Leaving Home

Edinburgh Waverley, mid January 2010. My feet were numb, colder than I could remember since going out carol-singing in Yorkshire as a child, or to collect the Christmas meats from the butcher’s with my mum, snow drifts as tall as me. Outside the station there was snow lying, and forecast, and the Met Office advice was not to travel. I was due to complete the sale on my late parents’ house, the house in which I lived from the age of thirteen until I went to university, the house less than a mile down the hill from where I was born, the house to which I returned regularly, from Newcastle, Bristol and Edinburgh over the next three decades. I chose to travel.

Once the delayed train arrived, and departed, holdups were no worse than I’d known at many other times. Change at York. I remembered making the journey five years earlier, wondering what I’d have changed into, what would have changed irreversibly, on my return. The family friend who often met me at the station was ill. Rather than take a taxi or bus, I trudged the mile or so up from town and over the brow of the hill on foot. How many times had my parents picked me up, and driven home by this route, a short distance between two valleys, Calder and Spen?

Most of the house’s contents, my inheritance, I guess, had been subject to a chuck/charity/keep triage over the past year. This now left me free to take walks and visit friends and neighbours, and – it seemed important – to shop at the local Morrisons for a final time, honouring the weekly routine of a retired baker and shop-keeper partly put out of business by the supermarket chains he later came to depend on, even like. I would return, but not as an occupier of (t)his house.

My parents’ ashes are buried three miles away in the churchyard of the village where my mum was born and grew up, and where I spent a lot of my childhood. Her father sang in the church choir for most of his life. I’d been there three weeks earlier, when spending a final Christmas at the house, and every time – roughly monthly – that I’d been down since she died in September 2007, followed by my dad in August 2008. Now, with a developing chill from the extreme cold, and a deadline involving a removal van, I decided not to visit or lay flowers at their memorial stone, and walked across the Spen Valley to see my mum’s oldest surviving friend instead.

Monday morning, more snow. The removal van, due to take into storage the furniture I was keeping, was delayed by hours. By the time it drove off full, it was getting dark, my chill was worsening and I didn’t wish to attempt the journey back north, should that have been possible. I phoned the solicitor – old school, three-quarters retired; I’d been suspicious of him at first, but came to realise he really was ‘acting for’ me in the best sense, through quite a few complications with the sale. He contacted the buyer, who agreed to let me stay overnight before they took the keys. I took a bottle of brandy, Morrison’s cheapest, that my dad bought and nobody wanted to drink, to the neighbour across the road. We had a couple of glasses and I left her with the rest, then went back and slept in the empty house. Next morning I arranged for the landline – with the phone number we’d had all my life –  to be cut off, then gathered up my hand luggage, including the telephone, and left. I dropped off the keys with the estate agent and got a fast, efficient train back to Edinburgh. I was nearly always met off the train in Yorkshire, but invariably walked home when I returned to Edinburgh; with welcome and pleasing symmetry, a friend now picked me up at a still sub-zero Waverley, and fed me shortbread.

I’d lived in cities since 1983. Studying at, or working in, universities, this was practical, but – art galleries, opera houses, restaurants notwithstanding – I’ve never really felt at home in an urban environment. With the house in Yorkshire, I had a foot-hold somewhere that was semi-rural, on the edge of a mill town, on the edge of the Pennines. As my parents grew more frail in the new century, I visited more often.

The house, 9 Elm Road, was unremarkable (unless you were an estate agent needing to make it sound and look remarkable): three-bedroomed detached, with small front and rear gardens, identical but for variations on a theme with the thirty or so others on the estate built on a former mill site in the 60s. My mum used to decry them from the two-bed redbrick semi a mile away that was her first marital home, but grew to love number 9, and died there. When my dad died, I knew I wouldn’t sell up straightaway. I went down regularly, to check on it – several friends no doubt fondly remember my boiler-anxiety sagas – and also just to be there, and to walk in the area, and to learn to say goodbye to a large segment of my life. I spent two Christmases there, and became re-acquianted with my cousins. My first attempt at putting the house on the market felt too soon and I took it off. I considered various options of keeping it, or renting it out, but they weren’t sensible or practical at the time, and I eventually went through with the sale a decade ago, in the cold winter of 2009-10.

I returned to my fourth-floor tenement flat overlooking Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags, and set about planning moving out of town, somewhere with an extra room, maybe a garden, nearer the Pentland Hills or the sea. I’m not tough enough to live out in the middle of nowhere – that’s fine for writing retreats or holidays – and want relatively easy access for work and social life to the city centre, Glasgow and Fife: in some ways a location similar to where I grew up would suit me fine. And I found one, just inside the City of Edinburgh bypass, twenty minutes’ walk, or a few bus stops or short drive to the Pentlands, close to Colinton village but more affordable.

It was partially familiar – I’d been walking in the Pentlands for over fifteen years, knew the hill paths intimately  –  and at the same time very strange and new. I was diagnosed with moderate-severe depression a few months after moving, in summer 2010. It was quite a slow road to recovery from an illness partly triggered by several major life-changes in the space of  a few years, and by the newness of my situation, but a recovery also ultimately enabled and – precariously – maintained by the new location. For the past decade I may well have been trying to recreate in a corner of Lothian what I left in Yorkshire; on my terms, for a new era. Here’s to the 20s.

