I’ve described before how my mother and father met in the summer of 1944 at a dance in a small village hall in North Yorkshire. It was an original love-at-first-sight thing. He was an officer in the Royal Navy, sent with his crew to Teeside on a 2-week secondment to pick up and sea-trial his brand-new landing craft that had just been manufactured in the dockyards there. She was a Wren, serving at the docks. Over a hectic few days and a single weekend they found time to meet at every opportunity before he sailed his small ship back to Portsmouth to prepare for D-Day. But he wrote to her whenever he could, proposed to her in writing, and then managed to get back briefly to Teesside to marry her in the simplest of ceremonies before he left to meet his fate on the beaches. He came home safe from Normandy, thank goodness, and after the war my parents went on to live a long and happy life together.
During their short courtship, whenever he could at the end of the day Dad would cross the Tees on the famous transporter bridge (it featured in the film Billy Elliot) and catch a bus to Great Ayton, the nearby village where Mum was born and bred and still lived with my grandparents. Their few innocent dates comprised almost exclusively of walking together to the top of Roseberry Topping, a distinctive hill at the back of the village, before he caught the last bus back to the docks and his duties. A simple wartime tale of two hearts, but it’s our family’s special story and steeped in nostalgia.
I remember Roseberry Topping from my childhood; whenever we visited my grandmother in Redcar, as we trundled past it in Dad’s old Austin, Mum would unfailingly tell us “…the story of how your Dad and I met…”. But then I became a man, the memory became dimmed, and half a century passed before I returned to the area.
In 2017 my wife Jo and I were looking for a seaside bolthole. She loved Whitby and because of my childhood I felt strongly drawn to the place. One Bank Holiday Monday on Rightmove we saw a condo property on the promenade there, and impulsively booked a viewing for that afternoon. It was York Races day, we were running late, so the satnav guided us north of the Moors to avoid the traffic and hence through Great Ayton. Without warning old memories rushed to the fore. I told Jo my mum and dad’s story for the first time. I shed a private tear as I looked up once again at the grand hill silhouetted against a bright blue sky.
When we finally got to the house-viewing the scantily-furnished property had only two pictures on the walls – one of the transporter bridge, and the other of Roseberry Topping. I’m not in the slightest bit spiritual, but it did seem like a sign. We bought the house on the spot and loved living there. The pictures (below, courtesy of Joe Cornish Galleries) now hang in pride of place in our new house on the cliff.
But I’ve never climbed Roseberry Topping. Until last month. My middle son Thomas and his beautiful wife Lucero were visiting us from their home in Spain. We see them too seldom, so these were a few glorious days grabbed together catching up on news and reconnecting. Spontaneously we all decided to retrace my parents’ steps to the top of Roseberry Topping.
It was a clear, windy day. We took a picnic. All my kids were very close to their Nana and Grandpa so I knew this was a special thing for Thomas as well, and for he and I to do together. A pilgrimage. A homage. The four of us scrambled breathlessly up the steep rocks, with Doris the Border Terrier loving every second. As I said, I’m not in the slightest bit spiritual, but I felt my parents’ presence all around. Not the parents I knew as a child, not the old couple I cared for in their later years, but the teenagers who were newly in love, innocent, laughing and kissing and holding hands, uncertain about surviving the war and grabbing every precious moment together.
We got to the top. I could imagine them standing beside me. Thomas and I stood together, both of us lost in thought, the village of Great Ayton spread out on the plain below. A sad and happy moment. A unique father-and-son moment. A pilgrimage of respect to honour a simple and honourable couple, for whom family was everything. Who came from an age lost in today’s modern world. Who were modest, and loyal, and knew the value of simple things. Who instilled a love and respect that survives today in their children and grandchildren. We can all only hope to leave such a legacy.
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Thank you for reading my blogs. I’m getting quite old now, and hopefully I’m a little wiser than I once was. I have enjoyed a fascinating career full of fascinating people, and made many great friendships. I’ve made huge errors in my lifetime, and enjoyed great success too – it’s been the ultimate game of snakes and ladders - up and down, round and round. It is my privilege to share some of my stories with you, and describe some of the lessons I’ve learned in the hope that it may both save you from falling into the same holes, and help you in your careers and lives. Good luck and good fortune.