Time to bask in the familiar old cottage by the North Sea - Ian McMillan

I open the door to the holiday cottage and there is the familiar low rumble of the freezer, just audible, like a murmured conversation through the thin wall of a hotel.

Dunstanburgh Castle by the North Sea in Northumberland, taken from Embleton Bay. Picture by Jane Coltman
Dunstanburgh Castle by the North Sea in Northumberland, taken from Embleton Bay. Picture by Jane Coltman

I step inside and walk into the tiny kitchen, hoping against hope that nothing has changed. On the kitchen windowsill there is a shallow fruit bowl with no fruit in it, but there is always a novelty cruet set where the fruit should be, in the shape of two lighthouses, and there it is. Still there, unchanging. And my heart leaps. And in all the time we’ve been coming to this place by the North Sea there has never been any salt or pepper in the lighthouse-pots but I don’t care. They’re there, and that’s all that matters. The freezer rumble; the novelty cruet set. I’m a happy man.

Perhaps we’ve all got places that we visit and revisit and which somehow become big parts of the story of our lives, special places that we can withdraw from the memory bank when the going gets dull, and this little bungalow is certainly one of my sacred spots.

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We first came here about 15 years ago with my grandson Thomas when he was a toddler and he’s now a strapping lad of 17. We came again when he was about nine years old and the weather was terrible and we spent the time going to the nearby town of Alnwick and buying books at that great cathedral of second-hand print Barter Books and taking them back to the cottage to read as the rain and hail hurled itself at the windows. My wife and I have gone back many times since and the familiarity of the space has offered solace and continuity at times when the world seemed to be spinning off its axis.

It’s odd (to me anyway) that when I’m reading or listening or looking I like the new: new poetry, new novels, new music, new art; but then there’s the paradox that I want some things to stay the same, to never change, to always be there like a novelty cruet set on a kitchen windowsill.

Perhaps the presence of these continuities is essential for creativity; I know that I can come up with ideas for writing and manipulate those ideas into sentences and lines of poetry if I write in familiar surroundings, if the view from the window of my little room upstairs at home remains the same, if the birdsong from the trees at the back of the garden is as beautiful and tumultuous as ever.

I put my notebook down on the wide hearth of the old fireplace and I know that by the end of our week here it will be brimming with ideas and fragments and half-polished images. The freezer hums its endless tune. The old poster advertising an event from 1987 is still on the wall. The fridge magnet from the Epcot Center hasn’t moved. Time to bask in the familiar for a week and get my batteries recharged.