On Wednesday last week I finished my contract at Essex, and the following day set off with my American pals Ruth & Phil to see a few sights on an Irish road trip. It was to be only my second visit to Ireland, having enjoyed a fun week there in spring 1997 with Jennifer, Hayley and Laura. I was keen to see how much I remembered from the dim and distant 20th century.
We met at Hatton Cross and picked up our little Nissan Micra from the rental place, which was staffed by a curious bunch who claimed we needed a form to take the car to ‘certain places in Ireland’ – places that they couldn’t name. Oh, and they didn’t have a copy of the form or know what it was for. After eventually tracking down an email copy from one of their other branches it appeared that the part of Ireland it applied to was the Republic of Ireland, i.e. everything except Northern Ireland! And they still had no idea what it was actually for. Into the glovebox with it, where it was promptly forgotten.
It’s been a few years since Phil drove on the left so I was able to get behind the wheel for the drive to our first stop, Oxford. It was the first time I’d driven in the UK, and it was highly entertaining. The first thing that strikes you is the massive overkill of road signs that festoon every possible intersection. It’s as if the roads agency gets a bonus for every extra sign they erect, whether or not it’s necessary, and the combined effect is confusing for the uninitiated. Still, we managed to find our way around the hated M25 circular and out to Oxford. Having visited only a few weeks ago, I was well placed to show R&P around on a quick tour taking in the beautiful university buildings and a dinky market near the bus station.
Then it was onwards to Stratford-upon-Avon, again a place I’d recently visited, for another whistle-stop tour, taking in Shakespeare’s house and burial site, the almshouses and the Harvard house.
Then we realised we had better hurry if we were going to make our ferry to Dublin, which departed from the port of Holyhead in Anglesey at 9.30pm. We had four and a half hours to get there, which was plenty of time, but we hadn’t reckoned on the traffic around Birmingham, which delayed us by about half an hour. Despite a rather nerve-jangling dash across the north Wales motorway, during which Phil performed small wonders in his alternate guise as a Formula 1 driver, we arrived at Holyhead only to find that we were just slightly too late to get aboard our ferry. It had yet to depart, but there was a 45 minute cut-off before departure and we had just missed it. Damn. Fortunately there was space aboard the next sailing, but it was at 2.30am (!) So we went to a local beach (Trearddur Bay – see picture above) for a stroll at dusk and then whiled away a couple of hours at Holyhead’s McD’s (open til midnight – a positive boon for once).
Once we were finally on board the ferry Phil located some comfy sofa benches for us, so we were able to grab a few hours of quality dozing time on the 3 1/4 hour trip from Holyhead to Dublin.
It was a bright and shining dawn when we arrived in the Irish capital, and once we negotiated the ludicrous network of inner city one-way streets to find our hotel, we then found an equally elusive car park and settled down to the very important business of catching up on a few hours of sleep.
By the time we emerged Dublin was still basking in the warm sunshine. Our first stop was Trinity College Dublin, which was founded in the Elizabethan era, to see the marvellous Book of Kells, which one of the great wonders of medieval artwork. Lovingly produced perhaps 1200 years ago, and therefore a near contemporary of the Alfred Jewel I saw a few weeks ago, the Book has survived numerous monastery fires and theft by Vikings in 1007, only to be recovered a few months later ‘under a sod’!
TCD is also home to the lovely Long Room library, which was one of the abiding memories of my last Dublin visit. This vast chamber is a temple to knowledge, replete with antique books with two storeys of shelves and a fine arched ceiling. The smell of old paper, binding and parchment is unforgettable.
After a visit to two photography galleries in Temple Bar to admire the collections (photos from the Civil War and the Prix Pictet photojournalism finalists for 2009), we signed up for an entertaining evening with the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl. Hosted by two genial and well-versed local actors, the tour illustrated the watering holes of various Irish men of letters, with a sizeable helping of humour and some rewarding performances of scenes from their best works. Highly recommended if you happen to be in Dublin, even if (like me) you’re not particularly knowledgeable about the oeuvre.
We rounded off the evening with a visit to Temple Bar, which was heaving with music fans attending a free soul revue at a nifty outdoor venue in a small square. We caught John, Shelley & The Creatures and The Burning Effigies, who were both excellent, and enjoyed some of the craic with the locals.
