I think I had one of those meeting your destiny moments a few weeks ago. I suppose like a lot of these times in our lives, this one began many years before.
I often think Victorian England must have been an incredible place. Vast areas of countryside unchanged for generations. Peaceful unspoiled land where hard work was the norm for common folk. Dark, dangerous cities spewing pollution and poison into the air and rivers. Driving the nation forward and drawing the rural population towards them like moths to a flame.
My great-grandfather lived in both communities. He is someone I have always felt an affinity with. I never met him he died around 1950 and was in his eighties by that time. I don’t believe there is anything spiritual going on. We are though connected by genes and it seems a shared love of the open air.
I heard many stories about him over the years I don’t suppose it matters now which is true. He was tall like me and as a young man I found this reassuring as hardly anyone else in the family seemed to be.
Fred, it seems walked from Suffolk to Yorkshire in search of work. He was a farm labourer born into a large family and a small village, Stradbroke in rural Suffolk. One day it seems for reasons that were never made clear to me he upped and left, heading North. He would have been just one of hundreds of thousands of economic migrants, a term we hear a lot about today but something that must be part of almost every families background.
At the time whether heading off to Canada or a few hundred miles north in England the consequences for the individual were the same. No phones, Skype or email meant you were cut off from your family and would have to make your own way, successful or otherwise in your new-found home.
The alternative story I heard about Fred was that he joined the army on a whim. They marched him north to York where he was discharged when they discovered he only had sight in one eye. Did he jump or was he pushed? It doesn’t matter, what does is that this marked the point where I first appear on the radar. One of thousands of moments in time that need to come together for our lives to even begin?
He settled in Thorpe Willoughby near Selby and over the next twenty years or so married and had children, his first wife died. He then married her sister and had more children. Fourteen in total with my grandmother one of the first-born into this large family.
Fred continued agricultural work moving ever closer to the edge of the expanding industrial city of Leeds. In the early part of the twentieth century progress finally caught up with this farm worker. For generations, his ancestors had lived and worked in the countryside, no more country life for him or his descendants.
They moved from their tied cottage just outside the city boundary. The area would be unrecognisable to him now with mile upon mile of sewage works, industrial estates and motorway. The family moved into Leeds to a notorious area of slum housing called the ‘Bank’ and then later to a brand-new back to back two-bedroom house. Brand new is slightly misleading. These small brick-built homes had a tiny kitchen, living room, two bedrooms, cellar and an attic. The toilet was in a yard down the street, shared with several other houses. This and other houses in the same street was to be home to him, his wife and fourteen children until the street was demolished in the 1970’s.
My destiny moment? Well a lot of my own father’s memories of his grandfather recounted to me. Involved helping tend the three allotment gardens he used to feed his family. They were in the area the family had lived before moving to the city. Grandfather would walk there most days to be joined by grandson at every available opportunity.
I think Fred might have had a temper, bloody genes again! Maybe he never took to city life. He did in fact work in his gardens continuously until he was eighty-five years of age. He apparently came home one day, took to his bed feeling unwell and died a few days later.
My affinity has always been with the city. For home, work, family and leisure. I have grown to love the countryside over the years but only as a visitor. I have never farmed or kept animals. A week or so ago I received a call from the guy who runs our local allotments. He was returning my call, answering my enquiry to become the tenant of one.
Not long afterwards I found myself on a beautiful May evening looking with some trepidation at a full-size allotment. It seemed rather large to my soft city eyes. He must have read my mind. ‘No problem’ I was told, I could just take a half if one was going to be too much for me.
I don’t know if I said this already but the dead are dead in my view. Nothing more complicated than that going on. I have though the deepest respect for my ancestors and the generations that have gone before. I had no choice, of course I didn’t. Who knows what their destiny is. Maybe this was mine. ‘A whole allotment would be just fine, thank you very much’.
Unusually I allowed myself a brief sentimental moment. Imagining my Dad and his grandfather standing with me in the evening sun. We were only a few miles from where he first settled in Yorkshire. I could see them studying this new plot wondering how this ageing city slicker would manage. Things it seemed were beginning to come full circle.