If we never experience the chill of a dark winter, it is very unlikely that we will ever cherish the warmth of a bright summer’s day. Nothing stimulates our appetite for the simple joys of life more than the starvation caused by sadness or desperation. In order to complete our amazing life journey successfully, it is vital that we turn each and every dark tear into a pearl of wisdom, and find the blessing in every curse
Anthon St. Maarten
When my wife, Sarah and I moved to Chippenham over nine years ago, it was a ‘convenient’ town.
My then-new job had brought me to Wiltshire from Hertfordshire. I saw the job as my last great ‘hurrah’ in the autumn of my career, and I lived out of a suitcase for a few months while Sarah spent much time house hunting in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. Looking for that one place that suited our needs.
My long and busy working days didn’t lend themselves to supporting her in that task. And I confess it's a task I don’t enjoy. I trusted Sarah to find our new home; I didn’t even see a photograph of that new home in Chippenham. Yet, it was a house I fell in love with immediately as I arrived at its front door for the first time after a day at work.
It rapidly became one of only two places I’ve lived in that felt like home to me, not just a house. As for Chippenham, as I wrote earlier, it was ‘convenient’. Handy for the M4 so I could quickly get to my primary office near Bristol. There was also a good train service to London as Sarah, and I frequently visited there to attend art exhibitions, theatre or to meet with friends. Chippenham also offered a variety of handy shops and other amenities that were just a walk of a few minutes into town. A walk that for the past four years took me alongside the Avon and through the scenic Monkton Park. If we required a wider variety of outlets, these too were only a short drive or train ride away.
Chippenham didn’t have everything. Does anywhere? Its restaurants only offered some of what we hoped for. It was either a trip to Bath, Bristol or surrounding villages and towns for a more sophisticated meal. Pubs also could have been more attractive. The one exception was ‘The Flying Monk’. That wasn’t the pub’s name when Sarah and I arrived in Chippenham. Frankly, it was a place to avoid. But when Justin, the new landlord, took over, it became a pub that is now my local. It may not meet every aspect of Orwell’s ‘Moon Under Water’, but it comes close. I think George would happily settle down to an ale in “the Monk”. So do CAMRA, as it’s now in their Good Pub Guide.
I confess, however for the first five years of living in Chippenham, I discovered little of the place. And certainly nothing of its rich history. For instance, if things had gone another way for Alfred the Great on Twelfth Night 878, it might well be Danish and not English that the world sees as a lingua franca. I’d also only visited Chippenham’s parks on a handful of occasions. I rarely strolled into town. My excuse was that my 6 am working day starts and 7 pm finishes left little time for leisure during the week. At the weekends, there always seems to be somewhere else to go and something else to do.
That changed when I retired and wished to give something back to ‘my’ community. Never did I imagine how much that community would give back to me.
Volunteering at Chippenham’s small but perfectly formed museum and a nearby primary school proved more rewarding than I ever imagined. Both welcomed me from the start and quickly made me feel part of their teams. Not some ‘add-on’ that might offer a few hours to help. I never imagined running up and down Chippenham High Street one day wearing a wig as part of the Museum team while attempting (miserably) to toss a pancake. Or desperately trying to remember the eighties on a themed quiz night. As well as meeting and greeting visitors, the museum gave me their trust in leading history walks around the town and offering artefact handling demonstrations. My role at the primary school was to help year two students better develop their reading skills. But again, I was involved in cricket lessons, circus activities, and school plays.
I felt at home, and my life ahead seemed running to plan. But as Allan Saunders wrote in a Readers Digest edition of January 1957, “life is what happens to us while we are making other plans”. In my case, life happening meant moving away from Chippenham. Initially, Kettering to ‘lodge’ with Sarah in her new home for a couple of weeks. Then once my house purchase completes, I move on to the next chapter of my life in Blaydon-on-Tyne. For those not up on Northeast geography, it’s a few miles west of Newcastle. Geordie Ridley wrote of Blaydon as the theme of the northeast anthem, ‘Blaydon Races’. Sung with gusto at many a Newcastle United match.
As I write this, I’m surrounded by boxes that will soon be heading to Kettering, and I’ll post this once I’m in that temporary home. I leave the community in Chippenham with sadness. I look forward with nervousness (nearly 50 years since I left the northeast) and excitement in joining my ‘home’ community in Blaydon.
Of course, I don’t know what life will next have in store for me while I’m making plans for what I might do….