Category Archives: Alloway

April is the Cruellest Month

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland (1922)

T S Eliot The Wasteland

April certainly feels like the cruellest month this year. It can be hard to appreciate the days lengthening, and nature re-asserting itself after the long winter, when we are unable to take advantage of the season in our customary manner. Yet, at a time when, out of necessity, our movement has become very much restricted, any green spaces we can still access will become even more precious to us in the following weeks.

For the above reason, I would like to focus this month on the way that various gardens – both private and public – have shaped the lives of my London ancestors. From the story of the creation of two very different municipal parks (see A Tale of Two Parks) to my grandmother’s Edwardian childhood (see Portrait of my Grandmother as a Young Woman), and the presence of Crystal Palace in many of my south London ancestor’s lives (the poor and the wealthy), gardens have always been entwined with my family story to some degree.

kristallpalast_sydenham_1851_aussenCrystal Palace and grounds, Sydenham, c1854

This probably comes as no surprise, however, as the desire to have a small piece of land to call one’s own seems to be imbedded in the British psyche, whether one is much of a gardener or not. Notions of privacy and control over personal space play a pivotal role as do ideas of resurrecting some part of a lost arcadia. This desire seems to cut across all the social classes, as can be seen by the notebooks collated by Charles Booth’s researchers when constructing Booth’s famous poverty maps. These jottings indicate that even in some of the most impoverished of neighbourhoods the residents still attempted to brighten up their streets with flowers in window boxes.

When describing a road in Kennington near to where my great-grandfather, Arthur Skelton,  was raised, Booth’s social research assistant, George Herbert Duckworth, mentions that Flower boxes and windows are brightest in the poorer coster streets. He compares this with another street, slightly higher up the social scale, where there was not a flower at any window, deducing that It almost seems as though it were thought respectable not to have flowers. This is an interesting observation, which might possibly be attributed to the fact that in these residences there was more space for indoor plants, or that plants were grown at the rear of the house, out of sight. Perhaps flower boxes placed at the front of the house could have given those who were unsure about their social status the sense that they were advertising the absence of no other growing space.

Duckworth appeared to be particularly interested in all things horticultural as he often added descriptions of the plants and gardens he encountered on his research trips accompanied by the local policeman, thus giving us a vivid snapshot of late Victorian London. For example, in the description of another Kennington street he notes: China pots with overgrown ferns in front window. This allows the street to come alive for the modern reader in a way that surpasses descriptions of two-shilling weekly rents and numbers of factory labourers.

By the time Booth’s poverty maps were being created, the local green space, Kennington Park, previously Kennington Common and once the site of political gatherings and demonstrations, had been a formal, gated park for four decades. In 1858, after a false start, elaborate flower beds had been laid out in symmetrical patterns, a style which was once at the cutting-edge of mid-Victorian garden design and would soon be adopted elsewhere. For the local residents it was a unique chance to see large areas of flowering plants, and the Gardener’s Chronicle of the time mentioned a bordering of flowers as bright as the smoke and vapour from an adjoining vitriol factory (in photograph below) will let them be.

chartists

Kennington Park circa 1908Kennington Common, Chartist Rally, 1848* vs, Kennnington Park, c1908

*Copyright, The Royal Collection

In her book How to be a Victorian, the writer and historian Ruth Goodman points out that not all plants could survive in the polluted London air, where chemicals mixed with precipitation to create an acid rain which poisoned the soil. As the time of Booth’s investigations coincided with the peak of the London smogs, the window boxes thus represent an act of faith by the families who had established them. Perhaps that is why they were more predominant in certain streets and neighbourhoods. Those who had little say in their economic conditions and cramped environments might have sought to exercise some sort of control over nature, which also gave them a sense of hope.

