Grab the Brandy…

This may get a bit maudlin…

Well hopefully it won’t but those of you that have read my work before will know how rough it can get inside my consciousness 😉

I’ve been considering this quite a bit recently… In fact it has managed to keep me awake quite a few times over the last few weeks… You see I’ve been thinking that as a child of the seventies I’m probably the last generation that had a proper, well-rounded experience in my local park… Now I didn’t grow up in a part of London that had one of the famous parks… No splashing about in the Serpentine for me… No dodging traffic through Hyde Park… No, my local park was a quiet, unassuming little municipal park looked after by the local authority and LOVED by all the local families.

I’m afraid this is going to be one of those “things were so much better in my day” pieces… But, do you now what? In this case I actually believe I’m right… You see when I was a young our local parks were run in a very different way than they are today… For one thing, we had Park-Keepers! Now it may not seem much but a good Park-Keeper is much more than just some guy that mows the grass and screams at teenagers for leaving beer cans and condoms in the flower beds…

In our little park in South East London we had, I think, four Parkies in two separate areas of the park. I don’t really remember the park very well from when I was very young. I do remember the big horse headed “cheese-cutter” that would hold about a hundred screaming kids (at least as far as I’m concerned it did but I was knee-high to a grass-hopper at the time) and I remember the fenced off area that was for toddlers… I seem to remember throwing a hissy fit in there because the hat of my Robin Hood (or was it Peter Pan?) costume kept blowing away during a fancy dress competition when I was about 4…

Maybe at this point it would help if I gave a quick word sketch about how the park looked… From the “top” entrance you would walk down a service road with trees and Bushes either side (I’ll explain the capitalised B shortly)… as you reach the park proper your view is of a large open field with a path across it, to your left is a fenced off, tarmacked area (originally the swing park with the HUGE cheese-cutter – later the “road network” used to teach cycle proficiency), to the right is the aforementioned “Pre-school” area… Just beyond that is/was the first Parkie’s hut… Following either of the two paths down past the ornamental bridge and pond will take you down the hill to the Lower Swing Park (LSP)… For me, as a sproglette, this place was heaven 🙂

Actually, when I think about it, the whole park was heaven 🙂 I remember that the field at the top (which for a toddler took about three weeks to cross) was; when I was very, very young, the site of a visit from the Capital 194 Road Show. This was back when what is now C(r)apital was a good, nay Great, radio station. I remember my mother arguing with a woman next to us because the DJs were throwing out pin badges with birth signs on them and this woman not liking that we claimed we were entitled to two Scorpio ones as our B’days are only a couple of days apart…

As a sproglette I remember that the LSP had a stone built pagoda type thing (Don’t ask me what it really was I was of the age that I thought I could be a fire engine when I grew up) and (I vaguely remember) the toilets… One thing I can assure you it did have was a small metal hut that was the home from home for Maureen. Maureen was “our” Parky… The guys at the top of the park were responsible for the upkeep of the park – mowing, pruning, planting, all the stuff a park needs to make it a park and not just a piece of waste ground –  while Maureen was responsible for making sure that all us kids didn’t kill each other on the slide; or if we did try, she would be there will her trusty bottle of TCP and a sticking plaster (if she was in a good mood we were allowed the odd biscuit and tea/lemon squash)…

Our little park had everything!!! Three sets of swings, a climbing frame (affectionately known as the Monkey Bars), a slide, see-saw, roundabout, two smaller cheese-cutters and the crowning glory (at least for the summer months) a two tiered paddling pool with a vertical water jet…

Now I’m not saying that our park was perfect and that our lives were idyllic… but I will say that for every argument about who was “King of the Castle” there was a fair damsel that wanted a push on the swings… Our childhood summers were magical in that park. We would spend just about every hour of daylight during the summer holidays attempting to “scuba dive” in two feet of water, getting stuck on the hot metal trying to use the slide with wet trunks, daring each other to walk across the top of the climbing frame or the classic, see who can jump the furthest from an upward swinging swing…

Part of the charm of the place (certainly for our parents) was the fact that we all felt safe. During the summer there would be Maureen and maybe one or two other adults that would be there to keep an eye on about 30 or 40 sugar rushing pre-teens… Nobody ever said “this ain’t my kid”.

Obviously, as we got older the swings and pools, etc. began to lose their appeal… In fact, once we had reached double figures, the greatest pleasure came from attempting to negotiate from one end of the park to the other through The Bushes… For a couple of years this was quite a challenge because part of the route took us past the upper Parky’s hut and those guys were crAzeee!!! But that is what I’m talking about… through most of my childhood our park always had at least three or four adults there that were responsible not only for the maintenance of the equipment and the flower-beds but also to ensure that all of the people who used the park felt safe. Sure, some of the Parkies quite probably hated us kids but they never made us feel unwelcome…

And then, as my childhood came to an end and my teen years loomed, the Wicked Witch of the North came to power and everything changed. Parks and recreation areas began to be judged not on their worth to the community but on whether they were cost-effective. First to go was Maureen (not sacked, just not replaced after her “retirement”), then the rest of the parkies… until eventually park maintenance was the responsibility of a central “company” that mowed the field once a year and made sure the playsets didn’t hurt anybody by the simple expedient of removing most of them…

I haven’t been back to my park for at least a decade… I don’t know if I want to… The last time I was there was really quite upsetting… Where, when I was a sprog, you would find half a hundred kids splashing about in the pools, there is a layer of wood-chippings and a fence, where you could see dozens of kids chasing each other like demons or making each other sick on the roundabout, now all you will find is empty patches of rubber matting… When I was a child the “darkest” thing we ever saw under the ornamental bridge was a couple of empty cans or (Om forgive) a “used” carrier bag, the last time I was there a couple of junkies were trying to indulge in (what I hope was) some sort of sexual activity… The pre-school area looked like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie… And as for the people scurrying through, they all looked slightly terrified, beaten down… No more laughing, care-free kids… No more welcoming Parkies… No more Park

Were things better when I was a kid? Yes. No. I don’t really know… I do know that whenever I have taken my nephews or nieces to a park (not MY park, I couldn’t bare it) over the past few years I have been greeted with looks of suspicion… the playsets looked (and felt) overly safe and uninspiring… Indeed, I felt that the only reason the children I was with were only enjoying being there because I was chasing them around and playing the fool, left to their own devices they would rather have been at home…

I don’t know, maybe I’m just an old fart but parks don’t feel like they used to any more…

Oh pass the bloody brandy…

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3 comments on “Grab the Brandy…

  1. I remember our Rec, it wasn’t what you would call well-equipped, a few swings, see-saw, and one of those small leg-crusher roundabouts, but think that just encouraged us to use our imaginations. All I know is, me and my brother had loads of fun there. Haven’t been anywhere near the village I grew up in in donkey’s years, so don’t know the situation now.

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