Last year, I visited a friend at their new house; as soon as I arrived, there was a feeling of familiarity, a sense of déjà vu, not for the house, but the place – the area: even though I had never been to that house or street in my life. Later that evening while sat, as usual, in front of my computer in suddenly dawned on me – it was “Roly-Poly”! Roly-Poly Hill to give it its full name; a place where I, with many other local children had spent countless hours playing and exploring; among other things we used to go to the top of the hill, lie on our sides then roll to the bottom through grass, mud and cow-pats. Getting ourselves disgustingly filthy and smelly, it really was fantastic fun. Of course, our parents, particularly our mums did not enjoy it at all. They had to wash not only us, but hand wash our clothes as well; this was in the days (the 1950’s) when washing machines were a status symbol not easily afforded by working class families, and mums were expected to do all the dirty work.
Roly-Poly was a perfect natural playground, it had everything a young child of six or seven needed to amuse themselves; there was a wood with a badger’s sett and bluebells, a steep hill which doubled as a toboggan run in the winter, and a river with a lovely muddy cattle-drink. The bank of the river had Alders and Hazels growing through a thick undergrowth of brambles along most of its edge. The brambles were laced with tunnels and ‘secret’ hiding places made by wildlife and children. During spring and early summer, the brambles would be full of a varied selection of birds’ nests: Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Wrens, Robins and Nuthatches to name but a few. In the river, there was a large fallen Alder; it must have been there many years because the bank on the far side had been undercut by the river as it flowed around the tree. The tree although fallen was very much alive, in summer its branches formed a mini-forest which appeared to be growing from the surface of the river.
The wood too was a fascinating place; it had a very old oak tree, which at its foot had the badger’s sett going through its roots. Sometimes late in the evening in the summer the badgers would come out and start snuffling around. It was a deciduous wood with one lone conifer, a Japanese cedar, perhaps an escapee from an ornamental garden, on its edge; in winter, the needles would turn from bluish green to very deep red, then back to bluish green in the spring. The wood was also the home for at least one pair of Green Woodpeckers, who could be heard hammering away at the trees for much of the day, and Rooks had colonised the treetops with a very large rookery; they never seemed to stop caw cawing.
Sadly Roly-Poly is no more, the steep hill is now a shallow incline the woods and the badgers have gone, though the oak tree remains. The riverbank has been cleared, and the river straightened. The landscape now looks very sterile and lifeless, with pavements, tarmac, lampposts and lines of identical houses.
Seeing Roly-Poly as it is now, set me to thinking of some of the other places where I used to play and explore as a child. Places like Pig’s Loose Lane, Ram’s Horn Bridge and Archer’s Island – where I saw both my first otter and first lamprey, I remember how excited I was when I saw the otter; I still get that same thrill now whenever I am lucky enough to see one. The lamprey was fascinating: a long eel-like fish, with what seemed like a continuous fin running down its back and right around its tail. It had no jaws, instead of a conventional mouth it had a circular sucker, a pad with minute teeth; as it swam upstream it would stop every two or three feet and appear to rest by using its sucker to attach itself to a convenient stone, so that it would not be swept back downstream by the current. Archer’s Island was a rather grandiose name for the island, which was just a bank of gravel and grit; it was however, still an island…
Ram’s Horn Bridge is still there, it is now almost hidden by trees and bushes, and it is where the ford joined Hovelands Lane to Hovelands Hill, about fifty yards or so to the East of Galmington Bridge. I have since learned that it was a packhorse bridge, and dates back to the 16th Century or earlier. The ford was and maybe still is a good place to catch Bullheads and Stone Loaches. Not far from the bridge there was an orchard, it had some of the best tasting and juiciest apples I have ever tasted. I do not know what sort they were but they were about the size of a tennis ball, and pale green with a pinkish tinge round the top. The orchard has gone, and in its place, we have a launderette, a fish and chip shop, a hairdresser’s and Galmington Road; hardly a fair exchange for those delicious apples.
Pig’s Loose Lane is halfway down Netherclay Hill on the left-hand side going from Bishop’s Hull to Silk Mills; the lane is in fact a footpath, which runs along the wall of Netherclay House on the edge of a small orchard that was used to raise free-range pigs, hence the name Pig’s Loose Lane. Just past the orchard – there is a forked junction, to the right there is a narrow bridge over the River Tone. The bridge leads to a footpath to the original silk mill; I am pleased to say that otters can again be seen in the feeder stream to the mill. Straight on leads down past what were the vegetable gardens and orchard for Netherclay House; they were behind a large hedge that was covered in wild honeysuckle and Old Man’s Beard, during the summer the scent of the honeysuckle was so strong that it pleasantly masked the smell of the pigs. Pig’s Loose Lane ended at an open field, but the footpath carried on to Fideoake and Freethy passing Archer’s Island on the way. To ensure that the pigs could not wander away from the orchard there were three kissing-gates on Pig’s Loose Lane; one at each end and one at the bridge, the gate onto the road was wooden, the other two were iron.
I have tried not to use rose-coloured spectacles when writing this – if I have done so here and there – please forgive me; remember these memories are nearly fifty years old and it comes as quite a shock to see how much things have changed. The places may have changed, but in my mind, I will always remember them as they were…
The Photograph of Ram’s Horn Bridge is from www.tauntonian.com