Back in the day when Rushden was no more than a big village, two miles to the west there was a sewage works. It was adjacent to the brook which had made its way through the village centre and so through a couple field lengths to the works, and thence to the river, carrying with it any outfall from the sewage. It was a very efficient system, and no one ever thought of contamination.
As the town grew, and with the proliferation of the ‘bigger is better’ system of ‘big brother-ism’, the works were transferred to a new site, a further mile to the west.
It is the right thing to do, at this point, to make it known that between these two enterprises by the authorities, a further development in the area was that of extraction of gravel, adjacent to the river, as a result of which there is an ugly scar of industrial waste land where once there were water meadows. This is the proposed site of a ‘leisure-cum-market’ area which will benefit the town by taking any trade that might still remain in it.
But this is about those water meadows and it is set in the 1930s when I was growing up in this lovely ‘non-town’ known as an urban district. We lived, that is, we of my family lived in a council house on Irchester Road. We were not rich, but we had a roof over us and we had a garden big enough to supply some of our culinary needs, in season, as did all our neighbours. We knew all of them and had not been out of the first war so long as to be shy of accepting people just popping in to borrow a cup of sugar, for instance.
We had, more than anything in favour, easy access across the fields to Ditchford. Ditchford was OUR beach.
To anyone passing over the 14th century bridge at Ditchford now it would seem impossible for it to have ever been a holiday resort, but to people of my time and age that is exactly what it was. It involved a walk along pig lane, opening to a meadow, and then to a field of mangelwurzels, or wezels as they were called. The next field was, or had been, a stone quarry. Then a field of some crop (usually horse beans) took us to the main road. Had a car or lorry been coming we would have heard it in plenty of time to get out of the way of it, and then would have been clear to cross for at least a lapse of five minutes. We would cross to the start of Ditchford Lane and walk about half a mile to the river, passing a family of Romanies who always camped there when in the district. On the week, usually the first week of August, when the factories ceased work for the annual holidays, those families, that is, most, remaining at home would be in that small popular area.
All were there dads, mums, families of perhaps three or four youngish children, with prams perhaps laden with picnic supplies for a family day out. And it was a day out. The grass would have been cropped by the cows that occupied the field and, if you were at all squeamish about pats of cow dung, the child’s spade could be brought into play to pick it up and deposit it elsewhere, like hurling it to the other bank of the river.
You didn’t foul the holiday side. That side was known as ‘Ankle Bay’ and the very young children could paddle out from the beach. The beach was, in fact, a shoal of gravelly sand quite close to the bridge, deposited by many winters of currents and used by the same cows that cropped the grass for their social drinking. ‘Ankle Bay’, it was, because the water was so shallow as to allow toddlers to paddle safely but it deepened to thigh depth toward the far side, for the use of the more grown up of the youngsters. The really adventurous and brave went for a little way downstream from the bridge, to an area known as “the willows”. There were willows, of course, which gave the part its name, but the point about the willows was that it was slightly away from parental influence, and young people felt free to flirt, smoke, and swim in deeper water. The willow tree, as I recall, provided a good diving board for getting in the river, but was a bit lacking when it came to getting out again. One had to grab a particular overhanging bough and progress hand over hand to the getting-out spot.
When one is at the coast there is a certain odour in the air. You know you are at the seaside by the very air you breathe. It is not a clean smell, nor a rotten smell, but a distinctive smell of coastline.
Well, I’m here to tell you that the same applies to the riverside. Not the same smell, but as I used to get nearer to the river my longing nose could tell me how far I was from that lovely venue. There were no hotdog, spit-rock or ice-cream vendors. The smell was of the rushes and whatever lurked among them. It wasn’t fishy even though I brought home my share of sticklebacks in a jar. Or sometimes a gudgeon, and when I got home I would want to dig a garden pond to house my catch. By the following day when it would be possible to make a dent in the garden, sticklebacks and gudgeon had both bitten the watery equivalent of the dust.
Although there were no ice-cream stalls at Costa Ditchford there was at least a supplier of refreshments. Mr Adams, the crossing keeper whom we promoted to station master, kept a few bottles of fizzy drinks and would sell them by the glassful to our eager selves. He may have stocked the odd bag of crisps too, but we wouldn’t have been able to afford both, even had we sufficient funds for one item. I believe, thinking back, that Mrs Adams may have made jugs of tea for the ladies of the families camped for the day in the field overseen by the station.
The station, a halt really, had a few trains come through each day, and for people at our end of Rushden it was a handy place to catch a train to either Northampton or Peterborough. Mr Adams could stop them by pulling a few levers as the train was due and the possible passenger could leave the little bus-stop type shelter and board the push-pull, single line connection to the mainlines.
Less than half a mile on from the station by road, we could, when we got a bit older, go to the pub at the top of the hill, known as Stone Cross. Nowadays the distance seems so small but in those days, when the only ride was on shanks’ pony, a few steps saved was a bonus. We would debate on the way home whether it was better to cross the fields to Sanders Lodge and thence along Wellingborough Road, or to retrace our steps and follow Ditchford Lane back to Tubby’s fields and Irchester Road.
We would be dog-tired after a day spent thus, but most Rushden people will look back, if they are of an age, and sigh that “Those were, indeed, the days”.
We had our beach complete with sand. The water was reasonably clean or may I stress that most of us lived. We learned to swim, fish in a way, and find our way around without undue supervision. And it all came at the cost of NOTHING! Which is just as well, really. That is about all we had.