

Despite it being a bank holiday weekend, and even though I hadn't thought to reserve our seats, we managed to get a table to ourselves for most of this second leg of our journey. I thought it was because people felt sympathy for me struggling with two small children and three rucksacks, but everyone seemed keen to chat with my kids for the duration of the journey, so I don't think sympathy for me had anything to do with it.

As we left north Lancashire and entered Cumbria, the kids got excited to see the landscape becoming more hilly and rugged, (where we live is totally flat, so hills held a special appeal for them, and for me too if I'm honest,) and my daughter and son sat at opposite sides of the table from each other in the seats by the window looking out as the scenery got more and more interesting.

My daughter was troubled for a while by the sun shining in her eyes, and I thought about swapping places with her, where I sat, beside my son, but she insisted she wanted to sit by the window. After a while she seemed to be managing much better and I asked if she was OK now. 

"Yes," she replied, "the sun was blinding me, but now it's gone behind a mountain."

My six year old son was tutting and shaking his head. "The sun hasn't gone anywhere," he corrected his sister.

I was quite impressed by that, so I said to him: "Well done son, you're right, it isn't the sun that's moved."

"So what has happened then?" his sister asked.

"It's obvious," he replied, "the mountain has moved in front of the sun!"

Our destination once we'd left the train was Hawkshead on the other side of Windermere between that lake and Coniston Water. Once we'd arrived at Windermere station, we had two choices: Catching a bus around the top of the lake, via Ambleside, or walking down to Bowness-on-Windermere and catching the Ferry. Of course this would mean we'd have a fair amount of walking to do once we'd crossed the lake too, so my own personal preference was for the bus. The kids chose the bus too, as soon as they'd seen the open topped buses. I didn't fancy dragging our luggage all the way up the stairs, but thought we'd be able to leave it safely in a rack downstairs. 

It turned out though that the open topped buses didn't go anyway near Hawkshead; that service was provided by smaller vehicles, almost minibuses, and the kids decided that they'd rather walk instead. Despite my pleading with them, I finally resigned myself to their decision, and we started the trek down to the lake side at Bowness.

I'm glad we did actually, because the scenery on the way was lovely, even though it was mostly through built up semi-urban areas. To me it brought back memories of earlier visits to the lakes; to the kids it was the excitement of being somewhere new that was attractive.

Now, at that time, we'd often keep the kids occupied while we were out walking by encouraging them to play a little game. What they had to do was to watch out for those four wheel drive cars carrying their spare wheels at the rear; whoever spotted one first would point and call out 'wheel on the back' while myself or their mother kept score. A simple game, I know, but exciting enough for kids of that age, and it had served to provide a lot of peace from squabbling and such on past days out.

The problem was that out in the Lake District, being rural, and being somewhat more affluent than where we came from, there were a hell of a lot more 'all-terrain' vehicles around. Everywhere we looked there seemed to be one, so as we walked, my journey was accompanied by an almost constant chant of "Wheel on the back!" from one or another of the kids, and often by both in unison.

"What's the score dad?" my son asked me as we walked down the road into Bowness bay.

"I'm not sure son," I said, "I think I lost count at 196 to 187. Let's just count it as a draw."

Bowness bay stands out against the rest of the Lake District in seeming a little over-touristy. Once you get to know the place, you realise it isn't, but it's very commercial and well visited, especially on bank holiday weekends. The kids were entranced by it: "Can we go on the boats, dad?" "Can we feed the swans, dad?" "Can we ride on that road train, dad?" Requests bombarded my ears. We didn't have time to ride on anything, so we fed the swans for a while, then I got them an ice-cream each (the kids that is, not the swans,) and we carried on down to the ferry.

