Sunday, 30 November 2008

How to extend a holiday! (Part 2)

Fortunately, the Sunday morning to which we arose was much nicer, weather wise, than the Saturday. The sun was shining through a very blue sky and, while it was still cold and slightly windy, it boded well for a day where we would be able to see much more than we had previously. With this in mind we headed out around the M60 Ring Road in search of a shopping centre which had been recommended to Meg by the hotel staff the day before. In the process of getting there we saw much more of the suburbs of Manchester, as well as some slightly more distant vistas of the city itself, and a glimpse of the airport which is the largest in the United Kingdom outside of the London region.

Another sight which caught the eye was the large indoor ski centre known as Chill Factore. That the UK (where it does actually snow during winter) requires artificial ski slopes might come as a surprise to some of you. This is the second such centre we have come across since we have been here (there is another at Milton Keynes called Xscape) and the locals explain it by saying that it guarantees there will be snow for people to ski and snowboard on which, particularly in the southern parts of England, you can’t guarantee otherwise. Despite Manchester being in the north, the argument for consistency still stands and this centre has three separate slopes. Brock and Quinn were enthusiastic, but Meg had shopping on her mind.

Not far from Chill Factore was the place we had come to visit, the Trafford Centre and from the outside it was a very impressive size. Despite the presence of numerous large car parks it was clear that this was a busy place for, even though it was Sunday morning and when we arrived the majority of the shops had not yet opened, finding a spot to park Kylie was difficult. Even though the day was clear and sunny it was still bitterly cold, so we paused just long enough to snap a picture of Meg looking excited before rushing inside to get out of the weather.

There are over 230 different shops in the Trafford Centre, but that does not do justice to the place. Architects and designers must have lavished attention on it, because it looks absolutely amazing. There are statues and columns, fountains and domes, plants and water features; the place feels like a palace where people can shop. After taking the photo of Meg we had left the camera in Kylie, a decision we regretted (although not enough that anyone was prepared to brave the cold to go out and get it). It seems weird to be talking about taking pictures of the inside of a shopping centre, but this one is a shopping centre which would justify such snaps.

As you might expect, some of the shops were very impressive as well and the lure of Christmas sales and shopping had brought out many of Manchester’s fair citizens (as well as people from much further afield) so there were also excellent opportunities for people watching. It is a curious thing that many people in Britain see shopping as an outing, like going to a park or the theatre, and it is obvious that places like the Trafford Centre as designed to cater to this way of thinking. People dress up to go there. Perhaps it is something to do with the climate, particularly at this time of year, where it is much nicer to be indoors than out.

Highlights of our time at the centre included, for Meg, a visit to the Armani Store, where a handbag was purchased which will be a Christmas gift from Wayne to her. Meg has explained to Brock, Quinn and Wayne that the handbag would cost somewhere in the region of $500 in Australia, needless to say it was purchased for substantially less here. Another purchase was made in a store called Evans where Meg was asked if she would like to participate in the customer reward scheme. When she assented various forms were produced and telephone calls were made. Despite the fact that we had only lived in the UK for 10 months, and normally you cannot get credit until you have been here at least a year (and sometimes 3 years) Meg soon found herself in possession of a new credit card (and £5 off her purchase). It is no wonder that so many in the UK are in a substantial amount of debt. (Meg has used the card wisely thus far she assures all and sundry).

We spent a few hours here, discovering along the way that the centre has an education and outreach centre. Students can do a BTech in retail through the place and there are links to organise school visits to the site, or representatives can come to you. The boys tried to keep Meg from noticing too much about this, for fear that the boys of Hailey Hall School might soon find themselves making regular trips to Manchester. After finalising a number of our Christmas gifts we strode back out laden with bags, and jumped back into Kyle to move to our next stop for the day.

We went back out to the M60 then turned at Chester Road making our way through Stretford onto Talbot Road heading toward Old Trafford. Those of you who are interested in cricket might have guessed that we were heading for the Old Trafford Cricket Ground, home of the Lancashire County Cricket Club and site of some famous Test match victories for Australia. The name Old Trafford comes from the de Trafford family who have lived in south west Manchester since 1017. Their original home, Old Trafford Hall, was situated close to what is now the White City Retail Park. The family moved to the new hall in what is now Trafford Park, sometime between 1672 and 1720. Consequently, there were two Trafford Halls, one old and one new. The old hall was demolished in 1939 but the name Old Trafford has stuck.

