Great Uncle Keith… and the Scotland Road Trip

I’m not sure quite how it happened but I found myself on a 600-mile road trip to the far recesses of Scotland with a toothless 85-year-old in my passenger seat.

We hadn’t seen my Great Uncle Keith for 25 years so it was a bit of shock when the phone rang at my parents’ house and a feeble voice rattled down the line, saying, ‘Hello, It’s Keithhhh.’

Great Uncle Keith, my father’s uncle, had slipped off the radar some time in the early 90s. He met a ‘lady friend’ called Valerie, who had seemingly wanted him all to himself and as a result, he had severed ties with the family.

A quarter of a century on, and with grasping Valerie having passed away, Great Uncle Keith had decided to re-connect with my father, his long-forgotten nephew – from all of 25 miles away in Manchester.

My father is an only child but his father George (now dead) had two other brothers – the aforementioned Keith, and Jack, who married Jill (!) and moved away to Scotland to lead a hardy life of hiking and extreme outdoor pursuits.

We hadn’t seen Jack and Jill for years either but would occasionally receive a postcard from them, usually from far-flung places like the Himalayas, accompanied by messages such as, ‘Did a steady 30-mile hike yesterday; tomorrow tackling Everest…’ or, ‘On the Inca Trail. 40 degrees. Terrain easy.’

Given that Keith hadn’t seen his brother Jack for many years either, I rather generously offered to drive him up there for a Scotland for a family reunion. My parents, never ones to miss out on an adventure, were to accompany us on the trip also, in order the provide some light relief or drive me to despair, depending on how you looked at it.

The first shock was the kind of surprise that you can only get when you haven’t seen someone for 25 years. Far from being the sprightly piano-playing uncle that my father fondly remembered, Keith was now a dithery old man, with only a few silver wisps of hair and, more worryingly, a distinct lack of teeth. He was to stay at my parents for the night before we embarked on the Great Road Trip to Garelochhead.

Somehow, at 2am in the morning, he managed to bring a whole glass shelf crashing down in the bathroom, causing my father to nearly have a heart attack and my mother to get terribly flustered indeed and make statements such as, ‘What on earth was he doing, CLATTERING around in the dead of night?!”

Morning came and the great road trip had begun. I was behind the wheel, with toothless Great Uncle Keith safely ensconced in the passenger seat. My mother was giving a running commentary of the scenery, while my father sat studying one of his Ordnance Survey maps. Four hours later, with a short lunch break (in which gummy Keith attempted to eat a sandwich like a gurning Les Dawson), we arrived at Jack and Jill’s little house on the edge of Loch Lomond.

I vaguely recall Jill from my childhood. She was rail thin, terribly fit and as sharp as glass. A retired headmistress through and through, she didn’t suffer fools gladly.

Jack was much more affable, very quiet and extremely fit also. Now 89, he was – unbelievably – still running up the fells and back before breakfast.

As the car pulled up, Jill waved a spindly arm. And the first thing she said as she greeted her long-lost brother-in-law was, ‘My goodness Keith, where on earth are your TEETH?’

It was a question that all of us were itching to know the answer to. We never did really get to the bottom of it.

She cast a shrewd eye over all of us and turned her attention to my father, who was visibly attempting to hold his stomach in.

‘And Michael,’ she went on. ‘Haven’t you put on weight?!’

Somewhat ironically, given her obsession with how porky we’d all become, she emerged from the kitchen with a mountain of cheese scones and insisted that we all tuck in immediately.

Jack, who had been out doing a spot of windsurfing on the loch and also appeared to have grown a handle bar moustache, arrived shortly after, and they both proceeded to regale us with tales of Pensioners Do Extreme Pursuits.


Two hours later and having been force-fed several more cheese scones, the parents and I began to make noises about leaving for Glasgow – thankful that we’d had the foresight to book into our own hotel – and telling Great Uncle Keith that we would return to collect him in 48 hours. He looked petrified.

Driving back two days later, Keith was already waiting on the path with his battered suitcase. He had never looked so pleased to see us. As we bundled him into the car, Jill peered in and said, ‘Now Keith, remember what I said. Straight to the dentist as soon as you get back. And then you must consult a dietician immediately.’

