Jonny McCambridge: A trip back home – and in time – to where it all began

I am in a place that I have not visited in many, many years. There is a vague sense of familiarity, but yet I still feel like an intruder.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 27th April 2022, 6:08 am
The old metal water pump that has weathered the years to remain standing
The old metal water pump that has weathered the years to remain standing

The red brick house at the top of the lane off the Ballinlea Road in north Antrim is still there, much as I remember it. This is the house where I grew up. I am here now with my son.

And I am not sure why. My wife is working but I have some time off. My son is on his Easter holidays. I suppose it is just something to do to fill a day, to visit the place where daddy used to live. We live our lives looking forward, but we can’t help casting the occasional glance over our shoulders.

I tell my boy stories of the way things were when I was his age. He listens, although I am not sure how much is getting through.

Perhaps I am searching for some elusive sense of the importance of place and time, of a linkage between the past and the present, a feeling that what has gone before has some relevance to what happens now. By bringing my son along on this trip, I am extending the narrative to include him.

I show him the old graveyard where our ancestors are buried. His eyes widen when he sees a black marble headstone with his own name carved into it. James McCambridge, the name my son shares with my grandfather who died nearly four decades before he was born.

I take him to the little church which I used to attend and the tiny country school where my da was a pupil back in the 1950s. The building is so small that it looks like it could have accommodated no more than a dozen children. As my son peers through the window into the dusty old room he tells me that there are more than 500 pupils at his primary school.

It demonstrates how different the world is now to how it once was. My son’s experiences are of computer games, electronic tablets, McDonald’s and on-demand TV. I suspect it is hard for him to find any authentic connection with what I am telling him about. As I show him the steep hill and tell him about how our house was once cut off from the rest of society during a heavy snowfall and how we often suffered power cuts, he nods along, but it must all seem so remote, so alien to what he knows.

I keep thinking about the passing of time, of how much has changed. The little cottage where our doctor lived and dispensed medicines, has now been replaced by a sizeable surgery. The wee sweetie shop near the crossroads where we used to buy a penny chew after school is no more. There are modern houses there now.

Not many people came to the Ballinlea Road when I lived there. Now the proximity to the Dark Hedges means there is more traffic. What was once an obscure curiosity is now a tourist attraction.

The narrow lane leading up to the house my da built was once rocky and pocked with huge puddle craters which tested the suspension of any vehicle. Now the surface has been tamed by concrete. There are new buildings on the spot where my granny Peggy once lived. My great-aunt Rosina’s old stone cottage has long since been flattened.

I explore the area on foot with my son. I want to show him the trees where my brothers and I once climbed, where we made our hideout; but they are gone, with only small raised mounds of grass in the field where they once stood. The crumbling old barn where I used to play in a more reckless time has been restored and is not as I remember it.

I look at the house where I once lived. The back lawn where I spent countless hours trying to learn to play football is still there but doesn’t seem as large as it did then. On the flat concrete patch which we used as a makeshift tennis court there are now stone steps.

We walk further. I want to take my boy along the lane towards the fields I explored when I was the age he is now, where I remember running with our pet dog, where the old apple tree which only ever produced sour fruit grew.

But our path to the fields is blocked. There is a gate there now with a padlock. I decide it is best not to go any further.

As we stroll back along the thin lane lined with briars, I tell him about how we used to pick blackberries by the hundred here, how we shoved them straight into our mouths from the bush and how our fingers were stained purple. Again, he nods silently.

I have promised my son that I will take him to the beach and get him an ice-cream. It is time to go and I am filled with a sense of detachment, that things are not as they once were. This is no longer our house, our land. Someone else lives here now.

Then, as we are about to leave, my son spots something near the gate to the bottom field and asks me what it is. The area is overgrown, and I have to clear some long grass. I kneel down and examine the object which I had long forgotten about, something I have not set eyes on in more than three decades.

‘Good God,’ I mumble.

It is an old metal water pump on a stone plinth, standing exactly as I remember it. I take some photos. The pump has been here on this spot from long before I was born. It is here still.

My son asks me if this is where I used to get my water. I laugh as I tell him that I am not that old, although I do have a hazy recollection of a water strike in the early 1980s when the pump was brought back into use because the mains water was not safe to drink. My son asks me how it worked. I try to give an explanation.

I wonder when was the last time that anyone noticed that the pump is here, the last time anyone stood beside it and studied it. It dates from a time when things were built to last. As the world changes rapidly around it, it remains on its spot unaltered, unnoticed and permanent. A neglected physical link to another time.

I linger for a few more seconds. I roll my hand over the handle of the pump, feeling the cold, flaky roughness of its surface against my skin. I begin to sense my son’s impatience.

‘Daddy, stop looking at the water thing.’

We go back to the car and drive away, towards the beach.