When I was ten years old, I made enemies- and then very quickly friends- with an elderly Italian lady who lived across the street. We called her ‘Rene’ (pronounced ‘Reenie’) but her real name was Severina. It was early summer in 1988 and my family had just moved into the seaside village of Pegwell, on the outskirts of Ramsgate. We lived in a house near the top of the hill road that leads up from Chilton Farmhouse and the old tavern.
Rene lived in the bungalow opposite. Her front garden was a small piece of old Italy, strewn with mints, peppers, parsleys and even oregano in the hotter years. When we first arrived, her place was barely visible but by midsummer you couldn’t see it at all. In time, we came to call it Rene’s Jungle. The mystery didn’t end with the plants; a huge variety of songbirds frequented its dense cover and over the years, many nested there.
The long summer holidays were a type of savage paradise. Pegwell was full of young families- perhaps a dozen had children of a similar age to myself and I made lots of friends. Like all children of the 80s, we spent late July reacquainting ourselves with the old faces from the previous, distant summer. Formalities gradually dropped as we became browner and sillier. I remember rock-pooling, BMX races, catapult contests and fishing competitions.
As the days got hotter, a hierarchy began to exist. Friends quickly became blood-brothers and groups developed into gangs, which in turn became tribes. The local landscape was ours for the taking; unleashed from school and adult control, the freedom became intoxicating. We wanted more, so whilst our parents worked, we roamed, strutted and climbed until the limits of our new world became apparent. Gradually, various local landmarks became ‘outposts’ delineating our territory.
To the south, there was the ‘Chine’- a mysterious gap between the cliffs that opened onto ‘Crabland’, where we’d go rock-pooling. Then, in the middle of Pegwell there was the ‘Dark Alley’, or ‘Smuggler’s Alley’ as it was also called; a long passage that threaded its way between the new estate and the older, wooded area before the farmland started. Westwards, in the copse at the bottom of our hill stood Chilton Farmhouse, which today still represents a hard border between mankind and the animal kingdom. Beyond here lurked the wild things. Firstly the farm, and then after a few hundred yards- the Pegwell Bay nature reserve.
Above all other feral creatures, even summer children, the foxes scorned this man-made marker. By day they stayed out in the fields, but midnight hunger brought them crashing through the edgelands. In the blue of night, they’d penetrate the hedges separating the farm from the village, before negotiating the coniferous ascent up the hill. Wriggling and writhing underneath cars and caravans, they’d finally arise wraithlike into our front garden. Sometimes in my dreams I can still hear their calls; they bore old England into the suburbs- and burrowed deeper still into our subconscious minds.
The other great exception to this border was Rene’s front garden. It’s not to say that that the village was an ecological desert. We had the itinerant foxes, all the usual garden birds, insects, frogs and twice- scorpions; the latter must have established a colony here before the newer houses were built in the 70’s. An ill-tempered male specimen got into my father’s overalls one spring… He’d been wearing them for ten minutes before realising… But usually, the really exotic creatures lay just out of our reach unless we wandered down to the farm or the coastal paths. Unless you took a short-cut and went to Rene’s Jungle, which was treated as a kind of ‘park and ride’ by linnets, wrens, hedgehogs (my brother and I used to help them crossing the street) and all manner of butterflies usually restricted to the farmland beneath us.
Like all child-gangs, we fostered an insatiable craving for the mythical; it didn’t take long for us to surmise that the old lady was an evil sorceress. The aromas that drifted over her front wall were deemed to be poisonous; the tangled web of trees, the wall of ancient hawthorn bushes- these were all under Rene’s command and could throttle us at any moment. Such a place is hard for a child to avoid and it soon became a kind of dark church about which we’d congregate, particularly in the evenings; my mother could see us there from our front window, which meant we could stay out a little longer.
The jungle would be growing quiet by then, but that’s when it called to us the most. One by one, the songbirds stopped chanting and the daytime smells disappeared. A great litany of evening scents would ascend to proselytise us. The garden may have looked messy to the naked eye, but in terms of the nose, it was planned to perfection; Rene planted her herbs strictly according to Milanese tradition, just the way she’d learned in the old country. My young, English nostrils were not insensible to this. Each dusk, the jungle serenaded the neighbourhood with a complex rhythm of perfumes: honeysuckle first- my mother’s favourite- but then the darker, more primitive smells of Italian tobacco plants would rise. Finally, just before dark, a lemony, soapy scent would pervade everything- including my brain, which was addled by this point. I’d wander home as though staggering back from the Chilton Tavern and collapse into a deep sleep.
We were nice children in Pegwell, but children nonetheless. When we got bored with BMX’s and football, we’d sometimes play ‘Knockdown Ginger’- the game where you have to knock on somebody’s front door and then run off. Before long, we were daring each other to ‘raid the Jungle’. It was decided early in the summer that we could only walk past Rene’s house whilst holding our breath at the same time, so as not to become enchanted by one of the witch’s ‘smell-spells’. This wasn’t a problem for me: despite bouts of mild asthma, I could hold my breath longer than any other child in the area.
But in a ten year old’s world, all special powers are tossed into the tribal pot; before long I was being cajoled, nudged and (worst of all) dared to be the first raider. I’m not sure how strong a ‘dare’ is for a child today, but when I was younger it meant a lot. It could affect the degree of respect in which we held each other, even. It was acceptable (not to mention sensible) to refuse ridiculous, over-the-top dares (such as climbing the West Cliff or cycling solo through the ‘Dark Alley’). But it was seen as reasonable for me to attempt a ‘knock and run’ on Rene’s place. I had the ‘power’ after all. For me to refuse would mean being labelled the worst of all soubriquets in those halcyon, pre-video game days… A chicken.
And so one hot day in early August ’88, I prepared to enter the jungle. Half a dozen kids watched from BMX’s as I took a deep, final breath. As I felt my lungs fill with air, I beat my chest a couple of times like Tarzan. The King of the Jungle. Or so I thought. Suddenly the chants began. ‘Do it… Do it… Do it… Dooo ittttt!!!!!’
The last of the dares was still hanging in the air as I breached the front gate in one tigerish leap. The first child to enter the Jungle. And perhaps the last. Within seconds I felt that I’d wandered too far and something terrible awaited me if I went any further.
Still, I was fast, I thought. Faster than any old lady- witch or otherwise.
But even a young tiger can’t outrun a storm…