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Another cold snap, after a couple of days of the Met Office talking about ‘potentially disruptive snow’, and train companies preemptively cancelling services in case it turns out to be the wrong kind. Came across, and added to,  a piece I wrote in Yorkshire in the lull between Christmas and New Year some years ago. The photographs were taken at a later date, when I was making a seasonal record of the place where I grew up. They are therefore unlikely to illustrate the meteorological conditions described accurately. Although they were in no way intended as an accompaniment to  the writing, its prior existence could well have informed  their creation. 

The 50s semi where we lived till I was thirteen, 269 Staincliffe Road, has been extended to the extent that the daughters of doctors and bank managers  I went to school with would almost have found it respectable. There was a field behind it,  ‘my field’, the house’s natural extension for me, though it belonged to the next door neighbour, whose  house is now also  double its former size. Where my field was there are now nine smart ‘executive’ homes. If the field isn’t there any more,  the view from it, still visible from the lane that runs behind, Scar End View, is better than I remember. It seems now to bear comparison with those in the supposedly superior Dales of holidays and Sunday trips. Now I’m seeing it through eyes that, unlike my octogenarian parents’, have looked at a lot of other places; seeing it through eyes too that have read  Defoe’s respectful description of the North’s industrial valleys — eyes which perhaps first began  to recognise this as their real home when reading Defoe’s Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britian before  teaching it to students at a Scottish university. The view from Scar End looks just fine  through the sub-zero haze of late December afternoons.

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On each of these afternoons, between Christmas and New Year, I walk north along Scar End View. Bungalows are steeped up from the pavement on my right,  the new executive homes above them, while an unfenced playing field, unsnatched by property people, slopes away from the left verge. Below this are more houses, the Moor End council estate, before land  falls away across the main road, Heckmondwike Road, to pastures in  valleys and moors rise to the centre of the country. In a couple of years’ time, a child who lives here will go missing  and a temporary media camp will be established.  My recently widowed father will welcome visits from the police to check his bins and garage.

I’m left in a state of something like suspension, like the year and the season themselves as I look out across the Spen Valley to the Pennine heights; in a recession, or maybe regression from the routines of my adult life.  Then each day I take a slightly different route on Kilpin Hill, now my preferred destination on these walks, though a place I didn’t even really know as a child, despite its proximity, a little north and west of our home. My travels then always took me south and east, to dad’s bakery in Green Lane, to Grandma and Grandpa’s in Thornhill, to school in Horbury, for shopping in the town. I’m childlike now as I explore the lanes of millworkers’ cottages, artisans’ homes of millstone grit, now quite bijou and always somewhat magical, because it  never seems possible to take  the same route twice. Bower Lane, Robin Lane, Cawley Lane, Cresswell Lane, Occupation Lane. Walking daily this December within the bounds of the triangle between Halifax, Huddersfield and Heckmondwike Roads, drawn  across Spen Valley’s  eastern side, I learn more of the lie of this land,  where paths known as ginnels run off the road and lead you as the crow files, while the lane  takes the long route, or turns abruptly into a modern estate. In reality, there’s quite a lot of modern housing: bungalows and semis from every  postwar decade fill the gaps where maybe meadows, fields like mine once lay between the cottages. It is still possible, though, to frame a view with no twentieth-century buildings, that could be forty miles further north, in a pretty dale that attracts the tourists.

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What I’m drawn towards is the end of the hill, where you’ve crossed the boundary into Heckmondwike and reached Halifax Road road: no more lanes and unknown territory. I’ve usually turned back before then, to retrace my steps or discover a new way home, but today I’m compelled to continue to the end of the lane, though this promises only more of the millstone grit and postindustrial grime I remember from childhood and have glimpsed today between the gaps in the cottages of Kilpin Hill. I walk on the road because frost and ice have made the pavement  treacherous.

A large building glows opposite the late afternoon, late year sun on the other side of  Halifax road. I know it’s a nonconformist chapel because I half-remember it from childhood. It’s far larger in scale than the surrounding buildings but it hadn’t been cleaned up when I last saw it, so it wouldn’t have stood out quite so much as it does now, spotlighted by the low-angled orange sun. The facade is audaciously grand: Corinthian pillars and cupolas. Upper Independent Chapel is inscribed in large legend across the lintel. I can’t make out if it’s still in use, or if it’s now offices or apartments.

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Some small disused chapels have become homes in more rural areas; medium sized ones in small towns like this have found ironic new life as Indian restaurants. Larger ones  now house the new, non-geographically specific design and technology industries, just as  old mill buildings have  become retail spaces or art galleries. Design consultancies and architectural practices  like to get their hands on buildings like these. Even when I cross the road, carefully — it’s slippery,  although the gritter has evidently been out — I can’t see any sineage to denote the current use, so I assume that it is still the congregational chapel it always was. I could ask, but  I don’t really need to know. There’s an unimposing modern door at floor level.

