Jo Sidebottom

British Mensa Annual Gathering, Queen Hotel, Chester – Friday 17th-Monday 20th September 2010

I always look forward to AGs, even though regional weekends can be friendlier and more intimate.  But AGs are the “big one” that attract the most people, so they are the best place to catch up with friends.  I was looking forward to this one in particular as Chester is a lovely city, familiar to me as the place where I used to visit my grandparents as a child.  The southern suburb of Handbridge is my mother’s home, and the place where my parents met when my father came as a curate to my mother’s church.

We started off very smugly, with our £20 each return train tickets direct from MK to Chester, the journey taking just an hour and a half, and depositing us directly opposite the hotel.  Petrol and parking would have been much dearer, not to mention more hassle.  To qualify for the best fare we had to get an earlyish train, so we were at the hotel just after 11am and, as our room wasn’t ready, they kindly looked after our luggage while we walked into the centre.  I did a little shopping (including acquiring a number of free gifts!), and we had a lovely lunch in Carluccio’s in Bridge Street, where Chris had spotted a good value “fisso” menu. 

A leisurely stroll back via the Old Harkers Arms brought us to the hotel mid-afternoon, when our room was ready.  We’d shelled out extra for an executive room in the new “Kings’ Quarters”, but in the event, we were extremely disappointed with the first room we were given, and had to ask to be moved to something that actually deserved the label of executive double and the price we were paying for it.  The alternative we were offered was much better, though it did leave me wondering a bit churlishly why they tried to fob us off with something so sub-standard initially when there was a perfectly good room available.

After registration, the first event we attended was a talk on architecture given by a local member.  He was a knowledgeable man, and clearly enthusiastic about his subject, but his presentation was unstructured and difficult to follow.  He was scheduled to speak for an hour, but had to be stopped after 2½ hours when the room was needed for something else. 

It was a disgrace that there wasn't a proper Icebreaker.  There was no one room where we could congregate, and no activity to get people mingling and enable newbies and those on their own to integrate with others.  As a result we were distributed throughout all the public areas - restaurant, lobby areas, SIGs Room, bar, lounge, etc.  Individual people came and stuck their heads in, looked round, and went away again.  We hooked up with friends in the bar, and I tried hard to involve anyone who looked a bit lost, but there were a number of other groups in the hotel, and people weren't always wearing their badges, so it was difficult to tell if they were part of the Mensan group, just looking for someone they already knew; or really hoping someone might invite them to join a group.  At least with our own room and some sort of activity, all this is taken care of.  It might have looked as though everyone was involved somehow, but I wonder how many just retreated to their room?  I would have done a few years ago, in that situation.

Saturday, for me, was spent in the hotel.  First at the AGM, which was brief and uneventful.  I commented on the final motion, about amendments to the mediation process, and voted against it.  The motion was carried….great for my street cred then :-)

Lunch was a sandwich in the bar, with more catching up (read “gossiping”) with friends.  However, I wanted to start jotting down notes for my blog, check emails, and so on, so I excused myself and went off to find a quiet spot with a table where I could get my netbook out and get stuck in.  I found a perfect location in the corridor alongside the restaurant, which was a great vantage point for people coming and going from the Kings’ Quarters, and later for those heading to the Open Forum. I did get a bit of work done, but also got chatting to a number of different people, which was fun.

The Open Forum was interesting.  We have a new Chairman, MK local member and friend Chris Tyler, who I think will prove to be a good choice.  Also a new Treasurer, new Board member Carolyn Cooper.  I don’t know Carolyn, but was impressed by her election statement and experience, and I know she is highly thought of by people I respect.  So also a good choice, I think.  The Board have selected four areas to focus on – large topics and still somewhat ambitious, but at least there is a focus.  I was impressed with their answers to questions.

We gave the formal dinner a miss, and joined some friends in a visit to a nearby curry house, where we had an unremarkable meal but a great time nevertheless.  Some of the people there had only come for the Saturday so it was a chance to chat to them before they hit the road again.  Saturday night concluded once again in the bar, which was a tad noisy as the hotel refused to turn the TV off – despite the fact that no-one was watching it.

Sunday morning we were booked for the talk by “Kennedy” (cringe), an engaging young man who taught us the art of persuasion.  Some of his points were a little clichéd and a bit cheesy but he was well practised and enormously enthusiastic and energetic.  It was hard not to like him.  After that Chris and I took the opportunity for a breath of fresh air, which included a visit to the brewery tap for some real cider.  We were booked on the high tea canal cruise on the Mill Hotel’s boat – this brought back memories as we’d stayed at the Mill several Christmases ago and had a dinner cruise.  It was a pleasant enough hour or so, sitting with Roz and Michéal.  I see Roz fairly often these days through work, but it was nice to see Michéal again.

Back to the hotel, and by this stage many people were checking out and heading home.  In some ways it was friendlier with only a few of us remaining.  A group of us had dinner at a local Italian restaurant (possibly the largest pizzas I’ve ever seen!), and once again retired to the bar later on.  However, we realised that the side bar/lounge was free, and much quieter, so we decamped there and enjoyed a much more civilised evening.

On Monday a few of us took the opportunity for an open-topped bus tour of the city, then Chris and I took ourselves off to a restaurant we’d spotted on the way round.  We caught the bus back to the hotel just in time to collect our luggage, bid a sad farewell to the few remaining stragglers and the hotel itself, and cross the square to the station to catch the train home.

All in all, it was a good weekend.  I don't think it will go down as one of the great AGs, but I’ve never been to one I haven’t enjoyed, and this was no exception.

There was information available already about next year's AG in Coventry.  The "Austerity AG"?  Intriguing.  I wonder if there will be breakaway parties staying somewhere more luxurious in the same way that most years there are some people staying somewhere cheaper? :-)  Still, the organisation of it is in very safe hands so I'm looking forward to it already.