I grew up about 12 miles east of London in a small-ish town called Rainham. It’s basically a London suburb at this point, situated just off the Thames, but it has a long history going back thousands of years. There is a Neolithic excavation site in Rainham, an Anglo-Saxon burial ground, and the local church is a Grade I listed building, erected around 1170 AD, that stands as it was built. Although the history is long and deep, it’s not what you would call a picturesque town. It looks pretty ordinary and isn’t exactly the hub of any major activity. But, it’s home.
After we rocked London (click here to see that blog post) this was our next stop. I jumped in a rental car and drove straight to the last house my parents owned before they moved to the U.S. to be with me. My maternal grandparents – my Nan and Grandad – lived next door to us (to the left of the photo below) and even before we moved next to them when I was 13, this was the street I would come home to after school, waiting for my mum to arrive home from work. Mum didn’t drive back then and she used to take a train and a bus back home. From the front wall of my grandparents’ property, I could see the end of the street where the buses passed by. I knew approximately what time her 87 bus would come by and would stand at the front gates with my eyes glued to the end of the road, waiting for that double-decker red. Then, at the first sign of her rounding the corner onto our street, i would take off in a full-out run to throw myself into her arms. I still remember the excitement of how it felt to see her head turn that corner and the feeling of happiness and safety once her arms were around me. I remember her smell, that she was always lugging heavy bags of large ledgers, and that she would often bring me home a McDonald’s hamburger, my grandad some kind of meat pie that he would devour at one sitting. Then we would sit in my grandparents’ front living room and talk about our day while we would wait for my dad to arrive in his car to pick us up and take us home. We never went straight home, there was always a cup of tea on the boil first.
My parents sold this house to come out and live down the street from me in the U.S., eight years ago. We had so many happy memories there that it’s hard to stand in front of it and not be able to go inside. It’s even more difficult coming home, as I did for 15 of my 20 years in the U.S., and not, this time, having a “home” to stay in. Residing in a hotel in your home country seems just wrong. And I never realized, until after it happened that it was gone, how much having that home-base, at home, really mattered. We stood in front of this house with heavy but thankful hearts, wishing we could see how the garage conversion had been done and if the beautiful kitchen we had spent so much time in, was still well-cared for.
The hotel we stayed in was actually in Romford, a large town not far away that is the major retail hub of the area. Mum and I used to visit religiously, every Saturday, to walk around the stores, the market, have copious cups of coffee, and a light lunch. When I was really little, my dad used to come with us and we would go early enough to have breakfast out. When we did, we would often go to a small cafe (said “caff”) in the shopping center called Gingham Kitchen. In the 70s and 80s it was resplendent with orange and brown checkered furnishings; the sign up-front is still original and hints at that earlier style. I honestly didn’t expect to turn the corner and find it still there after all this time but there it is, still standing, still busy with it’s odd mix of hunched-over pensioners looking for a cheap, satisfying lunch, and locals who know that the toasted sandwiches and lasagne beat out any of the fancy spots that have popped up around town.
In case you’re wondering, I had a toasted sausage sandwich and my mum and daughter had toasted cheese sandwiches. Basically it’s like a grilled cheese but without the grilled part; less greasy in general. It tasted exactly the same as it did 20+ years ago. I love that about home, the little things that don’t change.
Like Rainham, Romford isn’t exactly a picture-perfect postcard town. But to me it’s home. Below you can see one of the major thoroughfares and the hotel we stayed in to the left.
Romford is a market town and Fridays and Saturdays for most of its life have been bustling with the energy of the market area. When I grew up this place was a hive of activity, a place where the latest fashions would hang in a stall beside fresh produce being sold by loud-mouthed stall vendors who enticed you over by calling out things like “Come on, darlin’, come get yur bananas, nice and fresh, just a pound a bunch!”, and where East End traditions like jellied eels were still popular. At Christmas time the market stalls would blast the latest popular Christmas songs and the cauliflower would sit beside gaudy tinsel and foil decorations.
