I am not a particularly sentimental person, and neither am I a royalist. But I am not ashamed to say I had a cry yesterday when the news of the Queen’s death was announced. I may not agree with the concept of a monarch, but I have always had the utmost respect for the Queen’s dedication to what she believed was her duty to this country. To give your life – to lay down your own hopes and dreams and desires – to do something you believe in absolutely is a true act of sacrifice. She was a symbol of a vanished age, of a generation who knew what it was to give their lives for their country, and amidst so much flux, she was the constant calm, collected cornerstone holding the nation together. I’ve never been one for watching the Christmas speech, or going in for the pomp and glory around Jubilees and so on – but the Queen’s devotion to duty gave her words and actions a meaning no other influential figure could command. Her constant presence was benignly reassuring. I always felt, rather childishly, that the Queen wouldn’t let anything bad happen to us. It feels impossible that she can be gone.
Her death has caused the rather strange phenomenon of reawakening personal grief at the loss of a family member from the same generation. As I cried into my cup of tea last night, I realised that what I was really crying for was a world that was gone, and the people who had gone with it, and mostly my grandmother who was a little bit older than the Queen, and who died a few years ago at the grand old age of 95, without me having had the chance to say goodbye. It dawned on me yesterday that I had never really dealt with the complex and complicated feelings I had around her death, and the Queen’s death caused me to feel like my grandmother had died all over again.
Today I woke up and felt very strongly that I wanted to do something to feel close to my grandmother and say a proper goodbye. As it happens I’m currently staying in Devon for a few weeks for a change of scene – taking advantage of being temporarily unemployed! – and so I’m not too far from where my grandmother grew up, in Dorset. I drove to Corfe Castle through lanes offering amazing panoramic views across the undulating patchwork of countryside that rolled down to the sea. I parked up in the National Trust car park – Corfe Castle is a thousand-ish year old ruined castle on top of a hill, with its ancient village – where my grandmother was born and spent her childhood and young adulthood – nestled at its foot – and walked up the footpath that led beneath the castle and into the centre of the village. As I walked, a steam train whistled past, sending up an atmospheric puff of smoke that billowed across the horizon. It could have been 1920 again, the year of my grandmother’s birth.
Corfe Castle village is so ridiculously beautiful, so quintessentially chocolate-box English, that it could quite easily be mistaken for a film set. Its honey-coloured thatched cottages are strung along two streets – East Street and West Street – that fan out in a V formation from the main square, where a handful of shops and pubs are clustered around the impressive towering presence of the church. Behind the square rises the hill formation on which the ruined castle sits; all around the village, the unspoiled countryside ripples down in folds to the sea, sparkling in the distance. It is a little bit of heaven, even on a rainy day, but my grandmother hated it with a passion so intense she never set foot in the village again after she left it to join the WAAF during WWII. Now the village is highly sought after; the cottages are beautifully kept, the gardens and windows filled with flowers, and many are holiday lets. However, when my grandmother was a child, it was a place where many, she and her family included, lived in abject poverty. Her parents lived in a tumble down cottage that was running with damp, and her father, the village blacksmith, was struggling to make ends meet as people increasingly moved away from horses to engines. For a while my grandmother was sent off to live with her grandparents, as her parents couldn’t afford to keep her. While she often spoke of the close community, of the fun she’d had with her friends in the village, and the school she had loved, she said life in the country for the poor was nothing but hard work, hunger and misery, and if people knew what it had taken to keep a cottage sitting on a damp, muddy lane with only one smoking fireplace clean and warm, they’d never want to set foot in the countryside again.
Walking down that same road today, lined with pretty cottages, it was hard to imagine the world my grandmother would have inhabited. Arriving outside her old home, I was surprised to see a for sale sign; a quick google told me it would cost almost £700,000 to own. How times change. I went into the church, wondering what sorts of services and events my grandmother would have attended as a child. I saw her brother’s name on the war memorial; he was one of several men from the village who never made it home. A walk up the lane and to the cemetery took me to his commonwealth war grave; standing alone, with no family resting nearby, I quickly picked some wildflowers to place at his feet. My nan had been devastated at his death; he was only 25. I can’t imagine waving my brother off and never seeing him again.
I wandered back through the village and up to the castle, enjoying the panoramic views across the countryside and wondering whether this was the place where the youth of the village used to come and hang out back in my grandmother’s day. I liked to imagine her up here with her girlfriends, gossiping, or maybe with a young sweetheart. But as much as I found it a beautiful spot, I could also understand how isolating, how restrictive, it must have felt to a woman of my grandmother’s ambition and intelligence. She wanted more than two streets and a weekly bus to the local market town. She wanted the bright lights of a big city, and to be anonymous in a crowd.
So much of the village is exactly the same as it was in my grandmother’s childhood, due to the fact that it is protected by the National Trust. Of course subtle changes have happened over time – the everyday grocers, bakers, and butcher shops my grandmother remembered are now tea rooms and gift shops, the tiny school she attended has doubled in size, and there is a general air of cleanliness and prosperity that certainly doesn’t marry with my grandmother’s description of village life. Ultimately, however, it is still what it always was – a sleepy little slice of the English countryside. As I walked its streets today, I felt I truly was walking in my grandmother’s footsteps, and it made me feel immensely comforted. Thinking of how the Queen’s death had brought me to this place to remember an entirely different woman, the closing lines of Middlemarch came to me; “for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” As Eliot so wisely put it, both historic and unhistoric lives have an equal role to play in the shaping of our own, and to both those lives I am grateful, and both will be much missed.