Then it was time to bid farewell to Dublin and head northwards. After extricating ourselves from the one-way system we headed north to visit one of the most impressive Stone Age sites in Europe – the famous passage tomb at Newgrange. Since I’d last visited they’ve installed a swish visitors centre on the south side of the Boyne (the Battle was fought nearby) and now you’re whisked to Newgrange in a minibus rather than clogging up the tiny country lanes with cars. Up close the tomb is awe-inspiring – the massive effort that went into its construction and the simple elegance of its decorations are still remarkable – and the evidence archaeologists have found here is all we know of the people who lived here 5000 years ago. Five millennia: that’s older than Stonehenge and older than the Pyramids, if you want a sense of how ancient Newgrange is.
The visit includes a trip down the cramped entrance passage to the beautifully engineered burial chamber, with its cleverly overlapping slate roof and three side chambers. The coiled spiral carvings of the original builders are still prominent on the walls. The guide turns out the lights and uses a lightbulb to simulate the famous winter solstice sunrise, which beams down the passage only five mornings a year. There’s a massive oversubscription to the lottery for the 100 tickets drawn each year, and even if you win a spot you’re not guaranteed a view of the sunrise because it may well be overcast!
After savouring the history at Newgrange we headed northeast, swinging around the Mountains of Mourne in County Down to admire the rugged coastline. We stopped at the catchily-named Bloody Bridge, where a brutal massacre took place in 1641: up to 50 captives were slain and thrown over the jagged rocks to their demise.
As the evening grew older we checked into the Belfast International Youth Hostel for our brief stay, and then walked into town to try to find some dinner. This was easier said than done, as it appears Belfasters are far more interested in drinking than they are in eating. Eventually we located a GBK and tucked into some New Zealand-style burgers; Phil and I had the kiwiburgers, although of course I had it without the noxious beetroot. As the night stretched past midnight we strolled back to our digs past a multitude of locals in skimpy attire, most of whom were staggeringly drunk. We were quite impressed with the fellow walking in front of us – well, ‘walking’ is a bit of an exaggeration, ‘slalom weaving’ more like, but at least he was capable of texting sweet nothings on his Blackberry at the same time. Now that’s multitasking.
The next morning we enjoyed the offerings from the hostel cafeteria and then headed out to drive the Antrim Coast Road. It was another clear, fine day: our luck had held. First stop was the seaside town of Carrickfergus a short drive north of Belfast. Here we paused to admire the splendid castle dominating the shore and the statue of William III, who landed here with his army in June 1690.
A short drive north led us to the tiny village of Glenarm, where we stocked up on a Famous Five-style picnic at Sally’s Coffee Shop, which proved to be a great choice. Glenarm boasts its own castle, and although we didn’t have time to check out its grounds we did admire the fine southern wall and gate.
The picnic lunch was consumed at the pretty Glenariff Forest Reserve, with spectacular views down the glacier-carved glen to the sea. Then, pausing only for an obligatory tangle with a herd of cows on a narrow country lane, we headed for the highlight of our visit to Northern Ireland: the famous Giant’s Causeway. This peculiar geological formation carpets the coast near Portrush and is a major tourist attraction. The curiously-shaped interlinked hexagonal spires are like the best outdoor set Blake’s 7 never had, and on a sunny day like we had hundreds of visitors were clambering over the rocks with glee.
We drove to Derry, where R&P were staying that night and where I caught a train all the way back to Belfast for a mere £6. It was time to part company with Ruth and Phil, which of course was a sad moment. Luckily the trip back was somewhat adventurous, given I had to deal with a carriage full of bellowing, caterwauling locals who just about drove me mental with their shouting and mobile phone music. Then once I finally moved seats, the chap sitting across from me was arrested by four police officers who boarded the train at Antrim. Couldn’t work out what he was being charged with, but they stopped the train for 10 minutes to take witness statements from some passengers so it must’ve been reasonably serious. Never a dull moment in Northern Ireland!
I had several hours in the morning before my flight back to London, so I walked the short distance from the hostel to the Botanic Gardens for a look around, and waited for the Ulster Museum to open at 10am. The museum itself is excellent, and is particularly strong on both local art and history. It rivals the National Museum in Copenhagen for the clarity of its narrative, with each room taking visitors through well-defined periods of history and showing the connections between everything. I particularly enjoyed the pre-history section, medieval relics like the St Patrick’s Arm reliquary, and of course the museum’s famous Egyptian mummy, Takabuti, whose shrivelled head still bears flowing locks of ancient hair, and whose nails look like they’re definitely in need of a manicure.
It was an excellent few days in Ireland with great company. I wish it didn’t have to come to an end so soon. Next stop: New York!