Before we went to the UK a few weeks ago my wife and I were discussing the meaning of “home”. Although we grew up on opposite sides of the planet we both had the benefit of spending many of our younger years in a single town and in both cases our parents still live in the same town, indeed in the same houses that we lived in as teenagers.
So we often say “I’m going home” when planning a visit and it needs no explanation, even if our actual home now is in Belgium.
However she was much clearer than me that home is about people, home means where the heart of the family was based. I have that, but also feel that I have a “home town”, the small market town of Bungay in Suffolk, England that is not only where I grew up but has strong multi-generational link to my family. Later this year we will indeed be going to Invercargill, New Zealand and sharing my wife’s home town with you, but today it’s my place.
You may never of heard of it, but Bungay is proudly and unashamedly a town, with a singular identity and a lot of pride in its status.
Perhaps I have rose-tinted spectacles because unlike many tiny market towns in rural areas I also never hit the problems of boredom and isolation that hit many young people in such places. Bungay then only had a population of about 3,000 which in many places would only make it a village. But this was a nice combination, small enough to be friendly and supportive but through keeping its High School and the vibrancy of institutions like libraries, scouts and sports clubs it seems like somewhere a lot bigger.
So my trip “home” gives me a chance to puff up my local boy’s chest on “Idonotdespair” for the first time and say “Welcome to Bungay, a fine old town”. Sorry for email recipients of the blog if you get a lot of pictures, there’s a lot to talk about!
As a tour guide I must of course start with the landmarks of our town.
St Mary’s Church, one of the huge East Anglian churches built in towns and villages prospering from the vibrant wool trade of the mediaeval period. The town’s highest point the tower is the symbol to everyone from Bungay that you are home as you can see it from every road into the town.
The Butter Cross, one of the few surviving market covers that showed a place of trade, rebuilt after it was demolished by fire in 1690. Now the meeting point for everyone, whether teenagers hanging out or the cycling club off for a ride on a Sunday.
And Bigod’s Castle of course. One of the strongholds of the Bigod family, at various points Earls of Norfolk and like most rich baronial families of that period up to their necks in politics, variously falling out with and then allying with Kings and factions resulting in the castle being besieged a few times and demolished at least once by royal forces. We like to think we were pretty important back then, I suspect we were pawns in bigger politics. But it’s a nice landmark.
Allied to the castle are its outer earthworks, the Castle Hills which overlook my parents’ and my grandparent’s houses, thus providing the playground of my childhood. It would be hard to imagine a day when we didn’t go there. Now I feel quite grumpy that the hills are covered in lush grass, we used the place so much that we wore away huge bare patches, especially the improvised jumpers for goalposts football pitch. The kids of today, I don’t know.
Beyond the landmarks I look for two things that tell me I am home.
The first is the wonderful higgledy-piggledy architecture of the streets and back lanes that represent so many layers of history. Fine Georgian prosperity from when the town was a booming inland port in the 18th and 19th centuries. Red brick mixing with the bright painted render that makes Suffolk streets distinctive, together with the Dutch or Flemish influenced gable ends that would have come to East Anglia from its trading connections to Flanders and the building fashions of the 16th and 17th century.
But perhaps what a home town returnee likes best are the details. Knowing where to look.
A town emblem based on the Devil. Oh yes it is he, Black Shuck, the Devil in the form of a black dog who visited the town in 1577. Allegedly.
The street sign facing my Nans house, replaced in 1919 when metal was available again after the end of the Great War.
Secret views and corners and favourite spots that we know, and we hope are still there when we go home.
And finally just to walk. On this occasion wandering just outside the town through the flooded water meadows that lap right up against the edge of the houses but hardly ever enter, even in the worst winters because our forebears chose this place to sit above the River Waveney, not in it. Thank goodness no property developers have ever convinced the council to let them build across our great views, fortunately Bungay has not suffered in the great floods of 2014 despite the waters visibly rising in front of our eyes. We are as serene as the swans that migrate here in the winter.
Nice to be home, once in a while.