My dad, as he often did when I was at university there, drove down to Bath with my mum – and arrived on time, surprisingly enough. Then we drove further south to Highcliffe near Bournemouth, where my dad’s mother – ‘Nana’ – and her husband – ‘Uncle Reg’ – live. My dad had reserved a room for us at a nearby hotel.
My parents, on the other hand, stayed with Nana and Reg. As they’re quite elderly, they no longer live in the two-storey bungalow (ie, the master bedroom was on the same level as the attic) that I remember from my childhood, with its big garden with a stream running along it, and, on the far side of the stream, a path leading to a nice big park where I climbed trees. Instead, they have a nicely appointed, but rather plain flat not far from the beach.
They’ve aged a lot since I last saw them – which was a long time ago. Nana was as nice and enthusiastically grandmotherly as she ever was and was a great hit with Habiba; Reg was quieter – his speaking voice was the same, but he didn’t say so much. He’s blind now, so maybe his blindness leaves him in a bit of a world of his own.
In the evening, we drove through the New Forest to an isolated pub for dinner with my dad’s half sister, Lalani, and her mother. Lalani, despite being my aunt, is younger than me or any of my siblings. I’d never met her before – and my dad hadn’t met her until recently. Which facts are explained by my dad’s late father’s estrangement from his first family. Lalani turned out to be a very sweet, friendly person and the meal was a pleasant experience.
The following morning, we went to have a look at the beach at Highcliffe, then set off up north – visiting Stonehenge on the way.
Our specific destination in T’ Nawrth was my sister’s place in the Derbyshire countryside – except not my sister’s place, but her ex-partner’s place because my sister’s place had been devastated by a child- and bathroom-related flood. The family spent a lot of time there and, on the first night, they threw a birthday party for me; later in the evening, we played Star Wars Monopoly.
It was the first time I’d seen Caroline’s kids in a couple of years and they’d grown, as children do. Nelly seemed to be turning into quite a mature teenager, Tom had grown from the clownish cherub I remember into an even-tempered and irreverent boy and the baby, Maisy, had now taken on the mantle of angelic toddler.
Visiting my family is usually a little awkward, as I’m not that close to them – about which I have mixed feelings. But my sister is a friendly, down-to-earth woman and her children are great – which makes them the effective heart of our family. Everyone seemed to take to Habiba very well. I’m sure Habiba felt more than a little apprehensive at meeting them, but she charmed them with her charming charm.
In a slightly bizarre yet completely planned-for turn of events, Lauren, Habiba’s colleague and friend from Korea – whom we’d already met and stayed with in Bratislava – came over to visit one day and we all went to Chatsworth House, a beautiful and very expensive place; the gardens were especially nice. Afterwards, the three of us went shopping at the Farm Shop associated with the house and ate cold pasties in the shop’s car park. Later, we got Bakewell tarts in Bakewell.
On our final full day in the UK, my dad drove us to Runcorn, where we had a nice lunch with my friends from my Liberal Democrat days, Liz and Roger. After chatting to them for a couple of hours about life, we walked over to and around Runcorn Hill. I’d described Runcorn to Habiba as being rather grim with more than its fair share of scumbags, but the parts we saw (with the exception of our brief visit to Halton Lea (which I still think of as Shopping City)) were quite respectable, and the town does have a couple of very nice parks.
After exploring the sandstone crags and views of the Mersey of Runcorn Hill, we walked down to my parents house, where we met my youngest brother, Alex, and their dogs. It was only a flying visit before heading back to Whaley Bridge, where I only just had time to fulfil my promise to give my niece (the elder) and nephew a crash course in Magic: The Gathering.
The following day and before we knew it, it seemed, we had to leave to catch our flight to Iceland and further adventures.