Homecoming

I was undecided until yesterday morning, whether to drive up to London or take the train. Pros and Cons swirled around my mind and the signs of rumination and anxiety were clear enough for me to recognise. In the end I knew it would be uncomfortable sitting on a train for 3 hours next to my brother’s ashes so I took the car.

It was an easy run up to town and as I parked just a hundred yards from where my brother and I had grown up in East London, and got out of the car, the sweet sound of the recently repaired church bell struck 12. It was so clean a sound it could almost have been a Tuscan church bell ringing out across olive groves. The horse chestnuts had all gone from under the avenue that ran down to the church  – those that had survived the recent cull anyway. It can’t have been a good year anyway, too dry. The day was beautiful, softly warm for late October. As I walked up to the high street, I noticed two women purposefully collecting sweet chestnuts from beneath the three giant old trees on the green. I wondered at how many places in London there would a wild harvest happening today.

As I walked up the high street to the funeral directors I tried to remember where the shops had been when I was a child. I remembered where the wood mill was that I could go and ask for a bag of sawdust for my rabbit’s hutch; and the nice butchers. Most of the shops now seemed to be cafes and restaurants, estate agents or clothes shops. One butcher, no greengrocer, no fishmonger.

The funeral directors was a fixed point, around which everything else had changed. It felt a bit like a pilgrimage returning to my childhood home again, on my own, now that my mum has moved down to Dorchester. I thought of her campaigning to stop the roads being built through the local park in the 60s, and the subsequent Wanstonia road protest 30 years later. The sister sweet chestnut to the three survivors became an icon of that protest – there’s even a short film about it.  I felt like an amateur psychogeographer, sensing the events that created the identity of this amazing place.

I chatted to Bob at the Funeral Director’s, who had kindly put my brother’s ashes into a large cardboard tube for me. It was at the funeral that his fishing friends and I had come up with the idea of scattering his ashes into one of his favourite fishing lakes up in the Hertfordshire Lea Valley. The forecast was looking pretty dodgy and I wanted to make sure the ceremony did not descend into farce, especially as both our girls and my mum will be there. We plumped for a scatter tube, which we would either use to scatter Simon’s ashes into the water, or if the winds were too high, just open the ends and let it sink to the bottom. The tube was as Bob had described it, about the size of a 25 pounder shell case. It weighed a lot too, and I decided not to take it with me on my tube journey into town. I thought about taking Simon on one last tube journey, but what if I left him on the train? I decided to travel light.

I had to go to St James’ Park, to pick up my coat, which I had left at RSPB Sandy a few weeks earlier. Brendan had kindly brought it down with him from the Lodge that day. It was a trip I knew off by heart, having travelled it daily for 2 1/2 years when I went to Westminster in my sixth form. At least I didnt have to take my cello with me, as I had often to do. Travelling on the rush hour tube with a cello is the sort of character (and muscle) building activity that goes with attending a Public School I guess. I started reading a book I had as a birthday present – The 32 Stops by Danny Dorling. It’s a book about the Central Line! The irony had not gone un-noticed. As I travelled in from the east, the book started at the west end, which left my slightly reeling from the dissonance. Most people were either on their phones listening, talking, texting or gaming. As we pulled into Mile End the Distrct Line driver waited for our doors to open, before closing his. Why do they do that? I wonder if it’s some sort of grim satisfaction gained from watching our faces drop.

The next train came rapidly. I was pleased that I had picked the right carriage to get off at St James’ park, near the front – the old tube memory was still there. It was just a couple of minutes to the RSPB office. Back in Westminster, the old haunt in both senses. It has been a little while since I have travelled up there for meetings at Defra or the House of Commons. I felt a bit wistful. At RSPB I bumped into Brendan who had brought up my coat, and we chatted about biodivesrity offsetting and how the EAC select committee had let “Goalposts” Paterson off with some weak questioning the previous day. Brendan had given evidence  – I said I would have a look on the video. We agreed to meet up before the next biodiversity APPG where Paterson was coming along to say how wonderful offsetting is, in a couple of weeks time. Brendan was heading to Crushh cafe to meet up with colleagues before a Defra meeting about offsetting so I accompanied him and showed him the cut through Deans Yard where the school is. I had a peek into Little Dean’s Yard and chatted to the bursar about the time I got suspended (along with about 10 others) for trying to get the school minibus through a 15th century arch (failed miserably). He told the story of an earlier successful prank involving the headmaster’s mini, which was taken through the arch and left in the middle of the school wrapped up in a giant bow.

It was great to see them, and I had a quick chat with friends in the cafe, then left them to their pre-meeting, before heading across the road to have my sandwich while watching the Thames roll past Victoria Tower Gardens – my day had been leavened by seeing familiar faces and chatting about familiar issues. They jokingly suggested I join them for the meeting at Defra but I demurred.

Back at Westminster tube the District/Circle eastbound was down (broken down train at Sloane Square) so I wended my way back via the Jubilee Line, via West Ham. West Ham is where my brother and I were born, home to West Ham United, where my dad’s ashes are buried, but that’s another story.

Amazingly the same 2 women (plus another one) were still collecting sweet chestnuts from under the giants. The drive home was thankfully uneventful.

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About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
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