We have just been saying goodbye to an old family home, where my Grandparents used to live, and where my mother Joan Aiken spent most of her childhood before she went away to school at the age of twelve. During her lifetime she had the good fortune to be able to go back there whenever she was in the country. Now, thanks to her writing, as in this piece from 1980, I can go there whenever I choose.
“When I was a child, I was lucky enough to live in a very beautiful place in Sussex, England. Our cottage, which was quite small, perched on top of a steep bank behind a gnarled laurel tree, and a quince tree which was covered with pink blossom in spring and quinces in fall. Once a woman came to the front door and wanted to buy the quince tree. Imagine wanting to buy somebody’s quince tree! I wrote a story about her. Across the narrow, deep lane was a farm, with an orchard, pigs, cows, poultry, and two huge horses called Prince and Blossom. Our cottage was called Farrs, after someone who had lived in it during its three hundred years. In its big garden were plenty of climbing-trees — a willow, a walnut. apple, plum and cherry trees, a tall copper-beech.
The village was very small — only forty houses. I can still remember the names of all the people who lived in them. There was a shop, a pub, a cobbler, and a blacksmith. All around lay green unspoiled country: fields, woods, brooks, an encircling horseshoe of rolling chalky hills, the South Downs, which I described in my book The Cuckoo Tree. The Cuckoo Tree was really there, and still is. We could walk for miles in any direction, looking for white violets, butterfly orchids, green-glass snails, blackberries. mushrooms, or wild strawberries. In winter if there was snow we tobogganed down the steep slopes of the Downs. When my elder brother and sister were at home I did these things with them. When they were away at boarding-school and college I missed them terribly, and counted the days till they would be back. That was partly why I took to writing, because I was lonely; until my younger brother grew old enough to be good company – he was seven years younger. I made up some of my first stories for him, telling them to him as we came home. limping and thirsty, from some long expedition over he Downs.
Now I am grown up, I am lucky in a different way. Because the cottage where I lived as a child. and the village, and the green country, are still there, almost exactly the same. My younger brother owns the house now, so I can visit it whenever I want to. Another walnut tree has grown where the old one used to be. The quince tree still grows in front and the copper beech at the back. It is now so huge that you can see it from the top of the Downs.
Many people aren’t able to go back to their childhood homes. The world changes so fast now: whole towns grow up like mustard, or are knocked down; whole landscapes are changed by bulldozers; wars force people to leave their countries and never return. So I know how lucky — how fantastically lucky —I am. Whenever I want, I can go back and take a look at my childhood scene, and it is still there, like a tiny precious world inside a glass paperweight. I can go to the top of the stair, where a little bureau stood, which I shared with my sister; where I used to sit on the wooden chest that held the vacuum cleaner, and lick my pencil, and write “Once upon a time …”
And I appreciate this luck. I marvel at it more and more, because now I lead a very movable life, half in England (where I have a house five miles from my brother’s); half in New York where my husband teaches painting. Last week I was in a mossy English lane, looking at icicles hanging from a sand- stone cliff. Now, from where I sit in a room in Manhattan I can see the Empire State Building, all lit up, red and blue. Next week I shall be in Australia, where I have never been. Sometimes all these changes seem too startling, too dreamlike. As I fly, faster than sound, from one place to another, the only thing that stays constant is the book I am writing, the place I have in my mind … just now it is an old, old stone city, the city of New Bath, thousands of feet up among a ring of volcanoes somewhere in the Andes, where Queen Guinevere is still waiting, as she has waited since the year 577, for King Arthur to come back …”
The book she was writing was The Stolen Lake, Dido’s adventures in a Southern American country which had long ago been settled by the Romans, and where the ship that should have been bearing Dido and its English naval crew back to Old England has been summoned to find and return a stolen lake – the lake which contains the sword Excalibur…