Thursday, 31 July 2008

On travelling, Joyce and the Inspector

TotS Irish Adventure: Days One and Two

July 30th and 31st.

Never having been people to do things by half, the first part of this morning is spent cleaning our house at Michigan Close ready for an inspection by the landlord. As well as going on holiday, we are also moving house to a property at Hailey Hall School. However, the house is still occupied by the previous resident until August 18th, so at the moment we are moving into Wayne’s classroom at the school. For the last 2 days, since we decided that this was the best course of action to take, we have been moving all our possessions into the room. We have also had to acquire some furniture, as the new house is unfurnished where our old house had everything bar a bed for Quinn. To complicate things still further, Meg also has an interview with the new Deputy and Head of Maths (they are one and the same person) regarding what will be expected of her in the maths department. In case you had missed the news, Meg is now working at Hailey Hall also.

The final moving of possessions out of the way, Meg’s interview having been conducted successfully, and the property inspection concluded relatively satisfactorily (the agent is too much of a pig to let the opportunity go by to try and rip us off some more) we jump in the car and head for the M1. In order to get to Ireland we first have to drive to Holyhead in Wales (a couple of hundred miles to the North West). This means that by the end of the trip Meg, Brock and Quinn will have been to 3 countries they had never set foot in previously. Wayne has been to Wales twice before, both 25 years ago and 2 weeks prior, so it will only be 2 new countries for him.

There is a reasonable amount of traffic flowing north, but nothing that will cause us any particular delays. We have been this way before, as far as Nottingham, but this time we will be turning off onto the M6 in order to skirt around Birmingham and up towards Manchester and Liverpool. The other option that we had been considering was to travel from Stranraer in Scotland, which would have involved much the same journey but without the left hand turn around Chester to take us into Wales and with a couple of extra hours travel time. The main other difference is that leaving from Holyhead will take us into Dublin, whereas leaving from Stranraer would have taken us into Belfast.

Both boys grabbed the opportunity to get a few hours sleep in the first part of the drive and missed the opportunity to see both Coventry’s Ricoh stadium and the home ground for Walsall F.C. (which are both next to the motorway). Meg was more impressed by the enormous shopping complexes we sighted north of Birmingham, and the fact that we managed to avoid the enormous toll on the motorway without too much disruption to our journey (even though there was lots of roadwork taking place). Everyone was awake, however, for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it crossing of the border and excited by the change in signs to include the Welsh language on the top of each signpost. We were particularly tickled by the fact that the word for ‘Out’ in Welsh is ‘Allan’ so we made a stop late in the journey to photograph the contempt that the Welsh bear for all our friends named Allan.

Crossing into North Wales also gave Wayne the chance to relive his Snowdon adventure of a few weeks earlier (you might have to check the Blog if you are interested in finding out more, because of the busy-ness of the last few weeks the details of that trip were not sent out by email). As we drove down the coast through Colwyn Bay and Llandudno to Conwy it was decided to make a detour via Betws-y-coed. Basically, we were running very, very early for the ferry and Wayne had enjoyed that little town so much that he wanted to take Meg and the boys and show them. The weather was grey and overcast, so Snowdon itself wasn’t visible from the road, but the town was as gorgeous as Wayne had described. We decided to have dinner there, so wandered through the village to buy some fish and chips and then crossed over a bridge to eat by the river that flows through the town.

Betws-y-coed was one of the main links on the old stage route between London and Holyhead back in the days when horse and carriage was the fastest route, and then also a stop on the railway line that used to run over the same basic path. Nowadays it is primarily a spot from which climbers leave to attempt Snowdon, so the town was full of Climbing Equipment shops and climbers. However, its history has also made it beloved of tourists, so there were also a considerable number of backpackers among the crowds that were going to be making their home there for the evening. We enjoyed listening to some of the accents, watching the river rushing over the rocks, and laughing at the daredevils who were launching themselves off the old stone bridge into the rapidly flowing waters below.

The last part of this journey was through some awe-inducing mountain scenery before heading back down to the coast and over the Menai Bridge to the island of Anglesea. Holyhead is in the far North-West corner of the island, but far more interesting to us was the town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch which was just over the bridge. This town has the longest name of any in Britain and it means “St Mary’s Church, in the hollow of the white hazel, near to the rapid whirlpool of Llantysilio of the red cave”. Finally, we made the last part of the journey into Holyhead, arriving at the port at 9pm (still daylight in Britain’s summer) in good time to board the ferry at 12:30am ready to depart at 2:30am. We were at the head of the queue (unsurprisingly) and now just had to find a way to kill some time until we were allowed to board. This largely consisted of reading, wandering backwards and forwards to the Ferry Terminal, dozing, and watching as more cars (and even more trucks and buses) arrived to take their place in the queue.

