Memories · Notes from West London

Head-high weeds, just like when I was a child

In recent years, things have changed at many of our local green spaces. In parks, commons and the grounds of local landmarks, designated areas have been left to grow wild. For decades these spaces were weeded, mown and kept tidy. Now they are deliberately left uncultivated for much of the spring and summer.

In some cases these spaces have been sown with flowers and left to flourish for several months before being cut back in the late autumn. In our local park the “Flowering Meadow” contains poppies, cornflowers, coreopsis and cosmos. Very pretty. In other parts of our nearby green spaces it looks like the weeds have been allowed to take control. One of the reasons for this new approach is to attract wildlife, bees and butterflies in particular. In some of these spots the weeds grow to well over 6 feet, taller than me.

It reminds me of my childhood. Back then, public spaces were not left uncultivated, but one of our neighbour’s gardens was. The house had been divided up into bedsits. In some cases, bedrooms had been divided in two. This would result in two rentable spaces, separated by a partition, where there had previously been one. One of these spaces would have at least one outside window and the other would have a window positioned high up in the partition. Daylight would only reach the inner “room” through the window in the partition, or if the door between the two “rooms” was left open.

The people who lived next door were mostly unknown to us. They came and went, most of them spending no more than a few months in the place. Many of them were from New Zealand. It’s quite possible that I first heard the word “Kiwi” in reference to some of our transitory neighbours.

There was talk, in the 1970s, of Cliff Richard’s road manager living next door, and rumours that guitars worth several thousand pounds had been stolen from his car. It seems unlikely, but that’s what we heard.

The way that the house was arranged, and the nature of its residents, meant that nobody took responsibility for the sizable back garden. There was a paved space at the back of the house, beside the kitchen. The kitchen extended out from the main body of the house for about 10 feet, and the paved area a further 3 feet or so beyond that. That space had neater paving than the corresponding area in our garden, but beyond that, for 60 feet or more, it was a wilderness. The weeds grew over 6 feet high in the spring and summer. There was a brick barbecue a few yards away from the kitchen. Occasionally someone would clear a path to it but most of the year it remained unused, and the jungle of weeds began where the paving stopped. Come to think of it, we called it a jungle.

The fence between our garden and next door was less than 4 feet high, and there were several places where the vertical slats were loose or missing. All of this meant that we could crawl or climb into their garden easily. We did, frequently, to retrieve lost tennis balls, and less frequently to retrieve footballs. The latter were easier to find, but we usually kept the ball down. Most of us who enjoyed a kick-about were decent footballers. I don’t recall too many footballs getting lost next door. The tennis balls made their way there from our more haphazard approach to the approximations of cricket and tennis that we played in the summer, and we lost plenty of them.

During my childhood I must have made hundreds of brief visits to next door’s garden, almost all of them uninvited and accompanied by the fear of getting shouted at, although there was little danger of that during the school holidays. There never seemed to be anyone in the house or garden on weekdays, but at weekends there would be a bit more activity. Occasionally one or two of the residents would be in that paved area beside the kitchen. If we knocked a ball over the fence they would either retrieve it for us or (more often) allow us to search for it in the wilderness.

During my childhood, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, there was never a time when next door’s garden was cleared of weeds. In the 1980s, while I was away at university, the house was bought by one of the co-founders of a successful advertising agency. His Aston Martin, parked outside most weekends, was the subject of envious looks from friends of mine who care about cars. Apparently it cost about the same as the house itself, but the refurbishments cost even more.

By the time I returned home from my first year at university, the house of many bedsits had been converted back to a family home. There was a Range Rover on the newly paved front garden, for Mrs Advertising Executive. We heard that she was never allowed to drive the Aston Martin.

The back garden, landscaped and boasting the most pristine lawn I had ever seen outside of a royal park, was now a playground for two young boys. The fencing was 7-feet high, the panels (6-feet wide) supported by concrete posts. The patchy, dark brown, old-style vertical slats were all gone, although the fencing on the other side of our garden remained that way for as long as we lived there.

I was away while most of the refurbishments were taking place but my brother was around. He had returned from the year in Spain that made up part of his degree course, and was in his final year at university. When the garden was being cleared he asked the workmen if they had found any balls. They had, and gave him a large carrier bag full of decaying, cheap tennis balls, the kind we used to buy from Wooworth’s for 5p each. A handful of them were still usable.

Since the 1980s, I have never seen a garden that resembles the wilderness that was next door all the time I was growing up. The new approach to public green spaces has taken me right back there. It has been an unexpected and vivid source of nostalgia. If you find me crawling through head-high weeds, searching for cheap tennis balls, mildly fearful of getting shouted at, you’ll know that I’m reliving my childhood.

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