The cricket ground doesn’t look particularly imposing from the street but it does extend back a lot further than you initially think. We saw people alighting from the train station next to the ground (Manchester is particularly well set up if you want to attend big events, with football, cricket and concert stadia all possessing train stations adjacent to them) and thought at one point that there was something on at the ground, but being winter the ground was closed, even to Australians who wanted to take photos and gloat about the relative prowess of our cricket teams. In the end we managed to get a few photos of the exterior of the ground before heading, literally, just down the road to the ‘other’ Old Trafford.

Unlike its namesake, Old Trafford Football Ground, home of Manchester United Football Club, is VERY imposing to look at. It is the largest club stadium in the country (only Wembley is bigger, but it does not belong to any individual club) which isn’t surprising when you see that they describe themselves as ‘the most popular football team in the world’. It can hold 76 212 spectators and when we walked into their ‘superstore’ we were blown away by the number of ways that you can purchase tickets to matches and how quickly they can get you in and out of the queue. Admittedly, we were also blown away by the amazing array of paraphernalia that you can purchase decorated in some way or another by the Manchester United colours and emblems. From baby clothes to tools, crockery and cutlery to electronic devices, if you were a Manchester United fan you could go completely mad.

As we had at the City of Manchester Stadium, we decided to do a tour of the ground in order to see as much as we could. Because this was not starting for about half an hour Brock, Quinn and Meg amused themselves by looking around the museum, while Wayne wandered into a bar where the Old Trafford staff were watching the game (being played at the City of Manchester Stadium) between Manchester City and Manchester United. The game finished 1-0 to United, leaving all the staff very pleased, and Wayne caught up with Meg and the boys before the tour began.

In a number of ways the two tours were very similar, after all they were both at stadiums used predominantly for football, but there were a number of differences between the two. The trophy cabinet at Manchester United is significantly fuller, given that they have won more Premier League titles, FA Cups, League Cups and the European Cup (now the Champions League) on multiple occasions. While both clubs are concerned with their history, this is even more apparent at Old Trafford where the club has played since 1910 (although there was an eight year period from 1941 where the ground was under repair after severe damage from German bombing during World War II). Another, for us, major difference was the quality of the tour guidance provided. The younger, female, member of staff at the City of Manchester Stadium had been pleased to answer questions and was very friendly. The older gentleman who took the tour at Old Trafford was brusque, fast and treated people who were obviously foreigners with disdain.

While Old Trafford is a much older stadium, it has been so regularly rebuilt and extended that this is barely noticeable at times as you move around the ground. The amount of money that the team generates means that it is fitted out with everything you could possibly want. In the team changing room (and this was a highlight for everyone on the tour) was a wall with an incredible multi-media set up, so that at half time the manager could show actual footage of the points he was trying to make from the first half. There were interactive white boards as well and further down the corridor was an education suite for people interning at the ground. While the staff at the City of Manchester Stadium had made disparaging remarks about the quality of the turf at Old Trafford, getting down close to the ground (you weren’t allowed on the field at either stadium) it looked in very good condition.

Another impressive thing about Old Trafford was the memorial to the victims of the Munich disaster. We had not been long in England when the 50 year anniversary of that event had taken place, and this answered many of the questions that Meg, Brock and Quinn had had at the time. Returning from a European game in Belgrade the aeroplane carrying the Manchester United team, staff, journalists and supporters crashed while attempting to take off at Munich airport, where it had had to stop over. 21 of the 44 people on board were killed instantly, including 7 members of the team and 8 journalists. The pilot and a player named Duncan Ferguson survived for 3 weeks and 15 days respectively, despite having suffered horrendous injuries. 2 of the surviving players never played again, while the manager, Matt Busby, was in hospital for 3 months and read his last rites twice during that time. A pregnant lady and her three year old daughter were saved by Manchester United player Harry Gregg who returned to the wreckage to pull them free. It was a huge moment in United’s history, bringing them to the attention of the world while causing them to have to rebuild.

