I grew up as one of those blessed children who had a back garden. A modest thirty or forty feet of land which holds of three trees.
Right at the back lay some sort of fir/yew tree which I have memories of standing under and feeling it’s darkness cover me. Friends would come over and claim that they could climb it, but no one ever did. I remember being told numerous times not to eat the leaves of that tree as it was poisonous, I even made an effort to wash my hands after I had touched it, just to be safe. Next to it was a small wooden swing which I could fit into until I was four or five. Neither of these things remains in the garden today. The tree was cut down when I was nine so that we could bring more sunlight into the garden and I climbed into the swing one bonfire night, trying to show off to some friends and put my foot through it.
The second was an apple tree, my parents received it as a wedding gift (1988) and it had been growing ever since then (yes it really was a tree that grew). We always wished that apples would grow on it, but they never seemed to. Someone told us that if one year was bad for fruit then the next year would be great, but they just seemed to be getting worse and worse. We’d get a couple of apples every now and then, but birds would usually peck at them anyway. I believe that by now the tree produces a good crop, and I’m sure my Mum makes a good apple pudding or two out of them.
The third tree, and the best tree is the Elderberry Tree. I’m told it’s extremely rare to have one grow in a garden like ours and this was the main tree, the headline act so to speak, the big cheese, the tree to end all trees. As I mentioned, the little swing at the back of the garden was not serving us much use, so one day seemingly out of the blue, Mum took me to Toys ‘R’ Us and just bought a tree rope swing. I loved that adults could do that, and on those wonderful occasions when I would receive something spontaneously, it was always brilliant. Once she bought me and my brother two cowboy costumes, with guns and everything, out of nowhere! Amazing! However, I don’t think I would have felt such excitement on these instances had they been regular. My Mum would always talk about this concept of ‘spoilt children’ but I really did not understand how giving a child lots of treats could somehow spoil them? Surely it would make them happier!?
The rope swing was assembled by Dad on a ladder and I was promptly instructed not to spin on it, and to share it, because that’s what it said on the instructions. That swing was probably one of the best buys my parents ever made. The accumulated hours that all of us boys must have spent on it, as well as all the friends that came round and played on it are phenomenal. The rope was bright yellow and the base was a friendly green.
I used to enjoy just swinging on it and seeing how high I could go. Then when I got bored of that, I’d get up and spin round on it (even though we weren’t meant to) and feel extremely dizzy afterwards. I also spent many hours with my (then) tiny little brother, he would position himself on my lap, and we’d both swing around for (what seemed like) hours. We invented this thing we called ‘ceremony’ which basically involved us imagining we had an audience in front of us and doing tricks in front of them. No tricks developed much further than him standing on my knees.
I’ve also pushed all four of my little brothers at different stages on the swing. My biggest swings I’d (for some really freaky reason) call “double jam, double peanut butter”. The name stuck, and that’s what my brothers enjoyed having. When my youngest brother came along, he was so tiny (and fearless) that I could swing him up to a ridiculously frightening height. He loved it, we loved watching it. He often ended up over our garden fence in terms of distance. We also did this thing called “baseball bat” when we’d grab the legs of whoever was on the swing and fling them (like a baseball bat) so they’d go spinning and probably fall off and probably cry.
We also invented a game involving a football, which I cunningly named ‘Post Ball’. The tree was called ‘the post’ and the aim was to hit the tree with the ball. I would sit on the swing and try to defend the tree, it was highly different to football. For some reason I loved the idea of this game being closely compared to football, because in football you didn’t want to hit the post, so in this game you did. This logic was somehow strangely translated into me saying “well done, you scored a goal!” when they missed and “oh dear, you hit the post” when they scored. I’m strange, I’m sure it was funny at the time.
