On Road-Tripping with Lesley…and a Banana
Lesley picked me up at the train station in Banbury once she got off work. We threw my stuff in the boot of her car. I slid into the front seat, and immediately sat on a banana.
“Oh,” she said, “I think you’ve sat on my banana.”
And so for five days, the banana, none the worse for having been sat on, became our mascot, our talisman, our guide: sitting on the dash next to the CD player and the sat-nav. Because we were road-tripping, Thelma and Louise style, though without shooting people and driving off cliffs.
When our beloved Bellowhead announced, late last year, they were disbanding on May 1st after a farewell tour, I wished to see one of their last gigs (some of their last gigs?). Lesley suggested we do some together. And you know how it is: if someone suggests a possibility, the wheels start turning until that possibility becomes a likelihood, and then a done deal. Lesley bought the tickets. I reserved hotel and hostel rooms. I bought a plane ticket, a train ticket from Heathrow to Paddington to Marylebone to Banbury…and then we hit the road.
Appropriately, the accompaniment was the new Bellowhead Farewell live 2-CD set: loud. Our first leg, with the banana pointing the way, was from Banbury to Biddulph, a small town outside Stoke-On-Trent, where we were to meet with Steve and other Lesley, Anne and Paul, Lauren, and David, friends from previous adventures in walking and music and beer. On the way, we did a bit of lunch at Frankie & Bennie’s (Review: so-so). We did dinner at Roti in Biddulph for Lauren’s birthday, and then we had the Merry Hell experience. Afterward, it was to a bed in New Mills at Liz’s house (thanks, Liz!): this involved much twisty and turny roads through hilly terrain in rain and snow and dark, past farms, through woods with trees I was unable to identify because I’m a tree failure (and it was the middle of the night). Every so often Lesley would say, “I know exactly where I am now!” I, of course, had no clue. The banana remained mute, but somehow reassuring, and I would every so often reach out a surreptitious hand to pet it. At one point I saw a sign that read “rock kennel,” and I was vaguely frightened of rocks that required caging. But we got to Liz’s house, and there were waiting Liz and her daughter Kate (busily writing a story set in Ancient Rome–a girl after my own heart), and Steve and other Lesley. Warmth! Safety! Friends!
In the morning Liz led us out on a chilly sunny walk into the ruins of the mills down by the river, with her lovely dog. The water was high and loud and breathtaking. The mills were ruinous–the perfect morning food for the imagination. I could have spent the entire day wandering and looking–and Liz’s dog Bud could have, too; we would have been perfect companions –but there was a Co-op to visit for bacon and wonderful breads, which we ate at Liz’s table in the cozy kitchen built into the cellar in her wonderful house. Then Lesley and I hit the road again for Bristol. Liz instructed Lesley to drive along through Buxton, where I could see the Opera House, because the Big Session Festival would be taking place there at the end of the month, and it was beautiful besides…so we meandered along that way .
I hadn’t been to Bristol for five years, and then I came into the city on a coach with a busload of cranky high-school-age kids. This time it was in Lesley’s car, hopped up on motorway services coffee, guided by a banana, but the city was still the one I remembered. The hotel where we were to meet Louise was even close to the place we’d stayed back then. When we’d checked in and ventured out in search of an early dinner before queueing up for Bellowhead, I even looked up my old friend Cary Grant, so I could send a picture of him to his erstwhile date, my friend Karen. So here he is, obviously lonely without her:
A word of advice: if you want to have an early dinner on Saturday night in Bristol, so you can get in the queue for the rail at a gig, make reservations. I cannot tell you how many restaurants we checked with who could not seat us. We finally found a place on the waterfront, No. 1 Harborside, where we could get a burger (Review: good and big) and sit outside, in the cold. Don’t be like us.
We got a lazy start in the morning, because Cardiff was only a bit more than an hour away from Bristol. The banana was well-rested after its night in the parking garage; I felt a bit awful, because of the sinus infection that had been plaguing me. This meant that, once we got to Cardiff and drove around in circles a bit because we had trouble figuring out where to park for the Premier Inn, I was on a desperate quest for tissues.
