Bittersweet: reflections on ‘home’

Bittersweet: reflections on ‘home’

Do you want to go home?’ my partner asks.

By ‘home’ she doesn’t mean heading back to the house after a trip out, as we are already there, sitting on the sofa.  By ‘home’ she means the town where I was born and grew up, and the conversation is one of those that start as a result of the third lengthy Covid-related lockdown that this country has experienced inside of a year.  We are rapidly approaching the point where we will have to make a decision about where to spend the next few years, while I move on to the next stage of postgraduate study, and we need a more suitable space for my partner to work from home.  In many ways, the warped logic induced by lockdown convinces you that you will never see anywhere other than the town that you currently live in – so the suggestions become more novel with each conversation.

So, to return to the original question, do I want to go ‘home’?  My gut instinct is exactly what it has been for several years now – no, not really, what’s the point?  I make a desultory attempt to flick through a few properties on Rightmove, and feel depressed at the sight of the tiny boxes to rent at inflated prices in streets I’ve never heard of, that probably stand on what I remember as fields or water meadows, designed to take the surge of the River Ouse when the sluice-gates are opened further upstream during the winter.  I remember when the first lot of these identi-boxes were built in the early 90s and sold off for a king’s ransom by developers, described as ‘townhouses with river moorings’.  I also recall, the following winter, being part of a group of locals – including my mother – who stood on the old railway bridge which spans the water meadows, sniggering at the sight of the new house owners paddling their food home in dinghies, their houses now like detached islands in the floodwater.  ‘Daft buggers’ was the consensus.  ‘More money than sense should’ve checked first.  Everyone knows it’s a floodplain.’

Yes, those of us on the bridge knew it was a floodplain, but then we would.  A group of townspeople spanning at least three generations, a number of the older ones were members of an organisation called ‘The St. Ivians’ Association’, which you had to have been born in the town to belong to.  The last stand of a people who felt they were being overwhelmed by new houses, commuters and people with ‘more money than sense’.  Looking back, that day on the bridge had a little of The Wicker Man about it. I amuse myself with thoughts of locals swaying rhythmically on the bridge as ‘incomers’ are offered as a sacrifice to the gods of the river.

As my eyes refocus, and wander back to my phone, the next offering on Rightmove is an altogether different proposition.  This is a house I know well and can instantly place.  It’s a unique house with its Dutch gabled exterior and has stood by the river and its medieval bridge and chapel for at least three hundred years.  I feel a prickle of excitement as I look through the particulars, amazed at the gorgeous new kitchen, bold polka dot wallpaper in some rooms and a cheeky copy of a Banksy mural on the lounge wall.  Fancy living in a house with a Banksy!  This is a very different story to when I last visited the house over twenty-five years ago.  I liked Mrs P, she seemed ancient to me as a child.  Mrs P had grown up a couple of doors down from my great-great-grandparents and knew all the successive generations of my family.  In my late teens, I would deliver her Civic Society Annual Report and collect her subscription.  Although she was now too frail to attend the monthly history lectures held at the Free Church, she was still keen to know all the news.  Then, the house was always dark, furnished when she moved there just before the war and hardly changed since.  It was like a museum.  I would stay for a cup of tea, served in china cups with the flower patterns faded through decades of being washed.  Whenever I walked past what was known as the ‘Dutch House’, I would always look for Mrs P, who was usually seated at the window peering out myopically through her small, round glasses, and would give her a wave.

Anyway, this trip down memory lane isn’t getting me anywhere and I resume my scrolling on Rightmove.  I skim over several flats, but hang on a minute, it can’t be?  My attention is caught by the façade of one flat, and I then take a closer look at the photographs.  It is!  This flat is part of the converted blacksmiths’ stable block where my grandad ran his television and radio repair business for over twenty years.  The building has clearly been converted again, this time into flats, at some point since I last saw it about three years ago.  Instantly, I am in Grandad’s shop with its unique smell, very hard to describe but somewhere between metal, dust and oil.  It’s a smell that lingers on Grandad’s leather tool case with its FED Electronics business card glued inside the lid – the toolbox and tools that I still use today if I can’t find someone else to do a repair.  Although my mum and myself lived with my grandparents until I was sixteen, I only have faint recollections of Grandad’s shop, as he had retired by the time I was eight or nine.

I do have two particular memories of the shop.  One is of the large, gloomy stockroom to the left of the building.  It was like those fairground ghost-trains, which I still hate for this reason, with its multi-coloured plastic fly preventor strips that you had to pass through with the strips crawling over your head like spiders.  Once inside, the stockroom was even worse, as underneath the dust were piles of remains – rotting remains of old televisions and radios that would be stripped out for spare parts.  In every corner lurked spiders, real this time, many of them as large as my hand.  A far happier memory is sitting on the counter swinging my legs, watching Grandad, in his grey polyester warehouse coat, work on a television and carefully explaining to me each stage in the process before the television screen would spring back to life again.

My grandparents left a legacy of happy memories, and daft anecdotes that I still relate to my long-suffering partner, and it’s the recitation of these memories that makes her think I want to return home after all.  It is hard for someone with a nomadic childhood like hers to imagine what it’s like to be born into a family that’s been in the same town for at least four hundred years.  I’m the tenth generation that I am aware of, generations of ancestors lie dotted across various burial grounds and even in the middle of town you cannot escape us, as Uncle Fred’s name is inscribed beneath a tall cross in Market Hill.  One of those whose ‘name liveth for evermore.’

As I scroll back up on Rightmove, I look again.  There’s enough room, polka dots and a Banksy with river views, what’s not to like? I swiftly calculate, we can afford it – just.  But what will this achieve?

My memories are good, but they are just that – memories.  Returning cannot recreate the past, nor would I want it to.  The town is different now, home to almost eight thousand more than when I left it over twenty years ago.  They don’t know that I am the last one born there who bears my surname.  They don’t care, why would they?  I didn’t care either, and felt stifled by the sameness of life day after day.  It felt like an escape, a chance to be free.  Secretly, I quite enjoy being semi-nomadic but yet still feel the sorrow of being rootless.  The town is pretty, much livelier today, it makes a good place to be.  But it’s not my town now, it belongs to others.  My world has become that of those who, like me, scattered, to university, to jobs, to relationships elsewhere, or those who now rest in neat rows near my grandparents and other ancestors.

Images © Judith Dunkling

Judith Dunkling
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Judith Dunkling is a PhD student at Aberystwyth University, researching the written charms of Wales and the Marches. As well as the history of religion and magic in Wales, Judith researches medieval monastic history, and has an interest in the folklore of East Anglia - probably as a result of being scared witless as a child by her grandfather's stories about Black Shuck roaming the Fens! Originally from East Anglia, Judith now lives in the Welsh Marches.

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