August Bank Holiday in Manchester is synonymous with the Gay Pride festival. For three days and nights The Gay Village is surrounded by an eight-foot high steel fence and you need to buy a wristband to get in. It’s a big, raucous party which spills out onto the surrounding streets and, because we live within earshot yet are not inclined to participate, we usually leave town to escape the madding crowd. Escape, however, needs careful consideration as Bank Holiday weekends are notoriously busy with hordes of people travelling and competing for access to getaway destinations. So this year we stayed put, hiding in the empty cinemas. But there was no avoiding the Festival completely, as I discovered when I left the gym and became trapped on the wrong side of the road for half an hour as the Pride Parade passed me by (in more senses than one).
On Monday, however, the sunny weather beckoned and we ventured out for a picnic, catching the train to nearby Lyme Park. Walking past the line of cars at the entrance I had a moment’s worry that far from escaping the crowd, we were about to walk right into it. But the park is extensive and its patrons mostly disinclined to venture far from the cafe and toilets so, after a ten minute walk, we found the perfect picnic spot at Darcy’s Pond (named for the bathing scene in the film of Pride and Prejudice). No one else was in sight, so we spread our rug and got to grips with a bottle of cava. The picnic was progressing nicely: the weather was perfect, the setting so 18th century English – complete with a folly on the distant hill – and I became mesmerised by the splendidly coloured dragonflies playing over the water, so much so that I took a swig of pinot noir without noticing the wasp swimming in it. We both panicked: I struggled to spit it out while it, desperate to escape, stung me under the tongue. What flashed through my mind was the memory of a woman once recounting how she had suffered anaphylactic shock after sharing a bite of her sandwich with a wasp: she was saved from certain death by emergency medical treatment. My companions showed due concern at this but, when it became apparent that my reaction amounted to no more than soreness and swelling, readily resumed their relaxed mode. The countryside, I remarked, may be pretty but it can be treacherous. I was quite pleased to get back to town, scuttling past the steel fence to the sanctuary of home and the comfort of antiseptic mouthwash.
A few days later we left town again, this time in the campervan, for the countryside proper where we are currently enjoying some gentle hiking (while I keep a discreet lookout for potential health hazards). So far, however, the most menacing incident has been imaginary. Walking along a deserted stretch of estuary coastline we approached a rickety wooden building on stilts protruding out of the trees. Below it, on the beach, there was a collection of weird, makeshift structures, sculptures and what looked like sacrificial totems. I thought of giving the place a wide berth, fearing it might be the habitation of a Manson-like tribe of dropouts but, as we got closer, I saw that next to it stood a perfectly ordinary bungalow and was reassured by the fact that, apparently, they still had neighbours. Closer still and some posters and an outside point-of-sale kiosk – complete with honesty box – revealed it to be the home-cum-workshop of a pair of artists who have opted out of the mainstream.
But tomorrow, ironically, we leave the solitude of the countryside to join the thronging multitude at Festival No. 6. We will need wristbands to get past the steel fence.