In just over 24 hours a removals van will be pulling up outside our house. The last week has been a blur of bubble wrap, back ache and cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling. A house can get pretty full of possessions and memories, especially when you’ve lived in the same place for 13 years.
It’s an ordinary little 1930s semi-detached box, this place. You could find identical houses lining the streets of suburbia throughout the country. The decades before the Second World War are barely in living memory now, so we scarcely give a thought to what a massive change was wrought by the building of all these houses on the edges of our towns and cities – or to what was there before.
But in some places, the past still peeps through. I’m writing this sitting on 13YO’s bed (mine’s been disassembled, and she’s staying at her granny’s) looking at the view she’s grown up with from her bedroom window. Just visible behind the leafless branches of next door’s cherry tree, there’s a glimpse of towering chimneys and a forbidding gable end, standing grim and brooding against the pale pink sunrise.
Meanwood Towers is a Victorian mansion now converted into flats, its Yorkshire stone facade blackened by years of pollution and neglect, its gardens, greenhouses and tennis courts sold off eighty years ago to developers who built our house and hundreds like it. It must have been spectacular in its prime, built by a young Victorian industrialist to impress his new wife, but now it’s a bleak Scooby-Doo haunted house, neglected and unloved, glaring down resentfully at its smaller neighbours with their carefully tended patches of garden.
This view of Meanwood Towers has always been one of my favourite things about living here. We’re newcomers, not locals, so finding glimpses of the area’s history helps me feel a sense of connection to the place. And also, because it’s always reminded me of Tom’s Midnight Garden. If you don’t know it, this is a fabulous children’s book by Philippa Pearce, about a little boy who is cooped up in his aunt and uncle’s flat (in a converted old mansion) by day. But by night he discovers he can go back in time to when the house was a sumptuous family home, with extensive gardens – and it’s in the garden that he finds a playmate, Hatty.
The magic of a big rambling garden to explore is a central theme of the book, echoing Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Philippa Pearce presents the Victorian manor house garden as a children’s paradise, with lawns, glass houses, trees and walls to climb, and a river at the bottom of the garden where Tom and Hatty go skating in wintertime.
I loved Tom’s Midnight Garden when I was a child, so it was one of those books that I had just had to
inflict on read to my own children. 7YO and I read it just before Christmas and she was captivated from start to finish. She loved the thought of a secret garden which could only be discovered by children, when the broken grandfather clock strikes thirteen in the middle of the night.
From a child’s perspective, it’s primarily about time travel, but re-reading it as an adult I realised that Tom’s Midnight Garden is a lovely, bittersweet commentary on how fleeting childhood is and how places that we’ve loved don’t stay the same forever. Tom and Hatty play together every night over the course of Tom’s summer holiday – but Hatty’s time is going faster and she soon grows up and drifts away from him. Eventually, in a scene which kind of broke my heart a little bit on reading it just recently, they go skating along the river to Ely. There, at the top of the cathedral tower, he sees her for the first time as she really is – “a grown up woman”. By the time they have returned from their excursion, offered a ride home by the young man Hatty will eventually marry, Tom has faded from her sight and she can no longer even see him. The following night, when Tom goes downstairs to find her, the garden is gone, replaced by the creosote-smelling back yard hemmed in by newly-built houses of his own time.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few days, as I’ve dismantled the home we’ve built over the years for our two children. Just as Tom fails to outwit time so that he and Hatty can stay in the garden forever, I’m also facing the inevitability that our stay here has come to an end, and it’s time to go. Bigger bedrooms and fresh challenges beckon us forward, but saying goodbye to everything that we’ve cherished over the years – actually really hurts.
I’ve realised that the sense of permanence we get from home ownership is just an illusion. We were only ever custodians of this place. The frosty cobwebs on the garden fence, the early morning sun streaming between the chimneys of Meanwood Towers, the shortlived glory of the week when the cherry trees bloom in May, the foxes sloping across the turning circle late at night, the bluetits divebombing the feed boxes and the thousand other little things that made this place home – none of them ever really belonged to me. We’re as fleeting as that long-forgotten Victorian factory owner who built his massive mansion. Time passes, some things die, some things change, we move on.
I’m finishing this blog late at night now, after a long day packing and cleaning. The removal van will be here in less than 9 hours, and I’ll be offline for a week until the wifi is connected in the new place. I’m delighted that we’ll be passing on the guardianship of our little bit of earth to someone we know and like – by happy coincidence our buyer is the teacher at 7YO’s school who got a shout out in this blog I wrote last summer. Looking forward to our new adventures – but I don’t mind admitting that I’ve shed a few tears as I close the door on Tom’s Midnight Garden.