Connor Phillips on BBC Radio Ulster this morning was talking about inventing an adults' game park where we could go and play the games we used to take part in, in the streets of Belfast. It started me thinking about the times before TV, Internet, box sets etc.
Our North Belfast gang, reminiscent of The Bash Street Kids, had a wide choice of street games. Sunday afternoons after Sunday School and before high tea at 6 pm in Mountcollyer Avenue were reserved for "quiet" games as the Sabbath observing neighbours were not to be disturbed by rowdyism. The swings in the local playground were tied up in those days and it was only recently that children had been allowed outside to play on a Sunday. Consequently we played popular street games like Giant Steps, Pussy in the Four Corners, Peery & Whip, Queenio and Tig. Looking back I think these would have been as noisy as any other but there was an unwritten rule that no noisy "props" were to be used, ie a ball, bat, rope, marlies or Hopscotch Cherry Blossom Shoe Shine tins. There was also an undeclared amnesty on Knocking the Door & Running Away (Thunder & Lightning) so the maiden ladies in No. 95 got a welcome respite at least one day a week.
Wet Sundays were spent poring over card and board games or Bagatelle. Snakes and Ladders, Ludo, Snap, Happy Families, and jigsaws were always in Christmas Pillowcases although this had more to do with adults’ desires for peace and quiet than what we really wanted like a mouthorgan, a six-shooter with caps that gave a realistic bang, or a set of drums. Comic swopping was popular, cowboy ones being particularly valued. I favoured the Eagle which I could swop for the western ones but Shirley and I shared School Friend, Girls’ Crystal and Bunty. When my brother came along I had access to The Hotspur and The Topper.
As our street had more boys than girls (ratio about 10–2), on non-Sundays democracy demanded that we played boyish games. Cowboys & Indians was first on the list, followed by ball games like cricket against the wall, football against the wall, and one, two and three balls against the same long-suffering neighbour’s gable wall. When Shirley and I fell out I had to fall in with the boys’ plans for the day. This usually involved getting very dirty, but as I was a tomboy this didn’t cost me a thought until I had to go home and confront my mother. A Good Day Out often resulted in being sent to bed early for coming home without a hair ribbon or yet another cut knee. I still have the scars but it was worth it.
Chief among the exciting places to play was at the top of Mountcollyer Avenue where there were a couple of old limestone quarries that filled up with water after heavy rain. Until the polio scares of the early 1960's we were allowed to paddle or swim and I shudder to think what germs we were exposed to, but maybe it gave us some sort of immunity, who knows? I never came across anyone who was seriously ill. The quarry had a large number of loose bricks lying around and these were used to outline "houses” or “forts” of our own design. It was a sort of Belfast equivalent of a Roman settlement and when I visited Pompeii many years later I was taken right back to our imaginary streets. We even had a bakery where the scones, cakes and soda farls were made from mud and shaped with great care into what resembled O'Hara's Bakery window displays.
The quarry area was definitely Avenue territory and we had to protect it from the stone throwing invaders from Tiger's Bay on the other side of the Limestone Road. They had the advantage of height as the Limestone ran up a hill with a low wall overlooking the quarry, but they knew better than to descend the steps into our hotly defended demesne. Those warriors with split heads lined up at our house to be ministered to by my Mum’s nursing skills. (No running up to A & E in those days for stitches.) This was useful as I was a witness if they flinched at her enthusiastic use of iodine on their open wounds and went some way to establishing my street cred with the boys. Henceforth they couldn’t turn me down if I wanted to join in when Shirley was not available.
Recounting these stories to my husband, brought up in the colonies, proved a mystery to him. He only played cricket, rode his bike through the bush and played “who’s afraid of snakes?”. (On thinking back I wonder if our Quarries were actually bomb sites as this area was heavily bombed during the two Belfast blitzes. The real limestone quarries were at the bottom of the Cave Hill and there used to be a railway line running down the Limestone Road although it wasn’t there in my time.)
Many of the games depended on street furniture. Rectangular or square paving stones (no tarmac), lamp-posts with cross bars and metal clad draining channels which gave a satisfying click when you roller skated over them. Little or no vehicular traffic meant we could skate on the smooth concrete of North Queen Street with the occasional lookout’s warning shout of “Motor/Bus Coming!” Skipping was only possible when a few girls from neighbouring streets would come round, as the boys refused to be Enders while we dashed in and out of the ropes to songs and rhymes like In & Out those Dusty Roses, Jelly on the Plate, or On a Hill There Stands a Lady. Otherwise one end of the rope had to be the lamp post or the high iron gate outside the North Belfast Mission. Quieter games included spinning silver foil milk bottle tops between the first two fingers and seeing how far they would go. Hide & Seek was popular especially on dark winter evenings as was Swinging Around the Lamp Post using a cushion on top of your mother’s borrowed clothes line, not available on Mondays.
The advent of TV (Shirley’s was the first in our street, hence her unavailability) meant the demise of a lot of these outdoor activities. Children’s Television took us off the street and we were home every day, even in summer, for 5 o’clock, no problem, without our Mums standing at the door yelling, “Come in right now, yer tea’s out”. Crackerjack!, The Woodentops and Bill & Ben the Flowerpot Men had more pull than Mum with a plate of sausages!!