Monday, 25 January 2016

Suburban explorers


We didn't know there would ever be a name for it, but we used to do it as kids. An old storage shed in grounds by the swimming pool, a derelict house with an overgrown garden that could be found by following a secret path, abandoned stable blocks and the newly formed shells of the homes being built on an out-of-town estate. Curious and thrilled, my friends and I would peek through their windows, some with glass in and some without, and sometimes step inside their mysterious doorways. I suppose it was a first, naïve foray into urban exploration.

Or maybe it was more suburban, as we lived near open countryside. My friends and I grew up in an era where Stranger Danger Paranoia didn't seem to exist - it merely meant being told not to accept sweets from men in cars. So around the age of twelve and thirteen, just before boys, chip shops and the make-up counter at Boots lured us away, we spent those long seventies Summers out and about unsupervised, sometimes within the streets of our small town but frequently further afield too. Our parents were glad to be free of their daughters for whole days on end as we packed cans of Coke and bags of crisps into satchels on Saturday mornings and wandered the footpaths and bridleways, without mobile phones and, most importantly, without fear. We got to know all the fields, woods, gates, ditches, farms and hedgerows as expertly as we knew our own immediate neighbourhoods. We made up names for our favourite fields and sometimes even the Friesian cows in them. We weren't stalked, flashed at or attacked; the chainsaw-wielding man we once saw in 'Top Field' was the one chopping logs - we just watched him go about his work. I still have convoluted dreams about walking those tracks, effortlessly memorising routes and reference points just as we did for real: the lightning tree, a wooden stile, a line of poplars. We didn't have compasses or maps but we never got lost and were always back home, happily tired and golden-armed, in time for tea.

The most exciting moments, though, were when we stumbled across abandoned buildings. Sometimes there was evidence of other humans having been there; the disused storage shed with its heavy but unlocked door had old newspapers spread around and a dirty old blanket in the corner. One afternoon when we sneaked inside, we noticed a small pile of ash in the middle of the dusty floor. I'd like to say the ashes were still warm but that may just be my memory playing tricks on me. “Oh, what if they come back?!” we whispered nervously to each other about the grunting, wild-haired, leather-skinned resident – our very own unseen Stig of the Dump - who had formed himself fully in our imaginations. We left hurriedly and never returned.

One day, by accident, we found a huge, derelict house. We could get to it by swerving off a path through a maze of trees which gradually thinned out to reveal a vast, wild and unfenced garden. We never entered the house though; it was too imposing, too Mockingbird Lane. We'd merely creep as close as we dared before quickly turning back (being sure we'd seen a figure moving about behind a broken window, of course) then sprinting to the safety of the shrubs where we stayed for hours, wondering in excited trepidation if we were being watched. The grounds always seemed to be in shadow, no matter what the weather; a mass of entwined roots and ivy, long grass like unripened corn and crooked, spindly trees.  There was a large, dank pond in the middle - a scary, smelly pond of unimaginable depths. We would go back time and time again, but we never told a soul. On a spontaneous whim a few years ago my friends and I decided to see if the secret garden was still there and navigated our way through bracken and tangled trees after a boozy reunion lunch, our jackets getting caught on spiky twigs and branches snapping under our unsuitable shoes. And we found it – ohhh!  It was just the same, mossy-green and dark and like a parallel world, the only difference being that the pond had gone and weeping willows grew in its place. I still felt the thrill. The old house was there too, but the new scaffolding around it and the builders' sign had finally eroded its air of mystique and menace. Sweetly sated and revived by the unexpected and dream-like glimpse back into childhood and its clandestine playground, we turned our backs on it once again, turned our backs on the past, and sprinted - well, almost -  home. In time for tea.

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