Sharron Kraus reflects on what makes a place an essential element of who you are. This is the fourth blog post we’re sharing in the lead-up to our Talking Place symposium in September – book your ticket to hear more of the wonderful conversations we’ll be hosting on the 9th and 10th of September.
As I work on my presentation for Talking Place, looking at the relationship between real places and our imagined versions of them – our memories, storyscapes, imaginings – it occurs to me that the question underlying what I’m interested in is ‘Why do places matter to us?’ and I find myself musing on how I’d answer that question.
Places sometimes come to our rescue when people fail us. I was a lonely teenager who found comfort in green spaces and felt as at ease amongst trees as I was awkward around my peers. As a final year student, I spent a day walking around Oxford with my mother, trying to get a sense of whether I’d be happy there as a postgraduate student. I’d been a comprehensive school kid and hadn’t been led to believe that I’d fit in at Oxford, so I was looking for something that would be a source of happiness and solace if I found myself to be a misfit among the other students. We walked in and out of different colleges and found our way to Addison’s Walk, a tree-lined circular path within the grounds of Magdalen College, with its deer park, wrought iron gates, wood anemones and fritillaries. Walking there I felt that the trees and my studies would be enough and decided to apply to Magdalen.
Recently I had the opportunity to move to Mid Wales for 3 years, to a place I’d always found magical and wild. I moved into an old vicarage in the Cambrian Mountains and composed music inspired by my surroundings. In this lonely spot I wasn’t particularly looking for a social life – I’d gone there for the place, not the people – and yet one of the things that became clear to me was how entwined were the place and the people living there. I met people who’d lived there their whole lives and whose families had lived there for generations before them. The places I explored came alive with the stories my new neighbours told me about them. And some places became problematised by the stories they contained – the stunning beauty of the Elan Valley and its reservoirs became less straightforward when I discovered that the villagers living there had been forced to leave their homes when the Victorians flooded the valleys to provide water for Birmingham.
In Mid Wales I came to realise that even in sparsely populated places, human life shapes and is an intrinsic part of a landscape. The inseparability of the human and the natural is one thing I came to feel in my Welsh home. Another thing that I found, in a place I had no prior connection to, no ownership of nor ties to, was acceptance and belonging. This was an unexpected gift I received in this wild, lonely place. A community of Welsh speaking farmers accepted me and made me feel welcome, though I’m English, a city girl, an artist, not someone with practical skills and, whereas most of my neighbours were church-going, I’m a non-believer of Jewish ancestry. Among people very different to me, I felt at ease and found that it was fine to be myself. That acceptance where none was expected unlocked something in my heart, allowed me to discard armour I’d worn unconsciously since my unhappy, alienated teenage years – perhaps failing to find acceptance where you hope to find it is a wound that can only be healed by finding acceptance where it is not expected. This place that had drawn me had given me some predictable riches. Its inhabitants, with their generosity of spirit, gave me the most precious of all.