The greatest fort I’ve ever seen was one I didn’t help to build. It was built by the big kids. And it was probably a crime.
Nicknamed ‘The Tunnel’, it was a huge crater dug in the middle of a field; the crater was covered by aluminium sheeting, which was covered by soil, which was covered by branches, leaves and grass. It was entirely underground and it was awesome.
I wasn’t allowed into the Tunnel. None of the small kids were. We had to watch enviously, hidden in the hedgerows, while the big kids crawled in and out through a narrow trapdoor on one side. I’d forgotten about that bit – it had a freakin’ trapdoor.
The forts me and my friends made (or acquired) were much less impressive, but I remember the kick we got out of naming a secret camp and vowing to stash a bin bag full of sweets there (to be bought with months of saved pocket money … if we could just get around to actually saving it). That seemed to be the main function of a secret fort – somewhere to stash the loot. A limitless supply of chocolate, crisps and penny sweets was the dream. For the sake of our local shopkeeper, it’s a good thing that never came true. Spending 30p could easily take twenty minutes or more of careful consideration at the sweet counter. Choosing a bagful would have taken weeks.
There were secret forts and camps dotted all over the fields that stretched beyond the housing estate where I lived, and they were made all the more exciting and dangerous by the legend of Farmer Hearty.
Farmer Hearty was a huge man who wore a flat cap and a tweed jacket, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and a shotgun over one shoulder. At his heel followed a hound of horrible ferocity – it was, depending on who told the story, a cross between a Rottweiler, an Alsatian, a pit bull and a wolf.
I’d never seen Farmer Hearty – none of my friends had seen him either – but we had heard wild tales from the older kids about being chased across the fields, bullets whizzing past their ears, the Baskerville Hound snapping at their heels as they ran, and we knew to be afraid. Because, like any good cartoon villain, Farmer Hearty hated kids. And he would shoot any he caught trespassing on his lands.
I remember sunny days, playing by the stream, crossing by the log that didn’t quite make it all the way to the other side, when my blood would suddenly run cold at the sound of the word ‘Hearty!’ echoing through the trees. I could have outrun an Olympian then. Nothing powers sprinting legs like sheer terror.
And I must have run that fast because Farmer Hearty never got me. I never so much as caught a glimpse of that huge man’s towering shadow spilling over the waves of wheat as he gave chase.
In all the years I lived there, fleeing under electric fences, through holes in hedges, wading through waist-deep water, suffering scrapes and bruises and humiliating face-plants in shallow, muddy pools, I never once saw Farmer Hearty in the flesh. None of my friends ever saw him either. Throughout those summers, the big kids taught us a valuable lesson … and the meaning of the word gullible. Thank you, big kids.
All of this stuff has been coming back to me more and more as I write the Cass and the Bubble Street Gang books; a series about a group of friends with a secret club, a secret clubhouse, and a longing for adventure.
I can still feel that spark of excitement in my belly that Cass and her friends get as they make their covert plans for a hidden fortress. Me and my friends were obsessed with having something secret, something that was just our own. I guess that comes from being a kid, and everything about your life being someone else’s business all of the time. You want your own space, your own stuff, your own adventures. Maybe it’s the very beginning of growing up – your first little rebellion. And it is a little rebellion.
A secret fort is like your very own house, and in your house you’re the boss. You decide what time you go to bed (though you’ll never actually be there at night-time), you decide what you’re going to eat (which will be junk food for as long as your pocket money lasts, but let’s face it, you’re going to go home for dinner when you’re properly hungry), and you decide who comes in and who doesn’t (through the clever use of a password, changed fortnightly – a security system that’s totally unenforceable, and you all know it, but nobody says anything).
Cass, Lex and Nicholas are in the middle of their little rebellion. They risk climbing the fence into Mr McCall’s field, braving the snorting threats of angry bulls (never that scary in cartoons but terrifying in real life) and leaping over ditches into bramble-filled hedges just to find the perfect spot for their secret clubhouse. With the hidden hideout built and packed to the paddling pool roof with muffins and cookies, they go looking for adventure. It finds them first; something I lived in very great fear of as a child – a clubhouse intruder.
In the second book they move on to entrepreneurial adventures, determined to make millions through jumble sales, ghost tours and virtual holidays. That’s also inspired by my own childhood efforts, but it would take an entire other blog post to list all the money-making ideas that never made us a bean. The dream of the bottomless bag of chocolate, crisps and penny sweets remained forever beyond our reach.
I’ve lost the desire for it anyway. I am a fan of junk food, but a black plastic bag stashed in the corner seems ridiculous. And I haven’t built a fort in years, not even a temporary indoor one with chairs and cushions and blankets (and a mop for height; it was always a killer getting height). I have grown-up adventures instead. I’ve travelled a bit, I’ve had some quirky hobbies, I’ve been scuba diving and abseiling and white water rafting, and I once slept through a hurricane. But nothing’s ever quite matched the thrill of watching someone dig a big hole in the ground and cover it up with soil and twigs.
It felt like the Tunnel existed for months – an entire summer at least – but it probably only lasted a week or two. It was a foot that did it. One single careless foot that slipped between the sheets of aluminium and ploughed right through the roof of the tunnel below. I can remember one corner of aluminium sheeting poking skywards through the soil – the beginning of the end. The big kids hadn’t the motivation to fix it, and we hadn’t the know-how. The Tunnel collapsed like a bad soufflé, but what it lacked in structural integrity it more than made up for in wow factor. It is, ironically, cemented in my mind as the greatest fort that has ever been.
Erika McGann, April 2017
The Clubhouse Mystery is available here and in all good bookshops!