I grew up with my grandfather, Frank Darby, a man I remember as handsome, sharply funny, and nearly overwhelmed by the two other women in the house – his wife and their daughter, my mother.
Thus, it was natural that I would identify with him, standing strong against the dominating powers of the other females in our tiny house in Minnesota. I listened intently to his tales of his childhood in England, how he’d sailed across the ocean at the tender age of fifteen and was sick the entire trip from being conscribed to the deck below the waterline - the place reserved for the cheapest tickets. And each time he traveled back to England for a vacation, in my imagination, I sailed with him and mourned for the loss of my only friend in the house. At the same time, I eagerly awaited his return and the tiny costumed doll he brought me. I drank in the stories of the places he’d been. Birmingham, Silsden, Wolverhampton, Dudley – all music to my ears.
I was forty-something when I finally made my way to England for the first time, though in my dreams, I’d been there repeatedly. Since I didn’t know any addresses or full names of relatives on the dozens of old black and white photos I’d lovingly saved, I’d never met any of his family. It was enough just to be there. In fact, at the end of my first nine-hour flight, I looked down upon the green island with its dense, small forests and meandering roads and waterways and thought, “It’s okay if I die now. I see England.” I was at peace with a plane crash.
Back home in California, I found more family through a genealogy website. I posted a plea, and a cousin, then two, emailed me. I was, of course, on my way back to England at the first opportunity. With a package of photos in hand and heart in my throat, my husband and I went to the southern reaches of Yorkshire County. There I visited streets in towns and villages that hadn’t changed much for a hundred years.
Although this niche of England doesn’t call to legions of tourists, it is, nonetheless, visually beautiful and filled with charm. This, and the fact that we traveled in off-season November, made the visit to small towns that dance around the Aire Valley and up to the Yorkshire Dales – intensely personal.
We were fortunate indeed that our guide – my newly-found cousin, Malcolm Slater - was a councillor in the Yorkshire regional council, as was his wife, Val. They guided me to destinations-of-the- heart with warm enthusiasm. In Silsden, where my grandfather was born in 1896, we roamed the winding streets of the town centre and plotted out where the missing Number Twelve Bridge Street might be. I sat upon the wall of what is now a car park knowing that it was once the site of the home where Frank Darby was born. Most likely, it was also there that his mother died in childbirth. We snapped photos of pavement.
Up the hill we continued, to find the row of houses on Bolton Road where toddler Frank sat with his grandfather after the death of my great grandmother, Sarah. I had the old photo of him in a little sailor suit, a sweet two-year-old, and the mustachioed old man cupping a bent pipe as they sat on the doorstep side by side. We knocked on the door, and inside was a young couple who insisted we take all the photos we liked.
Back in the town centre we held up my postcard from Grandpa’s legacy and compared ‘then and now’. Same River Aire spilling over rocks and delighting ducks and children. Same building fronts and cobbled street. Only the signs on shops were different and, of course, the cars and people.
So often, when one holds a vision for many years of how a place might be, reality is disappointing. But Silsden did not disappoint. Not black and white as in my photos, but crisp with autumn colors. Not silent but dancing with music from the stream that runs through the town and with chatter from a new generation of people who call it home.
Meandering roads led us out from Silsden to a nearby village where my cousin walked with purely English fervor through a churchyard skirting the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. The grass was thick and tall, damp. Gravestones old, eroded with time. A wind with a sharp edge picked up, and Malcolm called me to a spot near the back of the dark, centuries-old church. There in the late afternoon shadows, he extended his arm and presented me with the gravesite of his grandfather, our common ancestor. We posed for a photo, both holding back tears of gratitude for the gifts of time.
It was these intensely personal memories that are forever etched into memory - the beauty of this quiet corner of Yorkshire with its undulating landscape in hues of green and gold; its tiny cottages ablaze with flowers even though winter had arrived; its humble pubs with their hand-painted signs and names that speak of legends - The Hare and Hounds, The Butcher’s Arms, The Robin Hood. The smells of heartwarming food wafting out from open, leaded-glass windows; people who, despite my foreign accent, welcomed me like an old friend. These are the timeless charms of my personal England and proof to me that, yes, we can go home again.