Tring - a market town in Hertfordshire - was mentioned recently. My ears pricked up and, on hearing that town’s name, deep within me a warm glow of happiness was released. It was a reaction not unlike the salivation of Pavlov's dog to the sound of a bell, or Proust's relationship with the taste of a Madeleine biscuit. It was a physical and mental reaction in response to an unexpected trigger. Such reactions can come via a sound, a taste or, in my case, a word. And my word was Tring. It was my childhood home, the place where, between the ages of three and 12, I lived, a stone's-throw from open farmland and the Chiltern Beech woods. We moved away from Tring in 1970 - now 51 years ago - and my memories of those years are now becoming hazy. I can recall such things as the layout of our house, the garden, the roads close to home, my school and my friends. But they are largely snap shots, images that don't move, with no sound and no accompanying narrative. They are stills that play like a slide-show in my mind - the old churchyard; an abandoned cinema; our local shop; an apple orchard; a disused windmill; those faces of neighbours and fellow pupils have now worn away to the point that I cannot recall what they really looked like, and only vague approximations appear. So why do these deteriorating memories still have power? If we experienced a happy (or at least non-traumatic) childhood, is this a default setting, this release of nostalgia? And if that childhood was not happy, is the reverse true?
For me, it appears to go deeper than that. My paternal great-grandparents both moved to London from Wiltshire in the late 19th century. Some family remained there, living across a number of small villages in the Vale of Pewsey (All Cannings, Stanton St.Bernard, Alton Barnes, Alton Priors). During the Second World War, when children were being evacuated from London, my father was among them. He was sent to stay with an aunt who still lived in All Cannings. His time with her was amongst the happiest of his life, so much so that in retirement, he settled there. It was only then that I was introduced to the area. I got to know the villages, the people, the inns and, most importantly, the farmland and downland that surrounds them. I could look at my ancestor's gravestones, walk into the churches where they were christened, were married and were laid to rest. From the top of the Pewsey Downs (above) I could look down on, and survey, their worlds, reduced to model villages on a green canvass that stretched all the way to the northern edge of Salisbury Plain. I wandered the surrounding area, rewarded with orchids, Barn Owls, Corn Buntings and an undeniable connection to the land, a belonging. And, don't ask me why, but I knew - not felt - I knew that I belonged. Fanciful? Most probably, but when I walked where they had walked, it was if I had already done so.
My own birthplace is Balham in South London, at the Weir Maternity Hospital. I had assumed that, because the hospital no longer existed, that it must have been demolished. When our eldest daughter moved to Balham four years ago, curiosity got the better of me, and I wanted to find out what now stood on the place where I was born. It didn’t take long to find out, via a ‘lost hospitals’ website, that when the hospital was closed, the building remained intact, and was converted into apartments. A photograph I found on the website showed a not unattractive brick building. Armed with this I went in search of it one afternoon. I found the building with little difficulty as little had changed. Standing there, staring up at each window (wondering whether or not that might be the room in which I came into the world), I was aware of a calmness, an acceptance, a belonging, as if these streets were a part of me. That does, I admit, sound fanciful. Maybe it is the product of an overactive imagination, or a need to feel such belonging. The cynic might suggest that they are the result of insecurity. The romantic could put forward the case that these connections are real, spiritual in nature, and proof of the power of our natural connectivity to place, regardless of time - or, indeed, of our need to have actually been there (in body at least) before.
Tring: happy childhood. All Cannings: roots. Balham: birth. They all have something in common. They are of a time when I either was yet to be, had only just become, or was learning how to be. Unformed. Evolving. Innocent. Do we, particularly in later years, have a need to revisit the distant past as a sedative for an unsure present? Is it nothing more than an attempt to root ourselves somewhere - anywhere - as a way to give us some definition and a firm base on which to make sense of what we have done with our lives and what we have become? Or simpler still, is it a desperate attempt to try and convince ourselves that our innocence and youth is still within, that we continue to be a blank canvas and that our choices of which brush strokes to put upon it can still yet be made?
So, we have allowed a name, a sound, a taste or a smell to transport us back to a time when life was less complicated, choices were simple and, if our memories are to be trusted, the sun was always shining. Bolt holes for the mind, balm for the fretting.