We hopped on the Richard Branson-branded train (I must admit that I don't love Virgin trains nearly as much as I love Virgin America Airlines) headed to Manchester. After a couple of hours and a charming conversation with our Anglican priest seatmate, we were in the city of Paul's youth.
We were greeted, warmly as always, by his family and headed out back in short order to bask in the garden.
Paul's salty, irreverent and hilarious Auntie Pat came by for dinner in the evening. Topics of conversation ranged from the royals ("Now what do you think about that prostitute Camilla that Charles married?") to...well, to just about everything else. After a quick drink at the local pub, Paul and I fell on our pillows, happy to be back in the embrace of a familiar bed.
The next morning, after tea and toast in the conservatory, we all headed to Chester (in the county of Cheshire), a town founded during Roman times and flawlessly maintained ever since, from the looks of things. After a lunch of lamb balti in the cathedral the four of us ambled over the ancient wall down to the river. The motor boats at the dock caught Paul's eye, so the two of us took one for a spin.
We headed, full throttle, up the river, past sprawling homes and compact townhouses.
Although the motor was not the most powerful, the ride was thrilling nonetheless, as it had been quite some time since I'd been on a boat, no matter how miniscule. We were momentarily the captains of our own vessel, waving gleefully to those on shore (all but two of whom had no idea who we were) and politely maneuvering around our fellow boaters.
Our twenty minutes was soon up though, and we were back to being landlubbers. After a quick coffee in town it was back to the homestead, and to a dinner of fish and vegetables from the family allotment. Delicious. After four days of festival food I was seriously craving something fresh!
The next morning, Paul was in the mood for a root around Manchester, so off we went.
First to his favorite record store...
...where he spent the vast majority of his youth rifling through records.
Great selection of music and excellent, useful advice for DJs:
He loved being able to pick up his favorite new single (from a band he happens to manage) in his favorite record shop.
Then it was off to his favorite Manchester lunch spot, Mr. Thomas's Chophouse.
I had to admit that the name had me a bit worried, but as I walked in my concerns were dispelled. The staff were polite, the interior was full of dark wood and gorgeous tiling, and there was even an outdoor space in which to enjoy the rare bit of sunshine that graces the Macunian sky.
I could not quite stomach the idea of their famous steak and kidney pie (although Paul had no problem with it) so I opted for a Manchester salad. Delicious but was approximately 50% meat. So my tastebuds were happy but my food guilt barometer was once again off the charts!
In a near food coma, we headed next door to the Royal Exchange Theater to meet up with Paul's parents and loads of their friends. We had all gathered there to watch a farce, a perfect choice of play for a summer afternoon.
The Royal Exchange building itself was fascinating. You see, Manchester was once a center of the British cotton and textile industry, and this building served as the cotton exchange for the area. It has, over the years, been damaged in various bombings (first during WWII, then in the 1990s by the IRA) but has been restored beautifully, with a small freestanding stage, in the round, constructed in the middle of what was once the trading floor. And, to keep a bit of history, the original trading prices from the last day of trading are kept on the big board near the ceiling.
The theater experience was wonderfully intimate, as the enclosure was relatively small, and I always enjoy seeing performances in the round. The play was riotously funny, and, followed by a dinner with all of our theater companions and then drinks along an old canal with some of Paul's oldest friends, the day was an unmitigated delight.
Sad to be leaving but excited for my next stop, I spent the evening packing for the final leg of the trip...