“Don’t tell anyone your name is Jones.”
This regular reprimand from my mother whenever we set off to shop arose from the sight of her daughter sporting muddy knees, hair askew and (frequently) a grubby face. The words were always issued with a gentle smile and twinkle in the eye.
Our parents were urban dwellers and distant from the natural world. They were not our wildlife educators. Some learning in our rural Lancashire life came from self-tutoring: of touching, smelling, looking and, occasionally, tasting all that the natural world offered us. There were ten children in our lane and we were a happy band of naturalists. The lane and fields were our playground.
Weekends and school holidays were seasons of exploration. Cool, windy, wet or foggy days honed senses while dry, hot summers bleached our hair, burnished our skin and gave us a different sensory experience. All were feed stock for our fertile imaginations. Time was absent from our lexicon: our arrival home was determined by how hungry we felt.
Our territory comprised the lane with hawthorn shrubs markng the boundary between lane and field; fields to front and rear of the houses; and the barn at the top of the road. We didn’t realise it, but we learnt much from Raymond, the farmer’s son, a lofty red head who wore the air of a man of the world – even at the age of ten! It was he who gave us our first sex education:
“The man and woman lie on top of each other and that’s how babies are made.”
Oh how we laughed. What a preposterous idea! Sex education aside, Raymond taught us crop production, tractor design, nesting birds, and pond life. The fields illustrated the cycle of plant life: sowing, germination, growth and harvest. Harvest time was fun. We mimicked the movement and rhythm of the threshers and balers. The farmer would ‘accidentally’ drop bales in the corner of the field so we could make a den, while the tractors continued their lumbering journeys across the field. Cereal stubble scratched our nutmeg limbs, as we manoeuvred our imagined constructions.
We learned where lapwings nested and knew not to disturb the birds. Swallows lingered on the telegraph wires in the lane. A pond in the back field showed us the beauty of newts, water boatmen, tadpoles and frogs. This was also where we voyaged, courtesy of the raft made out of wood oddments. The wonder – and frisson of fear – as to whether the raft would sail and support us inspired countless upgrades to the raft. Only in adulthood did I realise that the ‘sea’ that we were sailing was probably a former marl pit and only metres in dimension. To us, we were the Swallows and Amazons of Lancashire.
Gardens gifted a suitably wild world. Our father didn’t subscribe to the neat and tidy garden philosophy. We explored for lizards among piles of brick rubble. Rumour of a former well in the garden fostered frantic digging. We never did find that well, but I loved the feel of soil between my fingers: perhaps the seed was sown here for a career in soil science.
A mini woodland in the back garden marked a boundary with another field. I made futile attempts to climb the large birch, its smooth grey bark providing no foothold. Scratched legs were marks of honour from crawling and clambering among the hawthorns as we checked where birds nested.
That wild life ended on a most beautiful June morning. The sky was the sharpest of blue, birdsong was ripe, and the heat would reach suffocating levels later in the day. Early that morning, our mother came into the bedroom that my brother and I shared. We both think we recall the phone ringing.
“Daddy’s gone to heaven.”
Devastating and unexpected, we had no sense then of how that event would change our lives. We suddenly acquired the moniker ‘war orphans’, even though World War II was already history. I was eleven, my brother was eight. Within two months we had moved to the suburb of a large city, changed schools and learned to be a single parent family.
Our wild life would continue, but in a markedly different way. The gang of naturalists was consigned to memory. I am forever grateful for that early wild life. It sowed the seeds of a passion for the environment.