Sunday, 8 April 2007

A Walk Down Memory Lane

On Maundy Thursday we went for a walk, my parents, the girls and I. It was a walk down memory lane, beginning with the house where I was born. The small silver birch, plucked from Ashdown Forest and grown so tall was gone. The house now looked a little stark on its corner plot. I pointed to the front windows and said to the girls, 'Just think, in the sitting room through those windows that's where your Mummy was bounced on your Grandfather's knee, singing Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross.' I remember the green swirly carpet which I recently saw again in a friend's house up north. I remember the dining room where my mother tried unsuccessfully to force feed me rhubarb in my high chair. I remember thinking, why is she doing this when I really don't like it? The simple logic of a child. I looked at the garage and saw the yellow Vauxhall estate with its mustard yellow seats which took us on an epic six week journey through France and Spain to the Algarve in the late 1960s. The orange and yellow nasturtiums by the porch with their mustardy smell and the furry black caterpillars, the sandpit and the swings in the back garden. I have glimpses of birthday parties and cakes, bonfire nights and mice escaping from their cage in the playroom. We talked of the neighbours, some dead, some alive, some still there, some who knows where. With these people in our minds, we continued into the village where mother used to walk us in our prams in the days when the week's shopping cost £1 from the grocers. We passed the church where my brother and I were christened and the lane where we used to pick 'Langton Fuzzies'. I hear Jimmy Hill now has a house down there...

From the village of my birth, forever on my passport, to the country primary school where my education began. It nestles in the corner of a huge expanse of cornfield on the edge of a neighbouring village. The shop where we bought our penny sweets is long gone, but the post box in the wall still marks the spot. We left the car at the top of the school drive and walked down. I peered through the glass doors to the assembly hall. Inevitably it seemed smaller in dimension, but the cream lino floor tiles were the original. I could still smell the disinfectant and the stewed plums. So strange to think of the days I had sat, cross-legged on the floor, or bought my apple at break with a threepenny bit; the concerts played, the 11-plus taken. I peered into the reception and saw the cloakrooms in the corner, remembering the harsh crackly loo paper so useless at its task, and the pegs where my hand-sewn PE bag once hung. And then the playground where we played British bulldog and French skipping, where we made friends and lost them. The playing field, in my mind's eye, had always been huge and it was, even with my adult's perception, still large. The lanes were marked out for running races at Sports Day, my stomach still flipped at the thought. The strangest of memories, and so strong now, was of the fences where the bindweed grew and the concrete posts, embedded with gravel, that held them up. Why was this? Was it the hours spent staring at the free cornfields beyond our kindly enclosure, or simply because too many children had cut their heads on them in boisterous games? I honestly cannot say. We walked the perimeter as I had done on many a nature walk, the plants by the wayside as familiar as the smell in the air and the hard cracked clay earth under my feet. In the distance was the rise of the South Downs. It was to these chalky heights we headed next.

We took the route the school bus used to take to the swimming pool in Hove, all those years ago, but stopped short at the foothills of the Downs. We drove through the pretty 'spring line' villages where the sweet chalky waters running through the hills burst out into gravel floored streams. The girls gathered water, splashed around and got soaked. They ran over little wooden bridges amongst the primroses and the daffodils at a favourite hostelry of old - most frequented after father's Sunday cricket at the local ground, a pristine oval of green with brick and flint clubhouse. With bottles of spring water clutched between knees we drove up to Devil's Dyke to catch a view of the sea and look down on where we'd just been. The water glinted hazily in the distance, holding in its briny expanse the promise of foreign lands. A cool breeze whipped round our ears but the sun was strong. We trod a path on the chalky domes with their short springy grass and scattered flints, climbing a stile and descending a little way down the north-facing slope. The sound of birdsong drifted up from the woods below to meet our ears. A snake was spotted slinking into a hole and before us the expanse of Sussex stretched away to a shimmery horizon. I cast my eyes around. Rabbit holes, dainty wildflowers. Plastic. Small wrappers, large bags, bottles. How can people do this? But do it they do. We have a lot to answer for. A whiff of stale fat caught my nostrils from the Devil's Dyke cafe. We climbed back towards the car park and bought a Mr Whippy. We sat, licking our holiday treats, on a stone bench sheltered by the wind.

There was just time to drop in to the scout camp at Small Dole which my father frequented in the 40s. He would cross the Downs from Hove, rucksack on back, and pitch his tent on the field where they played their wide games. We walked through the hazel woods where the remains of campfires lay in clearings amongst the primroses and bluebells, and sharp blackthorn trees left soft clouds of white blossom round the edges of the field. A bi-plane, with perfect synchronicity, passed overhead. My father looked up, remembering the battles he had witnessed in the skies above the Downs as he was growing up. The girls did summersaults in the field, oblivious to the price of their freedom.

The shadows were growing longer, the sun weaker. It was time to take the fast road home.

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