Before seeing baby Matilda up in London, I stopped by for an early lunch at Morden Hall Park, which is a preserved part of the open countryside that used to exist south of Wimbledon, before all the housing estates were built after World War I. It's only a small area, and it looks much like a half-rough park, rather than anything in its truly natural state, but nevertheless it's an important expanse of grass and trees and bushes, with some nice old buildings, and a network of streams and waterways that once served the local mills, when water power was king. It's now in the care of the National Trust, and is a green amenity that the London Borough of Merton can justly boast about.
There are historical connections too, such as the one with Admiral Horatio Nelson, who bought a grand house with large grounds slightly north of the Park in 1802, and lived there with Lady Emma Hamilton in between his naval engagements, until his hero's death at Trafalgar in 1805.
I too used to live close by, from 1983 to 1989. I actually got married in 1983 at Morden Cottage, one of the white-boarded mill buildings, which has a water wheel at one end that Merton uses in its logo. I came here not just to grab a sandwich at the National Trust café, but to revisit Morden Cottage, and then make a quick circuit of the local roads, to see what my old house now looked like.
I allowed less than an hour for the entire stop. First, that sandwich. It was a disappointment. It was meant to be a 'luxury' cheese, ham and pickle sandwich, but the pickle was sharp, not sweet, and spoilt the whole thing. I couldn't finish it. Never mind. I left the café, entered the park proper, and headed for Morden Cottage.
My goodness, things had changed! The National Trust had been very busy since I was last here in the late 1980s. Overgrown and half-ruinous snuff mill buildings, estate offices and stable yards had been restored and turned into places that explained the local industry of 200 years ago (for details of which see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merton_Place#19th_century), or were being put to educational and recreational use.
The waterways were much the same, including that famous water wheel.
I was eager to see the Cottage. It had been the local Register Office, and a 'character' place to get married in. In 1983 it was well-maintained, painted brilliant white, with polished wooden floors within, quaint and old-fashioned in a nice way - although the room used for the marriage ceremony was on the small side and a bit of a squeeze for a big wedding party. Outside were neatly-maintained flower beds with roses in them, very colourful for much of the year. I turned a corner and...
...Ah. Not quite as it used to be. It now looked a little forlorn, and not so well cared for. I quickly suspected that it was no longer used for weddings. Yes, the London Acorn School now leased it, and it was a day centre for pre-school playgroups and other activities for parents with very young children.
A couple of my age, with a little boy in tow, noticed me and we immediately started to talk. I explained that I was on a flying visit, and that I got married here thirty years ago. It was one of life's coincidences. The lady exclaimed that her son had also got married here thirty years ago. Was I still married? No, but it had lasted eight years before falling apart. And clearly I could look back on those years without flinching, and with a certain nostalgia, to the extent at least of wanting to see the Cottage again. And I was shortly going to take a peek at the old family house. We talked babies and young children, and the satisfactions of being a grandparent. She definitely took to me. They were both very pleasant indeed, and were called Doris and Tony. The little boy was patient and very well behaved. His name was Ethan. Here they are:
And they took a picture of me in front of the Cottage:
Having said goodbye, I walked around to the lawn side of the Cottage. A young woman followed me, as if looking for something. Sensing another conversation, I explained again why I was there. Oh, would I like her to take a picture of me, with the Cottage in it? Yes, please!
She was twenty-something, and from Poland. She'd actually been looking for the toilets. So I said, either go to the café, or try the stable block (top photo), where I'd noticed there were toilets also. She was very polite, and very grateful for the information. I know just how it is when you've got to go.
Once alone, I considered the Cottage and pursed my lips. It really wasn't in a great state of repair nowadays, and desperately needed repainting. And where had the rose beds gone? There was instead a vast shapeless evergreen shrub - off to the left of the scene above - exactly where we had all posed for pictures in the February frost, after the ceremony. It had been a very cold day! But getting married on St Valentine's Day had been my idea. Doris had thought it most romantic.
Time was ticking on. I walked out of the Park, and headed for 16 Windermere Avenue, SW19, the house I'd bought for myself, W---, and stepdaughter A--- to live in. I entered the road from the northern, Merton Park, end. Talk about a place being in a time warp. Almost nothing had changed since 1989. The cars were different, that was all. The curved high-rise bulk of Crown House (now the Civic Centre) was still the Big Landmark at the end of the Avenue.
I stopped opposite my old house. It's the one with the cream wash and bright red tiling above the front bow window, and the newish brick hardstanding outside. But in my day Number 16 had looked more like the house to the left, and the front garden was lawned. The family to the right always liked Mercedes cars, and I'm guessing they were still living there.
It had always struck me that, in London, no matter how ordinary or mundane the exterior of one's house might be - and this terrace of late-1920s houses was as ordinary as one can get for an outer-London suburb - the interior was likely to have real money spent on it, turning it into a little palace. Most people could not afford to live in big houses on posh estates. They settled for a small characterless house lost in a sea of identical other houses, and concentrated instead on making the interior as beautiful and as individual as possible. Same for the back garden, if there was one. In Windermere Avenue, we all had decent back gardens, but newer houses on smaller plots of land would have miniscule joke gardens, fit only for a table and chairs and very little else. So you tended to live indoors, in as much style and comfort as you could stretch to, and would pretend that the outside world didn't exist. I had little doubt that the interior of my old home would have been gutted, and everything replaced, at least two or three times in the years since 1989, and that I'd find no trace of my own handiwork.
Hurrying now, I turned left at the end of the road, and very soon came to Morden Underground station, which was also the hub of the local bus routes.
How typical of outer London. Even if you lived in a humdrum street, there would be shops and services, schools and day centres, doctors and dentists, and of course buses and trains - everything you could reasonably want - all within easy reach. It was a convenient payback for accepting bland and unexciting surroundings, and the mind-numbing routine of the daily commute, shut up inside a noisy tube train.
But I tired of it. And then began to loathe it. By 1989, after eleven years of living in London, I was desperate to get out into the country again. Too many houses, too little greenery, too many drab days, all these things had depressed me. Every time I drove down the busy A3 to visit Mum and Dad in leafy Liphook, the conviction was reinforced in me that I had to escape or go into some kind of terminal decline.
Thankfully in 1989 the chance came to move to Horsham in Sussex. I didn't hesitate. W--- was not so eager. She was lukewarm about it compared to myself, and almost changed her mind when things dragged on. But I never faltered. I bulldozed our Move To The Sticks Project through in a sustained effort of will that I still consider to be one of the most selfish things I have ever done in my life. W--- quickly hated her daily journey up to London.
It was not intended, but I could not have chosen anything more effective than this to wreck our marriage. By early 1991 she'd left me to live again in London, and I was left on my own to consider whether the joys of Worthing and Brighton and Chichester, and all the fine scenery of East and West Sussex, were really worth the destruction of my marriage.
But for me, there was no going back to London. And I never did return there to live, even when the commuting became very awkward.
And, of course, there was another matter that I was now free to explore, if I dared.
But then I met M---, and my life went off on a long fifteen-year diversion. Doris, Tony and Ethan did not learn anything of that.