Midnight came and went before the gates opened and the excitement of getting Kylie and ourselves onto the ferry was really starting to build. Unfortunately, this first surge was anti-climactic, as all we did was drive a couple of kilometres through the port only to stop at the head of another queue. As it turned out, this was because the trucks were boarding the ferry before cars, but soon enough we were able to drive up the long ramp and on board the ferry, park the car, and move up into the main part of the ship. We had been a little unsure what to expect aboard a car transporting ferry, but were pleasantly surprised at how well decked out it was. Wayne and Meg were reminded of their honeymoon cruise ship and the boys and Wayne went off to explore while Meg staked out some ground which would become our sleeping area that evening.

The ferry, Irish Ferries’ ‘Ulysses’, had a number of bars, a restaurant, a movie theatre, an extensive Duty Free shop, as well as cafes and games rooms. Because we had not booked sleeping quarters, once the various features had been explored we made ourselves comfortable on some of the lounge chairs which were throughout the main passenger deck. Meg and Quinn slept on a long bench seat which ran around a significant part of the cabin. Brock slept with most of his body on one lounge chair and his feet on another. Wayne slept on the floor below Meg. Sleep wasn’t easy for most of us but was enlivened by an incident involving Quinn and the gentleman who was next along on the bench seat. As far as we can tell Quinn stretched out and inched along the bench in his sleep so that eventually his feet were all over the posterior of the man. After a period of this, Quinn (still fast asleep) started trying to push the man off and then kicked him hard on the bottom. This was when the rest of the family realised what was happening, wakening to find a six foot tall dark skinned gentleman abusing poor, befuddled Quinn. Things settled down however and we were able to doze for a little longer before getting ready to leave the ship at 5:55 am.

Leaving the ship provided more excitement than we had expected (and Meg actually wanted). After we had climbed dozily back into Kylie, the horizontal metal ramp on which we had been parked started to drop, and then tilt to join itself onto another ramp within the ship. This provided a partial explanation for why the signs had encouraged us to make sure that the park brake was securely on, but didn’t decrease the amount of shock that Meg felt. After a short wait while other vehicles moved from below us, we were able to start our engine and drive out onto a dock of the port of Dublin in the Republic of Ireland. We had reached Ireland and were extremely excited, enough to mitigate the slightly depressing fact that it the weather was showery and we were now in a bit of a traffic jam in the port area (not Dublin’s most attractive). We soon left the traffic behind and were wowed by early morning in Dublin town. There is a wonderful mix of very old and very new buildings on the banks of the River Dee and 6:30am is the best time to be driving through. Much to Brock’s amazement there were some people arriving at work, but the traffic was not as heavy as we would experience later.

Two tasks occupied us. Kylie needed fuel and so did we. The first was dealt with by stopping at a suburban service station where Wayne also made (what we were later to find out was) a mistake in not picking up a street directory. The second, at the behest of Brock and Quinn, we attempted to alleviate by stopping at McDonalds. Unfortunately, the first one we went to was not open, nor was the second, nor the third. By this time we were in the southern suburbs of Dublin and it was after 7am so we were somewhat confused. However, by getting out of the car and investigating we worked out that McDonalds in Ireland don’t open until 8am. With a bit of a wait (and the purchase of a newspaper) the breakfast dilemma was solved.

With this we headed south on the motorway towards the first of our stops for today, the town of Wicklow in the County of the same name. Although the hostel we would be staying in for the next two nights was relatively close to Dublin, we had decided to use this first day to take a look at the south eastern coast of the country and Wicklow is the first county south of Dublin. We were all quite tired, so we pulled up in a car park just outside the Old Wicklow Gaol to nap for a few minutes. This turned in to over an hour, much to the amusement of some of the locals who would pull up next to us to walk to the newsagent and buy the morning paper, glance at Kylie and her occupants, then do a double take. Eventually, however, we felt awake enough to get out of the car and take a look around.

Wicklow Gaol was built back in 1702 and over time has housed prisoners who were then transported to Australia for relatively minor offences, as well as political prisoners involved in the Irish Rebellion. As we walked into the waiting area for our tour to begin, Meg was given a fright by what she had thought was a wax dummy of a guard. It turned out that this was our tour guide, and he questioned us all as to our origins and what crimes we had committed in order to be sent to prison here. Meg made the mistake of saying that we were living in the United Kingdom (Irish people generally don’t refer to it that way) and became a target for this man’s sense of humour for the rest of the tour. Apart from this, the tour itself was fascinating, particularly as we thought that the ancestors of people we knew in Australia might have been housed here before they were transported. The conditions weren’t nice, as you might expect, so it was quite a sobering way to begin our time in Ireland.

