Special Places – Part One #inspiration #reflection #nurture

In the last few months I’ve reconnected with a couple of people I used to know well, but had lost touch with. As a result of this and other things, I’ve been in a reflective mood. I was talking one evening about a particular place l had visited only once, but had loved for its raw, natural beauty.  It made me think about other places which have special resonance for me – some because of the things that happened there, others because of the way they made, or still make me feel, or the associations and emotions they bring to my surface. I thought I’d share them in a post (but having got to writing, it’s turned into two posts). Maybe it can encourage you to think about your own special places too.

‘But what’s this got to do with healthy lifestyle, Jools?’ I hear you ask. For me, it’s about a healthy mind. And what could be more healthy than to feel connected to places which hold meaning for you, or put you in touch with your memories and emotions, or speak to your soul?

So to the tour of the first few of my special places – these ones from my childhood and career days:

Church Stretton, Shropshire, UK

Even in England, many people don’t quite know where the county of Shropshire lies. Well, it’s a little to the left of Birmingham but if you get to Wales, you’ve gone too far. I spent my childhood mid-term holidays in Shropshire, in the small town of Church Stretton, where lived my great-aunt. She had arrived in England a refugee from Hitler’s Holocaust, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Arriving with nothing, my great-aunt made Church Stretton her home, providing a haven for her extended family and other refugees for many years.

Carding Mill Valley in 1975
Carding Mill Valley (1975)

By the time we visited in the 1970’s, she was widowed and lived in an apartment in an old house on the outskirts of the town, a few minutes’ walk from the beautiful Carding Mill Valley, on the edge of the Long Mynd. We would walk there whenever the rain clouds parted for long enough. In her 80’s by then, my great-aunt was nearly blind, and I remember walking with her into the town centre, stopping time after time as people greeted and conversed briefly with her, only for her to say every now and again as they walked on, in her still richly accented voice, ‘Now you must help me, Julie, who would that be?’ before demanding a detailed description of the mystery acquaintance.

… And again, little changed but for a few extra cars (2011)

Years later I returned to the area for a family reunion with several relatives of my generation now scattered across the world, all of whom had holidayed with my great-aunt at different times. We visited familiar haunts and shared memories of our childhood holidays and my wonderful great-aunt, and it was a thoroughly life-affirming weekend.

Whitstable, Kent, UK

I lived in Kent, in one of the Medway towns, as a young child. Cousins lived further along the coast in the seaside town of Whitstable. Even the name is quaint, isn’t it? We would visit several times a year and I remember the excitement on the journey as we got our first glimpse of the sea (we knew exactly the place along the route where that distant strip of blue-grey appeared), and as we traversed the landmark bridge and spotted the red post-box that stood on the corner of the road to which we were headed. I remember a cavernous outbuilding and a giant weeping willow half way up the garden; there were extraordinary ‘eggy sandwiches’ (made, apparently with salad cream – try it) on every visit, and I especially loved those days when we made it down to play on the pebble beach at Tankerton.

I’ve been back, or passed through, several times since those days. The town has swelled with the addition of several housing developments around its fringes but it remains, by the seaside at least, quintessentially and quaintly English.

Chateauneuf du Pape, Provence, France

We holidayed just once as a family in Chateauneuf du Pape, deep in one of France’s premier wine-producing regions. At a guess, I’d say this may have had something to do with my parents’ enthusiasm for the area, as there was much ‘tasting’ going on throughout our stay.

© Coll. Fédération des Producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape
© Coll. Fédération des Producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape

We bought blocks of ice and French bread in the village every day and enjoyed picnics of luscious French cheeses, charcuterie and spit-roasted chicken. And whilst said ‘tasting’ took place in the wineries and caves nested in nearby hillsides, my brother and I spent contented hours at the village swimming pool (that would be in the days before Health & Safety would have had a fit at the idea of two pre-teens playing in water, unchaperoned).

My father, who sadly died many years ago, loved the area for its climate, its wines, and the gentle pleasure of sitting outside a bar sipping aniseed Ricard made cloudy with a jug of water, and watching old men play boules. He was an accomplished choral singer too, and participated in numerous concerts at the Roman Amphitheatre in the nearby city of Orange, all of which added to the richness of his experience of the area – and in turn to mine.

I’ve not yet revisited Chateauneuf du Pape, but it was a special place to him, and thus it became special to me too. Today, at Christmas, we always toast my father and other loved-ones no longer with us, with a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape.

