Last weekend I returned to my old stamping ground of May Bank to see my parents. As most of my time was going to be spent indoors teaching my Uncle how to use his new laptop, and grafting in my parents’ loft putting down much needed boarding for storage, I decided to walk back from my trip to “Cassul” (Newcastle) to enjoy the rare sunshine. My usual route home is along West Brampton as it is the most direct from town. However I fancied and change and in no rush I opted for the longer but more pleasing way up the Brampton for a trip down Memory Lane and a nosey at some of the new and less appealing developments.
My walk started in the High Street passing the “Stones” market, the scene of many reluctant visits as a young boy, dragged around by a bargain seeking mother. I was rather amazed to see that Greenwoods the “gentlemen’s outfitters” was still in business on the corner with the Ironmarket, as its wares have always struck me as old fashioned and more in keeping with my late grandfather’s wardrobe of trousers held up to virtually his nipples with braces, and the obligatory jaunty “titfer”. As I made my way down it, the Ironmarket was buzzing with the late morning Saturday shoppers, all avoiding Greenwoods (not to mention their anxious looking staff) in their droves. At the end of the Ironmarket is Queen’s Gardens, a vibrant mix of colourful flowers and places to rest from the bustle of shopping. It was also the scene of the first date with my first love many moons ago. I stood nervously with my bike to meet her on a dinner break, sitting on a bench for a while before heading off for a cheese and tomato oatcake (the North Staffs variety of course). I’ve always known how to show a girl a good time.
As I wandered down towards the now garishly tiled subway to Queen Street I was pleased to note my old opticians Newbolds was still going. The same can’t be said for the Crossways pub on the corner which has morphed into, ahem, a gentlemen’s establishment. A prominent location on the roundabout for such a business, I thought they were usually squeezed down side streets away from the blind eye of the Local Council. Out of the subway with its multi-coloured walls and mirrors and back into the sunlight I breezed up the hill past St George’s church to The Brampton passing Station Walks in the process. I loved this area as a child. My granddad would bring me down to the Brampton park in his old Austin A35 car we called “Suzie”. We’d often wander around Station Walks as he told me tales of his life on the railway which once passed through the now landscaped spot. He had one spell in the signal box at West Brampton and in those days I think its dilapidated remains still stood at the site of the old level crossing. We’d also peer over the wall into the scrap yard in Water Street which was once Newcastle station’s goods yard (and now redeveloped into shops).
But most of my memories are of the Brampton itself – hide and seek in the bushes, riding on the miniature railway, visiting the animals in the enclosures and clambering on the Crimean canon outside the museum. Inside I was always fascinated by the primitive hand pump fire engine they had on display, even doing a painting of it which was displayed on the infant school hall wall. Walking through the Brampton gardens brought a smile and as not much had changed it was easy to return thirty odd years and have happy times flood back. It just seems smaller now with an adult’s perspective but today’s youngsters seemed to be enjoying it as much as I did, even if the bushes and rocks I had as my “den” are now fenced off. Childhood games of hiding from spies, guarding secret plans, or just being chased around called for imagination, energy, and surely beat sitting in front of a television or game console.
I carried on up the tree lined road to May Bank. It reminded me of my daily walk to school and getting the bus home, too shy to talk to the Orme Girls I had taken a shine to. Suddenly I had a surprise. Something was missing and for a moment I couldn’t think what. A block of flats next the Victoria pub had been razed to the ground leaving the flattened rumble and a sign indicating a development opportunity. They had been there as long as I could remember. Not aesthetically pleasing, ugly really, but a shock and sad to see go, almost like a marker of one’s life had gone and things were less reassuring. I knew the Marsh Head pub had gone too. I came this way home, the long way up the High Street, to see the monstrous houses now occupying the site. I won’t lament the loss of the poor Ansells ale but the building was from the 1930s, had some character and the squeezing in of ten abodes in its place is not in keeping with the village and frankly abhorrent. The Owd Man actually filmed the demolition of the Marsh Head. The contractors didn’t look pleased to see this event being recorded, almost if they felt a twinge of guilt and knew Dad was capturing a crime against history.
My final trip down Memory Lane was in fact a trip down a back alley. Walking down Alexandra Road I cut down Taylor Street to see if a friend was home. She wasn’t so doubling back to the main road I spotted the alley and decided to take that short cut home for old time’s sake. I was delighted to see that it hadn’t changed one bit. The hard packed clay coloured earth was still infiltrated with rubble, stones and jagged chunks of cement with pebbles in the mix. The shape of the alley was a flattened “s” with two sharp bends to negotiate, a narrow route with garden gates and concrete fences enclosing it. This was the source of the happy memories. My mates and I would hurtle down these alleys on bikes, racing each other and doing “stunts” over the rough ground. The first two “backs” were level, cobbled stoned leading to a rough yet even ride. Then came the “s” with the added danger of the sharp turns and something unsighted coming the other way. The final home straight was a descent to two more uneven alleys of rocks and old bricks crushed into the earth, the weight of car wheels compacting the sides and leaving a mound down the middle. There was often rusty corrugated iron sheets laying around, half eaten away, jagged and an added obstacle. Plus the raised manhole cover. I walked the length of our race track with a smile. It always cut off a fair corner too when used for practical purposes rather than by May Bank’s answers to Evel Knievel.
While I’m in the vicinity I can’t leave without mentioning the Chas. F. Wilson Garage in Wayside Avenue. Years ago it had been a tram depot. Therefore it was huge building and had a considerable yard. My bike rides often took me past it as a kid. Deliberately. Sometimes I’d be sent out with a letter to shove in the small red post box in the wall next to the entrance. I didn’t mind that chore. The enormous gates were often shut but the gap between them was large enough to squint through and see the work going on inside. Wilson’s specialised in body repair so the flash of welding gear and sparks spitting out of the cavernous entrance was a regular view. But my favourite part was the top yard (the building set on a fairly steep incline). It was easier to peer into the yard through the slats in the smaller gates. Inside lay the hulks of wrecked cars, twisted and contorted by accidents, awaiting their fate. Most were no doubt there for insurance assessment before being written off and carted away for scrap. One could only imagine the collisions involved to compress entire front ends or to shape a car like a banana. And what of Wilson’s historic site? Yes you’ve guessed it, houses. Demolished a few years back and replaced by characterless brick boxes that hold no interest to small boys on their bikes.