Somerset Soliloquy

Castle Cary with Granny

Somerset Soliloquy

A longtime expat returns to her roots to become reacquainted with the first place she knew as ‘home’.

By Apple Gidley

Global Living – Issue 10 | January/February 2014

The New Year often brings, along with laughter and cheer, a time of retrospection. I’ve been thinking about roots and heritage. As expatriates, many of us assume we will one day return to our passport country. We mostly expect there to have been changes since we left, but we are still faced with a cultural chasm when we do eventually return to the country of our childhood – a chasm forged because, through our exposure to many different cultures, we have changed.

For those of us brought up as TCKs (Third Culture Kids), our roots, rather than digging deep tend to spread horizontally, embracing facets of all the countries we have called ‘home’. However, added to our casserole of cultures we must also add a dash of heritage. That sense of our familial past, whether we have actually lived in the land of our forefathers or have merely been brought up to value their culture.

In my case, trips to Britain are always tinged with pathos, for along with the joy of hugs from my granddaughter is the sadness that relatives and older family friends are aging, and I am acutely aware they may not be there the next time I cross the Atlantic. My children, also raised as global nomads, are continuing the trend of their upbringing, and so my reasons for returning to the land of my forefathers are lessening. However cursory my snapshot memories of occasional visits through my growing years, I do consider Britain part of my heritage, though not somewhere I can claim as my own.

I can navigate the winding roads of the West Country with confidence, and map-free. I know the villages and towns nestling in the rolling hills. I can remember stories from my father’s childhood, and incidents from my own, and yet, in this place that most certainly holds ancestral roots, I do not belong.

There is a market town in Somerset that is the closest place I have to familial history in the country of my birth, England. The George, a 15th-century hostelry in the center of the town, was in the 1930s owned by my grandfather, Brough Girling. The family, along with Daisy the cow, lived there for a number of years, their tenure shortened somewhat due to Grandfather’s propensity to live the life of a country squire rather than a publican, but long enough for the town to imprint itself on my father, and later on me.

Castle Cary is where I spent two school terms, separated by two years, at Hillcrest – a solid country school sternly run by Mrs. Churchouse and a staff, firm yet kind, to a pudgy, pigtailed little girl more used to the equatorial smells of West Africa than the cabbage-seeped walls of the dining hall.

Half Moon Cottage, where we stayed on my father’s leaves, belonged to an ancient cousin and was a few hundred yards from the school. In winter the garden filled with snowdrops, brave and seemingly inured to the frigid February weather. When my grandmother came to stay she would take my hand and walk me, unwilling to leave the warmth of the kitchen, to the end of the garden where the sweet scent from lily of the valley sprinkling the ground under the trees, gave first promise of warmer weather. Granny would spin tales of intrigue and romance about the colonies of fairies and goblins that lived in the crumbling, ivy- and moss-covered walls, and I would forget for a moment that I missed my animals and friends from a warmer climate.

Mr. Jones, the grocer, crisp in a white coat, held sway over his sparkling counters, which for a child more used to the hustle and clamor of an African market was like stepping into a storybook. Cheeses, fat and lush, lay under glass domes, ready to be sliced by the wire; hams and patés jostled for poll position, precise slithers hand-cranked onto waxed paper, with not a fly in sight. And the candy! Huge apothecary jars filled with colored temptation were available for a few pennies.

The gingerbread-stone Market House built in 1855 on the site of the original 1616 structure, built soon after Cary was granted the right to hold markets, is now a museum. The Round House used in 1779 to lock up local miscreants, possibly having stumbled from The George, inexplicably resembles a beehive. Revered now as an ancient monument, it was in 1785 feared by the town’s children, over the age of seven, who, having been caught missing Sunday School, would be tossed into the 7-foot round, windowless cell to learn a lesson. Thankfully, by 1965 when I attempted the same practice, the punishment had been discredited.

I have been back to Castle Cary a number of times since my childhood sojourns, and each time have been surprised at my ingrained knowledge of the town, as if lessons learned at Hillcrest were not just focused around the Maypole. The pond by the war memorial where I was taken to feed the ducks seemed miles from our little cottage but to adult legs, is really not far.

My last visit was the first time I had been back since my father’s death two years ago when, after his funeral, I went and had tea at The George. It somehow seemed fitting. When I stayed in this venerable old hotel last summer, enjoying an evening at the bar, chatting to regulars, I realized it was another farewell as the tenuous links I have to this ancient and lovely English country town have all but loosened.

I doubt that little in Castle Cary has fundamentally changed over the last 400 years but, although to most people I sound English, I am still an outsider, tinkering at the edges of English country life every now and then, just as when a certain confused little girl asked by her classmates where she was from, answered, “I’m from Africa.”

My retrospection is over and I welcome the New Year. I no longer worry about where I’m from. My roots are spread around the globe, my culture drawn from the many countries in which I have lived, but my heritage is English, notwithstanding a pinch of Australian from my mother’s side. I am proud of both.

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