Tiffany’s, New York City, USA

I made my first and so far only visit to New York City in the mid-1990’s, staying with my cousin at her home in what is known as Peter Cooper Village. These distinctive apartment blocks were built for soldiers returning from the Second World War, of which her father had been one. Every day I would grab my roll of quarters and jump on a bus, heading south to the financial district, or north to theatreland, retail nirvana and the kind of landmarks you see every day in the movies. I went to the top of the World Trade Centre and the Empire State Building; I walked Wall Street and Times Square and I crossed Delancey Street in honour of one of my favourite films (that would be Crossing Delancey); I dodged noisy Yellow Cabs and I listened to a choir sing in St Patrick’s Cathedral; I bought lunch at a Subway (long before they appeared in the UK), so bewildered by the infinite choices that I just ordered the same as the guy in the queue in front of me; I ate it on the hallowed steps of the New York Public Library.

New York City from the top of the Empire State Building (1996)
New York City from the top of the Empire State Building (1996)

But before all that, on my very first day in the city, I had got off the bus for the first time and found myself outside Tiffany and Co’s flagship New York store. What could I do, but wander in for a green-eyed look around? At the very first counter, rings of course, I overheard a brash young man addressing his girlfriend with the words, ‘Honey, you can have whatever you want!’ and I felt the vibe of Fifth Avenue. I didn’t have an affluent city slicker waiting to spoil me, but so help me, I’m a shopper. I spotted a pretty ring – probably the lowest-value item of jewellery in the whole store – and, dressed in my tourist scruffies, I asked to try it on.  The sales assistant was curt to begin with, no doubt imagining I would waste her time; but she must have seen how my face lit up when it slid on to my finger. It was a sublime gold band with a smooth ‘infinity’ loop.

Probably the least ostentatious ring Tiffany's has ever sold
Probably the least ostentatious ring Tiffany’s has ever sold

I bought it because I could – and it is this feeling that I remember. After my divorce I’d made a significant career transition (mainly because I couldn’t bear to spend the rest of my life making coffee and running the diaries of stuffed-shirt executives) (and because I needed to earn some real money). For the first time in my life, I had a little spare cash. Not only that, but I was beginning to see myself differently. So I saw a ring, I liked it, and I bought it. At Tiffany’s. That meant I got the full Tiffany’s treatment, and I remember how it made me feel to this day; how the sales assistant first polished the ring, then inserted it into its silk and suede box, then wrapped the box in tissue paper, and slid it into the duck-egg blue Tiffany’s box, then bound it with blue ribbon, tied into a neat bow, then dressed a duck-egg blue mini Tiffany’s bag with more tissue paper, before nesting my perfectly wrapped purchase in the middle.  What a treat, that wrapping ceremony!  Though as I exited the store, I immediately realised I needed to shove my conspicuously crisp duck-egg blue bag with its white cord handles and silk ribbon deep into my rucksack, to save telling the whole world I was carrying something in a flimsy carrier, which might have value on the street!

Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Ah… Hotlanta… I made several trips to Atlanta in the 1990’s, as I worked for the UK arm of companies which were based there. Atlanta was a significant feature in my expanding career horizons. My overriding impression was how incredibly friendly and hospitable everyone was. I was invited into homes, taken out to parties and barbecues, escorted around sights and landmarks and guided to the best retail emporia. I made friends on my visits that remain friends to this day.  Being the ‘Deep South’ and at the centre of the American Civil War, Atlanta has history as well as a certain style – it’s an energetic blend of its elegant if uncomfortable past and high-tech present.

Atlanta, from Overlook Parkway, Vinings (1990)
Atlanta, from Overlook Parkway, Vinings (1990)

Incidentally, the New York Tiffany’s story has an Atlanta connection… A few years after my ‘infinity’ impulse purchase, my beautiful, simple ring was stolen in a burglary. As I still had the receipt, the insurance company let me replace it, which I managed to do during one of my business trips to Atlanta. Shopping at the mall (even the posh one) wasn’t quite the same experience as stepping inside Tiffany’s flagship Fifth Avenue store, but that identical repurchase cemented the connection that this ring has always had for me, with my hard-won career shift.

Hong Kong

I will never forget how it felt to enter my room on the 32nd floor of the hotel and look out through floor-to-ceiling plate glass across Hong Kong Harbour.

Hong Kong - in the days before panoramic photographs (1992)
Hong Kong from Victoria Peak – in the days before panoramic photographs (1992)

An unexpected and hastily organised business trip had taken me on my one and only visit to this unique region in the years before it was handed back to China. I spent days in business meetings and evenings being treated to delicious though frequently unidentifiable food. I had enough time-out in my short trip to get a couple of made-to-measure suits and take the vertical cable car up to Victoria Peak and enjoy the magnificent views. Barring the streaming cold I got from the incessant transitions from humid outdoors to chilled, air-conditioned offices, it was a invigorating and exciting experience on many levels.

