Saturday, October 8, 2011

Going Back With Google

                                                                  FOR NEWTS AND STICKLE-BACKS

    When I was ten my parents divorced, and my mother packed me off to the first of a series of awful boarding schools whilst she, herself, moved in with my wealthy grandparents. My grandparents lived in a rather exclusive part of Edgware, a town just north of London. Their large, elegant residence (perhaps larger and more elegant in my child’s eyes than it actually was) stood towards the far end of Canons Drive, close to a public park and a walled-in King George V memorial garden which is today a National Heritage site. For some reason my childhood memories of this garden are as clear as if I had left it only yesterday. Not so long ago I decided to visit Canons Drive again--not in the flesh, as I hadn't been in the UK for more then twenty years--but courtesy of a technological marvel called Google Earth. .
    The aerial view showed the drive to be little changed. The infamous ‘urban sprawl’ had left it virtually untouched, and it was still as green as it had been more than fifty years before. Its best-known landmarks, the huge white pillars at the entrance, were not visible from above, but others were immediately recognizable. First of all, about two hundred yards up from the entrance and to the left of the road lay The Basin, (not that I knew the name at the time,) a large artificial pond where I used to catch stickle-backs and newts with a net on the end of a bamboo stick. Just across the road from The Basin was a turn-off which once led to the home of a famous entertainer who was all the rage in the nineteen fifties
    Some five hundred yards further on, also on the left, I made out a more personal landmark. This was the corner where my grandparents' house had stood--was, in fact, probably still standing--but all I could see from this angle was the roof, and a back garden whose shape looked vaguely familiar. Just behind the houses opposite what I thought was my grandparents' house was a lake at least ten times larger than The Basin . I remembered the lake iself, but I had forgotten how big it was. It was the joint property of all the residents of the drive, and my mother always forbade me to go near it, as it was very deep and I couldn’t swim.
    Another three hundred yards and there was the park, which now had a tennis court and the occasional building where once there was only grass and trees. Even so, there was still plenty of greenery left. Not far from the tennis court stretched a copse which I was sure was the very copse where I had chased grey squirrels and played cowboys and Indians; always by myself, of course as the local kids, who all went to private day schools where the teachers probably called them ‘mister,’ were way too snobbish to bother with a mere boarding-school boy such as myself.
    One thing did not appear to have changed at all: the oblong memorial garden next to the park entrance. This was a spot I remembered from my earliest years, because my mother would sometimes bring me here when I was a toddler and my parents were still together. When I zoomed in I could clearly see the ornamental fish pond in the centre, and a wooden bench, perhaps the same one on which my mother had sat to keep an eye on me in case I fell in. 

    Fascinating as the aerial view was the view from street level was even more rewarding. From this angle I could see the tall white pillars, one on either side of the road, that mark the principal entrance to the drive. These pillars once supported the gates leading into the eighteenth century Canons estate from which Canons Drive takes its name.
    As a child I knew nothing of this. of course. The only thing I did know as I passed through those pillars on the first day of the summer holidays was that school, with its grubby dormitories, swishing canes, and cold, lumpy porridge, was behind me. At least for a while.
    The first thing I wanted to ‘see’ again on my present cyber-visit was The Basin, where I had spent many a happy hour terrorising the local pond life by imprisoning it in jam jars, or throwing stones at it when I couldn’t catch it. And there The Basin was, exactly as I had pictured it so many times--green and cool, with a weeping willow on the small island in the centre, and ducks floating idly by just as other ducks had done all those years ago. Hang on, though: there was one difference; in the middle of the pond stood a pole with a sign on it. The sign read: NO FISHING.
    There was nothing else there to linger over, so off I flew on my Google magic carpet in the direction of No. 39, the house that once had belonged to my grandparents, shooting up the road between the tall pine trees and the tasteful mock-tudor houses peeping discreetly from behind well-tended hedges, until…there I was. Or was I? I was certainly on the right corner, because I recognized the turn-off next to the house. It led to a small ring of houses around a central roundabout, amongst whose trees and bushes I had once hidden because I didn’t want to be sent back to school.
    The house, however, was completely wrong, all angles and pillars and glass. Then I realized my mistake. My grandparents hadn’t lived on the corner, but one house down from it, so I put the carpet into reverse, and I was back. This truly was the place, although the present owners had made quite a few changes. The house was no longer faced with dark red brick, and it had a large wooden porch that hadn’t been there before. It had also undergone a thorough Tudor make-over in keeping with much of the rest of the drive. Even so, the diamond-leaded windows looked the same, and the general proportions seemed familiar. And there was one final proof: on the trunk of the fir tree on the lawn was the number 39.
    Strangely, the old phone number for this house suddenly popped into my head: Edgware 2435. This was the number I had dialed from boarding school in the summer of 1958, one year after my grandmother died, because my mother had stopped writing to me. “Oh, she’s gone,” said my grandfather. And so she had, upped sticks and gone to Australia with a new husband who didn’t want to be burdened with another man’s child. My father got custody of me soon after, and I never saw my grandfather again.
    But enough of all that. There was one more place left to visit: the park where I used to play.
    Unfortunately, the magic carpet stopped dead at the entrance. This was literally the end of the road. On one side of the entrance, however, I could just make out a tree-shaded wall of dark brick, beyond which lay the memorial gardens. It was through a heavy wooden gate set into this wall that my mother used to wheel me in my push-chair so that I could see the gold fish in the pond. But not even Google can take me through that gate again. That's something I'll have to do for myself.
    One of these days.    

The entrance to Canon's Park

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