OF LOVE AND EXPLORATION - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

A CAREFREE PLAYGROUND

''We could never have loved the earth so well
if we had had no childhood in it.''

From "The Mill on the Floss" by George Eliot (1860).

When I look back I recognize that I enjoyed a glorious, carefree boyhood for the fourteen years that I spent growing up in the village of Magherafelt. During that time I lived in the big gray house on a wooded hill that my parents christened ``Cranagh Dhu'' and there I lived with with my mother, my father, two brothers and sister. Between the ages of about 7 and 14 most of my existence was focussed on that house and its immediate surroundings. The two and a half acres around the house provided a wealth of childhood environments in which to reign, build and devise adventures.

Far from the house, beyond a hayfield, the driveway curled around to reach the road and this bottom end of the driveway went through a tunnel of horse chestnut trees and rhodadenedron bushes. Every year we would enjoy harvesting the inedible horse chestnuts in order to collect the beautiful round nuts with a great big white dimple from within the green husks. We called them conkers and used them for various games. A popular pastime was to drill a hole through a chestnut and feed a short length of string through it so that you could swing the chestnut to collide with a rival's chestnut. The winner was the chestnut that did not split apart but remained intact. Boys boasted of their ``champion conkers'' though all eventually dried up and cracked.

The horse chestnuts were, of course, inedible, indeed they were reputed to be somewhat poisonous. We did have one sweet chestnut tree on the front lawn but it did not produce nuts of edible size. Indeed they were little tiny nuts that didn't even look like chestnuts (indeed I wonder today whether it really was a sweet chestnut tree). There were quite a few large beech trees around the house and we could and did eat the beechnuts though they were small and it was a lot of trouble to peel off the skin. However, they were quite tasty. Of course the garden itself was a valuable source of food. There were lots of apple trees almost all of which produced rather bitter apples that were only really useful for cooking. However there were one or two trees that produced very tasty fruit. My parents used to try to store apples by laying down a bed of newspapers on the floor of one of the empty attic rooms in order to lay the apples upon it. It always seemed to me a useless exercise for the apples would almost always rot and we would be left with the task of gathering up all these rotten apples and disposing of them; that charade was repeated over many years. Slightly more sucessful was the effort to make cider from the rotten apples using great big earthenware vats. The apples had to be mashed up in grinder and that part I quite enjoyed. The garden also contained one pear tree though the climate was not a warm enough for it and it produced little fruit. We did have lots of raspberries, gooseberries, rhubarb, sometimes some strawberries, peas, broad beans, lettuce, cabbage, turnips and my least favorite of all vegetables, parsnips (in other lands they are appropriately regarded only as cattle fodder). This produce, particularly the potatoes, represented a substantial fraction of our food.

We had very few of the playthings and resources available to the modern child for, in the aftermath, of the Second World War there was little available but the necessities of life. However, we did have a broad landscape and the freedom to roam it. In doing so we made use of whatever materials were available. I remember four great sheets of what must have been aluminium (hard to be sure what metal they were) - 4ft x 8ft sheets that were endlessly reused sources of building material - whether for a hut or a race track or a bicycle ramp. We were constantly carrying those metal sheets from one project to another. My mother said she remembered me making my brother Michael carry these sheets of ``tin'' from one side of Cranagh Dhu to another, claiming that I was the one with the ideas and Michael was the brawn that carried out those ideas. I am really not sure that's very fair, or very accurate, but I guess it was probably symptomatic of our relationship.

I remember one particular game that we played for many, many hours; it involved racing model cars down a sloping ramp made from the tin sheets. One of the relatively few toys available to children of that time were the cast iron model cars and vehicles made by the Dinky Car Toy Company. We could purchase a few of these in the local grocery store, a place called Stewarts. About 1950 the Dinky Car Company produced a series of models of the Grand Prix racing cars of the time. These were a source of great excitement for me for I had followed Grand Prix racing with some fervor and knew all the stories of Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, and Mike Hawthorne among others. I still have the scrapbook in which I pasted all the newspaper articles and memorabilia that I could find, including a laboriously typed out story of the Marquis de Portago's fatal accident during the Mille Miglia. On one occasion my father took me to a Tourist Trophy race, an annual international event for sports cars that was held at the Dundrod circuit not far from where we lived. There I managed to get Mike Hawthorne's autograph only a few months before he died in a car accident.

The Dinky racing cars

But back to the Dinky toys: I think there was a model Ferrari, a Maserati, an Alfa Romeo, a Cooper-Bristol, an HWM and a Talbot. We had one of each. We set the sheets of tin up on an inclined slope in our back yard and would race the cars down this slope. We oiled the axles trying to get the maximum speed out of each of these little toys. Mine was the Maserati and, to this day, every time I see that name or, better still, a car of that make, it gives me a special thrill.