I don’t know what happened to Romford market in the last decade, but the buzz has gone. It was half empty and a sad sight. But we eeked out what we could of those old memories.
On our first night in the area, we drove back to the home I grew up in, about 2 miles east of the last house my parents owned. I lived there from age 10 months to 13 years and so this is really my childhood home. The street is really narrow and tiny and the houses are huddled together in terraces, with cars parked in what used to be front gardens to try and free-up some room on the street. I had to stop the car in the middle of the street and left it running while we jumped out to take a quick photo in front of our old house.
As we did so, an old man came out of the house next door and looked at us strangely. “Sorry,” I said, in case he thought we were up to something fishy “we used to live here and just wanted to take a quick photo.” At that moment the man lifted his head and looked at us critically. “Pauline?” he asked, referring to my mum who was about to jump back in the passenger seat. Mum and I suddenly looked properly at the old man and realized all at once that this was Jack, the same man we had lived next to for almost a decade, almost 30 years ago. He still lived there! Before we knew it, he was calling out his wife to greet us and we were taking pictures on his front doorstep. There was just something incredibly touching about my own daughter standing with the man who had known me so well at her age. And, just like finding Gingham Kitchen still in the same place, serving the same food, something so comforting about finding Jack and his wife right where we left him.
Then, the woman who now owns our old home, popped her head out of her door and ended up talking to us. She told us about how much she loved the back garden I have so many amazing memories of, how much she loves living there. I wish she would have invited us inside but the invitation never came and I didn’t have the guts to ask for one.
Next stop was my infant and junior school (equivalent to elementary and middle schools in the U.S.) It too has a long history: the building that is now a nursery school, dates back to the 1700s and was a classroom I was once a student in.
Things don’t look much different than they did when I was a kid. A few more boarded-up shop fronts, but that’s about it. Otherwise home remains almost exactly how it appears in my fond memories. It makes my chest ache to think about all that and it was a dream come true to show my daughter where and how I grew up, especially since those places and spaces are so different to the ones she calls home. What is this desire to share our own roots with our kids? I don’t know but it’s powerful and primal.
Final stop before we retired our first day was the Fish & Chip shop we loved, The New Cherries. Not only is it the best chippy in the area but it’s also a rocking Chinese restaurant. And yes, it’s still there and hasn’t changed a bit. Since it’s take-away only, we bought paper plates and plastic knives and forks and then ordered all our favorite things. Cod and chips and a saveloy for my daughter (that I may or may not have picked at) and then deep-fried shredded beef in chili sauce, chicken chow mein, special fried rice, and curry sauce, for me and mum. It was a certifiable food-gasm and we sat on the bed of our hotel room and groaned and moaned with pleasure. The whole room stank by the time we were done. Nomnom.
The Chinese plate
We ate many delicious meals in many beautiful places in our two weeks in England but this was hands-down the best meal we had the entire time we were there. It’s definitely a story that will live on in many re-tellings for all of us.
Backing-up one step, we also got talking to this guy behind the counter at the Fish shop. Turns out he’s the son of the owner who has owned that restaurant for 40 years, basically all my life. He was very impressed that we came all the way from America to seek-out his family’s food and even offered to bulk-ship us some saveloys back to the U.S.
I know they say home is not a place, it’s a feeling but… I kind of disagree with that in many ways. Maybe it’s something you can’t latch onto until you’ve lived for an extended time in a place that is very different from where you grew up. And maybe I am indeed confusing the feelings I have about this place with the memories I still hold so close to my heart, but I do know that this place is and always will be home in all the senses of the word. If anything, 20 years gone has only intensified the feeling.
i wish I had lingered longer and taken more photos. Next time I will be more leisurely in my exploration. Looking at what I got now, it feels lacking, like so many things I wanted to capture thoughtfully, are missing.
Next up: exploring grand homes and castles and constantly marveling at the presence of green, green grass.