More memories of Perran Newman - Earth

Perran Newman

I firmly believe that man needs to have a real and literal connection to his roots and when I say roots, I mean the sort that grow in the soil. There is something very basic about our connection to the land and I feel sorry for those who cannot experience this primeval link with our past.
I am lucky to have had a mother who was a trained horticulturist and a large garden in which to safely explore the world as I grew up. We were encouraged to cultivate a small patch for ourselves and were given seeds to plant. I recall certain impatience, typical of a child, at the time it took for them to germinate. Carefully tending and weeding the seedlings was something I enjoyed and to this day, I find the chore of weeding anything but a chore – more an opportunity to get really close to the earth.

Our garden was a wonderful mixture of spaces, some dedicated to the growing of vegetables and fruit and others partially wild where we children could indulge our whims. The farthest corner was known as ‘China’ and my mother used to let the road sweeper empty his electric ‘dustcart’ here, to add variety to the leaf mould based compost that was religiously cultivated in this far corner.

Memories of Perran Newman - Earth - History of Maypole, Dartford Heath

A wooden fence ran the length of the garden, separating us from a public footpath or ‘snicket’. On the other side of the path was the garden of the singer Dorothy Squires (Say it with Flowers) and her husband, (Ivanhoe), the young Roger Moore. This was just a typical middle class suburban road between Old Bexley and Dartford Heath and we didn’t consider that having ‘stars’ in our midst was anything very special.

Memories of Perran Newman - Earth - History of Maypole, Dartford Heath

Of my two best friends, Karl lived in the converted stable block of this house, his mother being Dorothy’s childhood friend.

I’m not entirely sure where the inspiration for digging an underground camp came from. Maybe it was watching the earthmoving equipment that was ripping the lovely old orchard apart to build the road now called Cold Blow Crescent. As we were not allowed to enter the orchard, its loss to progress didn’t effect us. Instead we could watch a ‘mechanical excavator’ and ‘dump truck’ re-landscaping the environment. I was particularly taken with these two machines, the first I had seen close up. I was able to work out that the excavator rotated about its stationary caterpillar tracks by driving a small pinion cog that meshed with an enormous fixed cog. The clever simplicity of this appealed to the embryonic engineer with me.

Memories of Perran Newman - Earth - History of Maypole, Dartford Heath

Likewise, I watched as the single cylinder engine of the dumper was started. A muscle bulging, initially slow rotation of the starting handle, getting faster and faster as the speed of the flywheel was increased and then a handle was released (the decompression lever ?) and the pepper pot cap on the exhaust bellowed into life. The individual explosions within the single cylinder, fighting their way to freedom as sooty mushroom clouds. Oh, the power and the glory – to misquote a description of the German Grand Prix cars at Donnington before the war.

It was Jason who provided the vital tool that enabled us to start work on making an underground camp. The tool was a beautiful pickaxe. It was the full size implement with a green and cream coloured wooden shaft. It was double headed with a wide spade-like end on one side and a blunt spike on the other. I suppose we were 9 or 10 years old and mother must have indicated the general area where we could have our camp. It was close to both China and the snicket fence.

There is no doubt that digging the camp kept us occupied for at least a couple of years. It also required the use of spades and a wheelbarrow as the extracted soil had to be moved some way from the hole that we were making. It must also have helped us develop physically – the digging, lifting, and barrowing requiring much exertion. I don’t recall much discussion about the form that the camp would take but as the hole in the ground became tangible we all agreed that it should be covered over so that it became invisible from above. The covering was made from pieces of timber and boarding and from somewhere a hatch was found that was in reality, a cupboard door on a small frame.

One big problem with holes in the ground is that they tend to fill with water when it rains. The covering described above made a vast difference and so did the stove. In Karl’s garden was an old air-raid shelter and from here the stove and its pipe were taken and installed in our ‘camp’. It was made of cast iron, had a grate and two small doors. It must have been fairly small as we managed to move it without too much trouble. The warmth it provided and the curl of smoke from the chimney poking out of the ground were exciting benefits.

