Forever a Piece of England
I have always been an early riser. Those first few moments of the day, when the memory of slumber still lingers in my bones and my senses are being gently stirred by the whisperings of a new day are my favourite. I will often wrap my grandmother’s shawl around my shoulders, pull on my thick, woolly socks and step out into the garden, mug of hot tea cupped in my hands and listen to the muffled choruses and rustlings of nature as it awakens around me.
My late father, a keen amateur gardener, was always up with the lark too. I can remember hearing the click of the backdoor first thing in the morning as he stepped outside to watch the day break. Often, I would quietly creep downstairs in my pyjamas, slip my wellingtons on, grab a coat from the rack and join him outside. I never had to look for him, he had his favourite spot, leaning against the stone wall that ran the length of the garden, overlooking the valley. On the colder mornings, you could see the curling vapour of steam from his tea rise up into the still air and the smell of tobacco his only vice, would hit you as you approached him. He was a tall, heavily built man, his frame always seemed so foreboding but in actuality, he was the gentlest of giants. We would stand there, side by side. We didn't speak, we weren't there to talk, just to watch and listen. On a clear day you could see six villages huddled up among the rolling hills, tucked into the undulations of the land. Sometimes, we would hear the church bell in Bloxham ring out as it travelled up towards us over the fields and across the valley. The early autumn mornings were the best. The fresh dew would glisten as summer exhaled it’s last warm breath on the fading earth.
The small hamlet of Hempton means very little to most people. It is nothing more than a cluster of houses that you drive through to get to places of more consequence like Chipping Norton or Banbury, but for those of us who lived there, it had an indescribable gravitational pull that kept luring us home. Sadly, the house was sold after my father died and the beautiful gardens that he created have long been left abandoned and are now overgrown.
It had been four years since I last went there. I kept promising my stepmother that we would be down to visit her soon, but life kept having a habit of getting in the way. Then one day she rang. She told me that she had decided to sell the little cottage she had moved into years before and relocate to a flat in the nearby village of Deddington. I understood her reasons. Although she has never aged to my eye, I was aware that she was becoming more tentative about things and a move to the bustling village nearby, would offer her the security and amenities that she needed. And so, without any hesitation, my daughter and I booked our much overdue visit.
I was excited about the drive down. The very thought of coming off of the motorway and weaving my way through the familiar villages of my childhood filled me with excitement. Part of me had been concerned that I might not remember the way, but as I turned each corner, much loved landmarks would appear and I would follow them, one after the other, like a path made from pieces of bread in the forest.
Eventually we pulled up outside her building and there she was, waving at the window. It was like coming home for the first time. As we stepped into the flat, a sense of relief washed over me. The dimensions of the rooms may have changed but all around me, the trinkets and possessions that she had collected and curated over the years, that were as sentimental to me as my own, looked out from their new settings. She had even managed to bring the soft fragrance of her old home with her, as though she had put it in a sealed jar and handed it to the removal men to take with them.
The following morning, I was awake early with a slight sense of disorientation. I knew where I was, but I couldn't feel where I was. I walked into the kitchen and sat in the old chair by the window and looked out, taking in the scene before my eyes. The sun was shining onto the houses around us, making the honey-coloured brickwork glow with a pinkish warmth. I watched the little village square come to life, shopkeepers carrying out their wooden boards and unfolding them on the pavements as people walked to catch their buses with papers under their arms. I could hear the gentle hum of cars passing through on their way to Banbury or Oxford, only to be broken by the sound of the church bells ringing in the hour and the persistent hooting of a wood pigeon who clearly had much to say on the morning’s events. The urge to explore was so overwhelming that later that day, I hung my camera around my neck and made my way outside.
