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 centre of the town, was in the early 1930s owned by my grandfather, Brough Girling. The family, along with Daisy the cow lived there only briefly, owing to Grandfather’s propensity to live the life of a country squire rather than a publican, but long enough to imprint itself on my father.
Castle Cary is where I spent two 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 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 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. Cheeses, fat and lush, lay under glass domes ready to be sliced by the wire; hams and salamis jostled for poll position, precise slithers hand cranked onto waxed paper. And the sweets! Huge apothecary jars filled with coloured temptation available for a few pennies.
The duck pond by the war memorial seemed miles from our little temporary home but now, to adult legs, is really not far. The gingerbread stone Market House, which to young eyes was large and forbidding, is now a museum and the lockup, inexplicably in the shape of a beehive and which when built in 1779 cost £23, is now used for storage though a key can be obtained from the local butcher if you want to peer in.
I have been back to Castle Cary a few times over the intervening fifty years 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.
My last visit, in June this year, 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 seemed fitting somehow. This summer’s visit held an added pathos, another farewell almost, as I realise the somewhat tenuous roots I have to this one place in England are loosening. My reasons for returning are lessening, and whilst I doubt little in Castle Cary has fundamentally changed neither have I, although most people consider I am English, and certainly sound it.
I am still an outsider, tinkering at the edges of English country life every now and then. Just as when a confused little girl asked by her classmates-for-a-term where she was from, answered, “I’m from Africa.”