Believe it or not, from the age of about 6 I used to walk home from school by myself. Nowadays the child care gestapo who haunt every county hall would probably have whisked me into care as soon as my parents had the idea, but back then it was perfectly acceptable not to wrap your child in cotton wool for each and every waking hour and to give them a little independence and responsibility.
When I started out, I wasn’t walking very far. The journey was literally from the school gate to Dad’s office, which was only a few hundred yards away. I was sensible enough to know that I must always cross the one road that I had to cross at the crossing patrol outside the gate. It was then a matter of walking to the end of the road, turning the corner onto the main road, and then following the pavement to the door to the building which Dad worked in. (If you want to see how short the distance was, there’s a map here)
There was never a problem with this arrangement, until the day that I hurt my ankle, which was after I had been making the journey for a good few months and was almost seven.
The accident was entirely my fault. I was playing in the classroom – I think it must have been a wet playtime – and I jumped off a table. I landed awkwardly and knew straight away that I had injured myself.
I could barely stand, let alone walk. I hobbled over to my teacher, Mrs Pettigrew, at one point and told her what I had done. She was understandably unsympathetic, given the circumstances that I had hurt myself in, and I didn’t dare raise the subject again.
At the end of the day I knew that I had a problem. There were some railings outside the classroom that I could hold on to for support, but I had to limp across the playground to the gate and was one of the last out of school.
I remember someone – probably another parent – asking if I was alright, but I had the foolish bravery of a young child and said I would be fine as I only had to go around the corner. Which took a very long time, stopping for regular breaks as I went.
Once I finally reached Dad’s building I had another problem. I had to somehow negotiate the stairs up to his office. I was trying to figure this out when the building’s caretaker came along. At last, a grown-up who recognised that I was in pain! He helped me into his office by the foot of the stairs and sat me in a chair whilst he went to find Dad.
There was only one problem. Dad wasn’t in his room. Or anywhere to be found in the building. By chance, it was one of the very rare days when he was doing something elsewhere in the University and I was apparently supposed to be watched over by his colleague, the wonderfully named Dr Dick Brown.
Somehow, both Dick and I had forgotten this – probably a combination of my upset and tiredness and the general absentmindedness which seems to plague all academics – and Dad came back to find that his son wasn’t where he was supposed to be and a note from the caretaker to say he had found me.
Fortunately, the problem with my ankle was severe enough to allow me to get away with having forgotten where I was supposed to be. And I know that it was also bad enough to get me a day or two off school and Mrs Pettigrew a visit from a Dad who was unhappy at the lack of care I had received at school.
The long term impact of all of this has been an odd one, though. First of all, I became a complete hypochondriac for a while, always thinking I was hurt or ill, only to go completely the other way as an adult. And the second was to leave me with a weakened ankle, something which would come back to haunt me a few years later. But that is a story for another day…