Musgrave Gardens was a great place to move to. There were two lads in our street at brother Bill’s age and in Bill’s class at school. They were George Sellers and Brian Lumley. Brian was just seven days older than Bill. At school I had a friend in Jimmy Dixon but he did not live close, so away from school George and Brian were as much my friends as Bill’s. The streets, nearby fields and lanes leading away from Musgrave were all unrestricted play areas where we were free. It was a great place to grow up.
The school Bill and I now went to was called the “tin” school because its exterior was clad in corrugated steel sheeting. It was sited on the corner where Dragon Lane meets the Sunderland Road; opposite both Belle Vue Terrace and the Travellers Rest pub. The school’s official name was Gilesgate Moor Junior Mixed but boys would play with boys and girls with girls. There was a large playing field and school yard. Brother Derrick was too young to attend school at the time but would later go to this same school and gather his own group of friends. School kids these days have no difficulty remembering all the words of the latest hit but struggle to learn multiplication tables. We learnt them by the whole class saying them over and over again out loud together.
At the time of our move there were plans to build substantial numbers of Council Houses linked to Musgrave and soon Bradford Crescent and Annand Road were built and occupied as a part of that plan. Fortunately the development did not encroach on our lanes. In Annand there now lived two more lads of Bill’s age and in Bill’s class and they also were our friends. They were Peter Bunting and Edward Lowery. At times we used nicknames; Bill was Sim, Brian was Lum, George was Podge, Peter was Bunty, Edward got Ted and I was Al.
Although living only a couple of hundred yards from the school we regularly had to run at the sound of the school bell because we dawdled on the way. En route we would play marbles (alleys as we called them), have conquer matches, play ball games and sometimes chucks with stones or we were just plain messing about. At one time it was a craze to collect cardboard milk bottle tops. They had a press out hole in the middle to pour the milk out and we threaded them onto a chord. I was the proud possessor of a rope with about an 8 foot length of milk bottle tops threaded on to it. It went everywhere with me. It seems crazy now but for days on end I would drag it to school and back with me.
By the time the above school photograph was taken I was in class 1A at Whinney Hill Secondary Modern with my mate Jimmy Dixon. At the tin school I had taken and was one of about a dozen who had passed part 1 of the 11+ exam. The headmaster asked that all passing that part attend his office but when I turned up he asked what I was doing there. I had to assure him I had passed that first half. I attended the old Johnson Grammar school in Crossgate to take the second part of that exam but failed it which is why I was at Whinney Hill.
The following year Bill passed both parts of his 11 plus and so went to the Johnson Grammar School It was at that time a boys only school but at its new location opposite Moor Edge. Brian and George both joined me at Whinney Hill but we did not play at school together. Whinny Hill had a boy’s end and a girl’s end with the cookhouse in between a long continuous row of of boys and girls classrooms. One icy morning on my walk to school down Bede bank and over Bath’s bridge I decided to test the river ice at some boat launch steps. I went through the ice, was pulled out by an older Gordon Watson that I walked to school with, sat at school in my underpants with my trousers on the radiator.
The physical education teacher Tommy Watson would send us on a run down through the wood to Hollow Drift at the rear of the school. Our return route took us up a high and steep sandy slope emerging at the girl’s end, puffing and panting but trying to look cool as they watched us through the mesh fencing.
At Musgrave we would play football with a tennis ball at the crossroads in the street, always ready to disappear if Bob Scott, a Musgrave residing policeman appeared. We would walk on our hands in that area and balance broom sticks on our noses there. We could all do it for about a minute. There were no cars parked in or using these streets, just the occasional coal, milk , grocery or other delivery vehicle. The streets were ours and a street light on the corner was ours allowing us to play after dark.
I remember once when we were out of coal, I was sent to the Gilesgate Goods Station to get a bag. My bike became a push bike as I carried it on its crossbar. In later years when dad worked at Bowburn Colliery we were never short of coal. His coal allowance would be dropped in the road outside our house and Bill and I would bag it and carry it round the back to the, by then, outside coal bunker.
Next to Musgrave was a levelled out and grassed over Kepier Colliery duff heap we called the duffy. It had goal posts on it and we could play football with a leather laced football there. When wet, heading a lacey would just about take your head off. We would also play cricket on the duffy and do things like communicating with tin cans connected by string and daft things like exploding carbide and water in topped bottles. The raised level of the Duffy meant blown snow caused drifts at its descending edges and we would have great fun diving into those drifts.
