Re-treading

For the second year in succession I haven’t boarded a plane to go on holiday but decided to take advantage of the situation we are still in and spend my time off at home, or, more accurately, in the UK. Last year the holiday took us along the south coast and I was able to go to places I had never been to – Bath, Stonehenge, Avebury – places like that. It was a wonderful journey. So this year we decided to do something similar but along the east coast.

We loaded the car and set off. The satnav had been programmed to take us first of all to somewhere I knew I had been to but not for many many years – Clacton-on-Sea. My father’s family came from the eastern edge of London, Essex area and when I was little some of them still lived there. I was born in Leicester and so holidays were often about going down to the Romford area and seeing my relatives there. But when I was about three we must have taken my maternal grandparents with us for the holiday.

Clacton was very much in my memory because my Nanna in Leicester had a photo of her and my little sister propped up on the mantlepiece in her bedroom. When we were at her house I would often see it, my Nanna bending over my sister who, in her own words, looks ‘mardy’. The classic photo though is of us with my grandparents, aunt and uncle and our cousin, Lesley. She must have been about 16 at the time and clearly wanted to be somewhere else! She strikes a pose on this Box Brownie image. It reminds me of some lines of Dylan Thomas from ‘Under Milk Wood’

the yellowing dickybird-watching
pictures of the dead.’

Not everyone in the picture has died; my sister and I are still around, as is my cousin and so is my aunt, 95 and tremendous. But the others, gone. But the place remains.

We parked the car and headed for the front. I remembered the pier but it used to have a roller-coaster on it, now there is a helter-skelter. The weather was dull and we sat in a café at the end of the pier, had a bacon sandwich and looked out across the grey sea and the grey sky. Some beach huts remained and presumably most of the boards across which we walked on the pier were ones I had trotted across as a child in my little shirt and shorts.

Obviously there was a photo booth somewhere on the front back in 1961! We have a series of photos of combinations of us in the booth having photos taken. I’m sitting on my Nanna’s knee and obviously finding it wonderful, hysterically funny.

When I got back to London I was talking to my sister about it. ‘Can you remember the photos?’ ‘I think I have them’ she said. And hence the copies I now have and the memories that have come flooding back.

My aunt on the photo, not the lady in the arms of my uncle, that is my mum, is, as I say, still alive and we visited her where she now lives. All these memories.

It is good sometimes to re-tread the path that we have taken before. Ok, Clacton wasn’t quite as I remembered it, but I was remembering it from these photos and sixty year has passed since I was there. But going back and standing where we stood and thinking about those years, my dad’s death just a few years after he had taken the photos, my brother, not with us then, not with us now, the call to ministry, Leicester to Leeds to London, pilgrimages, Southwark, life-changing events, terrorism, pandemic, discovering myself, really finding God, losing so many who I have loved and having the love of others not in the photos, it all feels overwhelming. But, it isn’t.

T S Eliot in ‘Little Gidding’ writes

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

God, the God of the journey, the God of our, sometimes, circular pilgrimage, is with us. The Israelites must have retrodden already trodden paths in their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. But the returning to the familiar gave them the opportunity to see it all as if for the first time but with deeper appreciation. That I suppose is what Clacton-on-Sea gave to me this holiday.

And after Clacton? Well the whole of the east coast as far as Hartlepool, then to the Lakes, then to the Borders and then back home. It was wonderful, but standing on that familiar, ghostly ground was very special.

God, journey with us into the familiar and unfamiliar places. Amen.

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