Not content to let us back on the road without another hearty meal, John once again turned his cooking skills to good use by making us another signature [nearly] full English breakfast. Well, I say skills, but essentially it was mostly to ‘heat it all up in the oven’, although it was delicious all the same. Instead of regular British bacon (which, by the way is damned near impossible to find back home), John buys the packets of mixed bacon off-cuts. Instead of uniformly shaped slices of bacon that Brits all know and love, you get irregular lumps and chunks. It’s the same meat, just the various cuts and slices from the way it’s processed that would not look as good packed and presented on the supermarket shelves as normal bacon. All those loose bits and chunks are packed together and sold as a sort of leftovers. You get twice as much meat for half the price. You end up with pieces that are sometimes so thick and chunky that’s it’s practically gammon steaks. It’s bloody gorgeous and went down rather well thank you very much.

Our bellies once again full, we took a few moments to thank John and Lisa for having us. I noted that sitting in their back garden writing up my blogs was the single most tranquil and idyllic setting I’ve ever experienced for that purpose. They have a lovely little house. It’s set in a beautiful location, and they will continue to enjoy their little corner of heaven now for the rest of their days. I certainly hope we’ll get to see them here again in the future.

With everything packed into the car, I did a final walk around to make sure nothing was left behind. There was little chance I’d drive back to Wales again if we’d forgotten to pack something. We did our utmost to leave the place as clean and tidy as we found it.

We always knew we wanted to break up the long drive back to Stevenage. Before even arriving in Wales, we contemplated visiting Shrewsbury Castle. It would be a minor detour and serve as a great little mini trip within the trip, so I directed the satnav to take us there. Sandy and I enjoy visiting castles and the like. I had previously checked to see where all the best ones are that were worth visiting beforehand. Shrewsbury was one of the ones that came up while looking.

The satnav took us towards Shrewsbury through some picturesque winding roads. Sheep laden hills and valleys stretched out from either side of the road as far as the eye could see affording us some stunning vistas. On the plus side, the views and scenery were quite lovely. On the downside, the roads were quite winding, which Sandy always struggles with. I did my best to avoid going around bends too quickly, making it as comfortable a ride as I could.

A short while before reaching Shrewsbury, we spotted another of those brown signs indicating potentially somewhere interesting to stop and explore. It was a rather nice stately home looking mansion called Rownton Castle. The signs indicated it was a wedding venue. Wikipedia calls it a grade II listed country house. The building itself looked impressive and the surrounding manicured grounds lovely, so we took the opportunity to stretch our legs while exploring it from various angles with the iPhones. We were only there for about 20 minutes, which was enough to stretch our legs and enjoy the scenery on offer.

Upon finally entering Shrewsbury, it became clear it was very much like Ludlow, with its Tudor architecture and picturesque listed buildings dotted throughout the town centre. The whitewashed frontages with striking black wooden beams adorn the buildings with their first floors jutting out and overhanging the pavements below (for the Americans reading this, the first floor is not the ground floor but the floor above it…and pavements are sidewalks). Shrewsbury is a small’ish town set on a very hilly terrain. Getting from anywhere to anywhere else means walking up or down steep inclines.

I found a place to park in the street directly adjacent to the castle, which is perched atop one of the town’s hills. It was pay-and-display parking, but I decided to risk it. I didn’t much fancy walking around to find a machine, and I had no coins anyway. The truth is, although I do by and large obey the road rules (I don’t speed, for example), I’m not that concerned about being hit with a fine for speeding, parking, toll roads, etc. With a foreign registered vehicle, there are apparently no mechanisms in place to enforce such fines, so there’s little to no risk to the offender with a foreign vehicle. The only real risk is in getting the car clamped. Finding a ticket on the car windscreen or a fixed penalty notice arriving in the post can all safely be disregarded.

Based on a cursory inspection of some of the online reviews for Shrewsbury Castle, we decided it wasn’t worth going into the castle itself but instead elected to just enjoy the manicured grounds. The castle building wasn’t especially that impressive, as castles go. Inside was a military war museum, which doesn’t provide any information about the castle itself, its history, etc.

