‘Where do you come from?’
I used to hate that question. I never knew how to answer. Did it mean ‘Where were you born?’ or ‘Where do you live?’ Or perhaps, ‘Where have you been?’ or even, ‘Where did your ancestors come from?’.
I knew that in my reply people expected a geographical location, an actual area pin-pointed clearly on a map, a declaration of belonging to a specific place. But I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know how. My childhood was peripatetic, a short stay somewhere, perhaps a year or two, before we upped sticks and moved on to another house, another school, another life in another place. Where did I belong? I had no idea.
Continuously moving on meant there wasn’t time to build a deep relationship with a specific place. I remember being incredulous of friends who had lived their whole lives in one location, whose parents had lived there too, several generations of families with age-old ties to a place they called home. That idea seemed like a rare and precious thing, but it also felt peculiar. Parochial. I told myself those people were insular, inward-looking, whereas I, sophisticated and worldly-wise in my well-travelled experience, looked outward. I was a free spirit.
We all create narratives to make sense of our lives, a story to live by, and that was mine. The Wanderer.
* * *
Story. That was the one constant in those early years of upheaval, a constant that remains true to this day. I learnt to read early and never stopped. In primary school – one of the many – I read every book in the library and had to be escorted to the local secondary school once a week to plunder their resources. I read voraciously at every opportunity. It felt like opening a door and falling through into another world.
In books, I travelled through many lands, saw dragons and unicorns, faced wolves and witches. I walked with giants, went on quests, fought fierce battles and sailed the mighty seas. I lived in castles and forests, moors and mountains. I knew knights and kings, wise women and shapeshifters.
In that early grounding in myth and legend, I learnt many truths. Lessons to live by – triumph over adversity; the power of dreaming and belief; the qualities of integrity, courage, loyalty, determination – values which would shape my internal compass. It also taught me that there is a magic inherent in the natural world, a mystery and power in the springs and the wells, in the standing stones and the old trees. A sense of the ancient seeped into my bones from the books.
These were not mere fairy tales or fables. These were the stories of my land, a place more familiar, more real – and more dependable – than the ever-changing physical locations my body inhabited. In that land, I felt all the belonging that was missing from my dislocated life. When I opened the books, I went home.
* * *
Now and again, I caught a glimpse of my land in the real world.
Three generations before me, my great grandparents found themselves in England. Like countless immigrants from other places, the promise of a better life, of greater opportunities, brought them here. From disparate beginnings, our family assimilated an English identity.
But the stories handed down to us as children came from our roots on the Celtic fringe. The proud history of our Scottish clan, the singing of the old songs, the wearing of the tartan, the continuing traditions and the stories of that place – all of this kept our heritage alive.
Childhood holidays began with the long drive north through the night, cheering as we crossed the border into Scotland. There was a sense of pilgrimage in those journeys, a feeling of somehow coming home. And there in the mountains, in the deep glens and the dark lochs, I felt a recognition, of finally being in tune, at peace with the land. The same feeling of belonging that I felt in my books. Ancestral memory or wishful thinking? All I know is that my heart rose up in me there and spilled out over the fierce wildland and afterwards I couldn’t put it all back in again.
My grandfather felt it too. He moved back to ‘the Auld Country’, not too far in, just over the border, but far enough that when he died it was on Scottish soil. It mattered to him, the land on which he lived his last years.
After he died, we took his ashes to Glen Trool as he had wanted, the site of a decisive battle fought and won by King Robert the Bruce in 1307. Actually, it was more of a scuffle than a battle, but it marked a turning point in Bruce’s fortunes and the First War of Scottish Independence. A great granite boulder commemorates the victory and here we let my grandfather go, overlooking the loch. It is one of those places that possesses a beauty so raw and powerful that at first sight, without will, the breath is torn ragged from your body.
Some years later, as part of a longer poem, trying to make sense of his passing and of my belonging, I wrote:
My body lives miles from where
we left you in the valley
next to the monument. My boots
walk over grass
down south and the air
here does not ring with the imagined
clash of steel or feel
in my lungs quite enough. I breathe
but my heart is
lost, still in another country.
