Recently I read a book about Sissinghurst, the country house much loved and admired for its garden, created in the early and mid twentieth century by Vita Sackville-West, the talented, outrageous, androgenous aristocrat who inspired Virginia Woolf's novel, Orlando. I've never been to Sissinghurst. Must go. What also riveted my mind, though, was mention of another thing Vita is famous for. She grew up at Knole, then the largest privately owned 'stately home' in England, set in vast acres of the Kentish Weald. Much gossiped about for her 'open' marriage to Harold Nicolson and both their many gay love affairs, her greatest love was probably Knole and the tragedy of her life -perhaps what made her such a questing, creative, promiscuous soul - that when her parents died the great house and park passed away from her to a male relative.
Whilst I don't find the thought of such wealth and privilege endearing, this thwarted love affair with an ancient and beautiful place does touch my heart and, after I read about it, long suppressed memories surfaced of leaving Yorkshire as a young woman and moving to London to get away from an impossibly difficult relationship. Painful and mutilating though it was, that was probably the right decision, but it also meant leaving the city and the grey-green post-industrial landscape that I'd come to love very much. I missed the place as much as the man.
There were return visits in the first years, but then there was a weekend, with my friend C, when we drove out to the countryside and walked along a canal. An Autumn day, low sunshine, broken mill buildings through the dense foliage dappling the water. A quality of light and colour utterly characteristic of that part of the country. It took me unawares. Beside the canal, I sobbed and sobbed and couldn't stop, had to be driven back to Leeds and put to bed with migraine. Shocked at myself and embarrassed, I got up and went home earlier than planned - and did not return to West Yorkshire for, oh, close on twenty years.
Since then other places have touched my heart, and I've gulped and blinked and not gone back, pushed them from my mind. There was a visit to France, especially, a few years ago. On the train back to Paris, still wrapped in a blanket of the cool, dreamy greens of that place, I fell into a deep cave of fear inside myself, terrified by so much wanting, such an impossible compulsion to embrace a landscape, cling to it, stay in it - a compulsion sure to be thwarted, and how would I bear that? No idea if I was sitting there normally on that train or unconscious on the floor for hours. I haven't been back to that high, clear, magical corner of the Jura, not even in my thoughts.
Thinking of Vita and Knole, I remembered these experiences. For many years, I think, this same emotional energy of passionate relationship with place fuelled my 'hate affair' with London. That's over now. We reconciled. Perhaps this is why I let myself remember. Not sure, really, whether it's a significant reclamation of something or just a bit of exaggerated, self-indulgent sentimentality.
Photo: Vita Sackville-West in her garden, 1958 - John Hedgecoe, National Portrait Gallery