Yesterday we went to Aberystwyth where I was a student from 1987 to 1990. But it wasn’t there. Instead there was an interloper town. An Anytown, full of Argos and Morrisons and Focus and car parks where there were once wide open spaces. And people, so many people thronging the pavements and eating in cafes. Walking around clutching blue boxes of fish and chips to eat sitting outside the station, part of which is now a Weatherspoons, or outside a dispiritedly closing down shop. I thought Aber used to be a seaside town, with a seafront.
We walked, my eyes scanning for signs of the old Aber. We encountered groups of students, some wearing the hooded university sweatshirts I used to be so proud to wear. I sought their faces, hungrily looking, for what? For myself? For something, someone I recognised? My brain couldn’t really accept that these were students 20 years on and if I did encounter someone from my university days they too would be older and greyer.
My feet took us on through the crowds, past Monsoon and Waterstones and Boots – still shrouded in scaffolding. Has Boots been hidden by scaffolding for 20 years? Do they ever let it see the light of day? The street (two back from the sea front), I lived in is still there, and the house I lived in was undoubtedly there too, but I couldn’t remember the number or trust my feet to find it, and anyway my elderly landlady will be long gone. Who would I find there now? Someone else’s posters hiding the hideous turquoise and purple wallpaper in my old room?Someone else’s 50ps in the electricity meter?I wonder if they put crumbs on the windowsill for the blue tits?
When I was in Aber they knocked down the old Kings Hall. As if by some crazy miracle a new Kings Hall has sprung up in its place, but my eyes sped on past, as if they couldn’t believe it, but also to seek out the sea. There it was! Some things never change. At least the sea front was still there. Carpenter Hall is still blue. The Belle Vue is still there. I forgot to look for the Mariners where we had windsurfing club meetings every Tuesday night. How could I forget to look for the Mariners?
But the sea front was strangely forlorn and lonely. A few people wandering about, some no doubt off to kick the bar, if that tradition still lives on. But the sea loses out it seems now, 17 years after I left clutching my 2:2 in Agricultural Economics. It’s as if this Anytown has turned its back on its heritage and bought retail greed instead. It was crowded, it was messy, and it was awful. The first thing I saw on entering this new Anytown Aber were the golden arches of MacDonald’s, then a retail park with its homogenous, faceless stores offering the same old same old. They’ve castrated my old town and stuffed it full of tat.
Perhaps one shouldn’t go back to places you once loved. The same has happened to Birmingham. I went there five years ago after a gap of 15 years. I couldn’t find Birmingham. No Bull Ring with big black Caribbean ladies selling delicious slices of pineapple to hungry broke teenagers like I was then. It had gone all posh. I think Aber’s trying to do that too. I didn’t like it.