High Times Out West

Illustration: Strummer, Coleridge, the Star Inn and Glastonbury Tor
Incorporates an image of Joe Strummer by John Coffey under Creative Commons.

It is it any wonder that the West Country, with its yin-yang of boredom and tranquillity, its distance from authority, its big skies and mystic tendencies, might have a drug habit?

A few months ago I was at my desk in Penzance (I’ve moved to Bristol since) when I heard a boom so loud I wondered if the earth might have cracked. A little later the air ambulance, that scarlet Valkyrie, flew so low overhead that my skull vibrated. A little later again I learned that what I’d heard was someone slamming their car into a bus stop seriously injuring a 16-year-old bystander. When the case came to court the gossip I’d picked up queuing in the grocers was confirmed:

A former addict who hadn’t slept for five days and mowed down a teenager whilst high on a cocktail of drugs claims she took the drugs to avoid the wrath of a masked gang who stabbed her boyfriend…. [She] was spared jail after her defence barrister told the court she’d taken the drugs to stay awake and was fleeing a violent gang who she felt were going to carry out a revenge attack on her when she crashed.

I’d picked up hints of that back story, too — sirens and cordons in the middle of the day, boarded windows, whispers in the pub, people threatening each other in the street, and incautious statements in the comments below news stories. I knew that there people dealing drugs in the flats near my house, on the estate near my house, and possibly in a house near my house.

This is all, I gather, part of an ongoing problem in the West Country. Despite the beauty of the landscape and ever more dominant beach-hut bourgeois tendency, the region is a target for big city drug dealers and, at the same time, an in-route for drugs with its many miles of coastline and secluded backroads. “Quieter counties, like Cumbria, or Devon and Cornwall are seen to have less proactive policing operations,” one ‘drug dealing insider’ is supposed to have told the Liverpool Echo.

Hence some bizarre headlines: a yacht stuffed with drugs is intercepted at Scilly and the skipper dies as he attempts to evade police by climbing the main mast; cottages and nuclear bunkers are rented, stripped, blacked out and turned into cannabis farms run by near-slaves everywhere from Cornwall to Wiltshire; secret factories are found beneath old caravans on Somerset farms; a young man in Exeter is attacked in a dispute between gangs of dealers and one of his assailants stabs him so hard that the blade snaps away in the wound. And so on.

I suppose I’ve always been vaguely aware of this side of West Country life. It has, after all, been going on for a long time. When Joe Strummer, late of punk band the Clash, relocated to Somerset in the 1990s he caused some local upset when he told an interviewer the reason for the move: “The drugs are better down here. It’s like the Wild West.” (I’m paraphrasing because I can’t find the original article — tips welcome.) A 1995 interview with electronic musician Richard James, AKA Aphex Twin, includes this passing observation:

Growing up in hippie Cornwall, drugs were part of local life. One of his earliest memories is the “funny smell” in the house of one of his mum’s friends. Sometimes he finds drugs come in handy when writing…. “I find it quite interesting, the way they make things turn out. It’s like using a different sequencer. Drugs just make things sound different.”

Is it true that planes from Holland used to land at the disused airfield at Westonzoyland in the middle of the night during the 1980s? That was certainly the gossip in Bridgwater and as a child I used to lie awake listening for them.

In his 2016 book The Swordfish and the Star, about the gritty reality of life on the Cornish coast, Gavin Knight records the connection between the Cornish fishing industry, drug smuggling, and drug use from the 1970s onwards:

In the front of the Swordfish people would be drinking but in the back, there was any drug you wanted. One time, to get to the bar, you had to step over a fisherman lying on the floor unconscious from coke.

The gentler 1960s drug culture came West, too, manifesting in the Glastonbury Festival and the St Ives hippy invasion. In 1966 Bristol publicans were trained by police on how to recognise the smell of weed using hemp burned over a gas stove (Birmingham Post, 25/08/66) while raids in Cornwall found LSD, cannabis and other drugs from Land’s end to St Agnes. (Times, 28/05/73.) Looe, a particular hot spot, even gained its own local drug squad, “known as Brian even to the people he was nicking”.

Go back far enough and you’ll find Samuel Taylor Coleridge composing the proto-psychedelic ‘Kubla Khan’ in Nether Stowey, Somerset, in what was probably an opium daze. It was published in the same 1816 volume as ‘The Pains of Sleep’ which is now generally reckoned to be an account of drug withdrawal:

…yester-night I pray’d aloud
In anguish and in agony,
Up-starting from the fiendish crowd
Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me:
A lurid light, a trampling throng,
Sense of intolerable wrong,
And whom I scorn’d, those only strong!

