My Weekend: A whirlwind tour of the North

At least once every year, my family and I make the 4-5 hour drive North, up to Lancashire where my grandparents live. Both my father’s family and my mother’s family originate from within an hour’s drive of each other, and so we have many relatives and friends who we are obliged to visit from time to time. However, normally there is only one weekend during which we can manage to drive up, as my Mum works full time in London. This was the weekend.

We woke up early on Saturday, at around 6:45 in the morning, packed the car and started the drive. The route, off the top of my head, is something like this: M25, M40, M42, M6, M6 toll, M6, M56, M60, M66. That’s quite a lot of M roads (motorways). And M roads are the roads that are usually closed, slow, being built upon, improved, inspected and so forth. Travelling on M roads is unpredictable. If there has been an accident, you can be at a standstill for hours on end. Everything was going fine until we reached the M6. ‘Upgrading to smart motorway’ the signs said. ‘Here we go’ everyone else said.

Now, I have absolutely nothing against Smart Motorways. I’m sure that it will make the roads safer by having lanes that can be temporarily opened and closed again etc. However, it seems to be taking forever, and whilst they ‘upgrade,’ the old motorway is down to 2 lanes, and the traffic suffers. We were meant to arrive at my Godmother’s house in Warrington at 11 for coffee. We arrived at 12:45, needless to say hungry, thirsty, grumpy, claustrophobic, annoyed with each other for all wanting different music on in the car, and much in need of a toilet.

1 hr later, refreshed with a cup of tea or ‘brew’ and a croissant, we set off again. This time, we were heading to Manchester. We arrived at our Premier Inn at Heaton Park (which was very good and has a Ben and Jerry’s vending machine at reception, not something we tried, but we were impressed anyhow). It’s amazing how chocolate and ice cream can sometimes be the way to a girl’s heart! It was very much the perfect hotel for us. It was right off the M60, a short walk to the park, so we could run around and relieve our cabin fever, a short walk to Bowker Vale tram stop, and therefore a 10 minute tram ride right into central Manchester.

What was the reason for us going to Manchester? Well firstly, we needed somewhere to stay the night, and this was a close enough location. Secondly we were going to visit our family friends from the Isle of Man. The mother is my brother’s Godmother, and my Mum is the Godmother of the daughter. The father was our old choirmaster when they still lived in London. Anyway, it’s sort of like a complete Godfamily.

However, I am not a fan of the Isle of Man. The culture is very competitive, because there are only so many people on the island. Everyone believes that they have to be the best, something I don’t agree with. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, which can be lovely, but also not from time to time. Within 3 hours of landing at the airport (no we don’t get the boat!) everyone who knows anyone will know where you are staying, that you are relatives of X and so forth. If you meet someone on the street, they will come up and tell you where they live, and that if you’d like to, you can pop in for tea, or they’ll offer to pick you up and take you home. People don’t look when they cross the streets, because they know whoever is driving the car will stop for them. Children have no concept of personal safety, or a world outside the island. As a young teenage girl living in London, this is very much against my instincts. I am taught always to be conscious of my surroundings, never to go out alone, to come home before the last train and when a stranger offers to take me home, I will blatantly refuse, no matter if they say they know where I am staying. It is odd to me, that everyone on the island knows my name. I tend to feel quite claustrophobic, enclosed, and generally I cannot wait to get off. Furthermore, it always rains.

So needless to say, I wasn’t in the best of spirits. This didn’t improve through the evening. Let’s just say the first thing I heard was that they were bringing their piano teacher with them to dinner. Well, the last time I met their piano teacher I was waitressing for one of their parties on the island. This piano teacher was completely off her head drunk, kept asking for a refill of wine, started feeling up any man in the room (whether married or not), stayed until everyone else had gone, and only left at 3am. She (although 67ish) wore bright lipstick, 9 inch heels and short and tight dresses (although dresses is rather a generous word for them). She told me all about how her husband had left her and she had spent all her money on shoes and handbags. She wasn’t in my ‘good books’ and after a while I saw exactly why her husband had divorced her in the first place.

When we met them on Saturday night, the first thing the mother of the family said when we met them was ‘Oh, Grace (let’s call the piano teacher Grace) has just met her old piano professor (she studied at Cheetam’s Music School) and is giving him a pot of Isle of Man honey.’ Grace then proceeded to give us honey too. A little strange. It wasn’t a surprise to me that she couldn’t remember our names from the previous time we had seen her. However, I was a little surprised that having asked my name, what I studied and my plans for the future at the beginning of the evening, she then proceeded to ask these things at least 5 times more, on her 4th glass of wine by the end of the evening. She wanted everyone to taste her lemon posset off her spoon. I’m not that much of a germ freak (I am a bit) but I object to eating practically a stranger’s dessert off their spoon. It was more than a little awkward.

