Monday, November 12, 2012

What's your square mile?

The white tower - one of my favourite places in all of Wales
My friend Jill Teague was writing on her blog yesterday about the Welsh expression Milltir Sgwar. It means 'square mile', but has deeper meaning than a literal translation, referring to the patch of ground you make your own; a place that shapes you and which is shaped in return by your connection.

Dyner filltir sgwa is a related expression - it means 'a man of his own square mile', and though I'm not Welsh the idea has always felt right.  Because for all I enjoy travel, and I have no wish to be insular, I'm more attracted to a deep understanding of a single place than skimming the surface of many.

It takes time to become rooted like this, and perhaps longer to lose the pull. Occasionally, I'll talk of making a trip home' - referring not Wales but to Northumberland where I grew up. That's not an uncommon feeling. I remember meeting an eighty year old with an Aussie accent on the Beara peninsula of Ireland -  he'd returned after seventy years abroad. Did he have local family, I asked?  None still alive, he explained,  but Beara was 'home', and he'd felt a need to return.

For me, home is my house in Wales. That I spend more time in Wiltshire is beside the point - I'm here for work and the family, and though I'm happy enough it will never be my square mile. When my boys leave, as they surely will, I worry how they'll settle. And were we to move elsewhere, how would they feel about that? Jane once confided how upset she'd been when her parents decided to use 'her' empty room for guests.

Some might define their square mile as a patch of wilderness, a mountain perhaps; to others it's an urban ghetto. My grandfather lived in the same streets all his life, and he would talk of the mines and the shipyards and the back-to-back terraces - he'd travelled worldwide on merchant ships, but Wallsend was his place.

I'm reminded of painters who thrived on similar connections. LS Lowry is intrinsic to Salford and it to him.  Monet will forever be connected to Giverny. Peter Lanyon, the finest of the Cornish landscape painters - and interestingly a local from birth - to St Ives. The point here is that there is more than enough inspiration to be found in one small place - and arguably, greater creative integrity too.

Dyner filltir sgwa - it's a fine expression; a good motto for life.

But enough - for I'm rambling now and in danger of treading beyond my heft.

Where is your square mile, I wonder?


  1. Hello Mark:
    We wonder where our square mile is too!

    Increasingly, we spend less and less of our time in England and grow more connected to our adopted home of Budapest. However, whether this is our own square mile remains a question. What we do know is that we enjoy being foreigners in a foreign land....but will we wish one day to return to our square mile......and where would it be?!!!

  2. I've yet to find it, though Newcastle comes close. I cry when I see the Tyne Bridge.

  3. I feel the pull of Wales too. I've never lived there but my mother is Welsh, from Mumbles, and we spent a lot of time there when young. Going back to visit with my own family felt like going home, almost more than my original home of Hornchurch.