Memory Lane: Day I almost blew us up...

Fisher's Field and (below), reader Bernard Fawl.
Fisher's Field and (below), reader Bernard Fawl.
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LOOKING at Fisher’s Field, bordering St Annes Road and Highfield Road, South Shore, Bernard Fawl admits he chuckles and shivers in equal measure about the day he almost blew up himself, along with childhood pal Jimmy Evans.

Here, Bernard shares his recollections:

Bernard Fawl

Bernard Fawl

I hope that the problems caused by stone-throwing teenagers on Fisher’s Field last year have been resolved so that the site can revert to its near-iconic status (matching that of Bispham Gala Field) as a place where youngsters, families and friends can build a store of happy memories to last them through life. Long may it continue.

I have mixed but still-vivid memories of Fisher’s Field. Early in 1942, when I was nine, doctors told my parents I was too poorly to attend school and that unless I got lots of greens, fresh air and sunshine in addition to medical attention I would not live to see 30. The prescription cancelled out the prediction but now, at 79, I look back and recall an occasion when Fisher’s Field very nearly became the setting for my even earlier demise.

Having achieved every schoolboy’s dream, my playground for nearly three years became the whole of Marton Moss and South Shore including the sands and sandhills - and Fisher’s Field! - and as I grew stronger I explored every part of it. The occasional bobby on his beat and the school attendance officer soon learned to ignore me and I was almost literally as free as the wind to wander where I wished.

Fisher’s Field was very different in those days. It was the “Dig for Victory!” era of the Second World War and the half of the field nearest St Annes Road was given over to allotments; the other half, bounded by barbed wire on four sides (easily negotiated), housed an anti-aircraft gun emplacement, although the gun had been removed quite early in the war and presumably reinstalled where it was more needed. The concrete bunker that remained (located roughly where the centre circle of the football pitch nearest the community centre is today) stank abominably and I never saw anybody venture inside it. The grass grew long over all, and the occasional bushes and trees growing wild along the dyke on the east side of the field provided replacements for broken catapult stocks and wood for the fires I often made (and carefully put out an hour before the blackout started, though occasionally reminded by the said bobby!). However, neither I nor Paddy (a mongrel dog – my companion and protector throughout those years – belonging to family friends who lived opposite the field) ever succeeded in ‘bagging’ a rabbit to augment the meat ration and I never had to face the problem of how I would share it with him if we did.

But I never took Paddy on my excursions along the sands, or among the sandhills south of Starr Gate – again, an area then much different from what it is today. The army had taken over Squires Gate Holiday Camp (later Butlins, later still the late, much-lamented, Pontins) and had constructed a rifle range of up-ended railway sleepers opposite the barracks, high up on the remaining sandhills fifty yards from the high tide mark and barbed-wire barrier, clearly visible from Clifton Drive North across the great hollow where the sandhills had been scooped out (to deny seaborne enemy forces cover, it was said, and to provide mortar for the rebuilding greatly needed elsewhere). The hollow no longer exists and the sandhills, re-created naturally with wind-blown sand, now tower above the roadway. (But the first 100 metres or so of today’s sandhills have foundations of household rubbish and builders’ waste.)

I always made for the rifle range whenever the red warning flags were taken down and the soldiers returned to their barracks, leaving the area once more open to the general public. On my first visit I found two live bullets and eventually had a collection of eleven, the largest of which I later learned during my national service in the Royal Navy some years later were for a Lee-Enfield 303, the standard British service rifle. The five smaller ones, I believe, were for a sten gun (“accurate up to 5 yards – in good light” our petty officer gunnery instructor lugubriously informed us), which I learned to take apart and reassemble but never fired.

These cartridges became the most treasured possessions of my young life, and I hid them carefully in my hiding place on the shelves above the coal in the coal-place by the back door of our council house until I decided what to do with them.

In November 1944 I was considered well enough to return to school, and I did so. The Second World War ended on VJ Day in the summer of 1945 and the thoughts of everyone turned to celebration, and then to Guy Fawkes Day – the first in seven years! – with its accompanying bonfires and fireworks. But fireworks were unobtainable! And so I conceived a plan to have my own private bonfire party on Fisher’s Field, in daylight for safety’s sake, and for secrecy’s sake I invited only my best pal and classmate, Jimmy Evans, who was the fourth (and the only boy) of seven siblings.

We built a fire of dried grass and twigs, on top of which I formed a strong cradle of branches and then, when mainly red embers and the cradle were left, I placed a stout cardboard box on top with about six of the bullets inside, taking care to keep the box flat and making sure that the cartridges remained pointing away from us towards the gun emplacement. Then we stood back, waiting for the rising heat and flames to cause the bullets to explode. But it took much longer than we had expected; the branches burned unevenly, the embers settled haphazardly this way and that and the bullets consequently pointed in all directions; but, by diligently poking them with a stick I managed to return them to their positions pointing safely away from us and – though the firing process must have taken all of five minutes from first to last – the bullets went off one by one with satisfying cracks and simply disappeared!

When the embers cooled we searched through them and the ground around them but failed to find a single cartridge case or bullet. It wasn’t until several decades later that it dawned on me that according to Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion (“Every action has an equal and opposite reaction”) the cartridge cases would have shot backwards as fast as the bullets sped forwards – and surely, with two targets and six chances the odds of us escaping unharmed seemed impossibly low. (Maybe worse still, without the constraint of a breech the cases could have broken up into bits of shrapnel and shredded our young bodies!) Whatever the odds, we survived, unaware of our escape.

A couple of weeks later, not having seen Jimmy since the “party”, I called at his house. The door was opened by his sister, Margaret, a year older. “Mum says Jimmy can’t play with you any more because you’ve been firing bullets,” she said without any preliminaries, and that was that! (I never forgave Mrs Evans: there was nothing to forgive. Thinking about it now, if I’d been her I’d’ve shot me! She was a kindly, pleasant woman with a no-nonsense but never stern demeanour. Whenever I hear the term “earth mother” I think of her.) She and my mother were good friends and I soon discovered that my secret hiding place was no longer secret, and empty. Nothing was said, and although I knew I had upset mother I had no idea at that time of the degree of danger I had put both Jimmy and myself in.

Jimmy did his 2-year national service in the early 1950s in the army, signed on for a further three years, was involved in the nasty guerilla war in Malaya but contracted malaria and was demobbed with a life pension. However, he seemed in good health when I lost contact with him in the 1970s. I did my national service in the Royal Navy, became a Russian translator and spent most of my service as part of the occupying forces in Germany (where I learned to like and respect the German people, was a member of the Royal Navy contingent at the Coronation Parade in Hamburg, and listened to the commentary of the “Matthews Cup Final” on the British Forces Network). Mrs Evans eventually emigrated to Canada with her youngest daughters.

Margaret met a Venezuelan naval officer on shore leave in Barrow in 1955 and married him, and my late sister and I became godparents of their first baby, a girl. I still keep in touch with Margaret, a published author who now lives with her second husband in Canada, where she is writing a novel based on her mother’s life. (Maybe I’ll get a character part.)....