Privately, I thought the chances of Keith, who only ever ventured as far as the corner shop, consulting a dietician were extremely slim (excuse the pun) but I didn’t dare voice this under Jill’s steely gaze.

‘No Teeth’ Keith just smiled compliantly, showing his gums.

On the journey back, Keith told us that Jack and Jill had marched him several miles up a hill – not to fetch a pail of water – but to explore the former residence of Glasgow-born designer Charles Macintosh (famed for those silly chairs with an elongated back). Reaching the summit, they found that the house had yet to open for the day.

‘Never mind,’ they said. ‘We’ll just walk several miles into town for lunch and come back in a couple of hours.’

On the verge of collapse, puffing Keith had to plead not to be taken back up the hill, at which point Jill expressed her horror at how unfit he had become.

Overall, he’d enjoyed his mini-break, Keith concluded. But he was glad to be getting home.

‘Perhaps you’re getting a bit long in the tooth for these trips away,’ my father quipped.

My Family… and the Dawn French fixation

We are in the middle of the annual family sojourn to Cornwall, where my father has taken up residence on his favourite seat in the garden to study the passing ships with his binoculars (no doubt contemplating his own imminent foray out to sea in his beloved dinghy ‘Chrismick‘).


This was, until his binoculars fell upon a particular palatial home, built into the cliff directly opposite. My father sat studying the house for quite a long time and pondered who might live in such an opulent mansion.


That afternoon, my sister visited the cove below and reported that she saw a girl ‘fitting the description’ of Dawn French’s daughter Billie, padding from the beach and into the mouth of its imposing gates.

A lengthy discussion was then held by the whole family (along with lots of Googling) at the end of which it was decided that all the evidence pointed to a firm conclusion that this was in fact the residence of non other than Dawn French.

The next morning, my father rose early, filled his flask with coffee, took up position in his chair and trained his binoculars on the house, looking for any sign of movement.

‘Dawn Watch’ continued that evening, followed by another discussion about the rotund comedienne. My sister had been following her on Twitter and discovered she had been at a book signing in nearby Falmouth. There was every chance that Dawn might be at her Cornish home, fuelled by my father’s report of a light going on in the house at approximately 9pm.


And then, finally… a firm sighting! At 2.09pm yesterday afternoon, my father excitedly summoned us all to the garden and one by one we peered through the binoculars. Before our eyes was the unmistakable silhouette of Dawn French, on the balcony of her 40-room mansion enjoying the afternoon sun in a billowing kaftan.


Swept along by the excitement of the celebrity spot, the family began a running dialogue of her movements, with even my mother getting in on the act: Dawn’s looking out to sea; Dawn’s now leaning on the balustrade; Dawn’s now going inside the house; Dawn’s just scratched her bottom…

Dawn French is beginning to take over our holiday: my sister has been googling all about her divorce from Lenny Henry and recent marriage to a man called Mark Bignell (after a 16-month romance!); my father has been on Google Earth investigating the layout of her gothic-style house (it can’t possibly have 40 rooms!); my mother has become something of an expert in Dawn’s weight loss and then subsequent gain (it must be all those Cornish cream teas and pasties!).

Gripped by ‘French fever’, my father was last seen roaring off to Fowey in Chrismick to get a closer look at Dawn’s house from the sea.


I’m not sure where this obsession will end. Camping outside her house until she invites us all in for a traditional cream tea?


Watch this space…

My Father… and his ‘Boat’

One of my parents’ greatest pleasures is chugging down Fowey estuary in Cornwall in their ancient dinghy. They bought the dinghy in 1973 whilst ‘courting’ and named it Chrismick (a hybrid of their names).

The original Chrismick was upgraded to Chrismick mark II in the late 80s – and to this day it lives on, travelling down to Cornwall each year, with occasional ventures onto Lake Windermere.

But whatever you do, never call it a dinghy. In my father’s eyes, it’s a boat: his pride and joy. Better still, it fits into the boot of his car. And nothing gives my father greater joy then driving down the M6 to Cornwall knowing that he has a WHOLE BOAT neatly tucked into his trunk.


