Cork to Dublin, Bristol to Staffordshire, Days 8 – 12
Our final two days in Ireland begin in Blarney, site of the famous castle and kissing stone. Many fellow travelers opt to climb up to the castle to kiss the stone of eloquence, but I give this one a pass. I walk around the village, on my own, taking a pathway beside a lovely stream that leads up to the castle itself. There is a light, refreshing rain falling, which lasts most of the morning. We spend the afternoon in Waterford, home to the famous crystal maker dating back to 1783. Waterford produces gorgeous bowls and stemware in addition to specialty items like the famous New Year’s Eve ball dropped in Times Square every year, the trophies for the People’s Choice Awards, Master’s Series in tennis and the Formula One. It is fascinating to watch the skilled workers heating, blowing, shaping and etching the crystal glass. In the evening, we tour the seaside resort of Tramore, visit an authentic pub off the beaten track and listen to some music. The sad Irish songs get to me again (this time, with no help from mead or other spirits!). I wait by the bar until the music stops; upon hearing my story, David the barman comes out from behind the bar to give me a big hug and wish me well. On our last day in Ireland, we visit Avoca Mills, Ireland’s oldest handweaving mill, and the 6th century monastery of St. Kevin’s in Wickelow. The ruins, surrounded by ancient forests and a cascading stream, are postcard-worthy. Then, the return to Dublin and a quiet evening in preparation for the early departure for Bristol, England. At the dinner table, a group of ladies that I have been talking to and gotten to know during the tour, affectionately dubbed Table 24, exchange email addresses with me. I promise to keep in touch with them to let them know how the meeting with my birth mother goes. The Irish tour has ended; it has been a fantastic trip in the company of good people and with the discovery of many new family members. The next day, we catch a plane for Bristol, UK, to visit the place where I spent my childhood.
Bristol, Day 10
Once we land in Bristol, I rent a car. We are traveling to my childhood village of Nether Stowey, Somerset, where I lived until I was nearly 10. I have not been back here for 45 years. Somerset is a county in the southwest of England, between Devon and Cornwall and across the channel from Wales. My cousin Rick, on my adoptive mother’s side, and his wife Teresa have bought the Poole House Bed & Breakfast in Nether Stowey, after falling in love with the village, which he remembered from visiting us as a boy.
At first, the drive south from Bristol dismays me. The suburban sprawl seems to go on forever. I long for the bucolic fields and hedgerows and narrow country lanes I remember from my youth. But the sprawl finally gives way to green fields, and I catch a glimpse of the English countryside as I remember it. Nether Stowey is small, ancient, and charming. The village I grew up in is known for its poets; Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his famous The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan while living here, and William Wordsworth, living three miles away, was a frequent visitor and guest at the Poole House. My cousin lives in the Poole House but is no longer operating it as a Bed & Breakfast. The house is said to have been built in the early 17th century. Thomas Poole was a local tanner with an interest in literature and philanthropy. He supported Coleridge during his time in Nether Stowey; the Wordsworths and Charles Lamb were frequent guests of his at the Poole House.