So, that yin-yang: hard work, hard lives, hard drugs. Dreamers and dancers, poets and rock stars. Visions and cramps. Men from Porlock and men from Merseyside.

Industrial Light & Magic

Above: an easter bonnet competition at Sealed Motor Construction, Bridgwater, c.1973.

For years when I told people I was from Somerset their response would usually be something like “Oh, how lovely!” at which I would laugh inwardly, and grimly.

I knew that they were picturing a summer day at Minehead, the roaring log fire of a country inn, or perhaps Bath, or maybe even confusing it with Devon at its most lush and rolling. They were thinking about the cover art on Ravensburger jigsaw puzzles.

What they did not have in mind was the industrial estate on Wylds Road in Bridgwater where Grandpa vacuum-formed plastic cups for vending machines and Mum packed aerosol solvents. They weren’t picturing the heat and filth of the factory where my Dad worked nights making pistons, or the one before that where he waded in chemicals, or the one before that where he (and Mum, and her parents) put together waterproof motors, or… You get the idea. They didn’t have in mind the thundering lorries or freight trains and the infrastructure that served them.

Bridgwater was shaped by industry even if many of the factories have gone, and there are other places like it up and down the West Country. What I want to do here, for my own learning, is highlight some of those industrial towns and villages and the sheer, mad range of work undertaken in a part of the world more usually associated with tourism and agriculture. It’s nothing like complete and I’ll no doubt come back to this subject when I’ve done more reading.

Advertisement for Plasticine.
From 1933, via the British Newspaper Archive.

1. At Bathampton outside Bath, for example, William Harbutt’s factory produced Plasticine, the non-drying modelling clay, from 1900 until 1983. This might sound like a bit of a joke but it was a substantial industrial operation. You can see some (small, watermarked) photos of the factory at Bath in Time.

Men scowling at the camera.
The Clarks factory at Street in (I’d guess) about 1930, via Wikimedia Commons.

2. Street, Somerset, was home to shoe manufacturing firm C &J. Clark, founded in 1825, and was the site of the original factory. Clark’s eventually had factories all across the West Country in places such as Radstock, Bridgwater and Minehead. The last, at Ilminster, closed in 2005. Clark’s head office is still in Street but the original Clark’s factory buildings have been absorbed into Clark’s Village, a rather characterless discount shopping centre with upmarket pretensions.

Men on stacks of paper.
The paper mill in via the Exmoor Magazine/Contains Art.

3. The Wansbrough paper mill at Watchet, Somerset, was a major local employer for several hundred years, from the middle of the 17th century. It closed in 2015.

Woman looking into the camera.
The Westland factory, in pre-helicopter days, via the Heritage Lottery Fund/Westland Oral History Project.

Yeovil, also in Somerset, has been a centre for the manufacture of helicopters since the end of World War II. What was Westland Helicopters is now owned by an Italian firm, Leonardo, whose almost 3,000 staff build military and civilian models including a licenced version of the Apache Longbow for the British Army. Growing up I remember that the local news was always either ‘Westland in trouble’ or ‘Westland to expand’; a helicopter came and landed on the school playground one day but I’m not sure if they were recruiting for Westland, the armed forces, or both. An oral history project recording the experiences of workers at Westland is online here.

Job advertisement.
From 1960, via the British Newspaper Archive.

5. Centrax has been making industrial gas turbines and jet engine components since the 1940s and relocated to Newton Abbot in Devon in the 1950s. Today it employs around 700 people. From 1964 to 1979 one of the local football teams was called the Newton Abbot Dynamos and played at the Centrax Ground. (Very Soviet.)

Industrial buildings.
China clay works by Kev P Bur via Flickr under Creative Commons.

6. Cornwall is of course known for mining and its landscape is marked by the debris, architecture and scars of this once great industry. At Geevor near Land’s End you can visit the remains of a tin mine that only ceased operating in 1990 and which is preserved much as it looked in those final days with lockers unemptied and curling calendars on the office walls. At Par outside St Austell a large and fully operational China clay works sits surrounded by fences on the seafront – a gritty two-finger salute to the tourist industry. China clay has been mined and processed in Cornwall since the 18th century and still employs around 2,000 people today.

Brewery buildings with a vintage car.
The derelict Bridgwater brewery in 1969 via the Brewery History Society.