We grinned and bore it and made our way back to the hotel on the tram. I was quite worried about Grace. She seemed to have no regard for appropriate social etiquette when you meet a stranger, and was exhibiting signs of amnesia and alcoholism. Everyone else just laughed it off, and said that it was the ‘Isle of Man way’ and that she was simply scatty and full of herself. I’m not so sure. I was distracted, however, with trying to keep myself and my possessions safe, on a tram full of drunk stag and hen night parties, getting very intimate both with each other and with strangers. In a town where my accent alone gives me away as a ‘Southerner’ and as a young girl, separated from my family by a rather rotund man drinking a can of Stella Artois (ignoring the polite notices stating there was no eating or drinking) and therefore alone on a tram, I didn’t even feel very safe saying ‘excuse me, this is my stop, please can I get through.’

I’m afraid that I have painted a very grim picture of Manchester. It wasn’t all bad, I was just shocked by its ‘lairy’ nightlife. I enjoyed visiting the Cathedral (evensong of Rose responses, Stanford in G and Edgar Bainton ‘And I saw a New Heaven’ – all fantastic), the John Ryland’s Library and going shopping with my Mum to buy M&S foot cream (apparently it’s so good that it’s sold out in every M&S in the City)… However, on attending evensong on Saturday afternoon in the Cathedral (and bumping into one of my friends singing – the Cathedral world is a small one), the prayers ‘for those who would find themselves vulnerable this night, both those homeless and those who find themselves in a condition unworthy to get home, and for the emergency services who work so hard on Saturday nights’ said it all for me really. I don’t think I’d really fit in in Manchester.

Anyhow, we awoke on Sunday morning, ready to set off again after our sumptuous Beefeater sausage sandwiches. We drove to Boundary Mills, an outlet centre just outside of Colne. We have a family policy of never buying anything for full price. We were heading to a family 70th birthday party, and my brother (growing as he is) put on his jacket to find that his sleeves were halfway up his arms. So we were searching for a jacket for him. 1 hour later, we came out with a suit for him, a pair of school shoes for both of us, a pair of trousers for my Dad, a few work dresses for my Mum, and a swimsuit and goggles for me. But all more than half of RRP. Apparently that makes shopping OK in my Mum’s books.

The birthday party was great. My great aunt is disabled, with a disease a bit like muscular dystrophy, along with severe speech impairment. In all her 70 years, it has never been properly diagnosed. As a child, her parents (my great grandparents) refused to believe that there was anything wrong with her. She was treated just like my Granny and great Uncle. Actually, whilst this may not have always been good for her, she gained an enviable level of independence. She is now able to live on her own, unassisted, drive, cook, and look after her 2 dogs. There was a time when no one thought she would live above 50, and here she is 20 years later. It was a celebration of everything that she has achieved, and everything that has enabled her to become who she is today. We ate tremendously, with roast beef and trifle, and of course, the statutory birthday cake. And it was all hot and tasty – a great feat considering the hotel was also hosting a wedding ceremony, 2 wedding receptions, and a 21st birthday party. It was great to catch up with not only my great Aunt, but my great Uncle and all his family, my Granny’s cousins (no idea what relation they are to me) including the eldest who turns 93 a week on Monday (she is my brother’s familial birthday twin).

We were loathed to go home, but the time came, and we trudged off down to the car park and strapped ourselves in once again. On the way home, we stopped off at my maternal grandparents’ house for a cup of tea and after our talk the other day, my grandfather gave me a whole stack of his treasures, his French literature. I will have to tell you all about them once I have read them, but that may take a while. In the meantime, I need a new bookshelf! My room at the moment resembles somewhat a Roman hypocaust system with books stacked up in different piles…

After avoiding the M6, another tea break (as you can tell tea is a frequent necessity in our family), and a sausage roll and petrol stop off at Warwick services, we finally got back home at 23:30 last night. Overall, I would say it was not the trip from hell that we have sometimes had..! I have had quite some experiences in Manchester, visited another Cathedral (I want to visit all the Cathedrals in England), driven up and down and around to North Lancashire (around 432 miles according to google maps), visited over 25 members of family and bought a swimsuit and a pair of goggles in 36 hours. I would say that’s pretty good.

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