Grand Tour of Ireland 2014

The travel company had initially proposed an eight-day holiday with departure from Princes Risborough at 5am on the Monday and arrival in Belfast that evening. However, our leader knew his flock and insisted on an extra day so that we could set out later and break the outward journey. And so a party of 50, led by Arthur Edwards, left Princes Risborough at 10am on Sunday 8 June for the Risborough and District U3A Travel Group nine-day Grand Tour of Ireland 2014.

We proceeded northwards and stopped in Warwickshire at Charlecote Park, an Elizabethan National Trust property where a young William Shakespeare was arrested and tried for poaching deer. There was time to look around the beautiful house and gardens as well as the adjacent garden centre, which had good stock at very reasonable prices. We were forbidden to buy any plants. The journey continued at a steady pace around Birmingham, without even a slight pause at the notorious M6 Junction 8, and onwards to the north, with another break at Knutsford Services. Our driver, Neil, predicted that the journey to Caernarfon would take a further 1¾ hours. He was spot on. We arrived at our hotel with ample time to walk into the town centre before dinner and enjoy the sight of the castle almost deserted. The hotel itself was comfortable and welcoming and the food excellent. Many of us took a further stroll into the town centre later on to enjoy the sight of the castle, the town walls, the Menai Strait and Anglesey in the evening sunshine.

The next morning dawned dull and damp. The drizzle turned into a downpour. We were to be at the quayside at Holyhead by 12.40 for the 13.40 ferry and so had most of the morning free. The weather was not suitable for visiting roofless ruined castles. Neil proposed to take us on a mystery tour ending at “the place with the longest railway station name in the world”. In fact, we drove straight to the station and shopping outlet at Llanfair P G. Many of us had a sense of déjà vu, having visited the same place very briefly with Arthur only 2 years before. We had quite a long stop there this time and saw numerous other coaches arrive. Neil told us that they were all going to the ferry. Throughout the many years that my parents lived on Anglesey my mother had often marvelled at all the coachloads of tourists arriving at Llanfair P G to do their shopping. Now at last I realised that Llanfair P G was not a destination in itself but simply a convenient place under cover with coffee shop, loos and shopping, where coach drivers could park their passengers to spend any spare time before covering the last few miles to the ferry port.

On arriving at Holyhead we waited and waited on the quay. Eventually we boarded the Stena Adventurer and the captain announced that there would be a delay because of a mechanical fault that needed to be fixed. At last we sailed. The ferry was crowded and it was a relief to arrive in Dublin and set off for Belfast, two hours away. Once at our hotel, we had only a brief delay before a late dinner.

At breakfast the next morning we experienced our first Ulster Fry (or, in the Republic, Irish Fry): like a Full English but more, with the addition of black pudding and white pudding. It was so filling that I needed nothing more until dinner, which saved time waiting for lunch. Our guide, Robert, arrived promptly to take us on a tour of Belfast and was a mine of information. It was impressive to hear that he could do the same tour in both French and Spanish in addition to English. I was surprised at the extent of the marks that the troubles had left on the city: in places a dividing wall, devastated areas and many pictures and slogans painted on walls. It reminded me a little of Berlin in the early 1980s. We went to Stormont, where our photos of the Parliament building were marred somewhat by a giant crane, and then round central Belfast before being taken to the new Titanic exhibition housed in a huge ultra-modern building. Robert told us that its construction had cost many millions of pounds but that the people who had funded it were very pleased because right from its opening it had attracted many more visitors than had been expected. This was apparent during our visit: it was crowded, there were not enough staff to help the visitors and the coffee shop was completely overwhelmed. Our party had some slight problems over the lack of audio guides that were supposed to have been provided and a few of us returned to the ground floor and hired them. However, the exhibition was fascinating and worth the minor hiccups. I especially enjoyed the lift built in the Arrol Gantry and the shipyard ride in a small vehicle suspended from a rail on the ceiling which swooped up and down and turned around as it took us round the mock-up of a shipyard. Towards the end the cinema was showing film of the discovery of the wreck and there was an exhibition of recovered artefacts. I went outside and decided to walk along what I think was the slipway, along which upright posts marked the length of the ship. I was only about half way to the end when the rain and hail started and I returned hastily. Mr and Mrs Baker were unfortunate enough to have reached the far end when the downpour started and could not avoid being soaked. We boarded the coach and were taken to central Belfast for an opportunity to look round alone. Some of our group went on a free guided tour of the City Hall. I called in there later and was sorry that I had not joined them because the building was magnificent. We returned to the hotel, which was on the outskirts of the city, and had dinner, after which some of us walked along a riverside path which was well used by walkers, joggers, cyclists and dog-walkers.

The next morning, Day 4, we left Belfast and headed north to the Giant’s Causeway, a geological feature made up of thousands of interlocking basalt columns, which I had always wanted to see. There were several walks from the Visitor Centre to and around the Causeway and a bus for those who were unable or unwilling to walk. The Causeway itself was magnificent and strangely peaceful despite the many visitors. The award-winning National Trust visitor centre deserved its award and the whole visit more than met my expectations. Next we drove on to Londonderry, where many of us took a guided walk round the town walls led by a young woman with the loudest voice and the longest false eyelashes I had ever encountered. She bombarded us with facts about the town, its history, the troubles etc etc and pointed out to us a tall dividing fence that still stands. We gazed out over a peaceful-looking densely-populated hillside and our guide informed us that this was Bogside. So much interesting information, and all for £4 including a good cup of tea.

