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'Did they think I had kidnapped him?'

Judd, Dorothy, The Guardian, July 21, 2008

Dorothy Judd was reported to the police for simply playing in the woods with her five-year-old grandson. Now she is afraid to be alone in public with him. 

Max lies on his back, looking up at the high canopy of beech trees. We listen to the sounds of birds, the muffled roar of traffic, children's voices, some loud bangs in the distance. 

"I wish we could sleep here," he says. "Can we?"

"It would be lovely, Max. But I think we'd get cold. And it would be hard to sleep out here. But when you're older I'm sure you can go 

I reply, pleased that he feels so relaxed and safe. But that's how it should be when you're five and with your grandmother.

We had come to these woods the previous afternoon as well. They border a vast park in a suburb of a northern city. Quite wild and muddy, the woods are sordid with litter, but nature triumphs with abundant fungi, ivy, brambles and the extraordinary roots of vast trees that Max had climbed on. He had chosen this outing because he, and I, did not want to watch rugby on television with his brothers and grandfather. We, the 
grandparents, are in loco parentis while his parents have a rare short break in Venice. 

The previous day I had been concerned that we might be vulnerable in an isolated part of the woods, so I had steered us to an area near a main path. Here, people walked their dogs and there were passers-by every few minutes. Many smiled, some said hello.

"Granny, do you know those people?" 

"No, we're just being friendly,"

was an exchange that took place between us a few times. I didn't think about the people who didn't acknowledge us.

Earlier, in a supermarket, Max had been obscured for one second behind someone else. I'd felt a panicked "What if . . .", before seeing him again. I realised that as a grandparent I felt extra vigilant, having been entrusted to care for him and his brothers - probably more so than I had felt with my own children when they were young.

In the woods, we began to create a den, as we had done months before with other members of the family. We collected branches and sticks, planning the doorway, the interior, the functions of the space.

This was a modest den, not much more than a primitive tepee, with open sides and large logs marking two "walls", but to Max it was a house with 
a front garden. He felt inspired to make a doormat with a flat stone, to build a fireplace and to collect more stones in order to make - all by himself - a beautiful work-surface on one of the logs for our kitchen. 

I joined in, pleased he was so happy and imaginative; pleased he could still do some of the things - with an adult, of course, nowadays - that I used to do as a child when one had greater freedom; pleased that he didn't mind slugs, worms or mud on his hands. Seeing his small frame ahead of me, nimbly stepping over branches, roots, and stones like a woodland elf, I knew that this was another blessed moment in my store of 
beautiful times granted by our grandchildren.

Our afternoon passed rapidly, "cooking" mushrooms over the "fire" with "chopsticks", finding a very old mobile phone without a battery, a few beautiful bottles and a ball, all of which Max wanted to keep.

"Why so many seagulls when we're not by the sea?"; 
"How deep is the water?"; 
"Who was your best friend when you were little?" 

were just some of his questions as we wandered back, hand in hand, Max with his plastic bag of treasures slung on a stick over his shoulder.

The following afternoon he wants to repeat the outing, and we are both delighted to find the den exactly as we left it. This time he cooks "deer" with "lettuce", then makes a pillow out of a mossy stone and pretends to go to sleep while I sit nearby.

"Max, we should be going back soon," I say eventually. "Time for tea soon, and we can all watch Mr Bean's Holiday . . ."

"Police!" says Max, sitting up in astonishment.

I turn around to see a very large policeman in a fluorescent jacket approaching across a rough patch of ground. He asks what we are doing. 

"This is my grandson, Max. We're making a den, as you can see. But I was just saying we should be getting back for tea."

"You all right, Max?" he asks.

Max looks bemused and rather shy. "Yes," he says quietly, glancing up at me inquiringly.

The policeman says that there have been two reports, two separate contacts, from people who are worried, suspicious, as to what is going on. Max comes and stands by me, looking up.

"I'll have to take down a few details." 

The policeman takes out his notebook and asks my name, date of birth, Max's date of birth, my address. I say I live in London, but am staying with my son and 

Again, he asks: "You all right, Max?"

"Yes," he says, slightly apprehensively. Perhaps Max is picking up my increased heart rate. "Why is he asking questions, Granny?"

"He's making sure we're OK, Max. That's all," 

I say, as nonchalantly as possible. But I don't feel calm. The policeman talks into his walkie-talkie.

"Well then, I'd better see you on your way. You know, complete the inquiry. I'm sure it will be all right. I'll just pass by the house. You said you were going back anyway."

I am in a state of disbelief and shock. I half wonder if I have been stupid to play in this way, to allow Max to create this imaginary world in a wood.

"Of course, it's good if people are watchful, aware, careful," I say, "but . . ."

I feel too astounded to make a coherent case and too protective of Max to say too much.

"Why, Granny?" Max asks. "Were we doing something wrong?"

"No. He's here to look after us," I say. "I think some people phoned the 

I feel pleased to have managed to conjure up another problem.

"Aren't people allowed to camp in the woods?"

"No. Not here. I think the policeman was making sure we were OK and that we were going home."

The policeman saunters up our lane.

I ask him if he wants to come into the house, thinking perhaps it would be good for him to meet my husband.

"No, it's fine," he says. "I think that's all OK."

But I am not OK and that night Max, unusually, says he is worried about going to sleep. He needs to go over the whole episode. He is worried: what if we were homeless, what if we had to camp in the woods? Then his face lights up. 

"We'd go to a hotel!" 

Immediately he becomes anxious again. 

"But there aren't any hotels near here."

I try to reassure him, not only about our fortunate lives, but that there are some silly people who couldn't tell we were a granny and her grandson having fun, and that the policeman was just doing his job. 

But it is the first time in my life that I have been in a situation where I might be accused of transgressing, where instead of helping the police with a theft or an accident I was seen as a potential criminal.

 I am left wondering what the "reporters" thought, or saw. 

Did they think I was abusing him? 
Or that I had kidnapped him? 
Or that I was crazy? 

Much later, I wondered if they had seen us on both consecutive days and then became suspicious.

It is now eight months since that incident. It is strange that the experience has left me with an edge of anxiety if I think back to it - almost as if I have done something wrong; as if I should have foreseen the trouble, should have spared Max the consequences.

Perhaps I have not moved with the times enough, have not fully realised that childhoods before the 1970s were different from the world we now inhabit: that the McCann incident, CCTV, greater awareness of child 
abuse, more self-consciousness, have altered the climate. 

Change for the better, in many ways. But increasingly we are losing, especially for urban children, a particular freedom, an unstructured and safe-enough physical environment, with dangers that can be tamed through play and imagination, where worlds - even a kind of magic - can be created.

Last weekend, Max wanted to return to those woods with me. If my husband had not been able to join us, I would not have agreed. Soon Max led us back to the den and there, miraculously having survived a whole winter, was the den, more or less still standing. 

"There's the fireplace, Granny!" Max chirped, "And the doormat."

He did not want to play in the den, though, and while I felt safe this time, there was little magic for me. Max and I did not enter into that fantasy world again.

Max's name has been changed

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