Marlow is where I call home.
I moved away for good in 1974, making my first move to California to restart college there, but always came back regularly to visit mum and dad and Sue and Derek, and later to visit mum when she was the only one left there.
One of the reasons that I agreed to accompany Sunshine to live in Paris in 1987 in the first place was because living across the Channel would make it easier to visit mum regularly. New York was too far for a weekend visit! Having lost her husband in 1983, she was beginning to feel more alone. Sue and Derek moved Antony and Laura, her first grandchildren, to California at about the same time as I moved to Paris, reinforcing her sense of solitude. Sue had spent many years living relatively close to mum and dad when I was far away: after 13 years in the US, it was my turn to live a little closer.
Almost naturally, Marlow became a vacation destination for our gang. Nick and Tom had been coming to visit their grandmother since 1986 and 1989, respectively, the year each was born. The first time I brought Marie-Hélène, Daphné and Alban there was in March 1994, even before we all moved in together.
All of the children developed a soft spot in their turn for the children’s playground in Higginson Park. To this day, Alex and Charlie identify Marlow by the park, and by its playground, the bouncy house which often appeared next to the playground during the summer, and the ducks they could feed on the riverbank.
As mum’s health deteriorated, I visited more regularly, about once a month, maybe half the time alone, and half the time with other members of the family. It was very reassuring to see our home on South View Road each time, and wander around Marlow each time. That’s what home means, I guess.
Almost every visit, I would take one short drive at the end of an evening to the hot dog truck parked in a lay-by down by the bridge. There, I would order and eat (ravenously each time) a well-cooked hot dog covered with grilled onions and ketchup (always diluted with vinegar): ah, the tastes of home!
Here is a picture of the family home on South View Road just after mum died in 1996.
Just as Marie-Hélène gravitated naturally to La Grée in Brittany for vacations after we moved to California, to visit her dad and retrieve France and her summer home there, I gravitated to Marlow.
We (my sister Sue and I) had sold the family home on South View Road in early 1997 after mum died: it just seemed the logical thing to do, so that each of us could have an independent inheritance: the house was by far the estate’s biggest asset.
So Marie-Hélène and I didn’t have a free place to stay in Marlow (although Sue and Derek let us use their flat in the old brewery near Higginson Park one year when they were away), which made it more expensive than La Grée, where grand-père put us up for free every time. The financial aspect did discourage our visits there, especially after we moved to California.
It also reduced the sense of having a home there, somewhere like La Grée which was always ours. We’ve stayed in several local hotels at one time or another, in a guest cottage on a farm and, more frequently than we should have, with Janice and David Milsom (David is a friend from school in Marlow), whose daughters obligingly moved out when they grew up and left empty bedrooms. Thank you, the Milsoms!
We did visit Marlow often until we left France, and several of us did vacation there several times over the years in California, if only for a few days. The visits from France were particularly easy, especially during school vacations when we tended to leave the Paris area for La Grée. La Grée is only a two hour drive from St Malo, where Brittany Ferries runs a ferry a day to Portsmouth, and Portsmouth is less than an hour and a half from Marlow.
All very convenient. The same convenience applied during our vacations from California, when again we tended to be based at La Grée for the bulk of the trip, and to take the ferry for its English portion. But, just as Nick and Tom were less present at La Grée after 2001, so I don’t think that Daphné and Alban came back to Marlow at all after we moved to California.
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Marlow is full of such charm.
The river Thames runs through the town, and serves as a backdrop to scenic views along its length. Higginson Park runs along the river bank. There is a lock which the pleasure boats pass through all summer long and where we Stocks used to go after church on Sunday to watch the world float by. When Sue and I returned to visit for a weekend in later years, after we no longer went to church, we would all still stroll down to the lock together. The Thames never grows old.
As the Thames flows, a sign on the lock keeper’s house tells you that the lock is almost exactly half way between London (56-3/4 miles away) and Oxford (54-3/4 miles away).
There is a weir next to the lock, more accurately between the lock and the Compleat Angler Hotel. A walkway which is two planks wide and with metal banisters the size of small pipes stretched out from Lock Island (wherever you have a lock on a river, you have an island) about two thirds of the way across the weir, so that the lock keeper could regulate downstream flow in times of storm and flood.
As a boy, I would occasionally sneak out on that plank walkway above the roar of the water on a clear evening. That was forbidden, of course, but the gate to the walkway wasn’t even locked back then. I didn’t go out there if there wasn’t enough light: the whole thing always felt a little bit rickety. But to this day, I can close my eyes and remember the sound of that rushing water going by under the planks and pouring over the weir: what would we have for memories if we only ever did what was allowed?
There are hills too, on each side of the Thames Valley. Marlow is right next to the Chiltern Hills, which stretch into nearby Oxfordshire, but I never knew whether the hill north of town over which we took the bus to High Wycombe was actually part of the Chilterns. Winter Hill, a tree-covered escarpment running parallel to the river and south of it, was the distant view from our bedroom windows at home on South View Road.
