What I learnt on a coach tour of Wales with a crowd of pensioners

Ben Aitken
·8-min read
"It all started when my great aunt told me she’d recently had four nights in Torquay plus nightly entertainment, 16 pints of lager and four ­t­hree-course dinners for less than £100" - getty
"It all started when my great aunt told me she’d recently had four nights in Torquay plus nightly entertainment, 16 pints of lager and four ­t­hree-course dinners for less than £100" - getty

To get to know his gran better – and to learn something from those older and wiser – millennial Ben Aitken joined a coach tour of Wales. The trip took place in April 2019

It’s 6am and I am about to go on a coach holiday to Wales with my nan. Ordinarily this would be a good thing (after all, most of the time she’s a perfectly charming woman) but I fell off the rails last night and haven’t yet managed to correct myself. As it stands, I am about as prone as they come with a headache all over my body. 

What happened was this: an Argentinian friend got in touch to say his heart had been broken and then we spent 10 hours trying to fix it at the Plug and Socket in Cricklewood. I took the last train home from London Waterloo to Portsmouth, where I enjoyed two hours of groaning and moaning into my pillow, before finally nodding off at about 5am. I was awoken an hour later by the sound of my nan yodelling through the letterbox. 

“Yoo-hoo! Benjamin!”

This will be my fourth coach holiday of the year, all with a company called Shearings. I plan to do six in total – a so-called “Gran Tour” (such holidays are popular with those of a certain age), dreamt up while on the telephone to my great aunt, who told me she’d recently had four nights in Torquay plus return coach travel, nightly entertainment, 16 pints of lager and four ­t­hree-course dinners for less than a hundred quid. I hung up without so much as a “Goodbye, Agatha” and promptly booked six.  

Torquay - getty
Torquay - getty

It wasn’t just a bargain I was after, though. I also fancied spending some time with people of a pensionable nature. I hoped that by doing so I would become less like me and more like them; that I would be mentally soothed and existentially stretched and subtly transformed until I no longer resembled a run-of-the-mill millennial. Put simply, by travelling with my elders, I wanted to get old as soon as possible. 

So far the plan has been working a treat: three holidays in I feel 10 years older already. I won the bingo in Scarborough; drank old-fashioneds in Como; and took out a Telegraph subscription in Killarney at the insistence of Doris. 

And there’s more grist to my mill now, that’s for sure. Take Mick from Leicester, for example. Mick admitted between games of bingo that for the last 50 years he has only worn shorts. I asked him why; he gave the question some serious thought and then said: “I just find them easier to put on.” It is for such philosophical nuggets that one travels. 

Anyway, Nan’s still at it through the letterbox, so I had better get a move on. 

The coach pulls up outside the County Hotel in Llandudno and we unpack our stuff and then head down to the dining room. We’ve been allocated a table for four to ourselves, so we sit next to each other rather than opposite, so we can see exactly the same thing. Halfway through her soup, however, Nan thinks everyone is looking at her. 

Llandudno - getty
Llandudno - getty

“Why are they all being so nosy?” she says. 

“Because a bowl of soup and a partner of 50 years are only so interesting, Nan.” 

“Yes, well.” 

“They’re probably not looking at you anyway.” 

“They are. You’d think they’d never seen a…” 

“Seen a what?” 

“Oh dear.” 

“What?” 

“They must think you’re my toy boy.”

“Oh sod off, Nan.” 

“I’m not joking. It’s what I would think.” 

“Would you?” 

“They probably think I’m being exploited.” 

“What?” 

“They think you’re after my money.” 

“Oh steady on, Nan. You’re making me uncomfortable.” 

“Just eat your bread roll and don’t touch me.”

Snowdonia - getty
Snowdonia - getty

We pass a pleasant Tuesday – a stroll on the beach, a jaunt to Snowdonia, an Italian lunch. The best part of the day is towards the end: a slow, chatty dinner back at the hotel. When Nan says out of the blue that she first had pasta in 2001, I ask what sort of stuff she ate back in the 1940s. She says there was lots of stew, soup, and bread and dripping, and… 

“Bread and dripping?”

