These snuff-brown pieces of thick, stiff, dry, hide have the passing appearance of relics from a medieval fortress siege. They are my dad’s “tab” (finger-guard) and “bracer” (arm-guard), from his practice of archery , which my parents had taken up some time early in the 1950′s.
They say that every man’s home is his castle. Our home, 155, Bosty Lane, Aldridge, being a three-bed-semi, had not moat nor drawbridge nor portcullis. Within its modest curtilage, however, I was endowed with a liberating sense of complete security. And it had its own strong-room, its very own armoury.
This stronghold was the 7’6″ by 9’3″ Dark Room. Named thus not for any sinister connotation, but only because of the long, suspenseful evenings when felted blanket, as well as curtains, were fixed to the window of the smallest of the three bedrooms – the one that had been mine when a younger child – and the alchemical creation of photographs from film took place. Along with the photographic paraphernalia, and the angling and fly-tying equipment, were housed here an eclectic arsenal of weaponry. The his-and-hers longbows were propped in a corner – a 34lb draw, 5’2″ for my mother, and one 5’9″ in length with a more manful draw weight of 48lb for my father. An old African tribal spear brushed shoulders with a 19th century hand-gun, powder and shot flasks, and a real American Cavalry sword. The impressive unsheathing of this yard-long blade from its scabbard reliably drew gasps from the favoured guests to the house who were witness to this spectacle. My mother would wince. She hates the thought of any sort of killing, and fought hard – verbally – against my dad’s repeated attempts to have some of the more attractive items in his collection mounted on gruesome permanent show on the chimney breast in the sitting room. As a small child, I echoed her sentiments entirely. Sometimes, my father could be seen shaking one leg gently as he tried to leave the house with a shotgun in a bag, attempting to detach himself from my thin white arms which clasped his ankle, and to ignore the desperate piping pleas of “Don’t shoot the birdies, Daddy!”
There was a sea-change in attitudes in the 1960s. The shotguns, once casual and anonymous in the room had to be licensed following the 1968 Firearms Act, and an amnesty was declared for other “interesting” items, such as – say – a “liberated” German wartime pistol, the unexplained possession of which could now “trigger” an automatic prison sentence. In the unlikely event that my parents had wanted to bag wild game with their longbows, that archaic practice was outlawed in 1965.
No, to inveigle my mother into an interest in the sport, it had to be a light-hearted affair. They set up their targets in the orchard at my dad’s sister and brother-in-law’s farm near Shenstone, to try their aim with their Slazenger equipment.
Their arrows were skilfully fletched and re-fletched, each with their three “vanes” of feathers, at the little workshop, in Station Street, Walsall, of Mr Lingard, who had been a neighbour of my mother’s family, in Deepmore Avenue, Bentley, where she had grown up in the 1930s. During the war, his brother, George, had served in the Merchant Navy, and there had been the excitedly received boon of priceless, rare bananas for the four girls and little Patrick at number 32.
Without realising that they were later to spend a whole half- century living in Bosty Lane, Aldridge, Ted and Marie Horton also had use of a handy field in which to practice their toxophily, less than a mile away from their future home, beyond the fields of College Farm and across the canal – this waterway being the Daw End branch of the Wyrley and Essington, dug at the end of the 18th century to transport limestone from the workings that have been a particular feature of the immediate area for, reputedly, two millenia.
So here they are, my dad, my mom, and their friend, Ken, lined up balletically on a rise of ground opposite Calderfields. At the rear of the picture, Aldridge Road runs from side to side. Facing the road are Longwood Cottages, then, in the 50′s, still a pair, today a single dwelling, that retains in its grounds remarkable, surviving evidence, in the form of a rounded couple of acres of puddle, that is a feature from a much earlier settlement: It was a moat, fed by a stream, that fortified a manor house of the 13th century.
“Calewenhull Grange”, “Caldewell” – or “Caudy Fields” (at the time of the first Ordnance Survey map) – we can be fairly sure that this was the local seat of the de Boweles family, and Sir Hugh is said to have
bilte and repairede a mansion at Caldewalle, and made a moot abowte the seyd mansion, and there dwellide the seyd William and his wyf manye yeeris. And there deyde sire Hugh de Boweles.
For this narrative, I am endebted to the anonymous 14th century author of the notes on the history of Rushall, which are bound with the other parchment pages that comprise the Rushall Psalter, a precious object now cared for by the University of Nottingham.
Hugh de Boweles had been in the service of Henry III, who was a monarch troubled by having to commit much of the years and resources of his long reign (1207-72) to waging war against his own barons. Archery equipment not dissimilar from our bows was no doubt employed, but both would be a far cry from modern bows with mechanically assisted draws that demand much less strength in the arm of the exponent.
The third Henry Plantagenet was not, perhaps, a master from whom Hugh could expect much in the way of material rewards for his service. But Hugh had another strategy for extending his influence in this corner of the Shire of Stafford: His wife was Alice, the daughter and sole heir to William of Rushall, to which “castle” (as the 19th century Ordnance Survey still describes the modest hall,) the de Boweles family removed, leaving the building they had repaired a mile away at Caldewalle to disappear without a trace, except for its persistent moat.
When Hugh’s grandson, another William, perished of the Black Death in the 1340s, it was his daughter’s descendants who inherited the manor. Once again lacking male heirs in the following century, the Harpur family took the lordship of Rushall. By the same process, the Leigh, Mellish, and Buchanan families succeeded them, all of which names are commemorated in street names on the north west side of the present day Walsall conurbation.
The excavations of the productive Lime Workings that lay within the parkland of Rushall Hall have flooded and the scenes of industry where some of our family toiled decades ago have metamorphosed into a picturesque landscape of lakes and woodland – a haven for wildlife. Apart from the distant view of the steamy excrescences from the cooling towers of Reedswood Power Station at Bentley (demolished 1987) – that, in any case, I romanticised in my in young imagination into the austere, windowless battlements of some castle, you might be way out in the country, wandering its winding paths, as we occasionally did.