Monday 18 October 2010

Childhood Memories

Last week one of my uncles died. People dying is always sad, but this was particularly so as he was simply the nicest man imaginable. But cancer is not picky. Cancer doesn't care. I saw him for the last time at his son's - my cousin's - wedding, a little over a month ago. He had aged beyond his years, and looked frail, but chatting to him he was the same man I knew and looked up to. The wedding was simply fantastic, and to see him there, beating his initial prognosis by a considerable margin in order to be there, made it even more special.

My Grandparents lived in Sussex, in a small village near Seaford. That was where my sister and I and my eight cousins and their families generally spent Christmas and other holidays. Many of my clearest childhood memories come from those rolling chalk hills and flint cottages. When I heard that he had finally lost his long battle with cancer, I had an immediate yearning to go back there before the funeral. He was the fun uncle, the one who took us on long walks up steep tracks and over high stiles. I can still easily picture the landscape with him in it, a walking stick and a cap, and a gaggle of children slogging it up a large hill and then down again. We did big walks, once all the way up and over to Jevington, and small walks just down the snicket in Litlington, over the white bridge where we played pooh-sticks, and on up towards the youth hostel at Alfriston, perhaps completing a circuit through the village and then back over the other bridge near the church.

I went back today to see if it was how I remembered it. Although I've been back several times in recent years, I've only been to look at the house and go up to the churchyard. Today I went back to be somehow recall the good times, to walk as if with my uncle down some of those same tracks and narrow paths. I didn't have the time to go to Jevington, that had taken all day, so instead I went through the valley, starting close to the house in the village. The garden went all the way to the river, and usually we just went straight down and over the gate. Today I couldn't do that, so instead took the path that leads from the street down to the Cuckmere and up to the Alfriston road. As I walked down it, every house brought back memories. I can no longer recall the names of some of the people who lived in these cottages, but I have clear memories of old people leaning over stone walls, inviting me into their gardens, having a chat with Grandma and remarking how much I'd grown. The old folk are long gone of course, but I nonetheless paused by nearly every gate, parcels of images forming in my mind, a fragment here, a fragment there. One garden brought back strong images of dogs, another of vegetables and sweet-peas. Nothing concrete, more intriguing than interesting, but I realised that I was going back most likely over twenty years.

My Grandpa died in 1988, my Grandma in 2000, having moved out of the village a few years earlier. In those final years I was at university, and had then started work, grown up, or so I thought. I had my own house, and no longer went every holiday. The few visits at the new house in a different place were not the same. When she moved, a period in my life ended, and it is a period that I still wish had not. That was my childhood. Looking at my Grandparent’s cottage, I know it will be the same for my children one day. Their Litlington is up in Fife, and they love it there, in the same way that I loved, and still love, Sussex. One day they too may be making similar pilgrimages to places steeped in childhood memory.

When I was small, the track I was walking down seemed incredibly long. I’d not walked it for years, and actually it’s barely half a mile, though the bit at the end is perhaps steeper than my childhood legs remember it to be. It starts off fairly wide as it passes between neat cottages, and then as it nears the Cuckmere the trees start to lean in. A sharp turn and you’re on the riverbank and up onto the bridge. Then you plunge into cover again, a cave of branches, and then you’re walking down a much narrower path with hawthorn and bramble hedge on either side and a small overgrown ditch. It was exactly as I remembered it, though today it was filled with the calls of birds that had no place in my memories. Robins ticked, Blackbirds chacked, a Pied Wagtail flew overhead and somewhere a pair of Goldcrests piped. These are new images to add to the old. I pressed on and then the climb began. It seemed to go on for ever, was it always like this? At the end I remember a yard, a rough parking lot, and then the road. Something has changed, the open space as you emerge from the path is nowhere near as big as I remember it. It doesn’t look like it has been built on, the flint walls look like they’ve been there for years. I suspect that the answer is that I’m bigger, and hence the yard is smaller. I paused for breath and looked down the valley. The day that had started with rain during the school run was now warm and sunny. It felt right.
I walked briskly back the way I had come, pausing only for blackberries and a soo-weeing Chiffchaff. Over the bridge again I had a quick peek over my grandparent’s back gate and up to the house. Very little has changed, the Yew tree is still a perfect egg shape, and there is a much lawn as there ever was. Twenty years ago, as the eldest grandchild most trusted with a petrol-driven mower, I got to mow it, up and down, up and down. It took hours, but I didn’t mind. When it was done I got to survey my neat lines from the terrace with a mug of ribena and a home-made brownie.

