March 26, 2012

Tree On A Hill

We all have special moments from our childhood that we cherish and run through over and over again in our minds. Some of these are small, others quite large. Some are private and others are shared. These memories make us feel warm and content, no matter how trivial or silly they may seem to other people. Memories are like old friends that visit from time to time.

In my family, as children, we were lucky enough to have one grandmother living with us. It was like grandma love on tap! Her husband, our grandfather, had sadly died when my sister was only 13 days old, so none of us were ever fortunate enough to meet him although my mother tells me that he was a little crazy but super intelligent. I sometimes feel quite sad that we never got to meet and that he took all of his stories to the grave before we could hear them but life goes on and I am sure he has influenced our lives in ways that we couldn't recognise: through my mother and grandmother and the little pieces of him that they picked up and carried in their hearts.

As for my father's parents, Nana and Dodo, they lived in the Midlands in the city of Worcester with their ginger cat Sandy, whose tail had a rather large kink. We would pack up the car to drive up to see them a few times a year.
This car journey became a familiar routine for us and followed a set pattern time after time after time. It was 112 miles. It took around two and a half hours. We would always argue about who had to sit in the middle and Jonny and Lauren often reasoned between themselves that because I was the youngest, I had to go in the middle. They couldn't be negotiated with even though I was half a head taller than Jonny until we were about 15 and he shot up suddenly and towered over me, also marking the end of our epic fights- I'm surprised we never managed to kill one another! We broke almost every door in the house. But those are other tales...

There were certain landmarks that punctuated the journey and told tales of the mileage we had passed and throughout our lives we crossed them again and again. As we passed them, these places reflected the way we had been or the way we were as we went through milestones of our own lives and burst from children into adolescence and so that journey has become very dear in my heart. Each place holds dozens of tiny memories and fragments of our past.

As for the path the journey followed itself, I can never really remember the beginning of it. Probably because we were always sleepy but exicted and impatient to get there so it would take a while to relax. However, there was a small roadside cafe called 'Happy Chef' that had a big, smiley giraffe statue inviting you in. I don't think that we ever stopped there but his warm, orange face marked the halfway point (56 miles) and added to our anticipation. Once I saw him, I knew we were really on our way!

A little while after the giraffe we whizzed past the Golden Heart Inn. It's name was embossed in gold on black slate and it glinted with promise atop a slight hill surrounded by rich green grass and it always sounded so romantic and wonderful to my young mind. A gold heart, indeed! Imagine that.
Following shortly after came the Highwayman pub, which spurred thoughts of a scoundrelesque scallywag galloping up beside us, seizing the car and stealing our precious things. I would imagine myself battling with the raspcallion and beating him to the ground with my fists and saving the day (and my carefully counted holiday pennies).
As the anticipation mounted, the final inn we came to pass was the Air Balloon Inn where they would launch hot, puffing globes high into the sky and above the clouds. It wasn't often that we saw a lift-off but the promise that it hinted each time was magical. I would crane my neck to look up at the little dots in the sky with longing as they sailed on their gentle journey and as we swept quickly away.

The A-roads of England boast some of the finest sights and the A417 is no exception. Before we changed onto bigger roads, we would pull up to some roadside toilets, tucked away in a leafy green lane. The toilets were metal (hideous, scary times!) and so I would often nip into the wooded area nearby to stretch my legs and do my thing. We were getting closer and closer, I would think, and yet the best bits were yet to come.
We would travel along the roads at a steady pace (my mother likes to say that my father drives like an old woman) with the beauty of England passing us by in a blur and after we had clambered back into the car my father would say 'Hey you guys, carry on straight or take the scenic route?' we would all cry 'Scenic Route!'

Now, this is no ordinary scenic route. No sir. It's not just a few trees and some grass claiming to be gorgeous. This scenic route showcases some of Englands finest views, a sexy country pub and imparts a lovely feeling of peace as you slowly roll through the lanes and down the winding paths. Some of you may have read about it on the BBC last year. Birdlip. A place of outstanding beauty and the most frequently visited area by 'doggers' in the UK. But let's not stray from the point into such debauchery. I never once saw anyone 'dogging' and I'd prefer to forget that I ever read about such scandal tainting my childhood memories but, to be fair, you can't really blame those sex-fuelled beasties for wanting to overlook such a nice view during their business exchange.

