Heaton History Group is often contacted by people who used to live in the neighbourhood and have vivid and usually fond recollections. We love to hear their memories. ‘RS’ still returns to Heaton from time to time. Here is the fifth instalments of his thoughts.
‘So, it’s time to leave Armstrong Park and make the brief walk to its nearby neighbour. At this point I know what you may be thinking: there’s rather more to Armstrong Park than that which I have described. Too true. There’s the large area behind the old windmill, for example, which I must have explored at some time or other back in the sixties, but of which no particular memory is retained today. Described in Part 4 were simply the features of Armstrong Park with which I was, and remain, most familiar – the bowling green, the tennis courts, the large grassy area in front of the windmill, the windmill itself.
I walk from the windmill’s information board towards King John’s Palace, crossing, on my way, the narrow winding path which leads down to the park exit – much more foliage in this area than there used to be – then carefully negotiate my way down the grassy bank before walking across Jesmond Vale Lane.
Now on the other side of that road, with the ‘palace’ in front of me, several changes are clearly visible. Nevertheless, while standing here, it is another set of images from another experience, existing as a vivid memory from fifty years ago, which briefly dominates my consciousness. It happened like this.
And it’s a bit of a boys’ thing. Back in those days, it was fairly normal for young lads to be carrying a knife when out and about. (Yes, please feel free to read that sentence again.) No harm was obviously intended in doing so, or certainly not among my circle of primary school-age friends, but … well, back then a lad just did. Trust me on this. We even took them to school, where admittedly it probably wouldn’t have been a wise move to brandish them in lessons, even when overcome with the excitement frequently experienced when ploughing through the latest adventures of ‘Janet and John’, but when otherwise I can’t recall there being any particular problem, say at playtime. It could be a small or large penknife. Perhaps it might be a Swiss Army-type knife, incorporating a clever little tool for removing stones from horses’ hooves, always handy in the – admittedly unlikely, but I lived in hope – event that I might eventually stumble across a suitably distressed horse limping somewhere around Heaton. (It’s always best to be prepared – just in case.)
Ah yes: ‘Be Prepared’, the motto of the Cub Scouts, the youthful members of which organisation seemed to be routinely issued with sheath knives as a standard feature of their equipment, and which were worn freely and openly, hanging from their belts, even when not in uniform, with plenty of non-Cubs owning and publicly displaying their own examples, too.
I’m digressing now but, come to think of it, youthful ‘firearms‘ were in plentiful supply, as well. How many lads in those days didn’t own a cowboy-type cap-gun revolver? Or rifle? Not many. Or if so, it was only because they were impatiently waiting for Santa to get his act together the next time Christmas came around. Secret agent-type pistols were very common as well, in the style of James Bond or The Man From Uncle. Best of all was the legendary ‘Johnny Seven – One Man Army’. (We’re talking serious weaponry here. No messing.)
Want to get an idea of the genuine Johnny Seven experience? I can only recommend you click on the following YouTube link: http://youtu.be/w-tz-9c-g4A
That’s a bit what it was like for a lad on the mean streets of central Heaton, about fifty years ago, although more often in short trousers and, unsurprisingly, without a random unseen American shouting orders in the background. (Come to think of it, like that advert, we may even have played in black and white, but it was rather a long time ago so I can’t be certain on that point.)
Interested? Well come over to my place and have a turn with mine. No, really – I’ve still got my own Johnny Seven. Some bits have gone missing over the decades and some now malfunction – I’m currently having problems with the grenade launcher – so it’s probably more accurate to call it a ‘Johnny Four And A Half’, but it certainly still exists.
You’re going to want a photo to believe me on that one, so here you are:
(And don’t get me started on the joys of the catapult.)
Anyway, so there we were, roaming around central Heaton, openly carrying our fearsome assortment of knives, revolvers, pistols, rifles and Johnny Sevens – veritable armed militias of 8-10 year olds – perhaps, on reflection, rather as if ‘Crackerjack’ had decided to broadcast a special one-off edition from Vietnam. Can you imagine children playing like that today? Some horrified onlooker would get out their mobile phone, and within five minutes you’d be deafened by the sound of approaching squad cars, before the whole of Heaton would be put in ‘lockdown’ for the rest of the day, while Social Services implemented the politically correct provisions of their latest ‘children at risk’ intervention strategy.
Which takes me back to where I was. No, not in Vietnam – back to standing on Jesmond Vale Lane, just by the ‘palace’, sometime in the mid-sixties.
Standing with a friend, as it happens, name now long forgotten. There I was, holding my pearl-handled, multi-function, Swiss Army knife, no doubt still optimistically on the lookout for that perpetually elusive limping horse. In the meantime, as we’d been walking up the lane, on the way home, I had been amusing myself by aimlessly hacking away at random twigs, overhanging leaves and the like, as I went – fair enough, not ideal behaviour, but essentially harmless. The trouble was, he’d obviously been watching and following us for the last few minutes. And ‘he’ was … the ‘parky’!
Or should that be the ‘parkie’? No matter – it was going to take more than correct spelling to get us out of this one. This was serious. Appearing from seemingly nowhere was the man more officially known as the Park Keeper, and who seemed to operate in both Armstrong and Heaton parks. A smallish, perhaps fortyish gentleman, he very much resembled a typical bus inspector of the day – remember them? – with dark gabardine overcoat and black peaked cap, an impression reinforced by the fact that he carried some sort of silver-coloured ticket machine slung over his shoulder, and which dangled by his waist, in his case for the purpose of issuing tickets in exchange for the sixpence needed for the use of the tennis courts.
And he wasn’t happy. Curtly he demanded that I hand over my knife. On reflection, I could have simply refused. If matters then became difficult, I suppose I could have sent my anonymous friend to my house in Simonside Terrace to get some back-up firepower. I’m sure Mr Parky would have thought twice about the wisdom of his demands – or at least considered entering into negotiations – when confronted with a fully loaded Johnny Seven: the anti-tank rocket, in particular, is some serious piece of plastic.
But of course, I did none of those things. I might ‘talk the talk’ now, but back then I didn’t ‘walk the walk’. Or rather, I did. All the way back home, in fact. Somewhat sheepishly, if the truth be told. Without my knife. Which, of course, I had meekly handed over to the ‘parky’. In those days, to defy an adult was often not such an easy thing to do, but to defy an adult in a uniform was close to unthinkable. So I didn’t think it, and didn’t do it.
And would you believe this? Just as we turned into Rothbury Terrace, there it finally came, hobbling uncomfortably towards us … clipetty, clop (painful whinny) clipetty, clop … (No, I didn’t think you would, and you’d be right not to.)
But in any case, the welfare of the infrequently encountered limping horses of Heaton were from that day on someone else’s responsibility.
And yes, Mr Parky – that person was you.
The “Parkies”, to kids in the 50s and 60s, were pests who would spot the most minor thing, like retrieving a ball from the bowling green, or flower beds, blow their whistles, shake their sticks and shout at us. Of course they could not very often get near us as we were quite nimble, but they remembered and if you were daft enough later to get within range a smack on the legs with their stick would happen. Intolerable behaviour by an official now, but commonplace in the day.