Bath Voice News: Rob Coles rolls back the years to the days of steam trains, air raid shelters, Italian POWs and failing to leap the stream in Sandpits Park (as he was too small)

By Rob Coles: One hundred years of the Sand Pits Park Celebration, goodness it had only been opened less than thirty years when I first put my spade into the sand. The centenary celebrations unleashed a whole string of memories.

The sand in the Sandpits

Has it changed, rather than looking smaller it looked larger than I remembered.   The actual sand pit looked cleaner no fallen leaves or worse and was now filled with many play features. All I had was sand and the stream to fall in. The maypoles that never worked for me have gone and there is no longer the odour of pigs that were kept unseen behind the hedge at the top of the bank at the south west boundary.   

One of the greatest joys was watching the passing trains, heavy expresses with two engines going to Bournemouth which could have been the South of France in my narrow world and freights with an engine pushing at the back.  Once a train with three engines, two at the front and one at the back arrived to fill in the arch behind Church of Our Lady & St Alphege.  Does anyone remember the runaway goods trains that hurtled past the playground in July 1936? There were no injuries in that incident but that was not the case in 1929. Then the landlord of the Hope and Anchor, in Midford, was probably surprised to a have coal  truck delivered into his back garden on the 20th of November in that year when the driver and fireman were overcome with fumes from the tunnel and passed out leaving the train to run away out of control and derailed near Midford station and killing three people and leaving two with injuries.

The stream that runs through the park

The most exciting feature of Sandpits remains the stream that meanders through the park with its clever waterfalls and the pretty little wooden bridges have been replaced with many innovative ways of crossing the water.  My ambition was to jump across the stream, but I was much too much of a wimp and too small to try. I was told that the water from the pipe at the top of the park that fed the stream was a source of water locally after the Bath Blitz when the supply was interrupted.

The surroundings have also changed, gone are the prefabs, (which were better equipped than our house) as well as Stanley Engineering and the Co-operative bakery – as has the Scout hut by the stone railway bridge which has also been replaced.   The British Restaurant is still there repurposed as Hillside Hall.  We ate there regularly – and does anyone remember the blue and yellow tokens – were they pre-paid for or were they given to the less well off?

The former British Restaurant

At the end of the war, I was taken to see prisoners of war working on Cotswold Road. As a child I was told Germans had square heads and so I drew them accordingly like Mr Cube. To find out what they looked like us was a surprise and a valuable lesson.  I much later was told that the Prisoners of War (PoWs) were Italian. Remembering the war, just up the road in the Oval Field there was an underground (and very wet) air raid shelter with duck boards on which we walked. If the air raid siren sounded, we would walk across the field to the shelter, me with my Dumbo elephant – knitted by my aunt.  A dim torch provided a little light, shaded so that ‘Willie’ (a Luftwaffe pilot that I met many years later) could not see me and have another go at my destruction.  He had failed, only just, on a previous occasion.  I am sure the shelter is still there, love to make a few bore holes – and incidentally on the southwest segment of the Oval there was a static water tank.

A goods train of the era

Living in the prefabs was a rather rotund man (nicknamed rather unkindly) as ‘doughnut’ by the local children – although he had a reputation of being fierce. One day when peddling fast through the prefabs I collided with his daughter who was pushing her bike across the road.  Doughnut was not best pleased to see a bike sandwich in the road with daughter as the filling. My friends thought me lucky to escape with my life.  The front forks of my bike were bent and remain so to this day.

The estate roads were built with help of a steam roller that I passed on the way to school.  Moorfields is ‘a magnificent estate’ as Health Minister Aneurin (Nye) Bevan, friend of the Councillor and City Mayor Sam Day said, when he handed over the last completed house to tenants after the war. 

The centenary this summer was an incredible success with more than a thousand visiting the park. It was a tribute to those who had the vision of turning an old brick works and clay pit into an adventure playground long before the term had been coined. Congratulations to Sandpits Park for its 100 years as a great place for children to play, and should also go to the council who have maintained and improved the park and to those such as the Friends of Sandpits who arranged such a wonderful centenary celebration.

Rob Coles

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