7. Bridgwater in Somerset and Tiverton in Devon shared a notable brewery in Starkey, Knight & Ford. It was taken over by Whitbread in 1962 and operations were concentrated in Tiverton which became Whitbread’s western outpost until operations ceased there in 1982. Devenish, another big West Country brewer, had breweries in Dorset (Weymouth) and Cornwall (Redruth), with the latter still working as a brewery into the 21st century. There are still substantial historic working breweries at, for example, St Austell in Cornwall, Bridport in Dorset (Palmer’s) and Devizes in Wiltshire (Wadworth).

 

* * *

For starters, then, that’s a vast range of industry, from toys to war machines, and I haven’t even touched on bricks, dairy products, seafood processing, furniture manufacturing, chewing gum, chocolate bars, semiconductors…

Striking Out

Underneath a motorway bridge.

One day when I was about 13 I realised I could just walk out of town whenever I liked, with the only limits being time and the weather.

My home town is really one big outskirt – not confidently urban, but not quite rural either; a place where you can stand surrounded by concrete and factories while enveloped in the stink of manure.

I was raised as a town boy – the countryside was a thing you sped through in a car on the way to the seaside or Taunton – but couldn’t help wondering what was out there, beyond the sign that announced our twinning with La Ciotat and Uherské Hradiště. What was on those hills I could always see in the distance, where snow sometimes sat while town was as grey as ever? What was up that lane? Where did the filthy old river go?

First, I tested the boundaries, walking a little further each time. The motorway felt like a barrier but I crossed that easily enough, my flat feet slapping their way across a pavement barely used. On the other side, just barely, I found the hamlet of Horsey and thought, well, there it is: I’ve walked to another place. I tried the same on the other side of town, passing under the motorway this time, and found Dunwear.

Then I really stretched myself, walking beyond the point where the pavement ended, past the absolute feathertips of town. Trudging alongside the A39 was dangerous which added to the thrill but I knew the rules (face the traffic) and there were verges to retreat to if need be.

A tractor on a country road.

It’s impure countryside out that way: stalked by crackling pylons, littered with fast food wrappers and fly-tippings, and with the constant sound of the motorway boring away like a dental drill. At certain stretches it feels as if there’s more roadkill than road. But compared to the estate it was open, wild and fecund.

That time I made it to the King’s Sedgemoor Drain, which looks like a river but was built by men. There was a path that I wanted to follow but it seemed as if I’d already gone too far from home so I turned back.

Next time, I did go that way, stopping to eat a sandwich with a view across fields of gaudy yellow rapeseed, with the tower of Sutton Mallet Church in the distance. I may have read some poems, which was the kind of thing done by the kind of person I thought I wanted to be then. It was warm and insects as big as shuttlecocks made ceremonial flypasts. I thought, ah, there it is — this England I’ve heard so much about.

I went out time and again, taking different routes, going beyond and beyond again, until one day I was taken with the most pathetic, suburban version of exploration mania you can imagine and didn’t turn back when I should have. Stranded in Huntspill as night fell I found a payphone and called to be picked up. In the car home, with aching feet and muscles, I felt like Edmund Hillary.

All of this, I suppose, was training for life, a kind of straining at the leash. Timid and reticent as I was, and am, I never wanted to stay at home forever.

First stop Bawdrip, next stop the world.

The Kid

A faceless ghost child.

My life would be a lot easier if I didn’t have to spend all day, every day, looking after this obnoxious kid.

I’m trying to live a life here – to have fun, get things done, make the most of my allotted time – but there he is, bringing me down, looking up at me with that pathetic expression.

And he’s a coward. If I think of doing anything messy or dangerous he gets into a terrible state, holding me back with all his petulant strength. He’s much happier when we do the same things, in the same places, with no chance of humiliation. Every now and then I assert my authority and take a risk despite the kid’s pleading and it’s almost always worth it, which makes me resent the drag he generates all the more.

When I want to make conversation with strangers he distracts me with constant demands for attention, pulling at my sleeve, in agonies of shyness so that I stumble over my words and end up only half-engaged. When I come away, I’m as angry at myself as I am at the kid.

Can you believe I have to take him to work, too? Have you ever tried to project dynamism and ambition when there’s a child standing next to you giving the old stage whisper: “We shouldn’t be here. You’re making us look stupid. These people are laughing at us.”

The kid likes me to keep my head down because he equates being noticed with being mocked. He makes me eat too much, and bad food at that. He won’t let me wear anything too smart or stylish, pointing mournfully at his own clothes – the cheap coat from the market stall, the hand-me-down trousers, the black daps. I end up watching the same old films, the same TV programmes, because he finds some comfort in them and shuts up for a few bloody minutes.