Waiting for the Windermere ferry

We'd just missed the boat when we got there, so we sat on a low wall alongside the queue of cars waiting for it's next crossing. The weather had turned very warm, and I regretted not joining the kids in an ice-cream. I'd forgotten to bring my hat from home, and the sun was really bothering the top of my 'follicly challenged' head. I had a large white handkerchief I'd been wiping my face with as we'd walked in the heat, and as we waited, I started to tie a knot in each of the corners. The kids asked me what I was doing, and I just told them to wait and see. I placed the knotted handkerchief on my head which reduced the kids to fits of giggles. I laughed, removed it and put it back into my pocket. The ferry arrived and we boarded for our crossing.

Bowness through the Sawreys and on to Hawksead...

At the other side, we started walking, The route was through the two villages of Far Sawrey and Near Sawrey, then along the east side of Esthwaite Water and from there into Hawkshead.

There are two ways to Far Sawrey: via a steep rugged climb up Claife Heights, or up the more gentle rise along the road and around, which though much further, seemed preferable considering our load and the hot sun. The sun really seemed to be beating down now, and after a while, since we were virtually alone on the road, I donned my four cornered knotted hanky again. The kids laughed at me of course, but that was something I could put up with for the comfort afforded to my head, and if people in passing cars should see me, well 'so what?'

Eventually after what seemed like ages, the road curved to the north-west and we reached the southern edge of Far Sawrey. There's a pub there with a pleasant beer garden, so we decided to stop for refreshment.

The Sawrey Hotel - scene of my crushing embarrassment

I helped the kids off with their packs, which we propped up against each other on the grass and 'installed'  both kids at a table in the beer garden, then I went over to the public bar of the hotel to order our drinks.

Being the public bar it was full of locals, rather than tourists; I was pleasantly surprised when first one, then another smiled and nodded at me as I entered. I ordered our drinks and while waiting for my change, turned to see an old couple beside me at the bar, beaming at me. I smiled back. The barmaid returned my change and I asked her if she had a tray. She smiled back at me and said she'd get me one. By the time she returned with the tray, she was smiling so much, it was as if she was almost giggling. I took our drinks outside, passing more locals, all of them raising their glasses and smiling broadly as I passed.

When I reached our table in the beer garden, I gave the kids their drinks and said to them something like: "I must say, the people around here are ever so friendly."

The reply I got from my daughter wasn't one I'd expected, but it was more enlightening than anything else she might have said at that time. She said: "Dad, do you know you still have your hanky on your head?"

After our stop, we walked on through Near Sawrey and down the road toward Hawkshead. We passed Esthwaite water and it looked so cool and inviting, that when we found an area accessible from the road, we walked over to a bench there and stopped for a rest. The kids asked if they could have a little paddle. It was warm and I suspected their feet might benefit from it, so I said OK. Afterwards, after helping my son get his socks and boots back on, I helped my daughter lace up her boots properly and we prepared to continue. 

My son however had decided at this point that he'd carried his rucksack just as far as he possibly could and to avoid arguments, I picked it up and slung the straps over what unoccupied part of my shoulder I could find. Of course a couple of miles later, the same thought occurred to my daughter, and not one for missing an opportunity, she pointed out that since I was carrying his pack, it was only fair that I carried hers too.

So as we turned the final bend in the road, and walked into Hawkshead, the kids' feelings of excitement were matched by my feelings of relief. I could see the multicoloured sight of the campsite just outside the village and so could the kids, as they ran ahead. They were standing at the gates when I eventually caught up. We booked in and pitched our tent and once finished I lay back exhausted. Then one or the other of the kids said: "What are we going to do now, dad?" I didn't want to move. I was tired, hot and thirsty. Then one of them said: "What are we having for tea?" I brightened up as I told them: "As a special treat kids, tonight, we're going to eat in THE PUB!"

The first evening and the longest night...

Eating in a pub, to the kids was like eating in the finest of restaurants. To be honest, as an experience, even to me it wasn't much like eating in a pub back home.

On the bright side, the menu was much more varied than the standard 'pub grub' I was used to, though the children's menu seemed to consist of the usual 'with chips and beans' range of burgers, fish fingers, chicken nuggets, etc.

