I am talking of some sixty years ago. The ditch went around two sides of our front garden; in fact there were two ditches. The main ditch, which was virtually a permanently running watercourse, ran parallel with the main road and eventually drained into the river Tas in Caistor. The other ditch ran along Caistor Lane and was the start of another watercourse that ran about 200 yards into a pond. This ditch was normally dry at our end. It also tended to grow more stinging nettles than the other ditch.
The ditch was the normal limit of my domain as a child. This side of the ditch was my playground and a place of safety, but beyond it was motor traffic and the hint of danger. Between the two worlds was the fence. This was made of wooden palings about two feet tall. It was easy for even a little boy of nine to swing his leg over it. At the corner, where Caistor Lane met the Norwich Road, we were frequently crossing the fence to the outside world. This was because it was a short cut from our front door to the letterbox just the other side of the lane. “Just run along now with this letter” I would be told, and it was down the steps, across the lawn, and off to the letterbox. In those days letter writing was an almost daily event. Stamps were cheap; you could send a postcard for tuppence ha’penny, the equivalent of 1p. The postman with his peaked cap was a friendly figure who delivered the mail twice a day. Collections were made seven days a week.
To post a letter you had to get over the fence, and that meant crossing the ditch. Crossing the ditch involved using the bridge. The bridge had originally been the plank of the see-saw that my sisters had used as children. They were too old for the see-saw by the time I came along and the plank had become the bridge over the ditch. You may think it was a shame that the see-saw was not available for young Joe to play on, but a moment’s reflection will tell you that a see-saw is of no use to a solitary little boy. It is all see and no saw.
As I said, the ditch was the very edge of the area I played in. The grass that grew along the bank needed cutting once or twice a year. This was normally done by my father with a scythe although I joined in. I do not claim to have made a very good job of cutting it, but at least I tried. I even had my own special little shears with orange handles. During a summer drought the ditch dried up and I could get into it and stand in the bottom to cut away with gusto. I had a little wheel barrow which I left on the edge, into which I would deposit my cuttings. I was happily at work when I was frightened by a huge earthworm that I had disturbed. In my hurry to escape I knocked the barrow into the ditch and broke one of the wooden handles. It would not have been hard to mend, although too hard for me as a child, but no one mended it for me and that proved to be the end of my barrow.
The wildlife in the ditch extended to much more than earthworms. About three-quarters of the way along was the hole of a water vole. He was quite shy but I would see him peeping out of his hole before swimming off down the ditch. There has been a dramatic decline in the numbers of water voles since I was young. We had the ditch piped and filled in when I was eleven and the poor old water vole lost his home. This disappearance of ditches cannot explain the whole of the story of the drop in the population of water voles, but it is indicative of how the smartening up of the human environment has destroyed so much of the wildlife habitat. The sparrows can no longer nest under the tiles because the gaps have been filled in with plastic strips, and the mice can no longer run about under the floorboards because the floors are now made of solid concrete. House mice are not a popular animal like water voles, but they are undoubtedly part of the nation’s wildlife.