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Let them play: memories of a rural childhood

Friday 15 June 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who can still show the scars of his rural childhood, delights in a new report from a proper health and safety body which demands that children should be allowed to play - even if it means the odd cut or bruise

THERE was a fair bit to consider for this column this week, some good, some boring and bad, and one little chink of pure sunlight that pieced momentarily the gloom and doom emanating from our (so-called) leaders.

Tony Blair is on the way out in a fortnight, which is good after ten years of disastrous mis-management in the countryside. But Gordon Brown is on the way in, which is incredibly boring and dispiriting, too, because he will suck even more money out of rural areas to feed it into the inner cities.

rural play
Let them play

Good news included the fact that the wonderful grayling, the legendary Lady of the Stream, is making a come-back in Yorkshire Dales rivers like the Aire, helped by large-scale re-stocking by the Environment Agency.

This is not only a brilliant prospect for anglers but also for anyone who loves the countryside: it means that once heavily polluted rivers are returning to their natural crystal-clear state because the grayling, second only to the brown trout, will thrive only in clean, well-oxygenated waters.

But the news that filled me with joy was a report from the organisation which virtually founded the health and safety movement, and which has never been overtaken by the modern, politically correct hysteria which monopolises the subject in Westminster and on our local councils.

I am talking here of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), whose activities I started reporting as a cub reporter some 50 years ago, and which is till going strong. And the reason for that, I believe, is that its workings and policies are governed by simple common sense.

This week's RoSPA report drew a bead on modern parents who wrap their children in cotton wool, keeping them at home to watch television or playing computer games, rather than their being out and about playing with other children and learning that, from time to time, life can mean some hard knocks.

This stands them in good stead later in life, said society spokesman Peter Cornall: "When children spend time in the great outdoors, getting muddy, getting wet, getting stung by nettles, they learn important, life-long lessons" even if it means "scraping knees, grazing elbows and bumping heads."

This wonderful observation, coming as it does from a proper health and safety body with an established and much admired track record, was not made simply for the sake of it. RoSPA is campaigning for more "wilderness" areas to be created, unlike formal parks, particularly in towns and cities so that children can be children.

of my many scars from childhood comes one from a head wound inflicted by my sister with a broomstick

I won't say boys will be boys because of my many scars from childhood comes one from a head wound inflicted by my sister with a broomstick when we were playing knights and dragons. Being four years younger, I was the dragon that day… and St Georgina won as usual.

I have a scar on my left inside thigh where I buried my jack-knife when I was cutting arrows for my home-made bow and I broke my once stubby little nose twice, once on a sledge, once on (or rather off) my bike. People gazing on my honk now rarely believe that it was once perfect.

Amazingly enough, I never broke a bone and those scars, although scary at the time, still cause me to smile when I get the odd glimpse of them in the mirror. Those smiles come with a glow of warmth in honour of my nigh-on perfect childhood, virtually all of it spent outdoors climbing trees, damming streams and, yes, lighting fires (although that did get you into trouble).

In the 20-odd years I later spent working for national newspapers in some pretty awful slums- including four spent covering the Ulster Troubles - I kept myself totally scar-free. I would like to believe that RoSPA is right in my case, because when you have hurt yourself a little bit as a child you take seriously the steps needed to avoid being hurt as an adult.

And anyway, what are a few cuts and bruises when compared to the incomparable freedom of running wild with your friends beyond the eyes and ears of interfering grown-ups? I would willingly break a leg to have a few of those days again.

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