Part of the tribute is a long tunnel (named the Munich Tunnel) with memorial plaques lining it, giving information about the crash, the victims, the survivors and the impact upon the club. There is an old clock from the ground which is stopped at the time that the event took place, at 3:50 on the 6th of February, 1958. There are also memorials for the journalists, crew, club staff and supporters who died in the crash. This year, on the weekend following the 50th anniversary, Manchester City played Manchester United at Old Trafford when many of these tributes were opened. Spectators on the day were provided with a free scarf and there was universal condemnation when a number of those scarves subsequently turned up on Ebay.

Another highlight of the tour came as we were making our way down the tunnel to the pitch. The tour group was divided into pro United fans and others (the category we fitted into) and the youngest member of each side was allowed to lead their ‘team’ down the tunnel to the field of play. Consequently, Quinn now has memories of leading a group of people down the players tunnel while the cheers of nearly 80 000 people rang out (they played a recording of the noise the actual crowd would make on a match day). We then went and sat in the players’ and managers’ chairs (very comfortable) by the pitch while we were told some more information about the ground and its history. By this stage it was getting close to 4:00pm, it was dark and very cold so we were not terribly upset when the tour came to an end and we went back to Kylie ready to make the long trip back to Hertford.

This began well enough, there was a little traffic as we were moving down to the M6 (as you might expect on a day when about 40 000 people had attended the game at the other ground). Eventually we made it out on to the M6 and were headed for home. We had just gone past the services between Junction 19 and Junction 18 when we were forced to come to a complete halt. Although we didn’t know it at the time, up ahead (in fact about 12 cars ahead of us) there had been a single vehicle accident resulting in a roll over which blocked all three lanes of traffic. Emergency vehicles came travelling down the slip way and it became clear that we were going to be here for a while. After a couple of hours some workmen came along to say that they were working from the back of the queue to clear the backlog, but that the road might be completely closed until morning. Brock and Quinn both needed to go to the bathroom, so they and Meg got out and walked back through the cold to the services, while Wayne waited in the car in case circumstances changed and we needed to move.

As things turned out, just as Meg and the boys returned the traffic started to move forward, as they had cleared one of the lanes to let traffic through. Food (acquired at the services) was shared and stories told as we slowly moved forward trying to get the windscreen to defog. Unfortunately, Kylie did not appreciate being parked in the middle of a motorway for 4 hours with the engine being turned on occasionally. We had only moved a couple of junctions down the road when it became clear that she was starting to overheat. Wayne was just able to get her off at the services at Keele and up the steep driveway when the engine gave out completely. With a bit of pushing from Wayne, Brock and Quinn, Meg steered Kylie into a car park and we went inside to get warm while the engine cooled down.

After an hour, we replaced the fluid in the radiator and checked the oil to see if we could get Kylie started again. In this we were helped by some lovely security staff at the services, who provided us with a large water bottle and a tap. When this did not work another patron at the services used his jumper leads to attempt to start her for us, again to no avail. We went back into the services and began asking for a phone book to try and get help. When we contacted the AA we were informed that there was a 9 hour wait because our experience that night was not an unusual one. Meg phoned the Head of Hailey Hall School to inform them that there was a good chance we would not be in the next day, or that at the very least we would probably be late and we tried to sort out what we would do for the night.

By this stage the staff at the various shops of the services had got to know of us and our plight. The manager came down to see us and told us that there was a motel not far away and offered to drive us there when she came off shirt at 1am. We contacted the hotel to ensure that there would be a room for us and accepted her kind offer, arriving at the hotel very early in the morning and just wanting to crash into bed. Before we came to England we had been warned by some people that the English were not very friendly, but our experience has been overwhelmingly different, we are constantly receiving kindness from complete strangers.

When we woke the next morning we phoned the RAC (we had discovered that, through our possession of a bank account with Barclays we had breakdown coverage with the Royal Automobile Club) and they told us that there was still a considerable wait but that they should have someone back to the services by 1pm. We went to the dining area to enjoy a large buffet breakfast (full English) and then Wayne and Quinn set out to get back to Keele services by bus in case the mechanic was able to get there earlier. Meg and Brock waited at the hotel in case we needed to book another night there, and where we were given permission to leave check out till as late as possible.

