I made my first trip to London when I was ten-years-old. My grandparents took me to see an aunt, who had the curious name of Dorrie, and who lived in Burnt Oak, a suburb in the Edgware district of North London. My older brother had made the trip the previous year, and he had returned with tales of tube trains, waxworks and two apple trees in the garden.
We went by overnight coach from Newcastle, but even at that young age I was never the best of sleepers. As my grandparents dozed, I leaned into the aisle so that I could stare through the windscreen at the giant passing road signs, waiting for the magic name to appear (it came around the Sheffield area if I remember rightly). I was enthralled by this nocturnal world of cats-eyes, blazing headlights and motorway services that stayed open all night.
By the time we reached London, just as the local populace headed for work, I was shattered. A short taxi ride later and we were knocking at the door of our destination, and I met Dorrie for the first time. After tea and toast, I was dispatched to a small bedroom on the ground floor. It was clean and comfortable and I was soon fast asleep.
We did nothing that day, but in the evening my auntie and grandparents went out to a pub at the bottom of the road, leaving me alone in the strange house after I’d assured them I’d be all right. I had a plentiful supply of sweets and pop, and I tried reading my Beano Summer Special, but I couldn’t settle in the unusual surroundings, especially when dusk fell. A wooden standard lamp with fringed shade cast a gloomy light upon a huge old sideboard on which stood a mantel clock with a loud tick and a framed photograph of a soldier in uniform.
Somewhat spooked, I went outside, where I felt safer because people were on the street. I took a stroll down to the pub where my grandparents sat, and I returned to the house, where I spent the rest of the night leaning on the gate. I darted indoors when I saw my grandparents approaching.
The following day, we set about exploring the capital and I took my first trip on the tube. I was fascinated by the long wooden escalators which gave off a smell that I assumed to be warm lubricating oil. The walls of the stations and escalators were awash with posters advertising new films, and I was somewhat disturbed by the defiant two-fingered salute given by Billy Casper on posters advertising Kes. Another film that was advertised at that time was The Watermelon Man. I saw both of these when I got older and one remains a much-loved favourite, while the other was as forgettable as an advert for grass seed. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you which is which.
We were on the Northern Line, and the stations we passed through had names that were new to me: Brent Cross, Belsize Park and Chalk Farm. I loved the rocking of the train as it sped through dark tunnels; the screeches and the flashes. We visited Buckingham Palace (I wasn’t impressed) and Trafalgar Square, where I got my photo taken with some feathered friends (that’s my gran behind me on the right, getting ready to hand her money over to Del Boy for the snaps). I went to bed that night in that state of tiredness that only comes after a day spent traipsing around a busy town or city.
I woke up the next morning to the sound of someone rapping on the window of my bedroom. Puzzled, I got up and, rather gingerly, pulled back the curtain. I don’t think the word gobsmacked was in use at that time, but it would have been the perfect way to describe what I saw. There, in the garden, were my two brothers and, further back, my parents. My solo jaunt had turned into a family holiday.
When my grandparents got over the shock of the new arrivals, we went for the only time the other way on the tube, to Edgware. All I remember of that trip is being in a pub drinking lemonade while a band played on the stage. My older brother drew my attention to the rather stout saxophonist, and the comical way he sucked in breath as he played. His lips were tight around the mouthpiece, until he gulped in air, when the side of his mouth would open up, and then snap shut as sharply as a mousetrap. I found this hilarious.
London had shown me many things I’d never seen before, but one place we visited left me green with envy – and it wasn’t on the usual tourist trail. We were in Battersea (minus grandparents and Dorrie), and my dad took us into an adventure playground. To a street urchin like me, this rickety-looking rat-run was a merger of Shangri La, Utopia and El Dorado, all held together with nails and rope.
I ran and climbed and swung without parental yells to come down before I hurt myself. I loved the whole idea of a home-made assault course, cobbled together with old doors, car tyres and telegraph poles. The Battersea Adventure Playground was probably my favourite part of the entire London trip.
During my research for this post, I checked out the adventure playground to see if it was still going. I was pleased to see that it is, but saddened to see that it is no longer free and that the original structure was demolished in 2014. Fourteen staff were employed in the playground, supervising activities and running workshops for children. Of course, during these austere times, there is no room for paid staff, so the new park is safe and unsupervised – and it costs money to enter.
I wrote in a previous post of the way my local swimming pool closed a warm and inviting cafe, which was part of the appeal of a trip to the baths, to be replaced by soulless vending machines situated in empty seating areas. It would appear that the cuts that did for my cafe have also done for the Battersea Adventure Playground.
This is not a political blog, but I am sick to the teeth of seeing services that were used and loved being either closed down or run on the cheap in the name of cutting our way to growth. Swimmers of the vending machine generation know only the bare, unstaffed seating area. They missed out on the post-swim banter with staff over a frothy Horlicks while waiting for a hot dog. And what price would you put on the childrens’ workshops at the Battersea Adventure Playground which have been discontinued because saving money is, to some, more important than broadening the mind of a child (read that link above for the whole sorry tale). It all makes for a colder, less communicative world. And it stinks.