Once upon a time, in a parallel universe, I used to go on long weekend trips without kids. It feels like it happened several decades ago, but I recall eating out, going shopping, drinking coffee, walking through cities and taking in sights. Nostalgia has made me pine for these long weekends, when I might actually change into a dress for dinner and have a cocktail at 7pm. If I was feeling adventurous, I might even have three.
These days, a weekend away (inevitably with kids) means that I end up more frazzled than if I’d just stayed at home and done nothing. I’m in Manchester last weekend to visit a friend, about to have her third baby. She’s probably some sort of masochist. I took my two children, so we were four kids (all five and under) and two adults. By any standard, this is probably a disaster in the making – and it kind of was. I was determined to drink through the worst of it – and I did.
Here is the highlight: If you have children and find yourself in Manchester when the weather is kind (a small miracle, I gather), you could do much worse than visit Dunham Massey, a National Trust site. Here, among verdant English countryside, you could let the kids run wild and get caught in thorny bushes. You might even be able to wander off for five minutes and pretend your progeny don’t exist.
No such luck for me. There were moans about going to the bathroom (in the bushes, I’m afraid), moans about being cold, moans about the picnic, moans about sitting on a bench or sitting on the grass, and then just moans about nothing much at all. One child almost got speared by an irate deer and another screamed for an hour over an ice cream that dropped on the ground. Typical day, all in all.
Dunham Massey is a 300-acre deer park with a huge Georgian House attached to it. It was owned by some Earl or other (I get these confused), who had a lot of money and a wife he wanted to divorce. Old letters from Henry VIII to Jane Seymour were also found here. One letter, dated 1537, was written while Queen Jane awaited the birth of her son, the future King Edward VI. I am quoting most of this from the Dunham Massey website, because I couldn’t very well have a leisurely stroll through the house with four fractious children in tow.
Instead, we were ‘confined’ to the beautiful gardens. We learned that Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s last emperor, came to Dunham Masssey while in exile in England in 1936. My history is very hazy, but a volunteer on site explained that Haile Selassie was hoping the League of Nations might prevent Italy from invading Ethiopia, and he made an impassioned plea to this effect. Unfortunately, it fell on deaf ears.
The day we visit is Selassie’s 120th birthday and The National Trust, quick to capitalize on anything that could make more money, have set up an event with African musicians; women dressed in their traditional costumes make strong, Ethiopian coffee for visitors. There are also tables talking about Selassie’s link to the house, which is tenuous at best.
It turns out that Selassie was only at Dunham Massey for about four days, but the Earl flew a Rastafarian flag over the house every subsequent year on the emporer’s birthday. (Selassie is considered the god of the black race by many Rastafarians.) I’ve already decided that this Earl fell in love with the Ethiopian leader in one weekend and that’s why he found his wife such a boring chore.
And then there’s the rest
I wish I could say I saw more of Manchester – the famous nightclubs, the music scene, the trendy places to eat – but I’m afraid we were rather saddled with kids. I can recommend West Didsbury as a place to live. There is a good mix of students and middle-class families. There are plenty of restaurants, decent pubs and good cafes, all a few minutes’ walk away from leafy residential streets with Victorian houses.
Most of my memories of this trip will be of children refusing to go to sleep and digging up mud in the garden. I did have good food (thank you, Sophie) and good wine (thank you, Sophie), which made the worst bearable and even slightly funny.
I came back to London feeling like I had participated in an Olympic sport. I think it’s what you’d call a marathon – we rarely sat down before 10pm and these sit-downs were punctuated by sprinting up quite a few stairs. But I would say the weekend was a success, because my friend and I were still talking to each other and the children were all still alive at the end of it, if a tad grumpy and sleep-deprived.
I won’t be going anywhere else with these kids for a while. Frankly, I’d rather eat my toenails.