The old sledge

I am not an avid TV viewer, but I do have the capacity, when I discover a programme that I like, to become deeply immersed in the medium.

Recently I have found myself becoming enamoured, perhaps obsessed would be a better word, with the BBC show The Repair Shop.

For those unfamiliar with it, the premise is that people bring old family treasures which have seen better days to a team of experts who operate from a large wooden shed. The workmen and women use an array of traditional crafts to restore the irreplaceable items back to their former glory.

There are a couple of reasons why the format appeals to me. Firstly, I am fascinated by people who can do creative things with their hands; perhaps because I am so utterly unable to do anything remotely useful with my own.

The craftspeople display patience, tenacity and no small amount of ingenuity to solve practical riddles and achieve outcomes which would be beyond the majority of us. Skills and experience (and having the proper tools), combined with the steadiest of hands brings old teddies back to life, awakens clocks which have not ticked in years, makes ancient furniture shine and restores brilliance to flaking and crumbling paintwork.

But the labour is the smaller part of the attraction of the show for me. The second, and more important reason why I love it is because I am clearly turning into a sentimental old fool.

Each item brought into the wooden shed comes attached with a deeply personal memory for the owner. Those memories are shared with the restorers, who use it as motivation to achieve the best outcome. The moments when the treasures are returned to their owners, once again in the state that they fondly remembered, can be raw and uplifting.

The more that I watch the show, the harder I find it to control my emotions. Several times my wife and son have come into the room to find me pretending that I have something stuck in my eye before enduring their puzzled glances as I explain that a crack in a vase has been repaired or an armchair has been neatly re-upholstered.

What I am left with, after I wash my face, is a realisation that deep feelings can be attached to inanimate objects. A chair might be just a chair, but if it is a chair that a beloved family member who is no longer around once loved to sit in, then it becomes something much more valuable.

Which brings me to the next theme; that of age, decay and carelessness. The items are brought to the restorers because they are broken or worn out. Not always, but often, this is because the owner was not as careful as they might have been in younger years. Now that they are older, they more fully appreciate what has been lost and are desperate to retrieve it. It is memories, as well as old furniture and toys, which are being dusted off and polished.

I know something of this sense of youthful carelessness. I have always lived my life in the present, not troubling myself to bring much of the past along with me. All of my old teddies, toys, books, clothes, are long gone. Some memories remain, but there has never been anything physical to attach them on to.

And then some months ago I was rattling around in my dad’s garage when I noticed something which I had not seen or thought about in several decades, something which I had no reason to believe was still in existence. Proudly hanging from the wall was an old wooden sledge.

The story behind the sledge (or sled, or sleigh, if you prefer) is this. When I was a young child growing up on top of a hill in rural north Antrim my dad built it. I was so young that I have no memory of a time before the sledge and I assumed for years that it had been bought in a shop rather than made in our old garage.

It was rough but sturdy; a plywood sheet, hose tubing for runners and a length of baler twine attached to the front.

In those days snow seemed to be a more regular occurrence and was often formidable. I have one keen memory of a snowfall so deep that the drift came to the top of our front door and we were temporarily cut off from the rest of the world.

During every snowfall, the sledge was hauled out. My brother and I spent countless hours breathlessly pulling it up hills and across fields and howling with delight as we hurtled down the slopes.

I have a distant relationship with my older brother now, but there was a time when we were small enough to fit on the sledge together and held each other tight during the thrill of those descents.

There seemed to be no threshold of boredom with the sledge, no point where we had had enough. We would always have to be called in late at night because our hands were freezing and blue, our clothes were wet, and snot dripped from our noses. Often, when it snowed, finding us in the dark and icy conditions would be an ordeal for my dad because we had travelled far from home, dragging the sledge behind us in search of new adventure.

When you are experiencing this type of youthful abandon it is natural to assume that it will always be this way, that it will last forever. But it does not.

As I grew older the sledge was not hauled out of the garage so often, and then eventually not at all. We moved on from our country house and I didn’t think about it any longer, assuming it had rotted away like everything else I once owned.

But here, more than four decades later, I had discovered the sledge in my dad’s garage, almost entirely unaltered by time. As I stared at it, I was temporarily overcome and unsettled by the surge of memories and emotions which rushed through my mind faster than we used to descend the snowy hills.

I spent a long time looking at the sledge on that day, taking it down, running my hand across the rough surface, feeling the rub of the twine once more through my fingers. 

It was just wood, nails and string, not much to look at. But it was also a bridge back to a different version of me, and to memories that were buried deep, but not quite gone. I was grateful to my dad for building the sledge, but even more for keeping it for all these years, for understanding better than I did the value of having a signpost back to the past.

Each time I visited my dad’s house after that I always had to get a look at the sledge. It wasn’t long before he gave in and told me to take it. It is in my house now, annoying my wife, who says a dusty old sledge shouldn’t be kept in the good room.

But I like to know it is there. I long for the next proper snowfall, so I can haul it outside once more, put my son on it and listen to him squeal with delight in the way that I did when I was a young boy.

As I said, I’m clearly turning into a sentimental old fool.

* This article first appeared in the News Letter

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