Out walking, my route turned a corner and the distinct sound of a cockerel crowing had an instantaneous effect, filling me with nostalgia for decades gone by and being in my grandfather’s northern garden as a child, surrounded by his prize chickens. 

My progress continued alongside a line of allotments and there they were, the chickens, grubbing around for food. So, after months of working in the Mediterranean with blue skies and views of an inviting sea, that strong emotion had the power to stop me in my tracks and not merely remember but feel so strongly that I was actually in my grandparents’ garden. A shake of the head and a deep breath was required to control the emotion.

The North. Photo by Helen Nugent.

Very different circumstances had a similar result, linked to taste. My Mum baked legendary cheesecake – they were magnificent, far removed from the packet or mass-produced type. Just the sight of one in a restaurant, deep and baked with a sprinkling of brown on the undecorated top, and there was only one dessert to order. Every crumb was relished. So, what was that featherlight tap on my shoulder as I ate? Gone in an instant but only one possible source: the spirit of my Mum. There I am back in her Yorkshire kitchen with the range and the ever-present kettle on the hob. More nostalgia and hairs on the back of my neck standing up.

Smell is a powerful sense. Wood smoke triggers my nostalgia, but not the insipid outcome of a modern wood burner. It’s the hazy, lingering smoke that lies in northern valleys, limiting vision but with the ability to generate images of sitting round a bonfire with roast potatoes cooking slowly in the embers. Clothes and hair picking up the lingering essence of smoke, the darkness and the interpreting of pictures and shapes created by the flames accompanied by crispy crunchy potato skins – proper northern food.

Seaside memories

When my toes and the soles of my feet touch cool sand on an expansive northern beach, an array of nostalgic images come to mind, sparked alive by touch. The upper body is encased in a thick woollen jumper over a swimsuit, legs bare to the elements. The excitement of being by the sea is palpable. The textures reflect how long it has been since the sea washed over the sand, but a splash and a paddle is a must-do activity, no matter how cold it is – and a shriek of excitement, too. This has been repeated over the decades of my life and, even writing these words, there is a sense of anticipation about when I will next be on a beach. Where? Somewhere between Whitby and Staithes is a good choice.

And finally to sound. Here I choose Lindisfarne and their track Run for Home. The name alone – Lindisfarne – conjures images of the island off the magnificent coast of Northumberland. But I start with the song and listen to the words: “I’ve travelled the land, made mistakes out of hand, Seen the faces in the places misunderstand”. 

And will I run for that northern home? It’s the angle of the sun in the sky and the length of the shadows, the beaches and the pebbles shot with iron ore, but then there is a ship lingering in that blue Mediterranean bay and the North African coast in the distance. Perhaps home can wait a while longer?

Staithes. Photo by Helen Nugent.

So I focus on the positive aspects of nostalgia. Rather than feeling homesick or lonely for northern landscapes, I remind myself that, according to the British Psychological Society (Wildschut et al 2008), nostalgia generates a positive effect and has the ability to strengthen social bonds. More importantly, it imbues life with meaning.

By Jan Green

Main image: Staithes by Helen Nugent