I adopted an ‘explorative’ approach, forcing myself to find a footpath I hadn’t trodden before. The fact that it turned out to be a foot deep in mud didn’t matter in my now muddy boots, and neither did the muscle I pulled in my thigh as I climbed over a fence to escape the mud, because, looking back I saw views of the hills behind my house that I had not seen before. The steep white face is the most striking feature for miles around. I have lived here for nearly 16 years and I always look for this feature as I get close to home because it triggers in me a sense of ‘I belong here and not somewhere else’.
As I walked I listened to the sounds around me – the heavy earth moving equipment in the sand quarry I couldn’t see, dogs barking, rooks squawking and more. I took photos of things that meant something to me. I passed the village school where my youngest daughter went when we first moved here. I looked back along the track to the hills one of my favourite views and one I have tried to paint. I walked through the graveyard where my wife’s first husband is buried and walked along the ’coffin road’ which had carried the dead from the next village to the church before the village next door had a church. This small but ancient village was mentioned in the Doomsday Book (1086) and a church has stood on this spot since Saxon times. The present church St Michael’s was built in the 13th century and I am conscious from the eroded tombstones that I am sharing this space with people who lived centuries ago.
I heard running water and was curious to know what lay behind a high wooden fence. I found a hole conveniently at eye level and saw that a large lake had been constructed with a weir. I had never seen it before in all the time I had lived here. I am sure if I had been a boy here I would have known every inch of this place. When I got home I assembled the photos I had taken into a short movie and found some music to accompany me on my virtual walk. I noticed how just watching my movie made me feel happy.
I know, at least for now, I belong here, sandwiched between Chalk Mountain and the River Mole. But we have talked about ‘down-sizing’ and eventually the time will come when the reasons for moving will outweigh those for staying. I know from past experience that giving up a place where you feel you belong is not an easy thing to do. It is associated with a sense of loss and sometimes identity if a role has been lost too.
Learning about a place and developing a sense of belonging is a complex thing. It takes time and it involves lots of experiences, and the development of a history of being in a place which is entangled with the history of the people we know and care about in that place. It is a mix of knowings and feelings that is not something that can be learned easily or quickly. It is something that has to be lived and experienced through the ups and downs of life and through particular events that make up our life in the landscape of a particular place. The muddy walk I have just taken is one of the ways I have come to know what it means to belong to this place.