It is great to see my cousin and meet his lovely and charming wife; we have a fantastic time and lots of catching up to do. But the ghosts of the past are here to haunt me. My cousin shows me what remains of Hughlings House, my childhood home on Mill Lane, named in honour of John Hughlings Jackson, an English neurologist renowned for his work on epilepsy. I am standing in the garden of my beloved childhood home, awash in memories and heartbroken. The house, recently put up for sale, is totally neglected and in a state of terrible disrepair. A neurologist (funnily enough, called Critchley) owned it until his death in 1997 and his widowed wife did not take care of it. I can hardly stand it. I see the front yard – much smaller than my memories of it – how enormous the world seems when we are small! The front gate is still there – the one I climbed up on every year to watch the Exmoor and Dartmoor ponies being rounded up and galloped down the country lane, past our house. This gate holds such vivid recollections for me that I ask my cousin’s wife to take a photo it, as I have left my camera behind. In the back garden that my adoptive father so lovingly maintained, nothing remains but overgrown brambles and vines. Broken pots litter the side of the house. The huge garden has been rendered half its former size, as they sold off part of it to neighbours. In the garden, I have a sudden memory of standing there, as I did every evening before sunset, listening to the buzz and drone of what I thought were the electricity lines, not realizing then that they were the songs of the cicadas. I recall the flurry of butterflies amongst the flowers and vegetables, the giant fuzzy caterpillars I used to collect, the buzz and the din of summer all around me, alone in the garden, where I loved to be. The small, shriveled apple trees there now. A vivid memory of the day my dad came home with pear, plum and apple saplings to plant. The excitement at the idea of fruit trees – real fruit! – growing in our garden. The tiny run-down shed behind the house, which has shrunk in size, where my brothers, sister and I used to play, and the garage where my dad raised chickens, his motorcycle tucked away at the back. I remember walking down to the village shop (which seemed like miles, but was really just down the lane) where I was regularly given free ice cream in exchange for a song. These were happier times, in our family. Unlike my cousins, who stayed in England, we emigrated to Canada and kept on moving. By the time I reached high school, I had attended 8 different schools and lived in 11 houses. Turbulent times. Here, around every corner, a memory grabs me and shakes me to the core. And I cannot hold back the tears. How many have I shed so far on this journey home? And I realize that being here in my childhood village with my cousin Rick has affected me in a way that I was not at all prepared for. Fifty-six years of memories. Yet in my child’s mind, I am nine; time has stood still, caught like a Polaroid snapshot, static and immutable. My memories capture the way things used to be, but no longer are. And I am totally unprepared for all the changes that have taken place.
I am comforted to learn, at least, that someone has recently bought our old house and, I hope, will be restoring it back to its former Georgian beauty.
The next morning, we go horse-back riding up in the hills beside the village. It is a promise I have made to my daughter. These hills are where my brothers and I roamed free during our playtime, climbing trees, wading in streams and watching the wild ponies. The views are spectacular. Later on that evening, my cousin and his wife take us down to the local pub, where I try out the local cider. Somerset is known for its apples and ciders; this one is cloudy and strong, what the bartender tells me is a real cider. It is unlike the commercial, clear cider drink I know. The pub is filled with locals; they all know my cousin and his wife. I remember spending time in pubs as a child – the social networks of small villages, places where even children and dogs are allowed.
It is truly lovely to see my cousin and his wife and to be back here; our visit is, unfortunately, much too short.
Stone, Staffordshire, Day 12
We drive up toward northern England on the M5. We are heading to the Midlands, to Stoke-on-Trent, Stafford and the small town of Stone in Staffordshire, where my other cousin on my adoptive mother’s side, Stephen, lives with his wife, Irene, and two sons. This area, known as the Staffordshire Potteries district, is famous for its Spode, Royal Doulton, Aynsley and Wedgwood pottery; my aunt used to work at the Wedgwood factory. This is where my adoptive mother and father and their families grew up. My paternal grandfather owned a farm and many acres of land around the municipality of Stone; my father, however, bucked the family tradition and went to work for the local power station. My cousin Stephen grew up here and never left. He goes out of his way to show us around. An engine enthusiast of the highest order, he owns and operates on a private track a steam engine, the Whiston, and a diesel engine, along with a Rolls Royce, Triumph TR4, Bentley Turbo R, MG ZT 190, MG ZT 260 and an MG ZT CDTi. My daughter is thrilled to ride around Stone and Stafford in the Rolls Royce and to get to travel up front with the engine crew during a tour aboard the Whiston steam engine. After the train ride, we visit St. Dominic’s School and Convent, where my adoptive mother went to school, the adjacent church where my parents, grandparents, and cousins were all married, and then drive by the former house of my aunt and uncle in Stone. I have very fond memories of my time spent there as a child. And lastly, we stop to pay respects at the graveyards of my aunt and uncle and my maternal grandparents – the first time for me. We dine at the Fitzherbert Arms, a pub in a neighbouring village that my parents and aunt and uncle frequented as young adults. The food is terrific. It has been nice to catch up with my cousin Stephen and visit many places in Stone that held special memories for my adoptive parents.
It is an early night for us, however; in the morning, we will be completing the last segment of the journey: two days in London and a visit to Stonehenge to finally meet my biological mother for the very first time.