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.