Goodman describes the growth of urban gardening in the mid-18th century as such: The 1830s to 1850s were the heyday of florist’s societies. Groups of mainly urban men, whose working lives were spent in small, home-based workshops as weavers or frame knitters, carpenters or nail makes, flowers became their passion. They raided new varieties, selected the strongest seeds and perfected their chosen flowers over years of patient, careful propagation and superb horticultural skill. The plants they grew were cultivated on tiny patches of ground around their homes and workshops, and in pots and containers which stood in yards and on windowsills.

Whenever I look at informal photographs of my ancestors, I find myself trying to glean the lost details of their day-to-day routines. The images act as a portal into the past, which although can be a limitation in terms of freezing one moment rather than other (see Those Ghostly Traces), does offer up some clues as to their daily lives. For that reason, I treasure the photographs of my grandmother’s family at 95 Denmark Road, Brixton, possibly taken by her older brother. Not only was this house my grandmother’s home for over three decades, but it was the place where she lost both her parents, met my grandfather, and gave birth to her three children, before the building succumbed to WW2 bombing raids.

Edith_Stops_at_95_Denmark_Road,_Camberwell (3)Edith Stops at 95, Denmark Road, c1910

In the picture above, it is the building itself and the small strip of garden in front of the house which intrigue me almost as much as the image of my young grandmother. I described my reaction to receiving this photograph (amongst others) from the grand-daughter of my grandmother’s brother in one of my earliest posts (see I Remember, I Remember) as such: For days afterwards I scrutinised every detail of the photographs, hoping that repeated viewings would reveal more. I became particularly obsessed with the image of the house at 95 Denmark Road. The squinty old building fascinated me almost as much as the sight of my grandmother standing at the gate.

My gaze was drawn to the blinds and the net curtains at the windows; the  plant on the window sill of the front room; a flower bed of what look like tulips in a tiny sad strip of garden; iron railings which were yet to be removed for a future war; a boot scraper in front of the rather forbidding-looking front door. I longed to see through the sash window on the ground floor to the room that lay behind the fussy nets. I imagined it to be dark and over-stuffed with furniture, shabby too. Perhaps a room they only used ‘for best’. And what is that shadowy object lurking just out of sight between the curtains? An aspidistra? A mahogany plant stand? Or Harriet sitting on the good chair, reading the newspaper?

In other photographs, we can see the back yard of their terraced mid-19th century house – basically a functional outdoor space, with space for some flower and vegetable beds. As no-one thought to photograph the back garden from the other side i.e. facing the back of the house, it is only these partial glimpses that we are afforded. However, I should imagine that by the time my grandfather became the head of the house, the garden would have become his undisputed territory, although with a henhouse to contend with as well as young children, this was most likely a purely practical project.

In fact, my aunt recalled that in the 1930s she and my father would dare each other to climb over the wall that separated their property from the neighbour’s and run around their immaculate garden under cover of darkness. Part of the excitement was the illicitness of the activity – but there was also the lure of entering a forbidden garden of sorts. One which was given over wholly to beauty and pleasure. Of all the anecdotes my aunt has furnished me with, this one stands out in my mind as it seems to encapsulate the world of childhood in one secretive and daring act.

Stops Family in Back Garden of 95 Denmark RoadThe Stops Family in the back garden of 95, Denmark Rd, c1923

In later years, my grandfather would spend a great deal of time gardening, both at the family’s new post-war accommodation and in the gardens of his three children as they settled down and raised families of their own. In fact ,our very own suburban garden in Scotland owes a debt to my London grandfather, not just in the way it was laid out, but in the gardening advice he gave to my father over the years. As a child I remember seeing retired first world war veterans working in their gardens and allotments, some who had been gardening for years, building up a wealth of experience along the way. Many would have initially wanted to provide for their families (a strong instinct in my grandfather), as well as feel some sort of control over their own environment.

