Before leaving for University, I’d grown up in London all my life. As had my parents, who spent their respective childhoods no more than 20 minutes from where they live now. I went to school with all of my cousins; they lived down the road, and we spent our young lives entwined with one another. I always assumed it was the same for everyone.
On Friday and Sunday evenings our entire extended family would gather at my grandparents’ house; me, my sisters and my parents, my aunties and uncles and cousins. Every week was the same. Despite my Granny’s constant practice – the soup, the roast chicken (which she pulled off the bone wearing rubber gloves) and the salad – made no improvements. It wasn’t until I tasted chicken cooked by someone else that I realised I actually liked it.
These memories – all that I have left of my childhood, drenched in softened and sweet nostalgia – are moments I look back on with distinct fondness. My childhood was one full of happiness, but it was also one with a very small geographical radius. Besides the annual camping trips and weeks spent in Cornwall or Devon, the most I had seen of the rest of the UK before I turned 18 was a week-long primary school trip to Pendarren, Wales. It’s a place I don’t remember too fondly, having entered it on a coach, covered in my own vomit after eating too many sweets on the journey in.
“When I moved to Sheffield I had never been to the North of England, and had scarcely dipped a toe in even the southernmost parts of the Midlands. At first, it terrified me.”
When I moved to Sheffield I had never been to the North of England, and had scarcely dipped a toe in even the southernmost parts of the Midlands. At first, it terrified me. Not so much because of the unfamiliar territory, but because it was nowhere near as big and fast as London. I resented the fact that I was suddenly in a place that moved more slowly, and felt less urgent, than what I’d always known. I avoided the city centre for fear that it proved to me how much I really didn’t belong there.
Looking back, it seems so naive to expect anywhere to hold the same rhythms as the place you’re used to. In time, I fell in love with the movements of the city that were initially so unfamiliar to me.
I spent four years in Sheffield, and despite the rocky start it got to me in the way that all good cities inevitably do. Sheffield is one of those places that people are always surprised by. If you ask anyone in my parents’ generation, they immediately think of the steel factories of the 70s. If you ask anyone in my generation, they might know one or two friends that went there to study, but it doesn’t have the kind of reputation for being a big university town that places like Bristol or Leeds do. At least not in North London, anyway.
“With no illusions of grandeur, Sheffield is a city built by the people that love it most. … Being there, it made me realise how much is missing from London.”
But that, I would argue, is part of its magic; with no illusions of grandeur, it is a city built by the people that love it most. Sheffield is one of the only universities in the country whose initial funding came from penny donations made by local workers and residents, not private donors. The city is founded on a sense of community.
Being there, it made me realise how much is missing from London. Despite its constant throb, it’s so changeable and so big that it leaves its occupants deprived of an intimacy with their surroundings.
So, when I finished my undergrad, and found myself umming and ahhing about what I was going to do next. Eventually, I made the decision to stay where I was. I had made a life in Sheffield, with friends, a job, and a ‘local’. Beyond anything, it had become my home.
“It is precisely the fleshy bits in the middle, not just the frame, that make up the picture. Sheffield is part of who I am. Not because I or anyone else says it is – it just is.”
Then came the pandemic. After eight months of freelancing and furlough, of no parties and very long walks, I had to say my goodbyes and drive back down the M1.
Since moving back to London I have spent the last few months fretting. I have been worried that leaving Sheffield meant leaving behind all that it had given to my identity. But, I’m not from there, my accent doesn’t have a glimpse of anything broader than RP, and I have no claim to call that place my own. To anyone who asks, I grew up in London and London is where I live. That’s it, that’s the end. No fleshy bits in the middle.
After having been back in London for a few months now, I realise that I was wrong. It is precisely the fleshy bits in the middle, not just the frame, that make up the picture. Sheffield is part of who I am. Not because I or anyone else says it is – it just is, whether I like it or not. My views and understanding of the world are framed in the experiences I have had over the past four years.
Getting used to my surroundings again, I’m slowly coming to realise that I’m in the best position I could be. Instead of having one place to call my home, I have two. The fast and the slow, the big and the intimate, the frame and the picture. I’m not sure it gets any better than that.
Eloise Feilden is studying an MA in Journalism. She formerly worked as a writer at Exposed Magazine, and has words in The Gallyry and Cherryboy Magazine. @EloiseFeilden
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