It’s been a long weekend of revisiting ‘home turf’ and walking in parks – lots of parks – because its just one of those things about being a dog owner that, even on holiday, you’re guaranteed to go for long daily walks just the same as at any other time. The destination of our trip was Nottingham – my birthplace, childhood home and familial home still. For the three nights of our trip, we stayed in the village of Ravenshead, on the outskirts of Nottingham, as it provided us with a good base for visiting the family – the siblings and grown-up nephews and nieces – that are now scattered broadly around the edges of the city.
Ravenshead itself boasts the park, gardens and country house, incorporating the abbey ruins of Newstead Abbey, that was the family home of Lord Byron but, having thoroughly explored this just a few months ago, we decided to focus on some of the other parks that Nottinghamshire has to offer. Over the three and a half days of our trip, we managed to visit Attenborough Nature Reserve, Bestwood Country Park, The National Trust’s Clumber Park and Wollaton Park and I managed to take in the region of 1000 photographs across a weekend that provided some of the most dramatic, radiant and expansive skies of the year so far, as well as some of the bizarrest weather.
Our first stop-off at Attenborough Nature reserve couldn’t have been better timed as it was a leg-stretch as we came off the motorway and the sun was just starting to set. It was also somewhere I’d longed to revisit for some time as St Mary’s church in the village of Attenborough is where my parents were married in 1955 and it remained a special place to my mother for all of her life. I have childhood memories of sipping tea in the house of one of her bridesmaid-friends who still lived in the village and of revisiting the church and nature reserve with mum when I was a teenager, stroking cats outside the cottage next to the church that was the birthplace of Oliver Cromwell’s son-in-law Henry Ireton and listening to her chat to a lady in the church who remembered some of the people from ‘her days’ in the village. It felt important to me to share this place with my husband and daughter and the radiant sunset that greeted us as we walked past both of these landmarks and out into the Nature Reserve couldn’t have been a better affirmation of this, like a nod of approval from the heavens.
The following day’s walk was at Bestwood Country Park, which is 650 acres of glorious woodland and green spaces, a remnant of Sherwood Forest within the city, and just happens to be (or, in fact, quite deliberately on her part) a few hundred yards from my sister’s house so it’s a familiar walk for our family group including Rudi, my Rhodesian Ridgeback, and Jake her Dalmatian. The woodlands and adjacent fields were still white with the remains of the heavy snow that had fallen earlier in the week and these were juxtaposed with dramatic skies when we reached the viewing point that overlooks the winding house, which is the remnant of Bestwood Colliery, a name immortalised by D.H. Lawrence in his novel ‘Sons and Lovers‘. Indeed, the whole patch of countryside captured in this snow-embellished shot is what is regarded as ‘D.H. Lawrence country’ stretching from his birthplace of Eastwood on the far left. Our typical walk at Bestwood Park also includes the path beneath the archway of Alexandra Lodge, the elaborate Victorian replacement for the original hunting lodge used by King Charles II for his assignations with his mistress Nell Gwynn.
That day was completed by a large family gathering in the village of Gotham – inspiration for the Gotham City of batman fame – in the very Cuckoo Bush Inn that takes its name from the bush at the centre of the story of The Mad (or Wise) Men of Gotham (and I recommend following the link as its a really good story). The journey from north of the city to south involved a couple of stops on the M1 motorway and past the power station at Ratcliffe on Soar and resulted in these sky-shots that epitomise how great beauty can seem all the more intense when juxtaposed with its exact opposite; quite literally a beauty and the beast moment as the sky turned molten gold behind these immense chimneys spewing forth their carbon-gobbling emissions.
With a full day at our disposal on Saturday, it was hard to know where to go but we plumped for Clumber Park because it was the hazy-edged scene of the memories that I have of various family picnics in early childhood yet somewhere I’m pretty sure I hadn’t been back to since. Once the terribly grand seat of the Dukes of Newcastle, Clumber House itself burned down in 1879 and was demolished in 1938, leaving the scattering of stables and outhouses that the National Trust use for tea shops and the like and, of course, the impressive chapel that is grander than many a parish church with its tall spire pointing up through the trees in almost every vista offered by this 3800 acre park. From almost the moment we drove between the stately gate pillars and along the tree lined avenue towards the bridge over the lake, I began getting flashbacks to our 1970s family car being parked up for the day in the kind of clearings that are dotted all along the main routes and of sandwiches and flasks of tea, the striped windcheaters set up around my mother’s deckchair whilst the rest of us made an attempt at a version of rounders and I (being the youngest by far) cried with frustration at not being able to field balls hit into undergrowth by much older brothers. For all that there is an expanse of almost 40 years spread out in between then and now, this place came flooding back to me in bursts of reminiscence throughout the day until it began to feel like memory soup!
