Roots and wings
There is a saying that the best gifts you can give to your child are roots, and wings. I suppose I am rooted in Somerset, as that’s where I grew up, but I accepted the wings and left for London as soon as I was old enough. I went to university here and haven’t stayed at home since. But wait – why am I saying I haven’t stayed “at home” since then, if London is truly where I belong?
As a teenager I used to save up and visit London on day trips, catching the bus for a four hour ride, half a day in the Big Smoke, and then four hours home again. I’d do it as often as I could, and I always felt as the coach reached the Hammersmith flyover and entered London that somehow I was coming home. When I moved here for university I knew I belonged straight away, and have lived in Waltham Forest, an east London borough located between the inner city and the Essex countryside, for fifteen years. I fell in love with the place, from which the centre of town was just half an hour away yet Epping Forest was practically across the road. It was easy to forget Somerset, a lazy and retrograde place where the buses stopped at 6pm and where it seemed I had few friends but everyone knew me.
Growing up in Somerset was dull. Public transport was minimal (just an hourly bus during office hours) and my friend and I would often end up sitting in a historic high street with pizza and cider. Everything looked pretty while the pace of life dawdled – in fact Taunton is one of only two towns in the UK where more than a third of the population are OAPs. Somerset is more care home than carefree.
In 2006 something happened to throw me off kilter: I honeymooned in Iceland, a country I’d longed to visit. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love.
There’s a lot I shouldn’t like about Iceland – it’s cold, isolated, and there are no trains! However, the weather is both its best and worst feature and I came prepared. Disabled access was pretty good (outside Reykjavik people tend to build out and not up) so I had little to complain about. Scenery was absolutely breathtaking with a waterfall, glacier or mountain around every corner, and for the first time I felt truly safe in the countryside. It seemed to me that this is where I was destined to be – I had finally come home.
Of course, it was only a week before the dream ended and I had to return to my real home but now I was confused. I had Somerset in my background, east London as my current location, but perhaps Iceland was where I should aim for in the future?
It’s hard to compare like with like, because Somerset has half a million people, the London Borough of Waltham Forest has a quarter of a million, while Iceland has just three hundred thousand people in the whole country. In my area, there are 5700 people per square kilometre. In Iceland, there are three.
Each place has its own beauty: Somerset has quaint, historic buildings, and strange village names such as Queen Camel. East London has a more purposeful pace and is wonderfully multicultural (meaning there will always be a shop open on Christmas day when you’ve forgotten the stuffing) and there is a feeling that the world is on your doorstep. Yet Iceland offers northern lights, surreal lava plains, and an astonishingly low crime rate – a recent national headline was “Baby Goats Born at North Iceland Farm”, something which might not even have made the local news in Somerset or Waltham Forest.
However it strikes me that, common to every area, in the best places people know their neighbours and look out for each them in a villagey environment. In the worst of each location there will be areas where people shut their doors on each other and view you with a slightly suspicious and hostile manner. Perhaps contentment depends on finding the best place in your own locality, rather than looking further afield.
I would be happy to forget Somerset, but for the fact that I have family there. I adore Iceland, but don’t yet speak the language, and perhaps the gloss would go if I lived there rather than just visited; the food is awful for vegetarians and there is no such thing as online shopping, instead you have to visit several stores to find everything you need each week. So I suppose I should be content to stay in London for the foreseeable future, which is just as well, because this is where my support network, and my husband’s job, is located. For now Somerset is just a place I visit when I want to see family – and sadly moving to Iceland is still just a pipedream… but I can’t let go of the fantasy.