Wednesday, 8 May 2013

John Cecil's Wickies Adventures

I will shortly achieve a ten year ambition and have my book published. Hopefully it will be available before the new season and I will, quite brazenly, advertise it wherever I can in places like PATGOD and on Poppynet in the hopes that anybody that knows me will support me by grabbing themselves a copy.

Whereas the book covers the period of my life between 1972 and 1975 it is set in Kettering and follows me through my last year at Kettering Grammar School, through Sea School in Gravesend and onto my first trip to sea in 1974.

The connection between Patgod and the book being that after I finally left the Merchant Navy in 1989 I started writing regular features for PW and GL and this inspired me to start writing my book in 2003.

The feature on Wicksteed Park in 1994 forms the basis of the opening chapter of my book and as a bit of a taster I would like to reproduce that article here for Patgod readers to muse over and get a taste for the style in which my book is written.

It was also originally produced in a font size of around 2, so even if you can dig out the copy of Patgod that this comes from you will probably need a magnifying glass to read it.

FROM PATGOD (Issue 25) By JC (Intro by PW)
 Down your way…………………
Continuing our series in which we turn an affectionate eye on essential aspects of local life.
This issue we focus on the charming, happy expanses of WICKSTEED PARK, the fun filled playground for generations of Kettering kids which promises to keep on merrily milking money off their parents for years to come.
With eleven or so Saturday afternoons to survive during the close season, a visit to Wicksteed Park is an obvious choice to while away a few hours and sample the delights of Brandy Snap, Ice Cream, take a leisurely stroll by the lake and also to relish in how the place has changed over the years

