It started with my elder brother, but then was passed down to me, and that was the annual Easter visit to my aunty and uncle’s house. Initially they lived in Coventry and I remember both of the houses they owned with fond memories. Grandma and grandad Mary and Harry, would take the bus to Coventry and there be met by my aunty and uncle. My elder brother went for a number of years and I was quite envious of the two or three days adventure. I had to wait until I was about ten or eleven, before it became my turn. My brother was about thirteen or fourteen and he would have thought himself too grown up, so I was invited.
I am not sure what the reason was: anxiety, a bad experience or just keenness, but the journey always started at the crack of dawn. We would catch the double decker bus to Leeds City and from there go to the Wellington Street bus station. Now we would arrive, probably at 8.30am, and the bus did not leave until about 11.00am. It was so early that the sign for the Coventry bus was not yet on display and we would have to wait for ages before the sign would eventually be displayed. We were always first in the queue. The initially excitement became utter boredom. There was nothing to do, or at least nothing that we were going to do, but stand and queue. Just before I was about to die, the bus turned up. We got on, found our places and still had a long delay before anyone else, including the driver, even arrived to board. The bus was not an express and it stopped at six towns along the route. What could have been not much more than a two and a half hour journey was, on this bus, six hours. It was absolute hell for me and I can’t think great fun for my grandparents dealing with a restless child for that length of time. There are only so my things your eye can spy on the route and only so many minutes a comic, Beano, Dandy or Topper, can last. Once you have seen Chesterfield’s crooked spire, you have seen it, and after breathing in diesel fumes, lead pollution and smoke from the rear of the single decker coach I can’t say I felt too well. The regular sweets and toffees helped a little, but if there is purgatory, then this bus route was it. Sisyphus would have enjoyed pushing the boulder up the hill as a bit of light relief in comparison.
Eventually, towards the end of the day, we would arrive and after the obligatory hugs and kisses we would be in the car to my aunt and uncle’s house. Initially it was in Coventry and they had what seemed to me to be a lovely new semi-detached house on a new estate. They moved to Kenilworth after one or two future trips and Kenilworth was beautiful. Brookside Avenue was, again, a new development around a small village of thatched cottages, pubs and small stores, in the shadow of a magnificent castle. Kenilworth was now a small town and it was a feeder for the major cities of Coventry and Birmingham.
What more could a young boy want than a castle. It didn’t matter that it was ruined, blown up during the English Civil War, and maybe that made it even more exciting. It was once a magnificent building, greatly extended since its Norman origins to the scene of Earl of Leicester’s grand hosting of Elizabeth I’s court in 1575. The queen was canny enough to deal with any perceived threat by her lords, either due to popularity or wealth, by visiting with her court. In this case there was the addition of romance and the Earl spent a vast amount on entertaining Her Majesty for three weeks. At one point the water meadow was flooded so that mock naval battles could take place and water borne fireworks from papier-mâché dolphins could be launched.
My aunty, cousin and I went to visit the castle. I was excited. Its massive fortifications were and still are very impressive. Most of the structure was in a state of ruin, but there was sufficient for me to get a sense of what it would have been like and to ponder who else had trodden the same steps, centuries earlier. I was in heaven and the bus trip was very soon forgotten. I am not sure if it is still the case, but you were allowed to scale the keep and the steps led to windows that overlooked the grounds and gave magnificent views of the wonderfully lush countryside. My cousin was a couple of years younger than me, but she appeared to have absolutely no fear of heights. I have always had a realistic sense of my own vulnerability and as a result, been safety conscious. I must admit some of my close calls have not obviously demonstrated this. A single metal bar would separate the observer from a fall that would certainly have proven fatal, yet my cousin would lean right over the edge as if tempting the fates to do their worst. I could barely stand to watch her, but my aunty seemed to share her lack of concern.
We had arrived in the afternoon and were enjoying the late sunshine, the crowds had thinned and we were busy exploring. There was some sort of distant siren, but we paid it no heed. Maybe half an hour later, we were starting to get tired and hungry and my aunty led us back to the gate we had entered. We did notice that there didn’t seem anyone around, but it was only when we got to the gate and saw that it was closed and locked, that it dawned on us that the siren was the signal the castle was closing for the day, and now it was closed and everyone had left. Castles are designed to keep people out, but they work just as well keeping people in. I think I saw my aunty panic for the first time. There truly was no one there and it was starting to get dark. My goat-like cousin saved the day by scaling the wall near the gate and climbing down. I had no problem following suit, but I think my aunt struggled a bit. The alternative of spending the night alone in the castle, or suffering the embarrassment and indignity of the authorities being contacted to let her out, provided sufficient incentive and she followed suit. Once out, we had a bit of a laugh about it and made a note to check closing times in the future.