With my daughter on hired bike and adults on foot, we managed a considerable loop through woodlands and open estate, touching base with the immense lake at various intervals and arriving on the exposed stretch atop the weir just as an unexpected snow-blizzard wrapped the previously sunny view in a veil of white. It was just as that began to ease that we met another Rhodesian Ridgeback for Rudi to play with and – as anyone who is ‘owned’ by a RR will testify – a rare meeting with a kindred is not a rushed thing and so we all stood around making small-talk as the dogs mirrored each other in some sort of breed-specific play ritual that involved taking it in turns to put a paw on the opponent’s neck before bursting into play fight then pausing to grin at each other, tongues hanging. We warmed up over some lunch in the newly reinstated afternoon sunshine then set off for the walled garden and chapel – and as those that know me or have read my blog on the subject will recall, I’m dotty about glasshouses and so that’s where I found my real thrill for the remainder of the afternoon.
This day’s family touch-down took place in Ye Olde Bridge Inn in the village of Oxton where eleven of us plus Rudi met for dinner and where, we learned, one of the locals routinely steps in with black sheep Belle on a lead, just as casually as if she were a black lab, and stands her at the bar (baa!) while he drinks his pint. (We first learned about Belle when she prodded a surprised Rudi from behind…)
For the finale, Sunday was a visit to Wollaton Park – the 500 acre country estate incorporating lake, camellia house, formal gardens, industrial museum and the confection that is Wollaton Hall itself, an Elizabethan mansion atop a hill that was recently used as Wayne Manor in the latest batman movie ‘Dark Knight Rises’. It always staggers me a little, on my return trips ‘home’, that Nottingham has this massive and visually stunning facility (for want of a better word) casually place within its otherwise tightly-packed city sprawl and that for those who kick a ball around in its vast space or walk the dog there, it’s considered nothing exceptional. I feel within my rights to pass this observation because this used to be me when, living so close that I could see Wollaton Hall from one of our windows, this immense park was just the scene of (more) family picnics or, as I got older, somewhere I could easily walk or cycle to in order to hang out with friends and yet it was utterly taken for granted; in fact, I think I grew up assuming everybody had a park like this on their doorstep!
What really struck me this time, as I set about photographing the considerable numbers of red and fallow deer that wander freely around the park, is just how little attention I paid these amazing creatures as a child or adolescent; they were simply the backdrop to a day spent throwing a ball, cycling, roller skating or sledging down the hill. The only time I can recall attempting to get any closer to them – or even just wanting to stand and look at them – is the day I stepped straight into a nettle patch in the attempt and so it’s the tears and my father’s attempts to console me that stand out most in my memory of that day. Yet, for anyone who cares to take a few moments in the company of these less-than-commonly encountered creatures, here they are in the middle of Nottingham and sufficiently relaxed to pose for photographs – and here was I, making my first serious attempt to photograph them 27 years after leaving the place and now the newly appreciative ‘visitor’. As I took in the irony of this and played with the reasons why, it drove home to me just how invisible our familiar surroundings tend to become to us if we allow them to; further emphasised by the fact that, when quizzed, none of my Nottingham-dwelling family had been to most of the places I’m writing about here in recent months or even years, though they are on their very doorstep!
Perhaps that’s what, in essence, this post is really about – its an account of me noticing and celebrating the familiar landscape of my childhood through the eyes of an adult who has stepped far enough away both to preserve the best of the memories and to gain the kind of perspective that inspires appreciation. Perhaps its because I no longer live there and the result of the kind of short-sightedness that makes most of us better at seeing from afar but, I confess, I’m more than a little bit in awe of what Nottingham has to offer; yet I suspect it’s an exercise that each of us could do with places that we took for granted when we were in their midst, the result being that where we are now can often seem the somewhat unsatisfactory stop-gap between a hazy-edged past and somewhere we imagine we would rather be.
A step forwards is something akin to putting on those corrective glasses that move us towards long-sightedness and allow us to see – and appreciate – what is right under our noses in the here and now. This whole post is a celebration of all that my home town has to offer and yet I vehemently love where I now live. So, what’s made all the difference for me and is distance always necessary to make you appreciate a place? Well here’s my key – I’ve worked at developing the habit of regarding where I live, all the oh-so familiar places and beautiful wide-open spaces that, by now, could have become the invisible backdrop of my world, through the eyes of someone who is visiting for the very first time, forever appreciative and always eager to explore. I go on ‘day trips’ to all the places that a visitor would head for in my locality and ask myself ‘where do I want to go to today?’ as standard when I wake up in the morning, shunning routine and always ready for an adventure. I work at experiencing places anew with all of my senses on alert, not through a veil of expectation or the combined memories of all the many other visits to that place in the past. As someone who carries a camera around (and this is one of my greatest props) I seek out opportunity and so I remain switched on to the here and now, attentive and appreciative of each moment as it unfurls. None of this is difficult to do – simply pretend you’ve just arrived in your place, that everything is new, and the rest will easily follow. The pay-off for me is that my surroundings never become stale and – no matter where I travel to or what kind of wonderful time I’ve just had somewhere else – I always, always love to return home!