On the not so bright side, the prices were a hell of a lot more expensive than I was used to, especially when the kids both wanted to choose something from the adult menu. I asked at the bar if they did children's portions of the meals on the main menu, but was met with a look of astonishment. I quickly and casually checked my head for knotted handkerchiefs,  before I realised the astonishment was because I wanted to feed my children something other than deep fried junk food. As it happens, the kids both wanted the same thing from the menu, so I managed to collar one of the ladies serving the food and sweet talked her into providing us with an extra plate and cutlery so that they could share a meal.

The Red Lion, Hawkshead - Dinner Saturday Evening

The food was pleasant, the beer more so, (I assume the cola and lemonade was of an acceptable standard too, since there were no complaints from the kids,) so after eating we decided, since it was a warm night, we'd move to one of the tables outside for more drinks. Obviously I didn't want to get anything like drunk, since I was solely responsible for the kids in a strange place away from home, so I decided to pace myself.

Drinking slowly often provides a sense of relaxation that you don't get when you're in a group of friends, each one keeping pace with the rest. There are times when you realise that the point isn't to drink, it's to enjoy  your surroundings, and the drink just serves to relax you and to help you enjoy it that little bit more.

I was settling in for a pleasant evening of relaxation. The kids had slowed down and were being less boisterous than I remembered them being for a long time. I'd had three pints, though over such a long period, that I wasn't feeling the effects at all. I decided that having another wouldn't show me up as an irresponsible parent, so I asked the kids what they wanted.

"I want to go to bed," My son said. His sister agreed.

"But I thought you wanted to stay up late," I asked them, "I thought you were looking forward to staying out until it got dark." I looked around, the sun had sunk but it was hardly dark, just pleasantly dusky.

"Let's go to bed dad, please," they both asked. So we made our way back to the campsite. On the way, I popped into the village store to buy groceries for breakfast. "You're open late," I said to the shopkeeper. 

"You just caught us before closing," he answered. "We're open until eight pm every night though."

So by eight thirty, the kids were changed for bed, and tucked up in their sleeping bags. There was nothing else for me to do, but to get to bed myself, and I was still a little weary from the journey, so for the first time in more years than I could remember, I was in bed and asleep by nine o'clock.

I was awoken at about ten thirty by screams of panic coming from my son's sleeping bag. I awoke with a start. It was an adult sized sleeping bag, and he'd sunk down into it in his sleep, to the extent that when he'd woke up he was curled up in the bottom quarter of it. He couldn't uncurl himself and couldn't get out so he panicked, and screamed out loud, waking me and probably almost everyone else on the campsite, though noticeably NOT his sister.

I found a solution: I took one of the webbing straps from my rucksack and fastened it tight around his sleeping bag about halfway down, (after rescuing him from it of course; I was hardly likely to imprison him in it; what kind of parent do you take me for?) so after I'd shortened it I persuaded him that he wouldn't get stuck again and managed to get him to go back to sleep.

What seemed like moments later, my daughter woke up. She needed the toilet. The toilet block was only about fifty yards or so away, but I couldn't let her go by herself, but then I couldn't leave her brother alone in the tent either, so after struggling into my trousers and waking my son, the three of us trooped over to the toilets. Having made certain that they'd both made use of the facilities, we returned to our tent; I shortened my daughter's sleeping bag like I had her brother's and all of us finally got back to sleep.

Now I'm an early riser; I always have been: I'm usually up between five and six am every morning. So when I'd been asleep, since nine, it was very unlikely that I was going to sleep through even until that time.

So it was that I suddenly awoke. I realised where I was after a second or two, and then lay there in my sleeping bag between two slumbering children. I was wide awake. I wondered what time it was. I reached out for the camping light and shone it onto my watch. Five past four: too early to start breakfast then. The problem was that my watch was telling me it was the middle of the night, but my body was telling me it was time to get up. I thought about trying to force myself back to sleep, though I had no idea how. Not only that, how would that leave me by eight thirty tonight, when the kids' bedtime came around again?

