Back to Johnstonebridge

I’d wanted for years to walk with my daughters the haunts from my day, show them I had once been wild too, had lived in the world as free as a child. See if they could see it in me better then.

My mum had broken her ankle in spring working with the sheep, but was on the mend. I’d asked her if she’d be able, if she fancied coming with us to the minister’s pool, and maybe the church, the graveyard - it was just down the road from theirs. Places full of memory, of awe. Storied places.

The day we went was a huffy August one, warm and cloudy; still. Driving along snaking roads I’d only really walked before (probably for the last time twenty years ago), long grass reaching to the car, and me, a creature of habit, having to venture forth in unfamiliar territory. Not used to driving with an adult passenger, not sure how comfortable she is with my nervous, clumsy-seeming driving.

Passing Beechfield, the house I’d lived in from four to seventeen, my castle. The hedges are trimmed too small now, trees are missing, it looks naked, cold, uncomfortable. Mum says the estate did it up and put the rent up after they moved out and that it’s had a series of short-term tenants with questionable reputation, according to the locals.

Then past the village, the single row of pebbledash houses from my time now faced by an expanded more modern cul-de-sac, like a new-town in miniature. There’s my primary school, my playground. The places where things had happened in the stories the girls already knew. The wood across the road where if the ball went you weren’t allowed to go and get it back. I slow down for a look.

The girls are vaguely interested (but not as much as I am enthusiastic; wonder-full, odd). To them it’s just sandstone and cement, I suppose. Tarmac and grass, wire fence. Like lots of other tiny country schools. But I remember the clatter and shouting of the classroom, the terror. The smell of plasticine and paint, of other children’s clothes. The fear and confusion of the dining room, the loneliness or sometimes collusion, invention, rumpus of the playground.

On along the road, not far, we reach the turn-off at the church hall. It’s been converted to a house, the roof all solar panels. I remember it as the scene of my one and only visit to pre-school with my mum soon after we moved here, the unwelcoming atmosphere enough to scare us both off. We drive past the manse, which hasn’t been a minister’s dwelling within my memory. We’d shared a minister with a neighbouring parish for a long time as church attendance dwindled.

I drive on, right down to the carpark by the church on a road so steep it worries me and everyone else holds on tight. I park by the churchyard and we get out, peek over the wall at the church, which my mum tells me has been sold to private owners, and which looks neglected, odd, undone. Strange toy figures look out from the dark windows.

We walk around the edge of the field by the river, the crop of barley in full flourish, golden green and shining like a liquid or something ethereal, just as I remember it. Our dog used to have great fun disappearing in there and jumping up every now and again like a surfacing dolphin.

We stop at the pebble ‘beach’, the only place I swam outdoors in childhood, but it’s not impressing my girls much. They sit for a bit and look into the water, pick up the odd stone. It used to be good for skimming-stones here. But it doesn’t really feel like my swimming place now, I’m not sure why.

I’m eager to show them the pool, the ancient oak tree, so we climb back up to the field-edge and continue on the downstream path. All the way from here to the big tree, the river bank is jungled with Himalayan balsam. I recognise this plant from when my mum used to collect plants she found that other people thought were weeds but which she enjoyed. Weeds are just plants growing where people don’t want them, not a distinct category, she always told me, sometimes medicinal herbs or wildflowers – it’s people who’ve tried to become so tidy and orderly that they can’t bear these plants that won’t do as they’re told.

I now know from my fishery biologist husband that this ‘invasive species’ (Impatiens glandulifera) has become hugely problematic on river banks, spreading prolifically and dominating at the expense of other plant species, disturbing settled ecosystems and even leading to river bank erosion. From my superficial point of view, I don’t like how it’s changed the place either, the bank no longer accessible as it used to be and even the atmosphere seemingly altered by the sticky sweet smell.

We reach the tree and it’s just as magnificent as I remember. Now the girls are impressed. I show them how it even has handy footholds in its trunk for easy climbing and then almost regret it as they scramble up (their own way, not mine) and onto the huge limb which overhangs the pool, where a swing used to hang. My youngest, only ten, points out that there is still a swing, tied up and inaccessible and begins to inch along to rescue it, me and my mum standing below horrified, breathless at the height she’d fall from if she goes wrong. I know from memory that this branch is huge and flattened, almost road-like when you’re up there, but I don’t like seeing my child take the risks I did when there were no adults around. She doesn’t fall, but doesn’t quite rescue the swing and we leave intact, me with strange feelings, unsure of what this place is now, what it ever was.