On my way out of the village I paused at the churchyard and did a spot of gardening. Someone else’s mower has been over the horizontal stone; one of the 0s from my Grandma’s 2000 is missing, and the 8s in Grandpa’s 1988 are badly scratched. I recognised many of the names on the other stones. I can’t put faces to them, but it’s possible that these are some of the inhabitants of those cottages that I was taken to all those years ago. Ellis. Jones. Guthrie.

Life goes so quickly. It seems like only yesterday that the whole family gathered in Litlington in the aftermath of the great storm in 1987. Many of you reading will remember it from finding Sabine’s Gulls on your local ponds and Gannets on your roof, but I remember it for the huge trees that fell horizontally across my Grandparent’s garden. We all went down to help with the clean up. It was exactly twenty-three years ago. I was twelve, and my job was to cut smaller twigs and branches off the fallen trees, and drag them clear, and to strip ivy from the trunks. With all of us swarming around, it only took a day or so, and bar the gaps, the new sections of wooden fence, and enormous new firewood store, you could hardly tell it had happened.

I’m thirty-five now, Litlington seems a world and a lifetime away, but as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, perhaps in the context of birds, perhaps not, visual imagery is immensely powerful. Seeing the house and garden today, and walking that track, I was transported back to my childhood, back to my Grandparents, and to my uncle as I truly remember him, leading an excited bunch of children along narrow paths, over small bridges, and up hills to viewpoints none of us then appreciated.

Neither, I suspect, did I appreciate that my Grandparents lived next door to a pub


  1. Hi Jonathan. A most touching post. When I lost my Father back in January, I too went to places (in person and in my head) to revisit him and, by association, my youth. A death in the family will make us question our own mortality and it seems to be a natural reaction to withdraw to the safety of childhood. The fact that you went on this trip has kept your uncle alive, and he will continue to be kept alive for as long as you bathe in such happy memories. Here's to your uncle and your honesty in sharing your treasured memories.

  2. Johnnie pointed me in the direction of this - very touching indeed. Feels like a lifetime ago since I was last in Litlington...then again that may be why you've obliterated your darling sister from your memories of you and your eight cousins spending time there!

  3. I've rewritten history! You're back!

  4. Thanks for this post, Jonathan. As it happened I was thinking very similar thoughts after a longtime family friend and colleague of my father's died suddenly from a heart attack this past Friday. He wasn't a childhood friend or a close one of mine, but he was a good man the world will be poorer for losing; and also a bon vivant who had such a zest for life. I attach to him a whole suite of memories having to do with traveling with my father as a teen, and learning about enjoying good food and good times.

    I have been wondering if part of it is age--I'm 34, a year younger than you, and also lost an uncle to cancer last year (ugh), and have an aunt who has a similar prognosis though she is fighting it. Maybe this is the age at which the older cohort in one's life starts to unravel. Which, is, sorry, totally depressing. On the upside, thank you so much for your comment about your children forming new and equally happy memories. I hadn't taken that perspective and it's really nice to think about that.

  5. One of the 8 (E)27 October 2010 at 10:09

    Maybe not the thing to start reading at my desk on a Wednesday morning but nonetheless very touching and full of memories... hmmm... the Skye Boat Song while tramping over the hills on a rainy day! x