Handsworth and Beyond by Paul Holmes

'Quick! Quick!' Kate and Carol came charging out of the bushes. 'There's a man in there waggling his willy.'

We all ran for a closer look but in the fading light we only managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of a figure beating a hasty retreat. Disappointed at missing the display, we carried on with our ferreting.

I don't know how old I was at the time but this was my earliest recollection of a visit to what was known as Hill Top. My elder sister, Kate, had organised the expedition to gather old birds' nests for some nature project she was doing at school.

They say that young children being confronted by a pervert in such circumstances can have a lasting effect on them. Well it did. But only later - probably twenty years later, when it dawned on us that he was a flasher and we were naïve. Now, we still laugh about it.

As a little scally from Winson Green, once I'd been introduced to the magnificence of the vast open countryside surrounding Handsworth, it acted like a magnet on me. As a diversion from Black Patch Park, playing on the railway bank or Smethwick canal, we would catch the number eleven to the end of Rookery Road. From there we would walk down Oxhill Road, passed the Uplands and up the lane to Hill Top farm. At the T-junction we would turn left and on to the old gun site. This is a quite substantial relic of WWII, where a large anti-aircraft battery was located. It consists of a massive concrete circle (presumably where the battery was sited), surrounded by huge reinforced concrete structures, about the size of small garages, where ammunition must have been stored. There were also concrete bunkers built into the ground. I can only surmise that they were where the gun crews could shelter if under attack. The whole area, as you can imagine, formed the perfect adventure playground, where occasionally, you could still find the odd bit of a shell, or even live 303 rifle round.

Additional note:

In the 1980s during a council area rejuvenation scheme it was found that several of the local houses had had their roofs repaired with the odd asbestos slate. It was discovered that these repairs had been done by the Ministry of Defence (or whatever it was during the war), as a result of dud shells or debris falling on the houses. Special covered skips had to be employed to accommodate these slates before disposal.

But the attractions didn't end there. Continuing a little way before turning left, between the cultivated fields, brought us to Park Lane (where we had first encountered the flasher). Here we had a choice of either crossing the tarmac road and taking the path (now know as the Hawks Trail) towards the pig farm. For some strange reason the owner never liked us playing with his animals so we weren't always very welcome there. Our other choice was to turn right towards where Park Lane continued into Forge Lane and terminated at Newton Road. That was quite a stretch and we'd seldom get that far because the greatest attraction of all lay before the end. Yes. The old colliery and Wasson (Wassen? Wassan?) - officially Swan Pool.

When young and being shepherded by my older sisters, we didn't do much other than pond-dipping, climbing the slag heaps and exploring the "marches" at the far end of the pool. It was said that Wasson Pool was bottomless - nobody had ever been able to establish how deep it was. But at this far end (close to the present motorway footbridge), trees grew out of the shallows. Kate, the eldest and expedition leader scared us to death with tales of snakes crocodiles and other terrible beasts that haunted these shallows. The only way, she told us; to get through them safely was to tread carefully from exposed root to exposed root. But, if so much as the end of a toe slipped into the water it was sure to be snapped of by some evil creature lurking, ready to pounce.

Tired and hungry, we would invariably make our way back via a different route. From Hill Top farm, instead of turning right towards Oxhill Road, we would carry straight on towards Silvercroft Avenue. On the right on leaving the fields was Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted. It doesn't take much to guess why we called it this. Yes. There it was, like a red rag to a bull, a notice protecting the private allotments. The draw of knowing that beyond the fence and the threatening notice was too much for us. That illusive small pool containing probably the best community of frogs and newts in England, if not the world and it was too much to resist. The majority of times we managed to collect our specimens unhindered. When we did get caught, we'd be relegated to catching what we could from the stream on the legitimate side of the fence at the bottom of Silvercroft Avenue.

On these excursions, although I didn't get up to half the things I did later, there was one instance at least when we really took our lives in our hands.

Now Kate was a risk-taker. She was the only scally in Winson Green who would walk the handrail of a canal bridge backwards. So, it was one hard winter when she suggested we should meet the challenge of the weather in the open countryside. We took off equipped with the ultimate survival apparel, wellies on our feet and old socks on our hands for gloves. Trekking through maybe two and a half feet of snow across Hill Top was risky enough for a band of little kids. But, once there, she convinced us that Wasson Pool was frozen hard enough for it to be safe to navigate on foot. Such was the trust we had in our leader we did it without incident or feeling the slightest bit scared.

When I formed my own circle of friends I spent even more time enjoying the delights of rural living.

Older people talked about seeing the pit ponies being brought up from the mines for a week or so every year for some fresh air. Apparently they had to be blindfolded and only gradually introduced to natural sunlight. I have no recollection of that. In fact I can't remember the old colliery ever being fully operational. I think they must've been just winding it down by the time I began to take an interest. What I can remember is a cable railway system bringing spoil from the mine to dump on the top of the slagheap. As each of the continuous line of trucks reached the summit, some mechanical device would tilt the truck on its bogie to empty the load before beginning the decent. One of our pastimes was to hitch a lift on a truck to the top, being sure to jump off before being discharged with the cargo. It was a sort of game of chicken; seeing who would stay on the longest. At the top of the slag heap the wind would swirl up great clouds of coal dust that would leave you like you'd just finished a shift at the coal face. One thing I've never understood is why so much of the spoil would be smouldering. You had to be careful about this or you could wind up with melting wellies. The decent on the tip was even more treacherous than the ascent - struggling to maintain a grip in the loose spoil with our fire-damaged Dunlops.

