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A Childhood mis-spent by Badsey Brook

Or “Don’t try this at home”

Badsey Brook has presumably been there for thousands of years.  I can’t remember that far back, but I can remember the late 1950s and the early 1960s when the meadow below Horse Bridge was an important source of entertainment for the boys (mostly) who lived in Horsebridge Avenue and Synehurst. A lot of what we got up to in those years would presumably be greeted with gasps of shock and horror by today’s more safety conscious standards.

In that first meadow below the bridge, the brook moved imperceptibly slowly, held back as it was by the sluice at the mill. It was also a lot deeper than anywhere else on the brook, reaching something like four feet deep on the final stretch leading towards the mill pond.  My mum used to warn me with stories of a little child who had drowned there in earlier years.  Those of us who fished there knew the depth pretty accurately because we set our floats so that our baits (worms usually) lay on the bottom to attract eels.  Also on the bottom along there lies the top half of my home built fibre glass fishing rod which fell in some sixty years ago.  If anybody finds it, it’s mine; I’ve still got the other half just in case.  Presumably that deep section must have been artificially canalised at some time in the past to provide a head of water for the mill sluice.  Certainly the bank of the brook was a good few feet higher than the middle of the meadow and in wet seasons the brook broke its banks a little way above the pond and flowed through what was probably its natural old course across along the meadow to the corner below the sluice.  I dare say it probably still does.

A minor risk to us young boys was the small herd of Hereford bullocks (I think they call them steers now don’t they?) used to graze in the meadow and despite being a peaceful breed they did on occasion take it into their heads to gallop over towards people.  I don’t suppose they meant any harm, but to a ten year old boy a dozen or so Herefords stampeding in your direction was pretty scary.

However, it was the willow trees along the banks of the brook that gave us our principal source of self -inflicted injury.  Apart from the falls from climbing the branches, it was what we were climbing for that caused a lot of the cuts, grazes and bruises.  We needed nice straight sticks to make our bows and arrows , so up we went, brandishing pen knives or boy scout sheath knives, hacking away with one hand while hanging on the  with the other.  I should think at least half of the local boys carried a sheath knife on their belt.  Imagine that today!  They’d be in front of the police in no time. The willow made reasonable bows  (and no boy in a market gardening village was short of a piece of string) and as far as I recall we had little compunction about firing arrows at one another. 

The real long range missile though was the Dutch Arrow or Assegai.  We would cut a straight length of willow about a half inch thick and a couple of feet long, whittle a sharp point at one end and cut two slots at right angles down through the other end.  The slots were to grip the arrow flight which we would make from folded paper or perhaps cornflake boxes.  Once the flight was pushed in, we’d bind the end tight with string to hold it in place. Then, we got a piece of string about one and a half times the length of the arrow and tied a bulky knot in one end.  The string was wrapped once round the arrow shaft just below the flight and pulled tight along the arrow so that the string hooked over the knot, forming a sort of quick release mechanism.  Then wrapping the free end of the string round our hand and grasping the arrow near the point we’d throw the arrow like a javelin.  If you got the string tension right it would impart a slingshot push to the arrow which would fly high and long, normally sticking well into the ground where it landed.  I recall throwing one up at Badsey Rec and could fairly easily reach from one football goal to the other in two throws.  I’d probably be arrested for doing it these days, although I have shown my grandchildren how to make and throw Dutch Arrows and I have one under my stairs right now.   Again using our knives we would cut patterns in the bark on the arrows to decorate them.  Very therapeutic as I recall.

If we didn’t get injured by knives or arrows, there was always a chance with a catapult, and object which hardly any self-respecting boy was without.   A nice forked stick made the frame and thick square sectioned rubber band (no idea where we got that from – Hodgetts toy shop in Evesham at a guess) gave the power.  I can’t remember how we made the pouch for the missile, but we did.  Thinking back, we made a lot of our own toys and most of our own amusement.

Apart from trying to maim ourselves with knives and arrows and catapults, the other most dangerous occupation was wasp grubbing, i.e. raiding wasps nests to collect the grubs for fishing bait.  With all the fruit orchards around, there were always plenty of wasps in the late summer. The nests were often found in the willow trunks and there seemed to be two main ways of raiding them.  The first was to soak a rag in paraffin or, dare I say it, petrol, then set light to the rag, stuff it in the nest and run like stink.  Providing you didn’t trip over a clump of thistles or slip on a cow pat, you could just about out run an angry cloud of wasps.  They would chase you for at least fifty yards and sometimes more.   Quite a few boys didn’t make it and I can remember boys with multiple stings on their hands and faces, and one even breathed in a couple and got stung inside his mouth.  Happy days.

