“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
I'm compelled to look back into the past. I always have. As a young boy my Mother would quite often get very old pennies in her change, and I would take a hold of these coins, examining the darkened and worn surfaces, mesmerised by the faded head of Queen Victoria, wondering who had once held them, what were they spent on and I would then construct imaginary histories for them, involving such things as being put in piggy banks, lost down the back of sofas and other mundane, but to me, fascinating scenarios. If only these coins could talk...
Our family holidays often involved side-trips to castles, standing stones and museums. The past couldn't be more clearly on show and my young mind took it all in - together with dinosaurs (also long gone) there was little else that owned my imagination so fully. So there is little wonder that, as I wander through my time on earth looking at our natural world, the past plays a big part in it.
'Nostalgia' is too fey a word to explain what this is all about. To me, nostalgia is overly sentimental and usually involves a wish to return to a time or place with happy personal memories. Sometimes my dwelling 'on a past' will not involve me at all. For example, at Dungeness there are the foundations of an old school, out on the open shingle. I have walked across and past these for over forty years. As time goes by I more frequently stop at them. I trace out the rooms, search the rusting bric-a-brac, and can still find bits of floor tile, crockery and glass that are mostly remnants from that time. Without any effort at all, I can hear the children, learning the alphabet, reciting times tables. The wooden desks form before me, the schoolmistress is standing in the corner of the room, with bustling dress and hair in a bun. What were their names? Where did they go and what did they do? They must have looked out of the windows and up into that big Dungeness sky - daydreaming of steam engines or skipping ropes as they idly watched the approaching weather; their play time shared with flitting migrant birds in spring and autumn. They would have heard about the death of Queen Victoria, spoken about the Great War as it unfolded and marvelled at seeing a motor car or an airplane. There would have been no power station and just one lighthouse. A 360 degree open vista allowed unbroken views for miles - a sea of education and domesticity in a truly wild place.
The school was founded in 1876 and was used up until the start of World War Two, when evacuated. The pupils never returned. The building slowly deteriorated owing to a combination of the weather and vandalism, with the ruins finally being demolished in the 1960s in an attempt to tidy up the peninsula due to the visit of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh.
And here it is, intact, the pupils and teachers looking out at us from the mid-1920s, on a sunny summer's day. You can see the upright railway sleepers to the left of the building, some of which still exist. These are not my ghosts, but those of people that I have never met and, as far as I'm aware, had no connection with. But, regardless of that, I sit in the ruins and time travel back to be with them.