Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Oswestry

I went up to Oswestry on Monday to run a quiz. Actually, I wasn’t quite in Oswestry: I was in one of those conference-venues-cum-wedding-factories between Oswestry and Wrecsam. You know the ones? They’re always new, but built to look a bit oldie-worldie. They’re often associated with golf, but everyone knows they’re actually there so that couples getting married can be fleeced out of thousands of pounds because they’ve got the capacity to put pretty ties on the back of all of the chairs...

I was actually born in Oswestry and my Nana came from Rhosllanerchrugog, just outside Wrecsam, but my experience of the area on Monday was restricted to what I could see through my car windows whilst driving along a series of A roads and bypasses. I therefore didn’t get a great gulp of the soft Welsh air which first filled my lungs.

I don’t think many, if any of the people doing the quiz came from Oswestry. They were all conference delegates, so when I announced that I was born there, there was a bit of a tumbleweed moment. I got a far bigger cheer for mentioning Essex!

My assistant for the quiz was Nathan’s sister, Sam. There was all sorts of to-ing and fro-ing beforehand, and at one point, I was due to go up with Abbie, but then I got a call asking if I knew anyone who might be able to assist in the actual area, and, of course, I immediately thought of Sam, who’s lived on the borders for twenty years. What better way to hang out with your sister-in-law? 

I picked her up at her house near Market Drayton on my way through, and got to say a quick hello to Nathan’s Mum, Celia at the same time, so it was double whammies all round!

The quiz went brilliantly and Sam turned out to be a highly-skilled marker of papers. I wasn’t at all surprised. She is an accountant!

We had to take a diversion on the way home, which meant a rather lovely opportunity to snake our way through a series of little Welsh villages. The skies are very dark at night in that part of the world, which means well-lit houses and petrol stations seem to almost float in the gloom. I always love the sight of a starkly-lit petrol station at night. They always look so effortlessly retro. I suppose they haven’t really changed their basic shape since the 1950s, which gives them a somewhat romantic quality, which is, I’m sure, further aided by their being little oases of life in wildernesses and a welcome sight for the weary traveler.

We got a chance to drive past Sam’s old house in Penley, which has been massively tinkered with since she moved out about six years ago. It must be very odd to return to a house you knew so well to find it looking entirely different. The same thing happened to Sam Becker when I took him back to his old house in Kettering.

I stayed the night in a hotel in Coventry, which broke the back of the long journey home. I like staying in hotels. If I can have a bath, a nice cup of tea and an evening watching telly in bed, I’m a very happy camper. Sadly, it was well past 1am when I arrived, so I didn’t get to have fun. I tried to watch telly, propped up against the wall behind the bed, but I reckon the floor was made of ice, because the bed kept sliding away from the wall, causing me to repeatedly fall off the back, vanishing into a yawning chasm of dust and pillows.

Yesterday morning, I popped to my Grannie’s grave in Stoneleigh. I always try to leave a stone to say I’ve been, but, frustratingly, people keep removing them! There was still one there from my last visit, and now that there are two, I’m hoping people will start to view them as somehow significant. I called my Mum so I had someone to talk to to as I walked around the village. It was important for me to be able to say, “I’m walking towards the kissing gate, past the little wooden walkways they built along the footpath for when the river flooded...” and have someone know what I was talking about. I probably should have taken a trek up to the bluebell woods on the top of the hill, but it started to rain and I was keen to get home.

I always come away thinking what a remarkably beautiful place Stoneleigh is. It’s not just that it has emotional significance for me: I’m pretty sure it’s objectively one of the prettiest villages in the country.

The journey home felt somewhat arduous. I stopped at Toddington because I thought I was in danger of falling asleep.

The day ended back in London, in Mayfair, which is a place I very rarely find myself visiting. It all a bit shiny round those parts for my liking. I find myself longing to see a bit of rubbish rustling down the street, or a pithy, politicised piece of graffiti, otherwise things start to look like a film set. Everyone in Mayfair looks well-fed and beautifully turned out and the chemists have adverts for lip fillers in their windows.

I was running another quiz in a pub where the staff astounded me with their rudeness! I introduced myself to the French man behind the bar who so staggeringly surly, I thought I was in Paris! He begrudgingly showed me to an upstairs room where a second member of staff deigned to fetch me the portable speaker system, whilst mumbling “I’m actually on a break!” Talk about creating a bad first impression of a space! She actually turned out to be rather lovely, and had probably just had a really bad day, filled with rude costumers, but I guess it’s important for us all to avoid carrying the energy from unpleasant encounters into new encounters. I’m sure I’m guiltier than most of doing just that, but I’ve recently tried to meet new people with the belief that anyone has the power to change a mood. A well-timed act of kindness can enrich, or even save a life.

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