A Walk in the Park: The Veteran
Jim York is 93, so this walk in the park was a feat of memory, undertaken from the armchair in the front room of his house in Leicester. Jim was cycle-racing competitively into his 80s, but is now less mobile. That didn’t stop him from talking about memories from lots of different periods of his life, with the help of photos, newspaper clippings, and his wife Thelma.
Jim was born in Pentonville, one of the worst slum areas of Leicester. In a Leicester Mercury article in 2017, he recounted his early life: no water or electricity, cockroaches, poverty… You can read the full article here:
His experience of Bradgate Park really started when he joined the Leicestershire Home Guard. He served for three years, and was a Corporal by the age of 19. Bradgate was a contrast from Pentonville and industrial Leicester. Jim remembers being on manoeuvres near the War Memorial, sleeping two nights under the stars, on the ground, with no tent. What a different skyline that must have been from the terraced houses and factory smoke. There were other eye-openers: Jim told me “I’m not going to say what we used to find in the undergrowth, especially when the Yanks were here”. We both agree to call it “wildlife”. Some things don’t change…
On one occasion, the Home Guard were used as a training exercise for the Commandoes: the elite soldiers south marched from Scotland, being attacked by Home Guard battalions along the way. When they reached the Leicestershire Battalion, Jim was involved in the ensuing fight. It was called off, he tells, me, because it got too rough. The Commandoes weren’t averse to breaking a man’s bones with a rifle-butt – not what a 19 year-old from Leicester was used to… Jim and two mates were also caught out in the words night of the Blitz in Leicester, running from shelter to shelter, trying to find space to escape the falling bombs. He joined the Air Cadet Corps the following week.
After service in the RAF in Singapore, Jim returned to Leicester and, during a 51-year career at Mellor Bromley, started cycling competitively. He showed me photos of himself and Thelma, proudly standing by their Dawes cycles – expensive in today’s money, but a mark of quality. They cycled to Bradgate Park frequently in the 1950s; Jim remembers Annie’s Café, which was on the site of the current café, where they would stop for ‘a cup of tea and a wad’. Jim and Thelma both agreed that the Park in those days was very different. After only 20-odd years as a public park, facilities were still pretty basic: no visitors’ centre, information, events. And no poet in residence, I guess. Jim’s love affair with cycling continued; he is still a member of Leicester Cycling Club (and worries about the small number of members that attend the clubhouse). He competed in the Isle of Man cycle race, which Thelma tells me was easy because “you couldn’t get lost, because it’s an island. If you keep pedalling, you end up where you started.”
As time went on, Jim continued coming to Bradgate Park. By this time he was driving, and made a habit of parking at Hallgates car park, at the Cropston end – because his two sons demanded ice creams, and that’s where the ice cream van was (and still is). He showed me a picture of his two sons, in short trousers, climbing the rocks at the Park in the 1960s; an activity, he tells me, that frightened the life out of Thelma. His mind is still sharp, as are his memories, even though he can’t cycle up to the Park anymore. He takes it all in his stride: after hearing his story, I get the impression that nothing much frightens the life out of Jim York.