This is a specially revised 2017 version of the third post published on this website, originally shared with the wider world on April 18th, 2012, adapted to mark the fifth anniversary of writewyattuk.com. Time flies, eh.
Being smug is rarely a good thing, but I have to admit that was the over-riding emotion after a trawl through the National Trust’s 50 Things To Do Before You’re 11 ¾ list.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a superb idea and I’m all for this latest generation of couch potatoes getting off their PlayStation consoles/arses and doing something in the Great Outdoors. But there’s not much new for my own children to tick off there, so it won’t take them too long to complete the list. As for myself and my own misspent youth, let’s just try and recall how I did.…
1.Climb a tree. I think I spent a great deal of my youth either climbing trees or falling out of them. There have been a few rescues since for my daughters, but thankfully I haven’t needed to climb up there myself to retrieve them. You see, I’m not quite as dextrous as I was, and height (somewhat ironically) has always been a problem for this 6ft 4in colossus.
2. Roll down a really big hill. You’re not fully British until you’ve had to wipe dog, cow or sheep shit off a handed-down jumper, or landed in a patch of nettles or thistles. My youngest daughter sported a pin-cushion look after a recent rolling incident on the North Downs. She’ll thank me for introducing her to such experiences one day though, I’m sure.
3. Camp out in the wild. I still have nightmares of a lads’ holiday on the Isle of Wight which involved lots of after-midnight talk of mad axemen roaming the Downs, fittingly enough while camped on National Trust land (illegally, he adds quietly). I won’t name the location, and wouldn’t recommend it anyway. There was the mother of all vertical climbs for a start. In comparison, my girls’ early experiences in the back garden hardly count, even if there are a couple of evil cats on our street, and a few swooping bats.
4. Build a den. I’m proud to say my girls had that ticked off before pre-school, and I feel sorry for anyone who never had chance to commandeer a grandparent’s dining table or clothes-horse. For me it no doubt involved re-enacted Second World War battles, overcoming considerable survival odds under imaginary fire.
5. Skim a stone. Now that’s something I could bring myself to compete in at national level, for sure. Reckon my dad was a potential world champion too. Rumour has it that on a couple of occasions Townsend Thoresen ferries on the Solent needed to alter course accordingly. Respect.
6. Run round in the rain. I have good memories of my girls doing this during a wet weekend in Suffolk. Not sure they quite got the general idea of a raindance being to invoke precipitation though. A couple of weeks later they got over the worst of their colds. Ironically, Mums in the 60s and ’70s generally suggested doing something unlikely would make it rain. Not to be confused with doing anything that might affect your eyesight, of course.
7. Fly a kite. I seem to have spent far too many hours in the untangling process with this pastime. And it always seemed to involve a freak gale and resultant wild swoop that had the potential to take out other small children. ‘Paramedics be aware’ is not a bad rider here.
8. Catch a fish with a net. My girls can definitely tick off crabbing and tiddling, whereas for me on the River Tillingbourne it was a case of ‘I’ve caught something – what should I do now?’ ‘Well, for a start you’ll have to come out from behind that tree, lad’.
9. Eat an apple straight from a tree. I remember the resultant bellyache well. Again though, it’s all part of growing up and being British. Finding a worm in there was always a treat too, particularly if discovered with your teeth.
10. Play conkers. I never really got this, particularly when it came to all those psychos/ geeks (there’s a thin line sometimes) who baked them or soaked the buggers in vinegar especially. Oh, the pain on the knuckles. I haven’t tried this with my girls. I fear tears would come too easily.
11. Throw some snow. I can still feel the grit and stones in the mix. A far better game played as a doting Dad with two small daughters, I might add, with no dastardly boys involved and less chance of a resultant trip to A & E.
12. Hunt for treasure on the beach. I must have been among the first generation of kids who witnessed fully-grown men combing beaches with metal detectors. Mind you, if they ever find that watch I lost at Coogee Bay, Sydney, one drunken night in 1990 …
13. Make a mud pie. Glorious, in a bizarre kind of way. Never quite tasted like the Mississippi dessert version though.
14. Dam a stream. I’ve clearly tried to blot this out of my memory, but feel sure I must have caused some kind of ecological disaster as a child, on rivers and beaches. Not to be encouraged, I’d suggest.
15. Go sledging. Splendid memories, to a point. Then there were the long hours trying to bring yourself round after the accident. Better memories date from secondary school in Guildford, around a dozen of us clinging grimly on to Jimmy Maskery’s escargot (don’t ask), getting dizzy from spinning the canvas, like a modern play on the Ant Hill Mob, taking turns to be in front and hit each sharp boulder on our downward path. Fantastic.
16. Bury someone in the sand. I only managed to get out of a couple of the holes Dad wedged me into around two hours later, the tide lapping at my chin by then. As for the sand-in-the-undies irritation factor involved, let’s not even go there. That said, it hasn’t stopped me burying my own children on UK beaches.
