Today I traveled back in time.
I was already feeling nostalgic, having visited a friend I hadn’t seen for 34 years. Although we met in Oxford, he now lives in the north part of Leeds, West Yorkshire, which just happens to be very close to where I grew up from the age of six to sixteen, the village of Shadwell.
I’d driven the 15 miles to see him and, on the way back, began to wonder about taking a short detour to my old stomping ground, but I was tired after our long catch-up and decided to leave that for another day.
Back home, as the evening drew on, I went there virtually on Google Street View. I dragged the little man over Main Street and found myself traveling about half a century into the past.
My past. My half century. It’s hard to believe.
The Google Time Machine dropped me right between St. Paul’s Church, whose graveyard I used to traverse on the short walk to school, and Shadwell County Primary itself. I remember being frightened, on dark winter days, of the graves and what they might conceal, then, on summer days, playing there happily enough (although, one time, I climbed and fell out of a tree there; I could have died; imagine falling to one’s death in a graveyard).
These sorts of places, however, I will have to visit physically, as the Google Time Car doesn’t go along church paths. I may find the tree I fell out of. I don’t know why I would want to, but I do. It may be harmless vanity, perhaps, or further effort toward becoming familiar – if not comfortable – with the fact of my own mortality, which perhaps first impinged on my young mind on that twice-daily commute.
I wandered digitally eastwards, looking for the old sweet shop that was owned by the parents of a girl I used to play with in the school playground. Angela was a plump, plain girl, sometimes not entirely fragrant, and regularly got bullied. I was too introvert to notice much playground politics, and we made friends. She enjoyed being a horse, running around with me in train, connected by a skipping-rope for reins (and shared social discomfort), presumably saying, “Gee-up” and “Whoa there!” I may have had an eye to the more important politics of favourable deals at the sweet shop, but I don’t think it worked.
I didn’t identify the shop. Google’s ability to warp time is limited. But I was amazed to see the bus terminus was still a short distance from there, where my sister and I sometimes sat upstairs on a double-decker gorging on chocolate bars as we waited for the bus to set off to Moortown or Leeds. We liked to pretend we were talking to each other in a foreign language to see what response we got from the other passengers, or perhaps just to feel special. As an adult, I’ve occasionally heard children do this on a bus. We probably sounded equally convincing.
I continued my investigation of times past by turning left into Ash Hill Lane, where I went to Beverley’s birthday party. I – around seven or eight – was in love with Beverley, or so I may have thought. Once, being driven in the car through a town called Beverley, according to family tales oft repeated since, I am supposed to have cried out, “Stop the car, I want to get out and kiss the ground!” I know kids say stupid things, but obviously this is either entirely apocryphal or the family didn’t recognise my precocious grasp of irony.
A few houses further along was Christopher’s house. Christopher and I used to call on each other to play out on our bikes. My vanity is such that I remember little of our friendship other than the time he complimented me for being able to cycle fast and whistle at the same time. We were zipping down the slopes and – partly through momentum – up the rises in the Spinney.
At the end of his road, as I clicked the little chevron, I wondered what I would find beyond the crossroads. I’m pretty sure more damn houses. I was pretty sure I’d seen a new housing estate there in earlier excursions – virtual or real – this isn’t the first time I’ve gone back home.
This was the setting – probably now buried by new builds – for one of my strongest and best-loved childhood memories. We dumped our bikes and walked along the dirt-track. The houses and their neat new lawns gave way to ancient fields with seas of wheat and barley dancing in the summer sun.
The countryside was a stone’s throw from our front doors and there were miles and miles of it to explore in coming years. Beyond the fields deep woods brooded and crystal becks ran.
I was captivated by the wind revealing its form in the golden waves. Pulling a stalk, dissecting it, tasting the sap. I was fascinated by small details – the miniature forest of moss on a log or the iridescence of a sparkling beetle. Yet here Christopher and I proceeded to set fire to our least-loved Airfix planes to enact terrible crashes in the tractor tracks. Boys will be boys.
I was astonished and delighted to see that the lane in fact continues to this day into dirt-track. A real-life visit is in order. I’m not sure what all this memory-lane stuff is about, but perhaps I need to find out.
Reality was maleable, multi-layered, back then. On the one hand, I was just a kid playing in the streets. On the other – of course, nobody knew this – I was Second Officer in a secret military ship (my house), which the gas hobs in the kitchen and other “ordinary household objects” secretly controlled. Some kind of mind-warp allowed this stealth craft to dock undetected in the street after long ocean voyages, to battle unknown evils out there in the world: maybe as far away as Wike or Bardsey. The driveway was my secret gangway, and down it I would ride, on what appeared to any observer to be an ordinary kid’s bike. Little did they know the awesome nuclear power hidden within its architecture. My sister pretended her bike was a horse, but then girls will be girls.
I continued up the hill, where once (riding down carelessly) I hit the curb and fell off my first bike. I was carried home covered in blood by a neighbour. This wasn’t far from the spot – on what was mostly still a building-site at the time – where I accidentally stood on a plastic sachet and was blinded by the oil that burst out into my face.
And there was the Mother Ship, our old/new house. I remember our first visit, when the lawn was still a jumble of stone. Some strangers seem to have moved in; I don’t understand it; their cars are on the drive. You turn your back for four and a half decades…?
There are too many memories to relate, obviously, and, as I write this, more are coming back all the time. Are the memories getting stronger, rather than fading? Am I entering that place some old people go, Back When. Will it someday be little glimpses of the present that break through my default retrospection?
I looked out for Joanna’s house. I was in love with Joanna. Not like Beverley. Proper in love. One day, in her dad’s tool shed, Joanna and I secretly showed each other things you mustn’t unless you’re definitely going to get married.
I sauntered around another corner to the old fish-and-chip shop, which is still there and still a fish-and-chip shop, another remarkable survivor, even with a mention on Wikipedia. And there’s that extraordinary bus-stop opposite, exquisitely particular. It is, of course, perfectly ordinary. Bus-stops I used to stand at, how can they elicit such nostalgia?
And from there along Gateland Lane – these names are like old friends – forgoing a trip to see where Julie lived, with whom I liked to pretend everyone else was in love, and past Ruth’s house, with whom I was briefly in love…
But I went that way to find the Spinney. Whenever I think of Shadwell, I think of the Spinney. It’s a strange little squarish wood, standing like a dark castle in the landscape, foreboding yet enticing. The trees grow along a complex of undulating ridges around deep hollows, something I don’t remember seeing anywhere else. Since the little track along its western edge is called Colliers Lane, perhaps the odd topography is due to open-cast mining. Whatever the cause, it lent great opportunity for imaginative play.
The Spinney had a reputation for acts of youthful vandalism, or worse. The big kids left broken and burned things in the hollows and decorated the tree trunks with rebellious signs. One time we found a decapitated chicken. We implicated Satanists, probably just to scare ourselves.
We used to ride our bikes for hours round there. It always seemed ancient, strangely permanent, an island of dependable inscrutability, its undulations riding the waves of time. It is, I am happy to say, still there. Or it was when the Google Car last went by.