* * *
So the Cotswolds is not my land. It is not here that I began, nor here that I will end my days. But it will be my children’s land, an easy answer to the question ‘Where do you come from?’. Four were born in Oxfordshire, two of them in the village in which we now live. I am trying to build a relationship with this place. After twenty-five years – half my life – of residence, of resistance, I am learning to call this land home.
I have tried to embed my feet in this soil, rather than tip-toeing lightly over the ground on the way to somewhere else. As part of my acquaintance with this place, I am learning the names of things, the shape of things.
I have learnt the landscape, the high wolds and deep valleys, the grassland meadows, the ancient woodlands, the miles of hawthorn hedges and dry stone walls. I’ve learnt the marks of its history, from the Iron Age settlers and the Roman invaders, through the Wychwood Forest, the Wool Trade and the Civil War, to the Enclosures and the Arts and Crafts Movement.
I have learnt that my feet stand upon oolitic limestone, a band that extends across England from the Isle of Portland in the English Channel, northwards beyond the Humber. I have learnt the trees and plants that flourish here, the beech and the yew, the oak and the ash, the downy woundwort and meadow clary.
This Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is a tourist’s delight. The limestone gives the Cotswolds its honey-hued houses, a biscuity stone that seems to hold the light. With its historic manors and stately homes, market towns and picturesque villages, it embodies all that is chocolate-box shorthand for quintessential Englishness.
The poet, John Drinkwater, called it the ‘enchanted Cotswold country’. It is the lost world of Adlestrop’s birdsong, of the Hobbit’s Shire, of Lol and Rosie lying together under the hay wagon.
Which is all very nice.
* * *
The affluent have Farrow and Balled most of the Cotswolds, box hedged it in. The insidious process of rural gentrification is known among estate agents as ‘the Cotswold effect’. Second homeowners and commuters have pushed house prices up beyond the reach of most ordinary people. Young people whose families have lived and worked here for generations are moving out because they can’t afford to stay. The place heaves with organic farm shops, artisan delicatessens and gastropubs, all catering for a carefully curated sanitised version of country living. It’s hard to connect with the land when you’re falling over hedge fund managers, rock stars and celebrities.
But I’ve tried. I’ve walked every inch of the land around my village. I know the potholes and rabbit holes, the ditches and the dykes. I’ve sat at dusk and watched the sunset over this valley a thousand times. I’ve walked in the woods at dawn, and encountered fox and badger, deer and owl. I’ve watched the colours of the leaves change as the year turns. I know the feel of the fields beneath the snow, how the meadow looks under a carpet of buttercups. I know the rotation of the crops and the sounds of the night and the mellow glow of the Cotswold stone.
I’m doing my best to belong.
* * *
Not long ago, an elderly lady knocked on my door. She had lived here in our house a long time before, with her husband and children. Over tea, she spoke of their happy home, where the children had grown up, played in the garden she had tended, celebrated birthdays and marriages, and ultimately moved away. This was the house in which her husband breathed his last. She was pleased to see it again, where another family now lives and loves.
I told her the story of how my daughter took her first faltering steps on this patch of grass. The story of how it snowed and we all went sledging down this hill and my son collided with this tree. The story of how we walked this path every day to school in the rain and the sun and all the weather. The story of how we lay together on this bit of ground after dark and watched for shooting stars. The story of how we planted in this earth, the herbs we eat in the meals we share. The stories that tie this family to this place.
She made me realise that if we keep these stories alive, in the remembering and retelling of them, we keep our connection to place alive. The stories inhabit the place, as we did, and so we never really leave. Our history becomes entwined with the soil. We become part of the land and the land becomes part of us.
For if we do not feel a connection to the land that we live on, how can we care for it? If we do not feel part of it, how can we look after it, defend it, love it?
So perhaps the question we should be answering is ‘Where do you belong?’. I still dream that one day I will leave and head home, cheering as I cross the border. But for now, I belong here and while ‘my boots walk over grass down south’, I will keep looking for the magic in this land and listening to the stories of this place.