Caught by the River

The Homestead #2: Freewheeling Rings of a Tree

16th June 2020

In the second instalment of a column centred on the Sussex farm of her childhood, Jo Mortimer recalls go-karts, bikes, and death-defying stunts.

After hours of tearing up and down the lane on a battered Christmas present, my ten-year-old luck ran out. The ramp – one rotten plank resting on a house brick – finally gave way; I sailed over the handlebars of my red and white Raleigh and crash-landed face down on our lane. A farm track patched up with barrowloads of hardcore, the lane was never fully resurfaced. My exasperated parents carted me off to hospital, where gravel and flint was tweezered from my face and body by nurses who advised me to grow up. 

For weeks, legs up on a pouffe, I flicked through all four channels of daytime tedium and watched my sister, brothers and the gang freewheeling out of sight. I longed to get back out there. Nothing could match the buzz of occupying that edgy zone between comfortable safety and life-changing injury. Despite the occasional trip to Cuckfield Hospital’s A&E – also long gone – the farm supported us. There was a softness about the place. No matter how many times I went bleeding and limping back to the house, I healed. The pain added strata to our understanding of the land and our place within it – those layers have, like the rings of a tree, charted our growth.

Our games fell into four distinct camps: speed, agility, adventure and discovery. My eight-year-old brother was by far the most mature – the rest of us, approaching secondary school or already there, were pretty reckless. He’d pass us sticks and blades of grass to hold against the electric fence but watched the outcome from a few steps away. As a gang, we complimented each other beautifully as we rampaged across our kingdom. Scruffy and strong, we brought out each other’s wildest ideas and unshakeable confidence. 

It’s easy to look back and edit out the shit bits, but when it came to being outside, nothing stood in the way of a good time. There were occasional run-ins with neighbours, but we didn’t care. I once told my dad’s best mate from school to ‘sod off’ – phrasing no doubt first heard from my grandad. He came after me, but on forty a day he couldn’t close the gap, didn’t know the cut-throughs and fox trails like I did. 

Down the bottom field hung a five-bar gate, a regular spot for brushing the horses and filling up their water trough, but when they were elsewhere mayhem ensued. Taking it in turns, with head bowed low against possible whiplash, we clung on as the gate was pulled right back and slammed against the fence post with maximum force. Put like that it sounds hideous, but the thrill of meeting the inevitable had us clamouring for more. Eventually my brother’s mate, Geoff, got caught in the bars and broke his leg – it was the first my parents knew about our death-defying stunt. I doubt that went down very well with Geoff’s family, but we soon found new entertainment. Go-carts. 

The lane was not a racetrack – something we were told on a daily basis – but a collection of potholes and sharp stones lined with dense patches of stinging nettles. Our rickety bonecruncher fashioned from wire, planks and pram wheels could run the length of the lane, at speed, with three of us on board. The steering mechanism was rudimentary, but still we dodged horses, trucks and the occasional motorbike. It wasn’t long, though, before the whole thing buckled straight across the middle – now we had two wheelchair-like contraptions with no backs. Balance was everything as we raced and navigated courses until we were called home for tea.

The thread running through everything we did was one of curiosity and a need to push things further: we never felt defeated – the end of one thing only heralded another. We roamed around blindfolded as if we’d seen it all, peered down on chickens through the canopies of trees and played It through the moonlit woods. We drew so much fun and adventure from the farm, but there was far more to be had.

 Very few pictures of us survive; I’ve seen just two or three. The rest, I think, went with my dad and we’ve had no luck tracking them down. But these memories are etched into my bones because we interacted with The Homestead in such varied ways. Remembering the farm now reminds me to always think big and reach beyond the seemingly secure because every now and again, when you don’t see it coming, safety nets can rip and tear. 


You can peruse Jo’s website here, or follow her on Twitter / Instagram.