I was a child of the sixties but, if they swung with any resonance elsewhere, I missed them altogether.
I grew up on the edge of the market town of Knaresborough, the edge then, though the fields and country lanes where I played as a child are now covered by a veritable rash of houses and trading parks.
The sixties for Knaresborough were much the same as the fifties and drifted aimlessly into the seventies or its population would have been scandalised. A local young mother discarded her tweed coat and rollers in favour of clothes unbefitting of her age and was the talk of the street. Yet no one thought any the less of the many husbands escorted to bed with a frying pan, or other suitable weapon, on a Friday night, their wages mostly gracing the owner of the Ivy Cottage’s, or some similar establishment’s, Landlord’s pocket. Proper men, who could take a drink or two, and why not? It was a man’s world and plenty of children grew up on bread and dripping.
Knaresborough still boasted the ‘Oldest Sweet Shop’ and Chemist in England back then. In recent years, I note that the sweet shop is a hairdressers and the chemist just retains its frontage, having a tea room inside. Strangely I felt the loss of these establishments more keenly than any other. But back then they were constants with goods little changed from Mum’s childhood.
On our street no one locked their doors and everybody knew everybody’s business. Coal was delivered by a man who, apart from his bright red eyes, looked as if he might have been modelled from that medium. The Pop man and the Rag and Bone man still delivered or collected their wares by horse and cart.
As children we were taught to avoid the local quarry because of the bogeyman who lived in the shed under the bridge. Though I did once have to decide between almost certain death or risking mum’s wrath, had I returned home having lost a flip-flop in the sinking mud in that forbidden place - possible death was the only option. I returned from its alien landscape of grey stones and coveted bulrushes clutching my slip covered shoe and a handful of cowslips from the top of the railway embankment - also forbidden, our parents assuring us that closer than three yards from the top we’d be sucked under a spectral train, somehow arriving silently and robbing them of their children and us of our young lives. I was in my forties before I dared to divulge details of my brush with death to my horrified parents.
Indifferent to the gifts that were mine, to have a garden that edged the bottom of a railway bank, its track leading out to open countryside, I enjoyed the endless freedom to roam and learn. Woken by the morning chorus of birds, residing in the roof, I would pull on sweater and jeans whilst trying to avoid Mum’s attempts to crucify my hair into a bun. In truth, her efforts rarely lasted to the bottom of the garden.
Over the hedge I would go, to the sanctuary of the railway bank and its adjacent gardens, each offering other children or a profusion of caged animals and all their natural scents. Unable to resist the furry or feathered, I was drawn to searching for new laid eggs and the fascination of a goat that could be milked.
I knew the seasons’ rhythms from the earliest celandines and wood-anemones to the wild strawberries and brambles of autumn. I listened out for the cuckoos’ return and watched the abundance of wild creatures - the bully starlings who stole all the bread from the ‘spuggies’ in the winter months and the odd cheeky robin following Dad’s spade in his attempts to grow vegetables.
It was a thankless task. The neighbours’ caged animals would invariably find a way to scramble into his allotment and nibble new shoots barely raised. We would help ourselves to peas at the first sign of a bump in the pod; carrots, radishes and spring onions had only the merest chance to swell before I and my brother devoured them.
If Dad did have a success, it was his marrows. Sadly, no one liked them; marrows earned even the goats’ and rabbits’ disdain or it’s improbable they would have made it to maturity. After several meals reminiscent of slugs mulched with cabbage, the whole family revolted. Consequently, they were pickled in their masses and overpopulated the pantry. At least Mum loved a pickle and wasting anything, when a workingman’s wage was a pittance, was a crime.
I was a dreamy distant child, little troubled and slightly confused by life’s agendas. I was more aware of a hedge full of spider silk, trailing its beads of rain in the autumn, or spiky-cased horse chestnuts, with their mahogany nuts, than I was of what adults seemed to want of me. I walked the Ginnel to school, head down, searching for nature’s leavings. How could I be so late? I just didn’t know.
How could I explain the need to trail my fingers along the railings or hedges, sending them fuzzy, or pausing to study the new green leaves before they turned copper on the birch.
Unfortunately, the spiders that sent others into fits of screaming fascinated me with their sticky ballet on the wire. Just as a catkin, or the fragments of a tiny blue-green egg, could rob me of my senses for a length of time not remotely conducive to punctuality. I would dawdle in wet weather to save slugs, snails and worms from the less conscientious feet of others. I would rescue rodents and rehabilitate injured pigeons, with the help of the elderly gentleman and his wife who lived nearby and had almost everything, short of a tiger, living in their large shed.
No, I didn’t know how my ribbons got lost or strange stains appeared on my new school frock, how my arm had a scratch the length of it or my hair was tangled up with bits of most of the flora and fauna it had briefly visited.
However, such disasters and their irate consequences meant I did know the secret of removing oil from socks, and creating invisible repairs, and I willingly shared my skills with my peers to protect their delicate behinds from unwarranted adult attention.
Selective memories provide long hot summers; foggy mornings that burnt back to provide blue cloudless skies. Autumns were crisp and abundant; winters were snowy and cold.
Despite the nights drawing in, there was always the heady display of Harvest Festival to look forward to or the delights of Bonfire Night. This meant treacle toffee, or toffee apples if you were lucky, bought from the corner shop. There was always a small box of fireworks to let off in the garden. It was Dad’s job to supervise such dangerous materials. We had, of course, been told about children, who would still have died if they had fallen into a doctor’s arms, from their injuries, having been misguided enough to play with fireworks.
Christmas, too, was magical. It generally meant a present buying trip to Harrogate, or even Leeds, then an exotic hotchpotch of demolished industrial decay and shiny enormous department stores.
But, best of all, there would be shiny foil paper at school to create lanterns and stars, paper chains and nativity plays. There would be presents, handmade and built to withstand a Third World War or freak weather conditions, along with books, board games and selection boxes.
Sadly, there were also maiden aunts; these powdered ethereal creatures would buy you presents like talcum powder or knit you misshapen clothes. The former was useless as a modelling compound and oddly, I discovered later, not to be used on the hall carpet to turn Enid Blyton books into passable skates. The latter, in the cause of not wasting good clothing, had to be worn somewhere no other child might venture or social ostracism was sure to follow.
In my eighth year I bid the sixties farewell; it was the year I discovered there was no Santa and the Christmas tree lights got broken when it was too late to buy more. I had discovered I no longer enjoyed playing but was not old enough to regard the strange grubby creatures called boys with any real interest. A dark void stretched out before me and I wept in my mother’s arms for my lost childhood.
Today’s Knaresborough retains its quaintness. The castle ruins keep their vigil over the beautiful castle and moat gardens. The paddling pool has changed little since I was a girl, other than to gain a fresh coat of paint. I’ve a picture of Mum sitting on its edge, just as I did more than two decades later. How very privileged we were without knowing it; few children today are blessed with the freedoms we knew.