There'll always be an England
Back in 2012, I skimmed the surface of culture, identity and the effects of time by integrating myself into different English villages based in Lincolnshire, England’s third biggest, predominantly Anglo-Saxon county. I intended to discover a feeling of home and belonging-something, which has always been unknown to me in the traditional sense, after a life lived outside of my birth country, Germany. I wanted to find an answer to that constant question ringing in my mind of, where is home, what creates it and what exactly does it look like. I thought by going someplace completely opposite to what I knew, I might find what I was looking for.
After having had lived in the south of England for 7 years, I wanted to uncover a sense of "Englishness" which I was both familiar yet unfamiliar with, by heading north. I found villages which from an outside perspective were just what I expected; charming houses, well-kept gardens, a green, a village hall, a church, a pub, games of bowls, complaints about the weather and most noticeably, an array of hedges masking ownership, all quietly nestled on the flat lands of the county, with their sometimes scarce inhabitants going about their day by day. Walking about the villages, trying to integrate myself as an outsider with a big camera, I was sometimes met with skepticism and narrowed eyebrows accompanied by ‘we’ve seen you around’ but more often than not, I was surprised by how willing people were to invite me into their lives and offer me a cup of tea. I am aware of the fact that me being a young, Caucasian female most likely aided in establishing that initial contact although at the time, it didn’t cross my mind.
I felt that even though a certain “Englishness” was visible from an outside perspective, I realised that upon closer inspection and more time spent listening, that residents shared a common fear, a result of uncertainty and the unknown.
Everyone I would speak to, especially longtime residents, had a story which emitted either a longing for how things used to be, whether personal or in relation to the village, or a concern for their future; the increase of mechanized farming, the growing lack of employment and properties being bought up by surrounding areas and people from down south ‘coming and changing the place’. Resident Terry stated that before it was all ‘close knit’ yet now he didn’t know about a third of the village because they had come from 200 miles away or more, ‘the world’s a smaller place’.
It seemed that what once was what people identified themselves with and valued in terms of connection, support and community, now no longer was what it was. ‘In the old days it was great. If you went to church, there were 30-40 people in church. It was like a big family and now it’s not like a family at all.’
I thought by going somewhere where time slows down, somewhere ‘unchanged’ and ‘chocolate boxy’, where I assumed an identity was stable, I would find answers to the questions of home and culture that I set out to find. However, what I found was a community nostalgic for a past, confronted with the change the present brings and a future, which was wavering. Instead of finding strong roots, I found division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ as Joyce, then in her 80’s, born and raised in one of the villages said ‘the people who have come in and bought properties they haven’t been village people if you know what I mean. They seemed different. Maybe (…) they’re townies and we’re country you see. I’m not running them down, but you feel the difference’.
I found individuals either reaching out for connection as local butcher, Ian stated that ‘the more you put in, the more you get out’ andyet simultaneously individuals keeping to themselves or living in isolation. Another resident shared, ‘there is an unspoken rule, everyone tends to their own garden. You don't want to be the one to stick out like a sore thumb’. It seemed residents feared being different out of fear of not fitting in while unconsciously greatening the divide by not communicating and growing hedges.
Seeing a part of England which I perhaps naively expected would be an example of togetherness and strong identity, only to realize that even in the smallest of rural villages, the complexities ran deep and uncertainty and divide bubbled under the quaint surface of Englishness, I now wondered,where the line was between holding on to what we know and opening ourselves to what could be? How much of this fear of the other stems from a lack of seeing through another’s lens?
Perhaps where the entanglement lies is precisely that we connect identity with home, with a set culture, a set way of life and with roots that we assume are linked to land and property. Exactly that which I had done and led me to feel like an outsider throughout my developmental years, trying hard to fit in somewhere where I was seen and saw myself as separate because I didn’t have what they had. I was different, and I wanted to adapt to my new surroundings while simultaneously going inward out of fear of standing out ‘like a sore thumb’.
I realize now, years later, that my ability to approach strangers and have them invite me in and share with me their stories and deepest vulnerabilities within minutes of meeting them was not just due to the color of my skin, but to my ability to empathize and listen not just with my head but with my heart.
I believe many I met during my short month, appreciated being seen, appreciated being acknowledged, listened to and shown that they mattered and in turn showed curiosity and understanding for my own background. One resident who had served in the second World War and had sworn never to engage with Germans again nor did he want to be photographed, suddenly found himself in his home sitting opposite one sharing intimacies about his life. At the end of our time together, he asked me to take his picture.
Maybe the key to harboring ones own identity and balancing what we know with others is through communication and understanding. Maybe identity isn’t set. Maybe it’s an ever-growing organism with roots that expand in multi-directions, sometimes intertwining with other roots and creating something new, with what we know still an integral part of our structure.
These images may appear to portray a type of “Englishness” but beneath them breathe roots that are bending, twisting and layering constantly. What we at first don’t see beyond the hedge becomes visible once we are open enough to take the time to connect and trust that there’ll always be an England, just maybe, a little different.