I guess that one of life’s greatest pleasures was the ability to get around your world without having to be reliant on your parents. This hasn’t changed as we got older and it has only been since we have lost that freedom that we appreciate it even more.
As a child my first real means of getting around and the thrill of speed came from my scooter. Now scooters in the 1950s were not the flash modern ones used to perform aerial tricks, but rather the red painted things with two wheels about five inches in diameter, with hard rubber tyres. It was never a smooth ride, but with a slope you could pick up a speed. They were equipped with a heel brake that was basically a lever that when pressed put friction against the wheel and hopefully slowed you down. Use of the scooter wasn’t aided by rough surfaces of the roads and pavements. I enjoyed riding mine down Lawrence Avenue, but it only took a small pebble to get under the front wheel to bring the scooter to a complete stop and for you to pile off head over heels. The result was often a grazed knee, some blood and the need for mum’s care with washing it clean and applying the magic Germolene cream.
Whilst we lived in Lawrence Avenue my older brother, Andrew, had a tricycle. Now this wasn’t one of the modern things that toddlers have, this was a mean machine. It had large spoked wheels, about eighteen inches in diameter, with proper ball-bearing axles and chain and pedals. You can probably still get them, but at that time they were common. The major advantage of these was that they were real bikes that could get up a good head of speed and had a great turning circle, without the risk of tipping over. They also allowed a passenger. Someone could stand on the top of the rear axle and hold onto the shoulders of the rider. We used it a lot and it gave us the first taste of speed, danger and adventure whilst riding. I am not sure why they fell out of fashion, maybe they were too fast for younger children. They did have good brakes, but like Robin Reliants they could turn over if you tried to turn a corner too quickly.
Whilst remembering Lawrence Avenue, I recalled the old slag heap that was nearby, on the left at the bottom of the road. It was fenced, but there were gaps through the chainlink that no one seemed bothered about. This heap gave me my next taste of adventure with speed. Kids used to slide down the slope, much like sledging. Old metal trays and even bonnets off cars were used and it really was life threatening to hurtle down the coal heap at break-neck speeds and have to throw yourself off before you hit the fence at the bottom or hit a gap and hurtled onto the road. I think I only used the abandoned car bonnet once as that really had the potential to kill you.
The journalist and writer, Bill Naughton, wrote a series of short stories called Spit Nolan and Other Stories. It is a wonderful book that tells of life in the 1930s and is full of real characters. Spit Nolan is a boy who is the champion trolley rider. We would call them bogeys in Leeds. The bogey was a homemade vehicle and was basically a plank of wood with large wheels on a fixed axle at the rear, a thin plank which reached out that held a cross plank near the front. This cross piece had another axle and two smaller wheels. The cross plank was held by a nut that allowed it to move, so that you could steer the front wheels. Many kids had them in the 1950s and my dad made one for my brother and me. More often than not they had pram wheels and these allowed great speeds to be reached on a downward slope. I think my dad had the basic wooden structure made at his works, Cattons’ Steel Foundry on Black Bull Street near the River Aire in Leeds.
Our bogey didn’t have pram wheels and it wasn’t as fast as it could have been. Looking back, I realise that that was most likely deliberate on my dad’s part. He didn’t want us killing ourselves. This probably also explained why the wooden sledge he made for us didn’t have metal runners. It had wooden runners that we rubbed a wax candle on to make them slippy. Again, it never was as fast as it could have been. The bogey, though, worked fairly well and it could fit my brother and me on it and we used it rather like a bobsleigh. One of us would be in the steering position at the front and the other, usually me, pushed from behind and when the speed built up you had to jump on behind the driver. I well remember rattling down Lawrence Avenue, trying to dodge pedestrians, bins and assorted children and onlookers. The roads were much quieter and there were few cars, so the road was often used. I believe there were others in the street with bogeys and races used to take place. I know ours was neither the best nor the fastest, but it was still great fun. I can still hear the whoops and cries of joy as we hurtled like charioteers down the pavements and roads. Yes there were accidents, whenever my older brother was involved, there were accidents. I always seemed to get away with it, but he seemed to attract them. At least that was the case until I got older.