Two lanes led away from Musgrave. Kepier lane took us under the Gilesgate goods railway line and down to Watson’s Farm, the Free Orchard and the Farm Orchard (which wasn’t supposed to be free). On the left were the “banky” fields where in winter we would sledge down to the river. One steep track we called suicide. I remember my sledge hitting the remnants of a growth on it. I shot forward off the sledge and got mildly cut down my chest by the remnant. A lad called Peter, the youngest in a family of three lads, hit a post when turning fast to avoid going into the river. He was unconscious so we took him to Sands house and left him with the woman there. Summer time and we might have four wheel steerable bogies made from wood, pram wheels and axles. Some had a wooden lever brake; others you just dragged your feet, as for a sledge. We would pull each other on the roads or let them run free down the lanes but not down those banky fields.
The farm at Kepier is on the site of the former hospital of St Giles that had been built here in the 12th century after the original next to St. Giles church had been destroyed. King Edward the first Malleus Scotorum (Hammer of the Scots) once stayed here and later Robert the Bruce attacked and burnt it down. It had to be rebuilt again so what you see as the entry arch dates from the fourteenth century. A Musgrave family once owned Kepier lands.
Heading toward the river and on the right of the farm was Harper’s pond full of frogs, toads and newts and close to it the remains of a kiln. Downstream of the farm and shaped by the river were the “half moon” and “shooting gallery” fields. Round that half moon field we once found a female body lodged by the swollen river face down in riverside bushes. We weren’t sure it was real. Someone suggested it was a shop model but then Brian poked her leg with a stick. We told nobody and revisited the site. Brian was having trouble sleeping and his dad learnt why a few days later. His dad went to the police telling them that he had discovered the body.
The shooting gallery field was so named because it had a world war one target site at its corner. Practice shots would have been at it from as far away as the farm. Around its concrete structure and under its sloping thin metal and rusting roof you could find numerous spent cartridges. That field also had a great stony riverside area where we would play ducks and drakes and a stile entry into the start of Kepier Wood on our side of the river.
The other lane from Musgrave was Dixon’s lane named after the owners of the high grange farm thereon. It took us past many wooden garages where the few people who had cars kept them. We would sometimes play on top of and among the garages and I remember one moonlit night my diving into a hedge because someone was coming. I landed in a pile of soot dumped from a swept chimney. In that same area in daylight I remember Bill falling when walking along a rail that held pointed fence timbers together. He was going from support post to support post. I had to lift him off as he was hanging upside down between two pointed uprights with a bleeding thigh. He was fortunate to have not been impaled on them.
After the garages was the High Grange Farm (roughly where the shops are now) The farm had a small pond and a large Medieval Tythe Barn. We sometimes but not often played there as it was likely we would get chased and besides we were not short on places we could freely play. Dixon’s lane, like the Kepier Lane, met up with the Gilesgate goods railway line. Here it did a right turn and between it and the goods line there was an area we called “Nanny Goat Ranch” It was the grassed over site of a former railway cutting between two tiny embankments and made for a great play area. Many kids; girls as well as boys would venture here and play. About 50 yards further along the lane was the large pit heap from the defunct Kepier Grange Colliery. It had steep sides and an uneven up and down top which created an obstacle course for bikes.
Behind this pit heap ran a small tree – lined stream. I remember our doing pole vaulting there. The stream tunnelled under the railway line and we once went through it. Its entry was tiny and wet and required a bent double, bent legs struggle. You could just about avoid using all fours. The tunnel got taller and exited as a portal structure about 10 foot high into the upper levels of Kepier wood. In front of the pit heap was the mine shaft turned pond with its own array of water creatures. Between “nanny goat ranch” and this pond were typical railway gates that gave us a much simpler access over the once a day train line and down to what was increasingly becoming our second home – Kepier Wood.
The River Wear on its way from Durham to Sunderland passes through the wood lined gorge that is Kepier wood. Its trees, high rock faces and streams made it a great energy consuming play area in both summer and winter. It was an area that gave us the freedom to do what we wanted to do. It was also a place with many earth mounds, filled in mineshaft holes, hollows and pathways created by bygone coal mining and quarrying activities. At the wood centre was a tree felled and more level area we called the “flats”. You could play football there at that time using tree stumps as goal markers; now it is well on its way to being mature woodland. On a hot summer day you would often find a dozen or more kids of mixed ages, girls and boys, swimming in the river at one sandy banked area of these flats.
