As my father was already staying with my brother, our home for three nights was the Bishop’s Stortford Travelodge, which could hardly be described as the lap of luxury, but at £24 a night for a family room at an otherwise very expensive time of year holidaywise, it did the job nicely. A few years ago, the Travelodge was a fairly decent hotel called Stansted Manor, and was where we held my mother’s wake after her funeral. The hotel has now been completely ripped out and refurnished with the bright but spartan Travelodge brand, but for me the room where we had our all you-can-eat breakfast buffet each morning was still recognisable as the place where I had last been seen downing multiple whiskies and trying to make polite conversation on one of the worst days of my life.
Bishop’s Stortford and the general East Hertfordshire area always seem to come high up in lists of desirable places to live on the likes of Phil and Kirstie’s property programmes. It’s a place which people leave London for when it’s time to start a family. They want to live in a bog-standard semi with a garden, where you won’t get murdered (or not, as it turns out) and where you have an excellent choice of schools. Bishop’s Stortford has always been a stopping off point, initially for Romans marching along Stane Street and latterly for stagecoach travellers between London and Cambridge. It has a plethora of former coaching inns - apparently Samuel Pepys used to stay at one. So I suppose it’s no surprise that it is now by and large a commuter town, full of people used to journeying. Stortford once had some importance in its own right as a market town for the county and a centre for the malting industry. It is mentioned in the Domesday Book as “Esterteferd”, has a mound where a Norman castle once stood, and its most famous former citizen is Cecil Rhodes, colonialist diamond-bagger and founder of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Bishop’s Stortford’s permanently right-wing town council were all in favour in erecting a memorial statue to Cecil in the market square, until they found out that he might have been gay. So they set about cancelling the town’s twinning arrangements in evil Europe instead.
Growing up in Bishop’s Stortford, it was thoroughly boring place, with sod all to do for anyone between the ages of ten and eighteen. It’s possibly a little better now. My parents moved there after my father got a job as a research scientist for a Harlow-based Latex manufacturer (making carpet backings, not condoms) and they decided that they didn’t want to live in Essex. You see, contrary to popular belief, Bishop’s Stortford isn’t in Essex, though it is right on the border. But anyway, their decision meant I got a good education, and being near to Cambridge and London and, in later years, a newly expanded Stansted Airport had its advantages (as long as you didn’t mind aircraft noise).
I have no family in the actual town now, as my brother’s house is in the nearby village of Stansted Mountfitchet. This trip was the first time I had been back since Charlotte was born. Bishop’s Stortford continues to struggle with its identity, and with the economic climate. It’s part genteel and snooty, and part chain-store chav. There’s a Café Rouge on one corner and a place where the locals fight on another. There’s posh vowels and Essex vowels, there’s Waitrose and there’s Poundland. We managed a quick walk along the high street in heavy drizzle and fading light, and there was a weird mix of fates on view. One side of the street was a row of sad, boarded-up buildings where large independent shops had operated for decades, like Pearsons department store and Clement Joscelyne’s home furnishings; both of which were fairly exclusive in their time but have now sunk from flourishing into bankruptcy. But on the other side of the street were newly opened branches of White Stuff and Jojo Maman Bébé, so the town’s smart side is still thriving at some level.
|On North Street looking towards the Corn Exchange|
|Boar's Head (Samuel Pepys and sixth formers have drunk here)|
|St Michael's Church|
|Market Square, with bankrupt Clement Joscelyne's|
We had a quick drive past my old family house, but there wasn’t much to observe at half past nine on a wet Friday morning other than the fact that someone appears to be about to pave over the front garden. We made a yoghurt stop at the supermarket at the local parade of shops where I worked on Sunday afternoons during my A Levels. Someone called Lisa who started on exactly the same day as me still works there now.
The trip gave me a chance to introduce Charlotte to a few of my school friends and their families. The great thing about school friends is that you may not see each other for years, but as soon as you meet up again it feels like it was only yesterday that you were last together. We turned up regularly at my brother’s house for food, including the world’s largest vegetarian Christmas dinner. Charlotte met some new playmates and I think learned to extend the meaning of the word “holiday” to apply to more than just a motorway service station. Now it probably incorporates bouncing up and down on a Travelodge sofabed long after she should have been asleep and eating “chocolate toast” (Nutella) for breakfast.
It was nice to be back, and sad to be back. They say that there is no place like home. Home is a place that gives you happy childhood memories and that you spend your teenage years fighting against. Home is an emotional place as well as a physical one. In 2005 when my mum died, I lost my emotional home, that safe place, that rock, that shelter that would always take you in whatever your circumstances. I am of course lucky that I had that place in my life for 32 years. When my dad sold the house, the physical home went too. Losing Mum decimated my life, and it’s a void that can never be filled, an ache and a longing that never goes away. Yes, there’s no place like it, but the reality for me now is that there can be no going back home, and life has to move forwards. It is now my responsibility to provide that same emotional haven for my young daughter, to watch her grow into it, and to create that place of happy memories.