Blindfish and Birdies and Bears..Oh my.. : Memories of The Botanical Gardens.

Image (3)This time of the year, when the summer is taking it’s final few languorous yawns before retiring, always reminds me of early childhood, and the final stretch of the school holidays. The main event, our annual fortnight to Butlins, Skegness would be a fading memory, (as would yet another unsuccessful bid to win the Junior Tarzan competition there) and the rest of the hols would be spent as cheaply as possible, IE: in the many parks and green spaces of Sheffield.

One of my regular and most favourite of haunts was the Botanical Gardens. Yes, Millhouses Park might have had the best playground, a paddling pool and a boating lake, but that was a big bus ride away for us townies, so we tended to hang around nearer home. Though Weston Park nearby had the museum, (the stuffed polar bear and Japanese sumo wrestlers, pictured below, are  still there after all these years) but  ‘the Botanics’ had the edge. It felt like ‘ours’, mine and my sisters’ that is. A smaller and more compact space than the big parks, so there was less chance of getting separated, and I loved it’s comforting features and modest but memorable exhibits. The ever-present ice cream van outside one set of gates, the soldier statue (now in storage apparently) around which our border terrier, Chip, liked to race round and round, at the other gate. And in between, a few things that were comfortingly, always there, waiting to tickle the senses, every time I returned. I can still see, hear and smell them all clearly, when I look back at my young, 60s sepia self..

First, there was the tropical plant house, with it’s instantly forehead-moistening, clammy air. I found the enormous cacti and assorted odd-looking, tall plants with long twisting green tendrils, slightly disquieting, like unmoving aliens. (patiently waiting, ready to ensnare any little boy who got too close). We didn’t usually linger long in there, as there were more enticing things to see, in the adjacent building. So we’d soon slip through another door, into the contrasting coolness and gloom of the Aquarium, where, behind several windows of thickened glass, we gazed at tiny, transparent slivers darting madly back and forth, fat and ugly, bulbous-eyed ones, and some blind fish that floated slowly around each other, oblivious to our gawping. These always creeped me out a bit, and saddened me too. Imagine the loneliness, I pondered with a  shudder, of being a blind fish, in a little tank, in this small building, endlessly going around and around.. There were at least a dozen or so different species, some, the little info cards on the wall informed us, from places so uncomprehendingly exotic and far away,  that, to my to my, only-been-as-far-as-Butlins-in-Skeggy, mind, may as well have been in outer-space. But I never tired of studying them, in the quiet dark, with the electric hum and the steady bubbles, and the ‘No Tapping on the Windows’ notice. Which of course, we invariably ignored..

And then to the Aviary, wherein an immediate, overwhelming pungency was always a slightly gaggy shock, until your olfactory organs made the necessary adjustment. We’d invariably search out and make a beeline for Joey, the Mynah bird, who could wolf-whistle and screech a few words if you were lucky.  The younger children, palms pressed against the wire mesh, would try to elicit a highly coveted ‘Hello’ from the bird’s bright orange beak, whilst some of the older, naughty kids would try and to teach him to swear. Not that you could always hear very well, above the caw-cophany of  several species, all going at it, especially at feeding time. Canaries, finches, budgies etc,, plus a few freeloading sparrows from outside, all peckish, all flapping..

Then we’d be off, haring around the well-kempt, multi-coloured flower gardens, dashing here and there, mad as fish, briefly playing around the Pan statue, (who had happy little metal mice running up his arms, not at all like the ones I once saw, drowned in a bucket in our back lane) and thence to the infamous Bear Pit. Ah, the Bear Pit. I would stand and look down on it, before tentatively entering the pit itself, which had spooked many a Sheffield child. I mean, we all knew the bears were long gone, but still..  It is actually a genuine, preserved Georgian bear pit, where two brown bears had indeed been kept and displayed in the 1800s. The story went that a child once fell in was killed by the animals. Someone’s dad would often be kidding their kids on, that bears still roamed on the outskirts of the city, in the woods, and that was enough to put the fear into youngsters like me, who’s imagination went into overdrive, (what if the stuffed polar one from the museum up the road comes back to life?) especially if one’s sister and friends ran off, and left you alone in there .

So, the photo, circa 1967,  shows said older sister and myself outside the aforementioned aviary, with the two resident parrots (who, a friend reliably informs me were called Mac and Charlie). They were always outside and seemed family friendly, but I was always quite wary around them. The claws, sharp grey beaks and gnarly, strange looking tongues made me feel a bit apprehensive. You were allowed to feed them in the early days, but I think they eventually stopped that. I know parrots can live for 50 years or more, so I’m not sure if it was one of the original birds, or a replacement who appeared in our local newspaper, The Star one day, some years later. The report, pointed out to me by my mum when I came in from work, also featured one of the regular ‘characters’ from our local pub, The Hanover in Broomhall.

Wally, a boozy, middle-aged Scottish guy, had been a bit of a hard man and a rogue, in his day, by all accounts. With features as gnarly as a parrot’s tongue, that was easy to imagine. Anyway, one afternoon, (after a session in The Hanover tap-room, no doubt), in a bid to procure for himself, some beer money, he’d gone up to the Botanics and had taken one of the parrots, with the intention of selling it. However, sadly, at the point of sale, the parrot was found to have died inside the carrier bag. Somehow Wally got tumbled and charged. Maybe not in today’s Cecil The Lion Killer league, as he hadn’t meant for the poor creature to expire, but still, a wally indeed. The remaining parrot was moved permanently indoors after that.

So, when I came across this photo the other day, all those bird-cagey smells, blindfish melancholy, and bear-scare memories came flooding back. I guess we all had a place that first heightened and sharpened our young senses, that drew us in, despite our fears. For a significant period in my child-hood, the Botanical Gardens, was my best little escape-to, corner of the world.

Looking at this old photo again though, there is one thing that I don’t remember, and that is quite how I managed to escape the pudding basin they obviously used, when cutting my sister’s hair in 1967..

Sheffield Botanical Gardens Information: http://www.sbg.org.uk/

The Polar Bear and Sumo Wrestlers, still on display at Weston Park.

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