Former Advertiser reporter remembers the days before 'helicopter parenting' - where adventure was everywhere

It’s the 1950s. And former Rugby Advertiser reporter John Phillpott is about to meet his mates…

Wednesday, 7th July 2021, 2:01 pm
Updated Wednesday, 7th July 2021, 2:02 pm
Barby Road, Rugby... in the days when the majestic elm was king.
Barby Road, Rugby... in the days when the majestic elm was king.

Whenever I watch my grandchildren at play, I invariably cast my mind back to the time when I was their age.

There is a lot of talk these days of the ‘risk averse’ society and the associated ‘helicopter’ parenting style, a relatively mild derogatory term for mums and dads who insist on monitoring, arranging, or co-ordinating all their children’s activities.

Add to this the fear of ‘stranger danger’ and you have a recipe for a loss of freedom that was completely unknown only a few years ago, when youngsters could basically come and go as much as they liked.

But did the parents of the 1950s and 60s really have less to worry about – or have we actually become much softer and fearful as a society?

Wind the tape back several decades and this was the general idea of how a non-school day should go…

You ate your breakfast and then ran out of the house to meet your mates at some pre-arranged rendezvous, returning several hours later for your

‘dinner’. Only posh people called it lunch.

Meat – or fish on a Friday if you were a Catholic - and two veg would be bolted down, and then you’d disappear for a further few hours before getting back to base for ‘tea’ which later became ‘dinner’ as everyone became that little bit more posh.

If it was spring or summer, the lighter evenings might mean that a third vanishing act was on the cards. This time you’d fly back to the roost perhaps when the bats had started chasing the moths.

So what did we get up to during those seemingly endless hours of play, this Wind in the Willows existence that we thought – and certainly hoped – would never end?

Well, a lot of today’s parents would have a fit if they knew what their mums and dads got up to during childhood. Take climbing trees, for example.

Most small boys, and quite a few girls, would go up a few branches, but for braver and more foolhardy souls, the sky was the limit. And before disease laid them low, the mighty Warwickshire elm provided the perfect challenge for such adventurers.

Only the other day, I was talking to former Rugby lad Brian Meredith, who remembered climbing even the tallest elm by inserting his fingers in the tree’s gnarled bark, in the manner of rock climbers searching for cracks and crevices.

I was never that bold. The fear of falling and breaking bones, or worse, always confined me to the lower branches.

Mind you, at the back of Fisher’s paddock in Churchover, there was a hollow tree. Struck by lightning, the flames had neatly and perfectly excavated the core of this hapless elm, leaving just the outer wood and bark.

The top of the trunk was open to the sky, and so it was possible to crawl right up this soot-coated tunnel and emerge into the daylight.

Nevertheless, on one occasion, my nerves got the better of me, and I chickened out of making the descent to terra firma. My pal Mick Chadwick ran to fetch my father, who brought his ladder and carried me down using a fireman’s lift.

Once on the ground, I then had to run the gauntlet of far braver mates for whom the old hollow tree held no terrors whatsoever.

But that was a rare example of parental intervention. Cuts and bruises were regularly sustained and endured, and these would usually escape

comment.

On one occasion, however, my parents did get involved after my head came into contact with a high-velocity house brick. We didn’t have a car in those days, so Mr Lane from the village had to drive me to St Cross hospital where several stitches were sewn into my bloody scalp without anaesthetic as was the style in those days. But I didn’t cry.

Generally though, regardless of risk, mums and dads just let their kids get on with it, probably assuming that there was safety in numbers.

There were dens to build, games such as kick-can on the village green under the cobby tree, carts to race down Cosford Lane, and stone fights to be had down at the Old Mill.

The fields were prairies, farm tracks the Chisholm or Oregon Trails, spinneys became impenetrable forests, and the River Swift the wide

Missouri as in the song Shenandoah.

There was no limit to our imaginations, increasingly being fed by the growing ownership of television sets, which kept us all well-fed on a diet of westerns and cowboy serials as the romance of the Wild West entered every living room.

I’ve written about this at length in my book Beef Cubes and Burdock: Memories of a 1950s Country Childhood and I sometimes wonder what my descendants will make of it all in years to come.

Sadly, many of the hedges that once defined the small arable fields of north Warwickshire are long gone, grubbed up in the name of more efficient farming.

And Rugby has burst through its former boundaries, edging ever closer to its surrounding villages. Meanwhile, woods that once lived a pastoral existence now have housing estates for neighbours instead of rooks and peewits. But at least we have the memories, don’t we?

John Phillpott’s third book Go and Make the Tea, Boy! is available from booksellers or online.