Birdlip is ALMOST the best part of the whole journey. The views overlook Gloucester far and wide and you can see a ruler-straight Roman road cutting all the way through the countryside, invoking images of heavily clad men marching towards each other with determination and a taste of blood in their clamped mouths.
My favourite memory of Birdlip was in the winter of 1999, which was one of the last visits to Worcester before my Dodo died. I think we all knew that and so were particularly reflective and quiet on the journey. The weather was chilly and as we mounted the hill, the snow started to sift down upon us, as light as icing sugar and coated the car in a soft powder. We had to drive extra slowly to be careful and we listened to a lovely little song on the Titanic soundtrack, which matched the twinkling beauty of the snowflakes as they caught on the branches, dusted the treetops and laced everything in a gloriously hazy white. It was a perfect five minutes that I will never forget. For me, driving through Birdlip is possibly one of my all time favourite five minutes. The greatest little hideaway! The journey through Birdlip is so brief that it is almost like a deep breath is caught in your throat as you witness the splendour and then let it out into a sigh as you exit back onto the main roads, picking up the pace again and leaving it behind.

Now let me lead you to the greatest part of the trip. I'm sure you all have car journeys that you remember as a child. We used to play a little game on the way to Bournemouth. Who can see the sea first? We'd all be striving to win! Who can see the sea first? I can! (But Sally, we haven't even left Sandhurst...)
The same thing applied to Worcester. Only, as most of you know, there is no sea in Worcester. My friends, there is something BETTER than the sea.

Allow me to introduce to you, possibly the coolest landmark in England....


Tree on a hill beckons gasps of admiration and wonder. Why is there just ONE tree on that hill? Who put it there? What does it mean? Who can see the tree on the hill first? How did it come to be so spectacular? Who can see the tree on the hill first? I can! (But Sally, you're sat at your desk drinking coffee...) Lets all stare at the magnificent specimen for it truly is a marvellous tree, with a fine brown rump of a trunk, a full head of branches and a bouquet of glorious green leaves.

Now you all may scoff at my worship of a tree. It's just a tree, I hear you say. But this is where you are wrong, people. Whittington Tump is actually believed to be an ancient burial mound and although it has never been excavated, it has generated interest for thousands of years. There are Roman coins and flints lurking around up there and everything, apparently. And do you know what? After all those years of passing by the tree on the hill and getting overly excited about it, we never once stopped to walk up and check it out. In fact, there were lots of things we never stopped to see. I suppose we thought we had all the time in the world.

One day... ONE DAY... I will walk up that hill and kiss the damn thing, I love it so. One day I might go and have a Sunday Roast in the Golden Heart Inn and then a balloon ride across Cheltenham. Sadly, I will never touch the big, kind giraffe for he has now gone to someplace I'll never know. More than anything, I want to walk up to the tree and sit under its heavy shade and look out over Worcester and to the distant sight of the Malverns and remember the times at Nana and Dodo's.

This tree marks the entrance to Worcester... it spells that there are only about 13 minutes (including a stop at the Tesco garage for flowers) until you reach Hill Avenue and then... 115 Bath Road. After you have negotiated a tricky parking spot on the pebbled drive if you listen hard enough you will hear the eager slam of the car door, feet crunching, racing to open the old wooden gate. You will see three little blonde children skipping excitedly down the stepping stones of the blooming garden, past the pond (watch out for that loose slab!) and you will see Nana's head through the kitchen window. You will find Sandy chilling out on the sofa and Dodo is probably in his armchair smoking his pipe.
115 Bath Road was a place with dairylea cheese sandwiches, Nana's finest soup (for which I never got the recipe, damn it Nana!), mini cans of Coca Cola and a beligerent old Dodo who liked to talk incessantly about the time he was a prisoner during the Second World War. We all gazed into our soup as he told the same stories over and over. How I wish now that I had listened! How fascinating, I should have said but instead I only asked him to pass the vienetta and proceeded to lick my bowl like a hungry cat, concentrating on consuming every last trace. The things he must have thought of us young, mindless children!

I often think about the garden and the greenhouse with the earthy smell of tomatoes, I think about the fish in the pond that I would feed with little pellets, I think about how Dodo would wring a cold, wet flannel over our faces if we stayed in bed for too long and as I think about all these things in detail, I realise that I never knew much about Nana and Dodo themselves. More than anything, the only thing I vividly remember about the two of them was that they would walk to the end of the driveway and wave us off until we disappeared from sight. We would snuggle into the back of the car, watch as the dusky outline of the Malverns disappeared from sight and return home.

115 Bath Road was sold in 2008 after the death of my Nana and we will never go there again. The journey that we once took so often will slowly change in subtle and then dramatic ways like we each have in turn and I wonder when, or if I will ever take it again. Whether this is the case or not, I will always have my memories of the time we spent there, the image of Nana and Dodo waving us away, the distant cry of 'tree on the hill!' and the promise that we will one day go there again.
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