‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Playground Adventures in the 1950s and 60s – An Accident Waiting to Happen, or a Great Place to Challenge Yourself!

David’s Bookshelf Issue 2 Cup of Tea Tales

This episode is also available as a blog post: https://davidmcameronauthormusician.com/2022/10/02/davids-bookshelf-issue-2/ — Send in a voice message: https://anchor.fm/david-m-cameron/message
  1. David’s Bookshelf Issue 2
  2. David’s Bookshelf – Issue One
  3. ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – A Lifetime of Global Successes, Disasters and Wonders! Space the Final Frontier.
  4. ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Hetchell Woods (Bardsey) and Crags – A Special Piece of God’s Own Country or County! One of my Favourite Places to Visit.
  5. ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – The Wonderful Yorkshire Dales. Trollers Gill, a Place with a Mysterious Legend and the Hell Hole where I Diced with Death.

One of the major changes from the childhood I experienced and that my grandchildren have, is playgrounds. Modern playgrounds are colourful, well built, architecturally designed and, above all, safe, whereas ours were sparse, dull coloured, barren areas, but more than anything were exciting and dangerous.

Who can forget the slides that towered over the parks? Bare metal, steep angled and the climb up the metal rungs was enough to raise the heart rate and provide a wide view as we towered above the surrounding area. The views alone were worth the danger. Playgrounds offered two alternatives for children: the lower slides that were intended for very young children, but these were still higher than many modern slides, and the big slide and these were, or at least appeared to be in my memory, towering structures. With a nod to safety, the tops were sometimes caged in and a small platform was where you awaited your turn to shoot down the highly polished steel slide at breakneck speeds. The edges of the slide were low and offered little room for error, and the base was often a mixture of tarmac, concrete, mud and gravel. The angle of the incline was very steep and with an additional shove, or swing off the cage, extra momentum propelled you at death-defying speeds, or so it seemed. When reaching the bottom, the slide levelled off and the thin metal allowed legs to dangle over the sides to break the impetus and enable a safe stop. That, at least, was the intent, but as we became older, the sensible use was not exciting enough and variations were created to increase the risk, the danger and thus the pleasure. Headfirst was an obvious adaptation and, on a good slide, it could result in flying off the end and getting a face full of gravel, grazes, cut knees and other scars that were worn as a badge of valour. Only the youngest children were supervised and as we got older, our parents probably felt that what they didn’t see us do was better for their nerves.

My knees still bear witness to minor accidents, but somehow we all seemed to survive fairly intact. I now wonder if the casualty departments at St James’ Hospital or the Infirmary may have told a different tale.

Each slide had its own personality and characteristics. Some were slower, some steeper, some wider and my favourite, I think, was at Potternewton Park. I may be wrong, but the one I am picturing was a partially green painted structure that allowed almost supersonic speed for what seemed to last for a long time. I would be interested to hear others’ opinions on the best slides. Meanwood Park also had good equipment, but I could walk to Potternewton and so it was my local.

If you survived or were tired of the slides, there were other challenges. The roundabouts were fantastic fun. I think these were mainly for young children. If there were families using them with little children, then they were sedate frames consisting of a round wooden base, on a metal frame and the circle was divided by four metal rails that allowed you to hold on whilst the whole structure revolved around a central column of steel. The base was about five or six inches above the playground surface. Young children would hang onto the handrails and parents would slowly push the roundabout, making sure the child was secure and safe. Slightly older children would jump on and off in the manner that the designers probably intended.

When the roundabout was free of youngsters and adults, then we made full use in a much more exciting manner. Speed was the essence. You would hold on to the rail and run, pushing the roundabout as fast as you could, and we really could get up a speed. When we reached maximum velocity, which was just before you were dragged off your feet, you jumped onto the revolving platform and hung on for dear life. The centrifugal force was trying to throw you off, but you clung on, feeling the wind on your face and through your hair, laughing and challenging the world to do its worst, as you were up to it. Such is the esprit of youth. To make it more interesting, you would sometimes hang backwards off the base with your head just above the ground. The challenge was to get as low to the ground as possible without cracking your skull or knocking yourself out. The real art was to have your hair brushing the gravel. You just had to hope there weren’t any lumps. Eventually, exhaustion, friction and nausea would put an end to the ride. Who can forget the dizziness of the spinning world and the inability to maintain your stance? We would stagger around like drunkards until our heads cleared, but it was living and I loved it.

Accidents did happen, but not often, and never to me. I didn’t witness any major ones, but I saw children lose their footing as they ran, pushing the roundabout as fast as possible and getting dragged along before letting go. The injuries tended to be very nasty, deep grazes that hurt and took a long time to heal. The scabs on your legs would pull as they became hard, cracked open and wept. Even worse was when they itched as they healed, before finally dropping off or being scratched off. Germolene was spread over the cuts and grazes when you returned home and it seemed to heal everything and I can still smell its distinct aroma.

The other challenge of the roundabout was the ability to jump on and off whilst it was going. To impress everyone else around, this meant choosing maximum speed as the opportunity to show one’s skill and bravado. Timing had to be just right, and you had to hit the ground running or catastrophe would occur. Planting yourself face-first onto the hard surface would be bad enough, and extremely painful, but much more painful was making a fool of yourself in front of others and losing face, sometimes literally. Many a time I witnessed such falls from grace as a cool (don’t think we used the term ‘cool’ then) youth lost all credibility with a disastrous dismount. The most dangerous and highest status trick was to jump onto a speedily revolving roundabout, avoiding the bar and landing and staying on your feet. Only the foolhardy would attempt this and I suppose Darwin would say it was survival of the fittest, as many came a cropper.

