This afternoon I had a sudden urge to use Google Street View to look at a place that meant a great deal to me when I was growing up, but which I haven’t visited for about 20 years. Every school holiday I would spend a couple of weeks and often longer staying with my grandparents at their home in rural Wales. It was (at least in my memory) an idyllic place for a child to spend time. They had a field and an orchard with a river, we walked through farms every day with the dog, ending at the village post office (still selling ha’penny sweets well into the 90’s!). We picked blackberries and plums for pies, we bridged streams, fed the chickens and collected the eggs. We rescued stranded sheep, we charted protected red kites.
Looking at Street View was like a journey for me; although I wasn’t physically there I followed the arrows along the familiar roads as if I was travelling them myself. Every step brought back happy memories, tinged with sadness that this is all in my past and determination that my children will have some of these same experiences.
I selected 9 images which had particular resonance for me. The first image is the view we always had as we finally arrived after a four hour drive; it has changed somewhat in the 20 years since I was there but in my mind it remains the same and I still expect the dog to come charging out as soon as she hears the car pull up on the drive (she would often sit and sunbathe in the middle of this road). I find with the next image of the house I want to look through the windows, to see if anything remains of the home I remember (as unlikely as that is). Yet I am simultaneously remembering looking out of those windows, across the river into the fields beyond. I particularly remember looking out on rainy days, hearing the raindrops batter the rattly wood-framed windows.
Next we go to the crossroads by the bridge, the point at which we would pause at the post office before deciding which way to walk. This bridge was for me the key feature of the village (though in fact there was a large housing estate a little walk away that was the true heart of the village). We would stand and play pooh sticks on that bridge, we would clamber under it to rescue trapped sheep.
The next image turns off to one side of the crossroads – this was a direction we took often because it led to a rear gate into my grandparents’ field (the subsequent image shows this gate). When I first saw the figure on this image I immediately wondered if it was my nanna out walking. That is crazy, she hadn’t lived there for years, and certainly couldn’t go hiking in 2011 when these images were made. It was an irrational, instinctive response, a desire to recapture the many times I walked alongside her (she passed away two years ago). Even when I had consciously rejected this initial thought, I inspected the figure carefully to see if it was someone I recognised, some way I could link myself back to this place. Although I am not physically there, I am still using the image to “capture” the place, just as if I was photographing it myself.
The next image is of the village post office and shop, a place I remember well in part because we stopped in every day to collect the paper and buy sweets, and in part because we were friends with the children who lived there. It seemed like an antique to me; there used to be a Lyons advertising poster on the side wall, and there was a distinct smell inside of dried tinned food and sweets that I have never come across since. As with the house, I find myself trying to look into the windows, to see if the inside matches my memories. It is probably a good thing that I can’t see inside, I would hate to see it modernised!
My journey then turns around and takes me over the bridge, a view which includes most of the areas we used to walk, complete with sheep in the field (the dog was scared of sheep so we tried to avoid getting too close!). The next image focuses on the gate to the field we walked most often. This gate was a plaything for us; we would swing on it as it opened and closed, but always remember to lock it behind us. There is something very childish about swinging on a gate, yet I long to do it again, to recapture those innocent moments. The final image captures the view beyond the gate, looking back towards my grandparents’ house shining white across the field.
Even viewed through Street View this is an idyllic location; few cars or signs of modern life, a lone figure amongst the fields and trees. But perhaps my perspective is skewed, I think I am incapable of viewing this place objectively because it features so strongly in my happiest childhood memories. I suspect that when I go out walking now as a way of relaxing and clearing my mind there is a part of me that is trying to emulate or regain this childhood, all my views on landscape and the way that I enjoy it were shaped here (it is no coincidence that I also learnt to paint landscapes here with my grandpa).
The connection between landscape and memory is a strong one – I am about to embark on a weighty tome by Simon Schama entitled “Landscape and Memory” and am looking forward to learning more about this link. I hope that in conjunction with the Street View work I have just done this may trigger an interesting future project. One thing that particularly interests me is undertaking a similar exercise for other places from my childhood, but I am going to hold off on that for another day.