At the bottom we explored the derelict engine house, other industrial building and mine entrances, collecting all sorts of trophies along the way. They could consist of anything from old pick and shovels to leather miners' helmets, oil lamps and circular, metal water canteens.

In summer, if you'd got we'd remembered our togs, we'd take a nice refreshing dip to wash away the worst of the dust. Far from washing us clean, the dust would turn to a black paste, enhanced and added to by more particles suspended in the water. Out we'd come like dipsticks from an old engine in dire need of an urgent decoke. For added amusement, there was an old raft fabricated from mineshaft props floating about. I have no idea who first launched it - it had always been there. The favourite trick was to swim under it whilst it was being punted by a load of clothed dipsticks, and turn it over. Of course, we weren't always on the winning side.

There was one incident that indicated that perhaps Kate's stories of fierce creatures lurking in the shallows didn't seem to be such an exaggeration after all. It was my mate, Norm who fell victim (we think) to a monster. I was halfway across the pool with Norm in my wake when I suddenly heard a lot of splashing, thrashing and yelling. I looked around to see Norm disappearing into the murky depths. My heart was in mouth until he surfaced again with an expression of anguish and pain. With great difficulty we managed to reach the nearest bank. A quick examination revealed a nasty gash to his torso and he complained about being dragged under.

It was no secret that Wasson Pool was inhabited by some of the largest pike in England. Whether Norm had fell foul of one of these or whether he's merely got caught up in a lump of mine debris, was never established, but he was rather reluctant to go swimming there again. He considered the canal to be a much safer venue.

Additional Note:

Relatively recently there have been reports of a caiman or small crocodilian creature being seen in Swan Pool. It's thought that it is most likely to be an exotic pet, discarded when it grew to large for the owner's convenience. But could it be a long thought extinct creature that has inhabited the depths of this bottomless pool since time immemorial?

Getting bikes made our journeys into the wilds a lot easier. We no longer had to endure the indignity of being turned off the number eleven because of our slack-covered appearance. Although, to be honest, it was usually Bess, my dog, that the conductors took exception to once she'd slithered down the slagheap. And, I suppose, rolling in horse muck didn't make her any more appealing to them either.

My transport was rapid death on two wheels. It cost me a pound off Norm - bloody robber! He only sold it too me `cos he was too scared to ride it himself. My aspirations of being a Reg Harris were thwarted when I hit a cow head on, close to Hill Top farmhouse.

I was howling down the lane and despite the wonky steering, managed to make the blind bend. There I was confronted by a line of cows crossing my path on the way to be milked confronted me.Brakes.Brakes. Brakes full on but with no blocks they weren't exactly effective. Swerve. Swerve. No good!. The handlebars twisted but the wheels kept straight on. Crash! "Moooooo!!". Sod it! I'm a gonna. Aaaah!

I wound up in a heap, semi conscious, with the bike wrapped around my neck and the miserable old farmer standing over me reading the riot act. Well he didn't get away with it. To get my own back I took my wrecked, rusty steed, planted it in his hedge and walked home. So he was left with the trouble of disposing of it. Ha, ha, that taught him to mess with me!

However, the loss of my transport did cause some inconvenience. If I couldn't secret some of my pocket money away, it meant I would have to walk all the way to Hill Top from Winson Green. Well, I couldn't very well ask the folks for the bus fare to wag of school around Wasson Pool, could I? So, I got together a few scrap bits and built myself another dream machine. It had ape-hanger handlebars, a fixed wheel (never saw the advantage of them but they were very much in vogue at the time) and luxury over luxury, brake blocks fitter in the callipers. With my new transport, the world was at my pedals. Not only could I take off to Wasson whenever the urge took me (usually when we'd got maths with Mr Berryman), I could journey further afield - all the way to the Bluebell Woods down by Hamstead Village.

That was a beautiful spot, right on the banks of the River Tame. In spring when the whole area was covered in. yes, you've got it, a blanket of small blue flowers, you could forget that the river was sixty percent effluent. But the prettiness wasn't what attracted us. No. It was the thrills and spills of the cycle track that had been forged through the rough terrain. This could be even more testing for machine and rider than the Soap Hole in Winson Green. Another attraction was the cave. Because there was only a tiny entrance in the sandy clay cut into the bank of the river, the cave could only be entered by crawling in on your belly. Once in it gradually opened up as it spiralled into the ground. At its termination standing up was no problem. Crawling in and sitting there chatting by the light of a candle was wonderful, I think. (Or were we just easily amused?)

One incident I recall at this location involved a couple of the lads indulging in a bit of horseplay on a narrow bridge across the river. It resulted in Timmy falling into the swirling torrents of. God knows what! Eventually we managed to rescue him and his bike, but had nothing to do with him all the way home, as he smelt like a mangy sewer rat.

 Although the Bluebell Woods was aesthetically more pleasing that Hill Top and Wasson, the latter still remained my favourite venue. So much so that when I first became attractive (yes, NOT attracted) to girls, I took one of them up there to share all the pleasures with her. She was totally under-whelmed by it all. Bloody ingrate! She was the sort that saw a day out as being a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, or some other place equally devoid of culture.

Of course, she wasn't the only one. Look what the planners have done to it now: Levelled and landscaped the slag heaps into a nature reserve, filled in the shafts and torn down all those lovely industrial buildings. Even the pool is now used for poncy leisure activities like boating, fishing and windsurfing. The only bit of pleasure I got from a recent visit was seeing a young paddler coming out of the pool with his legs blackened by the wet residue of a time long past.

Paul Holmes©2004

Return to top >>