Early on Saturday morning I caught the train to Birmingham. It was still pitch black as the train left Bristol, and the light didn’t break through the darkness until about an hour into my journey. Dawn arrived as the train pulled into Gloucester, and I recognised the familiar landscape of the city that I grew up in. As an entry point, the train station does not paint the city in an attractive light; a basic ticket office, a cafe and four platforms that appear not to have changed since I was a child.
We pulled away from this unattractive part of the city, and a few minutes later the train trundled slowly past a group of houses, one of which my parents once owned. The small garden had changed completely, and for a moment I wondered if I was looking at the right house. The plants and trees were gone, replaced by a large children’s swing set and nothing but bark chippings on the ground. But glancing at the adjacent houses to familiarise myself, I knew that this was the house I once knew.
I didn’t really live in that house as I was already one year into University when my parents moved in. The memories that I have of it therefore revolve around key events that occurred during the four years that they were there. Reunions with school friends during University holidays, dodgy summer jobs, relationship breakdowns and deaths all seemed to happen in that house. It seems strange that I can see a house that I did not live in as the birthplace of these life events, although perhaps that is only because it was a safe haven to escape to when life felt intense.
Gloucester itself remains the city of my childhood. We moved numerous times within the county, but the city centre featured at every stage of my life. Trips into town as a pre-schooler and during my primary school years with my Mum had added excitement if we journeyed in by bus. At secondary school, the city centre was the meeting point of choice for me and my friends on Saturdays. It was an effort; by then we had moved house and the bus journey took an hour and a half with stops in every village en route to the bright lights of Gloucester bus station. It was worth it to see the friends that I had already spent forty hours with that week; we needed to dissect the school gossip of that week, eat burgers and get more piercings. We perfected the art of shifting our dates of birth to enable us to get child tickets on the bus, before shifting them in the opposite direction to watch inappropriate films at the cinema. The underage drinking that followed was a light hearted rite of passage. We had each others’ backs.
Last year I spent a lot of time in Gloucester with my own children. The city felt familiar; I still knew its streets and short cuts, its parks and skylines. I recognised the origins of the various local accents, and my eldest enjoyed the exact same merry-go-round that still ran in the city centre almost three decades after I’d enjoyed it as a child. But the city did not feel like home.
Watching the Gloucester cityscape through the grubby train window this weekend I saw everything that I knew, but nothing that I missed. Perhaps I am someone who makes memories but doesn’t attach sentimental value to the location, more concerned about the people I was with or the way I felt at the time. Despite spending eighteen years in one county I am still not sure where home is, but I know that I am lucky not to yearn for the past.