The wall separated the schoolyard from the old cemetery.
“Hundred years old that wall, at least”, said the school crossing man, looking at it knowingly. And, being primary school children, we accepted this as gospel truth, him being an adult and all.
We found out later that he was right. The long wall snaked round the school grounds and separated the schoolyard from the church and the presbytery. Behind it at various points were some old almshouses, some allotments taken from the presbytery garden, and a large but now disused cemetery, overgrown with huge sycamore trees in which lived a colony of noisy rooks.
It was a black sandstone wall of good thickness and height – maybe 12 feet, and it had been carefully maintained, at least on the school side, so that there were no toeholds for climbers. There was little incentive to climb it anyway, except for the challenge, because it was so easy to walk round the ends, into the cemetery or to the almshouses, or, greatly daring, into the allotments.
To get to school, we had to walk beside a good length of that old wall. In summer it gathered the heat and radiated it back to the children in waves. Once, coming back after the Easter holidays, we found a sparrow had nested in a cleft, and the cheeping of the baby birds was irresistible. By climbing on one another’s shoulders we could see the skinny babies, but after a week or two of these intrusions, the parents abandoned the nest and the chicks died, and smelled.
My father briefly rented one of the allotments for a trifling weekly amount and attempted to grow tomatoes against the wall, in a sunny corner. Growing tomatoes ‘outside’ was in itself a brave thing to do in our climate, but to do so in proximity to 300 schoolchildren was positively reckless. Children seem to know about everything which stirs in their neighbourhood, and sure enough, Dad’s plants were stripped as soon as the tomatoes were the size of marbles.
“Little sods. Hope it makes them sick”, he grumbled, and he gave up the allotment after one summer.
Further along, where the wall separated the schoolyard from the old cemetery, a bomb had fallen in 1941, luckily at night, and demolished a length of the wall, plus a couple of the nearest classrooms. The classrooms had been lovingly repaired and it was hard to see where the bricks changed from old to new. In the wall, a long section had been replaced and the new stones were much less sooty than the old ones.
To the children, the most exciting result of the explosion was the damage done to the cemetery. The tombs and the gravestones were thrown about in wild heaps, and tunnels and caves could be mined underneath. Judging by the dates on the graves, the last burials had been in the 1880s, but we lived in the fond hope of finding skeletons and coffins. As an adventure playground, it could hardly be bettered.
Later, I had other reasons to remember the wall. I used the lane leading to the school as a shortcut home, and would often return along the wall, after a night in the pub. There were shadowy niches in the wall where courting couples embraced (or worse!). As a teenager, I would hurry past in some embarrassment, but growing older and more confident I decided a cheery “good evening!” would be in order. This invariably produced a response of silence or a grunt on the part of the man, but a wonderful giggle from the girlfriend, if I was lucky.
The wall is still there, the school is still there, but the cemetery is grassed over and the graves have gone. The wall is, surprisingly, actually higher than I remembered it, and the lighting in the school lane has improved. The rookery in the sycamore trees is bigger than ever, and the cry of the rooks stirs my memory.