Christmas 2003 goes down as a landmark Christmas in my family. It was the first time Jols and I had the wherewithal and resources to get away for a couple of days before heading across to her parents’ house for the main festivities. A nice little holidayette.
After extensive research, Jols landed upon a stay in the Lake District, in a cottage beside a disused slate mine, near Coniston.
Now, one experience that is common to everyone as we grow independent in life is that of the ‘treacherous last mile’ that must be negotiated before being able to settle into any kind of pleasant weekend away. Any destination worth stopping at is by necessity tucked away off the beaten track, down a labyrinth of narrow lanes.
To be fair to the owner of the cottage (which is something I am very much disinclined to be), the literature did mutter something about ‘arriving in the daylight’ and ‘not having a low-slung sports car’, as the approach to the cottages was a little bit uneven. Fortunately, I didn’t have a low-slung sports car. I had a 1990 Volkswagen Polo. (Was it green? Was it blue? Nobody has ever given me a satisfactory answer. It was this colour.)
So it was that I found myself squinting through a rain-slashed windscreen at a narrow vista of dimly illumined shale tack as the car bounced and lurched up a steep incline at about 9pm.
‘Is this,’ I enquired of Jols, ‘definitely the right way to go?’
‘I don’t know. I can’t see the map.’
It was all academic, really, because there was no way we were going to be able to turn round; a steep bank rose up into the darkness to the right of the track, and to the left, there was just blackness.
I kept the revs up as much as I could, but any real speed meant the car would bounce alarmingly over potholes, and I didn’t want to break the suspension, especially not out here, and especially not in the pitch dark.
Of course, the loud thunk and dragging sound that followed one particularly hefty bounce was a worry. I stopped the car on the steep incline and squeezed out of the driver’s door to see what had happened. From my position, semi-trapped between the driver’s door and a steep shale bank, I could hear a torrent of surging water coming from the blackness beyond. I didn’t have a light, so I used the dim glow of my mobile phone’s face to try to look under the car.
The exhaust was lying on the ground at the back, but was still attached at the front, so my suspicions were aroused that there may have been something wrong with the exhaust. (Why — I have had three separate occasions to wonder — is your average car exhaust held on essentially by two or three rubber bands? No matter.)
After a couple of abortive attempts to string the thing up (without any string), the solution Jols and I arrived at was to attach my jump leads to the exhaust, and for Jols to hold it clear of the ground as I executed the necessary series of tricky hill starts on loose shale.
The upshot of all this was that Jols ended up running along behind the car in the rain and laughing and inhaling exhaust fumes as I kept up enough speed to advance along the potholed track. Several times the exhaust fell away and clunked to the ground, and several times I stopped the car for Jols to retie it before we could start again.
Some people have protested the ungentlemanliness of this solution. I would point to the quality of Jols’s shale-based hill starts at the time, and at how dead I would have been given a role reversal (or, more literally, a roll reversal).
Anyway: in this fashion we limped onwards to our holiday cottage.
Positives: we were on the right road. And I am a member of the AA.
I abandoned the car more or less in the right place, and we retrieved our bags of clothes and boots and milk and teabags and Pringles — all the sundry things you need for a relaxing weekend — and found the front door.
It was, let’s just pause to establish, quite lovely. It had a stone floor, and a fireplace for a real fire. Jols hung up our wet-through coats on the coat hooks in the kitchen — admittedly, hers was rather more wet-through than mine — and we flopped on to the sofa in the front room. After a naïve and completely unsuccessful attempt to get the fire going with a copy of Heat magazine, we retired to bed. Enough is enough.
Evening passed and morning came, and a very lovely morning it was too. Looking out of the bedroom window was enough to banish the ghosts of the previous evening. The lovely blue sky and crisp sunlight revealed the expansive mountainous scenery which had previously been shrouded in the dark, and it all even diminished the task of having to get the AA out to this place-with-no-postcode-and-no-phone signal.
And there was the scent, of course. It was tangible. There is something about the scent of an old cottage in winter, the wooden beams, the stonework, the tang of hot soot from freshly burnt coal. Drawing deep of this evocative fragrance I descended the stairs in my pyjamas and went to put the kettle on for a morning cuppa.
It’s amazing, I registered, how much mess — and smell — you can make with a copy of Heat magazine and some matches, without actually creating a sustainable conflagration.
I needn’t have been amazed.