I struggled out of my sleeping bag and once more into my pants. I reached out and retrieved my cigarettes, unzipped the tent and stepped outside. It was dark. Living in the city, you don't realise how incredibly dark it does get in the country. I sat cross legged on the grass and lit a cigarette. It was a warm night and sitting there was very pleasant indeed. I reached into the tent and retrieved a carton of milk. I opened it and sat on the grass, drinking milk and enjoying a smoke. I realised I should have done this at nine o'clock the day before. It wasn't a bad way to spend the evening.

It was then that I heard footsteps, and a middle aged lady in a bright ruby red velour dressing gown and slippers walked past me. She had curlers in her hair and her handbag tucked under her arm as she headed toward the toilet block. She gave me a strange look, but I just looked back and took another swig from my milk carton and another drag from my cigarette. She returned a few moments later on her way back to her tent. She was frowning at me again, looking at me as though she thought I was some kind of lunatic. I thought I ought to say something. "Morning," I said. It seemed like the logical greeting at the time; however early it was, it was after all 'morning'. She stopped in her tracks and just looked at me. She had obviously decided I was a lunatic and was now determining exactly which kind. I leaned over and my hand fell on my cigarette packet. I don't know what made me do it, but I just picked up the pack, flicked open the top and inquired of her: "Would you like a cigarette?"

She ran. I could hear whispering coming from one of the nearby tents for a few minutes until eventually I heard a man's voice saying "Just shut up and go to sleep woman".

Sunday May 7

Hawkshead to Coniston in the rain, and back in a minibus...

to be continued...

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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Bonfire Wars

For the first 11 years, 2 months and 12 days of my life I lived in the same house: that's except for the three separate weeks I spent in caravans on seaside holidays, and for the extended hospital stay I had with meningitis when I was two.

It was more common in those days for mothers to give birth at home, so I was born in the front bedroom of the Victorian two-up, two-down that my parents had lived in since they'd married six years earlier. Eventually in June 1969 the entire area was demolished as part of a slum clearance program and we moved to the semi where my mum still lives today, and where my father lived for the remainder of his life. The novelty of separate bedrooms for my sister and I, and of actually having a garden was nothing compared to the luxury of an inside toilet, and a bath that didn't hang inside the back yard wall until we dragged it inside to fill it, once or twice per week.

So I experienced my early childhood in a very different environment to my later years, and in totally different circumstances to how my own children experienced theirs; The area where I was born was rough: there's no denying it, but my parents made up for that by doing their best to make the inside of our home a contrast to the miserable exterior. My sister and I had everything money could buy; unfortunately the money there to buy it was always limited, as my dad worked in various jobs throughout his working life as a milkman, an unskilled factory worker and a window cleaner, so though my parents often only just managed to 'make ends meet,' their own willingness to go without so that their children wouldn't have to made me, as an innocent child, feel as though I was a lot better off than I really was at the time. I remember being always well fed, well dressed and well loved.

The house I lived in was on one side of Salmon Terrace a cul-de-sac off Liverpool Street. Older relatives told me that the houses on Salmon Terrace had once had little 'postage-stamp' sized front gardens, similar to the houses on other terraces off the street, but during the Second World War, they'd all been commandeered and dug up to build a communal bomb shelter. I'd always wished we'd had a garden to play in, but also used to think that the shelter, had it still been there, would have been an incredible place to play. Unfortunately, it had been filled in and covered with tarmac at the end of the war, so Salmon Terrace was left with a large hard-surfaced communal area, which I suppose was as good a place as any to play.

As a small child, of course, most of my time was spent indoors, but as I have a sister who's five years older than me, I was also allowed to play outside the house in the terrace, where my sister and I were under standing orders to play only where my mum could keep an eye on us from the front window of the house. Somehow though, at times, I managed to slip away from my sister, and to momentarily avoid parental attention, and being a little bit adventurous I'd slip around the corner of the terrace onto the main street to join some of the other kids playing there. Of course at this age, I never dared to break the number one rule: DON'T CROSS THE ROAD! 

