There's no place like home...
I am always at a loss for an answer when people ask me where I am from. In 30+ years I have moved house 30+ times, so you can appreciate my confusion. I have lived in Cardiff, capital of Wales, for the past few years, but I am (very) English.
I thank Wales daily for her hospitality. She provides a kind of safe comfort, like that of an over-stuffed chintz armchair in the parlour of an affectionate great-auntie; the sort of great-auntie who pinches your cheeks and plies you with cake. However, despite England’s dubious history, England is my mother and therefore has my heart.
I once heard that one’s own culture becomes stronger when one is immersed in another culture, perhaps to defend and preserve it? All my family were born in England, but I spent my early childhood with them in the USA. I had a very happy time there and could write volumes on its beauty, but I always kept England on the highest pedestal. We would very occasionally make a long drive to an English shop selling Weetabix, real marmalade, authentic Marmite and proper tea. It was like a sacred pilgrimage.
My family is from Sussex (a county on the south coast), and we used to go back to visit my grandparents every now and then. I remember the crisp white tablecloth, the strict table manners, and the sugar bowl sporting a portrait of the Queen and silver sugar tongs. I was always asking why strange things existed such as the saucer under the teacup, or the lace antimacassar on the back of the chair. In truth I found the formality refreshingly intimidating next to the playful freedom of America. When we moved back though, I felt a school tie at the age of seven was going a bit far. Apart from that, to me England was heaven.
Many an afternoon did we spend combing the rock-pools of Brighton for sea life. We could be seen clambering or crouching in our wellingtons for hours, with expressions ranging from delighted wonder to joyful disgust. Then there was the Royal Pavillion and its mad mock Indian domes and minarets. My favourite place was a particular point on the South Downs (a huge line of natural chalk hills covered in grass). I was in my element rolling like a sideways log down a certain slope, or just sitting in the long grass peppered with wild flowers. From up there the villages, cars and animals looked like the wooden toys I loved to play with. You could clearly hear lambs calling each other in a field two miles away.
My teens were spent in North Yorkshire. Outings were rare; we owned a shop, which opened seven days a week. A day trip was usually to the far north, where spreads a huge handspun cloak of heathered moorland. Well-timed trips afforded golden vales of happily nodding daffodils, or dense groves carpeted with a hovering mist of bluebells. My favourite haunts were the little villages where sheep had a free rein and nibbled the grass as short as the pile of velvet.
My brother lives in a small market town in middle England. The public phone boxes are still painted red, and the duck-pond is still the main focal point in all the surrounding villages. There is nowhere as stereotypically English in my experience. Many of the houses around there are hundreds and hundreds of years old, and still have a heavy fringe of thatch for a roof. They seem to be slumbering under big, wide-brimmed straw hats. The gardens really are full of holly-hocks and fox-gloves, and the doors really are framed by wild roses. The men still wear white to play cricket, and are often seen playing on the green over-looked by a long-spired stone church. The most important thing as far as I’m concerned is the teashop. My favourite one in the town is run by a man with the obsequious nature of a royal butler. He makes all the cakes himself and displays them on paper doilies under glass bells. If you do visit, I have found that hot chocolate requires the longest wait as the chocolate is carefully melted and blended with the milk without the use of a microwave oven.
I must say though that the best place in the world is London, without a doubt. Perhaps it is the only place a vagabond such as myself can really feel at home. All that which is English (and all that ever was) is encapsulated in its realm, but with a thousand other cultures smoothly woven into it.
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