Arriving at Cornwall, my father begins the routine of inflating and launching Chrismick – with his trusty foot pump. As children, my sister and I thought this was a great adventure.

As adults, inflating a boat with feeble puffs of air while pumping your foot up and down repeatedly seems a long and tiresome process.

After about an hour of pumping and puffing, Chrismick is finally launched into the water – and we all pile in.

There follows an audible holding of breath while my father yanks the chain on the rusty engine several times, a pause – and then subsequent cheers when it miraculously splutters into life. The trusty Suzuki engine has never let them down yet.


The maddest part of this saga is that after a day on the river, my father then begins the long-winded process of deflating the dinghy and folding it back into the boot of his car – ready to relive the arduous process the next day. (He doesn’t trust Chrismick to be left on the water overnight).

My dad loves the challenge of studying his tide times and channels. On a good tide day, you can make it several miles in-land to Lerryn (of Wind In The Willows fame) and stop off for a Cornish cream tea.

This is another of my Dad’s triumphs in Chrismick: Venturing Places Where Real Boats Cannot Go.


My father proudly claims that Chrismick is a six-man dinghy but five adults is about its limit. Even then, it’s a cosy affair, with my father at the helm and the rest of us perched precariously on its sides, ever fearful that the whole thing might just pop and suddenly deflate.

Occasionally, my father shouts ‘bale’ and one of us has to start scooping out water using a baling device that my father fashioned out of an empty milk carton.


My father has a long-held dream of taking Chrismick out to sea, quashed only by my mother’s annual protests. Apparently they met a sailor in a pub down there in the 80s, who warned them that the coast in these parts is a perilous place – a story which my father still scoffs at.

But judging by the amount of puncture patches adorning on Chrismick’s faded grey sides, I think my mother’s fears are justified.

The place that my father wants to get to is called Lantic Bay – a secluded cove around the cliff of Polruan. To achieve this dream, my father would need to head out to sea, navigating choppy waters that definitely aren’t meant for an ailing dinghy.

He has been Weighing This Up for the last 40 years – more seriously in the last couple of years (egged on by The Foolhardy Husband).


In a week’s time, we’re heading down to Cornwall for our annual family jolly.

And I fear that 2013 could be the year that my father, Chrismick – and the husband – finally set out to sea.

My Parents… and the Sunday Walks

Every Sunday without fail, the parents and omnipresent Uncle Stephen set off on a walk – exploring a little corner of Lancashire each week. Occasionally, the husband and I join them, along with sporadic guest appearances from my sister and nephew Max.

Weather is never a problem for the stoic parents. We’ve been known to battle gales, snow and hail, all in the name of a bracing country walk. ‘A little bit of rain’, as my mother would say, isn’t something that they would allow to get in the way of their weekly ramble.

My mother also believes that no terrain is too rocky and no field too boggy for our hardy family to traverse. Once, on a walk in Haworth, we met a couple of walkers coming in the opposite direction, who advised that it was just too muddy further along, and that we probably should turn back now. My mother simply scoffed at their feebleness and ploughed on regardless.

But the most memorable walk was around Entwistle Reservoir near Bolton earlier this year.

There had been mass flooding in the area, meaning that parts of the reservoir had overflowed onto the footpath that ran around its perimeter. Signs were put up advising walkers to avoid the area.

Naturally, the parents remained completely impervious to this news.

It all began so well. There were a few puddles here and there – but further into the walk, the puddles began to grow, and a couple of passing dog walkers issued grave warnings that the path ahead was impassable and we should turn back immediately.

My mother simply didn’t believe them, and my father, upon hearing the word ‘impassable’, was even more determined to press on. He loves a challenge.

Further up, the flooding was so bad that it was impossible to see where the reservoir ended and the footpath began. It was just a giant expanse of water.

Faced with this impassable challenge, it was every man for himself.

My sister, left in charge of the pushchair, had no option but to slosh straight through the water – up to her knees!


The rest of us (Max, aka Fireman Sam, having been hastily hoisted onto the husband’s shoulders) decided to scramble up the bank at the side, and head for higher ground.


But my father, with his adventurous streak, plumped for a more difficult route. Determined not to stray too far from the footpath, he attempted to clamber, crab-style, along a rickety fence.