For those not familiar with this Urban Paradise, Wicksteed Park was the brainchild of one Mr. Charles Wicksteed, a local landowner and all round jolly good egg who, some seventy odd years ago, decided to donate a rather large chunk of his land to the people of Kettering. A darn fine idea at the time and one to a certain extent that holds true today. True, the folk of Kettering can come and go as they please all year round. But once the shackles of winter are thrown off and Good Friday rolls around the gates are flung open to hordes of day trippers from Harrow to Halesowen and it can cost a tidy sum if any accompanying whingeing brats are to be satisfied.
The “paid” rides are to blame, and Charlie’s notion of a free park for the inhabitants of Kettering has long since been abandoned by the Wicksteed Village Trust (WVT). We were quite happy with some swings and slides, a train, some boats and a carousel until the WVT tried to turn it into a theme park. And however much they would have you believe otherwise this is definitely not a theme park. To be classed as such one first requires a theme. Two small trains chugging around a boating lake hardly evokes visions of the Grand Canyon or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. But what the heck, this is Kettering not bloody Ilkeston.
It sure as hell beats the total cock up that was Corby’s WonderWorld. My hat comes off to the chap who, under the cover of darkness, rigged up a flat tyre from a Wendy House frame and proclaimed “NOW OPEN” across that huge grey and white sign which is all that remains of the idea. Still, the place did have a theme. It was going to be called Tierra Del Fuegoland !
Upon entering Wicksteed Park from the town end one can’t help but stumble upon the “free” play area. In days gone by this was the focal point for the whole park and, although still magical for a certain age group, for me a lot of its sparkle seems to have disappeared. It has lost it’s “danger” appeal. Today’s assortment of climbing frames and mini slides looks as if the “Challenge Aneka” team has run amok for 16 hours and replaced the once daunting selection of swings, slides, jazzes and roundabouts with brightly coloured bits of modern art and safety floor coverings to appease the Child Safety Action Brigade. (Or because the first aid hut had run out of bandages).
No trip to this area could ever be deemed a success if you didn’t hobble home with a chunk of your kneecap missing or a gravel burn running the entire length of your forearm. What, among today’s feeble offerings, can ever compare to the evil “mushroom”? It appeared innocent enough – a post with a mushroom shaped hood on top and bars underneath. But boy, did this thing pack a punch. Many a grazed chin or chipped tooth was gained by a group working this monster up to 100 r.p.m. and, at a previously arranged silent count, leaping away from it leaving one unsuspecting member fully prone and hanging on for dear life. It was then a straight choice: Either hang on and grin and bear it and be sick for two days or let go and hope that you’d land in the strategically placed sand pit a few feet away.
Who remembers the Jazzes? A ten foot long plank of wood with enough room to accommodate four brave passengers and two ‘drivers’ who can work up a head of steam either end working it up as high as possible. Once the Jazz has reached its full height and the terrified passengers are screaming their submissions it is possible, albeit mighty daring, for the drivers to give one last almighty thrust and jump off leaving those on board to crouch down as low as possible in a sometimes vain attempt to avoid being crushed in between their seat and the top crossbeam it is suspended from. A very flexible vertebra was required and victims of the jazz can often be seen up to an hour later walking around like Quasimodo.
And what about the “umbrella”? This peculiar shaped construction housed about eight people and by human propulsion jerked and grinded very awkwardly in and out and round and round, flinging the odd “first timer” onto the gravel. Forty- seven of us piled onto it one glorious evening and the poor thing gave way at the apex and bobbled helplessly towards the sandpit.
The slides were also awesome in those days. Each slightly different to the rest, they had their own character. Three giants stood proudly together by the main entrance and what a joy it was on a packed Sunday, with every slide ladder full of expectant three second thrill seekers, to see some inbred local Muppet run up the slide, sit legs akimbo on the hand rails at the top and attempt to slide down them, taking numerous heads off in the process.
Many an evening was spent, when all the crowds had gone home, carefully prising little slivers of metal out of the slides’ joints, ready to rip into the arse of tomorrow’s visitors. Polishing up the baby slide was also a rewarding venture as next day’s sprogs would come flying off the end and into the sandpit.
 But by far the most pleasurable items were the swings. What are they like now? Three thrusts and you are at maximum height. Before, on even the smallest ones, it was possible to reach enough height to leap off just as it was on its upward/forward motion and kick the thing upwards, enabling it to wrap itself round the crossbeam six times.
The only harm done was that some bloaty old jobsworth with a Park attendant’s hat would have to go round the next morning unravelling them. And even then it was only some of them – it was a human impossibility to do it with the beasts that lined up along Barton Road. These giants were suspended from at least 50 feet of chain which, with the backdrop of the trees, were impossible to detect in flight. At any given time during a sunny day these 24” x 10” x 2” planks of wood with a fourteen stone bruiser from Broughton onboard could come hurtling down from the heavens straight into the back of poor, unsuspecting 6 year old Sarah Louise from Shepton Mallet who, whilst contemplating her award winning ice cream, had wandered unwittingly into its flight path.
