Friday, 2 January 2009

The Waste Ground

Stonehouse Estate was a great place to grow up. I spent the first 13 years of my life there and enjoyed the vast majority of that time. Unlike today, children played outside and were pretty much left to their own devices. Video game consoles were primitive, home computers virtually non-existent and television limited to three or four channels. There was no hysteria about the paedophile threat and drugs were not rife. In fact, the only harm one was likely to suffer was self-inflicted or at the hands of other kids.

The estate had greens to play ball games on and plenty of entries leading to garages that were ideal for hide and seek, but the real beauty for kids was the surrounding area. The River Sowe with its stepping stones and pipes to shimmy over, numerous playing fields, the woods at Whitley, air raid shelters, pill-box and the remains of Whitley Farm inside the grounds of Talbot and Bunny Rabbit Hill with its wild horses to name but a few.

One area that was a regular haunt lay at the back of Sedgemoor Road. I knew it simply as ‘The Waste Ground.’ It was also bordered by Baginton Fields School, Stonebridge Highway (A45) and the King Henry VIII and Whitley Abbey school playing fields. It had the remains of roads, brick built man holes and buried kerb stones. Moss covered clumps of bricks and concrete encased pipes lay around as did an industrial sized water or oil tank that was known simply as “The Old Boiler.” Up to five kids could sit atop this graffiti covered relic and rock it from side to side to see who could survive the longest without falling off. A lone telegraph pole stood nearby but nothing of substance remained to give any indication of what once stood on this land. I recall asking my parents what used to be there but they didn’t know.

It was a great place to play. Bikes could be ridden round the roads and it was ideal for games like hide and seek and “Soldiers”. When kids grew out of these games the isolation made it an ideal spot to light fires and chuck aerosol cans and paint pots on them. The results were certainly more exciting than any experiments conducted at school in Chemistry lessons that’s for sure! The waste ground was also home to the estate’s bonfire on November 5th. Without fail, the bonfire would always be set alight before the big night and have to be re-built from scratch on the day or the day before. “Willenhall Kids” would always get the blame for torching it. The other thing I remember about the waste ground was that it was a great place to find nudey mags! Clearly Stonehouse Estate had its fair share of tossers!

In 1982 the waste ground was invaded by Travellers. Fear gripped the estate and extra padlocks were purchased for all garages and sheds. Kids were told the waste ground was out of bounds until the Travellers had moved on. ‘Travellers’ is a nice way of describing people who usually illegally camp on other people's land, don’t pay taxes and don’t clear up after themselves. In this crazy Politically Correct world that we now live in I have to respect these people and their way of life. That's all well and good but I’m sure if I decided not to pay my taxes, illegally camp on land not belonging to me and desecrate it I’d be banged up pronto. Anyway, I digress, back to 1982 ...

With the Travellers showing no inclination to ‘move on’ the older teenagers on the estate decided to take matters into their own hands. Word was passed around for everyone to meet at Baginton Fields School playing field for a game of ‘football’. I went along with a friend called Elfy and sure enough a game of football was in progress. All the estate hard-cases were in attendance. They were waiting on some friends from nearby Willenhall to turn up. We went to play on the climbing frame by the school playground. Shortly after the school caretaker and his dog walked past. He was armed with a crossbow! Not surprising really as there were numerous gaps in the hedge that separated Baggy Fields from the waste ground where the Travellers were camped.

Eventually the reinforcements from Willenhall arrived and the football match came to a halt. Catapults and baseball bats were revealed and the Stonehouse Action Force marched off towards a gap in the hedge that led to the waste ground. My brother, four years older than us, told Elfy and I to clear off in no uncertain terms. We let the soldiers pass through the hedge and tagged on at the end. Once through the hedge however we bottled it and decided to make our way back onto Sedgemoor Road and the ‘safety’ of the estate. Slipping through a broken fence we emerged by some garages. The entry led to the road. As we reached the end of the row of garages and turned the corner we were confronted by the sight of two Travellers wielding baseball bats, one of whom was a dead ringer for the wrestling legend Giant Haystacks. Fortunately they were looking elsewhere and we quickly retreated without being seen. But what now? Back to the waste ground where battle was raging? It would be an understatement to say we were absolutely terrified. One of the garages was open so we took refuge in it. Surely it was only a matter of seconds before Giant Haystacks and his chum would find us and beat the living daylights out of us?

With bodies shaking like leaves and our bowels threatening to dislodge their contents we awaited our certain doom. It truly was one of those moments when time seems to go in slow motion. After what seemed like an eternity we heard women’s voices and decided to emerge from our hiding place. We were greeted by two policemen who asked us who we were and what were we doing? Before we could answer, two women in their back gardens said, “They’re children from the estate, we know them, it’s nothing to do with them!” With that the old bill let us pass and we were safe.

I caught up with my brother a bit later and got a full account of the ‘Battle of the Waste Ground’. After a number of windows in the Traveller’s caravans had been smashed the Stonehouse mob were confronted by several Traveller men emerging from caravans with shot guns. This was the cue for a rapid retreat and it was everyone for themselves as they ran for their lives! It put mine & Elfy’s garage episode into sharp perspective ... Shot guns! Christ almighty!

The next day the Travellers ‘moved on’. It proved to be a hollow victory. The ‘Waste Ground’ was now truly wasted. The Travellers had destroyed every young tree in the vicinity. Rubbish was strewn everywhere including copious amounts of human excrement. Truly disgusting! The manholes were filled with rubbish and all in all the place felt soiled. Literally.

Not long after the council dumped tons of shale or chippings on the tracks of the waste ground to prevent another Traveller incursion. My family moved away from Stonehouse in 1983. Some years later the waste ground became the “Baginton Fields Nature Trail.”

A few years ago I first came across the excellent Willenhall Virtual Museum website. I was searching to see if any of my Dad’s relatives got a mention as they were amongst the first to live on the Willenhall estate when it was built and, according to him, played some part in establishing the social club. While looking at the site I came across some fascinating articles about “Baginton Fields Hostel” and was delighted to discover that this was in fact what had once occupied the “Waste Ground”. The mystery - to me at least - of the roads, manholes, clumps of concrete and bricks and the buried kerb stones was explained at last.

The hostel complex was constructed during the Second World War and in 1945 was home to hundreds of Dutch children who were ‘evacuated’ from the Netherlands for health reasons. Later it was home to displaced people from Britain and around the globe. The Virtual Museum website tells the story in great detail with accounts and photographs from people who lived there. The home page is here:

Today there is nothing on the site to commemorate its past. It is still a nature reserve but Coventry Council has permission to allow houses to be constructed on part of the site. Local residents are quite understandably opposed to this. It is unlikely that houses will be constructed in the current economic climate but once this is over no doubt the houses will be built as residents opinions, nature and history cannot be allowed to stand in the way of a fast buck.


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