Half-way along, with water swirling below, the fence creaking ominously under his weight, and a sign announcing ‘dangerous undertows’, he realised that perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

But while the rest of us hollered ‘turn back’ from high above, Bear Grylls With A Bus Pass gamely shuffled on, determined not to be proved wrong.

Soaking wet, with squelching feet, and splinters in his hands, my father finally staggered over.

‘Well, that wasn’t too bad,’ he announced, seemingly unfazed by this brush with near-death.

‘Now, where are we thinking for lunch?’

Odd Jobs and Drawer Knobs

I’ve already told you that no distance is too far for the parents to travel. Lunch in Edinburgh? Not a problem. Meet you at a historic castle just north of the Outer Hebrides? See you there in eight hours.

And their go-anywhere attitude proves a blessing when there are any DIY jobs to do in Leeds (the husband having been rendered incapable of doing any odd jobs after a frightening incident involving a circular drill, details of which even he doesn’t want to share).

The only problem with my father and his handyman skills is that each task requires two long-winded journeys to Yorkshire: the first to Weigh The Job Up and the second to actually complete said job.

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My Mother… and her Telephone Voice

Remember in the 80s, when parents used to answer the landline by saying the area followed by their phone number ie. ‘St Albans 233915?’

Well, my mother STILL does that.

The husband didn’t believe me so I told him to call my mother. She answered with a trill, ‘Hello, Preston 7437**’, as she always does.

Sometimes, I try to cut her off somewhere between the 7 and the 4, by announcing, ‘It’s ME!’

But she always persists with saying the full number, in her poshest ‘telephone voice’, of course. I think it’s something to do with her former days working on the switchboard at BT, before she became student landlady extraordinaire.

My sister and I were always drilled to answer the telephone in our best secretarial voice,  just in case it was Someone Of Great Importance (it never was).

I love that the age of mobile communication has done nothing to dampen my mother’s habit.

The husband’s late grandmother took things one step further – answering the telephone not with her number but with her full postal address.

I almost wish I had a landline so I could carry on the tradition.

‘Hello, Orange 07956 2666**, somewhere in North Leeds…’ just doesn’t have the same ‘ring’ to it.

The Big End

I had a very random thought today: What is a car’s Big End exactly?

My childhood was dominated by my father perusing his maps and then attempting to drive down various pot-holed roads, always in a vehicle completely unsuitable for such ambitious pursuits.

And each off-road adventure always resulted in my mother clinging onto the dashboard as the car bumped and banged along, crying, ‘Slow down! You’re going to DAMAGE THE BIG END!’

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My Mother… and the Simple Students

Most student landlords fit into the stereotypical image of a burly, no-mess character, who would pitch up at the front door if your rent hadn’t been paid but would largely leave you to your own devices, unless the house was actually burning down.

And then there’s my mother.

My mother – with her cheery nature and natural desire to help – makes an extraordinary landlady. If the students so much as need a lightbulb changing, she promptly hops on her bicycle (she quite contentedly cycles everywhere, having never learnt to drive) and two-wheels down the hill to remedy the problem.

Pitching up at the front door with a deft rat-a-tat-tat, she bustles in, usually berating any poor student caught with a can of lager in their hand mid-afternoon.

‘Drinking at this time? It’s not even 5pm!’

She would then fix the offending lightbulb, wash a few dishes ‘now that I’m here’ and occasionally top up their toilet roll supply, before exiting in a whirl of energy, with a parting shot of, ‘don’t forget to put the recycling out’ – only just stopping short of actually staying to cook their dinner.

The extent of this madness doesn’t stop there. She often offers an impromptu ‘meet and greet’ service to bewildered students when they first land at Preston train station. My map-mad father once even printed off a map of Preston for one particularly feeble student – highlighting the route from the house to the University. It goes without saying that my mother has also been known to wash the occasional student’s bedding.

She puts up a pretence of exasperation with it all, her favourite phrase being: ‘Goodness knows how they are going to be able to do a degree!’

But secretly she loves it.

When I ask my mother what this year’s students are like, they usually fall in one of two categories: ‘simple’, or ‘a bit puffy’, the latter being my mum’s catch-all expression for any boy who acts feeble or slightly effeminate. The quota of puffy and/or simple students my mother encounters seems inordinately high.

