Damp horse hair or remembrance of things past
When most people think of Devon they think of the countryside, green fields, moorland or the magnificent coastline. Mine was an urban childhood. I grew up in and around the terraced streets of Exeter. First in Newtown close to the City Centre and then St Thomas west of the River Exe. One of my earliest memories was of playing in a derelict car on a piece of waste ground. For Proust it may have been Madeleine cakes, for me it’s the smell of damp horse hair which was used to stuff car seats. I was only three years old, we moved to the other side of the river before my fourth birthday. What makes me nervous about re-telling this story is that from today’s viewpoint this seems like neglect.
But in 1962, in my street, this was perfectly normal. I pestered my mum to be outside playing with the other children, there was safety in numbers. All the children played out. My parents were strict. I was not allowed to go beyond the corner of the street. But the waste ground was way beyond that boundary. I had gone there with some older children but for a moment I was alone, standing on the car seat, turning the steering wheel and flicking on the indicators, the old fashioned sort that stuck out at right angles.
When we moved to St Thomas I clearly remember the boundaries set by my mother, first the lamp-post fifty yards from my house, then the end of the street, then two streets, then the park and then not to cross the two main roads that met at Exe Bridge, then not to go near the river or play in derelict houses or cemeteries. I did all of these things. Not all in one go. I was too scared one of the neighbours would tell my mum, or worse, my sister telling my mum. I dreaded being seen by an adult who knew my parents. We all did, we thought everyone knew us. But there was a thrill in swopping stories of the places we weren’t allowed to go and then daring each other to go there.
The greatest sanction was being grounded. You had to avoid being caught out, so it was always like crossing enemy lines and in our imaginations, wherever we went, we were always evading capture. I’m not sure how much my mother knew, she used to check for clues, mud on my shoes, holes in my elbows, and the interrogation: where have you been, who have you been with? There was always the fear of confession.
I realised I was proper adult not when I was old enough to walk across the weir to the other side of the river to go to the pub, but years later when I finally told my mum and she didn’t tell me off.
Steve Chown is Programme manager at Play England. To mark the launch of the Policy Studies Institute (PSI) research on independent mobility, Play England staff will be sharing their personal stories and thoughts on the subject throughout the week on this blog, we hope you enjoy them.