I live in a small town in Bedfordshire called Ampthill. I’m probably biased, but I think it’s an incredible little place. According to a recent survey, it has the best high street in the country for independent retailers, and frankly, it must hold some sort of record for the ratio of pubs and coffee shops to population. It’s the place where, 40 years ago, the mystery of Masquerade was solved and Kit Williams’ golden Hare was found. It’s where Katherine of Aragon lived whilst Henry VIII was divorcing her. A Georgian market town, it’s been described variously, as ‘hobbity’ by the Daily Mail and ‘well boring’ by the odd teenager, and I bloody love it.
The town might be small, but it has a thriving community. There are more events than you can shake a stick at over the course of a year, and by far the biggest – the jewel in our community crown – is Ampthill Festival.
Back when Oldest Daughter was little, the Festival was pretty much just a Sunday afternoon event. Local schools, nurseries and clubs would parade through the town (we had floats in those days – 30 kids on the back of a slow moving lorry, what could possibly go wrong?) up to Ampthill Park, where there would be fairground rides and stalls, and we’d come home with hands and faces sticky from candy floss and ice-cream, arms full of inflatable tat, bubble wands and random cuddly toys won from various tombolas (10p a go).
Over the years the Festival has grown from just one afternoon into something of a juggernaut of a weekend. As well as the Sunday Gala Day, it now comprises a Literary Festival (of which I was proud to be a part for its first three years), a ‘Rocks’ night of bands and DJs, and a Proms night, three of which happen over the course of one amazing (and exhausting) weekend. It all kicks off on the Friday night with AmpRocks which has seen bands like Scouting For Girls, the Happy Mondays, Banarama, Busted and (my absolute favourite) Human League, rock the park. The following day is Ampthill Park Proms, where our town band and orchestra play alongside local school choirs and celebrity singers and presenters watched by thousands of us picnicking and quaffing prosecco (and, in the case of my friends and I, wearing a union flag hat, bought during the 2012 Olympics, that we’ve named The Brexit Hate of Shame). The weekend is rounded off with Gala Day. The parade, the candy floss and the inflatable tat remain, but now the Sunday features more celebrity guests, a massive water fight for the scouts and the huge music arena from Rocks and Proms where you can chill (more prosecco) for the afternoon if fairground rides and tombolas aren’t your thing. It’s incredible.
The Festival has become a kind of yardstick by why I can see time passing. Every time I watch the parade go through town, I remember Youngest Daughter stubbornly refusing to wear a sunhat on a blisteringly hot day and Oldest Daughter dressed as a soldier, complete with busby hat, on a thankfully, cooler day. I see Oldest Daughter, aged two trying to climb a scarily tall inflatable slide so slowly that the older kids were using her as a step (she persevered and got to the top though). I see Oldest Son, face covered in ice cream, daring to try the scariest ride and Youngest Son in his buggy fast asleep (he slept lots, still does) and later running around madly with friends before returning home flushed and tired.
Because it was such a big part of our family year, I found the first couple of Festivals after E left a bit tricky. The first year, I was determined to keep everything as normal as possible for the kids’ sake, so I trotted along to all three days. I enjoyed them, but every moment was tinged with sadness, with memories of being there as a couple, or as a family. I ended up getting horribly drunk on Gala Day and crying my heart out when I got home. By contrast, the next year, I was stone cold sober. I volunteered to help at various things over the weekend, which was great, but I was still struggling and, whilst I didn’t miss E at all, I still felt a bit lonely – the only single person in a crowd of couples.
This year, I considered not ‘doing’ the Festival at all. I couldn’t afford a ticket and I thought maybe a year off might be good. I didn’t go to Rocks (although I could hear it from my garden), but lovely friends bought me Proms tickets for my upcoming 50th, and Oldest Son was playing in the samba band in the parade, so, inevitably, Ampthill Festival (and The Brexit Hat of Shame) became my life for another weekend.
If I was worried about feeling sad or lonely again, I couldn’t have been more wrong. As I settled into my chair at Proms, and was handed the first of many glasses of prosecco (which would lead to an embarrassing stumble home), I suddenly realised how happy I was. I watched the little kids running around the arena, loving the music. I saw what looked like pretty much my whole community sitting on deckchairs, chatting and enjoying themselves and I felt like I was part of something amazing. I’ve said many times in this blog what amazing friends and family I have and this weekend just how lucky I am struck me again. I realised with some force that, whilst I might be having a bit of a rough time financially, apart from the lack-of-child-maintenance-for-ten-months, everything else in my life is so much better, so much happier, than I was with E. With a sudden burst of clarity, I saw that, that if you lift the financial situation out of the equation (which, I must admit, takes a fair bit of mental gymnastics), my life is abso-fucking-lutely amazing.
Now that E has gone, now that he doesn’t take up my time, there is so much more space in my life for me and I’m beginning to love it. At first this space felt like a void – it was a dark foggy shadow on the edges of my consciousness that made me aware of E’s betrayals and how different my life was now, compared to what it was. But now that fog has cleared and it’s like the sun has come up. All of that space, all of that time which was taken up by E, is all mine now. My life feels so much bigger, so much fuller, and so much happier.
So many things have changed for the better over the last two years. For a start, I have a job – one that doesn’t have to fit in with E’s hours. The pay is crap, but the people are lovely, and it’s mine – it’s something I got by myself, for myself. As a family, the kids and I are now closer than ever. We’ve been through two lots of GCSEs and one lot of A levels. We’ve navigated Christmases, Easters and Birthdays, with little or no input (or contribution) from E and they’ve all been lovely. We have a shared humour, an occasionally snarky Whats App chat group and a whole life that just doesn’t include, or need, E. I never sought to exclude him from his family (he did that himself), but without him, we’re more than just fine – we’re happier.
All of a sudden, I found that the devastated woman who had stared, uncomprehending, at E’s laptop on that November 2016 night seemed like a stranger to me. I realised that over the last two years, I’ve grown in confidence, found my feet and I am shaping a life that will be so much happier than the half-life I lived before. The financial stuff, whilst distressing, is temporary and hopefully soon I’ll have a new home, a new start and a new life which is completely on my own terms. Instead of worrying about the future, I’m almost excited to ponder and plan where I’ll be for the 2020 Festival.