Back on the home side of the road, I turn round and it’s shining still, like a monument – mosque or temple – in an eastern landscape, oblivious to its context, where all  other buildings still bear coming up for two centuries’ worth of dirt, not big or bright enough in themselves to be lit up by the setting sun. Even the hall next door, much larger than the domestic buildings, seems dwarfed. They’re all already benighted and  forever grounded while the Upper Independent  seems to float alone, a Mecca beneath the milky gauze of a day that has tried to be bright and clear but is simply too cold not to be hazy.

Next day and in very similar weather conditions, I go back, taking  a slightly different route over the hill. An Asian family  exit through the chapel door as I turn away, but  I’m mindful of my forty minute walk back, during which time the light will be lost and the pavements iced. Whichever way you go back down, by Knowles Hill, School Lane or Church Lane, the hill is steep. I’m anticipating tea and Christmas cake in my parents’ warm lounge, and I fail to ask the Muslims about the Methodist chapel.

Almost obsessively, I seem daily to be re-treading, re-occupying my childhood. I think I’m finally beginning to re-route it. The day after it’s becoming cloudier and milder, and the view from Scar End more limited. No sun: it will be dark sooner, even though theoretically the days are already lengthening, the chapel won’t be glowing and I don’t want to see it dull. So I don’t go on to Kilpin Hill, but cut up onto Staincliffe Road. Just past 269 I take a left turn, into the grounds of the hospital.  Staincliffe General Hospital,  where I was born and three of my grandparents died. I was delivered in the old building, Victorian Gothic, off Healds Road, a few years before the maternity block, now the Bronte Tower, was constructed opposite our house. It was apparently snowing when I  first made the short journey home, at this time of  year, maybe even on this day. At regular intervals during my growing up one of my grandparents was admitted to the geriatric ward, a single-story sprawl between the old and new higher-rises, and didn’t come out again. I’d go with one of the living ones to the hearing aid clinic  in Outpatients, in the room at the end of a long corridor where I also visited the orthodontist yearly. Approaching adolescence, in the couple of years before we moved down to the new house,  I’d  use the hospital grounds as  a place to hang out with my friend Mark, one of the few local children I played with.

Now it’s the District Hospital, part of the Mid-Yorkshire Hospitals Trust. Other than in the context of NHS architecture, Mid-Yorkshire doesn’t exist. Both my parents have undergone minor surgical procedures here.  Both are  on a waiting list for a further operation in one of the   new wards  that extend far back, over fields and ginnels where I also played as a child, towards Halifax Road, which eventually  passes the Upper Independent Chapel, and continues into Heckmondwike. Later my mum will receive chemotherapy at the Boothroyd Centre, named for the former Speaker of the House of Commons from these parts, and a year after her death I’ll come to the mortuary to identify my father’s body. From the other side, Westborough, where I’m now heading, the new construction isn’t so evident. Turning round to look back at the hospital from the playing field between Healds Road and Green Lane, what you see is the original Victorian building: grim,  blackened stone rising to diminutive towers, as if from  across an impoverished Magdalen Fields.

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I’m heading, towards the new house, in the direction of places with which I was better acquainted as a child: the streets of Westborough, where dad had his bakery and shop, and Crow Nest Park. Park Road, Birkdale Road and West Park Street; Reservoir Street, Oxford Road and Stockhill Street, where girls I went to school with lived in architect-designed bungalows, or Victorian villas that were once the homes of the mill owners and managers. Where Staincliffe and Kilpin Hill have undergone some gentrification and growth spurts of new building, here there are signs of decay and of subdivision. Some are  now HMOs; others home to extended Asian families.

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I was walking around here, and along  the park’s broad  avenues on mild autumnal mornings a couple of months ago, when dad was having  hernia surgery in a hospital 20 miles away and there was less time to explore further afield; missing  my daily perambulation round Hunter’s Bog in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park. Next year he’ll be back in the Mid-Yorkshire Trust’s sister hospital at Pontefract for a hip replacement. He’d have needed  to wait much longer to get it done in the hospital up the road. He’ll make a third trip along the M62 to Pontefract for a second hernia op a few months before his death from a heart attack when out shopping for a new radiator valve.

Today despite all the new building and the midwinter muddy playing field, there still is a lot of green — allotments, fields, parks — or there would be had  the weather not  toned everything down into khaki. Nearly everywhere you can see hills: the foothills of the Pennines, above  valleys where the towns of heavy industry lie hidden, in the north, east and south; the high moors to the west where there are no more towns until you reach Greater Manchester. Despite its location near the hub of the industrial revolution, and its evident scars from that time, this still isn’t properly an urban landscape. I’ve lived in cities since I left here more than 22 years ago, and what I still miss is its openness and variety. Now it’s Scotland that I don’t want to return to. I will go back north tomorrow, but today I’m spending my first New Year’s Eve in a long time back here.  I call in the Westborough co-op to buy a bottle of bubbly and head straight  back down the hill.

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