Yet further along the river and still there is the “vi” – our name for the viaduct that in those days carried steam hauled trains on the Durham to Sunderland route. To us it was just one means to get to Frankland wood and the Brasside ponds on the other side of the river. Our main way of getting to the other side was by plodging (geordie for wading) across the river. We went across wider parts of the the river guided by rapids and with our footwear round our necks. Leaches would often adhere to our legs as we crossed and we would have to pull them off. Some of the bottom rocks were flat and slippy. If we fell in we would start a fire and dry out our clothes.
A tramp called Buller lived under primitive conditions on the other side of the wood. We would sometimes approach his abode up an old wagonway incline and call him. If he appeared we would run like mad things down the wagonway tumbling and falling. I don’t think he ever gave chase.
Brasside ponds in those days were bigger than they are now. They had been created by the extraction of clay by a brick works. Narrow walkways between ponds allowed us to walk around one of them in about twenty minutes. They were sheltered by a wooded surround and a great and peaceful area for ducks, geese, swans, water voles etc. We rarely made much noise when we went there because we were never sure of our right to be there. On one occasion some of us on a homemade raft decided to shoo off an approaching swan. It raised and stretched its wings and we all finished up in the “drink”.
We weren’t confined to this area. There was the Vane Tempest Hall, Pelaw Wood, the old Durham area and the scrambles area where motor bikes raced round hilly circuits. Then there was Renny’s lane and the areas of Sherburn and Sherburn House. There were and still are woods at Maiden Castle, Houghall and Shincliffe all with their own streams, woods and relics of the past. We sometimes would go beyond Kepier to Rainton Park and Mally Gill Woods and to Finchale Abbey.
Brian and I delivered morning papers from a shop on Gilesgate bank. I at one time also delivered evening papers, collecting them from the Chronicle office in the market place. We were not townies but we had relatives who lived there. Dad’s dad Scotty or Jocka, (real name Alfred Simpson and actually dad’s step dad – which we did not know then) was a bookie’s runner taking illegal bets in Durham Market place for a bookmaker Teddy O’ Neil who resided behind closed shutters up a lane off Silver Street. I would sometimes tap on the shutters and place a bet for my dad under his non de plume Scott X1.
Scotty lived in a most advantageous position for observing the Miner’s Gala and we would go there and watch the proceedings out of his window. The room was lit by gas lamps, had a huge range and fire and featured china dogs on the mantlepiece. Across the stairs and with a window view toward Elvet Bridge lived Herbie. We did not know it then but he was Herbert Littlefair, a brother of dad’s mother Margaret Littlefair who had died in 1938 and who had married Alfred Simpson a few years after dad’s birth.
Saturday mornings we often went to the Majestic cinema on Sherburn Road to watch cowboy films. The Rex was closer but like the Globe at the top of North Road a very dark cinema with seats in need of repair. The Palace cinema down near the river below St Nicholas church was a little better and dad’s sisters (actually half sisters) Doreen (Reeny) and Elsie along with a Peggy worked there.If they were manning the box office and acting as ticket collector/usherette we would get in for nothing. Better cinemas were the Palladium in Claypath and the Regal/Essoldo in North Road.
Sunday’s we went to the methodist chapel near the duck pond (no duck’s or pond there in our days). I think we were encouraged to go there so that mam and dad had time on their own. We went for years, signed a pledge not to partake of the evil drink and I would teach some of the younger ones. So as to watch a nativity play or similar show (I can’t remember what) we all assembled early on the front pew. The place filled up and the superintendent decided we would be moved upstairs to accommodate some late comer friends of his. He led the way, intent on finding us some seats but as he turned up the stairs we turned out of the front door that was opposite the stairs and never went back. I am all too aware that none of us kept that pledge.
A big woman called Jane would occasionally come to Musgrave and we were told she was our great aunt. We would later discover she was Margaret’s youngest sister and the Peggy mentioned above was her daughter and dad’s cousin. But Margaret also had an older sister Annie, who with her husband John Wyatt had witnessed Margaret’s marriage to Scotty. In later years, when Bill was in the police force, he had been taken aback at seeing a photograph of himself and his wife Ann on a sideboard. in a property he had had cause to visit. He was in the home of Annie Wyatt, our great aunt Annie.
Those growing up years were great times, but unlike Peter Pan, we grew up. Our group of friends grew bigger as we went to different schools, were in different classes and joined different groups like the scouts and St. Nicholas boys club. At St. Nick’s we played table tennis. Brian and I played football for them in the Durham and District League. In yet later years many of us would drink and play darts together in the Half Moon Hotel located next to what had been Scotty’s place. We young men were now in jobs, going to dance halls and befriending girls and each making a separate way in life.