I have been friends with K for 15 years and throughout our friendship, K has told me all about her English friends, J&L who she met during her high school years in France. Indeed most of K's French high school stories are punctuated with laughs shared with J&L and antics revolving around J&L, to the point where in my mind at least, J&L almost become one wonderful person, whose influence and friendship still means so much to K today. The fact that J&L have recently had baby boys within just a few weeks of each other means it was a perfect time to visit them.
I went out to Heathrow to meet K on Saturday morning and I must be turning into a giant basket case in my old age. All around me, families were reuniting. It was literally the opening & closing credits of "Love Actually" and of course I felt like bawling. I am lousy at airport goodbyes and now I discovered that airport greetings slay me just as much. Hopeless. Ultimately K came through the arrivals gate and I spared her my old-lady blubbering and instead, I took the route of a friendly hug and the purchase of a ultra-large, very strong coffee for my jet lagged friend.
K had hired a Ford Focus to transport us around on the weekend. She also made the last minute BRILLIANT decision to throw in a TomTom satellite navigation thingy to make absolutely sure we made it to our destinations - and back to London again. I gratefully accepted the role of Navigator (aka Chief TomTom Programmer).
Having successfully charged Tom with plotting our journey, K brought out her car ipod radio tuner thingy and I set about tuning us in to Amy Winehouse. My success in this regard was limited, but I blamed the poor radio reception on that stretch of the motorway. By the time we hit the more open roads, we had a clear sound and we were as cheerful as Thelma and Louise. Well, at the start of the movie anyway; you know, the bits up to that part where they shoot that guy and it all starts to go downhill. You know what I mean. Move on.
If you're interested, I can give you a full report of the "services" along the motorway - those delightful oases of truck stop coffee; lukewarm toasted sandwiches; and public toilets of varying cleanliness. We stopped at a couple of these places along the motorway, more to mess with Tom than anything else. By this stage I had changed Tom's voice to a rather debonair Englishman's accent. Every time we veered off the motorway into a "services" stop, Tom would gently scold us and then chide us more firmly, all in his delightful, dulcet tones. We loved it! Tom wasn't coping well with our disobedience and our constant deviation from his carefully-planned route. It was classic.
We spent Saturday night with L and her family in Manchester. We didn't see anything of the city itself but it was lovely to finally meet L, her partner and their adorable baby boy. We had a delicious meal and a great catchup before it was time for bed - for all of us. The next morning we all enjoyed a bit of a sleep in and then we were on the move again, heading south in the direction of J's house.
En route we decided Tom needed an extra challenge and we wanted him to navigate somewhere interesting that we could visit along the way. At this point I had to resort to old fashioned means and review the atlas I had brought along with us, and we decided to detour to Nottingham. K and I decided that we were more interested to see Sherwood Forest of course, but as that sits just north of the city of Nottingham itself, we figured we'd ask Tom to plot us there.
Nottingham is...well, it's easier to say what Nottingham is not. Nottingham is not busy, even on a Sunday. It is also not as full of Robin Hood paraphernalia as you might think (and as I had so dearly hoped it would be). Nottingham is also not a well signposted city and as such, Tom nearly found himself flung out the window as he insisted on taking us down one-way streets and parts of town torn apart by roadworks and dead ends. Though it did not occur to me at the time, perhaps Tom was punishing us for our earlier unscheduled motorway pit-stops....
In any case, we pulled into a public carpark and visited the Nottingham Castle, just to say we did something during our visit. Truth is, we would have visited Nottingham Castle, but for the fact that it no longer exists. Obviously this is something we found our after we had paid our 5GBP entry fee. No wonder the ticket booth girls were surprised when we wanted to buy tickets! The old mansion on the site of the former medieval castle is now a Museum and Art Gallery, currently showing a very small exhibition of movie props and a few costumes from Russell Crowe's Robin Hood movie. Continuing the poor signposting that had come to characterise Nottingham, the signs in the Museum pointed to nowhere in particular and Kate and I became very quickly lost and irritated by the whole experience. I bought some postcards in the gift shop, and we headed back to the car.
Declaring a truce with us, Tom navigated us off the motorway and through gorgeous little English villages and gave us safe passage to J's house in the small but very charming little village of Whitchurch, in Buckinghamshire. J and her husband have been steadily doing up their house over the past few years and it is truly stunning. Their other labour of love, their baby boy, is especially gorgeous and quite the little charmer, cheeky grin and all.
After our uneventful detour to Nottingham (which caused J's husband a great deal of amusement), we ate a delicious curry dinner and again, it was time for bed. The next morning, J's husband had to work but J took us out to lunch at The Betsey Wynne pub in nearby Swanbourne and then we drove to the picture-postcard town of Haddenham, with its gorgeous thatched cottages, cobbled streets, and a lovely pond with white ducks.
By the time we said our goodbyes to J, both of us were feeling pretty tired so K and I deferred to Tom to get us safely back to Heathrow. He did of course, just as the rain started to fall. I was relieved for that because I wouldn't have liked to be out on those motorways in drizzly weather.
Weekends, but especially those spent out of town, always recharge my batteries and even though today at work was busy and my in-tray was almost overflowing, I'm glad that K and I had the chance to get away, see her lovely friends, and explore a bit more of this pretty country.