From the age of one to seventeen years old, 1951 to 1967, I lived in St. Andrews, Fife with my family; my father a medical consultant, my mother an accomplished cellist and my older brother and sister and from 1959 my younger brother.
From the age of seven until about nine or ten years old I spent about six weeks of each summer holiday leading the donkeys on the beach with my best friend Beetle. She was given this nickname by her father as she crawled sideways as a baby and peered out from beneath a thick fringe. I still call her this today! We worked hard leading the donkeys all day every day and enjoyed a gallop home in late afternoon to the donkeys’ field by the dunes. We both just loved it never tiring of what to some might seem like a repetitive job.
The Donkey business was owned and run by a local family headed by Harry and Violet. Violet was a Romany. They took good care of us always providing a shilling at lunchtime for a tasty but very greasy Scottish pie. It sustained us well. I had occasional pleas from my mother to come home for lunch. Home was only a ten-minute walk up the hill. But the staidness of a domestic lunch had no appeal compared to the freedom and fun of lunch on the beach.
My overall memory of those days on the beach was of great contentedness with the added thrill of a gallop home. Though one day we were chased by a herd of bullocks and literally only just made it to the gate. It was a bit too thrilling!
As a child you don’t analyse why you so enjoy a particular activity, you just live it, but looking back I think there were several elements to the experience that made it rewarding.
I was with my best friend, so had good companionship with someone I knew well, and Harry and Violet were trusted members of the local community and were well organised and took good care of us. We felt secure. I remember spending quite a lot of time in silence. Sitting on the sand waiting for my next customer, enjoying the sand between my toes, the gentle breeze, the freshness of the air, the sun on my face and the seascape. I felt competent in leading my charges and looking after my donkey. I enjoyed seeing each child’s pleasure in taking the ride. We donkey leaders were part of a cohesive group and then of course there was the thrill and freedom of the gallop home.
In a way this childhood experience has formed the basis of what I have endeavoured to achieve in life and also my politics. I advocate opportunity for all and inclusivity. I have always been interested in making a positive contribution to community life, whether it was running a Woodcraft Folk group for four years for fifty children, providing yoga classes for twenty years, running a Quaker Sunday School for ninety children for about ten years and now providing an Introduction to Haiku and a Support and Meditation group, both at present on Zoom and being involved in electoral reform. In all these activities I have endeavoured to work in a harmonious way thus bringing out the best in people. The valuing of silence has also been a very important thread of my life; becoming a Quaker in 1976 and training in meditation practice for the last twenty years. Somehow all of this was encapsulated in my Donkey Leading experience. A sort of experience that I now realise became the founding stone of my life.
In adult life I learnt that they were deeper aspects to this childhood experience. Prior to my working with Harry he had been a patient of my father and the treatment he was provided with may have actually saved his life or at least greatly improved its quality. So the whole experience of working for him was underlaid by gratitude and trust. Once I knew this part of the story my whole memory of these times deepened.
Jane Graham Reed is a retired science and health education teacher with psychological research experience. She is now training as a CBT therapist and does project work around mindfulness, well-being, meditation and mental health.
Picture of West Sands c. 1900: Public domain.