Another endless outdoor activity that I remember was building "huts". These were rudimentary shelters built in various corners of the grounds. The sheets of "tin" usually formed the roof of these hideaways. There was an old cooking stove I remember that had obviously once adorned someone's kitchen but had been retired long before we acquired it. We would install that stove in these hideaways and light wood fires in it, just to delight in the warmth and light of the fire. There was also a chimney that we somehow managed to attach to the stove so that we were not asphixiated by the smoke.

Bicycles also played a large part in our games and in our travels about the local area. The very earliest was a rugged little tricycle that has now served at least three generations and has become a legend in itself, an iconic symbol of our family tradition. Where it originally came from I do not know for it was "used" when we first acquired it. Some of early photographs from the mid-1940s show my brother Michael and I riding it. It was then passed down to my brother Colin and to my sister Paula who were photographed sitting on it. Some years later it travelled across the Irish Sea to become the proud possesion of my daughters Dana and Kathy before it returned again to Ireland for Colin's children to enjoy. Now it is passing on to a third generation. But perhaps most remarkably my second wife, Barbara (about whom much more later), was photographed sitting on it when she was a teenager and again, some fifty years later, when she and I visited Ireland together shortly after our marriage. Quite remarkably, it is still serviceable and increasingly treasured as a family icon, a reminder of our heritage.

   
The tricycleThe tricycle one generation later

We soon graduated to bicycles and had various racetracks laid out in the grounds of Cranagh Dhu. Then the sheets of "tin" were used to create smooth, banked turns in critical locations along the chosen racecourse. I remember two yew trees at the entrance to the garden which had grown so that the space between them was very narrow, perhaps only 18 inches. We would pass through this gateway at high speed and swoop down the narrow path in the center of the garden. Sheets at the bottom of the garden formed a banked turn that could be taken at high speed before hurtling through a narrow doorway in the stonewall that surrounded the backyard. If you misjudged that doorway the consequences could be very painful. I also remember that we spent many hours reworking the bearings, chains, etc. of the bicycles in attempts to improve their performance. That was almost certainly my first education into those basic mechanical components, the bearings, gears, chains and spockets. I remember an old bicycle of my mother's that was light, fast, and manoeverable. It was my favorite and I recall painting it white with the remnants of a can of shiny house paint.

There was one occasion when we foolishly placed the finish line for a race at the top of the steep slope at the edge of the front lawn; the slope dropped down steeply to the barbed wire fence at the road-side edge of our property. In the lead at the end of the race, I charged over the finish line and straight down this slope into the barbed wire fence, ripping a gaping wound in my thigh and receiving a bunch of lesser cuts. All of these my father had to stitch together in the local hospital. The scar on my thigh is still quite visible, a reminder of my youthful foolishness.

We had a part-time gardener to tend to the two and a half acres of land surrounding Cranagh Dhu. His name was John Bradley and we were the bane of his life. A gentle old soul, we sometimes so taxed his patience that he would chase us around the house though not with any hope of catching us for we were nimble and fast and he wore hob-nailed boots. Prompted by my father's initiative and encouragement, John, on several occasions, tried to keep bees and beehives. I think it was one of my father's notional fads, which were frequent and usually of quite brief duration. Maybe he imagined that as one of the things a "country squire" should do. There were some other fads that fitted into this category but more of those later. I do remember on one occasion I thumped one of these beehives with a hammer and was swarmed upon by the bees, receiving perhaps 30 or 40 bee stings before I managed to outrun them. That was a very painful experience, indeed I may even have been briefly hospitalized in the aftermath.

   
A liferaft poolA rubber dinghy

Looking back now I realize that my father's fads often left some very interesting bits and pieces in their aftermath and that we then used these bits and pieces for other purposes. When I was about 8 or 9 he acquired a large inflatable liferaft, probably army or navy surplus. This we inflated and filled with water to use as a paddling pool in the backyard. It provided hours of summer fun and was the closest thing to a swimming pool that we had any access to though it wasn't nearly deep enough to swim in. About the same time he also acquired a smaller rubber dinghy which we took with us when we went on summer holidays and used extensively for paddling in various rock pools.

