Playgrounds


Here are a few of the flat dwellers. Frances Audas is on the left and her little brother Tim is next to her. I think that's Leslie Thomas next to Tim. I am in the middle carrying my handbag like the Queen.


Cheadle Hulme was a small village in Cheshire which in 1953 suddenly acquired a large new block of flats completely out of keeping with the surrounding Victorian homes. The British Rayon Research Association had been formed near Ringway Airport (later to become Manchester International) and homes were needed for the growing number of scientists joining the organization. The occupants of Cheadle Road’s Victorian houses suddenly found they had new neighbours, most of whom were young couples with small children – like my family.


The flats we all called home may have been new, but they had been built in the grounds of a rambling, dilapidated Victorian mansion. In its heyday it had obviously been quite grand. The main entrance had opened on to Cheadle Road with huge wrought iron gates. (These had been removed some time ago and now lay quietly rusting in amongst the rhododendrons, just to one side of the stone pillars which had once supported them.) The wide drive would have taken visitors to the imposing front door with its elaborate leaded lights. Family and guests who arrived with horses would have found comfortable shelter for their animals in the generous brick-built stables. There was also a high-roofed garage with multi-hinged doors, home now to only a single car, but built with enough space to accommodate a sizeable carriage. Trade deliveries would have pulled their carts around on to the cobbled area at the side of the house where there was a series of outhouses for storage, as well as a stone staircase leading to the cellar and the basement kitchen. It was a sprawling overgrown relic, a ready-made playground, perfect for imaginative children.


The entire grounds had originally been surrounded by a low stone wall, but large sections of this boundary had since either crumbled or been removed. A row of enormous Horse Chestnut trees began by the main entrance and ran the full length of the roadside wall, shielding the grounds from any curious passers-by, but fair game for conker collecting boys each autumn. The trees had been left undisturbed as our flats were built. They were obviously much too difficult and costly for the builders to remove, but the roadside wall had been less of a problem to dismantle. It now ended abruptly just opposite our communal entrance hall. From that point it was replaced by cheap, splintery wooden uprights linked by twisted metal, just something to mark a boundary from the pavement.


Our flats stood on what had clearly been the vast gardens at the back of the old house. The original owners would have viewed these from what must have been a beautiful sitting room. Designed to catch the evening sun through high windows, its tall double doors opened on to a wooden staircase which sloped down to the lawn. To us children these stairs were a useful seating area, but only during the drier days of summer. After rainy weather they became treacherously slippery.


Even with the completion of our flats, there was still plenty of grass left for us to run and tumble over and a large crescent-shaped rockery to climb. Usefully, its water-worn limestone rocks were easily crumbled to provide chunks of chalk for writing and drawing on the tarmac paths around our home. The apple trees in the overgrown orchard had been well-trained in their early years and remained stunted. They offered little challenge for an adventurous climber, but their branches provided a comfortable vantage point on a warm day. Over towards the stables, there were pear trees. Sitting on top of its crumbling brick walls eating pears was a perfect way to spend time on a warm autumn afternoon. Beyond the remains of the stone walls, the fruit trees and the stables there was a wide, wild uneven field of weeds and brambles – the ideal place for what became our annual bonfire night celebration.


The rambling old house next door was always referred to as ‘the old flats’ because by the 1950s it was divided into a series of enormous bedsits. Only one of the BRRA scientists was housed there, a lady called Trudi Rowman, whose open-topped sports car was the lone inhabitant of that imposing garage. She was the object of considerable awe. Not only was she a highly qualified woman working in an all-male environment, but every morning, winter and summer alike, she would drive her open-topped car to work in a sleeveless dress.

We children were often reminded that we should not be loitering near the old flats, but it was just such an irresistible collection of hiding places and climbable surfaces – especially the rusting spiral fire escape which was supposed to be strictly out of bounds. The old outhouses and cellar steps were perfect places to invent ghost stories when the cooler weather set in and darkness arrived earlier. But as children who were neither babies nor toddlers we were supposed to ‘play out with friends’ so nobody kept a very close watch on our exact whereabouts, as long as we stayed within the grounds. Not having a watch between us we relied on the ‘come back when it starts to get dark’ rule, although even then, if the game happened to be particularly exciting, we might push our luck.


The move to school when I was five offered different playgrounds. I was not a shy child and I was never short of playmates during break or lunchtime. Our games depended on whatever equipment was available. If we had a long rope and two people who would turn, we could skip, calling each other in and out. Even a single skipping rope meant that two people could jump together. A couple of tennis balls and a handy brick wall meant a game of two ball. This game had all sorts of elaborations for the more skilful players, involving throwing under and over arm, bouncing, stepping forwards and backwards all accompanied by the correct rhymes. It was possible to play two ball in the infant’s playground because the wooden classrooms had a very useful brick wall at one end.


