When Ben Aitken decided to get to know the older generation a little better he saw the perfect opportunity – a Shearings coach holiday.
The 32-year-old was thrilled with his first trip around Yorkshire – four nights in Scarborough, trips to York and Whitby, 12 courses of dinner, a quartet of cooked breakfasts, all for £109.
So, before the pandemic, Ben decided on another outing, this time to Wales with his 81-year-old gran, Janet.
Here, in an exclusive extract from new book The Gran Tour: Travels With My Elders, he recounts funny, moving and heart-warming tal es of their trip…
Nan’s one of those. Cheerful. She says hello to the driver, to those sat at the front, in the middle, at the back. Morning, morning, morning! I ask Nan if she can remember where she went for her first holiday.
“It was Somerset,” she says. “I was three-and-a-half. I went there as an evacuee because our house got bombed. We went up the shops and when we got back our house wasn’t there any more. My sister started crying but apparently I thought it was funny.”
After each stop at a service station, Nan returns to the coach with new gossip. She seems a very effective gatherer of the stuff.
So-and-so has 20 grandchildren. So-and-so will only drink loose leaf tea because she reckons she can taste the bag. So-and-so has the same Kindle as me but doesn’t appear to know how to operate it.
On each occasion – at each services – she is only out of my sight a couple of minutes, and according to her only spending a penny, and yet her gossip haul is reliably large.
At Corley services on the M6, two familiar faces join us. It’s Dennis and Clem, who I met in Scarborough. I give it 10 minutes then go and say hello.
“Clem thought it was you,” says Dennis. “Didn’t you, love? You thought it was Ben. I said don’t be daft, he wouldn’t do it twice. Who’s that with you?” “That’s my girlfriend.”
“Well you’re punching above your weight, let me tell you.” “It’s my nan.”
“Is that right? You know, the only other person we’ve seen twice on a Shearings is Mrs Greggs.
“To be fair, you couldn’t miss her. We called her Mrs Greggs because the coach hadn’t finished parking before she was in Greggs buying a couple of pies and a Chelsea bun. Anyway, you’d better sit down before your nan thinks you’re organising a foursome.”
As we approach Llandudno, people start to shuffle happily at the prospect of arrival, dinner and maybe a glass of wine.
Our driver Tim says it should be borne in mind free bus travel doesn’t apply in Wales.
This announcement is met with boos and tuts, and the odd four-letter word. Had Tim announced that all grandchildren were to be sacrificed by Welsh druids, it’s hard to imagine this lot being any more distraught.
The County Hotel is on the seafront. When we pull up, a hotel employee called Eva gets on. She sounds at once Polish and Scouse. She promises to keep it short and sweet and then goes on at some length about what’s for dinner (laverbread and cockles), what’s planned for this evening (bingo and singing), and what time our medication will be administered. I find this last joke offensive but nobody else seems to – it goes down very well in fact.
Nan’s in 318 and I’m in 317. The lift takes two at a time.
It’s explained that the two-person limit was introduced last summer, after a gentleman in a mobility scooter inexplicably attempted to drive into the lift when several people were already in it.
Later, the waitress explains that as we booked late our table’s a bit out of the way. I don’t mind, nor does Nan. She can see more from here, and if she cranks her hearing aids up she can still deduce the thrust of just about every conversation in the room. And the dining room is packed – there are three coach loads in this week.
We’ve got a table for four to ourselves, so we sit next to each other rather than opposite, so we can see the same thing.
I ask what food Nan remembers from the 40s and 50s. She says there was lots of stew, and lots of soup, and bread and dripping, and… “Bread and dripping?” “Yeah.” ‘Is that a pudding? Like bread and butter pudding?’
“No, darling, it’s not a pudding. It’s the soft fat that forms when the juices from meat have cooled and solidified.”
“Then what do you with that?”
“Eat it. I wish I could take you to the 1940s, you’d learn a thing or two.”
Downstairs is a ‘ballroom’. We’re just in time for the bingo, which will be called by the resident entertainer, Jim, who doesn’t waste much time before sharing his life story. To be fair, his CV is rather succinct: I used to be a Marine, now I call bingo. Not long into the first game, I realise that whenever I get a number Nan doesn’t, and vice versa. I think that’s how they print the tickets.