17. Set up a snail race. Definitely a boy thing. Most of us never had the patience to see a race out, mind, and there were lads in my year who were more likely to try eating the gastropods in question for a bewilderingly-small bet.
18. Balance on a fallen tree. I can almost hear the crack of rotten branches now. More cuts and bruises. Badges of courage, I guess.
19. Swing on a rope swing. That’s me there now, in my mind’s eye, flying across the river, out-stretched arms clasped on to a roped branch wrapped around a giant oak tree overhanging the stream. That’s not to say I didn’t land in the nettles a few times. I thought I’d died at one point. Then the first red lumps from the stings appeared on my bare legs and arms, the pain setting in, and suddenly I wished I was a goner after all.
20. Make a mud slide. Most of us saved this for football or rugby pitches, if I remember right, rarely with a shower to jump into after. Refer to No.2 (so to speak) for comment about cow, dog or sheep shit involved.
21. Eat blackberries growing in the wild. Refer to No.9 for note about bellyache, and add a parental caution about irremovable fruit stains on clothes. In those days most of the resultant scrubbing was done at the sink with a bar of soap probably long since banned, amid muttered apologies to Mum.
22. Take a look inside a tree. Did I ever tell you about the day I was attacked by a woodpecker? Spiders galore too. It looked so much more fun when Christopher Robin did it in the Hundred Acre Wood.
23. Visit an island. I’m guessing the Isle of Man or Isle of Wight by ferry don’t count? And don’t dare ask my better half about the day I took her on a long walk in 100-plus degrees on the Bodrum peninsula of Turkey, looking forlornly for the Lost Island of Mindos. Good memories of sailing out – Swallows and Amazons style – in more recent times to the middle of Ullswater though.
24. Feel like you’re flying in the wind. Most of the photos from my youth suggested this happened a lot. Bad hair days we call them now. A head of hair like a tornado-struck hedge at times. Altogether now, ‘Help! Help! Here come the bears … it’s the Hairbear Bunch!’
25. Make a grass trumpet. Not forgetting of course to cut your thumb or forefinger with the appropriately-named blade in question. Proust would be proud of the fact that I can still conjure up that feeling of pain to this day.
26. Hunt for fossils and bones. Most of my early holidays were spent on the South Coast, yet I’m not sure I ever found much more than tar and discarded-over-the-side-of-a-boat oil in the ’70s. Another bad day for Mum, back at the sink, scrubbing with that killer soap again.
27. Watch the sun wake up. If like me your Dad did shiftwork and made as much noise at stupid o’clock, this was never really that much of a challenge. I’ve been known to get up just as early myself these days, if only so I can say to my kids, ‘You’ve missed the best of the day’ when they head downstairs.
28. Climb a huge hill. You just can’t beat that feeling of reaching the highest point for miles around, only to find there’s a far bigger hill nearby blocking your view. There’s probably a name for that realisation process in Danish or German. They have some of the best words.
29. Get behind a waterfall. My other half thought this was actually ‘go behind a waterfall’ and admitted she had. It’s the gushing sound that does it, I should imagine. I’ve definitely got behind one myself though, risking life and limb as the slippery, moss-caked stone is nothing short of a death-trap.
30. Feed a bird from your hand. That would have gone down so well with my Mum, who freaked out somewhat whenever a blackbird mistakenly flew into the house. I do recall the occasional sparrow or pair of little tits (stop it) that hit the window and were stunned long enough to be nursed back to health though.
31. Hunt for bugs. Yeah, and then set fire to them with a magnifying glass, I seem to recall. Boys really are horrible sometimes. I have pondered before now whether all the evil in today’s world is related to suburban ant massacres of years gone by.
32. Find some frogspawn. Disgusting of course, but surely that’s the point. Not to be confused with the similar consistency of wallpaper paste, which was often left on the side of a pasting table to catch me out during school holidays, courtesy of my Mum and godmother Ellen, both demons for decorating.
33. Catch a butterfly in a net. Chased a few of these in my time, but rarely with a net. Of course, real lads wouldn’t have been caught butterfly-collecting, and I still have chills thinking about Morrissey’s take on the idea, as voiced in The Smiths’ Reel Around The Fountain.
34. Track wild animals. A fair bit of this went on around my old manor, yet we never seemed to catch up with the elusive Surrey Puma. Anyway, no doubt like most televised versions of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles any resultant find would have been a let-down.
35. Discover what’s in a pond. Of course, the best way was to fall in it first, then empty your wellies or trainers after the event. I can still feel and hear that resultant sloshing sound, a heady mixture of murky water, sodden sock and stagnant stink.