“Yeah.” 

“Is that a pudding? Like bread and butter pudding?” 

“No, darling, it’s not a pudding. It’s the soft fat that forms when the juices from a piece of meat have cooled and solidified.” 

“What do you do with that?” 

“Eat it.” 

“Are you winding me up?” 

“No.” 

“Did you lot have a death wish?” 

“It wasn’t that unhealthy. We had bread with it.” 

“Did you eat out much?” 

“Picnics and such?”  

“No, restaurants.” 

“Restaurants? There weren’t any. I wish I could take you back to the 1940s, Ben – you’d learn a thing or two.”

On Wednesday morning, we wander around Llandudno looking at the Alice in Wonderland sculptures, before spending an enjoyable afternoon on Anglesey. But once more it’s evening that’s most nice – it’s dinner with Nan again. 

Anglesey - getty
Anglesey - getty

We discuss her hairdresser over soup; the sanctity of marriage over korma (Nan’s twice divorced); and the chance of an afterlife over trifle. Towards the end of the latter, it occurs to me how nice it is to talk to Nan like this – at this pace, in this way, somewhat off the cuff, somewhat ad hoc, just riffing off our shared perspective. 

It’s unhurried and meandering – that’s what I like about it. Not that talking with Nan is normally hurried or monotonous. I’m not saying that. It’s just that normally when I see Nan it’s at her house, an environment with which we are both quite familiar, with the result that the conversation, although nearly always pleasant and enjoyable, tends not to go off in unlikely directions – towards homosexuality, say, or bread and dripping. 

What’s more, when I visit Nan the spotlight is usually on me, the visiting grandchild, and to my shame I don’t often redirect the spotlight in her direction. But sat here like this, next to each other in the dining room of a Welsh hotel, looking out above the heads and across the tables, out towards the Irish Sea, our minds wandering, independently but somehow aligned, until one of those minds catches something and turns to the other and says, “That man looks like my hairdresser” – well, I kind of like it. Anyway, she’s back with her coffee. 

“No skimmed milk,” she says. “Perhaps they don’t have the technology in Wales.”

On Thursday, we go by coach to Porthmadog, have a pootle around there, and then take a steam train to the old slate town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. As we approach the latter, Nan looks out on to a field of spring lambs and then turns to me and announces, somewhat inexplicably, “mint sauce”. 

An abandoned slate mine near Blaenau Ffestiniog - getty
An abandoned slate mine near Blaenau Ffestiniog - getty

Back at the hotel, we take our usual seats to break bread and chew the fat. Most of tonight’s talk is of a familial nature. 

We talk about Nan’s children, and then her grandchildren, and then her great-grandchildren. Mid-pudding, she runs out of descendants to talk about. 

As Nan spills beans on the above, something becomes crystal clear to me: the extent to which this woman has lived for, and in the service of, her family. To do so, for her, I can see, has been intuitive and unquestionable. Her family is her instinct – her hope, her fear, her happy, her sad. I’m seeing all this clearly now because I’m seeing her clearly now. At the end of the meal, the waiter asks Nan what she made of the cake. 

“Lovely,” she says. “My mother did a good roly-poly. Thank you.”

On the morning of our departure, I have a chat with a lady called Val in the bay window of the hotel lounge. When Val asks me what I have enjoyed the most about my week, I start to give a silly answer – about the beef madras or the bingo, but then check myself and say: “It’s been my nan ­really. Getting her take on things, hearing all about her life. It sounds ridiculous but I might start calling her Janet. After all, she was Janet before she was my nan. Janet is sort of the whole thing, if you know what I mean.” 

Val chuckles to herself. 

“What?” I say. 

“Nothing.” 

“Is that too cheesy?”

 “No, it’s not that. It’s just… I asked the same question of your nan.”

“And?” 

“She said the jam roly-poly.”

Ben and his nan
Ben and his nan

There are a number of areas in Wales to which visits by holidaymakers are currently not allowed. In other areas they are allowed, but not encouraged. See gov.wales/local-lockdown for details.