Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Little Lad in Me

"When I was a windy boy and a bit" is the opening line to Dylan Thomas's poem "Lament" and it regularly re-occurs in my mind for some reason and inevitably makes me think back to my childhood.

My early childhood was spent in a narrow group of terraced streets in Sheerness where the sky was only seen above the tall, hemmed-in roofs of the houses and for fun we raced lolly sticks down the raging, rainy gutters, or so I remember them.

But as I grew from a little child into a bigger child of around ten or eleven, I began to explore further away from home. One day, having wandered through the width of three more streets and alleys, I suddenly, like The Mole emerging from his Spring-cleaning, burst apon the grassy banks of the stretch of water that bordered all of Sheerness, known as The Canal and The Boating Lake. Suddenly to my childish eyes I was confronted both there and beyond, with this whole, wide world known as The Countryside and what a wide world it was.

The narrow Halfway Road wound its way into the distance and was bordered on both sides by water-voled ditches, allotments, pig sheds and above all else, great wide grazing marshes. Marshes that contained sheep and cattle, ducks, skylarks and hawks that hung in the air - and I was hooked. Gradually I began to make regular incursions further and further up the road, entranced by the road-side ditches bursting, or so it seemed, with water voles and moorhens. Then, as I became more daring, I began to venture out into the marshes themselves, fear over-ridden by an intense curiosity in what Nature had in store to be found. And the first of these was a plank that crossed a ditch in the middle of one of the fields and throughout that Spring I spent hours laying flat along that plank, nose almost touching the water, watching every movement of the things below the water. Sticklebacks, Water Beetles, tadpoles, frogs, and great swarms of Water Fleas. I think I spent as much time in the library trying to identify these things as I did laying on the plank but I was encaptured, and still are, by anything to do with water.

Exploring still further afield I came across the council's sewerage works on the edge of the marsh. Great round and open-topped beds full to overflowing with fermenting effluence, continually sprinkled with water by rotating arms and all un-fenced and open to the curiosity of a young child such as I. This was indeed a fascinating place and worthy of many visits and during the summer months many dozens of self-sown tomato plants grew around the site (think about it) and it was great to be able to pop warm, juicy tomatos into my mouth as I walked by, a rare treat in those days.

Gradually, with every visit to my little solitary world, more and more specimens got taken back home for observation. An old stone sink with the plughole blocked up was my pond full of tadpoles, where I was fascinated to actually watch these grow into miniature frogs. Sweet jars, with top covers of old pieces of net curtain, were packed with stinging nettles and caterpillars and I watched as these eventually turned into chrysalis's and then beautiful Small Tortoiseshell butterflies.

I imagine that these days it would be almost impossible for a lad of that age to be able to self-educate himself in the ways of nature in such a way, times and parents have changed and its an almighty shame.

"Now as I was young and easy under the apples boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes".................Dylan Thomas.


  1. A very nostalgic read Derek, sounds much like my younger days :-)

    At least sheppy has been largely immune to the wholesale destruction that the mainland countryside has suffered. It always saddens me when I visit my parents, to see the surrounding farmland that I spent most days of my childhood immersed in, totally sanitised of hedgerows, rough areas and those big lone trees that stood in the middle of the fields :-(

  2. Warren,
    I'd love to be able to say you was right but "largely immune" is not a description that I would use with reference to habitat destruction on Sheppey. The grassy slopes of southern Minster are in the process of having many thousands of houses built on them, something that will end up as a mini-town. We have three huge prisons, we have a large new housing estate on what until recently was our old hospital site and the best Swift colony on Sheppey, and so on and so on.

  3. Looks like you're catching up with the rest of us then. That mini town will be awful.....dog walkers everywhere :-)

  4. A lovely read Derek and a very vivid account of your childhood! I too looked for Sticklebacks and took tadpoles home where they would live in a large washing up bowl sunk in to the garden and I would be so excited to see them gradually emerge into frogs. Caterpillars would be kept in jars, to admire for a while and then set free, and I had an old table in the garden laden with acorns, jars of rosehips, sticky-buds etc, whatever was in season to deck my 'Nature table' with...Happy days :)

  5. Jan,

    Very happy days, one can only hope that there are still children about these days that still do that sort of thing.