This is a post about how much I love Airfield.
This week we’ve been the plague house. Every morning Kitty has been coiled around her blankets after a night of thrashing and unrest. She has been boiling with rage and fever and glistening with slimetrails of mucus. And she has been (and this was the worst) grey and shaking and stinking from sickness. So today I think I want to go outside. I’ve spent most of this week indoors – in our small house, with the heat cranked up, and the watery light of the Dublin winter tantalisingly out of reach.
Today I want space and light and a stretch in the sky. I want to go to Airfield.
We found Airfield soon after we moved to Dublin. In Oxford, we were used to spending our time in the Botanic Gardens, the Natural History Museum, on Addison’s Walk. We lived in the thrumming heart of Oxford city centre for years. We had three playgrounds within walking distance of any of our three rented homes.
When we moved here, I Googled for local playgrounds. Nothing. Nothing that then-toddler Kitty could manage on foot. Even big strong Grace would have been tired after a brisk twenty-minute walk there and back to our closest playground. One recommendation online was that there is an area of fake grass at the back of Dundrum Town Centre, where children can have a run around. Isn’t that the most depressing thing you ever heard? We had no car. My windswept, blooming girls were being stifled in our scrubby back garden.
Then we found Airfield. It is a bit like magic up there. Everything is very beautiful, and a little bit wild. It is serene and peaceful and safe. You can skirt the edges and breathe in the silence, or you can eat homemade cakes in the cafe. It’s pretty much perfect, and it’s our favourite place in Dublin.
On our first visit, we saw a grey squirrel. We hadn’t seen one since we arrived back in Ireland. To me, those little guys are so firmly and indelibly connected with England. I remember getting my sister to take photos of me with a bunch of them in Hyde Park, while passing Londoners looked on with a mixture of horror and pity. Our garden in Oxford was teeming with them – they gorged themselves on fruit from our hazel tree and sat fatly and benignly in our long grass. My father, the mistrustful Kerryman, warned me not to leave the baby alone in the garden lest they attack her.
When we moved here, we really missed the squirrels.
Grey squirrel, sighted.
Airfield is the legacy of two sisters, Letitia and Naomi Overend. Wealthy Victorians, born twenty years apart, they were also farmers, mechanics, philanthropists, travellers. The difficulty with looking back is that the past can often feel flat, unreal. We forget that the world wasn’t sepia-tinted then. Airfield makes us see the colour of the past. We are plunged into the Overend sisters’ world. We see a buttersoft pair of gloves, stained and grooved from years of use. A sunhat sits beside a set of keys, as if gently set aside as the wearer comes in to wash up for dinner. The shocking immediacy of handwritten private letters let us explore their loves, their grief and stoicism, their pragmatism and good humour and small cares.
Five years after the death of her longterm partner, Emily, Letitia’s decisive handwriting conveys a brutal, breathtakingly restrained anguish. “…5 whole years. It seems worse every day – thankful remembrance for all the richness of perfect love”.
If you’re visiting for the first time, it’s going to be beautiful no matter what. But if you can, go early in the morning, in winter, on a bright day. It will be quiet then. There will be quite a few women like me – slightly pale and crumpled from broken nights, clutching coffee cups and Lidl pastries in brown paper, in trainers and warm coats and statement scarves. But we’ll probably be on a circuit from the playbarn to the animal sheds to the zipwire.
On a day like that, it’s best to stand on the paved area behind the house. You can hear the low hum of the motorway traffic, the distant drone of the school bells. Shards of sunlight cut the clouds. The mountains look very close.
On a morning like that, I think of Miss Naomi, living here alone for nearly twenty years after her sister’s death. I see her leaving the house, gently nudging the door shut behind her as she shrugs her coat on. Gravel crunches underfoot, her breath steams and roils in the sharp air as she blows into cupped hands for warmth. Those gloves go on, secateurs and twine are pocketed. On the slice of skin between glove and coat, she feels the shockingly familiar, insistent, cold prod of a dog’s nose.
I wonder how she died. Maybe it was clinical and cold, maybe she went to a hospital and never came back. I don’t know, it’s not my story. But I like to think of her – with her generosity and foresight – seeing the sun filtered through the velvet curtain of the evergreens for the last time, and hearing the lowing of the herd, and maybe knowing that someday, someone like me would find solace in her home.