Puffiness aside, it stands to reason that over the years, we’ve had our fair share of oddities. One such eccentric that springs to mind was Cameron – an idle character with unkempt, corkscrew hair, who languished in his room for days on end. Too lazy to go to the toilet, he simply used to urinate in a pan and place it under his bed. Not just one pan, but several… which accumulated over many months.

And when it came to moving out, rather than simply emptying his pans into the toilet, he placed them straight into bin liners, leaking his smelly urine all over the backyard – and subsequently the boot of my father’s car (much to his chagrin).

And how could we forget Alvaro, the hairy Spaniard, who barely spoke English – and could only communicate with my mother in exaggerated hand gestures (my mother firmly believes that adopting the tactic of speaking incredibly slowly and incredibly loudly to foreigners will somehow improve their communication). He was dubbed ‘the swarthy foreigner’ – a title which stuck with him for the remainder of the year.

And then there was The French. The French came in a pair, by the names of Idriss and Vincent. This troublesome twosome detested the English and had a strange obsession with leaving the bathroom completely sterile. If so much as a rogue bar of soap was left overnight by a fellow housemate, they would simply hurl it out of the window in utter disgust. Within six weeks of moving in, they had chased away the other three perfectly reasonable English housemates and commandeered the house for themselves, phoning my poor mother at all hours with their unreasonable demands.

Suffice to say, my mother has never viewed the French population in the same light again.

She would rather take a ‘puffy simpleton’ any day.

Cash is King

From a young age, the parents drilled it into me that banks were out to rob you blind and that anyone who used them was an utter fool – a belief so solidly engrained in their minds, that even now they simply cannot believe that banks allow you to store your money in them for free. My father would sooner have stashed his life savings under his mattress then hand it over to the evil clutches of Barclays or Natwest.

No, for the parents the trusty building society, with its share options and friendly cashiers, was the only safe option to store your hard-earned readies.

This unwavering loyalty to building societies meant that while the rest of the world were embracing the electronic age of debit cards and Internet banking, the parents were quite happily driving several miles to the building society every Saturday morning, clutching their passbook and queuing patiently before drawing out a predetermined sum of money which they had calculated would see them through the week ahead.

Our annual summer holiday in Cornwall proved a little more tricky though. The weeks leading up to the departure would involve a careful calculation of how much money we were likely to need for the week’s activities. In the unlikely event that we should run out of cash, my Dad kept a map of the nearest Woolwich building society branches in the car and would think nothing of a two-hour round trip to St Austell to top up his cash supply.

For years, the parents lived in this comfortable bubble, blissfully oblivious of the need or desire to pay for anything electronically or venture near an ATM.

That was until they pitched up at Premier Inn about two years ago, brandishing a fistful of crisp £20 notes (fresh from The Chorley and District Building Society that morning, I believe) – only to be told that ‘for security reasons’ they were unable to pay for their room with cash. No cash? For security reasons?! Even now, my father recounts the story with an incredulous snort.

However, this proved the tipping point. My mother booked an appointment with the building society manager to explain this rather unnerving episode in detail, and emerged half an hour later suspiciously peering at the shiny new debit card that had landed in her palm.

To this day, the debit card lives in the glove compartment of their car. It has on it a balance of £10 and is to be used FOR EMERGENCIES ONLY (the parents don’t leave any more money on it than that for fear of an identity thief stealing their life savings – although, somewhat ironically, the pin number is permanently attached to it on a post-it note, should the four-digit date of their anniversary temporarily elude them).

I’ve tried to get them to use a cash machine. I’ve tried explained that Chip and Pin aren’t some 90s rap artists but are, in fact, a simple and convenient way to pay for your shopping. I’ve tried to explain that the monetary world has moved on.

But old habits die hard and the parents continue with their Saturday morning ritual.

Images of desperate savers queuing to withdraw their life savings from Northern Rock and horror stories of wide-spread fraud served only to reinforce the parents’ belief that BANKS ARE BAD.

And with the current banking crisis and news that soon there will be no such thing as a free current account, I’m beginning to think that perhaps, just perhaps, the parents may have been right all along.

