photo diary: heading north
June 4, 2017
Posted in View from the table
A one day working week (good work, Scott), a road trip, hospital (yawn), cloudbusting with Lil, watching my garden grow, foiled teenage kicks, banana pancakes, family, memories, life going on.
My mum was born in a village in County Durham, she left when she was seven, a reluctant decision, made reluctantly by my grandma Alice and grandad Billy. Being a miner in the north east was not easy, a move south to join the workforce in a major steel works plant was too good an opportunity to pass up on. My hometown was built on the shoulders of men and women mainly from Scotland and the north east, homesick souls torn between ‘home’ and a more stable future.
This week my mum, sister and I took a road trip north to spend a couple of days re-visiting the significant places of my mama’s early life. She may have been a little girl when she left but like her parents she desperately wanted to be back in the north, back ‘home’. That tug is still there. My grandma never truly settled south, her heart was 200 miles away up the A1. They left a row of eight colliery houses, surrounded by hills, woodland, farmland and wild nature and moved to a new housing estate in a new town. I still think about her standing on the toilet in the bathroom, looking out the tiny window – where they’d moved to, that was her only view of a tree. A soul-less new estate, with identikit houses was never her dream. She longed to go back home but like so many people here in my town, roots were put down, family grew, friendships were made, and then you’re stuck somewhere in the middle – go back and live without your nearest and dearest or stay somewhere with a piece of your heart missing. How many people live like that I wonder?
When my grandparents retired they decided it was time to go back home. It, sadly, wasn’t meant to be and my lovely grandad died suddenly before their plans came to pass. Alice went ahead with the move back up to Bearpark, the village where Billy was born. I always thought she was so very brave to go it alone, now I really get how courageous she was, how lonely she must have been too, without her beloved Billy but in her beloved Durham. Cruel and sad, but if that doesn’t tell you to god damn carpe diem then I don’t know what does.
We kids spent all our summers in her little terrace house in Bearpark, I loved it. A tiny living room that always had a massive fire blazing, all year round. Alice really felt the cold. She used to bring tea in on a tray and we’d toast bread on the fire, Tales of the Unexpected on the telly. The fire with the foxy woman dancing in the opening credits as mesmerising as the one in the grate in front of me. Turn left at the end of Alice’s road, walk down the steep bank and you got to a wide field with goats at the bottom and a HUGE view of County Durham; fields, hills, trees; a big sky to dream under. We used to go down there early in the morning with a little basket, and my grandma would pick mushrooms and cook them for us for breakfast.
We drove to the village where my mum was born, Witton Gilbert, to the river Browney where my grandma and grandad did their ‘courting’, I love that word, and where years later would cross with my little girl mama to get to Billy’s mum’s for Sunday dinner and Sunday tea. On our walk our mum recounted coming home in the pitch black on her daddy’s shoulders. There was no car of course.
We went to Lanchester where Alice was born, winding our way through Langley Park (which gave me a Prefab Sprout earworm all day) Esh, where she went to school, Sacriston and along the pretty College Road, flanked in cow parsley, wild fennel and poppies, the road Alice used to walk in her imagination when she couldn’t sleep at night. We visited the parish church in Witton Gilbert with a beautiful, quirky graveyard (I love me a good, old graveyard – so many stories) to visit the grave of Alice’s mum, Edith Sarah, my great grandma and namesake. It’s overgrown and unkempt, like all those graves of that era, ivy creeping and claiming the stone. There’s nobody there anymore to care for it. We three liked the wildness, the self-seeded flowers but we’ll go back later this year to fix it up, plant some lavender and fuschia. Our mum told us stories of her grandmother’s life and my sister told us about mitochondrial DNA – she’s one smart cookie, cell strands passed down through the female line, a chain from Edith Sarah to Alice to mama, to us and to our own four daughters. I liked that.
We turned left at the bottom of Alice’s street, I really, truly did expect to see that field with the goats, that huge view, but it’s been suffocated by an identikit, cramped 90s housing estate. A modern day equivalent of the one Alice dreamed of running away from. I’ve got nothing against 90s housing estates, people need homes, but they also need big fields with goats and mushrooms, the wild places to escape and dream in, too. I did, however, get my big shot at saying, “when I were a lass, all this were fields”.