In Minor Pleasures I revisit activities and pastimes I enjoyed in my childhood. In this first essay I returned to one of my earliest and deepest loves, my cartie. I still have the cartie I write about in the article. Thankfully the fleshwound has (more or less) healed.


MIKE BARFIELD revisits the joys of his youth


As I type this my eye is drawn repeatedly to an orange and purple graze on the wrist of my left hand. It is the shape of the island of Borneo. And very nearly the size of it too. I sport it with pride. It is my first proper cartie injury for over 35 years.

Four days ago, against the advice of my nine year old daughter, I took a sprightly combination of pram wheels, firewood and bent nails at high speed down the town slope. It started well, but ended less so. Hence the injury.

Exhilarated and terrified at the same time, I ran out of nerve just seconds before I ran out of hill. In lurching for the brake - in truth, an ineffectual tool even on the flat - I threw everything out of balance and tumbled off frontwards. I landed painfully on my left shoulder, ruining my favourite jumper in the process. Then I performed an involuntary forward roll and landed flat on the base of my spine. It hurt, but not as much as the comments from the group of delighted teens sharing a quiet cider twenty yards away.

When I finally got up, I felt two things. First, my wrist - no bones broken, just a nasty graze. Second, an intense rush of nostalgia. Carties are still great! The decades melted away...

I had my first cartie at the age of 12. I made it myself in the garden of our south Leicester semi from a wooden gatepost, some planking offcuts, and two pairs of 14inch metal-framed pram wheels.

Then, as now, the wheels are the key to a good cartie.

Other kids in the area had made carties before me. Well, we all read the Beano in those days and longed to be Dennis the Menace (boys) or Minnie the Minx (non-boys). We all aspired to zoom down hills, scattering milkmen and coal merchants' cart-horses as went, before speeding through the open door of the local chippie and emerging through the back entrance with a wild shout and six penn'orth of purloined chips in our hands.

You can't do that if your cartie has little wheels and, without exception, all of theirs had. They were those tiny plastic jobs that you got on strollers and baby buggies. I had bigger ideas.

Then, as now, the obvious source for decent-sized pram wheels is the local rubbish dump ('recycling centre' as it will inevitably be called today). When I was kid, my local dump was more like a Bring and Buy. You brought some stuff to chuck on the heap, and you went away with some too. That was how I wheeled home a lovely sprung baby carriage from which I was able to cut off both sets of wheels, complete with axles and fittings, using a junior hacksaw. (Why isn't the full-grown item called a
senior hacksaw?).

Things are less straightforward nowadays. Despite local councils constantly banging on about recycling, most town refuse sites are now all-consuming black holes for perfectly reusable rubbish: nothing that goes in ever gets out again. Niceness is required to wheedle anything out of the guards that patrol them.

And, let me tell you, nothing sounds nicer than saying that you're after some metal pram wheels to make a cartie for your kiddies. (
Grandkids would probably work even better.) Real hearts beat under those high-visibility jackets. And that is how - despite official warning notices to the contrary - I was able to obtain four fine pram wheels from my local recycling centre. The supervisor said he'd look out for some at the other dump he ran and, sure enough, two weeks later there they were, waiting for me. Money was offered, none was accepted.

Big wheels mean that your cartie goes fast, and once you have them constructing your machine is a fairly simple affair. A single length of strong timber should form the spine of your vehicle. A crossbar secured with a carriage bolt will take the front wheels, axle and all. This should then be drilled to take the reins, made traditionally from a piece of old washing line or skipping rope. The rear wheels go onto blocks at the rear, adjusted to allow for the size of the central chassis timber and the height of the front wheel assembly. (No self-respecting cartie should slope backwards.) A brake is optional, being more a psychological crutch than of any practical value.

Which just leaves the seating arrangements.

To this day, the carties that feature in the Beano still have the onboard accommodation formed from a wooden soapbox. Well, I was born in 1962 and, despite being a close student of these things, I have never seen one for real in my life. I'm sure they used to exist. And I'm sure kids did make carts from them. But not any more.

Indeed, such is the national shortage of wooden soapboxes that I recall that John Major, campaigning publicly in the 1992 general election, had to have his famous soapbox specially constructed for him. And when I recently attended the local 'soapbox Derby' organised by the Scouts, there were many fine machines on view, but not a single actual soapbox.

Forget the soapbox.

As I realised with my very first cartie back in the mid-1970s, a simple open platform is the best option, particularly if you do not live in a hilly district. Growing up in south Leicestershire - a land of only gently undulating pavements - I developed a propulsion method for my cartie that was independent of gravity and topography. Instead of sitting on my cartie like it was chair, with my feet resting on the front axle, I perched on one knee at the back of the vehicle and propelled it by scooting vigorously with my free leg. A square of carpet helped avoid crippling knee pain. Steering was achieved charioteer-style, with the reins held in one hand. Once suitable speed was achieved or an incline presented itself, you then simply knelt fully on your cartie and away you went.

It was fantastic fun. I knew every inch of the pavements around my house. All the bumps, all the best dropped kerbs, all the dog dirt blackspots. I probably went not even as half as fast as I managed on my bike, but being that close to the ground the feeling of speed was magnified many times. I became addicted to it. So much so that I even entreated my mum to give me errands to run to distant shops just for the thrill of the ride there and back.

I loved that cartie. It was like owning a dog you could ride. And I was heartbroken when it died. It died in a head-on collision with Billy Rawlings's bicycle. I was rounding the bend at the bottom of our road just at the moment he was doing the same thing from the other direction. His bike had bigger wheels, and my front wheels buckled like wax matchsticks. And then I burst into great sobbing tears. Made all the more embarrassing because Billy was a good two years younger than me.

I never scooted a cartie again - until now. I made the latest machine a couple of years ago when we had builders in to convert the loft. There were lots of interesting bits of timber lying about and they somehow rekindled that old love affair. Once I'd got the wheels, it was a matter of hours to put the machine together. The intervening two years
is merely the time it has taken the kids to get over their initial suspicions about its safety, both having fallen off on their first outings.

Now we take the cartie with us into town, and it is like owning a very expensive sports car. People, young and old, make admiring comments. Adults rejoice in its innocence: 'Good on you mate! I haven't seen one of those for years!' Drivers honk their horns and give us the thumbs-up. Wide-eyed kids ask with envy, 'Is that a go-cart?' (Not a term I encourage, thinking it should be restricted to those noisy motor-driven things.) The attention it gets is almost as much fun as riding it.

I have a very wealthy friend who owns an Aston Martin DB9. It cost him an arm and many, many legs. Our simple wooden cartie generates the same sort of public response as his bright shiny car, but for about £140,000 less.

But, it's time for the inevitable Jeremy Clarkson question: 'What's it like to ride?' Well, riding a cartie is still fantastic fun, while falling-off a cartie is still sort-of-fun, but less so than staying on one.

Being thirty-five years less indestructible, I tend to be a rather more cautious and hesitant driver. I'm also heavier than I was back then, and the cartie is harder to steer and stop as a result. My grazed left hand is testament to that.

Perhaps my only disappointment is in the quality of pavements nowadays. There was very little Tarmac in the 1970s. Back then, the paths were all slabbed, and it was a much better surface for carties. Now the black stuff is everywhere and peppered with the lumps and bumps of excavations for drains, the mains, and cable television.

Still, it gives you more stuff to steer round. Highly recommended. Practice those heart-melting expressions and get down to the dump now!