Tony Lord: Soapbox escapades

The other day I was remembering how I used to take my dog, Sandy for a run in the sunshine at Vanbrugh Pits on Blackheath. He was an ugly dog, the outcome of a brief encounter between a greyhound and a spaniel.

He wouldn’t come back until he had spent at least 20 minutes sniffing round the gorse bushes. When he was a puppy he had found a discarded packet of cheese sandwiches and was always optimistic of repeating this happy experience.

Vanbrugh Pits are a couple of huge holes dug by builders excavating gravel in the 19th century. Daring boys used to ride their bikes down the steep paths that led to the bottom.

Thinking about this reminded me of the old days in the 1930s when our little gang spent our spare time riding down the local hills.

I was one of the lucky ones. My stepfather bought me a Triang scooter for eight shillings from Noble’s toy shop in Deptford.

It was metal with red wheels, solid rubber tyres and a varnished foot board to stand on. No brake. I used to put the sole of my sandal on the top of the back wheel and press down to stop. After a few weeks a long groove was worn in my left sandal which my mother would inspect with a sad shake of her head.

Some of my friends had wooden homemade scooters. They were all the same design.

I think now that an early DIY magazine published some construction plans and a budding entrepreneur in a back garden shed in South-east London set up a production line, turning out these scooters.

They were made almost entirely of wood. The wheels were ball bearings (we called them ball barians), revolving round wooden axles. A piece of leather or carpet was nailed over the back wheel to serve as a brake – much easier on the sandals.

We would sail down the long curve of Hyde Vale, boys on proper scooters drawing away from the homemade machines which were clicking over the joints in the pavement, until we reached King George Street.

Lurking in front gardens we waited for a heavy laden lorry full of sand or gravel from Deptford Creek to commence its ascent up to Blackheath.

As soon as it passed we would dash into the road and hang on the back, with one hand dangling our scooters in mid-air behind us, until we reached the horse trough at the top, where, dropping off the tailboard, we would commence the exhilarating descent into Greenwich again.

A more sophisticated vehicle was the soapbox. First, you needed to take the wheels off an old pram.
Dicky and I took hours to unscrew a set of four from a weed infested pushchair we found half submerged in the Quaggy.

An orange box with the front cut out was screwed to a short plank. Dicky’s dad drilled a hole for a bolt and gave us some washers so the front wheels could be steered by a piece of rope cut off from my mother’s washing line.

For a couple of summers the two of us had great fun trundling down the local hills until there came a parting of the ways as Dicky and I went to different secondary schools.

I was busy doing French, Latin, maths, homework and even going to school on Saturday mornings, the routine being that we played games on Wednesday afternoons.

The soapbox lay dusty and neglected in our passage until a rag and bone man on his cart passed our door and was happy to take it away. (The soapbox, not the door).

Doubtless it ended up the next Saturday morning in Deptford Market changing hands for a 10 bob note.
Now we see soapbox races on the television. Our old box on wheels wouldn’t have stood a chance against these streamlined machines.


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