Once the autumn school term began the grounds of our flats were regularly invaded by groups of boys on their way to or from school. It was conker season. The conkers had to be collected and sorted to find the prize specimens. Then serious conkerers would bake their chosen thoroughbreds and thread a string through them ready for contests at school. The idea was to annihilate your opponent’s conker so that it shattered into tiny pieces when you hit it with yours, repeating the process against all comers until your conker was declared champion.


As conker season faded into winter, marbles often took their place in the playground. There were certainly the cheaper ones which could be bought in bags in Monkhouse’s (the big newsagents in Cheadle Hulme village), but the bigger and more beautifully coloured marbles, the dobbers and oilies were much more expensive and bought individually from specialist toy shops like Wiles in Manchester. Ball bearings of all sizes made truly impressive marbles but they weren’t allowed in school.


The term after Christmas meant there would be snow at some point. There was never a question that school would be closed. Some children who lived further away might arrive a little later but there was no suggestion that families might be warned not to travel for fear they would have an accident on the way; there would have been no way to let them know at short notice. Not everyone had a home phone.


If snow had fallen, it was understood that children would spend break and lunchtime outside making snowmen on the field and having snowball fights. The junior school classrooms surrounded their playground and were separated from the tarmac by a narrow strip of concrete. This walkway was covered overhead but otherwise open to the weather. On snowy days it was awash with the watery melted snow from boots and shoes as we returned, shivering, to our class. Every year we forgot the same basic rule – not only is snow cold but when it melts it leaves your gloves and your shoes and your coat wet. Our classrooms were warmed by the huge solid radiators which were soon covered by damp clothes and the whole room smelled like a wet dog.


Snow and ice meant the opportunity to make extra-long and potentially lethal slides on the playground. The brave slid the full-length standing, more timid souls would crouch down and be pulled along by a friend on each side holding their hand. Anyone who slipped and was injured was given first-aid treatment from the dinner-ladies’ medical box (containing Dettol, lint, cotton wool and plasters) and told to be more careful. I don’t remember there being any kind of an accident book.


Whatever the time of year, games were a very important part of school life and some people were just really good at particular games. Helen Ogden was decidedly the best rollerskater. She could perform a u-turn just by putting the heels of her skates together and turning out her toes so that the skates made a straight line. She didn’t stop to perform this impressive trick and she never seemed to fall over. The autumn game of choice for girls when I was eight was Jacks. Christine Kershaw was probably the best jacks player at the height of that particular craze. Jacks were small pointed metal shapes that came in a little fabric bag along with a small coloured rubber ball. The kit cost 2 shillings and sixpence so it was a while before most people had one. The idea was to throw the jacks on the table or floor, throw the ball in the air and collect the jacks in ones, twos threes etc. before the ball bounced a certain number of times. Christine had long slender fingers and she seemed to sweep up the jacks long before she caught the little ball whereas I always felt that I was only just grabbing them in time.


(Here's Denise Wynn and I photographed by her dad in her garden - obviously good practice for our presentation at court)


One of the favourite games all year around was dressing up. At home it was easier to achieve more exotic effects. There were always my mother’s old dresses and hats which could be commandeered along with the many random pieces of all kinds of fabrics from her sewing. There was jewellery to be plundered too. My mother’s clip earrings were disappointing. They sparkled prettily but pinched my ear lobes. The greatest treasure lay hidden in a square silver metal box with velvet lining. Opening its hinged lid revealed a heavy starburst brooch with an enormous translucent deep blue stone at its centre. I could lie it flat on the back of my hand, pinching the pin between my fingers and become a princess with a gigantic sapphire ring. Dressing up at school required more imagination. Wrapping the arms of my cardigan around my waist and tying them I could pretend I was wearing a long skirt. Draping my coat across my shoulders transformed it into an elegant cape and I could instantly become Maid Marian.


When dressing myself wasn’t possible then there were always cardboard cutout dolls to transform into royalty. Usually, these were bought as treats from the newsagents. They came in a thin cardboard backed book with the doll printed on the inside back cover. Usually, her shape could easily be pressed free as well as a half-moon shape with a slit which slotted in place at right angles to her feet to keep her upright. The inside pages of the book had different paper outfits for the doll to wear, one of which was always a magnificent ballgown. Once the doll was free then it was time to start cutting out her dresses. There would be a story included to describe when and where the doll wore them. The paper dresses had small tabs on the shoulders and waist to keep them in place and it was all too easy to cut these off and have to start all over again. It was all amazingly fiddly and time-consuming which is why, I suppose, it was a popular choice with my mother.