Garden At Bishop's GroveMy parents in my grandparents’ back garden in Hampton, April, 1963

Grandad Skelton in the back gardenGrandad Skelton in our back garden, Alloway, c1967

Although my own father was not yet seventeen when the war ended, and thus not involved in the conflict, he did his required period of national service and then stayed in the forces, spending many years overseas in the RAF. For the rest of his life he always said that having his own home and garden was something he would never take for granted. Simple things such as not sharing a bathroom or having his own bedroom seemed like a luxury after years of living in shared digs. And of course this would have been compounded by the fact that during the war the family left their home for a cramped and draughty farm cottage in East Coker (see East Coker), even though it was through his experiences of beng evacuated to Somerset that my father grew to love the British countryside.

As a child I always used to laugh at the fact that in the summer evenings he would go out and walk around the garden, smoking the stub of a cigar (often on a toothpick) telling us he was just off to survey the estate, the dog padding at his heels. At the time I never really understood what all that surveying entailed, but of course all he probably wanted were some moments on his own to contemplate life quietly in the garden, taking pleasure from the things he had planted and nurtured there, and perhaps planning future changes to the beds and borders.

Although the garden was relatively small (but much bigger than the yard in Denmark Road), we made use of the space to grow our own fruit and vegetables in a sort of kitchen garden which was separated from the recreational part by a trellis fence over which climbing roses were trained. Like most children I enjoyed cramming my face with illicit fruit and ate things that felt instinctively good, but at the time I had no idea if they would help or harm me. I chewed on whole peapods before the peas were properly ripe as I loved the juicy taste of the pods. (I did not know about mange tout at this stage in my life!). I ingested handfuls of elderberries (which my father used to make a particularly awful wine) before thinking I was going to die and then lying down on my bed awaiting my grisly end, too scared to tell my parents I might have eaten poisonous berries. I sucked the juice out of crab apples and threw the sour flesh away – until the day I bit down on a wasp. And the blackcurrants that were earmarked for our favourite jam were scoffed in great quantities by myself and friends, out of sight behind the trellis.

One of the wonders of going to London to visit our family was to see the amazing things they could grow in their gardens on account of the warmer, drier weather. Their vegetable gardens felt like jungles compared to ours; although to be fair, the fact that our back garden was often in partial shade was a disadvantage. Yet we clung to the British tradition of hiding the kitchen garden away from prying eyes, meaning that our sunny front garden was mostly underused (despite the fact that it was set back from the road in a dip), apart from the times when my mother sat sewing in the porch on warm spring  afternoons.

In the front garden of 33 Doonholm RoadIn the sunny front garden of our house in Alloway, c1968

Step at Doonholm RoadSteps down from the road to the front garden in the ‘dip’, Alloway, c1965

But for most of my ancestors such an expanse of front garden would have seemed like a luxury not to be wasted on decoration. Either they possessed the narrow strip gardens illustrated by the Denmark Road photograph, or their terraces were flush again the pavement. As backyards were mostly functional, then trips to local municipal parks, such as Kennington Park, would have been important fixtures of summer Sunday outings. When we visited our grandparents in West London (where they moved after the war), most of the excursions we did with them involved going to nearby parks and gardens, such as the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew or Bushy Park – always in Sunday best, of course!

At Kew with Grandma SkeltonAt Kew Gardens with Grandma Skelton, c1971

At present, when we cannot access many of the local parks and gardens that we love, we could do worse than to take inspiration from those Victorian gardeners who planted up pots and other containers to brighten up their surroundings. Even if the nurseries and garden centres have closed their doors, as long as we have access to some sort of growing media, we can propagate plants through a wide variety of methods and share seeds, cuttings, bulbs etc. with friends and neighbours, just as many of our ancestors would have once done through financial necessity. A window box or an indoor windowsill can still offer up the pleasure of nurturing life, and watching it grow, giving us hope and strength for the upcoming weeks.

Happy Easter

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy Easter!

The Incidental Genealogist, April 2020

 

A Tale of Two Villages

She prophesied, that, late or soon,
Thou would be found deep drown’d in Doon;
Or catch’d wi’ warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway’s auld haunted kirk.