And it was Sunday afternoon, so Boots was closed. We ditched the car finally, dropped our stuff off, and hiked out in the general direction of the castle. There was no time to visit, alas. We meandered in the direction of the courts–and found a corner shop with tissues! Saved! Hellelujah! Then, on the way back, we walked past a police van at the entrance to the pedestrian shopping area, and I checked myself, as one does, to be sure I wasn’t looking suspicious. I wasn’t, as it turned out, the droid they were looking for, for as we approached a church, a catfight broke out: two girls, a guy trying to intervene, one wriggled away from him, chased the other around a tree, and roundhoused her with a closed fist. Bam. The police van was on scene immediately. We walked away quickly, but not before I got to see the policewoman take down the puncher. Woo.
Dinner that night was at Jamie’s Italian Kitchen, where, at Louise’s urging, I had my first ever Malibu and cranberry. (Review: nice.) After the gig and the session, we walked back to the Premier Inn around 2 in the morning. The city was quiet, and rather pretty, and deserted once we got away from the pubs and clubs. I liked the walk. It was rather strange, though, to feel as though the police were watching us on their CCTV–all the more reason why our version of Thelma and Louise was a bit tame.
From Cardiff to the Brighton is something like a four-hour drive. We left early and cranked it back across the bridge into England, then headed south as our trusty banana and sat-nav directed. The banana, in case you’re interested, was holding up well.
Somewhere along the motorway we stopped at Costa’s for coffee and a toastie (Review: yum). I hadn’t been to Brighton in 15 years, but as we cruised past the Pavilion, I realized that the place had not lost any of its gaudy romance for me. The hostel where we had reservations was in a tall Georgian house just down from the Pavilion; our window looked out over the green. We shared the room with two other guests, who were not there when we dumped our things. Lesley and I met up with yet another of her friends, Alison, and rambled about the lanes until we were to find Louise and her friend Susan, and Maureen, who was going to her 80th Bellowhead gig. (The last time I was here, 15 years ago, we were in the company of another gaggle of teenagers, which meant we spent all our free time on the Pier.) This time the bunch of us opted to go to Wahaca for dinner, and we wanted it early, so we could get to the queue at the Dome in good time (third in line this time–perfect for the prime spot on the rail). I had the cauliflower cheese and the chorizo and potato quesadilla, and was a happy camper. (Review: yum.) There was no session after the Brighton show, but nearly everyone who was anyone ended up at the pub across the street from the Dome. Lesley, Alison and I sat at a picnic table on the pavement and watched people come and go. Band members, strangers, a van with no headlights which stopped in the middle of the street, apparently to ask directions to a shop selling bulbs, forcing all other traffic to drive up onto the pavement next to us. Drinks gone, Alison and I wandered away–Lesley stayed out later–and back through the lanes to the hostel.
Tuesday was my birthday. We had no gig tickets. Lesley had to get back to her room in Banbury to be to work Wednesday morning. While having breakfast in the hostel dining room, we examined her National Trust guidebook and decided, as Hughendon Manor outside of High Wyckham was on the route from Brighton to Banbury, it might make a nice stop. The home of Victorian prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, the house’s original Georgian stonework had been refaced with Victorian brick, giving it a vaguely gothic and sinister look; display materials called it a “hideous monstrosity.” Who wouldn’t want to visit a hideous monstrosity? It transpired that my birthday was also the anniversary of Disraeli’s death, and the National Trust steward manning the upstairs bedrooms and sitting rooms was so taken with that bit of synchronicity that she came around with us and pointed things out, rather than remaining at her post.
The library, though containing only one fifth the original books, was wildly exciting (even with the books screened off). I managed to set off an alarm in the dining room, and cringed at the noise and under the glare of the enormous portrait of the queen. The gardens, even this early in the season, were stunning. The tea shop was pretty good, too: with my tea I had a fruit scone with butter and jam (Review: yum). We were, all told, in the Manor grounds for perhaps three hours, but imagine our horror when, returning to the car, we found that in that brief space of time, our trusty banana, which had held on valiantly for so long, had turned brown. Not spotty brown. Entirely brown. The inside of the car suddenly smelled like a slightly overdone loaf of banana bread. Our guide–dare I say it? our friend–had given up the ghost in honor of Benjamin Disraeli’s death day. How could we possibly go on?
So–we didn’t. Not really. Lesley and I returned to Banbury, our starting point, tired, saddened, unprepared to face reality. With one last stop, of course: at the Fox at Farthinghoe for my birthday dinner, where I finally had fish and chips. (Review: all right). Then it was back to Banbury, where, after a night with her friend Kathleen’s cats, Lesley pitched me off once more at the train station. Road trip over.
For this time, anyway.