I guess I’ve always felt a little rootless. I grew up in a small town in west Wales, and when I left for university in London aged 17, I never really went back. Sure, I was back there for the holidays, but that was all: I didn’t really go back for weekends and it didn’t feel like I had to be there. Most of the people I’d grown up with had either headed off to their own universities, or stayed firmly put and rather viewed the rest of us as traitors for running off to The Big Assorted Smokes (which, when more than a few only went as far as Cardiff, seemed a little over-the-top…).
My parents moved to London (or back there, in their case) not long after I did, and the house I’d grown up in was sold. I looked at it on Streetview a year to two back. It looks different. A couple of years later, my grandparents moved to the West Country, and their old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere was sold too. As for my other grandparents’ house… well, I was living in that. Long story.
And then we sold that… and at almost exactly the same time, my mother died and I was adrift. There was nothing to anchor me, no place of safety. Nowhere to run to. Everywhere felt like a strange place and I was a stranger there. Time passed, and my father sold the flat where he’d lived with my mother and left London, and I moved again – this time from Brighton, where I’d moved literally the day before my mother died, to Bath.
I liked Brighton a lot – but I don’t think I ever managed to love it. I don’t think that was its fault, either: it had done nothing more than be the place my mother had (coincidentally) spent most of the last week of her life, and happen to be the place I was still surrounded by bags and boxes when she died. But something like that… I don’t know. It’s hard to shake.
Bath, quite without my knowing it, has become home. It has gravity. The good burghers of Bath would like you to think it has gravitas, too… but gravity’s more like it. It has something that I don’t think I’ve ever felt before. I live on the edge of the city, near the river, and look across a valley towards a hill very like the one my bedroom window looked over when I was a kid. The rain feels like the rain I remember from Wales: soft and drizzly and surprisingly wet, given how light it feels.
It’s not just the scenery here: it’s a beautiful town – more so, admittedly than where I grew up, which was a slightly rough-around-the-edges market town with half a fallen-down castle and the highest number of pubs per capita in all of Wales (and which has turned out a disproportionately high number of rugby and snooker players. Make of that what you will). It’s beautiful and it’s different and yet somehow, so much of it makes me think of “home”.
I still call it that if I’m not paying attention, Wales, even though it hasn’t been home for about half my life now – and my entire adulthood. I still call it that because I can still picture the walk from my old house into town. I still remember the stalls you’d pass if you took the shortcut through the market hall, and I still remember stopping to look at the calves standing in their pens outside the cattle mart on a Thursday afternoon after school.
I still remember the way up to the reservoirs at the top of town, where I spent more time than I should have. I remember the feel of the chains of the swings in the playground in my hands, wet from the rain. I remember the smell of the little bus stop opposite the church where I’d have to wait for the bus out to the village where my then-boyfriend was living – and always being at the stop twenty minutes early just in case, because there wouldn’t be another bus for an hour and a half. I remember the sound of shoes on the rubber matting on the ramp between the children’s and the adult section of the library, and I remember how the sky could be so grey it was almost blue, cut in half by the brightest rainbows you’ll ever see. I remember it all… but I know well enough that I can never go back.
The place that I call “home” when I’m feeling absentminded: it doesn’t exist any more. It never did. The memories are real, but you can’t point to a handful of memories on a map and call it a place. You can’t unpack a box of your things in a memory. It’s hiraeth, that most peculiarly Welsh of words (which, like “cwtch” makes instant sense to a Welshman, and defies exact explanation to everyone else… and apparently drives Autocorrect into an absolute frenzy into the bargain).
Hiraeth is homesickness, but not just for a place; for a time, for an idea. It’s nostalgia for an almost, a fairy-town glimpsed through mist across a river. It has no gravity because it’s made of gossamer.
Time moves forward and so do we – and like Pratchett’s proverbial turtle, we carry our worlds on our backs with us wherever we go. You can’t turn the world back.
Where I live now, it feels like home because it feels like it’s strong enough for roots. It can take an anchor.
I’m glad it can.