My family moved from Lawrence Avenue to Gipton Wood Crescent at a time when my brothers and I had reached an age where playing out was what you did. When not at school you were expected to move out of the house and occupy yourselves in a number of ways. One, as I have spoken about in the past, was to visit my grandma’s in Chapel Allerton. Others were to play in the garden, the street or in our case either what we called the Little Wood or Gipton Wood itself, which we thought of as the big woods.
The Little Wood was an area between the houses that could be accessed through two narrow ginnels, (alleys) and had a few trees and a lot of rough grass area and a mound that we thought of as a bomb site, with a crater in the middle. It had clearly been there a long time as large trees had grown around and in it. I can not think why this large area was left and nowadays such architectural planning would be seen as a waste, but it provided a great playground for children in the area. We could ride our bikes safely and tracks and jumps crisscrossed the dip and it was great fun. We played soccer and cricket on a rough bare patch that challenged the very best batsman to predict the bounce, but we didn’t care. It summer the grass would grow tall and it was a perfect place to play hide and seek. We would crawl for hours through the grass, defying anyone to spot us, and would build dens. It was only when we returned home at night we realized how itchy we were from all the grass cuts. The Little Wood was an oasis of peace amongst the semidetached suburbia that surrounded it. I can’t recall ever seeing adults there and no one took dogs for a walk there. In these times taking a dog for a walk usually meant opening the door and letting it out on its own. No one worried and no one collected dog poo!
As children, we could stay out as long as we wanted and only returned for meals or in the evening when it was time for bed. We weren’t unusual in this and we enjoyed a freedom that children nowadays would envy. Looking back there must have been dangers, but there wasn’t the publicity that we now experience. We even played in the Little Wood at night and we took torches to play Wide Games with searchlights as we sneaked up to the base. Luckily there weren’t dangerous creatures in Leeds and I am not sure I would want to play the same games here in Australia, where there is a plethora of things to sting or bite lurking in the undergrowth.
On more adventurous days we would go to Gipton Wood. Now for those who don’t know this part of Leeds, Gipton Woods is a sizeable woodland of oaks, sycamores, beech trees and others. The mixed woodland is full of bluebells and when they are out the ground is a lavender carpet that is quite breathtaking. The canopy is very dense and parts of the woods are very dark and, at the time, were not well travelled. As a child I could play most of the day at the north eastern part and not see other people all day. The woods were bequeathed to the City for recreational use and together with Gledhow Valley and Roundhay Park form a wonderful green corridor in this part of the city. There were two main pathways and these ran from the houses where we lived through to either Oakwood village, or cut down the hill to Roundhay Road near the Gipton pub. There was a set of steps that led down to the old tram lines and I remember well my older brother riding his bike down the steps, against all common sense, and him going head over heels over the top of the handlebars. This I must say was only one of a number of accidents he had as a child and it really is a miracle that he grew to adulthood. Another incident involved him cycling adjacent to me down Gipton Wood Crescent, towards the woods and he was so engrossed in the conversation that he didn’t notice the lorry, (truck), parked at the side of the road and, despite my warnings, he just rode straight into the back of it. Another good one was sledging on the frame of a rocking donkey and nearly killing himself, but that will have to wait for another time.
The woods were really in three sections: there was the flat north eastern section, the sloping central area that fell sharply to Roundhay Road and the very steep small valley at the southern boundary, that had a small stream drain from a spring. Each section offered different adventures to us when we played. In winter the central slope provided a sledge run when there was snow, good hide and seek areas, but was crossed by a pathway and had a single electric light in a lantern that seemed to have come out of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. At night it was the only source of light in the wood and it cast a cone of light amongst the pitch black of the woods. This caused me some scary moments as a teenager, when I would walk home through the woods late at night. I was never sure if it was my mood or the mood of the woods, but sometimes I walked through and never had any concerns about safety, but at other times it was very scary and I would often end up running to get out. You would think that the pool of light would help, but actually it was worse, as when you entered the light everything outside was black. Ten people could be stood there watching you and you would have no idea. I guess it was all in my mind as I never had any incidents and I got so used to it that I knew where to lift my feet as roots crossed the pathway, ready to trip the unwary.
A video and song inspired by Gipton Wood Leeds.
I had a lot of fun in the quieter, more deserted north eastern section. I have only recently found out that this section holds the remains of a Bronze Age camp. The shallow trenches that provided good hiding spots for hide a seek were part of the earthworks. We would climb the trees and some were great for climbing. Branches were easy to reach and evenly spaced and allowed us to climb to the very top and look across the green canopy at the roofs of the houses. Great fun and I don’t remember falling. Even more fun were crossbows. In the days I was at Harehills C.P. you could buy metal crossbows that fired wooden arrows with rubber suckers on the end. There was a thick black rubber band strung across the arms of the bow and this had to be pulled back looped over a holder that was released when the trigger was pulled. The bows were green painted metal and could fire the arrows thirty to forty feet with quite a speed. We had good fun firing at each other and targets, which was pretty tame until we had better ideas. We decided we wanted the real thing and so we tried out darts from the dartboard, sharp metal points variety. The largish darts fitted snugly into the groove where the arrow, or bolt, should go and when we shot the first one it was amazing. It flew straight, fast and far and stuck into a tree. This was magic! Instead of playing we now had the real thing. The only drawback, apart from the potential of killing someone, or putting out an eye, was that darts were so easy to lose in the undergrowth. We had such a great time and somehow we lived past childhood.
My father cleared the front and side of the house, in Gipton Wood Crescent, of trees so that he could have a drive built and the drive was then tarmacked. This provided a range of possibilities for young boys. We had been given roller skates, the kind that were extendable to fit your shoes and then strapped on. These were ok, but they had four wheels that would stick on a loose stone and send you head over heels. We decided on a better use for them and that was placing a hard backed book on top of one, sitting on it and shooting down our driveway onto the road. It was good fun and we could get up quite a pace. There were some drawbacks, removing the skin off your knuckles as you held on to the book, removing the skin off your leg, if you fell off sideways and potentially being run over at the end of your run. None of these seemed to deter us and in fact they spurred my older brother and I to decide we could do better. To do better, meant travelling further afield to a much steeper hill. There was one just on the corner of Upland Crescent and Gipton Wood Avenue. The road suddenly fell steeply to the crossroads with Upland Grove. The run would have been about fifty to sixty feet before you hit the crossroads and of course my elder brother was the first to give it a go. He set off, gained rapid pace, zigzagged and fell off sideways about half way down. I gave it a more tentative go and used my shoes as breaks to maintain a more modest speed. I think that by the end of the morning we had just about mastered getting a good run down the hill in one go. Luckily for us there were few cars in our days, so the number of near misses at the crossroad were few.
My older brother was always the most accident prone when we were children. I think I took over from him as I got older, as my ‘Near Death Experience’ will support. School holidays seemed to last for ever and we had many adventures and even allowed my younger brother to join in as he got older.