CHARLIE’S CO VAN, 1950-60s.
By Wilma Bolton.
I am sure that there are still a good number of people around who will remember the co-operative van which for many years parked on waste ground beside the first council houses on the left hand side of Millgate Road. It was a mobile shop, sold all sorts of groceries, was staffed by Charlie Miller and universally referred to as Charlie’s Co van. My Aberdonian mother Peggy Russell used to send me up to buy potatoes and Charlie would weigh them on large scales using big brass weights and then transfer them into the old leather shopping bag she kept for potatoes. On arriving home Peggy inspected the contents to see how much “dirt” the bag contained. If there was too much dried earth attached to the potatoes, she would remove it and send me back up to the van to ask Charlie to give me the same weight in potatoes. Mortified I was and would have done anything but go back up. I looked everywhere but his face when passing on her message, but in retrospect, I don’t blame her, for the potatoes were more or less straight from the fields and could be covered in dried clay with the odd heavy stone mixed in for good measure.
Charlie also sold uncut plain bread which he would remove from a batch of loaves still joined together just as they had been when they came out of the oven at the Co-operative bakery at the corner of Auchincampbell Road. Peggy’s instructions on leaving our prefab was always the same “don’t let him give you an end loaf”. The “end loaf” was the ones at each end of the batch and no one liked them. Her instructions passed on, Charlie would pull the loaf off from the middle of the batch and hand it over for me to wrap in a clean dish towel. The hands which weighed the potatoes also handled the bread. It’s a miracle there wasn’t an epidemic every other week, for I suspect that there were no hand washing facilities in the primitive van and coupled with the fact that it was parked not twenty feet from a swamp moving with flies, the whole scenario was to say the least unhygienic; but that was the way life was then. I suppose because we were exposed to so many illnesses we built up a natural immunity, but serious infections could strike at any time and one summer we were finally all banned from the swamp due to an outbreak of polio. I have to say that Charlie was well respected and I remember him as a nice cheery man.
The site of the van would have given today’s public health department major problems, for it was parked on what appeared to be remnants of the Fairhill colliery pit waste bing, the bottom of which was only feet away from a slimy swamp, complete with grasses, bulrushes and God only knows what else. Childhood memories can remain with you for ever and I can vouch for that, for I am never likely to forget the day when I was about seven years old and happily paddling barefoot in the swamp when I found a dead pike at least 3 feet long with a mouthful of teeth so big and sharp I had nightmares for weeks. I’m sure that it would have had a lot worse than nightmares if the pike had still been alive.The odd dead dog or cat in the water was not an unusual sight either.
This swamp was a mecca for local children and to access it from Millgate Road you had to slide at least thirty feet down a banking of pit waste and dumped rubbish to get to the water, but oh how we loved it. We had a lot of fun there during the spring and summer months. The rising temperatures in early spring wakened large numbers of hibernating frogs and toads and brought them back in their hundreds to their ancestral spawning grounds and the swamp then became a moving mass of amphibians of all shapes, sizes and colours. The frogs laid their eggs encased in clumps of jelly close to the shore and the toads laid long strings of eggs and wrapped them around the pond weeds further out in the water. We would watch with great interest as the round black frogs eggs safely protected by the gelatinous spawn changed into a comma shape and then the commas would then developed into tadpoles. You could see the commas moving and pulsing as the embryonic frogs tried out their developing muscles.To begin with the tadpoles were legless as they swam about the swamp, but as they grew, they developed back ones. The first one to spot a tadpole with back legs felt really chuffed with themselves. Later on they grew front legs and when their tails started to rot and disappear we would have thousands of miniature frogs and toads swimming about the water. It took about twelve to sixteen weeks for this transformation to take place.
Mrs McAlpine, our much loved infant school teacher at Low Waters Primary always welcomed the first jar of frogs spawn into her classroom and she would place them into a fish tank. It was in this classroom that we could watch close up the miracle of the natural developmental cycle of these extremely interesting little creatures. When the tadpoles became tiny frogs we always returned them to the swamp. One year we left it a bit late and on returning one Monday morning we found small frogs hopping over the desks and classroom floor and we gathered them up and returned them to the swamp when school was finished for the day.
Unfortunately, it is rare to spot a frog nowadays, due to the loss of their natural habitat through redevelopment. At one time they were a common sight. The last time I saw frogs was about a quarter to eleven one night when I was driving home over the “back roads” after a busy shift at Hairmyres Hospital. Just after I turned off of Newhousemill Road into Muttonhole Road, I had to stop the car because to my absolute delight, the road was brightly lit by a full moon and moving across it en masse right in front of me were hundreds of frogs newly wakened from their winter hibernation and migrating towards the old reservoir to start their spring breeding cycle. I have to admit I just sat and enjoyed this wonder of nature and when the last of the frogs vanished into the night I finally drove off. I felt so privileged to have witnessed it. For me that night, I was in the right place at the right time.
Charlie’s Co van has long gone and where it stood are two new houses. The swamp has been drained and turned into a football park and the burn now flows unseen and unheard through large concrete pipes deep down in the earth. However, the story does not finish there. One day during the 1970s (approx) the park became the scene of a major emergency when some of the local boys took it into their heads to lift the manhole cover and climb the forty or so feet down the ladder to the water, reputedly to see if they could find any trout. A woman living across from the park witnessed them going into the manhole and stood at her window waiting for them to reappear. As time passed, she became seriously concerned for their safety and quite rightly dialed 999. That call brought every emergency service in the town up to Millgate Road.
There were police cars, ambulances and firemen wearing breathing apparatus. A large crowd of people had gathered both inside and outside the park, among them the mothers of the boys who were out of their minds with worry. Fearing the worst, the women were absolutely distraught as they watched the firemen descend the manhole. The band of underage explorers were thankfully brought back to the surface uninjured and as they emerged one by one into the sunshine, they must have thought that they were having a nightmare, for facing them were lines of emergency personnel; half of Fairhill was staring at them and worst of all was their sobbing mothers. “Oh ma wean” said the mother of the first boy who emerged from the manhole and she ran and clasped him to her breast much to his embarrassment because his pals were watching. Each mother reacted more or less the same; except for one, Teresa, who frantic with an explosive mixture of blind fear and pure relief made a dive for her boy and just for a moment, it looked as if she was going to have a swing at him. I can see it in my mind’s eye as clearly as if it was yesterday and it still makes me laugh. She was some Teresa, everyone liked her. It was certainly a day never to be forgotten. …..
Wilma S. Bolton. ©