Last week-end in Birmingham I had free time on the Saturday afternoon and I walked into Bourneville and visited Selly Manor, a Tudor manor house. There was hardly anyone else in the house and I had the charming garden completely to myself. I remembered another expedition over thirty years ago in my Birmingham days. On a sleepy summer Sunday we set out from Moseley to visit Sarehole Mill, an eighteenth century watermill, best known for its literary associations. Tolkien spent part of his childhood nearby and used the site of the mill and its surroundings as the inspiration for the Shire in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It has now been swallowed up by Birmingham suburbs.
When I say ‘we’ I don’t actually recall who went with me. I just know that I wasn’t on my own. I have a hazy memory of clambering about in the mill, but the thing I mainly remember is that we caught two buses to get there. In my memory it was a real expedition and what what comes back most strongly is a sense impression of waiting for the bus in the sun, as we came home from a pleasant outing. But when I looked up the distance just now on Google maps, it was only two miles from Moseley where I lived to Sarehole! Two miles, and we bothered to catch two buses! I find that puzzling. Did we really do that? And yet it is fixed so firmly in my memory. Perhaps we had my mother with us and she didn’t want to walk. Or perhaps it was too hot to walk. What we remember and what we don’t remember is a source of fascination to me and is such a fruitful area for a novelist.
Sarehole Mill (pictured above) is still open to the public and you can find out more about it here: http://www.bmag.org.uk/sarehole-mill
A couple of weeks ago I drove north to Redcar to put flowers on my father’s grave, the first time since my mother died last year. My father died when I was nine and my family moved away when I was twenty-three. I’ve only been back a handful of times since and I think that is why my memories are so very vivid. They haven’t been overlaid by more recent ones. So when I drove through Saltburn I could almost see myself sitting on the sofa with Joy, my best friend, at her house watching the moon landings almost 40 years to the day, could almost hear Stevie Wonder singing ‘My Cherie Amour,’ the soundtrack for that seemingly endless summer.
I drove round by our old house in Redcar and sat looking at it for a while. It’s a cliché I know, but it really did look smaller than I remembered. The stained glass in the front door that used to throw jewelled light onto the hall floor and stairs had gone. And in thinking of that I remembered that the stairs used to be one of my favourite places for reading.
And what years those were for books, my mid teens to my early twenties. I had a summer job some years, but still there seemed to be endless days, hours and hours, for reading, and my appetite for serious literature was endless. I did an English degree so I was meant to be reading anyway – PARADISE LOST was set as the task for the first Christmas vacation – but I read a lot on top of the set books. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, WAR AND PEACE (read mostly in the bath, believe it or not), ANNA KARENINA. I didn’t read Proust, but maybe that was the wrong age. I was in my thirties when I read the first third, and was bowled over by SWANN IN LOVE. I think I appreciated it more than I would have done when I was younger. Now my life has the wrong rhythm for Proust. I wouldn’t be able to take a run at it. Maybe one day I’ll give myself a sabbatical in France and read the rest.
And talking of sabbaticals, I’m taking a little break now. But I’ll be back in mid-August, so don’t go away.