The old wooden boat

We lived about four miles from the shores of Lough Neagh. However the shores of that lake were either marshy or rocky and not very attractive for recreation or swimming. There was one rocky little harbor within easy reach where we occasionally went swimming. However I didn't learn to swim until much later, in part because of the lack of any facility in which to learn. Not far away from that rocky harbor was a place where a small local company mined sand and gravel for building purposes. Toward that end they employed a dredging barge and cut great holes in the shoreline. This created a network of deep pools with many islands. They also used an old wooden boat for getting around among these pools and islands. On a weekend when they were not working we would use that little boat and paddle around exploring that watery maze. One reason for my fascination with this activity was motivated by my favorite children's book, ``Swallows and Amazons" by Arthur Ransome that featured adventure stories of children exploring a lake with small sailboats. The dredged maze was my adventure lake and I remember it with much fondness.

Behind the big house in which we lived was an old stone, two-storey dwelling, whose haunted legend I have written about elsewhere in the story of "Cranagh Dhu". In our day it was used primarily as a garage though it had obviously been a dwelling of some kind in the distant past. It formed the rear boundary of the wall-enclosed backyard but we assumed that it predated the main house and that it constituted the remains of an old "inn". Indeed beneath the more modern gravel surface of the backyard in front of this "inn" were the remains of a cobblestone courtyard. The large opening on the ground floor had been recently cut in order to convert the building to a car garage. In order to provide structural support for the wooden floor above the garage, two large steel I-beams were installed above this carport. I remember the workmen installing those I-beams, the like of which the village had probably never seen before.

The spacious second floor of the "inn" had two parts to it. One had reasonably sound floorboards that you could walk on without danger of falling through. Since the large steel I-beams would have supported a fair-sized ship, when I was about 13 or 14 my father purchased a billiard table that was installed in that part of the loft. We spent many hours in titanic billiards or snooker competitions in that loft, games that usually featuring myself, my brother Michael and our neighbours David and Willie McKeown.

   
The garageThe stable from the garage

The other half of that second storey had a much more dubious wooden floor, rotten with woodworm. Indeed, in many places the floor boards had fallen away leaving only the joists. In our early years my parents used that half as a hayloft. The upper half of the large grassy area in front of the main house was mowed and maintained as a large lawn, about 60 yards wide and 30 yards long. The equally large piece of grassland further from the house was allowed to grow unmown. Come autumn, the long grass would be harvested for hay and stored in the hayloft. Once that was freshly filled we would have a glorious time jumping, rolling and hiding in the hay. There was always some slight danger of falling through the floorboards if things got a little too lively but I don't remember any serious accidents of that nature.

Below the hayloft on the ground floor was the coal shed, a dank and dark place where the coal that heated the house was stored. As a teenager one of my morning chores would be to fill the coal buckets (usually four or five in number), and carry them up to the back door of the house in preparation for their use in heating the house during the day. That duty of bringing in the coal every morning was one my brothers and I were assigned in rotation, week by week. This was no problem in the summer but in the winter when the ground was covered in snow, filling four or five of buckets and carrying them up to the back door of the house in the freezing cold was a quite miserable chore.

The coalshed had a little window (or rather an opening) that looked out onto an area beyond the walled backyard that we called "the dump". This was where most of the garden waste was left to rot away in order to make compost. There was also a very old, partial stone wall around this dump. About a year or so after we moved into Cranagh Dhu (about 1946) my father, fancying himself as the local squire, had a solid brick stable for a horse built in one corner of the dump. For a while (perhaps about a year) he kept a horse there. When that fad passed (or my father realized how much trouble it was to care for a horse) the horse was returned to the local farmer from whom he had been purchased or leased. The farmer's name was Kielt. The family lived not far from us along the Pound Road and were much more serious about their horse ownership. They had a jumping circuit in one of their fields. Parenthetically I might add that one of the Kielt sons, Eugene, now runs a very nice bed and breakfast just a stone's throw away from "Cranagh Dhu".

In later years the stable became another of our playgrounds and we used it for numerous purposes. I remember one year when there was an outbreak of frogs (there seemed to be frogs everywhere). We gathered up as many of these frogs as we could and corraled them in the stable, attempting to fill the whole floor with writhing frog. It was a quite disgusting sight and, of course, stank to high heaven. However they didn't last there very long; I think my mother discovered what we were doing and opened the door to release a flood of frog.