I don't remember what age I was when the rules were relaxed, But by nine or ten I knew the entire area like the back of my hand: every local street, every 'back passageway' that ran between and behind the blocks of houses, and most of all, the areas where most of our play took place: the 'bombed buildings'. These were areas that had been badly damaged by air raids during World War Two and had subsequently been demolished and cleared. Redeveloping places like this wasn't economically viable at the time, so while the surviving residents were rehoused miles away, often in 'temporary' prefabricated homes (which survived well into the 1970s) the sites of their previous homes were left as a reminder of what wartime life had been like when our parents had themselves been children.

There were two such areas in Liverpool Street. There was the area known by the local kids as Bommies which was where a block of three or four houses had once stood next to the local grocers shop. Further down the street was the area called Field. To my young eyes this place was massive and looking back on it, I think it must have once been the site of about ten blocks of houses. Field was the central point of Liverpool Street's juvenile community.  We played football there, we floated homemade boats in the enormous puddles after the rain had filled many of the deep hollows, and best of all, Field was the site of the annual Liverpool Street bonfire.

November the fifth was important to us in those days. The kids from every street in the area would organize their own bonfire on a piece of waste land. Now I'm not talking about little bonfires here: these were massive! It's a fact, that in those days, when local people decided to buy new furniture, they'd do it in October, because they knew they had a way of disposing of their old table, old couch or chairs just by mentioning to the local kids that they could have the wood for their bonfire. It would be the sole purpose of kids in the street during October to gather whatever combustible items they could and build up the street bonfire pile, until it towered way over our heads.

Rivalries would develop between the local kids at this time of year. Friendships at school with kids from neighbouring streets would be put on hold. They were the enemy because it was their aim to build a bigger and better bonfire than ours. Our spare hours at that time of year would be spent partly gathering items for the bonfire, but we'd also guard our bonfire from the attempts of those criminals from neighbouring streets to steal our wood. Of course it was only right that we organised raids on their bonfires too.

In the 'Bonfire War' Liverpool Street's closest neighbour, biggest rival and worst enemy was Brighton Street, the next street along. From the bottom of our terrace, if we got a 'leg-up'  to scramble up the wall dividing it from a similar cul-de-sac on Brighton Street, we could actually see the site of their bonfire, over on the opposite side of their road. This surveillance was necessary on a regular basis: if their hoard was noticeably smaller than ours, then we'd know to expect raids; if however they had a lot more than us, then it gave us a chance to have a crafty look at what we could possibly pillage.

It was October, 1967. I was nearly ten and as a result was looked upon by the younger kids as a Bonfire War veteran. The lads, who were supposed to be guarding our pile, had let us down and we'd lost a lot of stuff to Brighton Street recently. We'd even had a raid from Manchester Street, the enemy on our opposite frontier, who'd run off with a lot of smaller items: dining chairs, bedside cabinets, etc. It had been a surprise attack: loads of Manchester Street kids had swooped down and grabbed the most easily portable items they could get their hands on and then retreated before the alarm could be raised. Small items would normally have been too high up on the pile for them to get a hold of, but we'd been having trouble stopping our bonfire from falling over for a couple of days, ever since the last raid from Brighton Street had resulted in the loss of two supporting armchairs and a mattress we'd used for bracing. This was a dirty, underhanded trick, since they'd attacked when they knew there'd be nobody about. We suspected that they were actually using 'big lads' since the raid had occurred well after every respectable eleven year old's bedtime.

It was a Thursday night, and I was due on bonfire guard duty after I'd had my tea. Returning from the front door, Mum dropped a bundle on the settee. The paper man had just brought our weekly delivery of TV Times and Radio Times (you needed both in those days,) Weekly News (for Mum,) and 'Dandy' and 'Beano' (supposedly for my sister and I, but Dad would often grab them first.) I looked at the clock on the mantelpiece and noticed I had about twenty minutes before I was on guard duty. Dad was reading one of the comics and my sister Karen had grabbed the other, so I picked up the TV times and went straight to the page for Saturday teatime.