Just out from the town of Wicklow is the easternmost point of the Republic, so we drove around the coast to see it (it was very beautiful, and had a golf course) before heading south to the county of Wexford which is in the south eastern corner of Ireland. The weather was a little overcast as we drove through Gorey, Ferns, Enniscorthy and Oilgate to try and find lunch in Wexford itself. This proved to be more difficult than we imagined as Wexford seemed to be a town with no supermarket to buy food, nor anywhere to park so that we could investigate further. We later found that this is not unusual in Irish towns (as with a number of English ones) where parking is really at a premium. So we grabbed a bite at a service station and set out to explore the rest of the county.

Our first port of call was the Irish National Heritage Park, just north of Wexford itself, which attempts to recreate 9000 years of Irish history in a park. This means you wander from one section of the park to another, with each section depicting a different era in Irish history. We ventured in, but there were two things which prevented us spending more time here. Firstly, there were bus loads of people participating in a Heritage convention, wearing National Costumes from their native countries, who had essentially taken over the park (and particularly its Entrance building). Secondly, just as we arrived it began to pour with rain. We would eventually find that Ireland’s weather is even more variable than Melbourne; brilliant sunshine giving way to grey skies, freezing winds and torrential rains in a matter of moments, before clearing to totally different conditions an hour later. Now, however, we chose to move on.

Many of you will know that John F Kennedy’s family hailed from Ireland. In particular, they originated in County Wexford, just south of a town named New Ross (we never did find out what happened to Old Ross). The old Kennedy homestead and a John F Kennedy memorial arboretum are both in this part of the world and we thought that we would visit them. Unfortunately, the signage in Ireland tends to follow a similar pattern to that in England. There will be an initial sign on the motorway indicating that you can turn off to find a particular place. You will drive a number of miles along a road, before coming to an intersection where there is no signage at all about the place for which you are headed. At this point, you have one of three options, you can:
a) pick the right direction, drive a few more miles, perhaps even go through a few more intersections and, as if by magic, find yourself at the place for which you are headed
b) pick the wrong direction, drive a few miles, perhaps even go through a few more intersections and find yourself somewhere interesting, but totally unrelated to the place you intended to go
c) turn around, go back to the highway, continue in the direction you were originally heading and perhaps come across an easier route
On this day we seemed to keep choosing d) drive round in circles, trying to follow signposts which seem to point us back in the direction we have just come and get hopelessly lost.

We did eventually find both the Arboretum and the Memorial Homestead, but both were going to cost money to visit and the weather was so inclement as to make it seem like a foolish move. The fact that we had no idea where we were or how exactly we had got there also made life more interesting. Consequently, when we drove a little way down the road and found ourselves at Dunbrody Abbey and Castle we were somewhat relieved. Dunbrody Abbey is a Cistercian abbey founded in 1170 by Herve de Montmorency on the instruction of Stongbow de Montmorency (more about him on another day). It was dissolved by Henry VIII and fell into disrepair, but the visitor centre is run by the current Marquess of Donegall and has one of only two full sized hedge mazes in Ireland. Sadly, the rain prevented us from traversing the maze, but we received instruction on how to get back to the motorway and decided to make our way to our accomodation for the evening, a hostel in the village of Rathdrum, County Wicklow.

Even this proved a thing of difficulty. As we drove up the N30 toward Enniscorthy, then back on to the N11 heading for Dublin, we took the first turning which was signposted toward Rathdrum (for what happened next, look two paragraphs above). After driving through Rathdrum a number of times, and asking directions from 3 different people who each sent us diverse ways, we found ourselves at The Old Presbytery Hostel. The hostel demonstrated another aspect of Irish signage with which we were to become familiar; the art of hiding a sign behind foliage so that it cannot be actually seen. They were providing 2 rooms for us for two nights so we didn’t complain too much to the hosts (who were actually very friendly and concerned for us). We were mostly just relieved to have a bed for the night and looked forward to occupying it.

We unloaded our luggage, went into the village to get some dinner and came back to cook it in the kitchen. Here we met some Austrian tourists who were lovely but had no notion of how to cook the rice and Indian food they were trying to prepare for their group of six. While Meg and Wayne assisted them with their cooking, two of the girls attempted to teach Quinn how to insult people in German. Sadly, Quinn’s memory means he has retained very little of what they taught him, but we did learn which places in Austria are particularly worth going to, and we will attempt to put that to use sometime in the future. For now, we headed up to bed, ready for a good nights sleep and looking forward to the next day, when we would do more exploring.

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