He has catalogued every time I’ve ever put my foot in my mouth or done something stupid and will suddenly remind me of those moments when I’m feeling at peace or content. How does he know the worst possible time? Does he do it with malice?

In his nastiest moments, the kid even tries to stop me writing, though he’s the one that got me started on all this. He knows the more I write, the less time I have to address his constant, petty neediness. In fact, the more I write about him, the more he fades into the background. He’s telling me right now not to post this, not to share the link on Twitter, listing reasons it will backfire on me.

Of course he’s not all bad. If it wasn’t for the kid it would never occur to me to stop by the waterside and skim stones, or sit cross-legged building sandcastles. Every now and then – this is when I like him best – he laughs, and it’s a lighter, freer laugh than mine.

And when I see the kids some other people have to drag around with them – bruised, broken, full of rage – I know I got off easy.

Frankenstein in the Quantocks

POSTER: "Andrew Crosse -- the man who created life!"

A gentleman scientist fills a laboratory with primitive electrical equipment and, through experiments considered blasphemous by his peers, summons life.

This is the plot of one of the elemental gothic horrors, that’s true, but it is also something that really happened, not among the romantic mountain peaks of Mitteleuropa but on Somerset’s Quantock Hills. And the scientist was not a doomed young Byronic hero but a distinctly middle-aged Englishman called Andrew Crosse.

Crosse was born  in July 1784 at Fyne Court, a country house built by his family in 1620s on the edge of the Quantocks between Bridgwater and Taunton. Though now we now think of the Quantocks as a landscape dominated by conifers it was then covered with ancient woodland, its heathlands bright with yellow furze and purple heather, pockmarked here and there with sandstone and limestone quarries, and richly populated with deer and other game animals. A place of ‘free, wild solitude,’ in the words of Crosse’s biographer, his widow Cornelia.

Fyne Court before the fire of 1894, via the National Trust website.

Andrew’s father, Richard, was strict to the point of being intimidating and though his mother cooed over her ‘little Andrew’ his parents sent him away to board with a tutor in Dorchester at the age of six. There he learned Ancient Greek, oddly before he had learned to write English, before moving on to a school in Bristol at the age of eight.

In Bristol, on a grim diet of black potatoes and ‘hashed mutton’, he developed an fascination with fireworks and electricity. His father had known the famous electrical experimenter Benjamin Franklin and perhaps that laid the foundations of his interest, but the real spur to action was a lecture he heard about at a tavern where he had got into the habit of taking meals to avoid the dreadful school dinners.

A school friend, John Jenkyns, provided Cornelia with a note for inclusion in her biography which recalled what came after that formative experience:

I dare say he has mentioned to you our first joint attempt in the science of electricity, and the wonderment occasioned to a circle of school boys by giving them a shock with a Leyden phial… charged by a broken glass of a barometer…

Crosse and Jenkyns used this contraption to tease – or, let’s be honest, bully – younger boys who were marched up to a terrifyingly gothic witch-like figure sitting next to a box. (The witch was Crosse in costume.) Inside the box there was a depiction of hell with a devil dancing in front of it, pitchfork in hand. (A clever trick in itself: the figure was hanging from a single human hair.) The little lads were made to look at this macabre scene for a moment before the jar was discharged, giving them a physical jolt to match and intensify the psychological one. (At my school the bullies just gave you a dead arm in the corridor but this is presumably what you’re paying for with private education.)

Andrew Crosse. (This picture is all over the internet but I can’t find the original source.)

Crosse left Bristol for Oxford in 1802 taking with him an ‘electrical machine’ that he had acquired from a ‘philosophical instrument maker’, and a hunger to learn more. After university he returned to Somerset and made an abortive attempt to study law while, now orphaned, he also managed the family estate. His true fascination could not be resisted, however, and he soon had a new electrical apparatus to play with – a huge cylindrical electrostatic generator attached to a battery made up of 50 Leyden jars. This machine was made by his friend George Singer, another electrician, as such scientists were then known, though the word now refers to a specific, less glamorous trade. They would spend all day running electrical experiments together and then, in the evening, walk on the Quantocks engaged in intellectual debate.

A battery of Leyden jars.
Leyden jars as depicted in an 1894 medical textbook.