Inside the ‘camp’ for this is what we called our den, we had a pair of earth benches made by digging a deep foot-well. There was a genuine effort to make the ‘camp’ and its surroundings neat and tidy. We awarded badges to each other for sterling work in this respect. Just what we got up to in the ‘camp’ remain as fairly hazy memories. We certainly smoked our first cigarettes – Matinee, bought at Baldwyns Park for ‘uncle’, a bare-faced lie told with some trepidation as if this was a major crime ! We tried cooking food on the stove with very little success. It was much easier on an open fire. I guess we liked the idea of having made our own little home in the earth, but it was a tight squeeze when myself, Jason, Karl and younger brother Brian were all inside.

During one of our many brainstorming sessions about challenges to undertake, things to do, things to make, places to go to, people to annoy and so on, a bold idea was put forward and rapidly accepted by everyone. We should build a tunnel to allow us to enter our underground camp from some distance away. The only practical way to make a tunnel was by ‘cut and cover’ and work was soon underway. More boarding was needed to cover the trench, soil being heaped on top to make it secure and ‘secret’. Crawling through the completed tunnel, I experienced true claustrophobia for the first time. You know you cannot go backwards, it is almost pitch black, it is damp, cold and a very tight fit. My memory tells me that the tunnel was seldom used although a triumphant addition to our glorious camp.

As Karl’s garden was just the other side of the footpath from the camp, and fired up by the success of our last construction project, it was decided to dig a true tunnel under the footpath to reach Karl’s. Work progressed rapidly as we were digging horizontally this time. We were soon under the fence and about a foot under the path when our naivety was exposed. Working at a depth of about 6 inches, the path above began to sag and even our enthusiasm was halted by the reality of the situation.

We moved away from Wansunt Road when I was 12. Three more houses were subsequently built in the garden. We never filled in the camp but threw the old metal milk crates that we used as seats into the hole along with other assorted items of rubbish. I do regret that I don’t have any photographs of the ‘camp’, particularly as father had taken pictures of a fishing trip with my friends a few years before and this was published in ‘The Farmers Weekly’.

These early episodes, scrabbling in the soil returned in my middle years when I started digging ‘bottle dumps’. One always aspired to digging an old site with no clear glass, or one where the glass had not been made ‘sick’ by the presence of the ash from coal fires. Most popular sites looked like first world war battlefields with heaps and mounds and debris everywhere. What had once been neatly buried and covered was now scattered everywhere and they became real eyesores.

The claustrophic feeling returned a few years after leaving Bexley. We moved to Westerham and in getting to know the area and its hidden attractions, a few friends and I, ‘discovered’ the abandoned Kentish Ragstone mines on Hosey Heath. We didn’t have the Internet to tell us about the site and we entered through a hole in the ground to discover a labyrinth of tunnels, some big enough to drive a lorry through. We used a ball of string to guide us back and I can still recall that awful feeling as I squeezed through a narrow slot, following our leader, and felt the weight of tons of material in the centre of my back, waiting for perhaps just that moment to crush me to pulp.

Recent pictures taken inside the caves by members of KURG
Memories of Perran Newman - Earth - History of Maypole, Dartford HeathMemories of Perran Newman - Earth - History of Maypole, Dartford Heath

I was married in Leicester, a Roman town with a small section of Roman wall still standing. At that time, an area near the centre of Leicester was being completely redeveloped, with new roads being driven through. I volunteered to work with archeologists in rescue work ahead of the roads. The Roman levels were in some places 20 feet below present day levels, attributed to the steady piling of rubbish and ash over the centuries.

Memories of Perran Newman - Earth - History of Maypole, Dartford Heath

I dug in a rubbish pit and was rewarded with that special thrill of uncovering artefacts, seeing the light of day again after more than a thousand years. Finding a (broken) Roman oil lamp was a most memorable moment and gave me a lifelong interest in archaeology.

I sometimes wonder if Tony Robinson and Time Team went back to Wansunt Road, what they would make of the site of our camp. I suppose the buried milk crates would be a dead giveaway !

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