Dear Readers, this week I was in Dorchester, visiting my Dad. Regular readers will know that he has vascular dementia, and that he is in a wonderful nursing home. I am grateful that I can be so confident that he is being looked after, but nonetheless I am always filled with trepidation when I go to see him, as I never know whether he will be wide awake and full of stories or out for the count. To ease my nerves before a visit, I have taken to having an early morning walk before I pop into the home. For this visit, I explored part of the ‘Walks’ and took a wander down by the land that used to be the water meadows.
But first, I spot a doggie in the window. I remember my Mum singing the song to me when I was a little girl, and so seeing this hound made me smile. He or she was less impressed when I got my camera out, however, and so I hurried on, past the ‘Top O’ The Town’ roundabout and along the ‘Walks’.
There is a statue of Thomas Hardy on the corner. You are never allowed to forget that ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ was set in Dorchester and indeed, in January I am lucky to get a bed in my favourite B&B because it is taken over by a professor and group of Hardy students from the US. There is a pub called Hardys, and many plaques about the town commemorating the author and his works. I rather prefer Trollope meself, but I do confess to a lasting fondness for Jude the Obscure, with its unforgettable child character ‘Little Father Time’ who murders his sibllings and himself, and leaves a message ‘Done because we are too menny’, an incident that teeters on the very edge between gothic horror and black comedy. For me anyway.
The walks were originally the boundary of the old Roman city of Durnovaria (and I pass the remains of a Roman town house, currently off limits to the public while some restoration work is done). During the English Civil War, the walls were fortified again: Dorchester was a hotbed of Puritanism but found it expedient to change sides several times during the conflict, earning it the title ‘the southern capital of coat turning’. However, in Victorian times the tops of the Walks were levelled and trees were planted, providing the splendid shady avenues that we see today.
I cross the road and head steeply downhill towards the river Frome – this is where I finished my walk last time I was here. There is a plaque giving a bit of history about the area: the land round about was once flooded seasonally to provide a much longer season of grass, In Dorset, the water was diverted from the meadows back into the river in late February and early March so that sheep could graze. Once the sheep left, the fields were flooded again until it was time for the hay crop to be harvested, after which cows were put onto the fields again. The key factor was that the water was kept moving, so it didn’t form stagnant pools that might damage the grass, but instead encouraged it to thrive. The pond below, known as John’s pond, was part of the system for regulating the water, but might also have been used as a sheep dip. The water from the Frome and its tributaries also powered a number of mills up and down the river. It all seems like a most sensible and sustainable way of using the natural cycles of ebb and flow to make the most of the land without destroying it. What a shame we no longer do this: only 3% of the UK’s ancient meadows survive.
I stride on down the path, but as usual things start to catch my eye, and my pace slows. Look at the fresh new growth on this willow, for example.
And as I tune in, I notice birds singing heartily about every ten metres. I have not been paying attention and concluded that they were robins. Not so! These are male chaffinches, and they are vigorous songsters, belting out their message of desirability with raised crest and open bill.
I even captured a snippet of song.
I cross the Blue Bridge (built in 1877) and pause for a moment to watch the water tumble underneath. There is plenty of it: folk that I’ve spoken to say they can’t remember a winter like it, with so much rain. This, I fear, is the pattern of things for the south of England under global warming, at least as far as we can tell: wet, mild winters and hot, humid summers.
I like this little bridge too, and the way that it makes a perfect circle with its reflection. Bridges like this were once used by horse-drawn vehicles to bring the hay in, but this seems rather too narrow for such an enterprise.
In the field opposite there are some magnificent specimen trees, presumably spared because they provided shade for sheep or cattle in summer. Some older trees might also have provided a spot for the farmer and his team of plough animals to have a rest and eat their lunch. I love it when they’re left, although I imagine with the larger farm machinery that some people have now they can be a bit of a pain. In an online forum where I was asking about this, nearly all the respondents said that they would leave the trees in their fields because they loved to see them. There is hope, people.
