Walking with Dorinda Hulton on 4 August 2010

Godalming, or Dorinda’s and Vincent’s Walk

 I am walking with another good friend and former colleague from Exeter, Dorinda Hulton. The walk that Dorinda takes me on circles the small town of Godalming, in Surrey. In this instance, the landscape is less important than what it holds or carries. The walk that Dorinda shares with me is the walk that she did with her dad, Vincent Stewart, every fortnight, for over two years. When we made the arrangements, months ago, the intention was that I would accompany Dorinda and her dad on their regular route. But between then and now Vincent has passed away. Dorinda still wants to share the walk with me though. Their habitual path offers itself as a gentle score for remembering and sharing; a memorial walk that introduces me to Vincent in his absence.

We meet at Godalming railway station and have lunch at the Baytree Cafe (a transitional moment, a way of arriving, in due time, at the walk). Then we make our way to Jubilee House Nursing Home. Dorinda points out the windows of her dad’s room – ground floor, Room 17.

After cheery hellos to and from the Home’s staff, Dorinda and I walk the corridors. Jubilee House is designed as a circle so that disorientated residents never get lost. On the wall outside each bedroom is a picture frame, carrying portraits of each room’s resident. At what used to be Vincent’s room are holes left by screws. We walk out into the garden, where the sun is now shining. This is where Vincent celebrated his last birthday (which coincided with a visit from a ‘mobile’ farm complete with a lamb, a pig and guinea pigs). A lavender bush is in ruddy health, a magnet for bees.

A short walk back down to the High Street and Dorinda shows me where they would cross the road. Her dad was a heavy man, the wheelchair bulky and awkward. It was hard work. We stop briefly in a gift shop, where Dorinda would buy presents for her nieces and nephews while her dad looked at the glittering display cabinets. Then down Church Street and past the ‘21st Century Home Support’ window front. Though a ‘home help’ business, Dorinda persuaded its staff to extend their remit by visiting her father in his nursing home. They would read aloud from a book that Dorinda had made, which contained some of her dad’s own writing and letters from his children and grandchildren (including one by Dorinda, aged 6).

At the bottom of Church Street lies the Parish Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. Here, Dorinda would wait at the door for a passer-by, someone strong enough to push the wheelchair up the ramp. Her dad always objected, not wanting to cause any fuss, though he seemed pleased when they actually entered the church. Today, Dorinda does as she would have done if Vincent were with us: we walk down the isle, she picks up a smooth prayer stone, rubbing it gently in her fingers, she lights a candle, she writes out a prayer card, to her mum and her dad. Then we walk over to a small, cosy corner at the back, a children’s play area, where she would sometimes read to her dad.

Outside, cracks of thunder split the sky open. Staying sheltered in the church I walk its aisles, listening to a recording made by Dorinda which starts with reflections on ‘home’, on what home is, using John Berger as a guide. Home used to designate the centre of the world, the place where the vertical line (the path leading up to the sky and down to the underworld) crossed the horizontal line (all the possible roads of the earth). The recording makes clear Dorinda’s feelings about where her dad spent his final years. Though she had wanted him to come and stay with her, Surrey Social Services had a duty of care for him and, as his daughter’s voice in my ear says, they decided to place him into a ‘home’: not his home, not her home, but into Room 17.

Walking around the quiet church, I also learn that Vincent, a Jamaican, and his Burmese wife, Ma Saw Tin (Dorinda’s mum), were displaced by the war in Burma. In 1942, the year they married, they walked some 300 miles out of Burma. Vincent wrote about that walk of 1942 in 1974. I listen to his words, channelled by his daughter, in 2010. On their long walk Vincent and Ma Saw Tin unavoidably passed the dead and the dying. Vincent had enough sense to wear the boots of a man who no longer had any need of them.

Dorinda gifts me with a scroll of her spoken text, including the words of her dad, and offers me an extra strong mint – another thing she and her dad would do here. We leave the church and walk towards the allotment hedge, and then down to a bandstand. The last time Dorinda visited her dad she had danced for him here. And he had clapped afterwards. (Though Dorinda thinks that the look in his eyes also told her she could have been better – Vincent was a discerning man.). We walk on to the Phillips Memorial Cloister, erected in memory of John George Phillips, resident of Godalming and chief wireless telegraphist of the Titanic. Phillips continued to stand by his post as the ship sunk. Dorinda shows me a photo of her dad, sitting right here, beneath the wisteria. The previously empty space ahead of me becomes filled with Vicent’s shape, his presence.

Following the path down to the river, the weeping willows are truly spectacular, but their roots, breaking through the tar, are tiresome obstacles for the wheelchair user. The garden path leads us back to the main road (precarious, says Dorinda), and then up another troublesomely steep ramp, beside a scruffy meadow, arriving back at the High Street. Our walk ends, as theirs did, in the Slug and Lettuce, a large, almost empty, anonymous chain-pub. Here, Vincent and Dorinda would have tea and chocolate muffins. Today, Dorinda is also carrying a recycled biscuit tin which carefully stores the few bits and pieces retrieved in February from Room 17. There’s not much: a small bar of used soap in its plastic container; a thick book of black and white family photographs (made by Peter Hulton); a colour photograph of Vincent gently holding a guinea pig on his last birthday; cards sent by Dorinda and her sister; a key – though to what remains a mystery; a caramel chocolate; and a little complementary shortbread biscuit from here, the Slug and Lettuce. Dorinda and I eat shortbread biscuits as we drink our tea. This, too, is a transitional moment; a way of preparing ourselves to walk back to the station and out of Godalming. I feel, though, that I now carry a little bit of Vincent with me.

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One Response to “Walking with Dorinda Hulton on 4 August 2010”

  1. Massy Vincent Stewart Says:

    The colours are vivid.
    The humanity respectful, warm, gentle, cultured.
    The detail is “au point”.
    Superb.

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