In around 1807 Crosse was inspired to begin a new line of investigation. He kept finding himself drawn to Holwell Cavern, a fissure in the limestone rock the roof of which was covered in star-like Aragonite crystal formations caused by the dripping of mineral laden water through the rock. A true man of the Romantic age, he of course wrote a poem about the cave, which begins:

Now pierce the hill’s steep side, where dark as night
Holwell’s rude cavern claims the torch’s light;
Where, breathless, dank, the fissure cleaves in twain
Th’ unchisell’d rock which threats to close again,
And swallow in its adamantine jaws
The bold explorer of creation’s laws.

Crosse later said: “I felt convinced at an early period that the formation and constant growth of the crystalline matter which lined the roof of this cave was caused by some peculiar upward attraction; and, reasoning more on the subject, I felt assured that it was electric attraction.”

He took water from the cave and, back in his lab at Fyne Court, connected it to a battery and ran a current through it. Nothing happened for days and he was about to give up when, after almost two weeks, he spotted sunlight glinting on crystals that had grown on one of the wires.

In the years that followed, he married, had children, and continued working on his ‘electrical poem’. He argued politics and philosophy with his brother Richard, and travelled to Plymouth where, from the deck of a hired boat, he caught a glimpse of Napoleon Bonaparte imprisoned aboard HMS Bellerophon.

A painting of ships.
Napoleon’s Bellerophon depicted in ‘Scene in Plymouth Sound’ by John James Chalon, 1815, via Royal Museums Greenwich.

He also continued his experiments, constructing an ‘atmospherical conductor’, a copper wire of about a mile in length which he used to attract lightning during thunderstorms and bad weather, creating ‘terrific… noise and brilliant light’. Crosse himself described how one experiment created “explosions… [and a] stream of fire too brilliant to look at”. Calmly harnessing the power of the atmosphere he used the electricity to boil liquids, fuse metals and cause fires. Locals would turn up at Fyne Court and ask to be zapped to cure their various ailments which, according to Crosse, sometimes worked. It is easy to see how this kind of experiment inspired the modern vision of the mad scientist.

As recounted in Brian Wright’s 2015 biography, it was Singer who convinced Crosse to talk at one of the regular lecture events hosted by the parachutist, balloonist and showman-scientist André-Jacques Garnerin at a London theatre. On the night of Crosse’s lecture on 28 December 1814 two more famous figures from history happened also to be present: Mary Shelley and her husband, the poet Percy Shelley.

We know from her diary that Mary took note of Crosse’s lecture, whether she paid attention to its details or not. A year and a half later, at the Villa Deodati on the shore of Lake Geneva, she would write her most famous book, Frankenstein. Did Crosse inspire Victor Frankenstein? Perhaps partly, or perhaps Frankenstein inspired Crosse, because back in the peace and quiet of Somerset he continued his experiments into batteries and crystallisation in relative obscurity for another 20 years, long after Mary Shelley’s book had become a bestseller.

Crosse was in his early fifties when an accidental discovery, and the equally accidental announcement of its results, brought him fame or, rather, infamy. In 1837 he carried out a month-long experiment attempting to grow crystals by electrifying a chunk of porous volcanic stone. On the 26th day he observed what looked like insects. Then, on the 28th day, to his astonishment, he saw them wiggle their legs. A few days later they wriggled free and began to move around the frame where the experiment was being conducted. They were, Crosse concluded, mites of the genus Acarus, and there were soon a hundred or more, some with six legs, others with eight. Where had they come from? And how on earth were they surviving in an acid solution?

Sketch of a bug.
Pierre Turpin’s drawing of Acarus Crossii made using a microscope, from The Annals of Electricity, Magnetism and Chemistry, May 1838, via Google Books.

Crosse mentioned this odd occurrence to some friends in what he thought was private conversation but one of the group was the editor of the Somerset Gazette and couldn’t resist running an account of the experiment. That article was picked up and reproduced or quoted in newspapers across the country, usually under the headline EXTRAORDINARY EXPERIMENT.

Outrage commenced almost at once. Who did Crosse think he was, claiming to have created life, and bragging everywhere about his amazing discovery which was obviously a complete con? Crosse was hurt by those accusations: he hadn’t made any such claims and certainly hadn’t sought to publicise his experiments. He was blamed for crop blight and received a letter calling him “a reviler of our holy religion” – in other words, he was accused of playing God.

For another decade he and other scientists attempted to replicate the results, often with success, but without reaching any convincing conclusion. Was the electricity reviving fossilised insect material in rocks or soil? Was the water contaminated, or the apparatus? Or had Crosse really discovered the secret to summoning life?