After a short walk up to the local bus stop, Wayne and Quinn jumped on a bus headed into Newcastle-Under-Lyme (the nearest town). This was quite interesting as Newcastle is a lovely town of about 74 000 people in a lovely valley (the Lyme river valley as you might have guessed from the name) not far from the city of Stoke-on-Trent in the north of Staffordshire. It was named for a new castle which was built in the 12th century under Henry II and given town charter status under Henry III. Like much of the rest of the area, pottery has been a big feature of their economic history and Josiah Wedgwood was an inhabitant. Other notable former residents include Phillip Astley, the founder of the modern ‘circus’, and Arnold Bennett, a novelist Wayne studied at University who used the town in his novels under the name ‘OldCastle’. There are some lovely parks in the town centre and a Christmas market was taking place as we arrived, given that we would not have been here if not for car problems, we were quite pleased.

Once in the centre of town we needed to change buses to head out to Keele where we would have what we were assured was a short walk down to the services. At 11am we were somewhat surprised at how full the bus was until we realised that it was headed to the Keele University. Keele was established in 1949 and given full university status in 1962. It has the largest university campus in Europe and there were signs that it is still growing. Among its graduates are included the playwright Peter Whelan, Kojo Annan (the son of Kofi Annan for Secretary General of the United Nations) and Steve Jackson, the co-founder of Games Workshop and Fighting Fantasy. It is a very impressive place, nicely laid out and with some lovely residential areas. Quinn mentioned how he would like to study somewhere like this, so it is something worth checking out. As we got to the far end of the campus it was time to alight and walk down to the services.

This was amazing, as everything was covered with ice. As they walked along they occasionally slipped because the path was completely iced over in places. Grass and bushes beside the road were frosted over and the sheep out in a local field were as white as if they too were covered in frost. The trees that they walked past and under had ice lining their leaves and branches and, as they thawed slightly, occasionally Wayne and Quinn would see sheets of ice falling to the ground and shattering all over the path. Of course, it wasn’t long before one of these events took place as they were walking underneath a tree and they found ice raining down on their heads. It was bitterly cold so both wished to get to the services as quickly as possible but without slipping and hurting themselves.

After about 15 minutes it began to snow, just as they were making their way down into the services itself. Giving Meg a quick phone call to let her know they had arrived safely they settled in and bought some hot chocolate in order to defrost while watching the snow outside. Kylie was where she had been left, still affixed with the note to let people know why she was there, because normally parking is only allowed for 2 hours. After they had warmed themselves Wayne attempted to start her once more, just in case we would be able to drive down to pick up Brock and Meg under our own steam, but alas these efforts proved fruitless.

The reason for that became apparent at around 12:30 when the RAC man arrived. It did not take him long to discern that Kylie had blown a head gasket and that she wouldn’t be going anywhere in a hurry. Fortunately, our coverage included the provision of a hire car to get us home, and the towing of our car to a mechanic of our choice. Quinn rang Meg and Brock with this news and they checked out of the hotel and caught a taxi up to the services so that they could be there when the tow truck arrived which would take us all down to Stoke-on-Trent where we would pick up the hire car. The taxi ride was a nightmare, with the driver being seemingly suicidal in his approach to driving on icy roads and not being willing to accept that Brock and Meg did not have much cash until he arrived at the services and saw the sad sight of Kylie broken down.

Eventually, at 4:30pm (approximately 24 hours after we had originally come to a halt on the M6) the tow truck arrived and Kylie was rapidly transferred onto the back. We all climbed up into the cabin to be driven the 7 miles down to the garage, where we were able to get most of our luggage and possessions into the little hatchback which would be ours for the next 24 hours. We promised that when we arrived back at home we would contact a local garage to arrange to have Kylie transferred down there and to pick up the hire car. After some paperwork we were finally back on the road. Reaching home at about 9:30pm we collapsed into beds, knowing that we would each have to be up to go to school the following day. The idea of an extended holiday is a lovely one, but in these circumstances we might have preferred if things had just gone to plan.

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