Adjacent to the main castle grounds entrance gate are a couple of old WWII cannons. Set within the main wooden gate was a smaller gate, which was open. It was an odd-looking arched shaped opening that was all of around four foot tall – too small for the average sized human to fit through without crouching over. It looked quite comical but other than that we didn’t give it much more thought, although Sandy snapped a couple of shots of me attempting to get through it. Inside, we found a small handful of other tourists wandering around enjoying the lawns and garden beds. Curiously, there was some post on the ground beyond the dwarf-sized gate, as if the postman had thrown it through the door and onto the floor. Sandy wanted to pick it up and take it somewhere, but we left it, assuming someone would likely expect to find it there at some point when doing their rounds. The grounds inside weren’t especially spacious, but pleasant enough to spend a few minutes enjoying all the same. There were a few park benches dotted around the perimeter of a manicured lawn and a wealth of flowers and shrub beds around the outside creating a lovely British summertime feel to the place. A steep path sliced its way up through the plant beds to a lookout post at the top. The views out over Shrewsbury from there were very pleasant, albeit the Shrewsbury train station did slice through that view like a scar on the landscape.

Besides us, only a small handful of other tourists had evidently made it through the dwarf gate, it seemed, so we largely had the place to ourselves. After twenty or so minutes, we’d really seen all there was to see but Sandy wanted to find a toilet before we left, so she popped into the gift shop located inside what looked like an old army barracks building directly opposite the main castle structure. A staff member inside seemed a little perturbed to find members of the public wandering around the grounds. Apparently, it was closed. That dwarf arched gate wasn’t an entrance gate after all. The man was polite enough, but he stepped outside the giftshop and called out to the remaining tourists that the place was closed and invited them all to please leave. We would have to find a toilet elsewhere.

Once through the mini arched opening and back into Shrewsbury town centre, we crossed the road and into the Shrewsbury library, where we were able to use the facilities. Directly outside the library was a small park with a few statues. One was of one of my all-time heroes – Charles Darwin. It looked very similar to the statue of Darwin that sits in the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. I didn’t find out until later in the day, but Darwin was born in Shrewsbury and there are monuments to him everywhere here. You can even visit his former home, although it’s quite pricey to do so.

Fortunately, there was no clamp on the car when we made it back to our parking slot. We meandered through the winding roads of Shrewsbury town centre and set off in the direction of Stevenage. The plan was to drop off Sandy so I could then drive on to South Ockendon to collect Jae from Dad. Along the way, we continued with our game of pub cricket. This is where you try to spot pubs. Each time you find one, you score a point for every arm or leg that’s represented in the pub name. A pub called The Red Lion, for example, would score 4 points, while The Horse and Hound would score 8 points, and so on. A pub called The Four-Leaf Clover wouldn’t score any points, as there are no arms or legs there, your innings would be over and it would be the next person’s turn. For whatever reason, I kept spotting pubs with no arms or legs. I did get excited at one point when I spotted the Shrewsbury Arms, but that was a reference to a coat of arms, and not anatomical arms, so no points for me and I was out again.

As much to break up the journey as anything else, we stopped in at a motorway service stop. Although it’s a way to guarantee access to toilets, something to eat, etc., I prefer to spend as little time at these places as I can. Everything is ludicrously expensive and we’ve been known to lose the odd item at these places from time to time – remember Sandy’s iPhone from the day we arrived?

Back at Stevenage, and with the car once again unloaded, we modified our plans slightly. Sandy remained behind with Joey & Ella, Jacky’s Daughter. Joey, me and Jacky went on to South Ockendon to collect Jae from Dad. I had promised to take both Joey and Jae with me to the Lakeside shopping centre to spoil them (it is their holiday as well after all), and Jacky decided she’d come along for the ride.

While at Dad’s, Jacky and I tried to figure out how things were going with his finances. He was struggling to provide an accurate summary (he’s very proud), so we decided I’d take the kids with me to Lakeside while Jacky stayed with Dad to see what she could sort out with him. Jacky did ask for me to bring her back a cup of bubble-tea, which wasn’t going to be a problem.

I hate shopping centres almost as much as I hate motorway service stops. No, that’s a complete lie. I detest shopping centres with infinitely more loathing than I do with just about anything else. I’d sooner have my testicles forcibly removed from my scrotum by a drunken gorilla armed with little more than a rusty spoon and a nasty hangover than voluntarily spend time traipsing aimlessly around a shopping centre. As if to rub salt into an open and festering wound, Joey and Jae weren’t being happy go lucky siblings today. Jae was put out by the fact that Jacky wasn’t going with us to Lakeside. She was convinced as a result we’d have to be doing everything we could to keep Joey happy, which she assumed meant spending time in a toy shop and thus not able to wander around aimlessly window shopping, which is what she wanted to do. I feared she was probably right. My job this afternoon was to somehow try to keep both kids happy. You don’t need to be a genius to know that even if you’re a genius, this was always going to be an uphill struggle of balancing the lesser of two evils. Since I had already decided I’d spoil the kids today with a little extra spending money, I figured the easiest way out of this impossible conundrum would be to spend my way out. After all, what else are Dad’s good for? Both kids had been given a budget of £5/day for their holiday spending money. They had also accumulated a little extra here and there as well. With an uncharacteristic helping of an extra £10 offered to him by Jae, he had a total of around £40 to spend today. In my mind, I wanted to up that a little, but I didn’t reveal that to him just yet.

