My First Wild Place

My grandparents’ old house was put up for sale recently, which gave me a chance to have a look at what the owners had done to the place. The house itself had been completely reconfigured internally, to the point that it was almost unrecognisable, but that was inevitable as it had been in need of serious modernisation for many years. It looked good, and I didn’t begrudge any of the changes. What startled me, however, was the change that had been made to the garden, my childhood playground. When I was growing up the garden was huge and diverse and exciting, but it has since been stripped and paved, denuded of vegetation and the potential for adventure. It made me nostalgic about the time I spent there in my formative years.

I was always close to my grandparents, and through a combination of luck and proximity I attained an unrequested but not unwelcome ‘golden grandchild’ status. I spent many long days with them as a youngster, often helping grandad with a madcap scheme in the garage or baking an array of rustic but tasty foodstuffs with grandma. The two of them were without doubt the catalysts for my lifelong love of natural history, and our trips out into the countryside were fulfilling and frequent. The dynamic changed slightly when grandad passed away after a period of illness in 1997, and my role changed from co-adventurer to weekly visitor and occasional lawn mower. Grandma hung on for over 10 more years before a stroke took her independence away, but I still remember those latter years fondly.

As a youngster the garden was my kingdom, and I the explorer in chief. The rear of the house directly overlooked a small linear lawn area, and the job of cutting the grass was frequently my price for the reward of lunch. I didn’t mind though, because once mown the lawn became my archery arena. My equipment was basic, a rudimentary bow made from a sturdy stick of willow and garden twine, my arrows crudely butchered bamboo canes, but it didn’t matter. I was Robin Hood and William Tell rolled into one.

Between the lawn and the house was a small plum tree and rose bed, which is where I first became fascinated with creepy-crawlies, particularly the aphids that clustered around the rosebuds. On the opposite side of the lawn was an area of garden shrubs that held little intrinsic interest for me, although it did attract a good selection of bees and butterflies. I was always more interested in the fruits and vegetables than the flowers, although the rudbeckia blooms hold a special place in my memory.

Beneath the kitchen window a concrete slabbed pathway ran adjacent to the outdoor toilet (unbelievably cold!) and coal place on the left hand side, before sloping up slightly to the level of the rest of the garden. Several points of interest were accessible from the top of this slope, including a quince tree to the left, a home-made cold-frame (built from old windows) and rhubarb patch to the right, and a small spindle tree directly ahead. There is an old photograph somewhere of me standing in this area at the age of four, wearing grandad’s hat, coat and gardening gloves. I haven’t seen it for years.

Progress along the central pathway, beyond the small patch of lemon balm on the left, led to a small apple orchard. This area was grandad’s pet project and contained a broad selection of rare apple types, including several specimens where he had grafted multiple different apple varieties onto the same tree. From the right hand side of the orchard it was possible to access a narrow avenue of fruit bushes, with gooseberries to the left and blackcurrants to the right. I used to gorge on gooseberries until my stomach hurt. I can’t stand them now!

Next to the fruit bushes was a small plot where grandad and I used to plant runner beans in early summer. This was a particularly fun job, involving the construction of a line of bamboo wigwams held together by offcuts of wire foraged from the garage. I can remember the structure and form of the runner bean plants vividly.

A short walk back to the central path gave access to a further large planting area to the left, but this was the domain of more flowers and shrubs that never gripped me. There was, however, a small patch of chives that we frequently used to plunder to enliven our breakfast scrambled eggs. Beyond the tedious shrub bed was a further area of apple orchard, including a tree where grandad and I installed a small wooden bench (a bit of old door if I remember correctly). On at least one occasion bumblebees nested within the mossy grass at the foot on this tree, which was yet another milestone in my ecological awakening.

The garden backed onto my old infant school, and the boundary between the two was a hawthorn hedgerow containing a large mirabelle plum tree that annually showered the garden with beautiful white blossom. After the blossom came a sea of tiny but delicious orange plums, which grandma used to collect and turn into unfathomably sweet jam. I often helped with the jam making process, trying frantically to lick the spoon whilst avoiding scalding myself on the sugary lava.

The far corner of the garden was the most exciting and mysterious part. Concealed behind a cherry laurel bush and in the shadow of a eucalyptus tree, this is where the fun things happened. The first fun thing was the twin compost heap, built by grandad out of wood offcuts and chainlink wire. These composts were used on rotation, so as one became full it was left to decompose whilst the other was filled. My main role in those days was to climb inside and stamp the leaves down, but this also gave me the opportunity to interact with the numerous worms, slugs, snails and bugs that made their home in the compost.

Next to the compost was an even more exciting attraction, the incinerator. From memory this was made from an old cast iron water tank, and grandad and I frequently used to build bonfires to dispose of waste paper and piles of woody garden rubbish. Occasionally the fire would require a splash of paraffin to bring it to life, and the sound and smell is impossible to forget. The bonfires generally occurred in the evening, and i’d spend an age watching the flames dance before arriving home smelling of woodsmoke and paraffin, but blissfully happy. I don’t feel sad, but I do miss those times.

This particular corner of the garden was the scene of the most exciting wildlife encounter of my young life, when I happened upon a sparrowhawk in the eucalyptus tree in the process of tearing open an unfortunate woodpigeon. The sparrowhawk was startled and flew away, and I was startled and flew away too. I ran to the house, crying out with excitement until grandad came to investigate. We found the abandoned pigeon, torn and visceral, and we were both fascinated. It seems gruesome in hindsight, but I made grandad put the pigeon in a large jar for me so that I could take it home. It lived at the bottom of my parents garden for several weeks in gradually more advanced states of decomposition before dad eventually disposed of it. It’s hard to imagine that any wildlife encounter in my life will ever affect me like that again, the adrenaline coursing through my veins was extraordinary.

When I started writing this piece I have no idea just how vividly I remembered the sights and smells of the place, and how much my time spent there shaped my subsequent life. A lot has changed since then, and those places of my childhood don’t exist anymore, but I won’t forget them. It was my first wild place.

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