Monday, 21 March 2016

Reflections of an Eastender

Raised in the east-end of Newcastle, no one is surprised when I tell them that in a natural history sense there was little to watch other than House Sparrows and the occasional Robin.  I exaggerate of course, and on reflection if I had been of a mind during my childhood there would probably have been quite a bit of nature to take interest in, as after all there was a park and large cemetery within fifteen minutes walk of my home and the River Tyne wasn’t much further away.  Yes, perhaps I could have become the original Urban Birder had I but tried.  There were certainly more of many species when I was a youngster (although I don’t recall seeing many them) and you just have to look at recorded statistics to confirm that, however there were problems then too and all was not good with the environment (for example just think pesticides and pollution and the damage done by both), so I’ll never be one for looking back wearing rose coloured spectacles as that is not the way to encourage the interest of new generations. 

You didn't mess with the Eastenders.
Near by my home were large gardens and allotments which probably played some part in supporting the only wild mammals that I can recall seeing locally, that is Brown Rats, House Mice and the occasional Hedgehog,   The imagination of a small child made the Brown Rats, even when not present, motivation for making a winter evening visit to the outside toilet in the backyard (backyard in the British sense, not the American sense) a short procedure.  Aye, we weren’t pampered when I was a lad, but we were kept glowing from a paraffin lamp used to prevent the cistern from freezing up.  However before anyone gets the idea I lived in some kind of slum area, I can assure you I didn’t and the Brown Rats were only a very occasional nuisance and were soon dealt with by a posse of neighbours and no doubt what ever system of pest control operated at the time.  I well remember my mother and the lady next door using their own method of pest control and throwing buckets of water from a safe distance over one drenched and eventually drowned rat that I seem to remember disappeared down a drain, I’m unsure if it was dead or alive.   I don’t remember seeing any other wild mammals from near home (there must have been Rabbits or there again maybe not, as myxomatosis was  running rife, although when I was very young the Grainger Market was always well stocked with Rabbit and other game hanging over counters), I don’t count the almost feral mongrel dogs that were in those days allowed to wander the streets uncontrolled and of course the more exotic mammals on David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest which I remember watching in black and white from an early age.  Many of these early programmes are still viewable on the internet, at least in part.  I can also remember early editions of Peter Scott’s Look series, but strangely not later editions.

Every childhood should include a wigwam.
Our backyard did attract some birdlife as we fed the birds scraps in winter (resources weren’t spent on bird seed as far as I remember), but I can really only clearly recollect House Sparrows and Robins.  I did for some years think that Robins only turned up in winter and probably associated that with the connection to Christmas cards.  I’m sure I wasn’t alone with that thought.  The large garden opposite give me an early opportunity to watch the local domestic cats toying with and eventually dispatching House Sparrows.  I remember watching dispassionately, where as today I’d be out there chucking something (soft of course!) at the moggie.  There must have been numbers of corvids and gulls.  If the gulls were heard I recall my mother saying that the weather at sea must be turning bad and there was probably a good deal of truth in that as I’m sure at the time gulls didn’t appear inland as much as they do now.  They were of course all seagulls to me.  The backyard was also provided interest of the entomological type.  I remember lots of insect types under the damp stones and in the brick compartment under the outside stone steps.  They tended to catch my interest when I was playing down there.  The spaces in brick walls made wonderful hideouts for my toy soldiers and many a battle was won.  I remember playing down there on one occasion whilst my father’s mates from work had come around to watch Newcastle United on the TV, which I believe may have been the last time they ever won the FA Cup or any worthwhile domestic competition for that matter!  Another vivid memory I have is of my brother rescuing an injured House Sparrow (could it have been damn cats again?) and keeping it in a cardboard box overnight with water and food available.  Sadly by morning it was dead and soon disappeared, either binned or buried.  Either way, I was once again quite dispassionate about the event.

I used to occasionally do some work in the large garden opposite or sneak in there to collect balls.  It was a mecca for caterpillars.  A few local folk were really into home grown food possibly a habit from the war years that weren’t that far in the past, so I assume many of them were caterpillars of the Cabbage White Butterflies.  All white butterflies were cabbage whites to me at that time.  I don’t think after my early years that I have ever seen caterpillars in such number again in such a small area.

In the garden opposite with my mam, big brother and cousin.

Now, there must have been a few bird species around the area as I clearly remember the dawn chorus which as a schoolboy used to annoy me by causing noise outside of my room, much more noise it seemed than the passing early morning trolley buses.  Not even I go as far back as the old tram system.  Thankfully I have different views on the Dawn Chorus now.  My other recollection is the calling of the Tawny Owl from trees across the road.  I’m guessing that there were probably several Tawny Owls about the area, but I was in my early teens before I actually saw one.  Speedway was my big interest at the time (I couldn’t name many birds at the time, but I could name most of the speedway riders in the then National and Provincial leagues, and I still can name quite a few of them from those days) and it was as I walked back with my father from a Speedway event at Brough Park that we caught sight of a Tawny Owl on top of the lamppost outside of what was then Taylor’s (I think) fish and chip shop.  It was a good many years before I ever saw another Tawny Owl.

