The Ash Tree

My mother loved her garden.  Apart from a few essentials for herself, every spare penny she could save was invested in scrubs and plants.

When we moved into the new house in 1952, the site was covered in rubble, ashes from the burned out Irish cottage, that previously stood in one corner, weeds and nettles.  There was little or no topsoil.  It looked as if nothing would ever grow there.

Yet a few years later, it was a virtual ‘Garden of Eden’, with a variety of flowering shrubs, roses, various plants and bulbs.  My mother had a proverbial ‘green thumb’, and visitors to the farm used to marvel at the profusion of year-round colour.

In a secluded corner of the garden, where there was a small ash tree, my mother had one of the workers construct a seat under the tree, using a sheet of corrugated iron, backed with soil and topped with a layer of grass.

It was never a success.  It was too shaded, too damp and within a year the iron retainer started to rust.  Nobody ever sat there.

But I liked it, for it enabled me to climb onto the lower branch of the tree, and standing on the branch, I felt as if I was on a ship.  I used to spend many hours in that corner of the garden.  It does not take a lot to stir the fertile imagination of an eight-year-old.

On Friday, February 07, 1958, the BBC morning news announced that a plane carrying the Manchester United football team had crashed the previous evening, when attempting to take-off from Munich airport, and that 20 of the 44 passengers had been killed.  Later three more died of their injuries.

The team had been returning from a European Cup match in Belgrade and had landed at Munich to refuel.  The pilot had aborted take-off twice in a snow storm, due to poor runway conditions.  On the third attempt, the plane hit a thick layer of slush, careered off the runway through a fence, and one wing hit a house.

BEA Flight 609

One of the undoubted heroes on the night was Irish goalkeeper, Harry Gregg, from my home area.  He managed to carry and drag several of the injured from the burning plane, including Bobby Charlton, Jackie Blanchflower, Dennis Violett, the pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat and her daughter, and his manager, Sir Matt Busby, who was twice given last rites, but survived.

Harry Gregg in his playing days


And at the 50-year memorial, with a candle for each of the victims


Like a great many people, I was very shaken by the news.  I went down to my secluded corner, climbed into the ash tree, and with my penknife I carved ‘Man U 1958‘ in the bark.

Several years later, when I returned on a visit, I could still vaguely make out the carving.

The garden has now long gone, but perhaps the ash tree is still there.


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