From Londonderry we headed west into the Republic of Ireland and arrived at our hotel in Letterkenny, a small town in Donegal. There was consternation when we saw that the hotel, Gallaghers, had no parking space and was set right beside a box junction complete with traffic lights. Neil drove on until he could stop and called the hotel to ask where he could set down his passengers and their baggage. “Just stop in the box”, he was advised. I was surprised to find that my single room housed two beds: a large double and a large single, and in fact this was true of the other hotels for the rest of the holiday. There was earnest discussion among us singletons as to whether we ought to occupy the single bed or whether it was permissible to use the double one. I think most of us chose the larger one. This, I believe, was the hotel where the presence in the party of a Mr and Mrs Baker and a Mr and Mrs Barker led to some confusion. Somehow a room key was duplicated and Mr and Mrs Baker were shown to a room, opened the door and were shocked to discover that the room was already occupied by Mr and Mrs Barker, who were equally shocked. It could have been worse: Mrs Barker was about to prepare to take a shower. The service at dinner that night was a little rough and ready, although the food was good. One unfortunate arrived to find that nothing was left. However, something was cooked for her.

Maddie had told me that she hoped to achieve two ambitions during the holiday: to hear traditional Irish music played in a pub and to drink Guinness. We went off together after dinner for a stroll around the town centre and were delighted to find a pub with live Irish music. We went inside and stayed for a while listening to the music made by two men on fiddle and guitar and a girl with a pipe, while Maddie drank her Guinness. The music set our feet tapping and the atmosphere was wonderful. Letterkenny was a fascinating little town. In several places there were structures similar in shape to airport security scanners set up in pairs on the footpaths facing each other across the road. We asked some young men what they were. They replied, ”They are there to show people where to cross the road, only nobody uses them”. I was surprised to see that a general store, Callaghans, sold lottery tickets, newspapers, tea/coffee and Deli but also offered the services of a Commissioner for Oaths and a Peace Commissioner. An establishment called Tokyo advertised a Hungarian Dental Clinic; it turned out that Tokyo was a dress shop on the ground floor, with the clinic above it. And a signpost pointed to St Eunans Catherdal. Well, anyone can make a mistake.

The next morning, Day 5, we drove through majestic scenery with mountains, brilliant green fields and lots of buttercups and bog plants. There were some sheep, some cattle, the odd donkey but very few people. We stopped in Donegal, where Vivienne and I visited the ruined abbey, which has a wonderfully peaceful graveyard overlooking the estuary. I decided that I should like to be buried there, but not just yet. We also visited the castle, an ancient building which has been restored in recent years, and marvelled at the massive timber of the restored roof and staircase, and at the workmanship. There was time for a quick coffee but it was either that or the shops before we went back to the coach; I regret that I had no opportunity to see any Donegal tweed or how it is made. The next stop was at Knock, a place of pilgrimage. The shrine there consisted of 5 places of worship including a vast basilica which looked as though it could accommodate thousands of people. However, there were few pilgrims on the day of our visit and it looked as though the tourist shops selling souvenirs were doing little business.

We arrived at the McWilliam Park Hotel in Claremorris, which was well organised and needed be so in order to cope with 4 coach parties that evening. We were given a time slot for dinner and served at speed; however, the food was very good. After dinner Vivienne and I walked to the town centre but there was little to see. Maddie listened to a band playing Irish music in the hotel bar but she said it was not as good as the band in Letterkenny. I turned on the tv set, which was showing an Irish programme, and could not discover how to choose a different channel. The Irish language sounded interesting but was impenetrable. Fortunately the next programme was in English.

Day 6 was Friday 13th June. We departed in light rain and drove through lush green country. There was cut grass lying in some fields and more bog plants: yellow irises and bog cotton. The country turned mountainous and bare, with little sign of habitation. Our first stop was in Galway, a lively town with narrow pedestrian streets and a large modern cathedral. We saw a girl doing Irish clog dancing in the street to the accompaniment of an accordion and heard a man singing Irish songs in a wonderful tenor voice.