Robert Burns, Tam o’ Shanter (1791)

ALLOWAY AULD KIRKThe Auld Kirk, Alloway, 1895 (which looks the same today)

Last month I wrote about my recent trip to Dunure in Ayrshire (see Looking Back), when I visited some of my childhood haunts, including the village of Alloway, famous for its association with the ‘ploughman poet’ Robert Burns. Next month I shall be returning to East Coker, the Somerset village where my father spent his wartime childhood as a London evacuee (see East Coker), and which also has a connection with a well-known poet, albeit of a very different kind and millieu. Yet – perhaps even because of the two poets – the similarity does not stop there. Both these attractive conservation villages surrounded by farmland have also been prey to post-war housing booms and thus at risk from being swallowed up by the nearby county market towns of Ayr and Yeovil respectively.

Had my father consciously been aware of the similarities between the two places when he’d first visited the site for the soon-to-be built bungalow in Alloway? On that day in July 1963, when he’d set out along the tree-lined road from Ayr, the sun had shone on the parks and green spaces, and it had shone, too, on Alloway’s small main street, with its handful of stone cottages, two shops, village hall and war memorial. Opposite the post office – like the proverbial jewel in the crown – was Burns Cottage, birthplace of the Scottish Bard two hundred years previously, with its thatched roof reminscent of many of the buildings in East Coker.

Burns_Cottage_Alloway (2)Burns Cottage and Alloway Village (looking north) today

Alloway-Village-Street-Scene-Ayr-Ayrshire-Scotland-Postcard (2)Alloway, Village, Ayr (looking south) c1904

Walking up Doonholm Road, past the older and grander houses of Alloway, to see where the new Weir’s estate was being built, my father would have  observed the red sandstone village school with its air of Victorian respectability. Then there was the rather imposing Burns Monument Hotel which overlooked the river, with its posh upstairs restaurant, and the flagstoned cellar bar (where old men used to gather round the open fire with their sheepdogs and penny whistles). The idyllic setting of the old hotel was further enhanced by the backdrop of the local Burns Monument and Gardens and the famous medieval hump-backed Brig o’ Doon. Both the old bridge and the nearby ruined Auld Kirk were immortalised in Burns’ poem Tam o’ Shanter where a drunken Tam tried to hurry his horse, Meg, over the river to escape the witches who were chasing him (as they were believed to be unable to cross running water).

BURNS MONUMENT HOTEL 1970s.jpgBurns Monument Hotel c1970

BURNS MONUMENT HOTEL C1920Burns Monument Hotel and Gardens c1940 (from the Brig o’ Doon)

BROG O DOON.jpgBrig o’ Doon (with hotel gardens), early 20th C

Our road was named after the Doonholm Estate and ‘big house’ which it led to (and where Robert Burns’ father had worked as a gardener two hundred years previously). Doonholm Road was one of the first to be developed in the village, and before the Ayr bypass was built in the 70s was still a rural byway, rather than the rat run to the A77 that it eventually became. In those days it was the main access from the village to the outlying farms, including Mount Oliphant where the Burns family moved to when Robert was young. Sheep were still driven along it to graze in the field opposite our house, and on occasion stray cows could be found wandering down the road. In fine weather local riders passed by on horseback as did a rather eccentric old spinster on an outsize tricycle who taught Sunday school to the children of the farming communites. My father had remarked on the appeal of this country road to my mother when he went to visit the house, perhaps because it reminded him of Burton Lane in East Coker, which led to the old farmhouse at Burton Farm where he’d lived for most of the war.