Moving away from the playground, one passes the train station where King Arthur and The Lady of the Lake sit waiting to take passengers on their eight minute journey around the lake. (Is there a theme in there somewhere?), and down over the bridge that separates the big lake from the junior boating lake. There was once a Pet’s Corner here and if the WVT ever did make a reasonable decision it was to kick this idea into touch. A couple of flea bitten goats, some monkeys and the odd rabbit did nothing to enhance the appearance (or smell) of the area. Thankfully the aviaries adjacent remained and are still a pleasant sight.
Moving on slightly can be found the death defying water chute, still as reliable as ever and a marvel to watch. It isn’t the hitting the water at speed to accompanying screams that is a sight to behold, but the look on the passengers’ faces as, when they think all the danger has passed, the car moves sedately through the water at half a knot until it reaches the end of its length of cable, pulls tight, and then jerks back at breakneck speed until it backs onto the tracks to send it back to the top of the tower.
Modern technology decrees that this can now be done automatically, but the amusing scene in days of yore was the old boy standing at the bottom of the ramp with a pole guiding the car back onto its tracks. What a job! Clock on in the morning and just hang around for ten hours occasionally jabbing out at the car with a pole. He applied for, and received, the title of easiest job in Northamptonshire a boast he held for many a year until recently challenged when a claim for the title was staked by the person who, last season, washed John Ashdjian’s football kit.
Whilst in this area of the park a trip on the boating lake is always good for a pose and, once it has been established that both oars must enter the water simultaneously, it is not beyond even the most incompetent to embark on a voyage to the other end of the lake and back in the allotted one hour and twenty minutes.
One sound piece of advice, however, is to make sure that you do not lose an oar overboard. They are very useful for splashing out at other boats that may come alongside and are a must if confronted by any of the resident swans. Detailing a landing party ashore to hoist female hosiery from a tree is met with severe resistance from these necky bastards and a good, solid clout with an oar is sometimes the only way of making good ones escape. Both oars, not to mention great nerve and excellent oarsmanship, are also required if you are to play “chicken” with the bows of the Mississippi Queen, the sixty foot paddle steamer which tramps the waters of the lake.
Once at the far end of the lake, whilst marvelling at the waters cascading down over the sluice gate, one can also observe the tranquillity of the backwaters. A beautiful, peaceful paradise and the setting for our ultimate goal.
It was the daily ritual to turn up at the park and hang around for any talent which may alight from the incoming coaches. Once two subjects were chosen they were followed around the park all morning, expectancy rising with each wave and giggle until at midday, suitably encouraged, we would peg it home, do the hair and don the fading wranglers & pink flowered shirt with matching cravat (and if it was a bit chilly my brown and cream tank top). Then back to the park before finally luring our victims down to the backwaters.
Now this is where my own achievements fall down slightly. Being a chronic hay-fever sufferer cures were, and still are, not easy to come by. Thus upon entering the long grasses and heavy pollinated backwaters my sinuses would throw a wobbler. My instant cure-all in those pre Beconaise days consisted of a rather large tube with an even larger bulbous base into which a red capsule was inserted, pierced, thrust up each nostril and snorted. The sight of this was never very well received causing a complete breakdown in any negotiations for a swift fumble.
Walking back up from the lake past the old cycle track which is now home to a big dipper and various other overpriced rides one encounters the pleasant sunken gardens and the Pavilion Ballroom, scene of the occasional Poppies Crisis Meeting. As traditional as these meetings used to be the Kettering Chamber of Trade and Commerce’s annual fair signifying the closure of the park for the winter. Now correct me if I’m wrong but, apart from this being a good excuse for local councillors and traders to slap each other on the back, this event always used to be held in big tops with hundreds of stalls set up, brass bands pumping up the volume, displays by bike-riding and dog handling teams, half the armed forces volunteering tanks etc for us to clamber over and rounded off with a stunning display by the Red Arrows.
What a sorry state of affairs it is these days. They still slap each other on the back but try to discourage the likes of you and I from attending. Gone are the big tops, the bandstand and most of the stalls. A lone AA Van may now stand where there was once half a tank division and the proud brass bands have been replaced by a twittering balloon from K.C.B.C.
Other events were regularly held here. Tingha and Tucker put in an appearance. It’s a Knockout was staged lakeside and the Radio 1 Road show filled the place one bank holiday Monday in the late seventies – hosted by Peter Powell, who I didn’t mind at the time but have detested since he started pranging Anthea Turner, and local idiot Adrian Juste.
I’m afraid that on reflection I left the park rather saddened. Oh, I know times must change and the place does still cater for the 3 – 11 year olds, but I can remember having fun at Wickies well into my 16th year. There was always something going on there. Local kids swarmed the place in the evenings and still had a ball. What possible joy can be derived from creeping back into the park after sunset nowadays and scaling a four foot high ABC frame or walking along a wobbly wooden bridge? No wonder today’s youth would rather spend £1.09p on a four pack of Red Dutch Lager and hang around the market place all evening.
You can’t even piss in the continuous flow water fountain any more! Oh, No! You didn’t used to drink from that thing did you?
©   John Cecil

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