As a consequence of its sloping physical geography from the east Gateshead area of Wrekenton down to the Team Valley, my childhood home at Low Fell was ‘blessed’ with a back garden bearing a 25% (1 in 4 in old money) incline.
The late 1960’s Leech built three bedroomed semi-detached, purchased by my parents at that time when relocating from Leeds, coming complete with a huge clay soil hill as a backyard.
A hillock of such stature that had north-east of England’s temperatures emulated those of Alpine regions, this mound of earth would’ve made a very short, but nevertheless testing, year-long ski run.
I think the best indication of the steepness of the Strachan’s knoll was to compare its slope to the steep incline at the foot of Coleridge Avenue, also on Low Fell. If you don’t know Coleridge Avenue that simile will be lost on you, in which case you’ll have to trust me when I say it’s incline is almost perpendicular in nature.
This hill of clay soil, bereft of flora and fauna apart from some wild rhubarb growing at its summit (which backed onto a Portland Gardens home which overlooked us), bequeathing my old man a major re-landscape project. A huge task requiring the digging out and discarding of more soil than was shifted by Stalag Luft III escapees in the movie The Great Escape.
With no facility for skip hire in the late 1960’s the relocation of the soil, hacked out by pater to create three different height plateaus, took many months. That was even before the further onerous job of cutting up stones to build a series of retaining walls, a necessity to negate against potential mudslides during heavy rainfall.
I’ve no recollection how we disposed of the excess earth which Mally (my dad) had back-breakingly dug from Strachan’s patch of clay-based Low Fell headland. However, I do recall it being a long and enduring project undertaken by my father. A pace so pedestrian I wouldn’t have been overly shocked to hear my old man had transported the earth to it final destination in his coat pockets.
I remember the stones for the retaining walls were sourced from recently demolished houses in Deckham. Something I can say with a surety of the young lad who spent a few Sunday lunchtime helping his father ‘steal’ them from a demolition site on Old Durham Road.
During our stone reclamation project, dad would lug the heavier discarded stones to his car. As a small boy, I’d cherry pick those I could carry back to the vehicle where, much to his chagrin, I’d launch them unceremoniously into the boot. A process that continued until the car’s shock absorbers started creaking like a rusty old coffin lid.
As when fully loaded the weight caused the car headlights to point skyward, thankfully we carried this out in the daylight. If undertaken in the dark the main beam’s trajectory may’ve attracted the attention of Apollo astronauts, whose Moon travel was fairly frequent at that time.
As a kid, my siblings and me were taught not to steal. A parental edict which my old man may’ve turned a blind eye to when acquiring raw materials for the many retaining walls he built back then.
I’ve no idea if what we were doing was theft, but I don’t think Mally did either; he assumed they’d been chucked for scrap. If it did turn out to be an illegal practise it’s maybe contributed to karma exposing me to the rum luck I’ve recently endured.
Ironically, these raw material acquisition trips in the early 1960’s/70’s took place on Sunday lunch times, shortly after I’d returned home from church with my mother and brother (dad never went to church).
As a nipper, I fully realised this practise of acquiring stones was harmless. However, the uncertainty about its legality didn’t sit quite right with me. Especially a mere half hour after being part of a Cromer Avenue United Reform Church congregation who’d just been reminded about the sin of theft.
My moral torment eventually dispelled after misguidedly re-assuring myself that if god had a problem with what my dad and I were doing, surely they’d have been an 11th commandment ‘Thou shall not take stones from east Gateshead demolition sites‘.
It was, of course, a ridiculous notion of mine, nevertheless one I followed to aid ease my young conscience. Further tempering my angst by concluding anyone who felt the need to judge my behaviour should reflect on another thing I’d learned at Sunday school. That of Jesus’ reaction to those wishing to stone an adulteress to death – “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”
Anyhow, after Malcolm shifted tonnes of soil, constructing five retaining walls, building steps to the top of the garden incline, the laying of four lawns, the sowing of scores of plants and creation of a rockery, the Strachan garden makeover was finally completed.
The project delivered on budget (helped by the raw material costs), on time and thankfully without the loss of Mally’s liberty….. In a further instance of seeking redemption for my family, in tomorrow’s blog I’ll let you in on the secret of what my dad buried under our patio in spring 1972.