Wednesday 24 August 2022

Feels Like Home: Four of My Happy Places

There are places you haven’t been where you already belong. (Unknown)

This article was inspired by a recent Instagram post by Rachel Kelly. Rachel is the author of five books on mental health and wellbeing. She’s also a respected public speaker, and official ambassador for mental health charities including Rethink Mental Illness and SANE. Her post included photographs of the English Lake District. “Being there,” she said, “never fails to put a smile on my face.” Rachel was in the Lake District when she wrote the foreword for our book High Tide Low Tide. I love thinking that she was in her happy place when she did so.

Where are my happy places, though? Where is my heart most at ease? Where do I feel most at home? I settled on four places: Memory Lane, Langrigg; Wateredge Inn, Ambleside; Stack Newcastle; and Costa Coffee, Kingston Park. This selection will come as no surprise to close friends and attentive readers, because I’ve talked about them on several previous occasions. In a post written in March 2021 as England began to emerge from lockdown I anticipated the loss of places and activities that had been important to me.

At some point, though, it dawned on me that things will never return to how they used to be. The impact of covid, of lockdown, of all the changes we lived through last year and are still living through, is simply too great for us to pick up where we left off. Vaccinations will allow us to move forward but right now, as England begins gradually to open up again, I can only see that many things I valued (and some I took for granted) have already gone beyond any hope of retrieval. Others may resume, but they won’t be the same. I’m not the same. We aren’t the same. How could we be, with all we have gone through?

Some were indeed lost. Others are still available to me, albeit changed by everything we’ve lived through. Rather than dwell on what’s gone, I want to explore why revisiting these four places — in person or in memory — remains so important to my sense of identity and wellbeing.

Memory Lane, Langrigg

I scarcely remember my first visit to Langrigg in Cumbria. It was certainly a long time ago. 2004, maybe. It became a favourite holiday destination, revisited many times over the years. As lovely as the cottage was, my happy place is the walk from there to the village of Great Musgrave.

Little more than a mile each way, that walk along the winding single-track road became a treasured part of my visits to Langrigg; an opportunity to check in with myself as to what had changed and not changed since I was last there. I walked almost every evening, no matter the weather. The only shelter was the bus stop in the village and a small stand of trees roughly halfway along the road. More than once, I returned to the cottage drenched to the bone. More often, though, the weather was kind. I remember Langrigg most for the glorious early evening light and wide skies.

I don’t know if the road has a local name, but to me it will always be Memory Lane. It’s been a faithful friend to me over the years, bearing witness to whatever I was going through at the time. The fields, trees, and hedgerows held space for me — literally and figuratively — to explore my thoughts and feelings, fears and joys, crippling doubts and passionate certainties. There was one gate I’d stop at almost every time to gaze across the rolling landscape; the village at the top of the hill to my left, the cottage in the middle distance to my right. I walked alone, but I’ve shared the experience many times with friends via photos, texts, chat, and voice or video calls.

My final visit was in October 2019. The trips planned for the following year were cancelled due to the pandemic and the owner decided to stop renting the cottage as holiday accommodation. It hurts physically to know I’ll never walk there again. There’s a certain irony in Memory Lane itself having passed into memory, but those memories are strong, reinforced by the many photographs I’ve taken over the years, and the fact I’ve shared so much of it with others. Revisiting as I do, in memory and conversation, is powerfully validating. It connects the now-me with then-me. Not me at a specific moment in time, but the person I was and became over decades. Not all the memories are happy or easy, but they’re all part of who I am. I’m reminded of the poem At Castle Boterel by Thomas Hardy. I used to know it by heart and I have — I’m sure — declaimed it to the sheep and cows, the fields and the wide skies of Langrigg on more than one occasion. The poem ends:

Primaeval rocks form the road’s steep border,
And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth’s long order;
But what they record in colour and cast
Is — that we two passed.

There’s a glorious recording of this and other Hardy poems read by Richard Burton.

Wateredge Inn, Ambleside

Compared to the meandering mile or more of Memory Lane, this happy place is very precisely located. It’s one of two or three tables in the corner of the garden of the Wateredge Inn, Ambleside. The water in question is Windermere, largest of the lakes in the English Lake District. From my table, less than twenty feet from the waves lapping against the pebbles of the shore, I have a perfect view south along the lake. It’s early evening and the last few ferries of the day ply their trade from the Ambleside jetty to Bowness and beyond. It’s simply, breathtakingly, beautiful. On the table is a pint of beer, my beloved brown passport-size Traveler’s Notebook, fountain pen, phone stand, and journal. On my head, my Bluetooth headset, anticipating a call. Fran and a few other close friends have shared moments with me there.

