Simon Lester grew up playing dangerous games out in the sunshine, all summer long – and believes today's children could do the same. If you worry about health and safety, look away now...
Many gentlemen of a certain age can chart an eventful journey through their formative years via bumps, lumps and scars sustained in adventures that were heroic, but didn’t always go to plan. Gravity is a strong force that can fell even the most practised gamesman at any moment.
Boys’ games and pastimes have always been associated with a little risk – if not actual potential danger – harking back to a time when, apart from physicality, the honing of certain skills helped our very survival. The practical skills of making and deploying hunting tools to best effect, play fighting, speed of thought and deed, plus a spot of derring-do were – and still are – a rite of passage.
Then there’s the mischief factor. I’d never condone any criminal activity, but there’s a certain thrill in relieving your neighbour’s overladen Victoria plum tree of some of its bounty, with your best friend stationed as lookout, ready to raise the alarm at the sight of Mr or Mrs Grumpy. I’m not sure which was the greatest thrill, sneaking in and out, pockets laden, without being detected or being discovered mid-crime and having to scarper with half a stash, but scrumping was always high on a country boy’s agenda.
When I was growing up in rural Nottinghamshire, the majority of lads’ games and pastimes required the great outdoors, which exposed us to the elements and the power of Nature.
We quickly learned to recognise and identify certain plants and trees: we knew that holly, blackthorn, hawthorn or ash were great for making catapults and that the most evil itching powder can be concocted from rose hips.
Educating ourselves to use all sorts of tools, notably knives – graduating from penknife to sheath knife was a coming-of-age moment – to practical effect (often with a few self-inflicted hand wounds on the way) taught us the respect and confidence necessary for safe use of all implements.
However, times have changed and the potential perils are of a different kind. Many dangerous games for boys are, nowadays, just as likely to be played out on a computer in a solitary bedroom as in a field.
In my day, japes and pursuits were experienced at a time when we could skittle the village bobby off his bike racing around the lanes and twitchels, listen respectfully as he ticked us off, then hare off on our peloton of rusty Raleighs, free once more.
Time might have moved on and roads are busier with faster traffic and more perceived dangers, but we shouldn’t let modern-day fears curtail the enduring spirit of youthful adventure. Here are 17 ways we used to enjoy the great outdoors in the summer – and some of them are just as much fun today as ever.
Make a bow and arrow
Even the simplest of bows and arrows can provide hours of great fun. Find a good straight, springy branch – willow is reliably supple and true – and obtain some parcel string with which to fashion the bow.
Trim any side shoots from the shaft, then cut notches at the ends to catch the string. Tension the bow and tie off the string with a good strong knot, then embark on target practice or a distance-shooting competition.
Fashion a Dutch arrow
Make a slightly longer arrow, with cardboard flights. Notch the end of the arrow behind the flights and, with the aid of a piece of knotted string, put the knot in the notch, run the string down the length of the arrow, wrap the remainder of the string around your hand and propel the arrow forward with a throwing action.
Whittle a wooden whistle
Cut a finger length of elder, hollow out the pith to form a tube, then cut a horizontal slot on an angle, about 1in from the top. Finally, push another sliver of wood into the bottom of the tube (this will create a shriller whistle) and blow away to your heart’s content.
Craft a catapult
It’s worth taking some time to select an evenly spaced Y-shaped piece of wood, cut from a hard wood such as holly, blackthorn, hazel or ash. Trim off all the bark and
whittle off any lumps or bumps to make it comfortable to hold.
When it comes to the all-important elastic, cut two even lengths of the square-edged kind, then find a piece of soft leather that’s big enough to hold a projectile and glue it to the elastic, before lashing the ends onto each wooden upright. Tin cans make the best targets.
Learn to sword fight
Wooden swords can be made to replicate fine foils or double-handed brain biters, depending which era of history you’re battling through.
Play the splits
Stand feet together 5ft from your opponent and throw a penknife into the ground, some distance away from your opposition’s feet. They have to put one foot where the knife is sticking out of the ground and then throw the knife away from your feet. Repeat until the other person has to do the splits, to the extent that they eventually fall over.
Climb trees and make rope swings
Before climbing, look out for any dead branches, start on an easy tree and only traverse one limb at a time. When making a swing, be sure to fasten the rope to a good, strong branch.
Poke a wasps’ nest
If you find a wasps’ nest, it’s fascinating to watch the yellow-and-black vespas flying in and out of their underground lair. For a test of derring-do (or plain stupidity), dare the bravest of your bunch to give the nest a good prod with a stick, then scarper as the angry swarm chases.
Dig a hole
Dig the deepest hole you can on a piece of ground where you’re not going to get into trouble. Mine clay if you hit it and use it to make pots.
Plink targets with an air pistol
Set up a target range: Airfix models and toy soldiers make excellent adversaries.
Build a den
Whether it’s assembled from bracken, dead branches or old blankets, the key to a good den is that only you and your most trusted friends know where it is. It must also have a door you can only enter if you know the password.
Construct a trolley or a go-cart
There’s great pride in making the fastest trolley or go-cart. They can be fashioned from all manner of materials, but four wheels and a strong frame are the essentials. A good downhill course with a few corners will sort the men from the boys.
Skim stones in style
Whether on a stream, river or lake, skimming flat stones on the water can become very competitive. The distance and number of hops achieved are all about the wrist action and stone selection.
Manufacture itching powder
If you’re feeling particularly dastardly, itching powder made from the hairy seeds inside a rose hip is incredibly effective, so be warned – choose your victim with care.
Learn to box and wrestle
With two pairs of old boxing gloves and a watch to time the rounds, boxing for fun quickens the reactions and keeps you fit – at worst, you may get a bloody nose. The same goes for wrestling, although it’s good to have organised bouts with a responsible friend to act as referee.
Win at conkers
Harvest the fruit by climbing horse-chestnut trees or throwing sticks and stones into the branches, which can be hazardous, but totally worth it when the spiky packaging reveals the fresh, shiny jewel of a potential champion. Thread it on a string, steel yourself for combat and be prepared for a rap on the knuckles or a glancing blow from crunchy shrapnel in the pursuit of victory.
‘Near missing’ on a bicycle
A bike game that needs to be played in a private yard or car park, ‘near missing’ involves riding around as close as possible to your fellow cyclists without touching them. Eventually, a collision will occur and, if your feet touch the ground, you’re out. Continue until there’s only one man (or woman) standing.
Simon Lester goes out on a limb to identify species and stop us barking up the wrong tree.
Gamekeeper Simon Lester offers his guide to these mesmerising creatures, from the pocket-sized Little Owl to the fearsome Eagle Owl
Simon Lester takes a look at the great grey shrike, a delicate-looking songbird whose innocent appearance belies its sadistic tendencies