Going The Extra Mile

If I told you that the parents are happy to make a five-mile drive every Saturday simply to draw some cash out (more on that next week), it might come as no surprise that they think nothing of a 120-mile round trip for lunch.

Yes, no distance is too far for the parents to drive.

They would think nothing, either, of making a two-hour detour just to look at a building my father was vaguely interested in, or trek for miles across the Pennines in search of the source of the River Ribble (it’s a small babble of water in the middle of an isolated field in Yorkshire, for anyone remotely interested).

Once, due to my father’s inherent fear of flying, we drove from Preston to France, Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium – and back.

In a week.

Needless to say, my only lasting memory of that great cultural adventure was playing Top Trumps with my sister in the back of the car, while gazing at great expanses of Europe passing by in a blur.

One particular episode of my parents’ travelling madness occurred on New Year’s Day 2009, when most of the population were nursing hangovers and quite sensibly padding round the house in their PJs.

Not the parents.

Two days prior, the husband and I had foolishly agreed to accompany them (and the omnipresent Uncle Stephen – more on him later) on a relaxing country drive, hopefully stopping for a bite to eat in some quaint gastropub, en route.

What we didn’t know was that we would spend two nausea-inducing hours pretty much off-roading across the Lake District, with no guarantee of a meal at the end of it.

For someone who spends a maddening amount of time pondering over the simplest of tasks, my father turns into a cross between Lewis Hamilton and Dick Dastardly the minute he gets behind the wheel.

So it was with some trepidation, that the husband and I – feeling a little delicate from the previous night’s festivities – gingerly climbed into the back of my father’s Suzuki Swift (competitively priced, excellent fuel consumption AND one of Jeremy Clarkson’s favourite small cars – just ask the parents) before embarking on our New Year’s Day sojourn from hell.

After an hour heading into the Lake District, we began to climb higher into the hills, the rain lashing down and mist swirling around us (sounds dramatic but it really was). It might have been my imagination but the higher we climbed, the faster my father appeared to be driving, narrowly avoiding the occasional bemused sheep, and pulling over once or twice to study his trusty Ordnance Survey map – with all the intensity of a Man On A Mission.

When I tentatively broached the subject of how much further the place my father had in mind might be (resisting the urge to revert back to the child-like whine of ‘are we nearly here yet?’), it was met with a stony silence. One thing the parents will never do in the face of adversity is admit defeat.

Another hour later, my father conceded that he might be slightly lost. After all, he said, he hadnt visited this pub since 1977. For all he knew it might not even exist anymore. Yes, 1977. This, you see, is all part of the adventure.

So, it was a rather weary car load of travellers that eventually pulled up outside the Blacksmiths Inn, which according to my father, dated back to 1577. Quite an impressive history for a pub that appeared to be in the Middle of Nowhere.


Stomachs rumbling, we dutifully following my father into its oak-panelled bowels  – only to be met with the news that, as it was New Year’s Day, they were fully booked for lunch and there was no chance of getting anything to eat.

My parents and the perpetually-jovial Uncle Stephen seemed completely unfazed by this news (did I mention that they don’t actually believe in booking restaurants, leaving it purely to the jaws of fate), opting to have a drink instead, ‘now that they were here’, and engaging the landlord in a conversation about the pub’s original gas lamps that my father recalled from his last visit 35 years ago.

The husband and I, on the other hand – battling a strange mix of car sickness and gnawing hunger – were rendered almost speechless, collapsing into some hard-backed chairs and closing our eyes in silent despair.

But the day was to take an unexpected twist. Just as we were meekly sipping our coca-colas and contemplating the long drive back, the phone rang. It was a family of six cancelling their booking. Struck down by a sickness bug. The whole lot of them.

‘You’re in,’ cried the landlord triumphantly, throwing down menus in front of us. ‘Kitchen closes in 30 minutes.’

Fed, watered and hardly able to believe our luck, we clambered back into the Suzuki Swift to brace ourselves for the arduous journey back.

It was only when my father paused to linger over his map, that we realised this adventure might not be over.

‘Now, I’m sure there’s an old water mill around here…’