There was no limit to our creativity when riding the roundabouts. You could hang upside down on the bars whilst riding, lie on the top of the bar, or sit on the central hub, or the base. The variations were endless. You could sit and read the Beano or Topper, but that tended to make you quite sick after a while.

Canal Gardens, Roundhay Park and Leeds City

The playgrounds may have lacked creative designs, but a child’s imagination could make them wonderlands. There was other equipment and the wooden see-saw was a must. Young children would be carefully held on by adoring parents, but as we got older, we wanted fun, and that meant bouncing up and down with real force. I can still feel the jolt of the wood hitting the concrete and the shuddering shock passing up your spine as you pushed up as hard as you could to inflict a similar punishment on the back of the child opposite. If you were on your own, you could stand on the top and, legs on either side of the pivot, move the plank up and down. Again, we developed the knack of jumping off the see-saw whilst it was in motion. The danger here was you had to get clear, otherwise, the plank of solid timber could strike you. I remember being struck under the chin, and it would have been like a good uppercut from a heavyweight boxer.

Another piece of equipment that was disappearing, even then, was something I believe was called a Witch’s Hat. There was a tall central pole of solid steel that was probably five or six yards standing above the ground and, supported on it, was a cone-shaped metal frame that was pivoted at the top. Much like the roundabout, it could be pushed to revolve, but it had the bonus of also moving up and down as it was balanced. The frame was about two or three feet off ground level, to allow for the up and down movement and it really was for older children, as the youngsters couldn’t climb on by themselves. All the dangers of the roundabout and other equipment seemed to be collected onto this one piece of apparatus, as it spun and dipped and rose. I guess it must have had some problems with accidents as they were being removed.

There were other pieces of equipment such as the Rocking horse and something I don’t know the name of that was a plank swing that could hold several children, but these weren’t as exciting.

Of course, swings were in every playground. There were the milk-crate designed ones for little children where they sat in a wooden frame and the legs had to be slipped in so they were secure. As you got bigger, the problem was getting back out, and it required an adult to help pull you out whilst the frame dangled off your legs. The swings for the oldies were basically a wooden board held by chains. There was a real joy in swinging when little, as your parents pushed you and would sing songs like ‘See-Saw Margery Daw’, but swinging solo, when older, required technique to get going and keep swinging. You pivoted your body to build up momentum and height. Teenage years saw us become immortal, or so we thought, and danger added to the developing emotions. Rising above the ordinary, both literally and figuratively, was important, and the swing offered both. The one who could reach the highest had more kudos than the others. I have seen people reach almost the vertical, to where gravity overcomes centrifugal force (I know science has replaced centrifugal force, but that was what we believed at the time) and the swinger dropped vertically down and the fall was only broken by the chains and there was a sharp bounce. Nevertheless, there was great joy in swinging high and staring down upon a world with a unique perspective.

Excitement created an intense feeling of being alive and the teenage years saw the extremes of emotions: euphoria and misery went up and down like the see-saw and swings of the playground. We didn’t care that the equipment was dangerous and misused. Life was like that. We could experience danger and either learn to manage it or suffer the consequences. Today, we have taken much of that experience away. The modern child no longer faces any dangers and therefore does not develop the skills to know their limitations and the potential consequences. It is knowing how close we came to seriously hurting ourselves that provided the feedback and taught us our limits and limitations. However, when seventeen, we allow teenagers without such self-awareness to take control of a car. Is it any wonder they have so many accidents? Maybe our dangerous playgrounds and free-range bicycling made us safer in the long run. All I really know is that those that survived had such great times!

4 Replies to “‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Playground Adventures in the 1950s and 60s – An Accident Waiting to Happen, or a Great Place to Challenge Yourself!”

  1. Hi Dave, thank goodness for modern day skate parks and mountain bike and BMX pitches. Danger still exists.

    The long plank at Potty Park was the ‘Long Boat’. When a couple of stronger kids were standing at the ends and propelling it could reach thrilling heights, not level with the top frame, but not far off. I guess you weren’t there on those days.

    One morning I was walking through the park early on a Saturday morning with my dad who was going to work at the Ministry of Pensions hospital. I saw that the big slide was invitingly empty (of course, it was about 8 am) and climbed up to the heady height. Within less than a second of my descent I realised that the shine on the surface wasn’t polish, it was condensated dew. My father was in fits of laughter when I got off with sodden pants that stayed that way for the rest of the morning at his work!

    I loved that playground.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Paul,
      The Long Boat. That makes sense and now you mention it I do think it could get quite scary. The wet pants is a classic! Your dad must have had a good start to his day. Brilliant stuff!!


  2. That ‘rocking horse’ was a particularly vicious device if you were sat on the tail end of it. The aim (at least for us) was to make the tail-end rise as high in the air as possible, with the intention of throwing any one sitting there to the ground. The person at the front at least had a couple of handles on either side of the ‘head’ to hang on to.

    I wonder if these rides were designed by engineers, mathematicians or sadists?


    Virginia, USA.

    Liked by 1 person

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