OPINION: Anti-social youths in Norwich needed somewhere to go

 Views from around Mousehold Heath

Peter Offord's walk near Vinegar Pond on Mousehold Heath was ruined by anti-social youths - Credit: Jackie Hope

The other evening, after an overdose of news, I decided an evening walk may benefit.

The sun was turning a deep orange, the birds were roosting in the branches and I set off for one of my favourite nature spots. I approached Mousehold Heath as the trees were etched in silhouette and crunched my way to Vinegar Pond.

Apart from the background din of traffic along Mousehold Lane the heath had fallen silent and the purple sky was reflected in the pond’s surface.

I thought of the contrast to the day, when from early morning the heath is populated with dog walkers throwing balls and, during half-term, families splashing gleefully about the water’s edge amongst the tadpoles.

Now in the stillness I watched to see what wildlife might appear.

On morning jaunts I had glimpsed deer, which made me catch my breath, spotted many birds and listened to the drumming of woodpeckers. I thought back to last year when, during lockdown, I could hear the rain water trickling beside the road and the hum of the bees as they collected pollen.

Suddenly from above I heard a powerful flapping and a mallard duck alighted on the pond, followed seconds later by another.

Peter Offord

Peter Offord - Credit: Peter Offord

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The pair splashed enthusiastically, scattering water droplets into the remaining evening light. Then suddenly a bat swooped past - the first I’d seen this year!

And then a rabbit loped out of the gorse bushes and sat washing itself on a mound. I watched for perhaps five or 10 minutes absorbed by the magic of the scene.

Then a different noise broke through the drone of the traffic, a sharp percussive sound and shouting, approaching across the heath.

Three youths with a flashing radio held high came into view.

I wanted to call out to them to stop and listen and not destroy the quietness and stillness; the ducks and rabbits and swooping bats, but they crashed on, approaching the pond.

My mind became overcome with fretful thoughts influenced by the news: youth crime, county lines, knives, vandalism.

I shrank into the bushes, disconcerted. One lad, shouting and clapping his hands hard above his head, spotted the ducks and swore excitedly.

Another with curly hair exhorted: ”Don’t stone the ducks!” I wanted to rush forward and endorse him but shrank further back into the deepening shadows.

I retreated along the moonlit path, then I stopped, waited and listened. More harsh laughter and yells, then the noise began to recede. I cautiously retraced my steps.

The pond was empty, the rabbits gone and the bats were not to be seen.

The noise of the three young lads could be heard fading away.

What of them? I recalled my early teens: Scouting, ‘wide games’ hiding in the long grass, clashes between Teddy Boys, Mods and Rockers, hanging around in youth clubs, meeting pals in coffee bars, tapping rhythm to Manfred Mann on the jukebox and free education and the many opportunities that we took for granted.

With government spending on huge civil engineering infrastructure projects increasing and huge cuts to youth services and an education that runs up massive debt, services for young people should not be seen as a secondary consideration.

Norwich’s charitable Open Youth Trust closed last year after financial collapse - another example of facilities lost. With the pandemic adding further hardship and difficulties, young people need more support not less - early intervention is proven to forestall future problems.

Peter Offord is a Norwich-based artist and former city councillor