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A childhood dream come true

by Eileen Denton

It was last April when I eventually had the opportunity to visit again the area at the eastern end of Winston Avenue in Branksome, Poole, where I had lived as a child in the 1940s and 1950s. In those days this was known as ‘the smallholdings’ and every house stood on a large plot of land which was used for market gardening, poultry farming or rearing medium-sized livestock such as pigs and goats.

At that time the eastern end of Winston Avenue, which now swings north towards houses that were built during the late 1950s and 1960s, finished at the top of the hill. Here it was surrounded on three sides by an expanse of open heathland that dipped down to a stream before rising again to meet the western end of East Avenue. This was our turbary land, provided as a place for the smallholders to graze their animals and collect fuel. In fact, it was rarely used for either of those purposes. Other than Mr Trevitt’s goats, which were habitually to be seen amongst the heather, and one small patch of boggy land on the western slope where somebody had extracted some peat – probably for horticultural purposes rather than fuel – its main uses were as a place to gather animal bedding and as a convenient playground for the smallholders’ children.

The common, as we called it, was the best possible place to play. We shared its open expanse with a wide variety of creatures which were a source of never-ending wonder and delight. Indeed, any child who was privileged enough to spend happy hours on its slopes learnt more about the natural world around them than they ever did in the classroom.

Many were the times when I would set off armed with two sacks and a garden rake to claw the dead blades from the tufts of wiry matgrass which grew in such abundance where the houses now stand. Collecting bedding for the animals in this way was a pleasant task, for the slender yellow blades came away quite easily and my labours were accompanied by the melodic singing of skylarks.

In spring and early summer these birds would nest amongst the grass tufts and occasionally I would discover one of their little bowls of dried grass with its complement of four or five brown-speckled eggs. If you actually went looking for them, they were not so easy to find: the skylarks were far too cunning to betray their location and would run quite some distance along the ground before eventually rising into the air. Sometimes, once my sacks were full, I would spend time just sitting amongst the grass, watching these fascinating birds.

Then came the day when the houses began to be built on the extension to Winston Avenue and the skylarks fled. That day seemed to foreshadow the end for the common. The post-war building boom was in full swing and land was at a premium as the population increased rapidly.

Even with the exodus of the skylarks, there were plenty of interesting birds on the common. The gorse bushes which clothed the upper slope near the end of the road were the haunt of linnets, of bullfinches which made such destructive inroads into the blossoms in the orchard and of stonechats, whose distinctive pebble-clicking song was sometimes accompanied by the demand for ‘a little bit of bread but no cheese’ which announced the presence of a yellowhammer. Then there were the kestrels, which would hover on steadily beating wings before swooping down to grab their prey. In the summer, it was possible to lie in bed at night and listen to the machine-like whirring of the nightjars which perched on the fence-posts bordering the railway lines.

It was not only the birds that made the common such an interesting place. Besides the ubiquitous foxes and rabbits, there were water voles in the copse that bordered the stream in the northern part of the valley. These little creatures, which are to be found nowhere outside mainland Britain, were rarely to be seen, the only indication of their presence being the loud ‘plop’ they made as they left their burrows in the bank to dive into the water in search of caddis fly larvae which augmented a diet of tender underground horsetail stems.

At the time the area which has now been flooded near the southern corner of the fields was a ford with a bed of loose gravel containing some quite large lumps of flint and it was here that a great number of caddis fly larvae were to be found. We would often wade around in the shallow, crystal-clear water, picking up one stone after another in search of the elongated tube made of a mosaic of tiny scraps of stone which the larvae built for protection.

There were other insects present on the common which had very much the same life pattern but did not live in the stream. These were the dragonflies, which preferred to spend the early part of their lives in still water. To these Adolf Hitler had been more than generous. One of the German’s main objectives had been to destroy the viaducts which carried the railway lines. They had not succeeded but their repeated efforts had left the common pock-marked with bomb craters and those near the stream rapidly filled with water. This formed them into small, round ponds which were ideal for the dragonflies and various other aquatic and semi-aquatic creatures. In early spring they became a meeting place for frogs, toads and newts which deposited their eggs in the murky water.

We went fishing, of course, armed with nets and empty jam-jars in which to transport home to a waiting aquarium a mass of frog spawn or a string of eggs left by a toad. We would watch the young tadpoles develop through their various stages until they turned into little adults and had to be returned to the pond. The tadpoles were those of the common frog and the common toad, which appeared to be the only representatives of their kind present on the common but the resident newts were of two varieties: besides the common, or smooth, newt there was also the palmate newt.

As well as its variety of mammals, birds and amphibians, the common also boasted a complete range of British reptiles. During the warmer weather grass snakes, smooth snakes and adders were all to be found basking in the sunshine. The sand lizard was also present and far outnumbered the common lizard. Last but not least, there was the slow worm, which is not a snake but a legless lizard. The reptiles would bask on the bare ground under the electricity pylons which marched across the common.

The days of my childhood came to an end and I went away to college and to a teaching career in Hampshire. I would return often to visit my parents and was encouraged to see that the houses had not encroached any further – yet. In the 1980s my mother died and soon after that, my husband’s work took us away to Scotland. Often in the last sixteen years, my thoughts would return to my childhood wonderland with a mixture of remembered pleasure and pain at the thought of it being swallowed up beneath a maze of suburban dwellings. I was sure that this would have been its fate: the demand for new houses was insatiable and I knew that the conurbation of Poole and Bournemouth was expanding especially quickly.

So when I returned last spring, I expected to find that my childhood playground had vanished without trace. But it had not. As I reached what had once been the end of the road, I found a gate on my right and a sign which read ‘Talbot Heath Nature Reserve’. I could scarcely believe my eyes. Ever since I had watched the first new house being built, I had wished that the common could be preserved for the wild creatures I loved. Now my childhood wish had come true.

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