It’s early, still before nine, and I’m driving. The sun is bright and low, forcing me to squint, and the tangle of broken branches and twigs littering the side of the road are the only evidence of last night’s storm. I am heading into the old country – the vernacular half-tiled houses, half hidden in the ancient forest, giving clue to something familiar. The names of the villages inscribed on the signposts, Nutley, Coleman’s Hatch and Hartfield, point to the past, and I find myself reciting the names of those villages not signposted. Fairwarp, Duddleswell, Withyham. Chillies Lane! I know this place.
Because, despite having enjoyed a mildly peripatetic existence that has allowed me to lay down myriad roots, of varying degrees of significance and in all sorts of places, here is where I grew up. The Scottish Borders, Aberdeen and Edinburgh (and that reassuring smell of the roasted malt from the distillery up at Gorgie) Iona and Mull, Moscow, the Cambridgeshire Fens and lovely shambling Suffolk – they can all lay a claim on my affections, but there is no doubt that driving down the A22 from Surrey into Sussex, climbing over the Ashdown Forest through the gorse and heath and catching that first magical glimpse of the South Downs, well, it tugs at my heartstrings like nowhere else. It feels like I’m coming home.
This notion of home, of belonging and of ownership, is a curious one. A year or so ago, after walking with a friend across the Downs from Southease, we stopped for lunch in the village where my grandparents and, subsequently, my family had lived. After mooching around the church and the bookshop, we set out again with the idea of pausing to have a snoop around the family home. In the decade or so since selling up, the house had been bought, knocked down, rebuilt as a grand design, sold and bought again. There were rumours of bigamy and forced sales, menaces, a disappearance and repossession. Word had it that it was currently lying empty.
We walked up the hill, so steep that in bad weather my grandfather would find himself marooned from the world – on occasion we would form rescue parties to restock his cupboards, although he didn’t need much to get by. It felt odd, not knowing what to expect when we reached the top. Nothing much had changed and, yet, everything had. There were the sheds, and the Narnia streetlamp, but the fencing was new. We stopped at the gate, and I was surprised to see that the new house occupied the same footprint. The garden hadn’t changed and the shape of the sky was the same.
All around were features that had survived – the oak tree, the steps down to the lawn, the extraordinary view across the valley, the very feel of the place. And amongst it all, the alien house. It was clearly deserted – cobwebs over the front door – but we knocked and called out hullos out of politeness. Silence answered, and with it, free licence to roam. We peeked through windows, walked around the house and tried to work out where things were and, more excitingly, where things still were! The mulberry that sat outside my bedroom window remained, but the vegetable garden beyond had gone, replaced by a pond, a water feature with a natty little bridge.
This is where that idea of belonging and ownership comes in for, if this had been any other house, I would have felt distinctly uncomfortable, poking around somewhere I probably shouldn’t have been. But this, despite the ten year gap, was my house! This is where I always had it mind that I would live. Where I would end my days! I won’t, of course, although I still entertain the thought from time to time. And anyway, for all that it hadn’t changed and for all that it still felt like a place where I belonged, it had become a place of ghosts.
Forty years before, I would get up early and before breakfast walk down the side of the vegetable patch to help my grandfather collect the eggs. The chickens lived at the far end of the garden, in enormous barns that smelt and sounded wonderful. The body heat of the birds, the tang of chicken shit and, best of all, their gentle chit chatty murmurings and clucks. I reach under the chickens and seek out the smooth warm eggs and, ever so carefully, place them in the straw lined bucket that he carries behind me. We then go to the little office and grade the eggs, hoping always to find a double yoker for tea, before totting up the totals and pencilling in that day’s yield on to the large wall calendar. And in this respect, it doesn’t matter who lives here – the bigamist or the bankrupt – because they will never fully erase that memory of the small boy excitedly walking through the dew, hand in hand with his grandfather.