From rural sowing and reaping to dreams of urban return

‘I can’t deny a secret yearning to escape the country and return to Stoneybatter’

 Stoneybatter, Dublin:  “I loved living there in the 1990s. Smoke from peat fires suffused the evening light as it slanted across the roofs of terraced houses.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Stoneybatter, Dublin: “I loved living there in the 1990s. Smoke from peat fires suffused the evening light as it slanted across the roofs of terraced houses.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

I love living in the country but sometimes I miss urban life. Despite being far from self-sufficient here on our Wicklow acre, it keeps us busy throughout the year.

Constant maintenance of the orchard, field, woodpile and vegetable garden is hard work – something I happily embraced 15 years ago as an eager newcomer but which begins to seem more and more like drudgery. And now, as the season turns and the light dwindles and rain once again lashes the windowpanes, I admit to seeing my idyllic surroundings through an increasingly peevish eye.

The annual agricultural cycle of sowing and reaping, which once held a romantic, quasi-mystical attraction, sometimes feels uncomfortably like a perpetual, laborious treadmill. Not that I regret moving – the guilty idea should be ruthlessly suppressed as a vile heresy – yet I can’t deny an occasional, tiny, secret yearning for escape and a return to the city.

I suppose I could always retire back there. In a few years’ time, when my sound and regular financial investments pay dividends and I finally win the Lotto, I may hang up my wellies and abandon muddy lanes to stroll crisp pavements in elegant shoes. The question is where precisely?

When I lived in Dublin I often fancied the genteel brick facades of Fitzwilliam Square but that would require a Euromillions win – which I acknowledge is much less likely.

Besides, my desire for a key to the resident’s garden there was a frivolous aspiration based on seeing the movie Notting Hill. I sighed in the last reel when Julia Roberts draped herself languorously across Hugh Grant in their select, sunlit bower. I’ve since realised that hankering after an illusory enclave of smug exclusivity cinematically packaged as a charming romantic denouement is not an ideal basis for a house hunt, however notional: far better to employ a more substantive criterion, like nostalgia.

Childhood links

I’ve always had a soft spot for the north side. It was where my grannies lived. In Glasnevin I stole delicious apples from a tree up the lane from my mother’s childhood home. In Blackhorse Avenue, where my dad grew up, I barked shins scaling the wall into the Phoenix Park in search of conkers. And in both houses I ate hot, buttered toast in front of coal fires. A quarter century in England consigned that boyhood city to the past. But my Dublin of the mind lingered and when I returned 20-odd years ago I caught a residual whiff of it in fin-de-siecle Stoneybatter.

Manor Street, Stoneybatter, Dublin: “These days the hippest inhabitants call it ‘the Shire’ and the actors have moved on – I might find it hard to reconnect.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Manor Street, Stoneybatter, Dublin: “These days the hippest inhabitants call it ‘the Shire’ and the actors have moved on – I might find it hard to reconnect.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

I’m not altogether surprised that Time Out recently counted the area among the world’s coolest city neighbourhoods. I loved living there in the 1990s. Smoke from peat fires suffused the evening light as it slanted across the roofs of terraced houses.

A sedate, silver-haired man in a brown coat sliced ham from the bone in the venerable grocer’s shop. An ebullient woman in a white coat purveyed fresh ray and rock salmon from a marble slab in the fishmongers. And the familiar accents of Dublin loquacity flowed through snug and bar in the great pubs.

But the Bohemian vanguard was present even then. There were loads of fellow actors around – a colleague quipped that renting there was a “good career move” – and in theatre circles the area was known as Luvviebatter or Bitterbatter when nobody was working.

Yoga by candlelight

These days the hippest inhabitants call it “the Shire” and the actors have moved on – I might find it hard to reconnect. Apparently Airbnb is now common on Oxmantown Road and yoga by candlelight is readily available, as is Brazilian jjiu-jitsu. I could try these: the inner peace offered by the former would replace relaxing under the silver birch tree after a little light weeding; and the humiliating arse-kicking of the latter might substitute playing American football with my sons.

I’d happily join the communal quest for the ultimate artisan sourdough. However I’d have to revise my understanding of coffee: a simple choice between espresso, macchiato or latte is no longer adequate – opinions about the provenance of the bean are now required. South American is passe, obscure African is just about acceptable but ideally I’d mention a newly fashionable southeast Asian discovery as “a fruity number with floral overtones”. I’m not sure I’d be able.

Arty types, being imaginative but skint, are often the commando units of culinary diversification – where actors and musicians lead amaranth and mung beans frequently follow. There are a few more creatives scattered hereabouts in Wicklow but our foodie influence is variable.

The local shop once filled a few shelves with brown rice flour, black rice noodles and tinned cannellini beans. It was the merely temporary offloading of a job lot of stock from a closed-down health food store. And there was the brief period when sparkling water was regularly available. When I asked why it’d stopped the answer was “Sure it flies out – we can’t keep it on the shelves.”

However, I’ve heard that there’s gram flour to be had in a neighbouring village – we need some for a novel method of dealing with the courgette glut.

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