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T. E. Lawrence is my hero. That’s ‘El Lawrence” or Lawrence of Arabia. The famous mystic, philosopher, writer and leader of arab armies. But it’s not because of all those things that he is my hero. In fact, I struggled to try to read some of his, for me, heavy going writing. No, he is my hero for the gift he gave me. I say me, because the gift was a wonderful part of my growing up in Chingford, Essex, England. The gift, was a gift of land that Lawrence gave to the people of Chingford. It is known as Pole Hill. A protected area of land in North Chingford that would have once been part of Epping Forest.

I loved Pole Hill as a boy. It was within easy cycling distance of our house and consists of woods, hills and gullies. It is a beautiful place, perfect for boyhood adventures. We would play cowboys there, cops and robbers, Robin Hood and many imaginative action games.

One of my favourite activities was to ride my bicycle down one side of a huge dry gully and peddle like mad to make it up the other side. I was flying my Spitfire in a dogfight; racing my motorcycle; driving in a grand prix; chasing bandits in a police car; I was Ben-Hur  careening along in my chariot; there was no end to the excitement riding in those gullies.

There were numerous opportunities to climb trees that were leaning at forty-five degrees or that had fallen over. They became pirate boats that we were boarding, or dense jungle in darkest Africa – was that Livingston over there? The trees also gave cover for the many games we played. I was Robin Hood hiding from the evil Sheriff’s men. Long sticks became swords and we fought great battles between the black and red knights. The undergrowth provided dense bushes with clear middles that became secret dens and hideouts.

We could be lost in our imaginations on Pole Hill all day and ride home grubby, dishevelled, with grazed knees and elbows and hungry for dinner. This was and is a special place. It also had a scientific purpose.

There is a special marker near the summit of the hill. This marked the line of the Greenwich Meridian (known these days as the Prime Meridian). For North Americans Greenwich is pronounced gren-ich. No green and no witch. This is 0º longitude and the place where time-zones begin. Internationally time zones are measured as so many hours plus or minus Greenwich Mean Time or GMT. The sign marking this spot was erected in 1824 (or there a bouts). Unfortunately a few years later the line of the Greenwich Meridian was adjusted a few yards. So the actual line of the meridian is some feet to the east of the historic marker. It’s no longer one of the pillars of wisdom I guess. Notice the clever segue to T.E. Lawrence.

According to his correspondence, Lawrence purchased the land in 1919 (the year my mother made her entrance on the world stage). He only had sufficient capital left to build a modest shack on the side of the hill, where he lived for several years. I don’t know why or when Lawrence gave this large parcel of beautiful land to the people of Chingford but I will always be grateful. In autumn the trees turn amazing colours of rust and the leaves fall to make deep piles of rustling carpets. The forest has always inspired me and next to the sea was my favourite place as a boy.

This is a small study I did in black and white.  It reminds me a little of Pole Hill in winter.

This is a small study I did in black and white. It reminds me a little of Pole Hill in winter.

I only remember one specific incident at Pole Hill. A few of us had cycled up to Pole Hill and were playing, when a strange dog came charging up to us. I think I may have been watching too many episodes of Lassie, where there had been a ‘mad dog’, that may have had rabies. I didn’t know that there was no rabies in England at this time. The dog that had come bounding up to us, probably looking for some boys to play with, had foam spraying out of his mouth. He was jumping about and had obviously been running for some time as his enormously long tongue was hanging out of his mouth. I’m not sure which of us yelled first, but the word “rabies” burst through the sound of the twittering birds, rustling leaves and panting dog.

I knew there was a police station at the bottom of an alley that ran down from Pole Hill. “I’m going to tell the police” I said. I was pumped up and full of the importance of my mission. I jumped on my bicycle and rode as fast as I could down the hill. I had never been in a police station before. The only policeman I knew was Frances’s father, who lived across the street from us. He drove a police car.

I went into the station and went up to a policeman standing at the desk. “Yes sonny, what can I do for you today?”. I was out of breath and over excited but eventually gabbled out my story “wild dog, foaming mouth, could be rabies, loose on Pole Hill”.

The policeman called to another officer and suggested he accompany me up the hill to have a look at this dog. They didn’t seem too concerned and in no particular hurry. “He’s up there now, there are children up there, we need to hurry” I either said or thought, who knows?

Well, I had seen Mr Plod the policeman in the Noddy books and he never seemed to hurry either. This policeman didn’t even bring his bike, he decided to walk, so I had to push my bike walking with him. But I had to keep slowing down as the was walking a slow and steady pace.

By the time we reached the top of the hill the other boys reported that the dog had run off – probably chasing a small animal.

I can’t remember how things ended, but the policeman said good bye to us and I suspect told us to let them know if the dog came back, but not to worry, he was probably just overheated and excited. The policeman slowly made his way back down the hill.

I hope boys and girls are still playing on Pole Hill today – I wonder if they are allowed to wonder around there unaccompanied by adults. Are places any more dangerous now than they were when we were children? I really don’t think they are. But we are an anxiety driven society. Anxiety and fear are great motivators for selling media and other products but suppress so much joy and spontaneity of life.

Next time you are in or near Chingford, go and have a quiet walk around Pole Hill. Look over the Lee Valley and see across north and east London. Maybe you will see young boys peddling their bikes up and down the gullies.

Next time, a photo essay of July at Hillside Beach. But I’ll need wi-fi access before loading the photographs.

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