These days, sooner or later, we would have caught the attention of some over-zealous police officer and been fined either for dangerous cycling or for carrying two people on an improperly adapted bike. When there are reports of people being pulled over for carrying children on purpose-built cargo bikes which look like wheelbarrows with pedals, my dad’s primitive crossbar seat would never have made the grade. Not to mention the absence of cycle helmets. No one had ever heard of them then. They would have been ridiculous.
Simple no-frills bicycle crossbar seats for children are a bit like effective garden sprays, oil-based paints, wood preserver tablets and non-crepuscular light bulbs – you can’t get them any more. You can buy elaborate crossbar chairs costing an eye-watering hundred pounds or more, with moulded plastic seats, an integral back, a safety belt and bucket-style foot wells, and there are cheaper ones at around twenty pounds, but even they have a back frame and safety strap. What you can't find is a basic crossbar seat like my dad used to have. The health and safety people have made sure of that.
My dad's Heath-Robinson contraption was little more than a padded seat-shaped piece of wood fixed to the crossbar by a pipe-clamp, with a metal bar on the down tube to act as a foot rest. It certainly wasn’t BS EN 14344 compliant, if indeed such a standard had existed in those days, but I sat on it quite safe and happy, hands on the handlebars, fully aware I must not under any circumstances take my feet off the footrests and put them near the front wheel. My main concern, as I saw it, was not to get my fingers nipped by the brake rods which, before cable brakes became ubiquitous, had pincer-like stoppers in front of the handlebars.
“We’re just off out for a blow,” my dad would tell my mother, and away we went. Sometimes it was a couple of miles to a village pub which had seats outside at the back where he brought his pint of beer and some lemonade for me. Next door over a fence were some allotments. He told me how one of them had once been his dad’s, and how they used to grow their own vegetables and work it together as a family on Sunday afternoons and summer evenings before the war. It sounded fun. I wished we had an allotment ourselves.
Sometimes we went to the river bank to watch the ships coming up and going away on the tide. He told me his grandpa used to be a captain, and how sometimes as a boy he went on the train to Hull to join his grandpa’s ship to sail back on the bridge up river to Goole. How wonderful to be able to go on the bridge of a ship with your grandpa as the captain.
On other days we went to the docks to see ships being manoeuvred in or out of the locks, which involved thunderous horns, splashing anchors, creaking fenders, taut ropes, urgent bells and vital shouts. He explained the signals the ships gave to warn other shipping of their intentions: one long blow of the horn for going ahead; three longs for going astern; one long and four shorts for swinging round on the anchor. I was always terrified of the violent turbulence in the water as the locks filled and emptied. You can get hardly anywhere near there now - metal security fencing bars your way.
Further around the river bank were the remains of an old First World War shipyard, where ships had been built for only a few years, but the old decaying jetties and overgrown slipways could still clearly be seen and explored.
There was a place next to the railway line where we watched long trains of coal wagons slowly limp past, or the express ‘fish train’ on its way non-stop to the London markets leaving in its wake a distinctive, lingering, smoky wet fishiness. The luxurious Yorkshire Pullman would pass through with cream and umber coaches all bearing names, with shaded table lamps next to curtained windows. It made a fine contrast to the grubby two-coached local ‘push and pull’ and the shunters from the docks. My dad could identify all the different locomotives: the ‘Austerity’ WD 2-8-0s pulling goods trains, the K3 2-6-0s and B1 4-6-0s on passenger trains, the local 0-4-4 tank engine and the 0-4-0 ‘pugs’. Favourite for us both were the D49 4-4-0s named after counties. He also knew the locomotive headlamp codes – the arrangement of the oil lamps on the front of the engine – which indicated the kind of train it was. A stopping passenger train would have just one central lamp at the top, an express passenger two lamps above the buffers, and the Royal Train, not that we ever saw it, had a unique four lamp headcode.
Another destination was the town cemetery where my dad changed the flowers on his mother’s grave and conducted me on tours of the other family resting places. Great Granddad and Great Grandma Dunham’s white marble plot shone out almost alone where most of its neighbours had either fallen down or never had a headstone in the first place. Even after all this time I could still take you to them all.
Occasionally, we called to see some of the just about still living relatives on the way to wherever we were heading. One lived with his wife in a house by the river, and they always made us cheerfully welcome with orange juice and home made cakes or biscuits.
Another frequent visit was to my dad’s grandpa, the captain, who could often be found on a bench in the garden, a red ensign hoisted to the top of his immaculate white painted flag pole. He had a long radio aerial strung from the top of the pole to the house so he could pick up communications between ships at sea. He had been a hard man at sea, and although now he was more cantankerous than hard, he showed no sympathy when I got my head stuck through the bars at the back of his bench.
One of my dad’s uncles had been a bank manager and lived with his daughter and son-in-law in a large and ostentatiously-named house with fine furnishings. There were no grandchildren, and they obviously disliked having any other dirty children in the house. Even at a young age, I sensed they considered themselves our social superiors.
Another great aunt ruled her household from her armchair like a tyrant, forbidding her retired husband from remaining at home during the day, refusing to countenance “old men sitting around in the house”. He wasn’t bothered. He could sometimes be found in the garden having a crafty smoke and mocking his father-in-law’s red ensign visible a few houses away across the snicket – he always referred to him as ‘old Hindenburg’. Meanwhile, my great aunt did sit around the house with swollen legs while her unmarried son went out to earn the money, and her daughter, whose marriage had broken down under tragic circumstances, cleaned and shopped in skivvying servitude until driven to an early death from heart failure. The house had an oppressive, opprobrious atmosphere, and I was always glad when visiting was over and I could climb back on to my dad’s crossbar and escape.
|The sprawling weed-strewn sand pit at the local park, 1954|
But our best destination was the local park which, in the days before their removal was necessitated by broken glass, dog dirt and other consequences of negligence, indifference and gratuitous vandalism, had a sprawling, weed-strewn sand pit and sizeable yachting lake. I preferred bucket and spade in the sand, but my dad undoubtedly took me there to sail our toy yacht on the ‘park pond’ as he called it. That was his playtime as much as mine. He would set the sails, push it off from one side of the lake, and then walk round to collect it at the other. Sometimes it would stay in the middle for ages, blown first one way, then the other, and then become becalmed in the doldrums.
One day the pond had been drained for cleaning leaving only a couple of inches of water. I took off my shoes and socks for a paddle, slipped flat on my back, and we had to go straight home. On another occasion when the water was low, we set a clockwork launch to cross, but it sank in the middle. My dad waded in to get it, the water splish sploshing over the tops of his boots. Back home, he left it on the mantlepiece to dry. The next day, when he was at work, my mother was startled to see a tiny frog watching her from the cabin of the boat. It frightened her so much she had to run for a neighbour to deal with it.
Eventually I learned to ride my own two-wheeler and followed behind, my place on the crossbar seat taken by my brother. It was never the same again.