Village Children 70 Years Ago

Seventy years ago holidays were always magic to the village children. Even if they had to help their parents in small duties, there was still time to enjoy their play in meadows, fields and hedges. For some this was almost their entire world. Cricket would be played on the village recreation ground, using sticks cut from the nearby willows, for wickets. Football too, in season, with jackets down for goalposts.

Mothers, with baskets on their arms, would be walking or cycling to the post office or to one of the four village shops, while girls would wander into one of the nearby meadows to gather the wild flowers. Bunches of buttercups, moon daisies and ‘ragged robins’ would be carried home to decorate their cottage window sills.

The children played much more in mixed groups than they can today. The boys were experts at lighting campfires on waste ground. Most boys carried pocket knives, and they loved carving things. They made bows and arrows and kites, which they flew. Some had catapults, while one or two had primitive airguns, when, I’m afraid, not all targets were inanimate ones.

Both boys and girls played conkers and spun tops in season. The girls rolled hoops, but preferred skipping with both long and short ropes. It must be recorded here that the older girls were always very protective towards the younger children of the village, some of whom, I think, had not long left the "land of make believe". Bullying was rarely tolerated.

Birds nesting would be the next attraction for the boys. Small birds were far more common then, than they are today. Every small stretch of hedgerow seemed to have a nest in it. The lovely blue eggs, with black spots on, of the song thrush were prized far more than the greeny brown eggs of the blackbird. Cuckoos called from the orchards, but their eggs were hard to find. A needle was used to pierce holes in the top and bottom of the egg. By blowing into one, the contents came out of the other. This ensured that the colours of the shell would remain clear for many years. Meadows below the village would be searched for peewits’ eggs. Agile climbers could easily reach the lower crows’ nests in the trees, while a tablespoon, bound to the end of a long stick, could lift the eggs of the moorhen, from its nest on the moat, or in mid-stream. Shallow wooden trays, with glass tops, were made to exhibit these collections.

As well as birds nesting, fishing in Sotwell House moat, bordering the Wellsprings’ footpath, was also popular. No hook was used, but a small worm would be tied to a length of black cotton, then to a long stick and then lowered into the water. When a fish had swallowed the worm, it was gently lifted out on to the bank. The worm was pulled out, and went back into the moat for another catch. A few girls watched, but didn’t fish. (I don’t think they liked tying the cotton on to the worm!) Later, to watch for any length of time, three or four red-breasted sticklebacks swimming round and round in a jar of clear water, was almost hypnotic.

In early summer the allotment gardens in the village held fine crops of gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, etc. These fruits were very important to the villagers, as they were destined to be bottled or used in jam making for the coming winter. If any unaccompanied children were seen in, or near, the allotments at this time, they were in danger of being likened to foxes near a chicken run. Whether justified, or not. Some apples were taken from the extensive village fruit orchards, but who could blame them, when for some, hunger was often their daily companion?

I must mention the winters, because some of them in the late 1920s were very cold indeed. The children loved sliding on the ice and walking along the frozen ditches. Even the moat, where countless generations of children have fed the ducks, was almost icebound. One popular gathering place for the children at this time was the blacksmith’s forge near the top of Bell Lane, where some warmth could be found. They would edge ever nearer to the glowing fire, until a word from the blacksmith, or a shower of sparks, would send them back to where they had started from. How some of these poorly clothed, and often hungry, children ever survived these harsh conditions I shall never know!

Ron Wood

First printed in The Villager (April/May 2003 edition)