28 August 2018

I think this might have been our third Doddington Hall sculpture trail. They put one on in alternate years. If you live anywhere near Lincoln or Newark, it's a must-see. Click the Read More for an...

boyGirlSilhouette2Bullies and the Newt Pond

November 1971

It had been six weeks since I’d typed out the letter to George Harrison. When it had come to it, I had baulked at writing the letter as we had originally planned, as if it had actually come from Sir Julius, because it would have meant forging his signature. In the cold light of day, I decided that might be a cheeky step too far and a very long way from taking a piece of school notepaper and using an office typewriter. In the end, I decided that the best policy had to be total honesty, and so my letter simply set out our case: that Crow Wood was a very special place, that it was under threat of misuse by the Army and that our wildlife guide would help to make a good case for its preservation. I concluded the letter to George by saying that helping to get our field guide published was therefore a ‘worthy cause’ that deserved his support. All we needed, apart from his visiting St Mungo’s of course, was that he would make a condition that some of the money raised on fete day would go towards the preservation of Crow Wood, and Hobbo’s guidebook was the way to do that.

Olivia and I had drafted the letter and the others made further proposals to perfect it. Pam suggested we included a couple of JJ’s best watercolours and a page or two of Hobbo’s meticulous observations, to furnish convincing evidence that we were sincere. We all read and signed the letter. The envelope had been quite fat by the time I’d sealed it up and placed it in the outgoing mail tray, after giving it a kiss for luck. But so far, we had heard nothing.

Meanwhile, the survey work continued. As it turned out, my first foray into Crow Wood as one of Hobbo’s survey team wasn’t with the man himself. Every student was required, once a month and on pain of detention for failure, to attend a Sunday service in the St Mungo’s Chapel. There was no escape, even for non-boarders like me. It meant getting up early and catching the first bus, but actually, I didn’t mind all that much, never having been one to lie in bed for longer than I had to. After church, I would usually stay on until suppertime, and then get the last bus home. Sundays meant a country ramble in the afternoon with Mr Gentle, whatever the weather, and I had never missed one since the start of the year. On this particular Sunday, I had arranged to meet Griff at the round pool in the middle of Crow Wood for a spot of newt catching before chapel.

The bus dropped me in the usual place, and then chugged off in the direction of Larksbridge. The grass had been turned white by a heavy overnight frost, the air cool enough to make my teeth chatter as I hauled my bike out from beneath the milk stand. Nevertheless, the sun hanging in the mist above Half Moon Hill promised a fine early winter’s day, and I thought, with delicious anticipation, of the afternoon walk with Hobbo and the others. We might even manage to prise Olivia and Pam out of their rooms for a couple of hours, as long as we promised to be back in time for ‘Pick of the Pops’.

I biked down from the bus stop and turned off along the track that led to the old quarry on the edge of Crow Wood. The freezing cold saddle made the ride most uncomfortable. The track ended at a sagging, rusty field gate, attached to which was a rotting wooden sign that read DANGER – KEEP OUT. I found the gate unlocked and left it half-open as I wheeled my bike through the gap. The old quarry lay not far inside the wood, where I would easily be able to hide my bike from view. A few yards further and the trees thinned and opened out to reveal the quarry face – a curved slab of limestone sixty feet high, pale golden and more or less vertical. It was bigger than I was expecting. At the top of the quarry, a fringe of trees grew right to the edge and every ledge sprouted a mad growth of stunted bushes and old man’s beard, which hung in long curtains down the cliff face. I stood my bike against a tree, took off the rucksack containing my school uniform and hid it inside a clump of brambles. A quick change once our newt-spotting business had concluded and then off to church, and no one would be any the wiser.

I had arranged to meet Griff by the pool at half past eight, and it was already eight-fifteen. A deer track at one end of the quarry allowed me to scramble up through the trees, slipping and sliding on the sticky clay as I climbed higher. Before long, I had reached the top of the quarry face. Above me, the rooks turned and bickered, the only other sound the distant crack, crack of rifle fire from the direction of the Army camp. The woodland floor glistened in the brilliant sunshine, a tender green mosaic of dog’s mercury and tufted sedge, and in every direction, the sun’s low rays revealing radiant, frost-dusted spiders’ webs. I had been knocking around in woods like this my whole life; it could easily pass for my second home, so familiar was I with its residents.

After several minutes more clambering and walking, finally the pond came into view. “What kept you?” Griff shouted as I approached. He jumped down from his perch on an ivy-clad tree stump, still chewing a piece of breakfast toast. Two pond nets lay on the ground by his feet.

“Took a short cut,” I replied.

Griff laughed. “C’mon Sam, let’s get busy then; only an hour ‘til chapel.” He’d already set out the trays of pond water on either side of the pool and proceeded to station himself by the nearest, while I took the farther side.

We broke the thin film of ice and dipped in silence for ten minutes. The invertebrate life of the pond was rich, but I caught nothing larger than a dragonfly nymph. It seemed that nothing with a backbone lived in that pool. Yet, this had all the makings of an ideal newt pond.

