In 1994 the National Trust shop at Killerton was selling a number of attractive silver articles, and I took a fancy to this ring. It cost only £6, and I was going to buy it for myself, but M--- stepped in and bought it for me. I was in the midst of a serious 'ring phase' at the time, and at first it merely added to my extensive collection. But although the phase died down, and one by one the larger, more elaborate rings were taken off and put away, I kept on wearing this plain little ring that M--- had given me. And in fact it has not been off my hand for more than a few moments ever since 6 July 1994 - that's twenty-one years of continuous wearing. Actually, to be truthful, I had to remove it in March 2011 while in hospital - but that's a special exception, enforced by surgical requirements. What I mean to say is, that in all that time I have never voluntarily taken it off my finger.
Of course, it became a favourite personal item at once. A talisman. And although I have always worn it chiefly because I like rings, it remains a tangible reminder that M--- and I were once very happy together. At one point in the 1990s I promised her that I would wear it always, even if we broke up acrimoniously. I have kept that promise. And will continue to do so.
It's on that particular left little finger because it was the only finger that the ring would comfortably slide onto (I have rather big knuckles). At least, this was the case in 1994 and for several years afterwards. I can nowadays get it on the other little finger - just about - but really there is no point in changing its traditional location. Apparently in some circles it does matter which finger you place rings on. Well, not in any circle I move in. I hold that personal comfort and personal tradition determine where it goes, and phooey to any other point of view.
Anyway, you'll now clearly understand that a visit to Killerton (a country house with grounds, north of Exeter) was going to be a potentially unsettling experience for me - wearing this ring that my ex-partner had given me - plus, in any case, coming back to a place last visited when we were in the first getting-to-know-you stage of our long relationship. Would I feel M---'s ghost, so to speak? Would I have to lay it?
Similar thinking had made me nervous of revisting many places in the last few years. For instance, I felt distinctly wobbly about going back to Scotland in 2013, with our last caravan holiday together in 2010 still fresh in my mind, and ghosts galore likely to ambush me. I thought I'd need plenty of time, and a fair bit of resolution, to face up to the memories.
Scotland in 2010 had been an emotionally difficult experience. We were not a couple any more, not in any proper sense. But we had a shared reason to go at least as far as Edinburgh; and then, if that went all right, on to Aberdeenshire - mainly so that M--- could donate family documents to the Gordon Highlanders' regimental museum in Aberdeen, and conduct some on-the-spot genealogical research in the countryside around Huntly, seeking out her great-grandfather's cottage and a cemetery. This too went remarkably well, and, thus encouraged, we embarked on something of a Grand Tour of northern Scotland (plus west-coast places like Skye) before heading south to Loch Lomond and Glasgow.
By this late stage in our long holiday I was not looking good. M--- had imposed a sort of dress code, and other restrictions. After three weeks of it, I was feeling dumbed-down. An extract from my Caravan Diary, when we were staying at a Camping & Caravanning Club site on the shore of Loch Lomond, will give you the flavour of how it was:
2010 0425 to 0426 Milarrochy Bay Camping & Caravanning Club Site, Balmaha, near Drymen, Glasgow G63 0AL (Camping & Caravanning Club Main Site)
2 nights. Sunday to Tuesday.
We arrived in a heavy mist and drizzle, after following an tediously long approach road. This was bad enough, but we were hustled into deciding which pitch to use, and the one we settled on, apparently with a Loch Lomond view, turned out to be too close to unsightly bins. The facilities on the site were mostly tired and not appealing - very different from the C&CC's Rosemarkie site, and well below the standard on the Caravan Club main sites we'd seen on this holiday. Even the gravel driveways were uneven and full of puddles in the wet. To cap it all, I got called 'mate' by the site manager and his assistant. Tossers.
M--- instantly regretted booking two nights instead of one, but there was nothing to be done about it. On the second evening she found that the showers were OK, and I discovered that the chemical toilet disposal facilities were fine. But these things didn't redeem the site.
The rain relented and we went into Glasgow after an early evening meal at Milngavie. I hadn't been into the city centre since 1969. It had changed quite a bit, and I had a much more positive impression of the place, although I still preferred Edinburgh. Quite a 'culture shock' though, after the remoteness of Skye only the previous afternoon.
On the morning of our departure, I got noticed by the two late-middle-aged stout married men in the caravan next to ours. They stared and speculated. I didn't care for myself, but M--- felt very embarrassed. Oh dear. Three weeks away had taken its toll: I wasn't passing well. Time to go home and repair my face!
A friend of mine noted the ravages of that holiday with dismay. But it was all soon repaired.
Returning to Scotland in 2013, I'd anticipated many moments of sadness, as I recalled 2010 and a relationship on the rocks and breaking up fast. But it didn't turn out that way. I'd moved on enough to cope. I actually enjoyed seeing North Berwick and Haddington and other places significant in 2010. And this now encouraged me to think that Killerton would not prove unbearably poignant. It didn't. I liked it very much.
It's not a massive place - just a medium-sized country house, quite bright and airy inside, not the slightest bit oppressive as some houses can be. A place one could feel really comfortable in, even though if actually living there one would still need quite a lot of servants and gardeners to keep it running smoothly. There were no servants now, but the NT's own gardeners were much in evidence around the grounds. A few shots will give you an idea of what the house was like on my recent visit:
A fair bit of the upper floor was given over to a costume exhibition, and I imagine that students from Exeter University must come here as part of their fashion studies. I like costume, and enjoyed what I saw, such as:
In one room there was a collection of 'period' things you could try on, including a hooped undergarment to support a dress on top. The lady there urged me to give it a go. I did. She helped me put the thing on. It would have helped if I'd possessed a Victorian wasp waist, but I got the general idea of what it was like to wear, and how to sit down in it:
Back outside, the grounds were full of flowering shrubs and bushes:
The poor magnolias didn't stand much of a chance, though, in the persistent breeze - the grass around was littered with their petals:
One unmissable feature was a small rustic cottage named the Bear's Hut, so-called because for a while a former owner kept a young bear in it. And yet inside it's hardly bear-proof, with its quite delicate natural decoration of thin wood and hessian panels, and pine cones:
Well, I think the bear must have been a baby one, otherwise it would be clawing its way out and escaping all the time!
I glanced at my little ring again and again.
It had come home. Here I am by the entrance door in 1994:
And here I am in 2015, pretty well on the same spot:
Ghosts? What ghosts?