We did indeed spend the first part of the shopping excursion wandering through the couple of toy shops at Lakeside, although after we picked up a cup of bubble-tea for Jae. We almost got Jacky hers, but I suggested we wait until the end of our shopping spree, so as to avoid having to cart it around with us. I could see the wheels turning in Joey’s head as he wrestled with the dilemma of spending within his means, moving from toy to toy through the aisles, weighing up the merits of having this toy or that toy. Up until recently, Joey struggled with the notion of spending less today so that you could spend more tomorrow. To him, life was all about whatever he could reach for and have today. He had a very undeveloped sense of forecasting or planning. Only in recent months have we started to see this skill slowly developing. It was gratifying to see him finally starting to grasp the concept of waiting until the next shop and holding onto his money for just a little longer – just in case a better option presented itself. At one point, I hinted that he might consider borrowing from future pocket money allowance so as to increase his spending power, just to see what his reaction would be. He said he didn’t think that would be a good idea, as he had already used up next month’s allowance. The burden of not having money to spend is something he’s fortunately starting to grasp. This kid is definitely getting smarter, I thought to myself. Eventually, while we were wandering around Hamleys, he picked up a particular Lego set with an almost lustful look in his eyes. I could see the wheels working overtime in his brain. He knew everything about this set, what pieces it had, what figures were inside, how it was constructed from multiple smaller builds, etc. It was £80, so quite a bit larger than he would be accustomed to buying.

Dad: Finally seeing my chance, “Would you buy this if you had enough money?”

Joey: Nods enthusiastically, albeit with a healthy dollop of resignation it was out of reach.

Dad: Pauses for dramatic effect. “If I got this for you, it would mean all your pocket money for the rest of the holiday would be all gone. Would you accept that?”

Joey: Eye’s widening at the sudden prospect this might be attainable. Nods profusely.

Dad: Pauses again, but this time for longer and even more dramatic effect, while looking at the set in my hands and shaking my head as if to conclude it wasn’t going to be a good idea after all.

Joey: By now bouncing on his feet and barely able to contain his excitement.

Dad: “Ok, then.”

Joey was in a fantastic mood for the rest of the day, which put Jae in a good mood since we were now free to shop aimlessly for things that interested her (much to my chagrin, but I digress). Mission accomplished. Both kids happy. Parenting level achieved: 1000.

Jae led us on a bit of a merry chase around the mall for the next half hour, with Joey bouncing happily in tow. My legs, hips, back, head and just about every other discreetly identifiable body part were now all aching beyond belief. Remember I had just driven from Wales to Stevenage to South Ockendon and was now engaged in my all-time favourite activity of aimless window shopping around a shopping centre (see above reference to testicle removal). It didn’t matter. I had two happy children with me. All other considerations were secondary.

Jae spent some of her money on some candles, some earrings and a build-a-bear, whom she has since named Rocky. We rounded out our time at Lakeside visiting first the food court, so Jae could enjoy some noodles, and then to Maccas, so Joey could enjoy his favourite comfort food. By the time the kids were finally ready to get back to the car (I was intentionally not pushing them), my body started to thank me. I practically ran back to the car and the comfort of no longer having to stand.

We were halfway back to Dad’s, when the realisation hit me. In my haste to get out of the shopping centre, none of us remembered Jacky’s bubble-tea. I feared I wasn’t going to hear the last of this (a prediction that later proved to be accurate).

Jacky had since gone through Dad’s finances with him and had managed to get a better picture of things. I shoved a few more banknotes into his hand before we bid our farewells again and set off again back to Stevenage.

After unpacking the car again, this time with Jae’s things and the newly acquired ‘stuff’ we had just liberated from Lakeside, we set about trying to resolve the logistics around the sleeping arrangements for all four of us. After much puzzling, the solution was eventually presented in the form of a blow-up air mattress that one of Jacky’s best friends brought over for us. Jae would sleep on that next to the bed Sandy and I were sleeping in. Jacky would take the couch, bless her.

For the first time since arriving, I was literally too tired to write up this blog entry, electing instead to do so in the morning. As it happens, just as I was nodding off, one of our very good friends sent me the following message:

“I’m waiting for today blog, and I never read anything normally. I’m hooked xxx”

I finally fell asleep with a smile on my face.