The other way to kill a nest was with water.  The growers along the slopes leading to the brook would often have motor driven pumps (where do you think the petrol mentioned above came from?) to suck water from the brook and pump it up the ground for irrigation purposes.  It didn’t take boys long to work out that diverting the hose into a wasps nest and running the pump for ten minutes while they retired to a safe distance would do the trick.  Once the nests had been either burned or smoked or drowned, the wasp “cake” was broken out the nest and shared amongst the combatants.  Wasp grubs, looking like giant maggots, were a highly-prized fishing bait.  Alongside, lobworms from the garden and brandling worms from growers’ muck heaps, they were just the job for tempting the main species which lurked in the deeper parts brook – eels.

There seemed to be quite a lot of eels, some on the slow deep bends between Monks path and Horse Bridge, more along towards the Mill Pond and finally in the pool below the Mill sluice gate. A lot of the boys used what they called tank aerial rods, which could be bought cheaply in Evesham.  Only about four feet long, these rods had a wooden handgrip and a thin steel rod not much more than an eighth of an inch thick.   A porcupine quill float was set so that the baited hook lay on the bottom of the brook and the float just laid flat or nearly so.  The eels never came along quickly, so the practice then was just to fool about, tell jokes or yarns or if you were lucky, eat a jam sandwich your mum had made, while waiting for a bite from the eel.  I think we must have sung the latest pop songs as well because I have a strong memory of Cliff Richards’ Livin’ Doll whenever I picture the scene.  That dates it pretty accurately.

I liked fishing but I wasn’t keen on catching eels.  I used to think they were nasty slimy writhing things and they’d bite you if they could.  The reason boys fished for them was firstly because they were there, and secondly because there were people who liked to eat them who might give you a shilling for a good one.   Other species to be found in the brook were Stone Loach in the shallows up nearer the Badsey Lane end, they could be caught by hand if you were quick when you lifted a stone, then there were minnows in lots of places and the odd little gudgeon.  Most people would say that’s yer lot, but I did catch three fish which I could only regard as miraculous.  Half the people reading this won’t believe me but it’s true. The first was a Roach weighing twelve ounces which I caught one dusk about half way between the bridge and the mill pond, another was a Tench of about ten ounces that I caught in the pool below the Mill sluice and finally and strangest of all, a Brown Trout of about half a pound that was in the same spot below the sluice.  Somewhere there’s an old photo of me holding up that trout. I can’t imagine that any of them were native to the brook; they must have ventured up from the Avon I suppose.  People used to say that there was a pike living by the rushes on the far side of the Mill Pond, but in scores of hours fishing up there, I never saw it.

The ford at the bottom of Mill Lane was as far as we ever ventured with a fishing rod, after that it was only minnows, although I often fancied that there might be some bigger fish up towards the Offenham end, but if you were venturing that far, you might as well go on up to the Fish and Anchor where there is proper fishing to be got.  The only other place where we fished the brook was in the meadows at Wickhamford, but I don’t recall ever catching anything bigger than a gudgeon and a small one at that.

The Mill Lane ford was a popular spot for just mucking about.  It was nice place to paddle and we could make little toy rafts or play Pooh Sticks and it was a very short walk home for the boys who lived round the back of Horsebridge Avenue.

We did venture further along the meadows towards Offenham but rarely to fish.  I recall that after the path crossed the Bretforton brook, there were sheep rather than cattle, and in one corner of a field there were the biggest sweetest blackberries I ever tasted.  One day we were picking them and one of the boys said “I reckon these blackberries must be cultivated.” Then a man’s voice from the ground on the other side shouted “Oy, they be, now bugger off.”  We did.

One attraction further on was the little culvert pipe that ran under the railway embankment. When a train was due, we used to scuttle into the pipe and crouch there to experience the shaking and roaring of the train passing over.  Simple pleasures eh?

Somewhere along there, maybe beyond the railway bridge was a place where a couple of big shire horses used to gallop across the brook from a field on the far bank. In that field were a couple of donkeys which would occasionally allow us to ride them, although one did throw me off, bucking bronco style one day.

So that was what we used Badsey Brook for; cutting sticks to make stuff, fishing , and larking about.  I’ve no idea if the same goes on today. It’s a good many years since I last walked along the Aldington meadows ( I now live in Berkshire) and at that time the brook was badly overgrown and the mill pond all silted up.  I must say it made me sad to see it like that, and I like to think that since then something might have been done to clear it out a bit.  Keeping it flowing is presumably a factor in preventing further floods in the village.

If I were you I’d refrain from a lot of the practices I’ve detailed here.  I can hardly be seen to be recommending the carrying of knives, making offensive weapons, setting fire to trees and purloining a bit of petrol can I? It was all very innocent though – honest guv. Most of us lived to tell the tale, but I sometimes think it was a wonder we did. 

Neil Corbett, February 2019