If parks and green spaces are the “lungs” of a city then Leicester has plenty of areas to breathe. I was born in 1952 on New Parks Estate and my first memories are of playing on the green in front of our council house on Bonney Road. As I grew older we travelled farther afield to play. There was an expanse of green on New Parks Boulevard where we played our first games of football. At that age I was not sure of the boundary between it and Western Park. As we became braver we walked and sometimes cycled to Bradgate Park. The highlight of this trip was to climb up to Old John which we could see from our home. My Dad had served in the Royal Leicester Regiment and the Royal Artillery during the war. This meant that the family travelled to Victoria Park every Remembrance Sunday to remember the fallen and watch our Dad march past the Cenotaph with the British Legion.
In the Late 1950s my family moved to St Mathew’s Estate. The nearest play area to our house, apart from the wasteland created by the slum clearance programme, was called the Rec. It was on Taylor Street next to my school. There was no green here just hard tarmac, swings, a roundabout and a metal framed contraption called a witches hat. One day I was competing with a friend to see how high we could go on the swings when I fell off and broke my arm. On another occasion I was crossing the wasteland in front of the Talbot pub on a Saturday dinner time when I began to sink. I sank up to my waist in the mud. My Dad, who was called from the pub was too big to pull me out and I was saved by one of his much smaller friends. My life had been saved but I lost my wellington boots. My photo was in the Leicester Mercury on the following Monday. That wasteland is now a park in the centre of St Mathew’s Estate. I wonder if my boots are still there.
My family moved frequently after that. Everywhere we lived you could find me playing in the local park. I began to play for my school football and cricket teams from the age of 8. The school did not have playing fields just a yard on the roof. All of our training was on the hard school yard. Our matches were played on the local parks throughout the city. For this I needed proper football boots and I became the proud owner of a pair of St Crispin’s Wings with ankle length leather uppers, leather studs and hard toe caps.
When I was 11 we moved to an off license on Orson Street. Most our play was still in the local streets. I attended Crown Hills School which had its own playing fields, as did most of the schools we played against. This did not stop us playing on the parks. During the long holidays and at weekends we all knew that if we went to Spinney Hill Park there would be a game of some kind. All day football in the winter and the occasional games of cricket in the summer. Spinney was famous for its hill. We would roll down it on dry and not so dry days and in the winter we would wait for snow. This was the signal for 100s if not 1000s of people of all ages to arrive at the park to sledge down the hill. The lucky ones had real sledges made of wood or metal. Everyone else sat on whatever they could find from metal trays to dustbin lids to spades and anything else that would slide. There was no control and if you didn’t get hit by a reckless rider there was always the chance of running into the trees at the bottom of the hill. People were injured and there was even talk of fatalities. The worst I witnessed was a few cuts and bruises and the odd broken arm or leg.
One day in 1965 my family were evicted from the off license and we were homeless for 9 months. We moved around Leicester and stayed with relatives and family. We slept at 5 or 6 houses during that time. The local parks began to provide a different function. Up until then they had purely been places to play and meet friends. During this period they became places of refuge and escape for me and my brother and my parents. During the long days when we were not at school we often went to the local park to escape being cooped up with relative strangers in overcrowded houses. They became literally a place to breathe and to let of steam and still occasionally to have fun.
The council eventually provided us with a new home in late 1965. It was on Goodwood Estate which because of the foresight of council architects was full of green areas and surrounded by parks. I spent many happy hours playing with friends on Goodwood Green and if we felt adventurous exploring the local countryside beyond Evington Village. Almost 50 years later I still feel the pull of my youth as I drive down Shady Lane and cross over into Goodwood. I continued to attend Crown Hills School which I did throughout our homeless period. I played for all the school teams and most of our formal games were on sports or playing fields, many now sadly lost. I also played for Leicester Boys at football and for a short time at cricket.
This meant that all of my spare time was spent playing or training. Some of the fondest memories of my youth come from this period. I remember the long summer holidays in the mid to late 1960s when every waking hour seemed to be spent on a local park. The nearest park to our house on Harringworth Road was Evington Park. I rarely played there mainly because it was used by pupils from Spencefield School and it was not our “turf”. There were no gangs as such but we knew almost instinctively where it was safe to go and where it was not. Just as we knew which “strange men” to avoid, even though it was not talked about.
My local park was Humberstone Park. I knew that if I turned up there at almost any time of day I would find someone to play with. The best times were when a crowd of us would arrive early in the morning and begin a football match that were timeless. Sides were picked in the time-honoured fashion. The best players were chosen first until those that were not so good were left. No one wanted to be the last one picked but it was usually done in good humour. I was rarely the first to be picked but I was usually in the first half-dozen. Most of the school team would be there and some of the Leicester side including many of my best friends. Jumpers were used as goalposts and the game began. Sides changed as people came and went and there was always a cheer when a star player arrived and a scramble to have him on your side. Girls were involved but not as it would be today. The matches seemed to last forever especially on the perfect days when the sun shone you were surrounded by your friends and you were playing the game you loved. All things come to an end and as it got dark someone would indicate it was time to finish with the cry “the next goal is the winner”
By the late 1960s we were playing less informal football on the park and more formal games for youth clubs and amature sides. Apart from Leicester Boys I was playing for a youth team and a men’s football team. Our home grounds were on New Parks/Western Park, Humberstone Park, and Scraptoft Lane at Monks Rest Gardens. Away games were played on almost all the other parks in Leicester including the largest park area for football pitches off Braunstone Lane East.
I left school in 1968 when I was 16. There was less time for play of any kind on the parks after that. In 1967/68 we celebrated the summer of love in our own way. Instead of meeting to play football on Humberstone Park we gathered to meet the opposite sex, to talk of music, politics, war and above all peace and love. The park became our own Woodstock and San Francisco and for a short time we dreamed that we were Hippies with flowers in our hair. There were no drugs and very little alcohol but we had each other and we were happy. We would sit for hours listening to our small transistor radios and hoping to catch the eye of someone we liked. I still see some of my friends from those days but sadly only a few. It would be the last time that we met in that way as we all began to go our separate ways.
In 1972 I went to University in London as a late entrant. During the Christmas vacation I met the woman who would become my wife. She was a Kenyan Asian from a strict Indian family. The only way we could meet was on the parks of Leicester. Throughout the holiday we met on Abbey Park to try to avoid being seen by people who might know her family. We did this again during the Easter vacation and again during the summer. I would like to say that I proposed to her on a Leicester park but this would not be true. What really happened is that we agreed that the only way to stay together was to get married. This discussion took place on Bradgate Park as we walked up to Old John. We were married in November 1973. We are still together after 42 years.
It was on the parks of Leicester that I spent many of the happy days of my childhood and my youth. They provided the air to breathe, the space to grow and the ground to play upon. I did not know it then but they are another part of our municipal past that we must protect and cherish not just for this generation but for the next.