Saturday, 7 August 2010

Once upon a time

A lot of afternoons this summer, whilst out on my daily cycle ride, I have sat talking to a few guys along Minster Leas pretty much always about "the old days", as you do when you get to a certain age (old).

Yesterday we were talking about how most countryside children in the 1950's would of carried a catapult in their pockets, you'd probably be arrested or banned from school for carrying one nowadays. So there we were, all in our 60's and arguing about the merits of favourite types of bush or tree for supplying the perfect prong, and how we would lovingly sculpt and sandpaper this perfect prong until it was ready for a final coat of varnish. After that would come the attaching of the catapult elastic. Lengths of black, square elastic, specially bought in Sheerness from a shop called Meeham's - that sold everything a young child could want in those days, and buy if you was lucky, things like airgun pellets and rabbit snares. We then had discussion on the best methods of attaching the elastic to the prong. Some guys swore by the method of making a groove in the top of each prong and then passing the elastic over this groove before the end of the elastic was tightly bound to the prongs using catgut or string. I sometimes simply drilled a hole in each prong and then passed the elastic through to be knotted on one side. Problem with this is that it weakened the stems and often resulted in them snapping when pulling the elastic fully back - painful when a fully extended pouch and stone suddenly whacked against your thumb.
The subject that caused much hilarity was when one guy asked "what did you use to make the pouch" and we all to a man said "soft leather tongues from your shoes". You could always identify a successful country boy in my school by looking down at his shoes!
Finally, much time was spent on Sheerness beach carefully selecting the perfect pebbles, small and round as possible. With pockets bulging with such weaponry we were then all ready to set of in pursuit of targets - a neighbouring cat, a Jackdaw on the chimney pots, the bully several gardens away, who never knew where the stone came from that hit him in the face - happy days!

Another pretty pointless hobby that I had as a 11/12 year old schoolboy was the collection of birds footprints. I had read a book called "Tracks, Trails and Signs" about how to identify tracks and trails left in mud and snow by various wild animals and birds. Things like the fact that a fox's footprints always show in single file, not side by side like many animals. Never really worked out how it managed that with four feet but it does, must have a very mincing walk.
Anyway I determined to get a collection of these footprints and so put together a small satchel of items that I would need and carried it around with me when I was out and about. This satchel contained lengths of thin cardboard and old toilet roll holders, paper clips, scissors, water and plaster of paris. Immediately I found a good trail in some mud and was confident that I knew what had made it (I carried the book around with me, although the library was less than amused at getting it back with white, plaster of paris fingerprints all over it), I set too work.
I would make a suitable sized tube of card, clip it together and place it over the footprint. Mix up some plaster of paris in a bowl and scrape it in to the tube and firm it down and hey-presto, about ten minutes later when it had set, I would pick up the tube, look at the bottom and there would be a plaster of paris cast of a footprint! After writing on the ID I would take these casts home and paint them with water colours. Eventually I had loads of shoe boxes full of these footprints but after briefly impressing my school teacher and class-mates with them I found that they had very little use but was quite amused to re-find them all when I got married and cleared my cupboards to leave home.

I wonder if you can still buy catapult elastic nowadays, it'd be good fun to make that perfect "catty" again one more time and there's one or two cats round here that could do with a reminder of how easy they've got it these days.


  1. Derek,
    When I was at the 'catapult age' I could by a 'milbro' metal catapult, they were meant to be used for fishermen to fire out maggots onto the water, but with a bit of invention, we too used to by the elastic, and make them much more powerful. I used to spend hours lining up bottles and other smashable items, and sad to say also took the odd passerine out :-(

  2. Warren,

    I can also remember the "Milbros" - they are probably still araound now. Not the same as making your own though from a nice piece of apple bough from a neighbouring orchard.

  3. I've still got a 'Milbro' - I found it a few weeks ago when tidying my shed. The elastic looks a bit perished but I reckon it will still work. I think I got it when I was in my late teens, so well over 30 years ago.
    We also used to make our own when younger - I remember shooting living things sometimes (even birds) but I don't think I ever hit any of them though - bottles and cans were a different stiry though - they didn't move and you could get closer.


  4. I used to have a collection of plaster casts of birds footprints in my "museum", an old chest of drawers my mum let me keep in my bedroom. A few birds eggs (not taken from the nest but the bits drop out od the nest by the adults, I mounted these in plaster of paris too. I wonder what happened to all those goodies?

  5. Well, well Tony,

    I thought that I was the only one silly enough to go round collecting birds feet casts.
    I would love to have kept a few just for posterity and old age. I never really got into birds eggs collecting, it never appealed, otherwise I would of done.