14 January 2021

A Farewell to Herts.....

To every thing there is a season.....

A time to get, and a time to lose; 
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

We are about to move on.  After seventeen and a half years in a cul de sac in Harpenden, we are about to be uprooted and transported to a village in Norfolk.

Retirement from local education establishments, the eventual death of my mother in a care home near St Albans, the slow descent of my wife, Amanda, into the disorientation of dementia, and the independence of our two daughters - all of this warp and weft of life has led to a realisation of impermanence and the decision to move on.

Of course the options were endless.  If I were solo, I might have followed my ancestry and moved to Western Ireland, seeking Irish citizenship and a breath of Atlantic air.  Or I could have retraced my steps to Italy, to end my days in sunshine and vineyards.....

Or I could have stayed put.

But this man is not an island, and I have, at least for the moment, some residual responsibilities for others, and so the intention was to find a home with space for assistance for Amanda, and a stimulating environment for all.

Although I grew up in Berkhamsted, I'm not actually a Hertfordshire boy; my birth took place quite quietly in Southsea, Hampshire, a stone's throw from the boating lake, and I spent the first five or so years of life in Portsmouth, inhaling sea air and exhaust fumes from her majesty's (and others') navies.  

In fact, not one of my immediate family was born in Hertfordshire, though between us we must have lived here for a cumulative couple of centuries, at least..... 

Dad's father started it. After the First World War he was a schoolmaster and in around 1925 he moved to Northchurch, now almost absorbed by Berkhamsted, where he took up the post of Headmaster of the local school (as well as choirmaster and organist at St Mary's). In the mists of my misspent youth, my elder brother and I used to drink in the Red Lion, across the A41 from the school and church, and the locals would regale us with tales of our grandad, such as the time he lined the entire school up in the playground and whacked the lot.... What larks!  No intervention from erstwhile Fireplace Salesmen posing as government ministers then!

Dad attended local school, went to Uni, then to War. After which, following a period in Portsmouth, where I happened, he returned to live out his life in Berkhamsted, as master at the School and then as secretary of the Old Boys' Association.

When he retired, I tried to persuade him to move away, to start anew, but he would have none of it, and his ashes rest in Kingshill Cemetery, where mum has now joined him.

All this, and this scattering of local photographs, is why I am feeling apprehensive.  Hertfordshire, or at least a slice of it from Berkhamsted to Harpenden, spilling over the Chiltern scarp and down the dip, encompassing villages and farms, pubs and chalk streams, is a part of me and I am a part of it.

In the past year, for instance, Amanda and I have walked some thousand miles of footpaths in the area.  Sometimes glorious in their flowers and hedgerow blossoms, sometimes Somme-like in the sludge and slurry.

In the past sixty years and more I have walked, and cycled, most every lane and bridleway across this part of the Shire, and stopped to rest or take refreshment in villages that until recently showed little change since the Domesday Book.

In the early seventies, my elder bro lived in Stevenage, and I was then temporarily back home with my parents in Berkhamsted, living in the house where Graham Greene had himself grown up (and to which I, oddly, refused him entry, but that is another story....)

On a number of occasions I walked between the two towns, a 28 mile road hike (passing through Harpenden), taking a footsore seven hours, but never thinking of the traffic. I  wouldn't risk it now......

There are wonderful stretches of land here, whether in broody summer:

Or in moody winter:

There are great houses, with beautiful grounds, like Ashridge, where Amanda posed so youthfully just a few years ago....

My grandparents lived and then died near here.  An aunt and uncle and their three children were Harpendenians (?). 

And our dear girls grew tall and came of age round here - this was taken on Sarah's 18th birthday above Tom's Hill, Aldbury....  Happy days!

Amanda and I were married in Hemel Hempstead, and to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary - some good few years ago now - we returned with the girls to commemorate the day....

But, there are times to weep, and times to laugh; times to mourn, and times to dance...

In 2003 we settled in Harpenden, where there is the old:

And there is the new:

The town is famous for its science:

But also for some of its famous residents.  Eric Morecambe, for example, is still fondly remembered by many, while Owen Farrell, George Ford and Maro Itoje, all attended St George's School.  Maro, in fact was one of my most delightful English pupils, and a model boarder:

Owen shook my hand one parents' evening when he was chaperoning his sister, effortlessly crushing my fingers while he smiled, charmingly .....

There were good days.....

And now it is time to turn, turn, turn....

To fly to pastures new, and to open a new chapter.....

Moving on will be hard.  There's never a good time.  We came here in a heat wave.  The first night we opened all the windows, and I couldn't sleep a wink for all the trains hurtling past the foot of my bed.

Now it is wet, and wintry, and we are getting old.  We will lose all familiarity, and have to carve out new habits.....

But there's no going back.  However much you turn, turn, turn, you cannot go back....

And so we leave. Thank you to all who have travelled with us thus far, and who have been friends and supporters through thick and thin. And, though our ways must part, I sincerely hope this is not, in any sense of the word, the end of the road.....


1 January 2021

One for the New Year

I had a Dream.....

If we make it through December
Everything's gonna be all right I know
It's the coldest time of winter
And I shiver when I see the falling snow

If we make it through December
Got plans to be in a warmer town come summer time
Maybe even California
If we make it through December we'll be fine

Merle Haggard

I was in a school.  A teacher of some low rank, I think.  I must have been a new recruit, and quite young.  It wasn't now.  There was no Covid.  All was busy and lively and I was confused.....

I was carrying a large fish - about a metre long.  Probably a dogfish of some kind, not scaly, but smooth.  It was impassive, but not dead.  I think I had been entrusted with it by a colleague, and it had been with me for the lessons prior to break time.

I was carrying the fish, cradled in my arms.  It was heavy but offered no threat.  I saw a colleague, senior, possibly the head, who indicated through the crowd that we could eat together.  

I was awkward about the fish.  A person said there would be room in the performance centre so, leaving the fish somehow with these colleagues I hurried to ascertain space to park the same.  Somehow I hijacked a lift to an upper floor (it was very busy, there were excited children everywhere and I think I had to force my way).  It was a lift for small children and I went one floor too high, squeezing myself out of the compartment before it descended and cut me in two.  

The place I found myself in was inappropriate - there was an enthusiastic rehearsal for some musical feature going on and and the conductor was not receptive, so I  made my way along a narrowing corridor. A kindly man that I recognised, but with whom I had not made friends, said yes I could leave the fish there, in a dark sort of prep room.

So, grateful that someone I didn’t know was prepared to help me, I returned in haste to the canteen, where those I had hoped to eat with had almost finished their Bakewell tarts.  The fish was not present.....

If I dream much I don't remember them.  This was unusual as it didn't wake me in a sweat, worried about the development.  Here was a complete dream (albeit without a clear ending) as vivd as they come, with colour, sound and movement.  

I was in the past a teacher, and every scene was as real as you can imagine - except for the fish.  Poor fish, to be mixed in with my subconscious.....  (and out of water!)

Anyone can play at interpretations.  Very like a whale....  But I suspect, and don't take this to taste of wormwood, that this poor fish, bewildered and unhappy in my arms, might have been my damaged wife, unconscious of my stressed efforts to find a safe haven for her, and actually OK in some ways in her own imagined world, without my fretful stumbling.....

May the future be better than the past.....

Tonight the bottle let me down
And let your memory come around
The one true friend I thought I'd found
Tonight the bottle let me down

Merle Haggard