It’s a short 50 miles from where I live now to where I grew up. In truth, I’ve lived round here longer now, plus a sojourn down in the West Country to study, yet for all this, my roots call me. The 50 miles is defining. For one, it crosses a regional divide, somewhere along the D road and near the motorway junction. And things do change: here, the bricks are flaky and soft, efflorescence puthers from the faces. But back home, they’re darker, harder, with swirling blue mottles; pointed differently too – flatter, narrower. There’s more stone too; particularly round foundations, whereas my house stands on 3 stretchers and some firm clay. “It hasn’t fallen down yet though” a structural engineer semi-reassured me before we did some work here. The 50 miles is important for another reason too: for within its lengths are the marks in the land which I associate with my first years on earth. The narrow steeple that bisects the carriageway as you drive towards; Mow Cop, its folly and pyramidal flanks away on the horizon; the Common where the Scots were massacred in the ’45; to the smaller, more personal links: a spectacularly twisting lane where I used to cycle up and down; a knot of trees and thicket where I played with my friends.
I went back last week whilst my parents weren’t home; I was guest horticulturalist for the period they were away; well, I watered the plants at least and picked up the post from the mat. I took my dog with me; she likes it there – it’s her holiday home so she begins to cry and whimper excitedly as we turn off the motorway and closer, when we pull up the drive, she dances around the back of the car in her excitement to get out. Later on, I took her for a walk – as much for me as for her. For me, it’s a chance to reconnect; to see how things have changed both markedly and subtlely. There’s been plenty of both and it’s an odd sensation to feel: seeing change in a place associated with my family, with me, for generations but knowing that for the last 25 years or so, I’ve not been part of them.
So we walked; the dog with a spring in her step re-associating herself with smells, walls and posts; me keeping an eye out for a familiar face or snicket. In the main, the change – in appearance at least – has been for the better. The place seems smarter; on its uppers somehow, which, given the loss of all the industry here is no mean feat. We walked past the Town Hall, a Victorian building with bright Ruabon bricks tightly set and Gothic features – sharp-pointed arches; lancet windows with trefoils, ornate ironmongery, a steep-pitched roof, badges of civic pride. Before it was a town hall, it was a pub, my great-grandfather was the landlord. It was a Joules pub, from Stone, halfway to where I live now.
Growing up, my local was a magpie-built place down off the Cobbles. When I was a child my grand parents would lift my brother and me onto the old stone horse-block outside the pub, a relic from the days when it was an important coaching inn between Manchester and London. These days though, there’s no passing trade, so the owners have tried to make it a destination in its own right, a ‘craft beer bar’, run by a new incarnation of Joules Brewery (reborn in Market Drayton).
I could feel the echoes of my fore fathers. Nearby, in a rebuilt building my grandfather was born and just further on, there’s an old fishing pond which he played and later, I did too. There are more buildings today down there now which surprised me; it used to be a bit claggy and midge-ridden because the river flowing in to the pool didn’t match the narrower cut flowing out. But that’s been sorted and rather than the old forge, there are town houses, mostly in keeping; some not; but it was good to feel the new life breathed in all the same. When I was young my grandfather used to walk us along a half-gravel path that ran alongside the pond where some horses grazed. My grandfather was a motor man – the first generation to embrace the internal combustion engine; but he still grew up with horses, and working ones at that, and he treasured them all his life. We would feed them grass and try and get them to bear their teeth by letting them crunch on Polo Mints.
The horses are gone now, but the old cottages opposite are still there, banked in against a hill. My dog became fretful and started to pull me towards an old set of steps up to one of the cottages. Lovely things; they are built the wrong way round; the treaders are cuts of local gritstone, deep grey, almost laminated; the supports they sat on are old bricks, long and shallow; thickly pointed; explosions of thick grass swards sprang out from the base. She sniffed; I remembered. We used to wait here while my granddad chatted to the owner, a long-distant acquaintance. The conversation was one of those long on memory short on words; not much needed to be said that hadn’t been said before. It was a checking in; deep chuckling about the state of things. Later I learnt that the gentleman was actually a relation somehow, part of the long line, a line now unconnected in all but memory and by the marks on the land which stay constant to us, wearing slowly.
My daughter played on her grandma’s iPhone, a cameo of how life is today, indignantly bemoaning the fact that she had a ‘lower version’. But then she stumbled on a genealogy app, and within 30 minutes had plotted back three generations on four wings of her family. And there on the screen in front of me was a short picture of the long line. My grandmother, born on Mow Cop; her parents born up in the foothills of the Pennines; marrying my grandfather born in an old magpie cottage down near the horse paddock and old fishing pond. In this virtual world it all became more real somehow.
Up at the northern end of my 50 mile journey, Radio 4 can’t decide which signal it prefers. I switched between two to hear a debate about whether Neanderthal man and Homo Sapiens were individual species. Typically, it reported, we have 2 – 3% Neanderthal DNA in our genes. In Austria, ancient remains of a man uncovered that he had 9% – a startling amount, higher by far than anyone ever found previously. Either way, the presenter argued, there was clearly no way that the two branches of humanity could be treated as separate species as, what marks one species out from another, is that they cannot breed. For me; it was a point I had learned in theory becoming personal, landing true. As the dog and I walked we found markers of my long line; the stone steps; the paddock; the pub-cum-town hall, Mow Cop on the horizon, connected by memories of our people. But we were only tugging on the very tip of the line, a line which ultimately goes back to footmarks set in stone in a distant Rift Valley and truly, further than even that.