The drive from home to Holyhead, this is in the far reaches of northern Wales for non-UK readers, had been long, slow and painful, having been spent following cars that were moving slightly less quickly than the glaciers of the last ice age that, long ago, had carved the hills and valleys of the region. We had fallen off the main road into the cheap-first-night hotel only to be booked in to room 101… we were unsure if this boded well.
The alarm had screamed us awake at way-too-early o’clock and we had dragged outselves out of bed, tired but excited to finally be travelling to Eire! We celebrated by watching a Husky dog on the car park who was cheerfully howling good morning to everyone who walked past him, much to his owner’s eternal shame. The previous evening had seen some intense conversation over the distance to the ferry port, the time required to collect tickets on arrival, the requirement to be an hour early and a final decision that we should leave about two hours in advance to make sure that we didn’t miss the ferry. It was with the smug air of ones who knew that they have planned, planned well and are now executing that plan with Prussian precision that we strode from the Travelodge at 7am that morning, ready to catch our 9am boat. Five minutes later we were sitting in the queue waiting to board. Somehow they don’t really mind you prooving anything about yourself when you leave Wales – turn up, sit in a queue and off you go. As it turned out later they don’t much mind you arriving in Ireland in a similar manner either. Luckily though, and because we were so early, we were allowed to negotiate our way down a series of tiny, steep metal ramps all the way to the dark recesses at the bottom of the boat where we reversed our car in to a pointy bit.
This done we deserted Percy the car frog, with orders to watch the vehicle, and charged upstairs. We quickly found a table with a window seat, grabbed an enormous fried breakfast and spent 45 minutes eating and drinking tea. Half an hour later the boat set sail…
…a mere three hours later and we were back in the cargo hold trying to negotiate our way back up the metal ramps and then… Ireland, Dublin to be precise. What suprised us most was how much like mainland Europe it felt. The roads reminded us of driving through central France – broad, well surfaced, very light traffic and lots of interesting new signs to peer at (and kph to remember). We negotiated the ring road around Dublin for half an hour before stopping for cheap sandwiches and our first experience of the Irish. There seemed to be quite a lot of chips around…
…so we moved onwards and headed up towards Belfast. The change from the Republic to Northern Ireland was noticable at first only by the difference in road sign colours and speed limit signs to mph – which is confusing when you’re driving surrounded by 120kph signs and suddenly they change to 50mph. As we moved deeper in to Northern Ireland the number plate colours changed from the white of the Republic back to the yellow back and white front of the UK. This combined with the green road signs things made things feel more familiar to UK residents – more home like. The change of feeling, of somewhere being familar half an hour along the road from where it felt so different, despite the land being the same was peculiar. Growing up in the UK a few decades ago had left me [Poops] with a lot of mixed feelings about the approach to Belfast. I remember being in London in the 80’s as a youngster and roads being suddenly closed while cars were swept for bombs; the constant reports on the News; the bombing of the conservative party conference and SAS men abseiling down the walls; Bloody Sunday; road blocks; knee capping… the Troubles loomed to the front of my mind and left me feeling hugely uncomfortable. It was strange to be somewhere that as a child I had assumed was something akin to a warzone and even more curious to find it so beautiful and so peaceful. So green and rural. To Fluff, growing up in mainland Europe, the Troubles were something fresh and newly explained – nothing that people remote from these islands were really aware of. She simply enjoyed the greeness of Northern Ireland as we drove, fully oblivious to the history and the problems of the lands around her.
As we drove we contrived some new and very special songs, ‘I don’t give a shit, I’m howling’ and ‘shitting your heart’ – tunes that would accompany us, as events would have it, for much of our tour. The first one can be repurposed while singing any song that you don’t know the lyrics of. Simply announce you’re howling and proceed with a clear ‘haw-ooooooooooo’ cry for the rest of the song. The later turned in to an 80’s power ballad on day two, but I digress.
The views of the sea on the approach to Belfast were stunning and as we skirted it and headed towards our first night’s sleep in Ballygally Castle we left the main roads. We picked our way down the tiny twisting backroads towards our destination and found ourselves submerged in a landscape from a hundred years ago. Tiny stone cottages and tumble down out buildings, moss covered and dotted amongst the sheep and cow studded rolling green hillocks of County Antrim. The sun was warm, the sky was blue and all thoughts but joy were swept away.
Ballygally Castle hotel was big and felt strangely upmarket for such a small town, although sadly lacking in parking thanks to 200 people gathering for a wedding (these same people would cause us to wait 45 minutes for pudding later in the day and in retrospect should have dispensed with on sight but hindsight is such a wonderful thing). We dragged our case through the town and up to our enormous suite where we were greeted by a view over the sea and a rainbow clinging to its shinning waters.