Our next stop was at the Cliffs of Moher. On the way there Neil announced that we were going to go up the Corkscrew, a winding road that includes a series of 5 sharp hairpin bends. He drove the coach expertly to the top and then we met, coming the other way, a low-loader bearing a huge excavator. Neil inched past it on the narrow road and we felt relieved that we had not met it on a hairpin bend. As we approached the coast we noticed low cloud, which came lower and lower and grew thicker and thicker until we arrived at the cliffs in a thick sea mist. Arthur had warned us that we must pay €3 each to enter the site but something seemed to be wrong with the gate and the coach drove in without payment. Neil set us down near the Visitor Centre and said he would be in the coach park, which he thought was “over there somewhere” in the mist.. The Visitor Centre was very crowded because it was raining and misty. Vivienne and I walked to the cliff edge and took photos of the mist, since there was nothing else to photograph. It was disappointing because the photographs in the Visitor Centre showed that it was a very beautiful place. We succeeded in finding the coach park and boarded the coach. Then came demands for payment. Arthur protested that we had been unable to see anything, but to no avail. He insisted. Stalemate. Then came the ultimatum: the barrier would not be raised until we had all paid. We paid up and were released, feeling glad that at least we had been charged the group rate instead of the normal rate of €6. After leaving the cliffs we drove through mountainous country and some villages, including Lisdoonvarna, which is famous for hosting matchmaking events. We did not stop there.

On we drove, stopping at Adare, a pretty village where a bride and groom were having their wedding photos taken in the park. There were several tourist shops and I longed to have a better look at the woollen goods, some of which were lovely, if expensive. We continued to our hotel, which was 5k from the centre of Tralee and where we were to spend two nights. The hotel was very busy with several coach parties of different nationalities and had a system of strict time slots for meals, which seemed to work well.

The next morning breakfast was at 7.30 and we left for a tour of the Ring of Kerry soon afterwards. It was Neil’s day off and we had a hired-in coach and driver which did not come up to the standard of Neil’s coach: the window beside me was misted up, so it was difficult to see through it, and when we picked up our guide in Killarney it turned out that the microphone was malfunctioning. However, when we made a stop at a tourist village the microphone problem was sorted out and thereafter we received all sorts of fascinating information. The countryside was wild and mountainous with wonderful sea views and for me this was the highlight of the holiday. We stopped in several places to enjoy the view and take photos. At one place a woman was sitting in a layby, playing a harp. Our guide answered many of our questions: why were there so many little houses far from towns, where there would be no jobs for the inhabitants? Because they were holiday homes, built by farmers to supplement their incomes; the farms were too small to support a family, especially as the soil was poor. Most small farmers were hobby farmers, she said, and had a day job as well as the farm. Why did the people grow no vegetables? Because the soil was too poor, so it was easier to buy vegetables than to grow them.   Why were the houses all set right at the back of the plots? Because there is a law that houses must be sited at least 20m (or was it 20 feet?) from the front of the plot. After a lunch stop at a restaurant overlooking the sea we drove on, calling at another village before returning to Killarney, where we had some free time and saw some jaunting cars. Then back to Tralee, the hotel and the time slots.

The following day, Day 8, we breakfasted at 7.15 and departed for Dublin at 8.30. It was Sunday and the roads were empty. At one point we had to stop to let a large herd of dairy cows amble across the main road to return to their field after being milked. As we progressed we noticed that the land was more cultivated, with crops of potatoes and grain. Once we reached the motorway our speed increased and despite the length of the journey we arrived in Dublin at some time around 12.30, I think. We picked up our guide, who took us on an interesting tour of Dublin including Phoenix Park and the city centre. After that we were turned loose with a map for 2½ hours. Vivienne, Maddie and I went first to City Hall, where a choir was performing a Mozart Laudate Dominum. The music sounded wonderful in the high, domed building. We were especially pleased to hear that the choir performing it so beautifully was the Rainbow Choir, from England. We learned later that this was part of a four-day international choral festival for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender choirs. We wandered around and saw various sights: the building where “The Messiah” was first performed; the river; the castle, which turned out to have been built in Victorian times, although it looked much older; a building bearing the fascinating legend “The Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers’ Society”; and the amphibious vehicles bearing people on a Viking tour, all wearing helmets with cows’ horns and shouting loudly as they drove through the streets.

We had come to our last night and our last hotel, which was in a less than salubrious area. Some of us had been forewarned about noise from the nightclub on the ground floor and several had precious little sleep once the nightclub started up. I was away from the noise and slept well until the sound of police sirens woke me at around 3 am: a brick had been thrown through one of the hotel’s windows. We had been instructed to put our cases out by 5.30am and breakfast was at 6, with departure for the ferry port at 6.45. The return crossing was much easier and more comfortable than the outward journey. We were some of the first passengers on board and all made a dash for the best seats, those in a lounge overlooking the bow. In a short while all the seats in the front row were occupied by Risborough U3A members, who were nearly all asleep. We arrived on time in Holyhead and set off again. Neil stopped briefly near Conwy to buy fuel. He spent £450 and the tank was still not full. We had a 45 minute break near Chester but the tachograph failed to register it and so we had to stop again, which was rather annoying. There was no other mishap and we arrived in Princes Risborough at about 6.30pm. We were all very tired and when we considered that the original plan had involved a 5am start from Princes Risborough, with the same journey in reverse that we had just done plus two hours more to Belfast, we were grateful to Arthur for insisting on the extra day.

It was an enjoyable holiday. I shall remember the wonderful, green country with the bog plants, the Giant’s Causeway, the Ring of Kerry, the friendly people, the Irish music, the way the people pronounced the word “film” as “fillum”, the breakfasts and, last but not least, the daily challenge of mastering a new shower system. Thank you, Arthur: it was the best one yet.