All Saints Church, the Church of England parish church, is on the river bank next to Marlow Bridge, with the Compleat Angler Hotel opposite and across from the Marlow Rowing Club boat house.
It’s all picture postcard stuff.
I grew up in Marlow, at least from the age of 13 on, which means it is where I have the most childhood memories. Home was a typical middle class house about a mile from the town center which mum and dad bought in 1966 when dad was promoted to London from the Midlands Region of his company, then Ranks Hovis McDougall. All of us Stocks loved Marlow as soon as we moved there. Mum was soon involved with the local Catholic Women’s League, helping plan and organize jumble sales in Liston Hall and other fund-raising activities. She served as the CWL’s Treasurer for a couple of years until her health took a turn for the worse.
It was a 30-mile each way commute to his office for dad for ten or twelve years. During our initial years in Marlow, the motorways had not yet been built into London (there are now two, the M4 and the M40), and he could spend two and a half or more hours a day commuting. He varied his route regularly, mixing driving and trains and tubes, any combination, but however he adapted and improved the trip it always took him an hour and a quarter or more each way.
But he was never happier than doing the Saturday morning shopping in Marlow town center or tending to his roses in the back garden at home. He was close to his childhood home in Slough, to his school’s old boys club, the Old Paludians (abbreviated as “old pals:” neat!) in Taplow, and to a few of his friends from those days whom he saw regularly for dinner and drinks on a Friday evening.
My school was Sir William Borlase’s School on West Street, and Sue’s was Wycombe High School in High Wycombe, about four miles away over the hill. They were both single sex publicly-funded grammar schools.
Grammar schools were and are a vestige of a dying era, an era in which brighter children (as measured by a test called the 11+ administered each year) were separated from less bright children (yep, you guessed it, same test, and same chance of inaccuracy or of measuring the wrong thing, notably level of anxiety upon being tested) for their entire secondary education. The “brighter” children attended grammar schools, and the “less bright” attended secondary modern. Only a class-based society could come up with such a stupid system, and the England of my youth was very class-based. That might have changed: it’s hard to tell from a distance. Sue and I both did well on tests, and both ended up in grammar schools.
The shop for snacks during breaks between classes was just down the road from Borlase’s. It was called the Tuck Shoppe, an easy name to remember because the generic phrase for school snack shops at that time (don’t know if it still is) was tuck shops. Gez Kahan lives there now with Jenny, his wife.
Gez is a writer and publisher of successful niche magazines covering the music business. He won the UK Music Industries Association’s prestigious ‘Music Journalist of the Year’ award three times in a row! He’s one of those lucky people who have made of his passion (music) a real career.
Andrew Milsom, another Borlase’s classmate, has been the most successful estate agent (realtor) in the Marlow area for years now. His firm started on Marlow High Street and has grown over time to several offices. All are located in the Chiltern area around Marlow and all seem to whirr and buzz along quite nicely, thank you.
Andrew and his family even bought our family home, then Grandma‘s, after she died, and lived in it with his family for a couple of years, before selling it at an enormous profit!! Of course, he did fix it up rather nicely first.
Back to our family vacations. 2007 was the first time that Charlie and Alex accompanied their father for a trip around England before maman arrived. That was great. We traveled everywhere by train, and visited Ian Summers in Exeter (in the Southwest) and Adrian Wynne and Great Aunt Rosemary in Newcastle (in the Northeast). These were long journeys, even on a train, but with a fair bit of help from the video games they brought with them, they amused themselves the entire time.
After maman arrived, we stayed in a guest cottage on Red Barn Farm a picturesque working farm on the Stokenchurch Road north of Marlow. We didn’t do a lot together that year in the way of tourist trips, although we did manage a trip to London and a walk through Harrod’s, where we bought Christmas crackers, on sale!
We also met up with Aunty Vi, mum’s sole surviving sibling, and her son Ron and daughter-in-law Louise at a country pub near Banbury for lunch one day that summer, and with Aunt Angela, who is actually about a second cousin twice removed on the Stock side of the family, for a lovely afternoon in Rye, where she lives.
Marie-Hélène initiated and planned our most touristy excursion, a visit to the Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. The Cafe Twit is at the Museum. This village is the home of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach,” among others. My personal favorite is “Danny the Champion of the World.” Dahl’s long-term home (Gypsy House) is nearby, and even the boys were interested in this museum.
The younger boys’ favorite thing to do over the years was drive the little motor boats that we rented on the river from time to time for an hour. They weren’t supposed to be given the wheel, and so we would wait to do so until we were out of sight of the man in Higginson Park who had rented us the boat. Needless to say, they were very patient and understanding about this delay!
Marlow will always be home for me. Tom, Charlie and Alex visited with me during the summer of 2010, and I’m planning on bringing some combination of children to visit periodically. As Nick and Tom lives relatively nearby, in Paris, much of the time, each should be easy to bring there. With any luck, Charlie and Alex will stay interested. Daphné and Alban have not shown much interest for a while now, but all of them like London, and Marlow is not that far away from the big city . . .
Whatever happens, I’ll be back. That’s what home means too.