Shortly after my younger brother was born we moved to Gipton Wood Crescent and it was there that I got my first two-wheeler bike. My mum got it for me second hand and I can still vividly remember my first attempt at riding it down the street. I am sure that Miss Ellis, who lived across from us must have been livid. I think that a family with three boys moving in opposite must have caused her great distress, particularly when we played in the street. On my bike I could only just manage to touch the ground on one side with the tip of my toe, but that was enough. I was given a push and I wobbled at bit, managed to get my foot onto the pedal, push the pedal and suddenly I was off down the slope. Now it would have helped if someone had given me better instructions on how to stop. Moving quicker by the moment, due to the momentum, I realised I didn’t know what to do. I had been shown the brakes and I just pulled hard on them. Luckily I pulled both, or I would have gone over the handlebars if I had just pulled the front wheel brake. I came to a stop, wobbled again and fell sideways. It was a very undignified ending to my first ride and the rough road hurt and grazed my legs as I was lying on the side still astride the bike. It didn’t help that I, like all boys at that time, was wearing shorts, which left flesh exposed to the hard surfaces. Boys’ legs in particular, all these years later, still have scars and blemishes that tell the story of their childhood adventures and misadventures. (My wife tells me girls’ legs too.) As you do if you fall off a horse, I got straight back on, after pushing the bike back up the slope to my house. The assorted onlookers were there to observe my second attempt. There does seem a certain human pleasure in watching the misfortune of others and why would they miss this opportunity? A growing crowd of local children had appeared like magic and there was pressure put on me not to embarrass myself or my family by failing to master riding a bike.
The second go was similar to the first, but this time the ride ended much more sedately with me braking and managing to get my foot on the ground and not falling. The crossbar did administer considerable pain to my anatomy, and to this day I do not understand why bikes in these times were built gender specific. Girls had bikes without the crossbar which made mounting and dismounting easy. Boys’ bikes had the cross bar that must have caused untold injuries to male riders and possibly resulted in a drop in the number of children being born.
Anyway, my second ride proved uninteresting to the onlookers and I was left alone to hone my riding skills. Within a matter of a few days, I was a dab hand at riding and a new world was beckoning. The first avenue for me to develop and experience adventure was the Little Wood, between the houses in the Easterlies and Gipton Woods. I believe the land was given for community use and is still there. It had a few trees and what we called the bomb hole. I have no idea if the crater was the result of a bomb, but it provided a great space to ride down the very steep slope and jump over bumps, logs and roots take off and land, much like motorbike scramblers. We were not the first and weren’t the last to use the wood in this way. The bike tracks were well worn and it was possible to race others as you mastered the rugged terrain. The first time you rode down the steepest bank and stayed on your bike was a moment of pride and accomplishment, as was the first time that your bike left the ground. It was such a wonderful place to play. We spent hours, days and years just living with wild abandon. You didn’t always need a bike to enjoy the Little Wood. In spring and summer the grass grew tall and we played hide and seek and Wide games crawling through the grass and hiding. The smell of the grass was very distinct, but the grass cuts, that you only realised you had suffered when you finished, would sting as you had a bath later that night. There was a fairly cleared section where we played modified soccer where there were pit holes and bumps all over and we even managed to play cricket there, but there were local rules and some irregular bounces. As we got older we even played with ‘corky’ balls there. I think I must have climbed all of the trees and loved the view from high above.
From the Little Wood we took our bikes to Gipton Wood and there we had a much larger area to explore. I remember well riding up and down the banks of what I only recently realise was a very old historical remains of an Iron Age camp.
Parenting was truly different and we only had to return for meals or when it got dark. Bikes gave us the freedom to explore the wider world, and Roundhay Park, Shadwell and beyond became our world. I still remember riding out to find some of the best conkers, sheltering under trees with our bikes during thunder storms, picnics. Bikes, and certainly those with gears, gave us these opportunities, as did quiet roads and parents who weren’t overly anxious. Cities have become more dangerous places and unfortunately children nowadays don’t have the luxury of exploring the world as we did. Guess we were just lucky!