Where the past belongs

The weather was sunny but my mind was cloudy, and I decided to cycle into the past. 

I have quite mixed feelings about revisiting Nottingham, and specifically the area I grew up in. But I was up in town anyway to see some old friends and celebrate a child’s first birthday, and had some hours to kill before my return train.

I ended up cycling up from Sherwood into town, past my awful private secondary school, Nottingham High, and passing many places that will be ironed onto my conscious mind for as long as it exists.

Whenever I do return, I wonder what and who I would be now if I hadn’t moved to London as a teenager. Probably I’d have three kids, a suburban house, and an intimate understanding of the best place to park in B&Q.

But really, who knows. And that’s partly why to return is to feel the timelines shifting slightly.

First nostalgic spot was the West End Arcade, once home to Robin Hood Computers. Being a teenage nerd, I spent a lot of my weekends there, playing the new releases (when allowed) and experiencing incredible, epoch-defining moments in video game history such as the launch of the Mega-CD.

The shop is now long gone, I am sure, and it looks like you can’t even walk through it any more. But a part of my soul is lingering here, in this postwar arcade of my dreams.

Next up: my junior school, St Joseph’s, situated right next to St Barnabas Cathedral, site of my first and only confession.

When I was there, it was a convent school, still run by nuns, with Sister Anne-Marie headmistress and cliched terrifying authority figure.

But half way through my time there, all the nuns were bussed out into the country to live on a farm [1], and groovy, acoustic guitar-wielding Catholics came in to run thing instead. I have good memories of this school, for the most part.

As an inner-city school, green space was not something we had much access to, fenced in as we were between a main road, a cathedral, and a nunnery.

The gender-segregated cage-playgrounds were very odd, and seem still to exist; and the school being right on Derby Road can’t be great for young lungs.

Heading up past the remains of the Ropewalk Pub – site of the G30 summit [2] – I was now committed to cycling home, or rather where home would have been thirty years ago.

Following the bus route I took to school daily for six years, I passed through Lenton and past the Savoy cinema, unexpectedly still a going concern [3]. There were then lots of new student housing blocks, a park I have no memory of, and then the QMC, or Queen’s Medical Centre, Nottingham’s main hospital, and birthplace of my younger sister. [4]

The hospital sits next to a horrible roundabout that brings cars to the motorway, but I kept heading east along the Derby Road, squeezed amid speeding cars on the road between Nottingham University campus and Wollaton Park.

I’m sure no one reads these blog posts to hear me moaning about cycle infrastructure, but this stretch of road was both horrible and plenty wide enough for proper bike lanes. The latent demand, with all those students and also with Nottingham’s best park sitting right there, must be huge, and it’s so weird to see that the road hasn’t been improved since the eighties.

It gets worse after the priory roundabout: an urban motorway, three lanes in both direction, without even a shared use footpath for cyclists. I clenched my buttocks and enjoyed a few close passes, but made it to the Nurseryman pub, my dad’s old local, and got myself off that terrible, terrible road.

Derby Road.

After a pint of coke, I walked up David Grove, which was where I lived until 1994. The plan was to head up to what was known locally as “The Hills”, a stretch of undeveloped land between housing estates just West of Bramcote Hills.

As a kid and early teen, these places are essential. Places you can go alone, or with friends, for free, to make mistakes, where you’re never quite sure if you’re allowed, and to figure out who you are.

The place has been tidied up a bit now and calls itself a nature reserve, but mercifully it’s still an overgrown mess of potential adventure.

Here, the memories were overpowering if frustratingly vague. I remembered where everything was, but the unofficial routes through the undergrowth have been codified, some fences have gone up, and I couldn’t find the spot where it all opens up with a view over the valley to Wollaton beyond.

What it did remind me was that a) I am very much an edgelands suburban kid, b) I had quite a lot of freedom to explore, and c) certain streets, particularly cul de sacs or rows of identical semi-detached housing, will always fill me with a kind of nostalgic despair. These are the places to which I hope never to return. LIke so many before me, and for better or worse, these landscapes pushed me to the city.

I dimly remembered it was possible to cycle to Eastwood, birthplace of DH Lawrence, from here; I think I had done it once, as a 12 or 13 year old, on my own, sticking to footpaths and the canal.

There are actually two canals ‘round these parts which I ended up rediscovering. One is the Nottingham Canal, long since disused [4] which I remember exploring remnants of with a friend and his dad close to the Lenton end of Wollaton Park. Once one escapes the city you spot decent stretches of it, and it has become a nature reserve where it eventually joins canal number two: the Erewash Navigation.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Because while my early nineties self would have stayed off-road, I cycled along the Nottingham Road to Trowell. It surprised me how very quickly I was in open countryside, and how soon I was passing under that barrier to my childhood world, the M1 motorway.

Turning north on the Cossall Road, I meandered past the Nottingham Canal and through Cossall Village, home of Lawrence’s first fiancé and a rather ancient-looking church.

The rest of the way to Eastwood, I decided, made the most sense along the Erewash Canal, which I was able to pick up just outside Ilkeston. None of the main roads heading up that way looked particularly appealing on a bike, you see. And I was tired, and was not in the mood for any close overtakes.

This was a good decision. I slowed and relaxed, taking time to stop on lock gates and enjoy the first hints of spring. And before it got too muddy, there was a turnoff that joined me to the outskirts of Eastwood, where I enjoyed a recovery pint in the local Wetherspoons named, inevitably, Lady Chatterley’s.

Lawrence’s own birthplace museum was closed, this being a late Sunday afternoon. I found the patriotic bunting an odd choice for a man who was accused of being a German spy during the First World War, and was never shy about expressing his anti-militarist views.

Lawrence’s birthplace (on the left)

Eastwood’s wealth came from coal, a world long gone. It is now, like so much of post-industrial England, a pretty grim place, any lingering sense of hope long-since extracted by Thatcherism and austerity.

And so down the hill, into the setting sun, to Langley Mill, Derbyshire, and then home.

[1] I presume this is what happened.

[2] Geoff’s 30th birthday.

[3] I saw Ghostbusters II here.

[4] My mum became friendly with the wife of Forest legend Viv Anderson, who was in the same maternity ward at the time.

[5] The bit through the city centre is still in operation: it rejoins the Trent via the Beeston cut.

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