Sunday, 26 February 2012

Roots and branches

Today I walked home from the main road to the village.

Actually, I didn’t because I discovered that the bus that would get me close enough to home to walk the last stretch rather unhelpfully doesn’t run on Saturdays.  Clearly Bath city council are attempting to keep undesirables like us out of the way of the weekend tourists.

Anyway, I had to call Simon to come and collect me from the bus station, but given how precariously balanced life is with two children – things can go wrong at a moment’s notice – I have decided that it is the thought that counts, so if I thought of doing it I can say I did it.

That made sense when it was still in my head.

OK, so I drove through the village.  But as I did, I looked out at the things I would have been viewing at a more leisurely pace had my plan come together.  There is a hill on the approach to the village and it has the remains of terraces down its sides.  They are not natural formations – someone once dug them out of the hillside.  But I don’t know who.  

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that I have no sense of the history of this place, no instinctive knowledge of the people who made it.  Nobody sharing my DNA is resting in the ancient village churchyard and my surname raises no spark of recognition here.

It sometimes gives me that freefalling sensation, when you look around you and think now how did I get here?  When your end-place is so far removed from your starting-point that it would be nigh on impossible for any future historian to hazard a guess at the nature of the journey that brought you here.

My starting-point was in the north-east.  The names of my ancestors are heavy with moss on the austere headstones of Rothbury, and sea-weathered into obscurity in Bamburgh’s exposed, coastal churchyard and the graveyards of South Shields.  Growing up there, I barely gave a thought to anything further south than Yorkshire, where we ventured for the occasional daytrip.  Once a year we visited old family friends,’ ex-pat’ northerners in Buckinghamshire, a holiday I always referred to as “going to London”, the whole south of England collapsing in my mind into an amorphous mass centered on the capital.  Beyond this yearly trip, all our holidays were spent in Scotland and as a result I had little concept of the southern part of the country, and all my thoughts and ambitions were of the north.

There was nothing back then to suggest that I would end up raising the next generation in the opposite corner of the country, north-east to south-west.  Sometimes I wonder if I tripped one day and simply rolled down the map to land here.  But, of course, like everyone else, I made my way from my start-point to my ultimate destination in a series of short leaps.  From University in Edinburgh to a post-graduate course in Oxford.  A protracted stay there after I fell in love with that strange little university town, followed by a spur-of-the-moment side-step to law college.  And then to London when a visiting law-tutor invited me to apply for a training contract at his firm.  And then along came Bristol-born Simon and the rest, as they say, is history.

Or at least it will be.  One day.

We are putting down little roots here, gradually growing the tendrils that tie family to place.  Any future family historian will find Thomas in the 2011 census, and the civil records will show Ben’s birth in the village itself – on his Geordie great-grandfather’s oilskin sea-blanket, incidentally – the nearest I could come to having him born in the north!  Those records will be the little flags that future generations will use to find us when they come searching down the years, just as I used the birth record of my great-grandfather’s youngest sibling to track his family to Cumbria when they disappeared from Cornwall in the late 1800s.  For while my maternal ancestors have been northern for more generations than I have been able to trace (apart from one slightly surprising Latvian branch) my father’s family took a gentle amble around the country for a good few hundred years before finding their way to Northumberland.  But there is a clear rhyme and reason to their wanderings.  The Cornish tin-miners made their way to Devon and later Cumbia, following work as the mines closed.  This was a path followed by many Cornishmen in the 19th century and it posed no puzzles when it came to researching that branch of my family tree. 

But that future historian might have a little more trouble reconstructing our lives.  No mine closures led me here, and my northern family weathered the loss of the shipyards and stayed put, turning their hands to other things as the sea no longer provided a guaranteed living. 

Or perhaps that future researcher, my many times great-grandson or daughter, may not find the pattern of my own life so different to that of those 19th century forebears.  My own profession is in decline.  The legal aid system is being eroded, worn away by the decisions of successive governments.  While there are different bouts of political weather contributing to this erosion, depending on the motivation of the government of the time, the overall climate is always the same, and the erosion is swift and unrelenting.  The legal aid system is contracting into something much smaller and meaner than I would ever have expected of a major part of this country’s justice system.

But then again, I doubt my Cornish ancestors ever imagined the ending of the mines, and their Tyneside contemporaries would have laughed at anyone who told them that the sea would not always be their way of life.  They found a new way, and some of them found new homes, far away from where they started out.

So perhaps that future historian will not find it so strange that a northern lawyer, educated in Scotland and Oxford, would leave London for the south-west.  Or that she would contemplate abandoning the law for something new, an attempt at a writing career, here in the depths of Somerset.  Perhaps they, with the benefit of their distant vantage point, will see a logic and a pattern to my journey down the map.

Of course, if they have the chance to read this blog, they will see that logic and planning were never my strong points, and perhaps I will go down in their family history as the maker of random decisions, the impulsive ancestor who opened a whole new chapter of the family’s story.

I think I am okay with that legacy.

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