This is the most recent addition to my list of happy places. I discovered it when staying at Waterhead in July 2018 and returned the following summer. I thought of it often during lockdown, wondering if I’d ever be back. I needn’t have worried. I returned last month and although a great deal has changed in the intervening years, in my personal life and the wider world, it hasn’t lost its magic. It felt good to be back, adding new feelings and experiences to its stock of memories. I doubt I’ll be there again before next summer, but it’s part of me now.

Stack Newcastle

After a year of lockdown and social restrictions I had conflicting feelings about Stack Newcastle, which had been one of my favourite places.

STACK Newcastle, my go-to hangout until covid struck, where I’ve had so many good times hanging out with friends, or calling in on my own for a beer and a falafel wrap? The venue is set to reopen and I dare say I’ll go back at some point, but with social distancing and having to book in advance the atmosphere will never be the same. What if it never feels warm and welcoming — a Marty place — again?

Despite my doubts, I reclaimed Stack for myself once the restrictions eased. It wasn’t the same, but I added new memories and moments to the many I’d collected since its opening in August 2018. The venue closed permanently earlier this year, its city centre site due for redevelopment.

It’s hard to overestimate the significance this collection of container units held for me. It was the closest I’ve ever had to a regular pub or “watering hole.” It’s also the only place I’ve ever been able to order drinks successfully — I usually get overlooked while the bar staff serve everyone else. That’s perhaps because I’ve never felt more confident in myself and less out of my depth socially. Busy pubs and bars have never my idea of fun, but there was something about Stack which appealed to me no matter how crowded it was. Some of my fondest memories are when the place was heaving, the long benches in the main area crammed to bursting point. At such times, the route to and from the bar required careful navigation between the bodies of people talking, drinking, singing, dancing to the live music, or making their own way through the happy crowd.

And it was a happy crowd. I can’t recall any altercations, fights, or bad behaviour. I always felt safe, physically and socially. Most of the clientele would have been in their late teens or twenties, but it was common to see family groups with young children, as well as folk even older than me! It wasn’t always crowded and noisy, though. I loved arriving early when it was almost empty. I have great memories of sitting by the roaring open fire in the Tipi Bar or at the benches in the main area, catching up with my journal, capturing ideas for future blog posts, or waiting for friends. As well as local friends, I’ve shared time at Stack with Fran and others through photos, chat, and video calls.

Stack may no longer exist but I revisit in memory from time to time. It reminds me that I have a right to feel good about myself, and that it’s ok to enjoy myself socially. One of the first photos I took there remains a favourite, with its reminder that YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE.

Costa Coffee, Kingston Park

Costa is the latest of my favourite writing cafés, but it’s more than that. For one thing, it’s only a ten-minute walk from my home, making it the most readily accessible of my happy places. Before covid struck, I used to call in almost every day of the week: in the morning on my way into work, on Saturday mornings before I moved on to whatever else I was doing that day, and after lunch on Sundays. That routine was disrupted by the pandemic, but I’ve pretty much returned to daily visits. Costa is once again part of the day-to-day, week-to-week, pulse of my life.

This brings up some interesting distinctions between my happy places in terms of access, accumulated experience, and memory. Stack was somewhere I could visit as often as I wanted to. Before covid I went into Newcastle town centre most Saturdays, and Stack was part of my regular routine, whether I was with friends or hanging out on my own. It wasn’t just one of my favourite places. Like Costa, it was woven into the fabric of my life. In contrast, Langrigg and Waterhead are holiday places, visited during week-long vacations once or twice a year. Langrigg carries decades of aggregated experience. Waterhead has yet to accumulate much emotional resonance, although its memories and feelings are no less strong for being relatively new. And there’s scope to add to its store. It’s not closed to me as Langrigg is.

Two places that live in memory alone. Two that are current and open. What about the future? What happy places are yet to be discovered? I chanced on a quotation the other day that fits perfectly. I’ve been unable to locate the author, but the words bring comfort and hope: There are places you haven’t been where you already belong.

Over to You

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my happy places as much as I’ve enjoyed revisiting them. What are your happy places? Where in the world makes you smile? What makes them special for you? Are they places you get to visit regularly? I’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photos by the author.


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