Saturday, 28 July 2018

The Saturday List #181 - My ten rather naughty childhood joys of Mill Hill

As regular readers of the blog will know, I've lived in Mill Hill all my life (apart from Six months in Stockholm and a year in a flat Mollison Way).   I was sorting out some old family albums and it got me thinking of the "Old Mill Hill" of my youth. I've done a similar list before, but this one is looking at the social side of Mill Hill. This is what "our gang" used to do as kids. The term "gang" has developed a very negative connotation in relation to young people, but we were the Millway gang of Kids. We used to do all manner of activities, none of which I suspect the kids of today (and their parents) would ever dream of doing. Who were the Millway gang? There was me at 29 Millway, my mates Ricky and Luke at no 31a, Jonny and Frank over the road, the Malone boys at no 65, the Cooneys at no 59. We were all born between 1960 and 64. I was somewhere in the middle. These memories were largely from between around 1969 and 1973.

There wasn't much on telly then, only three channels and no kids watched BBC2. So what did the Millway Gang do.

1. Football matches in the street. When was the last time you saw a bunch of kids on a middle class suburban street in Mill Hill kicking a ball around. I don't really recall there being so many parked cars. The match would usually take place between the Cooneys and The Malones house. The eldest Malone boys were twins and good footballers, so they would usually be captains. I'd usually be the last pick being rubbish! We would also play football on our lawns. My house was not popular as there were too many rosebushes. My mum hated this.

2. Collecting Conkers in Russell Grove. Russell Grove is a sidestreet off Millway. It used to have a fine array of Conkers that in autumn would supply local kids from all over Mill Hill with the finest conkers. For me the fun was always collecting the conkers, didn't really enjoy the game. One of the ways we'd get the conkers would be to throw sticks and stones at them. This used to rile the residents, especially when they landed on the residents cars. I recall one incident where the police were called. Accusations were made, and met with a "not us guv". One of the Malone boys, being a little more savvy and streetwise came up with a brilliant excuse "There were some boys from Burnt Oak doing it, they chased us off". It became clear that if you lived in Burnt Oak, you could be blamed for anything by Mill Hill residents and the police would always fall for it. There were all manner of petty crimes and acts of vandalism in Mill Hill allegedly committed by "kids from Burnt Oak". Generally they ventured no further than Lyndhurst Park.

3. Scrumping Apples from Mrs Grovers garden (at no 27). Mrs Grover had two fine apple trees at the bottom of her garden. She also grew the most amazing raspberries. She was a kindly old dear, who cared for her sister, who was also a kindly old dear but had special needs. I doubt she minded too much, but we'd plan the raids. If we saw her and her sister going down to the Broadway, we'd  hastily gather a raiding party. I was always pretty good at climbing trees, this was one area where being smaller and lighter than average was a great advantage.  There was the added complication of making sure my parents did not see us, as they'd make us give all of the loot back. On occasion the apples would become missiles in impromptue battles, usually started by one of the Malone boys hurling a rotten apple at the back of some poor unsuspecting sap's head. This was a good life lesson. I always make sure to look behind me, when I am in a dodgy situation! Perhaps the worst of these missions happened when I was at the top of the apple tree and all of a sudden about six kids launched an unrelenting volley of rotten apples at me. I realised that when you make it to the top, you are also the no. 1 target for everyone else.

4. Football at Woodcroft Park. During the heady summer days, the gang would head down to Woodcroft Park for a kickabout. Kids would congregate from all over Mill Hill and the Watling Estate for this kickabout, mostly from St Vincents school. Games could go on all day. Sometimes groups from other schools would come down and challenge us to a match. Often these would end up with a punch up. The main sign that it was going to turn nasty was the arrival of older brothers, who would demand to play and then start kicking lumps out of the smaller kids. When this became a bit too frequent, we moved to Mill Hill Park.

5. Frisbee across the street. One of our more popular Sunday passtimes was games of Frisbee. The Lewis boys lived across the road, so it would be Jonny and Frank against myself, Ricky and Luke. Frank was a bit older and his Dad bought him a couple of frisbees, which we found to be great fun. As I said, there weren't the number of parked cars. This came to a halt when Frank broke a neighbours window, and she told his Dad off. Franks Dad was a lovely chap, who took it all very much in his stride, paid the bill and simply said "Better not play that anymore boys, go to the park".

6. Cricket in Mill Hill Park. In the mid 1960's the Dua family moved into no 1 Millway. They were of Indian origin and were cricket mad. They would organise cricket knockabouts at the park. As my Dad loved cricket and hated football, this meant that he had some kids playing a game he enjoyed, so he'd take us to the park, give us some tips and coach us. He'd been a semi pro cricketer in Australia before the war, so was a very good player. Sadly for him, I had none of his aptitude, but a couple of the Dua boys did and would listen intently to his tips. He'd take them to the nets at Hendon and Edgware cricket club and advise them on their bowling.  I recall my Dad having a row with someone from the club, who objected to him using the nets. My Dad was having none of it, saying that as they weren't in use they should be pleased that kids were getting some practice in. After that, this chap would always chase us away if my Dad wasn't around. I wasn't that interested in cricket, but did enjoy our games with tennis balls. My Dad would leave us to it, then return with ice lollies, sweets and cans of coke. It was great fun. Years later, I met up with one of the Dua's for a beer. He told me that him and his brothers had great memories of my Dad turning up.

