Back in the 1960s, Sherrardspark Wood was maintained by a woodsman named Mr. Black. He probably had a Christian name, but he was always Mr. Black to us. He dug ditches, dealt with fallen trees, creosoted the stiles and fenceposts alongside the Luton branch line, and stuff like that. His base was a hut just inside the woods from the entrance between Reddings and Sherrardspark Road, in the angle between two paths that diverge there. It was a dank garage-like hut, built of wood, black with creosote, musty, and with a dark grey felt roof. There was no electric light and the interior, where he kept his tools—and the motorcycle on which he came to work–was black and mysterious.
There was, however, a small wood-burning stove just inside, on which Mr. Black brewed tea from time to time. At break times he would sit at the entrance to the hut with one or two of the doors open and often started conversations with passing residents. Everyone in the neighborhood knew him, and many of us asked him for one thing or another from time to time. My father, for example, asked if he could come up with a straight branch of a certain size strong enough to hold the swings and climbing ropes he was planning to set up for us in our back garden. Mr. Black duly obliged, turning up soon after with the perfect bough (which he had no doubt cut to order) and I was tasked with running after him to hand over half a crown (two shillings and sixpence) as a thank you gift! I often walked past Mr. Black’s hut on my way to Templewood School, and if he was there Mr. Black invariably called out “hey ginge” (I have ginger hair) and we had a nice chat.
In the late 60s, I think it was, Mr. Black retired, but sadly he was killed riding his motorcycle soon after and never got to enjoy the long retirement he so deserved. Neighbours got together and planted special trees and flowering shrubs at the entrance to the woods in his memory and one, a gifted woodcarver, made a commemorative plaque that was fixed to a tree there. Mr. Black’s hut disappeared soon after, his maintenance regimen was abandoned, and the woods have never been quite the same since. The plaque stayed in place for many years (and may still be there) but there’s no sign of the planting today. Every time I pass the location of his hut, however, I think about Mr. Black and what a wonderful character he was.