36. Call an owl. A good way to lose your scalp from a couple of well-placed talons at night, I should imagine. These days I’d be happier doing it by blowing over the top of a bottle of real ale.
37. Check out the crazy creatures in a rock pool. Spoken like an animated geography or biology teacher. Reminds me of a Texan called Kirk I met on my world travels. When myself and two Scottish lads introduced him to the wonder of barnacles clinging on to rocks on the east coast of Australia, catching them unaware with a swift shove, his eyes went wild and he exclaimed, “Wow! Them dudes move!”
38. Bring up a butterfly. Back to Morrissey and No. 33 again? Who knows. Is this like fostering? Or is there some unsavoury notion here involving having to eat it first? Answers on a postcard.
39. Catch a crab. Steady with your memories there. I’m guessing the word ‘nipper’ features prominently in both definitions. As half-mentioned, my girls have been known to happily sit at the water’s edge, Mudeford Quay and Swanage spring to mind, with plastic buckets at their side, crabbing lines and weights in front of them, the blogger unable to concentrate on his book lest they slip and fall off the quayside.
40. Go on a nature walk at night. Back to those owls again, plus of course the twisted ankles and – on guided walks – the feeling that you’re extremely unlikely to discover anything wild what with the noise, with so many of you are trudging along paths and talking in loud whispers to each other. Pointless, but kinda fun.
41. Plant it, grow it, eat it. I largely saved this experience for my girls, and their green-fingered mum. The fact that I was a fairly fussy eater as a boy wouldn’t have helped. I like the idea now more than when I was a kid. I did work in a farm shop as a teenager though, and that included trips out to the owner’s fields to dig up spuds and cabbages in the dead of winter. So I was at least part of the supply chain.
42. Go wild swimming. Hypothermia is a key word here, although today’s generation probably wouldn’t contemplate such wildness without a wet-suit or dry-suit. Why am I also thinking of skinny-dipping? And at what age did that became chunky-dunking? We never called it wild swimming of course. We knew it as swimming.
43. Go rafting. Dedicated to anyone who’s dressed up as a woman (usually as some bizarre pantomime dame) for a charity regatta. All in a good cause of course.
44. Light a fire without matches. For some reason an image emerges of young lads trying to light their own farts. I was a cub scout for a while, but wanted to be a punk rocker then, not work for badges to sew on to my sleeves. We rarely needed those skills anyway, not when Dad was around. A steam loco fireman in his younger days, he’d work wonders with our coal fire or back garden bonfires (often timed perfectly for when the old lady next door had her washing out).
45. Find your way with a map and a compass. I’ve been lost enough times in the past to tick this one off with confidence. Of course, today’s kids haven’t got a clue and need a wi-fi signal or some form of gadgetry. ‘No thanks,’ I say, ‘I’m perfectly capable of getting lost on my own’.
46. Try bouldering. A short way of saying, ‘Try slipping in inappropriate footwear and giving yourself friction burns on your knees or gashing your head then waiting for the RNLI or Mountain Rescue to find you’. I quite enjoyed a bit of coastal rock-climbing in my youth, in a scary way when I look back. But let’s face it, it’s mostly for idiots.
47. Cook on a campfire. Sorry, it’s the baked bean scene from Blazing Saddles that’s in my mind now. But you haven’t really lived until you’ve nearly killed yourself with a sausage char-grilled to buggery on the outside yet still pink in the middle.
48. Try abseiling. See No.46. I still get palpitations thinking back to trying this out on an activity holiday at Calshot Spit as a 12-year-old. I quite enjoyed the descent actually, but hated the wait at the top as others brazenly threw themselves off the edge or nonchalantly peered over while my stomach churned.
49. Find a geocache. Some new-fangled version of orienteering or treasure-hunting, methinks. We did a bit of orienteering at school, mind. It would have to be a good prize at the end anyway. Maybe a pint of real ale would entice me these days.
50. Canoe down a river. Now you’re talking. Whether it was the afore-mentioned Tillingbourne stream or where Southampton Water met the Solent in my youth, or later with my girls in the Lakes, where my better half’s brother ran an outdoor pursuits centre. Even capsizing done properly is fun, which is handy if you’re ever caught out by the wash from one of those Townsend Thoresen ferries altering course (see No.5). Backache will surely follow though, and for some reason I’ve just remembered the day I caught a dead fish on my paddle. But at least I didn’t have to take the hook out of its mouth before throwing it back in. Happy days, eh.
For the National Trust’s spin on the same subject, follow this link.
To all those who’ve popped back to this site from time to time over the last five years, thanks for your on-going support. For those visiting for the first time, where have you been? Seriously though, the author is happy to have you on board. Now, buckle up one and all – we’ve got many more rivers to cross … probably on dodgy rope swings. Meanwhile, the author is available for all manner of paid commissions. Just get in touch via this website. Cheers. Now carry on.