In recent times notions relating to my late father have been amongst the numerous visitors to my mercurial mind. My cerebrum in receipt of thoughts relating to the old fella who four years ago passed away, depriving my brood of his inherent warmth, kindness, wisdom and love of family.
Amongst memories appertaining to the patriarch were recollections of a huge landscaping project Malcolm (dad) undertook to dramatically improve the aesthetics of our undulating/hilly back garden.
As a consequence of steep sloping physical geography from the east Gateshead area of Wrekenton down to the Team Valley, my boyhood home on Low Fell was ‘blessed’ with a backyard bearing a 25% incline….. A ‘1 in 4’ slope in old money.
The late 1960’s Leech built three bedroomed semi-detached, purchased by my parents when relocating from Leeds, coming complete with a huge clay soil hill to the rear of the property.
A hillock of such stature that, had north-east of England’s temperatures emulated those of Alpine regions, this mound of earth would’ve probably serve as a very short, but nevertheless testing, ski run.
I think the best indication of the steepness of Strachan’s knoll was to compare its slope to the steep incline at the foot of nearby Coleridge Avenue. If you don’t know that particular avenue the simile will be lost on you, in which case you’ll have to trust me that when navigating the hillock it seemed almost perpendicular in nature.
When moving into the Strachan’s new abode its back garden consisted of a clay soil hill bereft of flora and fauna. Well, apart from bunches of wild rhubarb growing at its summit; an area backing onto a Portland Gardens home whose increased elevation resulted in it imposingly overlooking our family home.
This unappealing topography leaving my old man with a major re-landscape project if he and my mum wanted an aesthetically pleasing backyard. A huge task requiring the digging out and discarding of more soil than Stalag Luft III escapees shifted in WWII movie The Great Escape.
With no facility for skip hire in the late 1960’s it took many months to relocate the soil hacked out by pater to create plateaus of three differing heights. That was even before the further onerous job of cutting up tonnes of stone in preparation for building a series of retaining walls – A necessity to negate against potential mudslides during heavy rainfall.
I’ve no recollection how the excess earth, which’d been back-breakingly dug from our gardens clay-based headland by pater, was disposed of. 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’d transported the earth to it final destination within his coat pockets.
I remember the stones for the retaining walls were sourced from recently demolished houses in Deckham, an area of Gateshead located further up the valley, a few miles eastward from my Low Fell gaff. Being a young lad who spent a few Sunday lunchtimes assisting his father ‘steal’ them from a demolition site on Old Durham Road, I can make such a claim with extreme confidence.
During our stone reclamation project, dad would lug the heavier discarded stones to his car. As a small boy, I’d cherry pick those rocks which I managed to carry back to the vehicle, where I’d launch them unceremoniously into the boot. A process that continued until the car’s shock absorbers started creaking like a rusty coffin lid hinges.
When fully loaded our ill-gotten rock bounty’s weight caused the car headlights to veer skyward, meaning the stone reclamation had to be carried out in the daylight.
Admittedly, dad and me would’ve been afforded greater anonymity If the brick gathering had’ve been undertaken in the dark. However, driving home the main beam’s upward trajectory may’ve attracted the attention of aircraft pilots, or the Apollo astronauts whose Moon travel were fairly frequent episodes during that juncture.
As a kid, my siblings and me were taught not to steal. A parental edict which my old man possibly 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 contributing to karma exposing me to the rum luck 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 100% right with me. Especially as it took place a mere half hour after being part of a Cromer Avenue United Reform Church congregation. A gathering who’d just been reminded about sin borne from 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….. Only Mount Sinai, Moses!“
It was, of course, a ridiculous notion of mine, nevertheless one I followed to ease a 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.”….. I’d plenty to launch back should such an episode manifest.
Anyhow, after many months Malcolm had shifted tonnes of soil, constructed five retaining walls, built steps to the top of the garden incline, laid four lawns, sown of scores of plants and created a rockery. Rightly, it was with well warranted pride he surveyed his garden makeover upon completion.
The project delivered on budget (helped by minimising raw material costs), on time and thankfully without the loss of Mally’s liberty….. In a further instance of seeking family redemption, in tomorrow’s blog I’ll reveal the secret of what my dad buried under our patio in spring 1972.