Home & Shop Companion #0081
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
If I hadn’t driven quite so far the day before or had my head full of thoughts, I might not have missed the turning off the A30 yesterday morning, to take the well-travelled road over the edge of Dartmoor to my mother’s house. Instead, I had to continue another ten miles to the next junction, before navigating the maze of unfamiliar and narrow winding lanes of this part of west Devon. Within a mile of the high-speed highway, the road disappeared into a different world, between high hedges on both sides, through steep-sided valleys dripping in lush vegetation, between beeches and oaks and hazel, their trunks covered in the green bloom of lichen. After a mile or two descending through a wooded valley, my route took me over an old hump-backed bridge, wide enough to accommodate a horse and cart, the granite parapets smothered in green; moss, lichen and ferns spiking upwards out of the stonework, arching over to point down to the rattling water below, as it thrust its way, this way and that, on its continuing path to the sea.
Once out of the woods, the familiar Devon landscape of grass-covered rolling hills revealed itself, a crazy quilt of small fields divided by the darker green of the Devon hedges, a combination of two slightly inward-leaning dry-stone walls, filled with earth and planted with hedging on top. In a couple of places, the cutting of these hedges had been long neglected, forgotten for years, the hedges becoming trees, hornbeam avenues transforming the roads into magical tunnels, still tinged with morning mist, as the branches on either side arched over and touched tentacles.
After this mistaken but welcome detour, I arrived at the house still early in the morning, probably for the last time, since my mum now lives in a care home near us, and her house will soon be someone else’s. I had a full day ahead of me, sorting furniture, pictures and other paraphernalia, whilst keeping aside the last of the family photos still in the house. There was a carload of stuff to go to the charity shop, a load for the dump [or recycling centre to be more accurate], and collections of furniture in different rooms, depending on their ultimate destination. Amongst the furniture was a large wardrobe my parents bought fifteen years ago, a bit of a problem item, too big for our house, too big for most houses, out of fashion and worth next to nothing because of its size. So, with screwdriver, hammer and wrecking bar, I took it apart, beautiful 18” wide mahogany boards, plundered from central American forests a hundred years ago, which one day will be made into something else and live another day.
One day on and a lot of work later, my mother’s home, and my father’s last home, is also nearly dismantled. This morning, some of the furniture including the sideboard which I crawled under as a small child and where the old valve wireless lived, taking a few minutes to warm up in time for my father to hear the weather forecast, went in a van to be sold, and my daughter came to take things to her house, and my nephew too, and tomorrow the remainder will be collected to deliver to my brothers. And when I have finished cleaning up and lock the door, I will turn the car northwards for the last time, for the five-hour return journey home.
But now, as I sit in my parents’ sitting room, with a pen and notebook for a change, the evening sun is turning the hillside pasture over the way to a dusty shade of orange and sharpening the silhouettes of the oaks along the ridge. It is a familiar view, one I have shared with my father as he retold stories of childhood holidays in Cornwall, of west Africa in the 1950s, of farming in Norfolk; with my mother as we talked about her progressing dementia, and with Liz and our children as we enjoyed being looked after by my mum, and later when we looked after her. But tonight it will be my last sunset here, a sad day through the memories and the undoubted beauty of this part of the world.
This place, and their previous home just over the Tamar River into Cornwall, where they moved on retirement from my childhood home, were good homes for my parents. With some Cornish ancestry and those long family holidays, my father had history here and, more importantly, they put down roots. In one of the family albums, I discovered a picture of the allotment garden my dad created in his mid-sixties, still bare and without the hedge he planted that would grow thick and tall, where he spent most mornings in the summer, and the community hall on the quayside in the centre of the village where, as a newcomer, he spent many afternoons helping build this new facility.
If I were to add up the time spent visiting my parents, the holidays we enjoyed around here and the regular visits as my mum became increasing reliant on others, I have spent months here in the West Country, their house and surroundings, the countryside and community all becoming familiar territory. But at the same time, that connection has mostly been through the prism of their lives, and although this is a great place to live, with clean air, [though it mostly seems to carry mist, drizzle or rain from the Atlantic] beautiful countryside and friendly helpful people with a relaxed attitude to life, it is still not my home. So in amongst the sadness at leaving, I will also be pleased to head north again, to my own place, my family, the horses and the garden, the lane where I know all the trees, to a place where I have put down my own roots.
Because home is not really about walls, rooves or out-of-date wardrobes, it is about involvement in the place you live.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.