When you finally go back to your old home, you find it wasn’t the old home you missed but your childhood.

July 21, 2023 – Sam Ewing

Everyone knows it can be a mistake to visit places of childhood holidays. They can look different, perhaps smaller, and not always as you remembered them. Sometimes the old feelings from youth surface, but sometimes not. I have discovered recently that there is a barristers’ equivalent.

Due to the backlog of work caused by COVID, cases have found themselves flying out of the metropolis to far-flung corners of the Circuit. When you get the news to start with, ‘By the way sir, your case is going to…’ there is a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach: train journeys are unlikely to be better than they were when you could have full English breakfast in the dining car and the greatest hazard was getting marmalade on your brief; and now there are Tupperware salads to be made each night at 1am when you are desperate for your bed.

This is quickly replaced, however, by a sort of nosiness. What it will be like? Perhaps you are going to a court that once held terrors: where judges were judges, with fearsome tempers, acid tongues and, in some cases, a streak of malign cruelty. None of this nonsense about not being rude to counsel or respecting your right not to have to produce a ten-page schedule over a weekend. I remember as a very baby brief, trying to say sotto voce (rather pointlessly) to the judge during my closing speech that one of the jurors had fallen asleep. He did not reply in a whisper but in crisply enunciated biting tones by saying, ‘Just the one, Mr Byfield?’.

Or was it a court where you had been granted a famous victory, or been terribly late, or annoyed the judge or behaved in a peculiar way, like the day I split my trousers getting out of a cab and had to wrap my gown round me in a bizarre fashion such that ever after, whenever I bumped into that judge, he always gave me a very strange look.

I had a trip down memory lane a few weeks ago which started quite well. I exited the train in a cheerful market town on a lovely sunny day with my knapsack on my back and a supermarket bag-for-life (the modern equivalent of the old blue bag) containing my robes and set off for the court.

I knew it wasn’t far from the station and to begin with everything looked as I remembered – there was the occasional new office block and sQome old haunts had vanished. I smiled to myself. I had 40 minutes to get there and see my client. Then, just like those dreams many barristers get the night before a big case, where the journey goes horribly wrong, I began to recognise less and less of my surroundings.

The sunny day was becoming rather hot. I did not remember the court being this far away. Eventually I found it, but the entrance was barred by a big, locked gate. Efforts to walk round it took me into a small housing estate with a no-through road. My junior was calling my mobile. I had remembered the court facing entirely the other way round. Could they have somehow reversed the building? Was I losing my marbles?

My 40 minutes had now become 20 minutes, so no visit to the cells. I was now getting very hot and sticky. People from the houses nearby were beginning to stare. I couldn’t really ask them where the court was, because it was right in front of me. It was just that I couldn’t get into it. What if actually it was one of those awful dreams and I was still asleep in bed? I cancelled that idea. While dreams can sometimes feel very real, there is something about reality that means you know you are awake. Ten minutes to start time.

Having crawled through some bushes, I suddenly realised that I had not been at the front entrance of the court at all, even though it had a sort of front door. I had been at the back. I knew where I was now. I could even see the station. I had walked completely the wrong way at about four times the distance. I shot through security, flung on my robes, ran into court and beat the judge by a minute.

‘How does it feel being back?’ whispered my junior. ‘You know,’ I said, ‘that’s a very interesting question.’