7. Tadpoling at Angel Pond. Another activity that we used to enjoy was to walking up to Angel Pond with small nets and catching Tadpoles. If you were really lucky you'd catch a Stickleback. We'd all be quite competetive, so if one caught a stickleback, we'd all have to. We'd bring them back in jamjars with bits of string on. I well remember bring some back and my mum saying "What are you going to do with them?" I said "Put them in the bird bath", which I duly did. Within a couple of hours a blackbird had scoffed the lot. I decided to build a pond (without knowing how). I didn't want my mum to know, so we dug a hole and covered it with sticks as we figured out how to get a liner. My mum was walking around the garden and fell in it, breaking her ankle. She blamed my Dad as he'd told us that this was how you built bear traps. These days you need a certificate from the enviroment agency to remove tadpoles from ponds, no doubt. My finest memory of it though, was when one of the gang was pushed in and emerged looking like Swamp thing. You really could never turn your back.

8. Making Molotov cocktails in the garden. My parents had a rather lax attitude to health and safety. We had a petrol driven lawnmower. Most of our road still had milk deliveries. One of the gang explained that he'd read that you could make a bomb out of a Milk Bottle, a bit of rag and a can of petrol. We were fascinated. I foolishly said "My Dad's got a can of petrol in the shed for the lawnmower". Within minutes, seven or eight kids were in the shed, as the Molotov Cocktail was made. At the time I had no idea what would happen. Another of the gang was despatched to get a lighter. We then had to select a target. At no 35, one of our neighbours had two little girls and he'd just bought them a "Wendy House", where they could play with their dolls. After sensibly checking that they weren't in the garden, the Molotov cocktail was despatched. What happened next was shocking and horrific. Within seconds the whole thing was completely incinerated. It hadn't occurred to me that the bloody thing would work. Within ten millionths of a second, every kid had scarpered. I went and hid in the shed, playing with my action man. A couple of minutes later, the police and fire service arrived. On inspection, they concluded that the work was probably the work of "kids from Burnt Oak". The owner of no 35 was a Headmaster of a secondary school in the area and they concluded that the job was probably some teenager he'd expelled on a well planned grudge mission. We were all quite happy to let them believe this, we never, ever mentioned it again. It had occurred to me that we could all have killed ourselves.

9. Go Kart Races down the road. Another thing you never see these days are go karts. Often these were made from wheels reclaimed from redundant prams. As Millway is a fairly steep hill, you could havc the most amazing races down the road. These invariably ended in scuffed knees, crashes, pain and blood. But wow were they fun. This mini Monte Carlo festival ended when one crashed into a parked car. My Dad fixed it for the owner free of charge, as he told a porkie and said I was driving the cart. The best of the go carts was owned by Michael Sheridan, who was older than the rest of us and generally refrained from joining in. As there was high kudos to be had as the King of Go Carts in Millway, he made an exception for Go Cart races. Last time I saw Michael, he was the Jerusalem correspondent for the Times.

10. Playing chicken on the M1. At the bottom of my Garden (and the vast majority of the gang) was the M1. Young boys and cars do not mix well. The Ministry of Transport erected a six footwire  fence between the houses and the road. For us, this was a challenge. The area between the Motorway and the fence was like a mythical zone. All manner of detritus would turn up. Discarded tyres, cans of petrol. porn mags, household items. It was a treasure trove. Once this was explored, then there another five foot high wooden fence and then the road. This was just too tempting. It is quite strange, as on the other side of this fence you had another, dangerous and very exciting world. Beyond the M1, we had the Midland mainline railway. The game was to run across the motorway, put a penny on the railway line then run back. I have to conclude that there was far less traffic on the Motorway then. That was when I learned just how dangerous peer pressure really was. I was quite cautious by nature and knew it was dangerous. I also knew I was worse at climbing and slower at running than my mates. But it was made clear that to be in the gang, this had to be done. I did it without any bother, but I was then informed that I had to retrieve the penny after the train went over it. For reasons I can't quite figure out, I was terrified the second time. I was scared that I wouldn't find the penny and a train would squash me. As it was, I found it straight away. The trip back was really scary, there seemed to be no break in the traffic for hours. Eventually, the north bound lane cleared and I got across to the middle section. As I was standing between the crash barriers,  a police car passed. I realised that I was in big trouble as it screeched to a halt. I had no choice but to make a dash for it. I managed to vault the fence and scramble the next fence, other kids had also seen the police and scarpered. I ended up in the garden of an elderly couple who were out, sprinted up the side alley and down to my house.

The police worked out which garden was the likely source of the kids (footballs etc) and hopped over the fence. A stern lecture was issued. As the older boys knew that it would look bad on them if it came out they'd forced me to do it, they took the blame and the telling off. The police told them that if there were further motorway incursions, they would be in "big, big trouble". I lay low for a couple of days and then found myself ostracised for a few months. Apparently it was all my fault.

I sometimes wonder about all of these things. Some were mildly naughty, some were scary and some were incredibly dangerous. Some of these memories I recall with happiness, some I recall with trepidation. Society has moved on. I never really see gangs of kids on the streets at all in Mill Hill. I am not entirely sure whether that is  a good or bad thing, when I recall what we used to do.

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