Liz’s Tea Towel

Liz is a longstanding friend of mine.  I have known her for more than 22 years, both as a work colleague and as on of my best friends.  We have shared many holidays, days out and experiences, both happy and sad.  We are a good team; our skills and deficiencies balance out.  She can drive (and manoeuvre a caravan) and I can’t; she can cook and I can’t.  I can load a washing machine, deal with the bins and deal with dead animals; Liz can’t.  That’s what friendship is all about.  I, sort of, knew that this Guest Tea Towel was coming up.  I wasn’t sure how it would happen but I knew it would be a ‘lump in the throat’ job.  I knew it would be long.  I knew I wouldn’t have to edit it in any way.  Here is Liz’s Guest Tea Towel, the unabridged version:

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This might be considered an odd choice for a Guest Tea Towel; it’s not one I’ve owned for years – in fact I bought it a few days ago – and the tea towel in itself isn’t imbued with memories. It is the memories and the emotions that go with it that will ever make it special, evoking thoughts of my mum, who died in January this year, and for whom North Walsham played a significant part in her life. 

The story begins in 1939, though for me in around 1974/5 when I was in my early teens and likely didn’t think my mum had had a life before I was around, or could tell me anything I didn’t know. History was probably my least favourite subject at school; I found facts hard to digest as someone who struggles to learn in a ‘chalk and talk’ style. I now understand I better learn through experiencing, or understanding the experiences of others but, back then, I simply thought history was bo-ring. We were learning about the II World War and assigned the task of looking at this from the perspective of anyone who’d been alive at the time. In the way that we probably all view our parents as ancient, I guess I figured my mum must have been alive all that time ago and must have asked her if this was the case? Through this, I discovered a connection with her I hadn’t had in this way before, as well as an openness and closeness I have never forgotten. My mum rarely talked about her past, neither did my dad; they’d both experienced traumatic events as children as each had a parent who’d died. For this time, though, as I put together a History Project, my mum became the teller of a fascinating story, though some of it I did not learn until much later still. 

This is where we go back to 1939, my mum as a 10 year old evacuated to North Walsham in Norfolk, along with her younger sister. Many may imagine being evacuated as a traumatic time, frightening for any child, yet mum described this time with such light in her eyes, and her being. She told me of the couple she stayed with, the farm they lived on and the fond memories of that time. There were stories of riding on the hay bales as the farmer went about his duties and the intoxicating smell of Pumpkin Pie, which she was told she was too young to like. (I think she did convince her ‘guardian’ to let her try it) The way she described the events were like relating the story of her best holiday, of mischief and fun and feeling safe. 

It wasn’t until last year that she related more of the story. By then dementia had pinched some of her memory, yet others, such as her time in North Walsham, came into much sharper focus. A safe topic for mum at this time was asking me where I was going on holiday, even though she would ask again five minutes later, and then again …

On one such occasion, I was going to Norfolk for a few days; actually nowhere near North Walsham but I readily promised to visit anyway. Off we set, a fair drive from where I was staying, and with no real hope of finding where she’d stayed, though she’d given me the name of the farm like she’d been there yesterday. Arriving, I headed for the library and told the librarian the story. She was not only interested but pointed me to where the farm was and where to park as there were no parking places outside. Off I set, hardly believing this was possible and feeling the depth and importance of the pilgrimage. And there I was, standing outside Bradmoor Cottages where my mum had been evacuated all those long years before, recognising what she and her sister had dubbed, “longey lane”, the road they walked to school. I took photos asking her if she recognised it and, with the help of her carer, she replied that she recognised the house but not the garage. When I posted a picture of the house name sign, again she came back through her iPad, saying, “Does it say Eileen and Dorothy stayed her in 1939? Mum”. I feel that incredible connection as I write this, one generation to another through the power of technology. 

When I next visited her, she divulged more of her evacuee story; a part she’d kept back previously, a part that maybe the disinhibition of dementia allowed (and I’m grateful for that). She said that Eileen, her younger sister, had not been happy there and this had forced her return to war torn London. She was clearly not at all happy about that, describing how awful to return to bombs and air raid shelters; the accompanying terror. She’d had three short months in North Walsham yet it had made a huge impact on her and she hadn’t wanted to be ripped away. Looking at her comment on seeing the house sign, I’m struck by how, even after nearly 70 years she used the term, “lived there” rather than “stayed there”; that says a lot. 

As I mentioned earlier, mum died in January this year. Once again, last weekend, I was having a short break in Norfolk; different part this time. It occurred to me that North Walsham may not be far away. When I realised it was but a few miles from where I was staying, I felt drawn to visit again; I didn’t really know why, or what it was I wanted by visiting, just a sense that I must go. I’m so glad I did and this is where my tea towel comes into play. I decided to stop in the town; an unprepossessing place, yet with the charm of many a Norfolk town that has a sense of timeless ordinariness. I had a thought as I parked the car that I could look to see if there was a tea towel, though I didn’t really expect to find one. I was with the tea towel hunter of all tea towel hunters, no less than Ms Tea Towels herself – the virtual museum one – and even she didn’t think it likely. Sometimes, though, the world and life has a kind of synchronicity that defies any imagination. I strolled over to the shop almost opposite where the car was parked, a little gift shop, pretty basic looking, and lo and behold, in the window – a North Walsham tea towel. Befitting to the style of the town, it had a simple, yet pleasing design, showing the two key features of the place; the church and the Market Place and Cross. These are set within a pretty border of leaves, setting it off to perfection. It’s not a flashy tea towel, it didn’t cost much, it only has one colour – blue on a white tea towel – but I love it and all it represents to me. As I wandered around North Walsham, I thought about my mum, how and why this place had made such an impact upon her in a few short months before it was torn away from her again. I think there are a number of reasons. She had come from London and had lived in poor, working class surroundings; I think that North Walsham, as a place, had shown her a different way of life and opportunity. I think she may have seen what might be possible for her; maybe, even in that short time, it sowed a seed that continued to grow and develop. I guess she had never been out of the city before this time and it instilled in her a great love of the countryside, which remained with her until she died. I guess she saw the many contrasts of city and countryside, of hustle and bustle, to calm and tranquility; she embraced it and loved it. Sadly, she never went back herself but I am proud, as her daughter, to have made that journey in her memory. My tea towel will always remind me of that, of that connection we made all those years ago through a school project, and of her love of a small Norfolk town that gave a few months respite from the Second World War.

Thank you Liz for sharing the story of North Walsham and your mum!

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I said “In North Walsham now” and Mum replied “Looks just as lovely as ever” 22 April 2016

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