Having filled the kettle with swirling soft Lake District water, I gazed around the kitchen to find where we’d dumped the milk and teabags. I really hoped we’d not left the milk in the shopping bags by the storage heater — that would have been fairly typical, and the ‘country cottage’ smell was suspiciously strong from over there. Thankfully I didn’t find any milk when I hunted in the shopping bags.
I did find that both of our coats had dried remarkably well — the coat hooks were, after all, situated above the storage heater. So well had they dried, in fact, that a large smouldering hole was working its way through the back of my coat, and Jols’s was now a good few inches shorter. It was from the smouldering of 80 per cent wool and 20 per cent polyamide that our ‘country cottage’ scent was sourced.
How best to describe the dimensions and data relating to the hole in my coat? Well, the diameter was just a little bit bigger than the diameter of my backside, and, ironically, the positioning of the hole on my coat was exactly where the coat would normally have been covering my backside.
As an extra added bonus, the heat had been enough to rise through the coat and char my wallet, fusing together all of my bank cards, library card, national insurance card and sundry membership cards into one colourful but useless lump of brittle plastic. You could make out my AA card as a little sliver of characteristically bright and reassuring yellow somewhere in the middle.
Positive: we weren’t dead from noxious fumes.
The upshot of our exploits thus far meant that we would have to walk, without coats, back along the labyrinthine roads, down to the village to find a payphone and the number of the AA in order to phone them to convince them in the absence of my card that I was a member, and that they should come to an off-road destination with no postcode, and roads wide enough only for a hatchback vehicle. We would also, being by now quite grown up and assertive, visit the owner of the holiday cottage and show him our coats, at which point he would surely see the error of situating a coathook above a storage heater, and gladly part with some funds by way of apology and compensation.
It would be better of course to get this out of the way before we could start our holiday. By the time we had dressed and gathered ourselves, the blue skies had turned as grey as the slate mountainsides, and the rain had started to fall. Winter getaways: you’ve got to accept it. Only, there was the whole ‘coats’ situation. There was really only one decision. We would wear what was left of them down to the village. That would keep the rain off our shoulders at least.
So, having laughed all the way up the shale track as she bore the exhaust pipe on the way to the cottage, Jols now got her revenge by laughing all the way back as my coat gave a charred frame to my revolving buttocks as I stumped back down the shale track. She laughed all the more heartily as I insisted she get close behind me whenever a car approached us. Note that there were several of these, and none of them stopped to offer us a lift.
We got to the village, and I found a phonebox and phoned the AA.
‘What’s your membership number?’
‘I don’t know’
‘It’s the long number across the middle of your card.’
We landed on some alternative details, and that seemed to suffice.
‘And where is the car?’
‘It’s in a slate mine.’
‘Right. What’s the name of the road?’
‘Um, it’s a shale track.’
‘Do you have a postcode?’
I finally managed to give them the intersection of two roads where I would meet their mechanic. He would be with us in an hour or so.
While we waited, we popped over to see the owner of the cottage. An initially bright welcome quickly grew frosty (“Well, I can’t do anything about your coats, what do you want me to do?”), and then downright hostile (“Well, sue me then. See how far you get.”) I’ll leave you to make up your own mind whether putting a coat hook over a storage heater and then blaming us for hanging our coats on it is a reasonable conclusion. We didn’t sue him.
The AA man was much more pleasant, and he — like most of the many AA mechanics I have encountered — was very helpful, and found the whole situation very funny. He vanned us back to our car, skilfully negotiating the tight squeezes, and then spent a good half an hour fixing the exhaust back to the underside of the car with wire. He warned me to get it fixed properly (i.e. with rubber bands) at my earliest opportunity — a warning I entirely ignored, leading the exhaust to fall off in a car park in Stevenage some three months later. Deserved.
So now we were able to enjoy our holiday, taking very little care of any of the host’s furniture or belongings, and having a lovely big raging (intentional) fire, which we started with his Christmas tree. We headed off to Preston on the Monday morning, and settled in the much more comfortable surroundings of Jols’s mum and dad’s house, and watched the telly.
The one news story that struck us that Christmas time was of a discovery ‘off the beaten track’, near a disused slate mine near Coniston. The TV news reporter stood in front of the very same cottage situated just by the edge of that very same mine.
Positives: Our experience on this holiday could, let’s conclude, have been worse.