Out on the road today
I saw a deadhead sticker on a cadillac
A little voice inside my head said:
“Don’t look back, you can never look back”
Don Henley, The Boys of Summer (1984)
Sunset over Arran from Dunure, Ayrshire
Here we are again, back at the start of summer, with our nostalgic (false?) memories of long school holidays and their endless weeks of sunshine. Frustratingly, where I grew up in south-west Scotland it was often the pre-summer weeks which were the warmest and driest. Not this year, though. I spent most of a rather chilly and wet June in the seaside village of Dunure, staying in a converted fisherman’s cottage – one of several in a whitewashed terrace which face onto the shore. The eponymously named ‘Seaview’ was a simple row of houses I’d loved as a child: back then it had reminded me of the kind of places Enid Blyton’s very English characters stayed in for their summer ‘hols’ (possibly because it was how I imagined Cornwall to look like).
Sunset on Seaview Cottages, Dunure, Ayrshire
The cottages overlook a sheltered bay, with a medieval ruined castle on one side and a small harbour on the other and it would be not too difficult to imagine some un-PC adventure involving smugglers and gipsies taking place there in classic Blyton fashion. So picturesque is the village and its surroundings that it was recently the site of filming for the television series Outlander (a time-travelling adventure set in 18th century Scotland based on the books of the same name by Diana Gabaldan).
Dunure beach and ruined castle, Ayrshire
Since the success of the TV series, Dunure is no longer a wee secret on Scotland’s lesser-known south-west coast. (There are even signs at both entrances to the village proclaiming it as an Outlander film site). But yet it still relatively quiet when compared with other coastal destinations in the UK. Maybe this is because it is a place you cannot pass through accidentally – the road down to the tiny harbour parts company from the main coastal route from Ayr a couple of miles back, winding its way through a dense canopy of vegetation. As a child, this was part of the excitement of getting there – it felt like travelling through a living tunnel into another doll-sized world. And after parking in Kennedy Park, near the ruined castle, we’d usually have the pick of Dunure’s many small secluded bays, tucked in beside the basalt cliffs, that make this part of the coastline so impressive.
With Grandad Skelton at Kennedy Park, Dunure c1970
For the past five years I’ve been returning to this spot for my spring or summer holidays with my husband and some of our family in tow. Despite the village’s relatively hidden location, there is a regular bus service from the nearby town of Ayr, so we never bother to rent a car when we visit, preferring to explore the coastline on foot or by kayak. The area never fails to disappoint, whatever the weather. Even – or especially – when it rains, there can be something glorious about beachcombing when the shore is glistening with small shiny pebbles that look like they have come from a giant’s sweetie jar, upended in a fit of pique. It is then we like to search along the tideline for one of Dunure’s hidden gifts: agates.
On the Ayrshire Coastal path at Dunure
On any given day, there is always someone poking around on the numerous beaches, looking for these semi-precious stones, and the area has been well-known by collectors since the 19th century. For the uninitiated, it can at first be difficult to know exactly what to look for; but once the eye settles in, they pop up all over the place. Agates are basically layers of silica made up of microscopic crystals which have coated the inside of cavities in molten rock and are often striated, lending them their beauty. Although they are usually found as fragments due to their propensity to shatter, the ones I especially love collecting are the intact nodules, despite the fact that without specialist cutting equipment the internal patterns of the stone remain hidden from view. However, the surface of these round agates has a charm of its own: it is often pitted, and has a waxy lustre, and many are half-transparent when held up to the light. I have a bowl of these other-worldly looking gems at home that never fails to intrigue guests, particularly the paler ones, which look like miniature moons complete with craters.
Agates from Dunure
Collecting agates remind of researching the lives of ancestors: it is always difficult to stop because you never know from where the next nugget of information will come. And then there is the fact that even if you do find something, it is usually just a fragment of the whole story. Yet genealogical research adds another dimension to everyday life in the way that searching for agates changes a beach stroll into something more than just a walk along the shore. Some days you might want to spend a long time focused on one spot, shifting the pebbles around; another day you might simply want to glance down occasionally at your feet and see if anything catches your eye.
Like genealogical research, the intact agates hold their secrets internally with just a hint of what their story is on their outer crust. As modern-day social historians, we are also constantly struggling to get below the surface of things. We can peruse these wonderful maps of where our ancestors lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, and sometimes beyond, but know that unless documented in a sketch, or painting – or later in a photograph, the view of these streets and houses are lost to us. And that is only one sense: what of the smells and sounds and textures that our forbearers experienced? We may be lucky enough to have an image of the places where they lived and worked – or photographs of our ancestors themselves. Yet even these may prove to frustratingly hide more than they reveal. As Roland Barthes points out at the beginning of Camera Lucida (his book on the nature of photography): The first thing I found was this. What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially. (For more about Barthes and photography, see Those Ghostly Traces).
I believe that is what makes returning to our childhood homes after a long absence such an unsettling experience – it may look the same in many respects, but without the sounds, sights and smells of our formative experiences it is only a simulacrum of the place in which we grew up. I had this sensation when one day during our stay in Dunure my mother and I took the local bus in to the village of Alloway – the suburb of Ayr famous for being the birthplace of the poet Robert Burns – where we lived from 1964 to 1995. We both felt strangely out of place as we walked around the village, looking at the changes time had wrought. What I found particularly disturbing was the absence of the imposing red sandstone Victorian school which I’d attended from 1969 to 1976, and which had been demolished* in 2008.