Further up from our house, where the Doonholm Estate began, was an old railway bridge underneath which summer trains would run out to the local Butlin’s Holiday Camp (a place I loved as a child). These were the last gasp of Britain’s steam trains which followed the remains of the Maidens and Dunure Light Railway, then a sixty-year old branch line which had been in decline since the 1930s. On Saturdays my father used to take me up to the bridge and hold me up to let me watch the trains pass as they blasted and hooted their way to the coast, taking holidaymakers to their week at the camp. Previously the line had run all the way to Turnberry hotel and golf course (now belonging to Donald Trump) until the hotel was requisitioned during the war as a military hospital and the golf course used as an airfield. There had been several small stations along the line, including one at Alloway and Dunure, as both were local tourist destinations. In Alloway the remains of the old Victorian station (disused for many years) had been reduced to a pile of rubble, which we explored as children.

BUTLINS.JPGOn a daytrip to Butlins with our Skelton Grandparents c1968

This was 130 years after the first steam train line in London was laid – the London and Greenwich Railway, which was also originally designed as a day-tripping route. I have written about this line before (see A Riverside Rest) as it ran close to my great-great grandfather’s house in Bermondsey and, like many at the time, he was no doubt fascinated by the idea of this new form of travel. It feels strange to think that I was able to witness the last of the working steam trains that James Skelton would have once found so modern. As my sister once said when we were walking through Beamish Open Air Museum near Newcastle and looked up to see an early steam-powered locomotive with its large black chimney chugging along in the distance: What would it have felt like to have clapped eyes on that for the first time! It must have been quite a frightening sight.

Not long after the last stretch of our local railway line was closed in 1968, I found myself of an age where exploring outdoors with friends took up a large proportion of my free time. The old railway (as we always so earnestly called it) was an ideal place to build dens, search for wildlife, and walk our dogs. Later – along with several other teenage girls in the neighbourhood – I exercised a local farmer’s ponies on the route. But already by then it was becoming boggy and overgrown, and parts had become impassable, while further out many sections had been incorporated into farmland.

On my trip back this summer, I discovered that the secton of the old railway line by Doonholm Road now contains a new feeder road to the bypass, ironically taking traffic away from our old home. But it has also opened up all the fields beyond to vast new housing developments which seem out of place so far from the compact centre of Alloway. In many ways, the Somerset village of East Coker has fared better, despite the recent plans for the controversial new Keyford Estate. This is possibly because it had more of an actual village centre to begin with, and was surrounded by grade 1 agricultural land once used in the booming flax industry.

By contrast, a great deal of the farmland near Alloway was not ideal for growing crops (as Robert Burns and his father discovered), and in 1754 the whole area had been sold by the burgh of Ayr to help pay off debts. Thereafter it was held by several wealthy landowners, most of whom had made their money through trading in the West Indies and who rented out the least profitable parts of their estate to tenant farmers. In fact, our house in Doonholm Road was built on what was once an orchard belonging to the Rozelle Estate (named after one of the owner’s Jamaican plantations). Eventually Rozelle’s remaining parkland and ‘big house’ were bequeathed to the local council to be used for recreational amenities, as was the neighbouring estate of Belleisle with its large Victorian golf course (see On the Dogs’ Grave at Bagshot).

BELLEISLE POOH STICKSPlaying ‘Pooh Sticks’ by the golf course in Belleisle c1969

Yet it was Doonhom Estate which continued to exert more of a fascination on me due to the fact that it was off limits to the ‘common folk’. Regular forays into the grounds were organised by the local brownie and guide groups – usually a treasure trail through the woods which ended in a sausage sizzle on the banks of the river where we were all bitten alive by midges. Then there were rainy, summer fêtes in the grounds, and it was at one of these events that I first rode a pony and tasted honey, instantly becoming hooked on both activities. When I was about nine or ten I also had the fortune to befriend (possibly I engineered this friendship) a girl whose family rented the old servants’ quarters  on the estate. So for a few halcyon months I was able to roam the grounds, including the stable block, and was given as much honey to eat as I liked! 

