Even for us this has been an odd few days. We had to go to Bury St Edmonds and then on to Birmingham and Stoke on Trent which would mean a lot of driving and walking around in the rain. Obviously we planned ahead and left our wet weather gear out the night before ready to pack into the car. 100 miles into the trip I asked G where he had put our coats. He looked a bit puzzled.
‘Didn't you put them in the boot?’
‘No, I thought you did.’
At that precise moment the sun vanished and the rain came pelting down. I looked at G in his Polo shirt, me in a flimsy top and looked out of the window at the rain for the next hundred miles.
Bury St Edmonds is very nice. There's an Abbey, lots of old buildings and Britain’s smallest pub. So they say. We parked up alongside the River Lark with the ruined Abbey behind. There used to be a ducking stool here, but not any longer which upset G as he said it sounded fun. They used to lock the town gates at night and the monks from the Abbey were in charge of the gates next to where we parked. I told G we’d better not be long, ‘cos you never know with monks… he said he was more bothered about traffic wardens than monks.
He gave me the tear off part of the car park ticket to remind us when we should head back. He always hands it to me. I always lose it. Not a very good system really. Lots to see here. Some lovely buildings with interesting doors. We prefer doors to fun fairs. Some old petrol pumps too, the second set we have seen today. Must remember not to go on about things like that as people start to think we’re a bit weird.
As the rain had stopped by now we walked up the High Street alongside a woman from Australia who said she had moved from Melbourne to England three months ago as her husband came from here and he’d told her the weather would be perfect. She didn't appear convinced by his idea of what the word ‘perfect’ actually meant.
The Nutshell pub is not much bigger than a shop window, but has been a pub for about 150 years. We squeezed inside and ordered drinks. A sign said the pub was 15 feet by 7 feet, but it looked a lot smaller and there were only four more customers. The barman said there was standing room for 20 people but in 1974 they had squeezed 102 people inside. Blimey!
Inside the pub, hanging up, is the dried body of a black cat they found when doing building work. I stood well away from it, which wasn't easy in such a small place. One of the other customers told us about one of the locals, a bloke named Adam Thurkettle, who'd been banned from the pub for being too big.
He found a newspaper article about it and said he was getting worried about being banned himself as Alan Thurkettle, was six foot seven but nowhere near as wide around the waist as he was. We tried not to look at the man’s stomach, but it wasn't easy as it did take up a lot of room in such a small place. Apparently, there's an even smaller pub opened up now in Margate, but the Nutshell was a lovely place to spend half an hour. Anywhere smaller would be a struggle. I think that pub in Margate must be a converted dog kennel.
Talking of dogs, on the way out of Bury St Edmonds we passed a sign saying ‘Dog Show,’ so in we went. Not exactly Crufts, but wonderfully chaotic. The owners snarled at each other, the announcer barked instructions that nobody could understand and the dogs ran riot. There was what was supposed to be an obstacle course, but every single dog just ran around chasing each other while their ‘handlers’ whistled and shouted so how they judged that I have no idea. Very funny, very English and quite mad.
Then onwards and upwards to the fleshpots of Erdington. My birthplace and yet not a sign of a blue plaque anywhere. Didn't see a canal anywhere either even though every Brummie I have ever met knows one fact - namely that Birmingham has more canals than Venice – and repeats it to everyone they meet. We've been to Venice many times, Birmingham ditto, yet I still fail to see any similarity between these two great cities.
Erdington High Street, at eight thirty in the morning, is not exactly enticing. Yes, the shutters on the (many) Pawn shops don't help much but we were thirsty and desperate. Costa Coffee? Starbucks? Come off it.
I asked a girl having a ciggie outside a shop that could have been either a charity shop or a pretty crappy boutique if there was a café nearby. ‘There's a Greggs,’ she said between puffs, ‘but their coffee tastes of sausage rolls if you ask me.’
We walked on. It was drizzling with rain, but we’re tough. Finally, G saw a sign: the Red Sofa Café, and we darted inside. The coffee was okay, but I told G he was looking a bit peaky and he needed breakfast. I actually said he was looking a bit Peaky Blinders, which as we were in Birmingham I thought was hilarious, but he just gave me one of those looks. I went to the counter where the very pleasant Asian lad who'd served me was talking to one of his mates.
‘Could I have a bacon sandwich, please,’ I asked. He went very pale and said, ‘No, very sorry, no bacon allowed.’
‘I could do halal bacon, or halal sausage,’ he offered.
‘Is that the same thing?’
‘Not really. You won't like it.’
I decided he wasn't much of a salesman, but reported back to G. He didn't look very surprised that they didn't serve bacon in here. ‘Tell them I’ll have a pulled pork bap instead,’ he said and I was halfway to the counter before I realised what he’d said.
A very smartly dressed woman in her mid seventies stopped at our table said, ‘couldn't help overhearing’ and asked us if we wanted a biscuit as she'd bought six packs of ginger nuts from Poundland. We said no thank you, but it was nice of her to offer. She sat down at our table anyway and started telling us all about her Poundland bargains. In great detail.
I don't like going into Poundland with G because he buys stuff we don't need, but ‘might come in useful and it's only a pound,’ and if he finds an assistant asks them how much things are. They patiently say ‘a pound’ and keep saying it when he asks about other stuff on the shelves as well. He only does it to annoy me. Which it does. Somehow he stopped himself from asking our new friend the price of her ginger biscuits, but I could tell he wanted to.
Just as we’d learned all there was to know about ginger nuts, Enid - she told us her name as she was sitting down - changed the subject.
‘I’m waiting for them to MOT my car,’ she said. ‘How long do you think it will take? It's a Polio. A red one.’
‘Oh, right,’ G said. ‘Well, Polios are usually very quick to do. Especially the red ones. When did you take it in?’ I kept kicking him, but he took no notice.
She looked at her watch, shook it violently and banged it on the table. ‘About half an hour ago. It's sixteen years old and only done a few thousand miles because I don't drive much.’
G said in that case it probably wouldn't be ready just yet.
‘I need cataract operations really, but you hear such tales, don't you?’ Enid said. ‘Blind as a bat, I am, so I don't like to drive very far as I get tooted at a lot for bumping my wheels onto the pavement and that. Do you think I should sell it and use my bus pass instead? How much do think it's worth?’
I looked at G. This was getting intense now. We’d only met the woman ten minutes ago. Would it be financial advice next?
Just then, Enid dropped her purse, spilling pound coins all over the floor so we were busy on coin collection duty for a while. Her purse weighed a ton. ‘I like to keep the pound coins,’ she explained. ‘Not the new ones, but the old ‘uns as they’ll be valuable one day. I changed a twenty pound note in Poundland and asked if they'd just give me the old ones. I save them in a secret place at home.’
We walked Enid to Boots to do the rest of her shopping. ‘I never get the Poundland Steradent tablets. I get the proper ones from Boots. One tablet lasts me three weeks at least and you get loads in a pack.’
‘Oh, that's good to know,’I said and she toddled off into Bootswith her bulging purse sticking out of her mac pocket. We’d parked half a mile away and the light drizzle was now a monsoon. Greggs was doing a brisk trade in sausage rolls, but the seated area contained mostly men in anoraks talking to themselves or women with feral kids running around screeching.
‘It’s either wait it out in Greggs or get soaked,’ G said.
We got soaked.