The stable came into prominence again when we were teenagers. For reasons I cannot recall my father was given four small piglets and decided that it might be fun for my brothers and I to raise these to full-size. The plan was that they would eventually be taken to market and sold. One of the small pigs didn't survive the first winter but the other three made it. They were initially housed in a shed adjacent to the main house since that was a little warmer than the stable. But when they were large enough they were moved to the stable. Even it became barely large enough, for the pigs grew to a surprisingly large size. They were rambunctious beasts to say the least and they had to be fed every morning. Consequently another daily chore to which my brother and I were assigned was the feeding of the pigs. This might sound simple and easy but it was really a disgusting chore, even worse that the coal buckets. First of all we had to mix their food. This consisted of taking a great big bucket, putting some meal in it and then dumping on top of that meal all the food scraps from the previous day. Everything was lumped in there. We then had to add water and mix it up. The only way to do this was by hand for there was no way to turn a stick or ladle in this gooey mulch. Once this disgusting feat was accomplished, we then carried this great bucket down to the stable. Now the pigs, being much smarter than they looked, knew what was coming from yards away and made all kinds of ruckus, banging up against the door and churning around like crazy in the mire that covered the entire floor of this pigsty. It was almost impossible to get in through the door of the stable without getting one's legs coated with muck from the pigs. Great speed and agility were needed to get the bucket of slops dumped into the trough before you sank too far into the manure. That was one chore that we did everything we could to avoid but to no avail. It was a great relief when, in the end, the pigs were sold at market. They fetched a fair sum, something like 150 pounds apiece, a real fortune for us boys. However, after the costs were subtracted we only got a small percentage the proceedings.

   
The MG with wartime headlight covers A cart that was to become a ``cart''

Let me return to the garage and tell a little of the various cars that appeared in it over the years. When my father was young he really fancied an elegant sportscar and, while we still lived in Belfast, he acquired an unusual MG. The story was that it had been used as an army staff car during World War II. I believe my father noticed it in the back of a mechanics garage in Belfast, a garage that was owned by a friend called Stanley Harvey. At the time it was coated in camoflage paint. My father had it refinished and what emerged was a beautiful and elegant soft-top roadster with long flowing lines. My father drove it during the last part of World War II while we still lived in Belfast. Because of the German bombing of that city it had to be equipped with partial shades over the headlights. When we moved to Magherafelt it came with us but, by that time, it had begun to age. About 1948 my father acquired an even fancier car, a black Jaguar sedan that, next to a Rolls Royce, was one of the most elegant cars in the land. The MG was left to decay in the garage, and decay it did. The wheels went flat and other indignities were imposed upon it for we used it for a variety of other playground purposes. Eventually it was sold to a man named Ritchie who lived in Magherafelt. He brought it back to some semblance of roadworthiness though not to its original elegance. Indeed, I hope it still exists somewhere. I often thought it was a great shame that it did not really survive being stored in the garage at Cranagh Dhu.

Sometime during the 1950s it became clear that my mother needed a car and a little, black Morris Eight was purchased for her. I don't remember much of that vehicle even though I must have travelled many miles in it. The only notable recollection I have is of the occasion when my mother was not paying sufficient attention as she sped down our curving driveway and managed to knock the postman off his bicycle. Fortunately he was not seriously hurt.

Eventually the Jaguar suffered the same fate as the MG for, at some point, my father realized that he needed a more practical vehicle for the family and so purchased a Hillman Minx, a small, ordinary coupe that he and my mother drove for some years. The Jaguar, in its turn, was allowed to decay in the garage. Eventually that too was sold though my recollection of what exactly happened to it has faded away. The vehicles that were left in the garage also suffered because, for a significant period of time, my parents kept bantams. These small hens roosted on top of the I-beams in the garage, directly above the cars which were therefore constantly bombarded with bantam shit the whole time they resided in the garage. Moreover we did various things with those vehicles that probably did not do them much good, like jacking them up and then hitting the jack so that the car crashed down to the floor.

Another youthful activity that persisted for a long time was the building of "carts". What we referred to as a cart was built from two sets of old "pram" wheels and axles (a "pram", short for perambulator, was a baby carriage), lots of two by fours and many, many nails. It was basically a wooden soapbox that was steerable but not powered. We would love to have powered them but we had no access to lawn mower engines that might have served that purpose. However, the carts were steerable and we used to race them down the hills around and near the house. Sometimes we would reach what we thought were quite high speeds but they probably did not exceed 15 mph. There were a number of accidents, of course, but no real injuries beyond skinned knees and elbows. The carts were constantly being built and repaired for they were more fragile than we were. Wheels sometimes broke and we would have to scramble around the town dump in order to salvage a new set of wheels.

Cart construction, racing and tricks took up alot of our time and energy. One daring trick that I remember was riding the carts through a rhodedendron bush at the bottom of the front lawn. One side of this bush was over-hanging so that you could aim the cart for that side and, with a little luck, fly all the way through the bush and emerge relatively unscathed on the other side.

Most of our free time was spent in these outdoor activities. They left me with a lifelong desire to explore out beyond the known whether in my wilderness adventures or in my scientific investigations. Each new experience in the natural world or in my intellectual endeavours would simply feed my thirst for more new sights and new concepts. In that respect, my youth was rich indeed and I remember it with great affection.


Last updated 8/1/01.
Christopher E. Brennen