*   *   *

Next time… A little more family history, a village that sounds like a drink,  and the setting for a certain psychological suspense novel… 😉

22 thoughts on “Special Places – Part One #inspiration #reflection #nurture

  1. It’s amazing how we form a connection to places like this. I’ve never travelled much – for dimensional reasons mostly but also because I have always been irritatingly ‘satisfied’ with where I am.

    However for me it’s Aberystwyth- which got its hooks into me in a way no other place ever has before or since. I was there for four years both at university and in education – and my dad eventually moved there too.

    It’s a truly beautiful part of the world and although I wasn’t born there or live there now I still think mistlily of it as ‘home’.


    1. What I like about special places is that they can be quite ordinary to someone else, but they have a connection for you – emotionally, spiritually or whatever. It’s nice when it is a lovely place too, but it isn’t always the case – as in one of the places I’m saving for my next post. I know a couple of people who have studied at Aberystwyth – you’re not the only one for whom that town exerts a special kind of pull. Thanks for sharing, Davey 🙂

  2. That was fun. I only really know Whitstable as my great aunt Rose and Uncle Edgar lived there. They were staunch Sally Army captains and a visit required a lot of hushing and best clothes and fishpaste which I hated. But then we’d walk to the harbour and buy whelks with slices of thick buttered bread. Heaven though I’m now allergic to the little buggers! My gran lived along th coast at Herne Bay which felt a much more relaxed placed of much fun. I even remember seeing the sea full of ice in March 1963!!

    1. Fishpaste was a taste of my childhood too! The harbour seems largely unchanged today – I enjoyed a meal at a fish restaurant down that way just a few weeks ago. The Oyster Museum is worth a drop-in too. In recent years one of my Whitstable rellies lived for a while in a care home overlooking the sea at Herne Bay. I seem to remember your blog post on Herne Bay and realising that her care home will have been within a few yards of your gran’s house!

          1. I know it; it was a nunnery when I was a child and my brother and I were in awe/fear of the sisters if we were out and they were too. I suppose because they seemed so hidden to small boys, rather sinister. They all had huge black shoes too, poking out from under their habits!

    1. I’m a little way from retiring myself, but I would absolutely consider Church Stretton. It’s so lovely and unspoilt; it has charm, but without being cutesy. The surrounding countryside is unbeatable. I don’t know how, but Church Stretton seems to have escaped being too clumsily modernised too. It’s a gem.

  3. I love Shropshire – and the nearby Forest of Dean – a beautiful part of the world. I have great memories of going to Ironbridge as a child.
    The only other place I’ve visited on your list is Hong Kong. I had a great time there many years ago – pre-children, so it feels like another lifetime. One day we got on a bus to find out where it would take us and ended up on the south side of the main island, visiting small markets and lovely little coves that felt a world away from the skyscrapers and neon lights. I also remember having sone of ‘that, that and that’ at a food stall. No idea to this day what I ate but it was wonderful!

    1. Wow… someone else who actually knows Shropshire! Hong Kong is an extraordinary place, isn’t it? Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, so many mysteries! My trip was quite the adventure (hence its place on my list), a sensory and energy overload. Great to see you back in the blogosphere Dylan!

  4. Well traveled, Julie, and what wonderful and poignant memories. I think reflection and appreciation and gratitude are huge parts of living healthy. This post made me add France wine country to my to-do list. 🙂

  5. Loved reading about your travels and those special places in your life Julie. I did miss this post, sorry, but glad you linked to in your recent post so I could catch up. I loved your story about your ring – although so sorry it was stolen – and how you managed to find a near-perfect replacement. Your deep connection to it and the time in your life obviously has great significance. Although I lived in California for almost 20 years, I never visited NY, although I was close and that time in my life I write about in my memoir as it’s relevance to the story. But wow…Tiffany’s! I’ve always wanted to go there 🙂 The only places you mention here I’ve been to is Shropshire, sort of (Wye Valley?). Beautiful, and a place I definitely want to explore more. Love your story about your great-aunt, how wonderful to return all those years later for a family reunion 🙂 xxx

    1. The ring is a strange one… it is an identical replacement, essentially the same ring, but courtesy of the nameless, faceless low-life who kicked down my door, connecting me to two facets of my working/career-life. I can recommend the Tiffany’s gift-wrapping experience!

      1. Arrgh…what a horrible experience for you. It would be nice to think that justice was served. But onto the Tiffany gift-wrapping experience – oh, you describe it so beautifully, I am glad that at least I can experience vocariously through your story 🙂

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