I’m not sure you can ever really visit the place you grew up, can you? It doesn’t matter whether you feel that ‘You can never go home again’ – that you’re only ever a ghost passing through – or if Home remains for you a tangible and constant place throughout your life.
You don’t ‘visit’ it. You view it headily, with slight vertigo. Peering through the layers of years; a childhood memory here, a teenage instant glimpsed there. As Margaret Atwood puts it “like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water.”
So to Norwich on a gloriously sunny May weekend; and again in June at the end of a tough month. With my mother and my sister, also ‘visiting’, and then with my partner in crime; to the idyllic railway home of my best childhood friend, new baby and all.
It never seems to get considered as a city break destination for some reason, Norwich. And it should do. It’s less than 2 hours from London and the pace and the air are completely removed. It is flat as far as the eye can see, early wave Anglo-Saxon low-rise and preserved Broads and fenland in all directions. And a huge, expansive sky reaching out to the North Sea and the low countries, with sunsets that take up the entire frame.
Admittedly my reference points are muddled; half stuck in the past and hanging strangely between 1997 indie kid and 2014 metropolitan thirty-something. But I think I’ve pulled them forward a bit through the years of my ‘visits’. Where I half return into the haze of the past, and half into the new Norwich I find, reiterated and reinvented over the years by friends still there, or there again.
Because how do you ever drown out the million nights crammed into the Woolpack in Colegate, where I first learned to drink and spent Christmas Eves, New Year’s Eves, birthdays, Friday nights and, let’s face it, plenty of Tuesday school-nights from mid-teens onwards? Where on my 18th we dressed up in black tie before advancing as usual through several pints of Fosters and heading for the Loft on Rose Lane; back when it was jazz packed into the tiny downstairs bar and funk and northern soul pounding out of the speakers upstairs; the Loft, which in all probability still defines my ideal nightclub but has long-since morphed beyond recognition. The Mischief, the Merchants of Colegate, Bedfords. Meltdown at the Waterfront everysaturdaynight, going nuts to teen spirit-animal-nitrate-even flow-girls and boys-pretty fly for a white guy. Jewellery in Beaujangles, tie-dye and joss-sticks in Head in the Clouds; a thousand Saturday trips to ‘the city’ at 13 or 14, picking cheap silver rings by the bucketload, decking ourselves in velvet floppy hats, long skirts, old lady jumpers and huge silver hoops like fairground gypsies, before Music arrived properly and the Radiohead, Pearl Jam, Blur and Suede T-shirts descended. Picknicking in Castle gardens, post-pub pizza eaten drunkenly by the river on Fye Bridge Street. Hurtling back and forth daily in our 17 year-old car pools – a shifting fleet of Morris Minors, Beetles and bashed-up Fiestas – bitching about petrol contributions, tying my exhaust pipe up with string, calling shotgun, crappy radios blaring, zooming through the fields east of town between the quiet little hamlets of home and the bright lights of East Anglia’s Fine City.
And all of that is still happening; I can see it on every corner. You go ‘home’ and those moments still play out around you; you’re walking among them. But now, too, with my best objectivity hat on, thinking about where I would enjoy even with no prior attachment to place, where would I go, and where do I go? I would have an early aperitif and snack in Take 5 on Tombland. I would have a pre-dinner cocktail that turns into two at the awesome Frank’s Bar, sadly never there in my heyday, and several amazing shared mezze and a bottle of wine. I would go to the Playhouse bar, which became much more of a staple for friends and acquaintances as the years went on, and drink white wine or real ale into the night in the packed twinkling garden. I would tour some old favourites, lapsing into nostalgia, like the Mischief or the Adam and Eve by the cathedral.
The city is walkable, chilled-out and friendly. There are a tonne of interesting events and independent shops. The chips are great and people are creative, offbeat and generally less materialistic. Ten minutes outside town in any direction and you can be in countryside, heading to the broads at Wroxham or Salhouse, hiring boats for an afternoon pootle at 5km an hour or a week-long meander through the man-made network of flooded peat-pits that reach out towards the encroaching northern sea; listening to the quiet, bird-watching and chatting, relaxing with a few beers and mooring each night just a short walk from a different pub.
Sitting in the garden at my friend’s, on RSPB turf… I think, as usual, I could be here again. I could move back. Maybe that’s what happens next. It tends to melt away, as the pangs of attachment for Homes left in your wake do, as the train moves further through East Anglia, as haybales in flat fields start to give way to Essex townships and the advance into commuter-belt. But for a while, still, I think, I could return. I could.
But not to the Woolpack at Colegate I think. Too many years. My sister ventured over as an advance party in our May weekend, to scout for an outdoor table and assess the ground. She returned unconvinced. ‘Very quiet’ was the slightly spooked verdict and convincing enough for me. Sometimes you really can never go home.
But for those of you who can ‘visit’, you should go to Norwich. Thirteen years after leaving for the last time, it totally stands up.