'Batman' was the cult TV programme at the time and every week, episodes on Saturday and Sunday ('same bat-time, same bat-channel') featured one particular villain. Originally, Batman had dealt with The Riddler, The Joker and The Penguin on a three or four weekly cycle, (with occasional appearances by Catwoman,) but just recently a few new enemies had been introduced, like King Tut, Egghead and Ma Parker and they didn't really appeal as much. But this Saturday, The Joker was back! It occurred to me that as soon as word got about that there was a good Batman adventure this weekend, the streets would be devoid of kids, for at least half an hour on Saturday and Sunday. I worked out a plan in my head and rushed out for guard duty and to explain it to my colleagues!

I should have realised when I told them, that there was a flaw in my plan; I should have noticed that their eyes lit up when I informed them of the Joker's return, a lot more than they did when I explained my plan to raid Brighton Street on Sunday teatime. I was as keen to see Batman on the TV as the rest of them, but it seemed that they weren't as ready as I was to sacrifice this privilege for the sake of our bonfire.

So when Sunday teatime came, only me and two seven year olds turned up. If our mission was to be successful, we couldn't afford to wait, so after persuading one of the youngsters that his plastic sword wouldn't be much use at all, we armed ourselves with stout bits of wood, (being the leader, I got the heavy chair leg,) and started the short journey up Liverpool Street and along Witty Street to the corner of Brighton Street.

It was late October, so by now it was getting quite dark. It was as much about glory now as it was about gathering wood, so the plan was to creep up quietly to their bonfire site, then grab the largest, most prestigious items we could find and leg it back to the safety of our own street. I told the youngsters to stay hidden in the shadows of the fish and chip shop whilst I surveyed the terrain. It was almost a clear run from the bonfire site back to this corner, and then we'd be home free if we avoided the road works we'd just passed on Witty Street.

We crept along Brighton Street with all the skill of commandos, (or even with the stealth of ninjas, had we known what ninjas were at the time.) We reached the Brighton Street bonfire after a few minutes and straight away I spotted one of our armchairs. It was providing strategic support to a couple of wooden pallets that had all manner of small items piled on them, and removing it would have brought the whole lot done, probably accompanied by enough noise to bring kids rushing from nearby houses. Then I spotted our mattress; at least it looked like our mattress: all old mattresses looked very similar, but I thought I recognised the pattern of stains on it. I cautiously lifted one corner of it to see if it could be safely removed, though a mattress lacked a little of the 'trophy' value I was hoping for. I wasn't sure if my daring raid was in itself enough to give me kudos among my friends, unless the prize was also enough to impress.

As I lifted the mattress, I spotted the sofa underneath it. It was standing flat on the ground, and didn't seem to be supporting any other weight on it. I instructed my two troops to hold the mattress clear, then I grabbed the sofa and carefully though firmly began to drag it out from the core of the bonfire. I was surprised at how easily and quietly it cleared the pile, and realised that it had something to do with the castors it was on. I considered whether we could push it along, and even toyed with the idea of riding it triumphantly as my lackeys pushed me home, but realised that probably wouldn't be a very good idea. I looked it over. It had only one arm, and was open at the other end. Looking back, I suppose it could have actually been a chaise longue, but it's very unlikely that anyone in Brighton Street would have ever had such exotic furniture; it's more likely that the arm at the other end had been pulled off. I instructed my fellow raiders to take the open end of the sofa, and throwing my chair leg onto the seat cushion I lifted the end with the arm, and we began to run as quickly and as quietly as we could up the street toward the Witty Street chippy.

Whether I'd lost track of time, or whether Batman hadn't been particularly good this week I don't know, but we were suddenly met with shouts behind us as the Brighton Street 'gang' emerged from houses all along the street as we passed. Fear helped me find that little bit extra from somewhere and I ran faster than I thought I possibly could. I could hear the little lads on the other end of the sofa audibly crying and screaming in terror by now, over the shouts and threats coming from our pursuers. We were level with the last block of houses before the corner, when suddenly the door to a house in front of us opened and a lad of about sixteen emerged and stood before us snarling. I ran full force into him and knocked him over sideways before he even knew what had hit him. We continued our mad dash toward freedom.