Then I heard Griff give a whoop. He was crouching and holding the net close to his face. Then he looked up, grinning. “Hey! You’ll never guess. I think I’ve got a smooth newt and a great crested in the same net.”

I dropped my gear and sprinted around to where he was kneeling. A brief glance was enough to confirm Griff’s find. We exchanged grins and Griff glanced at his watch. “Plenty of time left.” He stood and said, “I want to show you something. Won’t take long, it’s not far.”

Puzzled, I followed him a short distance to a flat area, where he pointed towards a rusty metal object sitting almost completely hidden among the brambles. A shallowly conical structure, about six feet in diameter, it resembled nothing so much as an enormous Chinaman’s hat. It was low to the ground but not obviously touching it. It had once been charcoal grey, but a good deal of the paint had peeled off to reveal the seams and rivets beneath. The rust was superficial. I looked at Griff, who simply shrugged his shoulders. “No idea,” he said. “Interesting though, isn’t it?”

Interesting it certainly was, but we did not have time to inspect it further. “Forty minutes ‘til church-zero,” I said. “Let’s leave the gear here and come back later. We can investigate then. My bike’s at the quarry. I’ll give you a backie, if you like.”

It took less than ten minutes to slip and slide our way down through the forest of saplings to the quarry floor. We arrived at the entrance, with my jeans now caked in sticky mud where I had slid most of the way, but incredibly with Griff still looking spotless. “Where’s your bike?” he said.

“I left it by that tree – I’m sure I did,” I said, a vague feeling of dread rising inside me.

We found the bike lying on its side by the entrance gate but with no sign of my rucksack anywhere. “Someone must have spotted me,” I moaned bitterly. “Now I’ve got no uniform.”

“Who the hell would do that to you, bach?”

“No time to think about that now,” I said, stooping to feel the tyres. They were still hard.

“Well, you can’t go in to chapel like that. Your bum’s covered in mud and your hair’s all over the place. Tell you what, you can borrow a shirt and trousers from me; won’t be a great fit, mind, and Pam has a spare blazer. She’s about your size. You’ll just have to bluff it out and hope nobody notices.”

I must have looked as relieved as I felt because Griff gave one of his super-strength grins. “Handlebars or saddle?” he said. “For the backie?”

Walking into chapel, we must have looked like a sheriff’s posse bringing to justice a desperate outlaw – me. I was flanked to my left and right by Hobbo and Olivia, with Griff leading and Pam and JJ shuffling along behind us. Pam’s blazer was doing a good job of hiding the fact that Griff was several sizes larger than me in every department, apart from height. I held on to the waistband of a pair of trousers that ended a good three inches short of my socks, and prayed I didn’t look as conspicuous as I felt. Hobbo elbowed me slyly and winked. I knew what he was thinking: pay attention to this moment; don’t lose it in self-pity because it’s going to make a great story later.

And it was fine. None of the adults took even the slightest notice of us and our odd behaviour; I suppose they were already used to it. Mr Gentle looked over from the choir stalls and smiled placidly, and if he had noticed anything strange, then he took pains not to show it. I didn’t have to wait very long before I discovered who had been responsible for taking my bag. During the hymn ‘He Who Would Valiant Be’ first Potts, then Miller half-turned and caught my eye, smirking first at me and then at one another. JJ noticed it too and scowled back at them, sticking his tongue behind his bottom lip and grimacing in true John Lennon fashion.

After church, I did not feel like staying for the ramble, despite Hobbo’s pleading. Even though they usually spent Sunday afternoon kicking a ball around somewhere, I could easily imagine that Potts and his crew would tag along with Mr Gentle’s ramblers, just for the sport of sniggering and needling me at every opportunity. I doubted if I would ever see my uniform again, and wondered how I was going to explain this to Mum.

Tears were not far away, as I cycled back up the drive after lunch. I felt sorry for my parents, who worked so hard, and I felt sorry for myself. However, revenge was not in my mind, I was pleased to note. Those boys clearly had deep problems, and I felt reasonably sure they would one day get their come-uppance without my having to do anything, although I don’t know why I believed that. It was only a feeling.

When I passed the track to the quarry, I could not stop myself from glancing across to the quarry gate where the day had begun so fresh and new not many hours before. I stopped briefly to catch my breath, and suddenly remembered that Griff and I had left our nets by the pool. Then I spotted my rucksack. It was laying half in and half out of a water-filled depression that cows used for drinking, not ten feet from the track. Fortunately, the cows were not in the field that day, otherwise they would already have trampled my bag into an invisible, muddy mess.

I felt so much joy surge up in me that I did cry now, and I cried enough on the bus for the driver to notice. It was the old one with the lined face and side-whiskers, who looked a bit like Sid James and who’d driven me on my first day at St Mungo’s. He’d already given me a curious look when I got on and flashed my soggy bus pass, and as I walked down the steps at my stop, he called after me, “Just remember, Sam, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” He smiled and took a puff on his cigarette, then blew the smoke out of the driver’s window before shutting the doors behind me and pulling away.

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