I knew where I wanted to go first. I was so desperate to see it again. It took no effort or thought to find it, I just walked around corners and along paths as though the memories of each step were still in my feet. The beautiful church of St Peter and St Paul stands proudly on the edge of the village square in Deddington. It was where I was married from. As I leant against the wall, I could picture the events of that day as though it were yesterday. I remember driving into the square in a vintage car with my father at my side. The locals were stepping out of their houses to watch us and wish me well. My husband had been dragged by my university friends from the pub across the road and was waiting for me inside. It's strange but no matter where I go in this vast world, Deddington church has this way of grounding me, of telling me that however far forward I go, this is a point that I can always return to. The confetti may long since have blown away but memories are indelible and a footprint once made doesn't disappear, it is merely covered by new ones.
Having stood still among the trees for so long, it was time to move on. Each new step became lighter with curiosity and yet tinged with an element of fear. Had anything changed at all? Was it going to be as I remembered it? Turning the corner, the old alms houses came into view. As a child I had always loved these houses, they captured my imagination and made me a maker of stories. They seemed like something out of a fairy tale. I pictured a spinning wheel in one of the windows and a girl locked in cob-webbed room, sleeping on sackcloths and waiting for her prince. From here I kept on walking, past the many climber-clad doorways and mullioned windows and into the village square.
I took a seat on one of the benches upon the village green, knowing that I needed time to absorb the scene before me. To let the life of this village play out in front of me, like a scene from a play that I know all to well. I looked across towards the Delicatessen, once owned by my brother and aunt. I worked there too during the summer months and the smell of carrot cake still to this day takes me back there, carrying trays of coffee to the tables outside. I spent those summers watching Deddington swell with day-trippers and tourists. You could almost feel the square stretching out to accommodate them all and whilst the golden buildings glowed with an almost arrogant appeal, the little place never lost it's heart or it's way.
The following day, I awoke with this urge to stretch my wings out further. There was one other place that I simply had to visit before I left. Do you ever have one of those instances when you think, 'This is a great moment?' It's not a case of' life doesn't get any better than this' because often it actually can. No, it's more like, 'If this is as good as it gets, then that's fine by me because this is pretty good'. These precious intervals of utter contentment are fleeting and you never really remember them at the time but you know you've had them because later in life they return and become the memories that are the closest to your heart. They are the moments when everything fitted, everything felt succinct and in harmony.
It was mid September and one of those rare early autumn evenings when the sun seemed to defy the horizon and shone later than it should. My mother, brother and our two best friends decided to go for a drive over to Great Tew and make the most of the weather. We parked along the village green, threw our jumpers over our shoulders and walked down the lane to the bottom of the village. The air was thick with warmth and the remnants of the recently gathered harvest lay heavy around us. The bristling fields blushed in the meek, rose-tinted light whilst the cottages basked in their dutiful glory.
We returned and settled on one of the tables in front of the pub. We ordered cider and pork pies and spent the evening chatting and laughing. My mother was one of those rare people who didn't need much to make her happy. She found contentedness in the smallest of things. Sitting across me, I can still see her face clearly even today. Her gratified smile and the sheer serenity she had in that moment. We sat until the darkeness fell and the birds had ceased singing. There is a piece of my heart in the corner of that village, is was planted many years ago and despite a lack of attention from me, it has grown of its own accord.
On the way home, there was one last place I needed to be. My father's gravestone. He was buried in the churchyard on the outskirts of Deddington, under a tree, overlooking the fields. Living so far away from his place of rest, I have become accustomed to talking to him anywhere, no matter where I am or what I'm doing. But being able to stand by his side is so precious in its rarity that I can often be there as other mourners, new and old, have come and gone. I sat down on the bench and spoke softly. But I didn't talk to him about my life in Scotland, instead I reminisced. I talked of days long gone by, reassuring him that my childhood was a wonderful one and that he can rest in peace knowing that I carry those days with me. I told him that no matter how far I roam, I will always find my way back because my cherished memories lie with him. That in his spot under the tree there is also buried a little part of me, the girl who loved the land as much as he did and will always carry with her forever a piece of England.