Laura Barton has written a lyrical, thoughtful piece in the Guardian about what it means to be Northern in exile (I realise it may seem ridiculous to people from decently sized countries that a person from one part of our tiny island can miss it when living barely two hours away, but we do, ok?). I was struck by the passage about what she misses:
"I missed the colour of the leaves that seemed to grow a darker, dearer green than those of the south. I missed the dour beauty of a region that was once the nation's industrial heartland, the mills, the mines, the blackened bricks, the canals, the way the landscape is scarred by the past – the rope-burns on the towpath bridges, the old pit-shafts, quarries, disused railways, the strange deformities of a land that has been tunnelled and burrowed and shifted and finally left to settle. I missed the voices. I missed the music of chuck, and love, and lad. I missed the cursing, the insults, the ruddy and bloody and wazzock and gobbin. I missed the sound of the rain and the smell of the pavements as it dried. I missed the light, the shift of the clouds, the flat grey sky, the thrill of a hot day. I missed its kindness. And often I thought of that line by Tennyson: "Bright and fierce and fickle is the south/ And dark and true and tender is the north."
Partly I enjoyed it because it's a beautiful evocation of the North West, but partly because it made me think what I miss about my homeland, my birthplace. I miss London all the time. I want to be there, would go back in a heartbeat if I could. I know exactly what I miss about it; the scale, and the anonymity, my favourite corners and my friends. But York? It's an afterthought. I was desperate to escape, first to Leeds which was bigger and brasher and had better shops, then to London, and after my first proper trip abroad alone (Morocco, at sixteen), to escape England altogether. That's how I ended up here. But it has never stopped me defining myself proudly, ridiculously, as northern. I spent 18 years there, after all. And what do I miss?
I miss the smell of sugar beet on a cold, damp, misty day. It's not that it was a nice smell, it wasn't, really. The more palatable, smell of York is of After Eights, dark molten chocolate from the Rowntrees, now Nestlé factory. But it's the sugar beet I remember most vividly, perhaps it was seasonal, the factory only operated for part of the year. Sugar beet is sort of sweet and acrid, but it's the smell of winter for me, new school coat and shoes, coming home from school when the skies are starting to darken and the sodium lamps are coming on vivid orange and being completely enveloped in the dampness, and the smell. York is flat, and low; frequently flooded. It sits in a damp hollow between two rivers, so the mist, and the smell lingered, I can just see how the factory chimney sent out a fat white plume of beet vapour, to sit under the cloud line. The sugar beet smell is gone forever, the Tate & Lyle factory has closed. It must be odd to be in York in winter without it. I think I miss winter there altogether, the smell of leaf mulch down by the Foss, and the quality of light and eating my toast so close to the electric fire I practically set my school uniform on fire. All that mist. It's never misty here. In my memories, it's always winter and it's always misty in York.
I miss, and don't miss, Tuesday night bell ringing practice at the Minster reverberating around the city centre. Living so close to it, the bell ringing, endlessly repetitive and invasive, would almost make the house shake, make listening to music pointless. It wasn't something to be enjoyed, so much as endured. And then, the quality of silence when it stopped was very particular; that relief, your ears not quite able to believe it wasn't going to start up again. On the very occasional weeks when there was no practice, you would wander round the house, a bit on edge, discombobulated, barely aware of what you were missing, but knowing something was missing all the same.
I miss the Saturday ritual of going the 500 yards 'into town', the time honoured circuit of streets - Monk Bar, then Goodramgate, Petergate, Stonegate, Parliament Street then Coney Street. Always. I still find it hard to deviate from this when I go back, regardless of what the intended final destination might be. Too many Saturdays with my best friend Alex, heading towards the mecca of the Coney Street shops: Miss Selfridge, Woolworths, latterly, and thrillingly, River Island. The obligatory queue for a Danish pastry in Thomas the Bakers. And that particular provincial town main street experience where you are statistically certain to see at least 50% of the people you know in any given afternoon.
But really, there isn't that much I miss about York; it's a middle class medieval town, utterly homogenous and crammed with tourists. I obviously miss Yorkshire people, because I gravitate towards them, want to swap phrases and adolescent hangouts with them (interestingly, they seem to be over-represented in my corner of the internet, I'm always running into more and it's always a pleasure). But it's more that I miss the rituals of home I miss. Sitting on the end of my mum's bed while she held court there all day on Saturday. Prog Rock in the kitchen making something ponderously labour intensive, while listening to a tape of Analysis, he has taped off Radio 4, a pile of fat, forbidding library books piled close by. Taking my sister to 'the lions', a patch of grass in the shadow of the Minster, with a sort of decrepit pillar with lions on the base, their features obliterated by centuries of rain. A trip to the Spar late at night for chocolate. Sitting in the tiny backyard in the summer listening to cricket on the radio and ignoring a pile of revision. I'm a bit sick of being an adult right now, it's hard work, and apparently, it just goes on like this until you go mad or DIE. That sucks. I want a couple of weeks back in the warm bubble of my provincial childhood, thanks.
What do you miss about the place you grew up, if anything?