My walks to and from school took me past many a garden which more often than not had privet hedges and there was House Sparrows everywhere.  Gardens tended to be well cultivated or in a few cases left to go wild and there were few examples of today’s gravelled or wooden areas.  Some of the garden improvement programmes on offer over more recent years have a lot to answer for and many people these days either don’t seem to know or care what a positive difference well managed  gardens could make to our urban wildlife.  Some may think my school days would have introduced some interesting natural history information.  In fact if you discount a few minutes given over to photosynthesis and tadpoles (I remember one lad in particular often brought tadpoles to school and gained great kudos in doing so), then I think that about sums it all up.  Oh yes and I recall a debate the class had on the issue of Fox hunting which was organised by two student teachers, where the same views were aired that are issues to this day.  If I ever feel an urge to change my left leaning political stance I simply think about the educational system of my childhood and I instantly pull myself together, although on the whole modern political personalities of what ever persuasion leave me cold.  I always recall that as we approached the end of our education at Secondary Modern School those of us who chose to sit examinations had to pay for each Northern Counties exam taken whilst those at Grammar school of course didn’t pay.  How’s that for fairness and equality?  I remember that out teachers thought it scandalous.  One of my teachers was Doug McAvoy who many years later became General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (1989-2004).  His wife was my year teacher too and one of the best teachers I ever had.  On a positive note many of us caught up on education later and it perhaps owed much to the encouragement of teachers of that ilk giving us the confidence that we could.  From what I know of the education system of today I feel it is still pretty dire in getting over an interest in natural history to many youngsters.

The Beach Boys.
On Sundays I would occasionally make a trek south with my father which entailed a trip on the ferry from Walker to Jarrow.  As Jimmy Nail once sang, it was a big river then, and in relative terms a dirty one.  I find it interesting to reflect that about this time John Coulson would have been beginning his interest in the Tyneside Kittiwakes.  I have in the far recesses of my mind images of large black birds, Cormorants I assume, but no other birds, but I’m sure there would have been plenty of birdlife about.  Another Sunday outing would have been around the area of Bigge’s Main, once a colliery area but what I remember now was farmland and ‘countryside’ perhaps better described as ‘waste land’.  Our walks took place some years before the modern Coast Road was built.  I always remember on one of these walks my father telling me that if you ever needed to get rid of a human body it would be best to feed it to the pigs that we were passing.  I’m not sure what book he had been reading the night before!  I’ll have to ask him, he’s 96 now so the walking and his cycling to work did him good.  I suspect Bigge’s Main held quite a bit of wildlife, but it all passed over my very young head.  I’ve just checked out Bigge’s Main on the internet and must do some reading up on the area.  It seems the colliery closed there in the 1850s after flooding and the village which held over 600 residents in 1910 and was taken over by Wallsend Council in that year.  William Bigges who had owned the mine and leased it to others had lived a rather aristocratic life in Little Benton.  Many years after my walks with my father I used to take part in school cross country running at Bigge’s Main and during one run one of my friends was savagely attacked by an escaped guard dog, seriously injured and missing from school for a lengthy period.  I suspect the police were involved but all was kept from us youngsters.  Soon after I left school and took up work in the city.  That sounds good, but in fact I was basically a dogsbody in a Chartered Accountants and hated it.  On reflection I feel that the office and how it was run could have been lifted from a Dickensian novel.  The only positive point was that it allowed me good sightings of the murmurations of Starling during the winter months which in those years roosted all over the centre of Newcastle and were a great sight and sound.  I also used to take an interest in visitors to the old YMCA buildings, one of whom was Bobby Mitchell who played on the wing for Newcastle United FA Cup winning team in the 1950s.  Running errands did allow me to get to know the city really well, although much of it has now disappeared.  Many of the offices I visited where similar to the one I worked in and you could almost imagine staff pulling out their quill pens.  Just as today there were many characters in the city.  The doorman at our office complex was always in uniform when he greeted you at the door in the morning, as was the bloke and his young assistant at the Turks Hotel on Grey street and the blind accordionist was always on Northumberland Street as was an elderly lady who it was rumoured sold gentlemen something for the weekend in little brown packets (this may or may not have been a ladish myth of the time).  It’s rather frightening to think that new modern buildings of that time have already been replaced by newer ones, the city library being one of them.  Part 2 will deal with a few childhood holidays to far flung places such as Cresswell and Lucker and a trip overseas to the Farne Islands.


  1. Nice to read this. I feel an autobiography coming on, lol.

  2. Maybe once part 2 is up I have the basis. Birding has been restricted of late.:-)

  3. Hopefully yeah. I'm sorry that birding has been restricted lately, hopefully that's just a temporary thing.

  4. Enjoyable read Brian,in some way mirroring my early life experiences in communing in with nature.

  5. Thanks Brian. Hope you mange to get through part 2.:-)