*I discovered later that during the demolition a ‘time capsule’ from 1895, placed there when the school was being built, had been discovered in a wall by one of the workers (named Frank). The local paper stated that: Frank had the presence of mind to turn off the machinery and go and have a closer look. The jar turned out to be a time capsule buried 113 years ago in 1895. The pupils got the chance to have a close look at the contents of the capsule and learn a bit about life back in the time of Queen Victoria. Inside the blown-glass jar was an architect’s drawing of the school, minutes and accounts, coins from the time and copies of several newspapers of the day. (Although I realise that for present-day children, this time capsule probably still would have been considered very old if it had been found to have dated from my period at the school!)
When the new teaching buildings (termed ‘the huts’) were hastily built in the 1970s to cope with the demands of the village expanding into a suburb, the original school had remained as the infants’ department. But the 21st century obviously needed a new type of school, and a few years ago the whole lot was torn down and completely rebuilt. Passing the modern building on that afternoon in Alloway, all I could see that remained of the old school was the white tiled wall of the outdoor Victorian toilet block, now incorporated into the outer wall of the new schoolyard.
It was a strange feeling to see that that wall – of all things – had remained. The toilet block had not been a pleasant place to visit in those days, explaining why many children had ‘accidents’ during the lessons. This was because the school bullies used to lurk there, trying to inflict ‘Chinese burns’ on the infants (or worse). I was at least heartened to see that the old sandstone wall which once separated the schoolyard from Robertson’s Field (but now divides the school from an up-market housing estate and sports ground) was still there. Possibly this was due to memories of sitting beside the wall on warm afternoons before the summer holidays, having al fresco lessons. I remembered how we used to take our little wooden chairs outside and sit in a circle as the teacher read to us, or we listened to a story on the school radio.
Robertson’s Field could not be saved (c) Ayrshire Post, 2018
That day in Alloway I began to get an inkling of what my father must have felt when he returned to East Coker in the late 1980s, almost fifty years after arriving as a London evacuee to join his mother, baby brother and older sister in the village (see East Coker). Like myself, he would have witnessed a new generation of people living there who all knew each other but whom were strangers to him. Perhaps just as I did, he wanted to stand in the local shop and tell them what it used to look like half a century ago, when sweets were bought from jars with old money, and farthings and ha’pennies would always fetch you something (if only a white mouse or a liquorice bootlace). Or that once there were fields and lanes where now there are ugly, modern, sprawling houses with ridiculous made-up names. No wonder he told us children that as adults we should ‘never go back’.
When my mother and I first visited East Coker we had nothing to compare it with, so viewed it simply as ‘Eliot’s Village’, modernised, but still with the ‘shuttered lanes’ and ‘hollyhocks which aim too high’ and a pleasing lack of streetlights which allowed us to view the night sky. But for my father, the post-war advances in farming, along with the new houses built to accommodate those who longed to live in such a desirable spot, would have added up to a considerable change. And of course there is the obvious psychological effect of revisiting an old haunt that is more difficult to pin down. A sense of shifting time and space that reinforces the ephemeral quality of life.
For that reason, keeping my father’s advice in mind, this time I did not visit our old family home in Alloway where we’d all once lived (in various combinations) for over thirty years. I’d done so several years before and felt awkward walking slowly past the house (now much changed and extended) a couple of times in a road devoid of pedestrians. It was difficult to believe that the four of us had all resided in the original little bungalow with the tiny bathroom for so long – no wonder there had been tensions during our teenage years!
1963 brochure for our house in Alloway (ours was a mirror image)
What had once seemed an expansive front garden now appeared small and suburban – although I noticed with delight that all the trees my father had planted at the back, to give us privacy, towered over the house. It was hard to imagine that the bungalow had been the epitome of modern chic in 1963, and the garden originally nothing but a fenced in square of mud which my father had transformed with the help of Grandad Skelton, no stranger to growing his own fruit and vegetables out of wartime necessity.
Grandad Skelton after a spot of gardening in Alloway, c1967
My mother told me later that they had never intended to stay so long in the house, having a vague plan to move to London after a couple of years if my father (an air traffic controller) could get a posting to Heathrow Airport. But perhaps it was just as well that we accidentally stayed in Ayrshire for the first chunk of my life, as it means I still have a place to return to which can be called ‘home’. And maybe that is the difference between my own peacetime childhood and that of my father’s. After the war interrupted his life in South London, he was forced to integrate into a new community which was very different from the one in which he’d grown up. Thus years later, when he was ‘looking back’ at his youth from the perspective of middle age, he had two very different sets of memories to consider.
Regular readers may know that it is the story of my father’s wartime evacuation to East Coker in Somerset which sparked my current genealogical quest (see In My Beginning is My End), and it has been a recurring motive in my writing on the subject. So I am delighted to announce that in August I will be returning to East Coker with my cousin, where we have arranged to meet up with our aunt. I envisage our 3-day trip as a sort of middle-age genealogical version of Thelma and Louise with a National Trust card thrown in for good measure. And as well as perhaps solving a few mysteries which my research has thrown up, I hope that our visit will also spark some new stories about the London branch of my family which I can share with you later in the year, when – in the words of Don Henley – The summer’s out of reach.
Wishing everyone a warm and sunny July!
The Incidental Genealogist, July 2019