It’s a shame as it means we can never both be happy. Or maybe that’s not right because Nan seems pretty pleased no matter what number comes up. She gets visibly excited when I go on a roll, even though this means she’s doing rubbish. I know that Nan would rather I won the bingo than her.
The next morning, religion is the topic of conversation. It started when I asked Nan if she
believed in God. She asked why I was asking and I said I’d seen a man cross himself before starting on his
porridge. Nan says she used to be religious, even arranging her own baptism at the age of 17. She remained quite devoted to her church until she was kicked out for getting pregnant outside of wedlock.
Turns out Reverend Sparks grew concerned when my Uncle Michael arrived six months after Sparks had married my nan (to my grandad, that is). Sparks cornered my nan after a Sunday service and asked if the baby had been premature.
Nan didn’t much like what he was getting at, so replied, “No, he was two weeks late actually.” Sparks said he would have to discuss her membership of the church with the congregation. It was decided Nan was no longer fit for purpose. “So I washed my hands of the church,” she says, “and haven’t been in one since.”
We’re gathered in reception, waiting for the minibus to zip us around town. During our little tour, driver Owen fills us in. He starts with a word about the conception of Llandudno. “Purpose built, Victorian resort. The arrival of the railway useful to this end. The promenade’s two kilometres long. Drop a fag it’s a twenty quid fine.”
Owen continues up and round to Happy Valley, a popular little park decorated with characters from Alice in Wonderland, including The Cheshire Cat. Nan certainly likes the look of the place. She didn’t realise Llandudno had a connection with Alice, while I didn’t realise Nan was such an Alice fan.
“Oh yes,” she says. “I read them as a girl, and again recently. Your Auntie Jo is having an Alice-themed party for her 50th. I’m going as a playing card.” At dinner the theme of childbirth comes up. Nan says her mum lost her first baby during delivery. Her father built a little white coffin, but she doesn’t know where her brother was buried
“I wish I’d asked my mother,” she says. “I cannot forgive myself for not asking her.”
Then she points at me with her spoon and says, “Ask your mother while you can. No matter the question.”
Afterwards, we share a table with Barbara and Keith from Cumbria for the bingo, which proves fruitless. Less fruitless is the company of said Cumbrians. I’m interested to learn that Keith was employed in an iron works all his life, and that Barbara’s a big Tom Jones fan. She remembers a concert in the 70s when all the girls were throwing their knickers on the stage.
“I wasn’t, of course,” says Barbara.
“No,” says Keith, “because you didn’t have any on.” Nan goes to bed and it’s just me and Gary from Leeds. Big, burly, and stoic. He used to drive a lorry all over Europe. He says his wife worked at a university and would get in the cab for six weeks each summer.
Those were the best times, he says, though they did have a run-in with the German police once because they thought she was a prostitute. His wife used to joke, “We’ve been married 40 years but I’ve only seen him for 25.” Gary reckons that might be the secret to a happy marriage – 15 years off.
“You say ‘used to joke’, Gary.”
“She died in 2012. Cancer. She was 65. Got it at 47. It came and went. She couldn’t take the chemotherapy any more. Said she’d had enough. So I said all right, and we stopped it. I held her hand at the end.”
I look at Gary apologetically.
“I’ve still got her though.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“She’s in t’boot.”
Turns out Gary keeps his wife’s ashes in his car boot, and whenever he finds a place he thinks she’d like, he scatters some of her there. I raise my glass to the man. He raises his and says, “T’boot.”
At breakfast I tell Nan about Gary and his wife in the boot, which prompts her to remember a friend who buried her husband in the garden. When it came to winter she couldn’t bear the thought of him out in the cold so dug him up and brought him inside.
Now each year she buries him in spring and exhumes him in autumn. “Seems like a lot of work to me,” I say. “Lugging a body in and out like that.”
“No, you brush. He’s in a small tin.”
We’ve 10 minutes before departure, so I go through to the lounge. Val’s here.
When she asks what I’ve enjoyed the most this week I start to give a silly answer, but check myself and say: “It’s been my nan really. Getting her take on things, hearing about her life. It sounds silly but I might start calling her Janet.
“After all, she was Janet before she was my nan.” Val chuckles.
“I asked the same question of your nan.” “And?”
“She said the jam roly-poly.”