Suddenly we slowed down. Even though I was still running as fast as I could, it seemed like I was dragging the whole sofa along the street by myself now. My suspicions were confirmed as my two compatriots passed me; they ran screaming around the corner into Witty Street, one empty handed, one carrying a plastic sword. I stopped and turned. The enemy were still a fair distance away, and the lad I'd knocked over hadn't even got up yet. I wasn't going to surrender my prize so I picked up my chair leg from the sofa's seat cushion and prepared to face the enemy. I counted them: six was it? Maybe seven? No, eight of them. Most of them bigger than me and all tooled up with various makeshift weapons. They stopped momentarily as they drew level with the sixteen year old who'd got to his feet by now. He was looking really, really angry as he grabbed a piece of wood from one of the others, then gave it back as he spotted one of the other lads holding one he preferred: this one had a large nail sticking out of it.

I wasn't going to face this lot alone, so I had a decision to make: should I cut my losses and retreat empty handed, or should I risk being caught and try to still escape with my booty. I remembered the castors on the sofa then, and without thinking I dropped my weapon, and raced around to the other end of the sofa and began to push. It moved, almost as quickly as we'd been able to carry it earlier. I don't know exactly how I negotiated the corner, but somehow I managed it, though I seemed to have gone down the kerb and was now pushing my prize along the road on Witty Street rather than along the pavement.

I heard the sounds as my pursuers turned the corner themselves. I estimated the distance they were behind me, and realised that since they were running that bit quicker they'd probably catch me before I'd reached safety. I began to wish that the street wasn't so flat, that if I'd been travelling downhill, I could have ridden the sofa on its castors like a cart. I was exhausted and had got to the point where I knew I would have to stop soon. The thought popped into my mind that at least I had something to lie down on for a brief rest before my pursuers fell on me. I felt ashamed as tears welled in my eyes, though I realise now that this was less a show of emotion and more a reaction to terror. I was a young lad of under ten, and I had no idea what older kids and teenagers were capable of, to the extent that right at that specific moment I seriously believed that I was going to die.

I realised that the sofa had gathered some momentum by now, and decided that rather than just stop, I'd try to use that momentum to go a little further. So it was that exhausted, I dived head first onto it as it rolled. My weight going forward seemed to add to its momentum and my speed increased as I rode the sofa on my belly. For a brief moment I began to believe that I might actually escape after all. That was until I hit the road works on Witty Street.

Any safety barriers that might have once surrounded the shallow hole in the road had long since disappeared (Well, roadworks barriers were all made of wood in those days, so they were probably hiding inside somebody's bonfire pile, possibly ours,) so one edge of the sofa tipped sideways into the hole as the castors struck it, sending me rolling off onto the road toward the pavement. This was it then, they had me. I remember finding a little consolation in the thought that at least I'd come so far that after they'd killed me, they'd have the trouble of carrying their sofa all the way back before the police arrived. I glanced toward it, hoping that the hole was deep enough to cause them some trouble in recovering it, but though tilted to one side in the shallow hole, it was still easily retrievable. Then two things happened at once, though what I saw registered before what I heard: The gang of lads from Brighton Street had stopped and were backing away slowly, and then one by one they broke off from the group, turned and ran. I could hear it now: The calls of the horde of Liverpool Street lads charging up from behind toward me, every one of them ready to defend me (or more likely to defend the sofa.)

The Battle of Witty Street had only just begun and already, victory was ours.

We recovered the sofa from the roadworks with three of its four castors still attached, and it was pushed the rest of the way back to our bonfire. I'd cut my leg when I fell, so I got to ride on it. Some kids had run ahead and spread the news of what had happened, so from the corner of Witty Street all the way down to Field, I heard the cheers of the kids from our street. I was a hero, if only for a short time: I was the hero of the hour, and I can tell you, I milked it for all it was worth.

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