Another huge passtime on the swing was getting the big climbing frame (which we awesomely owned, a birthday present I believe) dragging it to the tree, climbing up the ladder whilst holding the swing and jumping onto the swing from great height. Competitions were held for who could jump from the highest height, over time I became the most daring (being the oldest) and could jump from the top! As one gets older, one gets bigger and one day this was to be my (literal) downfall. I leaped onto the swing from the top of the climbing frame expectantly bracing myself for the ride to come, but what happened? The rope snapped. Yes. The rope… snapped. It is a uniquely child-esque feeling one gets when they fall on their bottom. Some sort of immense electric pain rushes right from your bum, up your back into your eyebrows. All you can do is scream and clench your buttocks. All I remember about this occasion was that it hurt too much to cry, I yelped and flailed about and laughed in a manic sort of way. To be fair, that is the equivalent of jumping from the height of about eight feet directly onto one’s backside. I’m surprised I didn’t do myself more damage.
We eventually replaced the now broken yellow rope with a thicker blue one and the swing was ready once again for action, it’s still used regularly, despite the tree having been cut back several times, it has never affected the infamous rope swing.
The elderberry tree was also responsible for various other childhood memories. Our great garden was often the spot for me and my friends from church to sit around thinking ambitiously about what wonderful plans and feats we could achieve. We had dreams of wires going from my house to their house (about a mile away) and making underground caverns or intricate burglar traps. We eventually formed a club which we entitled ‘T.D.S.’ we never told anyone what it stood for, instead, when people asked, we threw in countless red herrings. Did it stand for Traditional Devonshire Shortbread? Or did it stand for Terrible Dancing Soldiers? Or were we making our aims very clear by claiming that it stood for To Destroy Stefan (an older brother of our friends)!? In reality our little crew was entitled The Detective Society (we never actually did any detecting, but hey). We all had code names and were required to donate twenty pence every week for the club fund. We ended up buying a pair of walkie talkies from Argos, which was really cool!
Our most exciting achievement was the task assembling of a tree house. Initial plans in my mind were made and I imagined that we were to create a haven, high, in the clouds, with polished wood floors and at least three rooms where we could eat, watch television and play snooker. The reality was not similar, but no less cool. We started off by gathering a few breeze blocks from a forgotten section of my garden and began to saw them so they could fit into the tree, this was an ill advised task as sawing bricks is not the most child-friendly pursuit and bricks don’t really make the best tree house material. However, these bricks made a platform for us to stand on so we could make the tree house a bit higher up. My family were chucking out an old futon, so we used the planks of wood from that to make a level floor (quite) high up in the tree. Of course, the older and cleverer boys were the ring leaders in this whole task, and they were the ones who worked out the logistics and architectural dimensions. After weeks of labouring, we had a floor which was sit-on able and it was up in the tree! It was super cool! We made a rope ladder out of some rope (funny that) and an old broom handle. And there it was! Out very own tree ‘thing’. Not quite the mansion I was expecting, but something nevertheless. We used the T.D.S. monetary fund to pay for some posh varnish and we were convinced that this meant it could survive all weather. Many an afternoon was spent sitting up there, looking into other people’s gardens, feeling tall and almost falling out and breaking one’s leg. My Dad even started to use it as a quiet place where he would read.
By now, the tree house is no more, the varnish was not as good as we thought it would be, and the planks soon rotted off (with some help from my vandalish little brothers).
The elderberry tree also produced much fun and joy for us in other ways. One of our other missions (not sure if it was pre or post T.D.S.) was to make and sell elderberry wine. The tree was full of berries, so all we needed to do was pick them, press them and earn millions! We spent a long afternoon picking and picking and picking. We filled a massive black bin bag full of elderberries. Before we could do anything with them, it was home time for my friends. I kept the bag outside the house, ready for the next day when we would sort out the planned wine making session. I woke up early the next day and I have this vivid memory of sticking my head into the bag, and thousands of flies swarming around my face. Our plan had soured rather, so our stint in the wine making business was short-lived.
I must not dismay, my life is far from over! I’m sure that one day, I will find time in my adult life to be a wine making, tree house building, rope-swinging detective. And twenty pence a week can buy a lot if you think about it!