These days, the consensus is that the equipment probably was dirty — inevitable, almost, in those days of imperfect sanitising techniques. Hardly the stuff of legends, and Crosse certainly did not go on to ‘create’ any more substantial form of life such as, say, a murderous, misunderstood monster created from cadavers rifled from graveyards.

Even though Shelley wrote her novel twenty years before Crosse’s mite experiments, and though in reality the links are tenuous, in recent decades the connection has become indelible, and it is probably fair to say that the Thunder & Lightning man owes his lasting fame to Mary Shelley. Peter Haining, that master of the fun but unreliable horror-history hackjob, called his 1979 book about Crosse The Man Who Was Frankenstein which, clearly, he wasn’t. And, well, I’ve done it here, haven’t I?

There is something irresistible about the idea of so macabre a fiction having any basis in reality, especially when that reality occurred in the wooded hills and heathland of Somerset where the red deer roam.

Some Forgotten Fields

Bridgwater sky.

Sydenham Road was where town met the countryside — where the grey council prefabs pointed their rear ends at the tall golden grass of The Fields.

The Fields seemed infinite and wild to me as a frankly cowardly child. There were things concealed in the growth I did not care to encounter – hunks of rusting metal; plastic bags full of hardened glue, all sniffed out; the remains of illicit bonfires; and, most terrifying, nests of adders. In autumn low mist would lie on The Fields, and only on The Fields, like a gathering of ghosts. On one of the rare occasions I did dare to explore my foot got sucked into mud and I lost a trainer to the avaricious earth, which felt to me like a near-death experience.

There was no formal access to The Fields from the estate because, after all, why would we need to go there when we had public greens and playgrounds? (I once found a bag of dead rabbits behind the tank-shaped climbing frame in the park on Chamberlin Avenue.) All that meant was that kids clambered over back-fences, crushing the chain-link to the ground over the course of years, while certain enterprising residents installed their own back gates. During the day, and especially during the summer holidays, that meant cousins and friends could run in and out of each other’s gardens using folk paths worn through the vegetation. At night it facilitated more sinister goings-on – the whine of ‘borrowed’ mopeds and motorbikes, muttering, scurrying, cold torchlight, clothes-line raids, and outright burglary.

They started building on The Fields when I was about 10-years-old, and I wasn’t sure if it was good or bad news. On the one hand, I knew it would bring the wilderness into line – no more snakes or child traps, and an end to the sinister whispering of the grass beneath my bedroom window in the blue small hours. On the other hand, I disliked change — I sulked when they installed double-glazing and pebble-dashed the council houses — and this amounted to a fundamental reordering of the very landscape. Much as The Fields scared me they were also natural and beautiful in their own way and it felt wrong to turn them into yet more streets. Perhaps I also picked up on grown-up grumbling: a council house with something even approaching a natural view is a coveted thing and here They came to take the view away.

During the building The Fields became fearsome in a different way. First, infrastructure had to be laid, which meant heavy plant roaring all day long and then lying around, yellow and silent, after hours. Tarpaulins flapped and snapped in the wind, louder and more alarming than the grass had ever been. And concrete pipes were set about waiting to be laid underground, half-heartedly fenced off, with signs to warn kids away. But my best friend wouldn’t be warned away from anything.

I can’t remember how we met. I was shy and small; he was swaggering, round-fisted, and a year older. We wrote and drew comics together, planned elaborate bases, and pooled our collections of toy cars to make a museum in his parents’ garden shed. We played American football, too – he taught me to throw the ball with a twist so it would spin and find its target, and insisted that we tackle each other with full force despite the absence of armour or helmets. (I wonder, with hindsight, whether he had decided it was his duty to toughen me up in preparation for secondary school.)

Like a lot of intense childhood friendships, though, it couldn’t last, and as the building went on I lost him to The Fields and the company of naughtier, more adventurous kids than me. He kept ringing the doorbell and inviting me right to the end – “Coming over Fields?” – but I was too afraid and so he would go without me.

Then one day my uncle turned up, white-faced, and sat me down to tell me the bad news: my best friend was dead. A concrete pipe he had been clambering around and inside had rolled free of its anchoring and crushed him.

So when I say I lost him to The Fields, I really mean I lost him.

Within a few years The Fields became the Bower Estate – hundreds of just-too-small red-brick private houses arranged in whirls and loops along dusty new artery roads. Now the frontier with the countryside is old Bower Lane beyond which there is a stretch of flat farmland right up to the motorway. It’s muddy alright, but not wild or free. Enclosed, carefully tended, and private, it is no haunt for serpents or ghosts.