Return to England – My Story of Family, Friends and Food

Returning to England was a personal trip. I suppose they all are. As I set out on a year long backpacking trip, I was in England again for different reasons opposed to the ‘normal’ vacation purposes. Family, friends and familiar food while pursuing a memory that included two of those. I overindulged in the warmer, less carbonated brown liquid I grew to love called cask ale. I filled my belly with English classics such as, meat pies, pasties, sausage rolls, fish’n’chips and of course, the English breakfast. I met a few old friends, but most importantly, opened my heart to family I barely knew as they opened their home and hearts to me. This was my 3rd trip to England and while I closed the door on my pursuit of a childhood memory, I knew this was far from my last return to England.

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Back to the beginning where I was off to a stumbling start apparently unable to find my wings. As stories of children start, it was a dark and stormy night and that shit, ahem, snow made me miss my flight. Leaving what should have been ample time, it just wasn’t enough. I don’t mind the snow, but at this point I was eager to leave Canada far behind for the winter.

I bought a new flight, taking an immediate hit to my budget and did my best to silence the anger with alcohol. What all responsible adults do, right? 19 hours later and a sore body from the hard airport ground, I boarded the plane with a sigh of relief.

English soil, my father’s motherland. However rocky the start, I made it. I spotted my cousin and aunt looking around and we made eye contact. A slightly awkward hug of the familiar, yet unknown. This was the first time we’d met in almost 20 years. Myself an adult now, my memory was foggy, a lot changing from age 6 to 25. Open arms extended, I was made to feel as I had just returned home from a long journey. In some sense, I had.

We arrived at the house and not only did I probably smell, I was starving. Shower first (we all know that feeling after extended hours in transit), I exited the bathroom to an intoxicating smell. No, not me, but my cousin prepared a home cooked full English breakfast and I could here my stomach growling.

Bacon, sausage, beans, eggs, fried tomatoes, mushrooms and toast. I couldn’t even finish it, but ate as much as I physically could muster. A breakfast this good was not only needed, but a treat.

What do most people do when getting to know one another? Go for a drink together. Well, even though we were family, we didn’t actually know each other well by any means. That would change by the end of this day. We headed for the pub as you do in England. A bit of a pub crawl, I was shown the stomping grounds of my father with a bit more consciousness than that of my 6 year self. Places he went, some people who knew him, but more importantly as I struggled to keep up with my cousin, I got to know her filling in the gaps of being an ocean apart.

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Waking up late competing against jet lag and a hangover, the night sure did escalate in the best of ways. The days following were similar, albeit, a touch more tame as I continued to get to know this side of my family more. I visited my aunt, who I had the most memory of as she once made it over to Canada. I was also introduced to two more generations, I’d never met. My cousins daughter who was my age and her two daughters. I can’t explain the warmth and happiness I felt connecting with family from my father’s side and being treated with such hospitality.

While visiting, I was taken for some of the local classics. I had fish’n’chips for dinner as well as a reintroduction to black pudding after some time. I always enjoy local institutions and this place had stood the test of time in this small village of Tyldesley. Whittakers was famous for the pasties and meat pies. Leaving with a meat and potato pie that had some weight to it, I was sure it could knock someone unconscious. Partially true, as the food coma that followed required a nap. Not shy about showing me the proper way to eat this, I followed directions. Placing the whole pie on a buttered bap or bun and sauce it up. Brown or red. HP sauce was the obvious choice for me, while ketchup was the other option.

I was off to Manchester for the night to visit a few friends I had met in Cuba years ago. Seemingly another lifetime ago, it is odd that when reuniting with travel friends it feels as no time had passed. After meeting at the train station, it seemed natural to head to a pub and talk about the memories of Cuba that resurfaced and the new things life had brought. We ate and drank late into the night filing in the six year gap.

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It was a short, but a sweet visit as I was back on the train to Tyldesley for one final night with my family. A large gathering out for dinner and following a pattern, we headed for the pub. I didn’t want the night to finish. I had a strong connection here I was never aware of before now. While sad to leave, I felt like I had a second home in the world. What goes up must come down and I knew that as I left I would return inevitably as gravity would pull me back. I did not know when, but had no doubt in my mind of this fact.

I got off the bus in London and I spent a day reliving some of my 6 year old memories of touring the city. I walked across London Bridge, along the River Thames and stared in awe at Big Ben. I was going to enter Westminster Abbey until I say the entry fee. Looking at the outside was sufficient.

Sure enough, I founds myself in the cozy warmth of a pub for lunch. A pint of cask ale that I now wished I could find back home. An unfiltered and unpasteurized beer, it goes through a second fermentation and is hand pumped from a cask without having to add the carbonation pressure of regular draft. Generally served around thirteen degrees for optimal flavour, it suits England well, never really having to escape the extreme heat for a frosty one. It would be perfect through the Canadian winter.

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Against all judgement and criticisms I give organised tours, they are not all that bad and sometimes are a necessary ‘evil’. The next morning, I found myself on board a bus trip heading for Stonehenge. This ‘pile of rocks in a field’, as my cousin put it, had always fascinated me. The tranquil English countryside passed by the windows as I was stuck in a nostalgic mindset. Approaching Stonehenge brought a childish imagination similar to when I was 6 years old. The difference now I pondered more of the how and why, opposed to the mythical air about the place.

The city of Bath followed and while after walking the streets a bit, it was time for lunch. I made my way to the recommended pub, where they specialized in ciders. At home I’m not the biggest fan of cider, but these were in a class of their own. Ordering a flight, I tasted a handful of the dozen or so on offer, while awaiting my sandwich. Ultimately, I got a ham and Swiss sandwich, but this was brought to a new level, just like their apple elixirs. Shredded ham hock, sauteed mushrooms and Gruyere cheese warmed on a crunchy roll with a grainy beer mustard. It was a perfect way to prepare me for a touch of shut eye for the return trip to London.

It was my last full day in London and I was still in pursuit of this childhood memory I had of a dish I vividly remember. Yes, food has always been a passion since before I even knew it. I was hunting for something as simple as a fish’n’chips. Now, this alone was not hard to find obviously. I couldn’t really figure out why I couldn’t find what I was looking for. A mound of chips, peas, tartar sauce, lemon and a crispy piece of fish that seemed the size of my thigh at age 6.

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I ate plate after plate and finally it hit me. An epiphany if you will. I realized that I wasn’t looking for it to taste, look or smell the same. It was a memory that couldn’t be recreated and as so often it was the people at the table, not the food on it. A memory of a simpler time, with little care in the world not having dealt with the trials and tribulations of life yet. Sitting down at a restaurant I couldn’t name, with my Mom, Dad and sister as we laughed and smiled, brought together by food and travel.

I closed this door with a personal realization of memories that need to be cherished and appreciated while living in the moment as moments are fleeting and will never return.
I squeezed in a few more pints of this cask ale, while contemplating what was yet to come. I would miss England, but was leaving with a much stronger connection than I had before. There was something that drew me to this country. Was it the stunning landscape, the rich history, childhood memories, the family I’ve grown to know and would miss greatly, my heritage, the cozy pub, I wasn’t sure. Regardless, it was deep in my heart. My 3rd trip to England not only was the beginning of a new chapter in my life, it seemed like a new home.

It has been fun rewriting a couple posts from when I first started writing my travel stories down. Seeing how I’ve grown as a person from my first posts, in writing and photography in the past 5 years. One thing I do regret is the limited pictures I took while in England and the lack of time I had this trip. At least, I know I’ll be back before too much more time passes.


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