Back I go towards Dorchester. I meet a very nice lady who is walking her dog, and she tells me that the locals are currently fighting a plan to build 250 houses on the water meadow site. We need new homes, I know, but building them on an area which is at the confluence of three separate streams seems ludicrous in view of all the flooding that we’re currently having. Doesn’t anybody care, or is it all just about making a quick buck?
and back to the centre of Dorchester. When I get into the nursing home, Dad is sitting up looking very dapper. I notice that he’s very breathless, though – he has COPD, and has had one chest infection after another this year. I had been planning to take him out, but then I notice that today is Spanish Day in the home. We decide to have lunch in the home, sitting at the nice table for two looking over the gardens. Spanish music is playing, but for Dad, Spanish music can only ever be Julio Iglesias. After all, he spent more than ten years travelling to and working in Spain, so he knows what he’s on about.
‘What do you think of the music, Tom?’ asks J, one of Dad’s favourite carers. She is wearing a flower in her hair in honour of the occasion.
Dad grimaces and considers being polite, then decides against it in favour of honesty.
‘It’s a bit ropey’, he says.
‘Never mind’, says J, plonking down a bottle of white wine and bottle of red wine. ‘This’ll cheer you up’.
Dad looks at the wine.
‘Pinot grigio’, he says to me. ‘That’s not Spanish, it’s Italian’.
This dementia journey is quite a thing. Dad isn’t quite sure who I am, but he knows when he wine isn’t Spanish.
Fortunately, he likes it when it’s served, in plastic wine glasses with tops and bottoms that snap together.
‘I’m going to take that bottle back to the room’, says Dad with a twinkle.
‘I think it’s for everyone, Dad’, I say.
‘Most of them won’t want any’, he says, looking around at the rest of the residents. He has a point. Many of them are asleep, everyone is on medication and a lot of folk gave up drinking a long time ago. Fortunately J comes round to provide a second glass and all is well.
We have soup with paprika and chickpeas and spinach, chicken with actual black olives, and. most delightful of all, a churros, though with the chocolate inside rather than for dipping. I eat the lot, and Dad makes a good fist of it.
‘They’ve put Syb in a separate room’, says Dad. Sybil was my Mum, who died in 2018. Dad hasn’t mentioned her for ages.
‘Have they, Dad?’ I ask. It’s painful when he talks about Mum like this, but for me rather than for him. I wait to see what he’ll say next.
‘And I can’t seem to find her’, he says. But then he throws his hands up in his typical gesture of stoical acceptance. ‘I’ll see her eventually’, he says. ‘But now, I need to go to the toilet’.
We walk back to his room.
‘Do you want me to wait?’ I ask.
‘No,’ he says. ‘I’m going to the toilet and then I’m going to have a rest’.
After a three-course meal and two glasses of wine, that’s how I feel too. I love that he dismisses me so gently, and that he isn’t concerned when I go. Gradually I am learning to be with this new way of being – nothing to do, no problems to fix. It’s a bit like relaxing into a hot bath, just letting go of my preconceptions and being with Dad wherever he is in the moment, joining him there. It’s a hard lesson for someone like me, who is so determined to try to control everything, but it’s a good one. I enjoy being with Dad, seeing the world through his eyes.
J told me a lovely story. Her Mum is very sick, and she had to take a few days off. When she came back to the home, the first thing that Dad asked her was ‘how’s your Mum?’ Dad has so little memory for the day to day, but he remembered that she had been distressed, and cared enough to ask. It’s so important not to make assumptions about what someone with dementia can and can’t understand. Being with Dad requires me to use all my faculties – my empathy, my imagination and my creativity – and I know that he is trying to connect and make sense of the world too. Strangely, this time with him might be the period when I most get to know the real Dad, the man that he’s been trying to cover up all these years, in all his late glory. It is a privilege to have the opportunity.