Exhausted and cold, it was a bit of a shock to arrive in England and feel like a foreigner in a strange land - I was surprised to find that I didn't feel even slightly as though I were coming home. However, a couple of drunken evenings with sisters later, having walked the woods with nieces and nephew and dogs, am truly glad to be here. Still to see my grandparents, cousins and parents - the latter are in France - but is wonderful to see four of my sisters and we have missed my older, American sister, sooooo much. I think the kids are slightly in shock to discover that their aunts are as weird as their Mother, but they are lapping it all up, being in the bosom of family again.
Yesterday we went shopping in the town centre - Hemel Hempstead. Now, this is one strange town, I can tell you. Having been brought up as a part time resident of Hemel, I think I can say with some confidence that Hemel people are always slightly ashamed of their home - of being Hemelites. It is thought of as a "new" town, as, following the blitz, it sprang a growth of hideous, fungaloid council houses for those who had been rendered homeless. When we were kids it was a fairly middle classish area - the town centre was built round a road called The Marlows, and consisted of all the standard shops. - M&S, WH Smiths, Woolworths, Boots, Sainsburys. Then at some point it became pedestrianised and the heart seemed to gout of it. Large Tescos and Sainsburys were built outside town and, in spite of the building of a "mall" the place never really recovered. Nowadays it is one of the most depressing places I have ever seen. 1 pound shops, 99p shops, discount shops, Presents for Less shops, Crap-from-China market stalls abound and even attempts to liven the place up with slightly more classy shops at one end have done little to dispel the feeling of despair and abandonment. (Or possibly this was just a reflection of my feelings when I discovered that there was no longer a Thornton's Chocolate shop.)
The trouble is that I know that there is so much more to Hemel than meets the eye - so much more to Hemel than most people are aware of.
Back in the dim and distant mists of my youth, m y sister Bernadette and I, along with our good friend Jenny, decided that we would work for our Girl Guides Local history and heritage badges. After all, there couldn't be much to learn, we reasoned, we'll be able to get our badges really quickly. In the end, we spent the entire summer trawling Hemel, interviewing numerous people, visiting numerous sights, drawing, photographing, delving into fascinating stories. By the end of the summer, we filled a room with essays and pictures with all our discoveries. Our "tester" was flabbergasted, asked to borrow our work to show to her local history society and we never saw it again. However, we didn't forget it all.
For instance, I can still tell you that Hemel Hempstead appeared in the Domesday book several hundred years ago, as Hilly Homestead, though it was first settled by the Romans - the local train station is built right on top of the remains of a Roman Villa which has never, for obvious reasons, been excavated. Three small cottages outside the town contain the oldest murals painted in Britain - depicting the martyrdom of St Catherine (she of the Wheel) by the Romans, which is thought to have been painted at the time of her death. A small and unremarkable private school - Lockers Park - not far from my parents house, was once owned by a relation of Anne Boleyn and it was here that she was courted by Henry the 8th. St Mary's Church, a small but beautiful little church not far from the Marlowes, dates back to the Crusades and bears a mark scratched into one of the columns by young men off to fight in the Holy Land, in the hope that it would ensure their return. Just opposite said train station, is the grave of the last Highway man to be hung at the scene of his crime and it is said that if you run round his grave 100 times, he will come out to scare you away, though I can tell you, from experience, that this is not true. All throughout the town are scattered little historic gems, beautiful timbered pubs, ancient houses with walled gardens, tiny cobbled streets.
But walk down the Marlowes, which has wound its way through the town for hundreds of years; see the discount shops, the market stalls with their polyester jumpers and strings of plastic leopard print phone covers swinging from their ceilings; inhale the smell of cigarette smoke and petrol fumes, and it can be depressingly hard to remember Hemel's fascinating and curious past.
But at least the world didn't end yesterday.