Walking with Mary Nixon on 2 February, 2013


I am walking with my Aunty Sos (proper name Mary Nixon, née Mary Duncalf). I also like to think that we are walking with my mum, Prunie (proper name June Heddon, née June Duncalf). June was one of 12 siblings who grew up in the small town of Conwy, in North Wales. My Aunty Sos is my mum’s older sister. She moved back to Conwy just a few months ago. Our walk will take us around the town, retracing my own steps (long summers spent here as a child), Sos and my mum’s steps, and my gran and granddad’s steps. Layers of memories are trodden into the streets of this magical, thirteenth-century walled market town.

I stopped visiting Conwy when my mum died (when I was 17). Returning at the age of 43, I am struck by the things I didn’t notice as a child – the fact that Conwy is nestled beneath glorious hills (a sprinkle of snow on them today), that many of the thoroughfares of Conwy are framed by arches, even – and this seems a truly remarkable oversight – that castle walls ring the town. So today, I marvel at what I have missed. But at the same time, I find myself falling into known rhythms and routes, catching glimpses of myself as a child visiting her gran’s shop (now closed down), as a teenager working in her uncle’s aquarium (now demolished), as a student serving endless plates of fish and chips in the restaurant (now an armoury museum). We walk. Time does not stand still.

We start on Church Street – St. John’s Methodist Church, where the Duncalf kids attended Sunday school (“I never knew that”). We head to the roundabout and what used to be the Towers Restaurant, gift shop and coffee shop. The exterior looks exactly the same – white walls, black frames and doors. But the sign signals a parallel universe – ‘The Knight Shop’. What was gran’s gift shop is boarded up (though the ice cream hatch on the side wall looks like it could easily come into service again). The Tower Coffee House is closed too, but its name is at least the same, an anchor to the past. The wishing well on the patch of grass has been cemented over – no pennies for luck.

Down Castle Street – past what was and still is the doctor’s surgery, then the dentist’s. A tired-looking house, with boarded up windows, is home to a number of jackdaw sculptures perched on its roof. (Those born and bred in the town are known as Jackdaws.) A sign on the window of a shop closed for winter nudges me into the past – ‘All you need for crabbing sold here. Crab lines. Crab buckets, nets and bate.’ I wonder, though, if this memory is actually mine or whether I’ve unwittingly appropriated others’ childhoods?

We resist the allure of the National Trust’s Aberconwy House (‘The oldest house in Conwy, built circa 1300) and head for a warming coffee up High Street. The cinema has long been the Palace Bingo. I am sure mum told me stories of exchanging jam jars for tickets, but Aunty Sos has no recollection of this.

Back on to Castle Street, which becomes Berry Street. And there’s Stretford House, in monochrome. When my mum was a kid, this was called the River Grill – the restaurant owned and run by my granddad. The whole family lived in the rooms above – Aunty Sos tells of all 14 of them sharing three bedrooms, the boys stuck in the attic. I look up and down the street, trying to see through the eyes of a young girl. This would surely have been my mum’s playground, this road the one she walked daily, those windows the ones she would have looked out of, these walls the ones she would have lain behind. The River Grill is now the Conwy Kebab, Burger and Pizza House.

The arch at the end of Berry Street leads us into Bodlondeb Park, Aunty Sos pointing out hidden places where she and her pals would lure attractive boys (and where her younger sister, June, would be an irritant). The gentle slope offers views of the river. We follow the path that leads us to the back of the primary school which Sos and my mum attended. This is the first time I’ve seen it. (It’s a Youth Centre now). Then we descend Town Ditch Road, walking parallel to the castle walls. Passing on the other side of Berry Street, I am amazed at what would have been my mum’s daily view – looking down the street to the Castle that sits at its end. (It is only on our walk today that I realise my mum grew up within castle walls!)

Down to the quay, where most of what I remember has been demolished (but I remember it, so it’s still there). The Smallest House in Great Britain remains standing (though closed). And the river, always a back drop. I see in my mind’s eye hundreds of black and white photos of the Duncalf crew larking about down here. And I remember the story of Naffa falling on an anchor. And I think I might have tried water-skiing once. And I definitely enjoyed a speedboat ride.

The arch behind us – Lower Gate – also seems like a member of the family – so many of those old photos show a sister or groups of siblings striding through here, Kings and Queens of the Castle. Just behind this arch is the lane that leads to the back yard of Stretford House. Aunty Sos points to one corner – that’s where Uncle Howard prepared the potatoes for chips. Peering through the saggy grey lace curtain of the kitchen window, I wonder if some of the detritus piled up on the other side of the grimy glass might actually belong to the 1940s and 50s?

Our stroll along the quay leads us onto the bridge over the river, the castle standing full behind us. Aunty Sos has her own tales of this place. Having left Conwy nearly forty years ago, her choice to return here now surely tells a story about home.

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