For reasons we are not quite at liberty to go into here, this Sunday afternoon finds us in even more pressing need than usual to get the hell out of the inner city. We pile into the Fiat Punto and point it in the general direction of leafiest Cheshire. Fifteen minutes later we take a sharp right turn off a 'B' road, then slow to a gravelly halt alongside a curious structure resembling a garden shed with a man-sized hole carved into its side. Sure enough, a man-sized man pops his head out of the hole, and a short transaction takes place in which a crisp five pound note is exchanged for an informative leaflet detailing the delights of Dunham Massey Deer Sanctuary, and a courteous wave in the general direction of the car-park. That's right, we are entering National Trust country.
Dunham Massey is a seventeen-hectare chunk of prime real estate (or some impresively large area anyway, go on, you look it up) which used to belong to the Seventeenth Earl of Somewhereorother (look, what do you think this is, the Rough Guide to the Manchester Stockbroker Belt?) until, in a fit of benevolence possibly not unrelated to an unexpected demand for inheritance task on the part of the Wilson Administration (1974, actually- see, I did retain some of the information on the helpful pathside noticeboards) it was handed over into the stewardship of the nation. Like every National Trust property we have ever visited (and we used to have membership cards back when we had the wherewithal to afford such fripperies, so can speak from substantial experience), the estate's grounds are dominated by a grey stone mansion the size of a battleship, surrounded on all sides by expensive-looking driveways and ornate pillars topped by statues of rearing stallions.
Presumably the insides are just as impressive, featuring chaise-longues, coats of armour standing to attention outside of banqueting halls, Queen Anne chairs (whatever they are) and other items straight out of a BBC2 adaptation of a Jane Austen classic. I say 'presumably' because you always have to pay an extra fiver to get into the inner sanctum of these places, and we always decide we have seen enough BBC2 adaptations of Jane Austen classics to be able to leave the furnishings to our imagination. We can therefore, we reason, save any crisp fivers that haven't been handed over to the garden shed bloke for the main event of the day: the visit to the on-site cafeteria for a pot of tea and a reasonably-priced scone.
Actually I'm missing a bit out. You can't of course just walk straight into a National Trust property and head straight for the scones- there are wardens with barbour jackets and walkie-talkies patrolling the grounds on the look-out for just such telltale examples of unwholesome slothfulness, and any schoolboy errors of that nature will see you bundled into the back of a Land Rover and unceremoniously dumped in the nearest Council Estate. If you wish to avoid such a fate then there is only one thing for it- to get the hiking boots out of the car boot and embark on A Cursory Inspection Of The Grounds.
It is at this point that a day out in a National Trust property really starts to distinguish itself from more rugged countryside pursuits, such as orienteering, tug-of-war competitions between teams of drunken villagers, rambling, and bear-baiting. Like all country estates passed over into the hands of the nation, Dunham Massey has been carefully landscaped in such a way as to provide the discerning visitor with plentiful opportunity to observe the native wildlife- otherwise known as the English Middle Classes- in their natural habitat. So- small boys with floppy fringes and green wellington boots gambol by the duckpond under the watchful eye of fathers in Sale Rugby Union shirts. Instantly identifiable by their exotic plumage, a family-size clutch of Pakistani dentists break off from the main flock in order to make an impromptu forage into the giftshop. Most impressively of all, a stretch of the path leading to the Old Stables (Old Laundryroom/ Old Cowmarket/ Old Cock-Fighting enclosure, I don't know, I didn't read all the signs) has been narrowed to single-file width, via the erection of an arched iron gateway, for the sole apparent purpose of steering men in North Face windcheaters into each other's path, where they compete for the favour of the assembled ladyfolk by way of an intricate display of aggressive courtesy. 'After you'- 'No, after you'- Not at all'- You're too kind'- 'Thank you'- 'No, thank you'.
Negotiating this singular obstacle we alight, at last, at the cafeteria, only to find the entire population of Cheshire has got there first. The queue for tea and scones stretches right out of the dining room, down the stairs, and half-way down the gravelled path leading back to the car-park. Come to think of it this is exactly what happened last time, and we begin to suspect the much-vaunted 'cafeteria' is merely an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the Seventeenth Earl of Wherever, who has chosen to punish the General Public for tramping over his land every Sunday teatime by leading them on a thankless slow-motion conga through his labrynthine outhouses, snaking four times around the laundryroom before emerging blinking into the light via a hidden staircase. The General Public, being too polite to complain, acquiesce mildly to this postmodern take on feudal oppressive behaviour; a significant number of them find the experience so enjoyable, in fact, that they start coming every week.
Narrowly, we avoid being drawn into this vortex of mild-mannered madness. Instead we pile back into the Fiat Punto, and, doffing our imaginary caps at your man in the garden shed as we pass, head back out into the wilds of Cheshire in search of an Olde Englishe Tea Shoppe. Such establishments, however, prove as elusive as the Seventeenth Earl's imaginary cafeteria, and forty-five minutes later we find ourselves, via a winding 'B' road and a bruising encounter with central Altrincham's One-Way system, in a backstreet branch of Caffe Nero's opposite a midsize Marks and Spencers. The trainee barista takes our order (a standard Americano, a cup of tea and a packet of reassuringly expensive European wafers) and, possibly flummoxed by the unfamiliar workings of the till, throws in young Frankie's cup of milk free of charge. It is the perfect ending to a very nearly perfect Cheshire afternoon.