This is a long one. You’d better grab a cuppa. Recently someone I know wrote an online article about home, and it got me thinking. The topic of ‘home’ is one I have gnawed and gnawed at over the years. My explorations into seasonal and simple living, researching the British calendar of feasts and festivals, discovering local geography and ecology, last year’s beating the bounds project, this year’s diary of walks, have all been, at their heart, about that word, HOME. In the article the author talked about “growing home”, about establishing “routines and rituals”, about “putting down roots”. I’m overly familiar with these phrases. I have turned them over and over, and inside out, in one form or another over the years. I did the same as I walked the country lanes, towpaths, and busy streets that make up our parish boundary last year. And in the end I’m not sure making somewhere home is something that we have as much control over as we think.
As you all know, Big Dreamer and I have lived in a lot of places. We have loved some and tolerated others. In each and every place we put in maximum effort to put down roots. We dug deep. We fertilised. We mulched. We watered. In some of those places we arrived with the full intention of living out our days there. When we left, I often felt we had failed somehow. I hadn’t attended enough WI meetings or been chatty enough at the Toddler Group. We had introverted hobbies. We weren’t free on Wednesday evenings. After a while I began to recognise the draught from the door closing, a strange sad diminuendo sort of feeling accompanied by an even stranger sense of the rightness of it. We didn’t fit. This wasn’t our hinterland. The people weren’t our kith. This wasn’t home. That strange, sad, right feeling was the feeling of being rejected. Oliver Balch in Under the Tump says: “We talk of ‘putting down roots’ as though the work is entirely of our own doing. Us cementing our place. Us anchoring ourselves in. Yet if the ground is stony or the earth is barren, such efforts will be in vain. If anyone is to stay and grow and weather the years, the place itself must welcome them, must nourish them, must allow them to flourish…”
We’ve all visited those homes where the walls and floors are the same magnolia and beige put in by the developers. There’s no pictures on the walls or rugs on the floor. Forget dormitory towns, these are dormitory homes, homes literally just for sleeping in. Work, family, the gym, grocery shopping is all a car journey away. In our modern age I think there are more and more people who are ambivalent about the term “home” and the word “community”, often because of all sorts of very valid social and economic factors. But that’s not me, and it’s not us. For us, ‘home’ matters. Some of you will remember a blog post I wrote when we lived in Scotland that recounted the moment hiraeth hit. Hiraeth is a beautiful Welsh word that means homesickness. Hiraeth is the call of home, not just missing people but missing place too. For me, growing home was also about going home. And so we upped sticks and came back (at least for me) to Devon. Big Dreamer (being a Yorkshire man) was worried he would come out in a rash being so far south, but fortunately none appeared.
So what made home in the end for us? I’m not entirely sure. There’s something about the bits between the ‘rituals and routines’ the author spoke about. These are the things that can’t be organised. They are the things that happen just because you belong, like knowing you’ll walk down the high street and always bump into someone you know, or constantly discovering what a small world it is because it turns out so-and-so works with my cousin, and the lady serving me in the bead shop goes to the same quilting class as my mum. There’s something about the connections you have with people you wouldn’t meet for any other reason than the fact you live in the same locality. You share no hobbies, no life experience or politics but you’re both invested in this place you call home. And it’s not just people. It’s also knowing where the best blackberry patches are come the end of august, about the rope swing hidden in the trees at the end of the lane, or that the grassy bank over there will be covered in primroses in the spring.
So landscape is important too. I’ve heard people from Norfolk talk about the way the landscape there makes an indelible mark. All that sky! Every sky ever after is measured against it. For me, no matter how majestic the view, I’m always looking for a little glittering dimple of sea between green hills. Classic Devon. As I walked the parish boundaries last year, researching the local history as I went, I wondered how all that history might shape the lives of the area’s current inhabitants. Our parish was once made up of nurseries, orchards and gardens. William Lucombe built enormous glasshouses for his plant nursery and created the first Lucombe Oak in what is now our nearest park. I’m someone who couldn’t call anywhere home without a bit of earth to tend some flowers and veggies in. Does all that gardening history resonate through time in the spirit of this place? I’m also someone who needs at least two good green walks directly from the house. Our parish is marked by all sorts of ancient paths, holloways, monk’s walks, towpaths and iron-age roads, leading out of the city by green ways. Do their footsteps tap out a welcoming rhythm through time to me? Who knows, but whichever way I look at it, it is home and I’m glad.