DOONHOLM HOUSE 1905Doonholm House, Alloway c1905

On my initial visit to East Coker in 2005, there was still a feeling of community replete with ‘local characters’ (akin to Alloway’s tricycling Sunday school teacher). This was something that Alloway appeared to have lost during the mass building of houses which went on throughout the 70s and 80s. Maybe that is why my mother and I were so captivated by the place. Although it saddened my father to return almost half a century later and see the changes time had wrought, for us it was a delight to discover what seemed such a quintessentially English village with thatched cottages whose gardens were full of summer flowers, including Eliot’s ‘hollyhocks which aim too high’. Even as we approched the village on the bus from Yeovil as it descended through the hollow lanes, it felt like entering a green doorway into a magical world.

HOLLOW LANES.JPG

COTTAGE EAST COKER.JPGHollow Lanes and Thatched Cottage, East Coker

As a child I never really felt we truly belonged in Alloway as a family, despite the fact we were all involved in the community in our own way. This was in part beause we had no relatives nearby and our house had no history to speak of. Most of the people we knew at the time were also incomers into the new estates. Like myself, nearly everyone I once went to school with has left the area, as have most of their parents – if only through death and illness (at least on the part of the parents). On our recent visit, I noticed, too that the place has a different feel these days, with Range Rovers parked in front of the local shops (where once we tied up our ponies to buy ice creams on summer day), and the local pub turned into an award-winning restaurant with an emphasis on upmarket weddings. The cellar bar has of course long gone, as have the men and their dogs.

I have discussed this feeling of impermanence in our family before (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers) when I mooted the idea that it had perhaps been unknowingly passed down the Skelton line. Poverty and two world wars created much upheaval for my father, grandfather and great-grandfather’s generation. Before that, there was my great-great grandfather, James Skelton (see The Tailor of Horsleydown), who came from a family which was very much rooted in the Yorkshire Dales.

James Skelton was born in 1799 on the cusp of a new and exciting century of progress, and so like many of his generation headed to one of the booming industrial centres to make his way in the world. But why did he choose London, rather than a town or city closer to home? Was there a family connection which helped him to secure a foothold there? Or, like myself over 150 years later, was he simply attracted to the glamour of the capital and the thought that all of life worth knowing would be found there?

Despite the fact that the Skeltons have been mostly living in South London for two hundred years, North Yorkshire is the place I have now come to think of as their spiritual home.  Compared to the history of land use and ownership in Alloway and East Coker, the area has followed a different direction thanks to its unique geography and the creation of the Yorkshire Dales National Park in 1954. There it is still possible to freely traverse the ancient paths which link up villages and hamlets, and to feel as if you are part of a timeless landscape. If James Skelton were able to return to the land of his ancestors he would no doubt recognise much about the area – something that could not be said about his South London neighbourhoods.

YORKSHIRE DALES.JPGThe Yorkshire Dales – our spiritual home?

It is a part of the country I have recently started to visit in conjunction with my genealogical research, and with which I have also begun to feel a strong connection. So I am pleased to announce that I will soon be turning my attentions to my family’s Yorkshire beginnings. But in the meantime I am looking forward to my upcoming trip with my cousin Sandra to East Coker to visit our aunt (our fathers’ sister), and the opportunity to gain some additional insights into the more recent family history.

The Incidental Genealogist, August 2019

 

 

 

 

 

Looking Back

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 AT DUNURESunset 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).

DEAVIEW AT SUNSET.JPGSunset 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.JPGDunure 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 AT DUNURE.JPGWith 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, prefering 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.

COASTAL PATH DUNURE.JPGOn 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-wordly 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.JPGAgates from Dunure

Collecting agates remind of researching the lives of ancestors: it is always difficult to stop because you never know where the next nugget of information will come from. And then there is the fact that even if you 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 forebearers 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 simulcrum 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 probaly 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. 

ROBERTSONS FIELDRobertson’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!

DOONHOLM ROAD.JPG1963 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 IN THE GARDEN.JPGGrandad 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.

NUMBER 33.JPG

Wishing everyone a warm and sunny July!

The Incidental Genealogist, July 2019